The following is a continuation of a Huffington Post interview with author Mary Karr on her new memoir, "Lit." You can read the first part here.
Huffington Post: You're working on a book about how to write memoirs, right?
Mary Karr: I've been teaching classes on memoirs since 1986, and I've been reading them all my life, and I think that I would like to write a critical book that might have some of those how-to elements in it. Like Forster's "Aspects of the Novel", or John Gardner's book on moral fiction, I'd like to write a book about memoirs that might be comparably useful in talking about the genre.
When Bill Clinton was in the process of writing his memoir he said he found it such an illuminating process to review the various episodes of his life and craft them into a narrative form, culminating in the composite of he he'd become, he felt that everybody of a certain age should try this, although not necessarily for publication but for their own edification. Do you agree?
Is the unexamined life worth living? Or Socrates' great motto, know thyself. I think that was great--I remember Obama talking about it, and I think I probably was forced by disposition and depression to examine myself at great length before I ever put anything down on paper, so it's not like there was information I didn't get, but obviously it's cathartic to go back into those places and bring another self, I think we remember through that filter of self, and to bring my fifty-plus year old self back into that time was certainly edifying. Do I think everybody should do it? Yeah, I think we fall in love and become adults and become citizens in a way by writing stories about ourselves. We have one story when we're living with our parents and they're this Colossi, and then we have another story when we leave home and then you're thirty-something and it's a different story. So I certainly think that telling stories about yourself, whether on a therapist's couch, or in the arms of your beloved, or on paper, is one of the ways we become adults, strangely enough, it's how we grow up, by working on that narrative.
You've said that the proposal for "Liar's Club" included the skeleton of all three books, and that you actually pray about what to write. Was that true even back when you wrote that original proposal?
No, I really began to pray about what to write later than that.
Can you elaborate on the process of praying about what to write?
Writing about prayer to a secular audience is tap-dancing on the radio. I want to say "Gee whiz, isn't this great" and have everyone's head cocked like the RCA dog. I get very quiet. I listen to my breath. I get on my knees before I work and ask for guidance throughout the day. Sometimes I'll say a prayer like the St Francis prayer, and then I try to listen. And then when I'm at my desk and writing, and get stuck, I'll pray, I'll say what am I supposed to do now? Here's what it's like. You get very quiet and you run a Geiger counter over a landscape, it's like you're flying an airplane over a landscape, but you're running your heart over this landscape like a Geiger counter and looking for the places that it picks, and lights up. And that's what it's like. It's often something you don't want to write, something you don't feel like writing or it's embarrassing or frightening to write, but if you just have a sense of quiet around the decision to write, write that. Even if there's either excitement or fear, there is an overwhelming sense of being guided to that place. I know that sounds insane.
The first line of your book is "Any way I tell this story is a lie." Can you explain to our readers what you mean by this?
I mean several things. I mean memory is a corrupt machine, and even though I seem to have done better at not pissing people off than almost anyone I can think of who does this for a living--I mean not only have there not been any lawsuits but people are usually glad when I write about them. The most complaints I've had were from people who are not in the book. But I digress. As soon as you choose to write about Event A instead of Event C you have begun to leave things out, you have begun to shape a narrative, and again we remember through a filter of self, and my self is often very corrupt and venal. I wanted to run over my ex-husband while he was putting the garbage cans away, but I don't think anyone who reads the book would think, Gosh, he really deserved to be run over. I think people see that urge in me as kind of screwed-up. My goal is the truth, but by that I mean I don't make events up, but obviously I reconstruct dialogue, I telescope time. The story I tell my students is about Melville, which may be an apocryphal story, is the story about him and the oranges. He was allegedly in his study on Christmas Day and he had all these oranges and his children were crying and scratching at the door to get in and he wouldn't let them have any of them. My friend Geoffrey Wolff is writing a biography of Melville and I saying to him, "Well Melville was an ass-hole, right?" And he said, "No, not at all." So I said, "What about that story about him and the Christmas oranges?" and he said, "He had scurvy." So I don't know every fact about everyone's actions, I don't know about anyone else's inner world view. However, even if I'd lived with a video camera strapped to my head my entire life I know better how I felt at certain times of my life than anybody. So it's a nod to that, and it's also a nod to my standard, which is that I really am trying to tell the truth, which is obviously very subjective. I'm not claiming my memory isn't corrupt, but I'm claiming to admit its corruptions.
You've been doing a good deal of interviews for the promotion of this book. Are there any questions that you are surprised no one has asked that you think readers might be interested in knowing?
I can't think of anything. It seems to me I've been asked every conceivable thing I could be asked. But then again I don't really sit around thinking, "Gee, I'm going to be interviewed, what should I try to say?" I know it sounds insane to say but I don't think about this stuff so much. I really do ask God about what to say (laughing), I really do. I try to be guided. There's this great line in one of the Gospels where Jesus says "When people come to you, don't plan in advance what you're going to say, because you're going to be given the words at the right time" and obviously I say a lot of the same things over and over but there's only so much that I think. I really do just try to show up with an open heart and see what I'm supposed to say.
This all makes me sound so much more pious than I really am. I mean, it feels nauseating even just to say it. It feels very phony because I'm not that--I'm not such a good Christian, I'm not so religious. There are all kinds of things God wants me to do that I'm very obstreperous about.
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.
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