The Beatrice Interview

Mary Karr

"Everybody thinks the title is ironic, but I mean it completely sincerely."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

I meet up with Mary Karr early in the morning at her suite in the Royalton Hotel and fiddle with my tape recorder as she sorts out her things for a full day of media appearances. She holds up a piece of newspaper with a rave review of her latest book, Cherry, from the New York Times infamously fickle Michiko Kakutani. "Un-fucking-believable shithouse luck," Karr says, smiling, repeating the statement when I laughingly ask her if I can quote her on that. She says she's surprised, but she really shouldn't be-- Cherry is a gorgeously written memoir of Texan adolescence in the early 1970s, a more than worthy successor to her runaway bestseller, The Liar's Club. Its portrait of emerging young sexuality and rebellion, of a young girl inventing herself day by day, is a sheer delight to read.

RH: How caught off guard were you by the success of The Liar's Club?

MK: I didn't believe it. My publishers were guardedly optimistic, but it seemed insane to me that they even thought they were going to earn back any of the money they'd given me. I was actually trying to talk them into doing a lower print run because I had this terrible feeling that they'd given me this money I could buy a used Toyota with and they were going to print all these copies they'd have to pulp and...they'd be mad. You know, if you've been a poet for 20 years in America, don't expect anybody to read anything you write.

RH: And then, all of a sudden...

MK: Half a million people. I didn't expect it.

RH: So you didn't have any plans for a sequel back then.

MK: Well, actually, when I wrote The Liar's Club, I planned a tale that went from age 5 to 35, and I thought I was going to do it all in one book. For instance, at the end, where I've jumped forward from being a single-digit human to being in my twenties and in the last section to 1980, I thought that would be like two-thirds of the way through the book and that I would have covered all of it linearly.So I thought the stuff that was in Cherry would be there, and I just found stuff unpacking. To tell the story and get across the subtleties of the machinations of my peculiar family just took me more pages than I thought it would.

RH: Once you realized how big the story could be, did you then think about a sequel?

MK: Well, I did a book of poems after Liar's Club; I didn't know if I would write a sequel. Obviously, they were trying to give me money to write a sequel, but I basically said, "You know, I don't know that I have this in me." But... I've been teaching classes about memoir since about 1985 at various places and there's a hole in the literary canon for girls at this age. There are memoirs from girls and women that skip over this age and pole-vault to college from childhood. It's a humiliating age for all of us, I mean, for boys as well as girls.

RH: And what little is written about that timeframe is often bloodless.

MK: Mary McCarthy writes about being in bed with some married guy she got drunk with. There's nothing about how she felt other than "his kisses bored me." Maya Angelou writes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings about being raped as a child, but when she's in high school and she seduces a neighbor boy and gets knocked up the first time she has sex, there's nothing. There's no detail of the boy, no detail of the experience. Kathryn Harrison's story in The Kiss about the stuff her mother did with her in her gynecologist's office to break her hymen in order to fit her with a diaphragm is just one of the most horrific things I've ever seen. And yet, when she has a boyfriend at Stanford, you have no idea....

RH: But there's no shortage of male perspective on sexual awakening at that age, in memoir or fiction.

MK: Nabokov writes in a very genteel way in Speak, Memory about sexual excitement. He writes in that metaphorical way he writes about everything, but you have no doubt, when he's being thrown out of a museum for some unspecified event with his girlfriend, that it was some kind of groping or fondling, some kind of physical contact, and you have no doubt about the ardor he's carrying. So, yeah, Tobias Wolff, Frank Conroy, Harry Crews, I mean, we could go on and on.

RH: As a culture, though, we don't even want to admit that young girls have a sexuality, let alone that they're doing sexual things.

MK: But also, I think, there's no language for it. I mean, there's no language for a girl's sexual arousal--words like "chubby" or "woody" that are lighthearted or... My son just turned 14; he and his buddies tease each other about, "Oh, I bet you're going to take a really long shower." Or, "I bet you're carrying around your sister's Victoria's Secret catalogue." There's just this parlance for that that there isn't for a girl. There's no language.

And the things that I was longing for as a young girl were so chaste and really, in fact, innocent--even though I'd been sexually assaulted as a child--that they don't even seem sexual. How do you explain to somebody that the big fantasy, the image that was really thrilling for me involved some boy skating over to me with a long-stemmed red rose? How do you tell somebody that it was that stupid and that corny? You know, it doesn't even seem erotic. Everybody thinks the title is ironic, but I mean it completely sincerely. It's a book about finding a kind of innocence I thought I didn't have, given my reckless childhood and my sort of wacky background.

RH: You had an exciting, and sometimes dangerous, opportunity in that your parents pretty much said, "Whatever you're capable of doing, go out and do."

MK: That was my dad's big line. "If you're big enough to do it, you can do it." "You want to hitchhike to Mexico? That sounds exciting," my mother would say. I was feral, you know, sort of raised by wolves. And, yeah, I hit some jackpots along the way, and there was a lot of pharmaceutica experimentation going on, and there were a lot of casualties in that. It's surprising to me, the survivor's guilt I wound up feeling about that, how I dodged bullets that other people caught.

RH: Looking back at all those different times you got pulled over but didn't have to go to jail that day...

MK: The house I lived in in California, two of us who never went to prison out of about seven people. There were two suicides in that house, and one guy vanished into the witness protection program about fifteen years ago. The only two people that are really thriving from that place are me and Doonie, who both stopped drinking and using drugs. Those are not good odds. And the number of people I bought cartons of cigarettes for in the Huntsville state prison in Texas, or Angola in Louisiana... I don't meet people now who have a lot of friends in jail.

RH: But your memories of that period aren't a drug- clouded haze. You remember what happened.

MK: Well, I remember some things. There are other things I don't remember. I'm sure there are big drug-induced holes in my memory. I think of the one day that I did get arrested. There was one point where I swam away from everybody and I don't remember how long I was there, what I did. I was gone for a long time because I went in the middle of the day and I came back and it's sunset. What did I do? I was out in the woods by myself. I don't know. I know I wasn't asleep.

RH: Cherry is also a story of your most valuable friendships.

MK: Everybody keeps asking me if any of these people read the book and they all did. Everybody that is a major character in this book is still a major friend of mine, the kind of person I would buy a Christmas present for. Two years ago when I moved my mother closer to my sister, my sister and I both did it, but John Cleary and Doonie took off work, and Doonie had to fly from LA. When my mother had bypass surgery, Clarice came and sat with me at my mother's house.Meredith is still the smartest person I know. When I scattered my mother's ashes after she died, a lot of them flew up to New York to be here for that.

Somebody said, "You're best friends with the biggest outlaw and the smartest girl and the nicest guy and the funniest girl." I really chose well. They really were truly remarkable and continue to be, all of them.

RH: It must have been fun to go back and trace the origins of your friendship with Meredith, your best friend as a teenager.

MK: Poetry saved my life and reading saved my life, and I think she's a big part of that. I remembered myself as being really smart at that age, but when I look back... I was really precocious as a kid, when I was little, I read when I was 2 and I did some things that suggested I was smart. But [as a teenager], I virtually didn't do a smart thing for years, and probably a good decade, if ever, after that. But I had this really smart girlfriend. I think one reason that those friendships are so galvanizing is that you pick a friend that has a quality that you want to have and who will also do you the favor of buying your kind of cobbled-together act, and so you kind of invent each other that way. She saved my life.

RH: And in return, as the record now shows, you spent years trying to corrupt her.

MK: Absolutely. I finally got there. I had to wear her down. (laughs)

RH: With two volumes of memoir behind you now, are you resolved to consistently working in both poetry and prose?

MK: I really don't know. I assume if they wave a big enough check at me, I'm going to snatch it. But the idea of taking money for something I'm not sure I can write just fills me with dread. I'm way too codependent to be able to do that. I like the idea of a trilogy. I always liked that. I loved that Cormac McCarthy trilogy, or the Frederick Exley novels, or memoirs posing as novels. I love the idea of it, but I don't know if I've got another one in me.

RH: Did you see a big spike in enrollment in your classes at Syracuse when Liar's Club came out?

MK: Actually, I didn't. My classes were always pretty well- enrolled and I love teaching and I have astonishing students. Students are like your children. They're not really interested in public perceptions of you. You either produce for them or you don't. My reputation for a room full of freshmen is interesting for exactly five minutes, and then either I'm engaged with them in a conversation or I'm not. And if I'm not, believe me, they don't have the time. They'll just drop the class. They're the toughest audience I have, I think.

RH: Who are some of your favorite writers?

MK: Cormac McCarthy, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens. Orwell. Nabokov. Eudora Welty, Chekhov. It varies according to genre.

RH: Nabokov would probably show up for memoirs as well.

MK: Oh, yeah. I love that book. Frank Conroy's Stop Time, I think, is great. It's truly great, although I think people of your generation haven't read it. It's so much better than my book, it's not even funny. Or Dispatches, Michael Herr's memoir of Viet Nam. I just think he is one of the most amazing writers in America. He is so tremendous. He lives up where I live, so I get to see him occasionally, and it's a great gift to have him to talk to.

Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior was a life- changing book. That Maya Angelou book, Caged Bird, I find hasn't really held up for me over time, but when I first read it, I thought, "Wow, this is a big deal, that you could write about people who were so low-rent." I just didn't know you could write about people in my class. I didn't. I guess I should have known, because I'd read Faulkner. But I remember thinking it was an astonishing thing.

RH: What's it like to meet the people who've been moved by your memoirs on tours like this one?

MK: It's actually kind of amazing. I play a game with it. There's a great story about Chekhov where somebody comes at the end of his life to interview him about the plays, and his sister says, "You can't interview him for too long." The guy has this big sheaf of questions and then 20 minutes into a half-hour interview, she walks by the door and Chekhov is sitting there with his chin in his hands while the guy is animatedly giving him a recipe for raisin cake.

So when I meet people, they'll permit me not to talk about myself. They'll say, "Oh, I really loved your book." And I can say, "Why is that? Do you have that kind of family?" Or, "Did you have any of that growing up?" And then they'll instantly start telling me about themselves with great candor. It's like this incredible window on a certain portion of America's reading public. I'm just always amazed at what people will tell me. I'll be sitting very late in some Barnes and Noble with my chin in my hands with somebody telling me some amazing story about themselves.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Eve Babitz | Complete Interview Index | Mary Morris

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan