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
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
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
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
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
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
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
RH: With two volumes of memoir behind you now, are you
resolved to consistently working in both poetry and
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
RH: Nabokov would probably show up for memoirs as
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
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.