The brouhaha that flared last week when "Publishers Weekly" announced its list of Top Ten Books of the Year, a list that garnered probably unwanted but inevitable attention for not including any books by a female writer, shifted this week from egregious oversight to blatant inaccuracy with the publication of Mary Karr's searing and transcendent new memoir, "Lit", which belongs securely on any respectable list of top ten books of the year. In one sense "Lit" is the third volume of the triptych that is as surreal as Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights"; documenting a journey from the fires of hell to transcendent grace as vivid and, despite its specificity of detail and remarkable humor throughout, as timeless as Dante's trilogy. Yet with this third book Karr has managed to raise the bar higher still on the genre of memoir--a genre already propelled to new heights at least in part by the publication of her first book, "The Liar's Club", in 1995. "The Liar's Club" documented with unflinching detail, searing prose and uproarious wit her childhood in east Texas, and remained on the New York Times Bestseller List for over a year; as mentioned in the Wall Street Journal last week, more than six million memoirs sold in 2008, up from 1.25 million in 2004, "a shift that some publishers and literary critics attribute to Ms. Karr's own successful 1995 debut."
Already the recipient of strongly favorable reviews in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune and Boston Globe--all in just the past week--"Lit" seems destined for bestseller lists everywhere and for literary prize nominations. In the midst of her book tour Ms. Karr took time to talk to The Huffington Post about a variety of topics, from the writing process and missed deadlines to the vetting process for memoirs and the gentle hand of grace that guides her now. What follows is part one of an interview that will continue tomorrow.
Huffington Post: PW's list of Top Ten Books of the Year included no books by female authors. Do you have any thoughts on the subject?
Mary Karr: To be honest I don't think I'm in a position to comment because anything I say is going to sound like sour grapes. I've been on committees like that and the choices are never easy. I'm sure they're just expressing their point of view and that's fine by me. Obviously I want everybody to think this is the best book of the year and give it every prize that it can get, but that's okay. You know, nobody remembers what won the National Book Award the year Michael Herr's "Dispatches" didn't win it, they just remember that Michael Herr didn't win it. Readers are going to determine the long-term quality of the work, and if people read it, then I win.
You handed in the manuscript four years past deadline, having discarded over 1,000 pages of finished manuscript. Why was this book more difficult to wrestle with?
Well it's clear who the asshole is, for one thing. Nobody sounds good writing about your divorce, let's face it. And with the other books I had the benefit of pharmaceuticals and I had my wacky mother and father to gesture towards. But in this one I'm the one who's behaving badly. I'm the drunk person screaming at her toddler in the market. So it's clear who is the asshole. And obviously my son's father is a circumspect person, and he very generously agreed to a pseudonym instead of vetting the pages, and I didn't want to cause him any trouble--or my son, either one. But I wish that, with all the stuff that my crazy mother went through, I wish I had had her version. The truth is my son doesn't read my books, and I think it's the kind of thing he might read a long time from now, or his kids might read. Tobias Wolff's sons don't read his books, either. I think they prefer to know the stories as we tell them. There's nothing in this book that Dev doesn't know, I mean he came to see me in the Mental Marriott so it's not like he didn't know that I was a drunk or didn't know that I was sober or didn't know that his Dad and I divorced after considerable psychic struggle. I think the fact that in "The Liar's Club" I was sexually assaulted and in "Cherry" I was talking about my early sexual experiences, I think it's pretty normal for a teenage boy not to want to involve himself in his mother's libidinal storytelling.
A curious and motivated reader of your work--as well as writers everywhere who themselves wrestle with drafts--might find it illuminating to hear about some of the discarded sections--what was in them and what prompted the decision to remove them.
Well in the first draft it's not that the events were so different, it's more that they were not as well written, and I think that I'd made my husband particularly saintly and myself particularly dastardly. And the emotional cant was way too, well, untrue--it's not that the events were untrue, but emotionally it felt untrue to my experience. And Second I don't think that those pages were as well written--I mean these pages, whether you think they're will written or not, they're as well written as I can make them. So I just felt like they were boring, partly because they lacked emotional depth, they weren't emotionally true for me quote unquote. And the second time I'd been really encouraged to write about the process, my process of prayer. I do pray a lot, and I think everyone wants another Eat, Pray, Make Money, but the truth is I'm a neophyte when it comes to prayer. If you all want to learn about prayer go to the Dalai Lama, or Mother Teresa, but I'm a neophyte, and it made my early pages about my spiritual growth sound very proselytizing. And I realized I was telling several anecdotes to prove the same thing. I had a number of experiences that seemed to me, well, at least extremely lucky, if not signs of the fact that God liked me better than He does other people. But I realized I really only needed one, so I chose the one about finding the passages in my mother's childhood bible. But I had a lot more passages like that. I always say to my students, you don't want to reiterate something about anyone's character--if you do it right, you only need to show that aspect of a person's character one time. That's what bad memoirs are like, you know: I got hit over the head with a brick every day of my life, sophomore year it sucked, junior year it sucked, senior year it sucked, and then I moved out. They reiterate the same stuff over and over as opposed to a character advancing and deepening.
You mention that you have various people in your life and who are represented in the book vet drafts of your manuscript. How do you handle the inevitable circumstances of differing memories of the same event?
The truth is that's only happened one time. I've been corrected on minor points of fact, but I mostly don't write about things that I don't know about. This book is the first time I've been majorly corrected, and it wasn't that this thing I said happened didn't happen, it was--I took something Tobias Wolff said as a joke, when I was in grad school, and took it literally, and therefore, it's not like he said it didn't happen, it's more that he said he didn't have that attitude about it when it happened. But I tend not to write about things that I don't remember pretty well. Whatever David Foster Wallace's motivation was for throwing my coffee table, I have a letter from my lawyer that says he threw my coffee table and he broke it. He would've said that that had happened, but he would've said that he was richly provoked.
Why did your ex-husband choose not to vet the manuscript?
He told me he just doesn't like reading about himself. I would be curious to know what his side of the story is, but it was a long time ago, and I just don't think he wants to deal with it, and God love him. The truth is I don't really know.
The New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, famously hard to please, praised your book to the heavens but took issue with the sections dealing with Warren, who she said felt "oddly fuzzy and abstract" and "emerges in this volume as a sort of handsome paper doll." She also wonders why Warren let four years go by before meeting your ailing father, or why he and his wealthy family did not pay for the medical care your father required after his stroke. Would you care to address these points?
To be honest with you I don't know how people interpret this stuff. I felt very happy about the review. I feel badly, like I must've misrepresented something, if I left the impression that we were entitled to something we didn't receive. I just don't have any complaints about that review, it seemed to me an incredibly generous review, and obviously that aspect of the book failed for her, and I'm sure if it had been perfectly written it wouldn't have.
You've recently been quoted as saying: "Most writing is mediocre. Most memoirs are mediocre. Quality is rare." At the risk of jeopardizing your position as Professor of Literature at Syracuse University, do you think quality writing can be taught?
Absolutely. The truth is when I went to graduate school I would've said I was among the least talented of the students, I was certainly the least smart, or less educated. But I worked very hard. I worked very hard on these books, and one of the things I do is I rewrite, and rethink and reconsider. One reason I think people don't change things a lot is, I say to myself, is that true? Can I say that? Is that right? And if I don't feel 100 percent certain that I can I really try not to put it in. But I'm also not really known as a score-settler, I mean if you want to settle a score, buy a firearm. So yes, I think it can be taught. I think mine is a very modest talent. I work very hard and I've read a lot of books and I've taken a lot of advice from better writers than I am, and the bar for me is very high, in my mind, and I don't think I've done what I'd like to do as a writer yet. This book is as good as I can write it. I'd like to write a better book. Next year.
Part two of Mary Karr's interview will run tomorrow.
Steve Ross has edited or overseen the publication of hundreds of New York Times Bestsellers. He has been President and Group Publisher of the Collins Division at HarperCollins, and Sr. VP and Publisher of the Crown Division at Random House, as well as working at Delacorte Press, G.P. Putnam's Sons, and John Wiley & Sons. He was named by New York Magazine as one of seven "Influentials" in Books for 2006, and has been the subject of profiles in Crain's New York and in New York Observer.