… Everybody dies, everybody loves, and fails to love, and loves in the wrong way, the wrong person at the wrong time. There’s enough loss in any life for all of Shakespeare…Mary Karr
Some two decades I was delighted to read Mary Karr’s literary debut, Liars Club, so named after her raconteur father’s group of story-telling friends. And I did sit down and converse with her about her East Texas life and upbringing and matters to do with writing a book about a “terrific family of liars and drunks … redeemed by a slow unearthing of truth.” A number of poetry collections and two memoirs — Lit:A Memoir and Cherry:A Memoir—later, Ms Karr has recently published, The Art of Memoir.
As it happens I was able to catch up with poet and Syracuse mentor Karr recently, for a pleasant and digressive chat on, of course, writing memoirs, her recent turn to music , the proposed film treatment of her initial memoir, Liar’s Club, her mother and her wide ranging experiences including coaching Little League baseball.
Here is a snippet from her Mary Karr Thinks You Shouldn’t Google Yourselfher recent interview with Ann- Marie Cox
You are friends with a lot of today’s memoirists. Have you ever appeared in another person’s memoir?
Oh, I’ve appeared in all kinds of [expletive].
What’s that experience like for you?
Well, obviously, I would like my every portrait to be of me dispensing food to the poor. Believe it or not, I’m actually not that interested in representation of myself in other people’s writing. I’ve also never Googled myself. It wouldn’t occur to me to do so. It’s the same reason I don’t watch pornography. It’s not that I occupy some moral high ground. I just think: Down that road lies madness.
As someone who reveals so much, is there a time that an interviewer has gone too far with you?
Oh, yeah, but I have no problem saying, ‘‘I’m not going to discuss that.’’ I would never talk about anybody’s penis. You can ask me about my relationship with David Wallace all you like; I’m not going to talk about his penis.
That’s one of the least interesting things about any man, really.
If only they knew that.
Mary Karr: I was just on with Terry Gross. She’s really a good interviewer, I’ve got to say. You never know what she’s going to ask you. She always makes me think… You don’t know—you probably do know, but when you go out on the road now, the people who used to interview you were book people, you know? Michael Silverblatt,[The Book Worm at KCRW](1) or somebody like that. Real bookworms. Now you get some chirpy, twenty-five-year-old who says, “What would your ad for your book be?” I’m like, “Well, I wouldn’t write an ad for my book.”
Robert Birnbaum: There’s a hilarious book trailer for Alan Arkin,(2) the actor, who has also written a couple of memoirs. It opens up with him laying in a hotel room bed ,it’s 6:00 … the phone rings, he fumbles for the phone, picks up the phone. It’s a guy from the radio station, wants to do an interview, which Arkin hadn’t even known about. ..the radio guy proceeds to ask questions that make clear he doesn’t know who Arkin is or that he has even looked at the book…
Mary Karr: …The way I look at it, these people are doing you a favor. You’re always responsible for ponying up.
Robert Birnbaum:That’s very nice. You’re never put off by somebody’s ignorance?
Mary Karr: No, I don’t mind people who haven’t read the book.Somebody like that is just stupid, actively stupid. You don’t have to have read The Art of Memoir to have three or four questions about memoir. How do you deal with your family? Those are normal questions— a normal person would want to know the answer to those questions. [It’s]Just a total absence of curiosity. It’s hard to be an interviewer when you’re not curious.
Robert Birnbaum: A propos of nothing, where is Mark Costello today [David Foster Wallace’s best friend](3)?
Mary Karr:He lives in New York City, he’s married to somebody I fixed him up on a blind date with, Nan Graham, who’s a big editor at Scribner. They’ve got two kids. I fixed him up on a blind date like twenty years ago.
Robert Birnbaum: I see. Because I talked to him in 2002 and he had published a novel and hadn’t heard of him since.
Mary Karr:Yeah,Big If, which is a terrific book. I think he teaches at Fordham Law School.
Robert Birnbaum: Has he written or published anything since?
Mary Karr: He’s finishing a novel now. I mean, he’s the dad of two kids and he teaches full-time, and his wife is high-powered enough that he gets a lot of the kid duties. I love Mark. One of the great human beings.
Robert Birnbaum: When you write a book called the Art of Memoir, who are you thinking will want to read it?
Mary Karr: You know, it’s funny, people think of it as a how-to book, but the how-to stuff is kind of peppered in. I want to say maybe eighteen percent of it is how-to, maybe eighteen percent of it is a memoir about writing memoir, because people do ask me, “How did your family react?” Anybody with a family imagines how you deal with your beloveds, you know? But I think it is also, in a way, for anybody with an inner life, anybody who ponders how what’s happened to them is affecting how they see the world. Trying to determine what’s true and what isn’t true and what’s real and what’s not real in the course of your day. I have a big inner life and I am always … my tendency is to project onto the landscape what I want to see. I’m like an all-giving loving saint and everybody else is an asshole, but …
Robert Birnbaum: Do you know of the old Jew, Philo of Alexandria? Have you heard of him?
Mary Karr: No, I mean I know the name. He had the library, right?
Robert Birnbaum: I came across a quote of his, and I thought it was a very Dalai Lama like, “Be kind to everyone you meet, because everyone in life is going through a great battle.”
Mary Karr: That’s exactly right.
Robert Birnbaum:I thought of that when I was reading the latter part of your speech at Syracuse,(4) which, by the way, I think an excellent speech. I think some commencement speeches are a new literary genre. There’s are some great commencement speeches by writers, by novelists and writers.
Mary Karr:Steve Jobs also did a great one. I think.
Robert Birnbaum: I was focusing at writers. I put Aaron Sorkin in that group…
Mary Karr: He was also at Syracuse. He gave a really good speech.
Robert Birnbaum:I started noticing with the David Foster Wallace/Kenyon College speech, and then I started seeing others. George Saunders.(6)
Mary Karr:George Saunders’ speech—to me, that’s the pinnacle. That’s as good a commencement speech as I’ve ever heard.
Robert Birnbaum:In the first three lines of yours you said something like, “Memoir takes you from a scary place, it’s a zip line to a truer place,”
Mary Karr:Poetry. Not memoir but poetry. That poetry hopefully takes you to a truer place. I mean, all art should, right? Any art should take you somewhere truer.
Robert Birnbaum: Your speech can stand alone…it’s the kind of piece that would be included in David Shields’s anthology, Fakes.(7) All these odds and ends— a letter from George Saunders, customer relations department. All these odd writings, somebody’s laundry list, you know? But they all seem to become literary, you know?
Mary Karr:That’s very funny. That’s a great … And David Shields edited it?
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, Here’s the thing, I’m not inclined to read memoirs. I’m not hungry for them. I read yours, but it turns out if you wrote an instruction manual on how to assemble a tricycle, I be inclined to read it…
Mary Karr:That’s so nice. I’m not much of a writer, but I’m a dogged little re-writer. Everything I have written is about as good as I can make it.
Robert Birnbaum:I gave particular credence to your first chapter and your last chapter, so I hear you.
Mary Karr:Don’t you wish more people rewrote?
Robert Birnbaum: One forgives people for their infelicitous writing.
Mary Karr:Sure, of course, you’ve got to. I mean, journalists or people writing on a deadline, that’s a different kind of writing.
Robert Birnbaum: What’s the difference between autobiography and memoir?
Mary Karr:Everybody makes that distinction, I don’t. I don’t think there is a distinction. I think they’re the same thing. I think there are good memoirs and bad memoirs. I think when they think of a one-off, I think the way it’s used when people make the distinction, is when it’s some film star with fake boobs tells her tale of woe. They think of that as an autobiography, and then they think of somebody who does a literary thing as a memoir. But that’s just using a French word for … I think they’re the same thing. There’s just good ones and bad ones.
Robert Birnbaum:Yeah. I hesitate to make the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, although I know there’s a hard line. I say this is because, I think Gore Vidal’s Empire series is as good a history of the United States as any.
Mary Karr: Really funny.
Robert Birnbaum: So, do you want to read David Herbert Donald or other biographers on Lincoln? Or do you want to read Gore Vidal’s Lincoln?
Mary Karr: Yeah, it’s true. I’ve read a lot of books on Lincoln. I love reading about Lincoln.
Robert Birnbaum:I was thinking, besides Jesus Christ, I think Lincoln has the second most amount of books written about him. How many memoirs do you have in you?
Mary Karr:Exactly. I don’t know. Maybe I have as many books as there are advances publishers are dumb enough to give me. All those books, after The Liar’s Club, I wrote the proposal for that book, but every other book, including this one, I wrote because somebody called and offered me money for them.
Robert Birnbaum: Good for you.
Mary Karr: That’s not a bad reason to write a book.
Robert Birnbaum:That’s also pretty flattering.
Mary Karr:Yeah, exactly.
Robert Birnbaum:That does remove a little bit of the anxiety about whether or not the publisher is going to support the book once they publish it.
Mary Karr: Right, that’s true. If you can gouge them for enough money, then maybe they’ll try to do it. Yeah, but then your editor leaves and other people have other problems, so …
Robert Birnbaum: Do you have much contact with the publishing world, and the business of books? When you have completed and delivered the book, while you’re writing the book, do you have contact?
Mary Karr:I have a wonderful editor, and certainly for this book, she really helped me think about how to shape it and put it together.
Robert Birnbaum:So it wasn’t you wrote the book and presented it to her, you start crying and saying, “Shit, shit, shit, fuck, shit,” and then you call her.
Mary Karr:Right. With this book. Well, I say, “Shit, shit, fuck, shit,” for every book.
Robert Birnbaum: I gathered that.
Mary Karr: Every book is like that. I’m always in a state of torment. She and I basically did a bunch of outlines back and forth over about a four month period. I would work on one and then send it to her, and then she really helped me, the outline that she gave me isn’t how the book ended up, but George Saunders actually helped me a lot, to structure The Art of Memoir.
Robert Birnbaum: One of the things I thought about in reading your,what might be construed as a manual sort of, is that you are suggesting that everyone may have a memoir in them, but not necessarily a book.
Mary Karr:I think, I really believe, as I say in the book, that the most privileged person in any room, as I said in that speech, suffers the torments of the damned. Just like you said, they’re engaged in a great struggle. Everybody dies, everybody loves, and fails to love, and loves in the wrong way, the wrong person at the wrong time. There’s enough loss in any life for all of Shakespeare. Not everybody is going to be a good enough writer to write a great one, but I think certainly in terms of … I think I said I’m always amazed when I’m on an airplane, yes, by the people who you meet who are boring, but also by boring people who you meet who become interesting when they talk with great feeling. Do you know what I mean?
Robert Birnbaum:You never know. I agree with your notion of truth, that there is something, there is a truth that makes everyone, when someone encounters something they think is true, it really does refresh one with great energy. It’s a good place to land.
Mary Karr: Right.
Robert Birnbaum:It may be sort of counter intuitive to the way human beings are constructed. My judgment about, my sense of human behavior is that many people are continuously running away from the truth or pursuit of truths?
Mary Karr: Well, let’s say all of us are running away from the truth. The fact that we’re all going to die, and we’re not all screaming every second of day, is running away from the truth in a way. I think we all are.
Robert Birnbaum: How old are you?
Robert Birnbaum: Do you find yourself thinking about aging? Will that be the next memoir?
Mary Karr: People keep asking me—Terry Gross just asked me this, two smart people. I don’t know, I don’t have any plans. I don’t know, I’m trying to finish a book of poems.
Robert Birnbaum: Do you think a lot about it?
Mary Karr: More so since I turned sixty. I never really, I thought about it as anybody does, but …I’m not in the middle of anything. When you’re sixty you’re not going to live to be 120, so you can’t bullshit yourself.
Robert Birnbaum: Sixty is the new forty.
Mary Karr:You might live to be eighty, but you’re not going to live to be 120, so it becomes a different thing when you can’t double it, when you don’t have that much left. You’re definitely on the losing end of it. I play all kind of games with myself where I say, “I sort of became a person when I was thirty, so I probably don’t have another thirty years left in me, but maybe I have another twenty.” You know what I mean?
Robert Birnbaum:Yeah. Joseph Epstein, wrote a piece when he was seventy,(8) talking about, it was a take-off on film producer Robert Evans’s memoir/autobiography The Kid Stays in The Picture . Epstein’s was called The Kid Turned Seventy. He said every time he has a birthday he just wants ten more years. It seems like a reasonable figure to ask for.
Mary Karr:I think that’s the way I feel. Instead of people thinking I want another fifty years, I do think if I could just make it to seventy I will have accomplished something.
Mary Karr: How old are you?
Robert Birnbaum: 68—two thirds of a century.
Mary Karr: Do you think about it?
Robert Birnbaum: Yes. I don’t feel my age at all, whatever that’s supposed to mean. I see people who are younger who are in terrible shape. Can hardly walk, have blank facial expressions and flat affects… I do a lot of stuff,umpire little league, work the sticks at home high school football games, walk my dog regularly..
Mary Karr: What a great thing to do. I bet that’s a great thing to do. I coached little league, and I always said it was one of the great spiritual experiences of my life. It was really one of the funniest things I ever did in my life.
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. Being around ten-year-olds on a regular basis. Plus, I get to push them around.
Mary Karr:Yeah, exactly.
Robert Birnbaum: I have a lot of fun doing that, but it’s hard to be a good umpire.
Mary Karr: It’s hard to know what’s true.
Robert Birnbaum: It’s a test, you know? A 68-year-old guy who can still bend down over 100 times in two hours and remember things from instant to instant while attending to countless other things …
Mary Karr:It’s testing your short-term memory all the time, which is deteriorating.
Robert Birnbaum:I don’t know what your worst fears is, but one of my worst fears is losing my sentience.
Mary Karr: Your marbles?
Robert Birnbaum:Yeah, and even my memory, you know?
Mary Karr:I remember stuff so well, I kind of aspire to it. I have way too good a memory. I wish I could forget more. I’m better at it now.
Robert Birnbaum:I’m amazed at what I remember. Especially when a smell triggers something.
Mary Karr:That’s the amazing thing, right? It’s the most primitive sense.
Robert Birnbaum:You smell something and you go back forty years.
Mary Karr:It’s in your snake brain. No, it is. It’s like the most primitive part of you, smells.
Robert Birnbaum:I think I’d be willing to say we don’t forget anything. It’s not a question of forgetting. Everything we need to encounter is somewhere there, but the ability to access it.
Mary Karr:Yeah, that’s a problem.
Robert Birnbaum: Right.I’m amazed sometimes at the distinctive, vivid way that I remember stuff.
Mary Karr:Oh yeah. And especially the further back the more vivid often, right?
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, yeah.
Mary Karr: I know, me too.
Robert Birnbaum: How much do you still recall the life that you talked about in The Liar’s Club? Is that still vivid to you?
Mary Karr: I think the traumatic memories remain very lucid, because they’re probably stored in another part of the brain, actually. You now how when people who have strokes, they keep all the curse words. You’ll often hear, go in the nursing home, you’ll hear cursing . It’s because those emotions— my daddy, when he had a stroke, if the World at War came on or something, and there was all this World War II stuff, he would say, “Cannons your tank, ” and he couldn’t say yes or no. He would say, “General Montgomery.” He would name, “Luftwaffe.” He could say things from having been in the war. Those memories, he couldn’t say he wanted a cup of juice or not, but I think those things seared in your brain meat from a very emotional time. I always say you remember the most important things to you. Things that are most important to you, to who you are.
Robert Birnbaum: Do people remember their funnest, wonderfullest, most loving moments in their life?
Mary Karr: People unlike us do. Regular people do. We don’t. We remember all the … Every time we were knocked in the dirt. Exactly.
Robert Birnbaum: You mentioned a time in your family when it was somewhat healed ?
Mary Karr:I think we were as healed as we could’ve been without everybody going into therapy. But I mean, I think to the extent that we took care of aging parents and buried people, showed up and did stuff, kids went to graduations, that’s pretty healed for a family like mine.
Robert Birnbaum: It was your mother, father and your sister. Did you count your mother’s husbands?
Robert Birnbaum: Once they left …
Mary Karr: Gone, that was the end of it.
Robert Birnbaum:How about your mother? Did she maintain memories of past husbands?
Mary Karr: Not that she ever shared. I think they were dismissed by my mother. I think once she divorced she opens that door and…
Robert Birnbaum: She had seven husbands?
Mary Karr: I know, right? Who know how many? There were seven she told us about.
Robert Birnbaum: And you didn’t lose touch with her once you started going to school, moved to Minnesota.
Mary Karr: It’s weird, I still, for much of my life, when I could afford it, I talked to her every day. She was an interesting person.
Robert Birnbaum: Sounds like.
Mary Karr: Not a great mother as a mother, but she’s very smart and she was curious. She was extremely curious and could be very charming. She was fun to talk to.
Robert Birnbaum: How is it that your mother and your father met?
Mary Karr:She had a flat tire. Yeah, I think she had a flat tire and he came out to fix it and …
Robert Birnbaum:That was it.
Mary Karr: That was it.
Robert Birnbaum: Did he charm her, do you think?
Mary Karr:I think they charmed each other. I think they both charmed each other. He was labor organizing then, working class hero. Handsome, kind of Clark Gable-type guy.
Robert Birnbaum: And told good stories.
Mary Karr:Tells good stories. A lot of fun to be with. She was beautiful and wild, I think it was like seeing a great thoroughbred somewhere.
Robert Birnbaum: What is your foray into songwriting and recording about, is that a one-time thing (9)?
Mary Karr: No, I have at least one song on Rodney’s Christmas album, and he and I have worked on a couple of other songs. We’re actually meeting tomorrow night to talk … I think we’re going to get together this winter and work on another album.
Robert Birnbaum: Where do you do it, in Syracuse?
Mary Karr:No, no. He’s in Nashville. We mostly met on the road though. He and I were both on the road, and so I’d be in Berkeley, he’d be in San Francisco, we’d meet. Or I’d be in LA, he’d be in Orange County, we’d meet in some hotel. Or I would go stay with him and his wife down in Nashville, or he would come to New York a lot, quite a bit. So wherever we were, found ourselves, we’d work on the side. We did a lot on the phone too.He would call me and send a recording of a guitar thing, and then I’d call him back, and we’d go back and forth and then we’d arrange to meet.
Robert Birnbaum: Who do you like singing your songs?
Mary Karr: I had so many great people sing my songs. I’ll be honest with you, there’s nobody who did a shitty job. There’s really nobody who did a shitty job. I mean, I think Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams, and Emmylou Harris, and Vince Gill, Kris Kristopherson, Rodney, Lee Ann Womack, I mean, it doesn’t get much better, Rosanne Cash. Couldn’t get much better than that lineup.
Robert Birnbaum:That’s true. Does that fuel your interest or urge in writing more songs, doing more music?
Mary Karr:Yeah. I would love to do it. It was really fun. The fun part was going on the road with the band. That was really fun. I did that for a couple of weeks. That was the most fun I ever had.
Robert Birnbaum: How did you do that and stay sober?
Mary Karr: Rodney doesn’t drink.
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah, but musicians are known to drink and such. What did you do?
Mary Karr: His musicians he travels with, don’t.
Robert Birnbaum: What’s the fun part of being on the road?
Mary Karr: They call it playing.
Robert Birnbaum: Oh, the playing is the fun part?
Mary Karr: It’s fun, and also you’re traveling. You’re with the band, you’re in a band where the .. He has very smart, interesting musicians play with him. He doesn’t have just anybody. Stuart Smith is a guitar player for the Eagles now. He’s an incredible classically trained guitar player, an incredibly smart human being. He reads everything. His crew … It’s not like being with the drummer from AC/DC. It’s not a lot of booze and girls. It’s a lot of smart people reading books and talking about them. I’m sure it was a lot of booze and girls …and coke [at one time].
Robert Birnbaum: Well I can tell you about tne music scene because after I graduated college, I worked in one of the first, sort of. psychedelic dungeons[like the Fillmore] in Chicago, it was called the Kinetic Playground, and every big group at that time played there …
Mary Karr: Psychedelic dungeon?
Robert Birnbaum: Uh huh. I took drugs as part of a regular diet of loud music, late nights and mindless sex…
Mary Karr:So did I. But that’s the name of a memoir. Psychedelic Dungeon, that’s a great memoir title.
Robert Birnbaum:The first time that Led Zeppelin played in America, they played there, Santana, everybody… you know.
Mary Karr:Wow, Santana.
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. That was my experience. And then the drugs, of course.
Mary Karr: And then the drugs.
Robert Birnbaum: You weren’t in Plainfield, Vermont (Goddard College) in 71 were you?
Mary Karr: I was in Plainfield, Vermont in ’78.
Robert Birnbaum: I attended the now famous Alternative Media Conference there in ’71 or ’72.(10 It was just outlandish and unfettered and hopeful…
Mary Karr: That’s the way things used to be.
Robert Birnbaum: I had never really taken Goddard seriously. I didn’t get a sense of there there. It seemed so ethereal.
Mary Karr: It was, it was. I still remember Ray Carver, there was a little pond, and there were these women who would go shirtless in their kayak. The pond was from here to the back of the deli, and they would paddle back and forth about thirty yards. It was the strangest thing, with no shirts on. Ray just couldn’t get over it. He called them the Nudie Veggies. That’s what Goddard was like. When you read the list of professors I studied with there, they’re all MacArthur Fellows, you know, Bob Hass, Charlie Simic, it’s nuts … Heather McHugh, they’re all amazing.
Robert Birnbaum: You were lucky in the people that you ran into as a student.
Mary Karr: Unbelievably lucky, unbelievably lucky. Geoffrey and Tobias [Wolff]. Frank Conroy was there. In terms of memoir, that was probably one of the planet’s most interesting conversations about. Three memoirs of that caliber, in one spot, you’d be hard to come by.
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah. I never read Stop-Time [by Frank Conroy], but I did feel like his …
Mary Karr:You have to read Stop-Time. It’s so good.
Robert Birnbaum: Okay, okay. I read his novel and I really liked his essays.
Mary Karr: His essays were great.
Robert Birnbaum:The Dogs Bark and the Caravan Rolls On, that kind of thing. Just thought that was spot on.
Mary Karr:I liked it too.
Robert Birnbaum: He interviewed Keith Jarrett, and he asked him how he prepared, and Jarrett says, “I walk out on the stage and I sit down on the piano, and I try to clear my mind of everything. No, I don’t want any notes in my head. I just want to not think about [what I am going to do]. That approach to doing something …
Mary Karr:Takes some big brass ones. That’s how Rodney is. Rodney is very … I mean, he’s not a jazz musician, but he hates to put together a set list. He’d rather just go out there and play what hits him.
Robert Birnbaum:Has he worked on any movies?
Mary Karr: No, but he just was music director in the new Hank Williams movie.
Robert Birnbaum: What’s the name?
Mary Karr:I can’t remember.
Robert Birnbaum: I think a lot of the narratives in movies and films and TV now are really making good use of the music, not necessarily well known songs. I think of T Bone Burnett’s stuff for True Detectivesor Nick Cave on Peaky Blinders.
Mary Karr: Right, right. I heard T Bone Burnett in Cambridge, I think. I also saw James Brown and the Famous Flames in 1966.
Robert Birnbaum: I saw him at the Regal Theater at about that time.
Mary Karr:That was amazing.
Robert Birnbaum:Yes it was. I think back now, and I think, I was afraid of black people. I don’t know why, because when I went to the Regal Theater, which is all black, me and three other white people, we never had a problem.
Mary Karr:I went with my daddy. We were the only white people there. You qualified yourself by being there, to be there by liking the music. I think that’s … You know what I mean? You had to be a different kind of person to be that into African American music.
Robert Birnbaum:Yeah. Why did I feel any anxiety? Where did all that come from? Who told me that black people were scary … You know?
Mary Karr: Well, it’s the same way, certainly they feel that way about us, with better reason. You know what I mean?
Mary Karr:I can’t believe what happened to the tennis player (James Blake, who was mistakenly and forcibly arrested) in New York. It’s unbelievable.
Robert Birnbaum: It’s actually not unbelievable Ever been asked to write a film treatment?
Mary Karr:Many people have. I’m currently working on Liar’s Club at Showtime with Mary Louise Parker slated.
Robert Birnbaum: What’s your participation?
Mary Karr: Executive producing and writing. I’ve written a pilot, so we’ll see, we’ll see if they do it.
Robert Birnbaum:Yea,there is that.
Mary Karr: There is that.
Robert Birnbaum:Is there a subject or a theme or person that you’d like to create … Is there a biography you’d like to do? Is there one person that you learned about, that you think other people should know about, learn about…have you discovered somebody who’s been undiscovered?
Mary Karr:Oh, in memoir?
Mary Karr: Maybe Harry Crews, Childhood Biography of a Place. I think Black Boy, the Richard Wright book, isn’t undiscovered, but I think it’s in some ways a better book than Native Son, which I know is scandalous to say, but I think that’s a brilliant memoir.
Robert Birnbaum:I remember reading Richard Wright. I remember things about it very vividly. They were part of my, the images was part of my growing up. I look at it and I go, the Sixties would be such a small window, cultural literacy. How do people know about James Baldwin, who are twenty years ,twenty-five years old?
Mary Karr:I think everybody who reads. Anybody who is a reader.
Robert Birnbaum:That’s only 400,000 people in the world.
Mary Karr:I was going to say, yeah exactly. There’s nobody left.
Robert Birnbaum:I’m assuming that all the memoirs you listed in the back of The Art of Memoir and the people are ones you admire.
Mary Karr:Yeah, I wouldn’t list them if I didn’t.
Robert Birnbaum:Would it be impolitic to ask you what are some memoirs that you think fall short?
Mary Karr:Yeah, I probably wouldn’t say that. We all know what they are. We all know the … Mostly the memoirs of the liars are mostly badly written, even if they had good stories to them. They are mostly pretty bad, pretty shabby written. I mean, a memoir like Black Boy, Richard Wright, you’re not going to forget, Dispatches, Michael Herr’s book, Maxine Hong Kingston Woman Warrior, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, I mean those are books nobody is going to forget…
Robert Birnbaum:You mentioned Mary McCarthy’s memoir, and I’ve always been fascinated by her, what I know about her, what I’ve read about her. That memoir doesn’t sound very promising…
Mary Karr:Really? She’s so smart, so funny, and so well-written. And it was right at the time when the notion of subjective truth hadn’t really been invented, in a way. She spends a lot of time correcting herself and second-guessing, and you see her idea of truth eroding, over the course of her book.
Robert Birnbaum: I read a piece she wrote for The New York Review of Books, from Saigon in ‘66, when she did a stint in Saigon. I thought it was just brilliant.
Mary Karr:Oh, she’s so brilliant.
Robert Birnbaum:Do you have a routine where you sort of engage the news of the day? Do you read newspapers?
Mary Karr: Just The New York Times, you know. I’m not a big news junkie. In fact, I kind of don’t like the news. I’m much more interested in history. I prefer everybody to sift experience and tell me what’s interesting fifty years later, sadly.
Robert Birnbaum:I’ve come to think that people like Stewart and Colbert and now John Oliver, are the news.
Mary Karr: Well, the people watching it think they are, so yeah.
Robert Birnbaum:. How much time do you have spend talking about this book in the coming months?
Mary Karr:Probably just this week and next week, and then I go back to sitting around in my pajamas, so not so long.
Robert Birnbaum: What’s your schedule at Syracuse? You go there, what, one semester a year?
Mary Karr:I do a fall semester there, yeah. But I also supervise students, often in the spring, so that involves them coming to New York, or me going there.
Robert Birnbaum: I gather you travel a lot, for any number of reasons.
Mary Karr:I do, I do. My gentleman caller is a big traveler. He’s the head of a real estate development firm, and so he builds big buildings all over. But he’s also just an inveterate adventurer. I think I get to Asia more than I would have done with a different gentleman caller.
Robert Birnbaum: Have you read anything good lately?
Mary Karr: Other than the Art of Memoir? Yeah, I just taught Black Boy, I just read that, and I’m teaching Mary McCarthy next week, so I’m reading that.
Robert Birnbaum: You don’t have any particular inclination to read newly, fresh-off-the-press books?
Mary Karr: Sure I do. I mean, sure I do, but not in the middle of teaching. When I’m teaching, I’m reading what I’m teaching. Actually, Mary Louise Parker has a great book called Dear Mr. You that I think is a terrific kind of …Very poetic. She reads a lot of poetry and it shows in the prose, very poetic memoir. Oh, Dana Spiotta has a novel coming out called Innocence and Others.
Robert Birnbaum: Anything else you want to tell me, that you want might to confess to me?
Mary Karr: I’m going to have to take my sins with me when I leave.
Robert Birnbaum: That’s okay. I really wasn’t expecting a confession
Mary Karr: A smooth exit, there we go.
Robert Birnbaum: Yeah a smooth segue.
Mary Karr: You can absolve me. Well, happy new year.
Robert Birnbaum: Happy[Jewish] New Year to you. Thanks
Mary Karr: Thank you. Shabat tova…
(1) Michel Silverblatt, long time host of LA radios’s Bookworm
(3) Mark Costello Interview at Identitytheory
(4 Commencement speech at Syracuse
(5)George Saunders 2013 Syracuse Commencement speech
(7)David Shields interview at Our Man in Boston
(8) Joseph Epstein The Kid Turns 70 in the Weekly Standard
(9) Kin Recording of songs written by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell