Online Edition: Spring 2010

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photo by Marion Ettinger


Feeling-Making Machine

An Interview with Mary Karr

 by Scott F. Parker

While Mary Karrís 1995 book The Liarsí Club is often credited with sparking the memoir boom of recent years, few of the memoirs to follow hers have lived up to its standard. What makes Karrís writing so rich is not the stories themselves—though it doesnít hurt that many of them are pretty wild—but her psychological acumen, her facility with language, her unapologetic honesty—and most memorably, her charismatic narrative persona. Karr followed The Liarsí Club with Cherry, which continued the story of her childhood and adolescence in east Texas, and now takes on her adult years in Lit (Harper, $25.99), which describes her struggle with alcoholism and her conversion to Catholicism. In addition to these groundbreaking memoirs, Karr is also the author of four books of poetry (including 1998ís Viper Rum, which contains her controversial essay ďAgainst DecorationĒ), and is the Peck Professor of English Literature at Syracuse University. I was lucky enough to meet Karr during her recent book tour. When the tour was over, we conducted the following interview over the phone.

Scott F. Parker: Youíre best known as a memoirist, but you came up as a poet. Thereís a lot of poetry in your memoir and a lot of memoir in your poetry. You even wrote as an eleven-year-old that you wanted ďto write Ĺ poetry Ĺ autobiography,Ē which is exactly what youíve done. I wonder, do you think of yourself as primarily a memoirist or poet, or does that distinction matter much to you?

Mary Karr: I think of myself as a poet. The memoirs, to be honest with you, if I didnít get paid for them, I wouldnít write. Poetry is much more of a passion. Obviously nobody pays me for it. I only write the memoirs for money—well, I guess that canít be entirely true, because I do have a sense of responsibility to the written word, and to anybody who would read my books. I wouldnít want to bore them. So I care about quality. If somebody is going to put down $25 for this book, and spend hours reading it, goddamn it, I better bring something to the fucking party.

SFP: In your first two memoirs you wrote about your childhood, and thereís this gap between how it was, and you have lots of room to tell the story of how that character became this narrator—but you donít have to identify very closely with the kid, because thatís some other person. With Lit you come much closer to writing about you. It gives the book real confessional feel, and I imagine it makes the writing much more difficult.

MK: It was a nightmare. I saw my girlfriend, whoís a shrink—not my shrink, just a friend whoís a shrink—and she said, ďI don't know how you fucking did this. I remember you eighteen months ago sobbing and saying, ĎIíve written twelve hundred pages and every one of them is bad. Iím going to publish a shitty book.íĒ I just canít stand to fail on this scale when Iíve put this much money in the bucket. Iíve invested seven years—thatís half of my publishing life, and a third of my writing. Fucking nightmare. But I donít know, it got better. Itís not Speak, Memory, but itís not as bad as it was.

SFP: Your writing is psychologically astute, and one thing you return to regularly in your memoirs is the therapy youíve undergone. Is that why thereís always a big time gap—even with Lit thereís still about a fifteen-to-twenty-year gap between the story and the writing—you need the time to work through your issues before writing about them? Or is writing part of that working through?

MK: People need to do the therapy before the memoir. In therapy you pay them, and in memoir they pay you. And hopefully thatís because thatís the nature of the relationship—youíre giving the reader something—not the reader giving you something. I think people who mistake the memoir as therapy are usually quite boring. They think that because their lives were interesting to them and painful, they should write a memoir. I think everyoneís life is painful. Like the Buddhists say, life is suffering. But thatís a different thing than a work of art. A work of art is, hopefully, artful!

SFP: Is that the difference, then, between having a life and having material for a memoir?

MK: I think there are people who arenít self-aware and use the memoir as an excuse to explore themselves. People always say, ďWas it cathartic writing the book?Ē Of course itís cathartic writing any book, but I think the big catharses came before the book was written: all the shocks and surprises about who you are and whatís happened to you—the way youíre ambushed by the truth.

SFP: So how do you know if youíve got a memoir?

MK: You donít know. How do you know when you have a novel or a poem? The only way is through the writing. But you have to think of it as a work of art, not as something youíre doing for your own satisfaction. If itís private, donít publish it and donít make us read it. If itís just for you, thatís fine, but then thereís no need to murder trees to have it see the light of day.

SFP: So what would have happened if you wrote The Liarsí Club in the early ’80s? Is that why you started writing it as a novel, because not enough time had passed?

MK: I donít know . . . we always remember through the filter of who we are at the time. If I wrote The Liarsí Club now it would be different. I think youíre a different person every instant of your life, so the filter I remember myself through now is different than the filter I remembered myself through when I was writing that book. It doesnít mean the events are different; it just means I would probably feel different about them and therefore render them differently.

SFP: Speaking of the filter of memory, in all of your memoirs you use a lot of filmic language. You zoom in on scenes, you rewind, images dissolve and are sometimes lost, etc. You also narrate a lot in present tense, which gives the reader the feeling of watching your life as a movie. At the same time, you donít write as if thereís a documentary of your life that youíre accessing; youíre always pointing out the flaws of memory (e.g., mentioning when you donít remember something, or that your sister would disagree). How do you think about memory in memoir?

MK: I think the film device, unfortunately, is just pretty common to our era, when film is the dominant art form. Itís the art form weíre all addicted to and affected by, so I donít think thatís something particular to me. Novelists do that, too. Iím trying to create an experience in the reader. Iím not trying to recreate an experience that happened to me. Iím trying to make the reader feel something, have an emotional experience that will be powerful for them. So Iím not recounting things because they happened to me; Iím trying to make a work of art the way a novelist would or a poet would. Iím trying to assemble a machine that the reader puts the penny of his or her attention into and pulls the handle and gets out a feeling.

SFP: In Cherry your friend Meredith says suffering ďteaches you about the human heart. Suffering and despair force you to plumb the depths of the human heart in a way normal life canít. It makes us wise beyond our years. Most people just go along.Ē In the same book you say that as a kid you read to escape your loneliness. Is suffering necessary to read? To write? In Lit you describe being unable to write when youíre medicated and happy.

MK: I think you can lead a very comfortable and privileged life and have access to the whole realm of human feeling by reading. And thatís the beauty of it. You know the first Noble Truth is that life is suffering, and Iíd like to claim I thought of that, but I didnít—itís a truism that people suffer. You walk into a Christian church, in my case a Catholic church, and thereís somebody nailed to a cross, suffering. I think itís at the point of suffering that we become loneliest for God, and the most abject suffering is the kind that is sort of godless. As I quote Simone Weil in Lit, ďAffliction makes God appear to be absent for a time, more absent than a dead man, more absent than light in the utter darkness of a cell. A kind of horror submerges the whole soul. During this absence, there is nothing to love.Ē That kind of suffering is complete emptiness, but somewhere on the spectrum of suffering weíre almost hardwired to turn to God, to turn to something beyond ourselves. Thereís a nexus between God and suffering; by being pulverized, the heart is tenderized.

SFP: So what does religion give you that literature doesnít?

MK: What religious people would tell you is: the Truth. The best literature is always about spiritual truths or metaphysical truths or moral truths. I think any great work of literature has all of those things in it. But however interested we are in, say, Raskolnikov or Anna Karenina, theyíre not meant to be models in the way, say, Jesus is. For myself, I learned compassion, to feel for other human beings, partly through suffering. I remember when my son was a kid and some other kids were throwing snowballs at him and picking on him and really beating the shit out of him, and him saying, ďWhy would God let this happen?Ē And I said, ďFirst of all, itís not God whoís throwing snowballs at you, itís the little assholes down the block. And secondly, youíre going to grow up and be really good looking, tall, youíre going to be smart, and if you didnít have somebody kick your ass you wouldnít necessarily have compassion for people in pain. You wouldnít know what it feels like to be picked on and left out. This experience is going to permit you to empathize with people.Ē I think thatís exactly true. And literature does teach us that. I remember reading Faulkner (and, you know, I grew up around people who were often very mean and hateful—if they didnít like you theyíd kill your cat, theyíd put firecrackers up its ass and light them; these were bad people), but reading Faulknerís As I Lay Dying, reading about the inner sufferings and inner lives of people who were illiterate, made me more compassionate toward people I might have otherwise written off. I think Faulkner really gave me a kind of humanity that I might not have had. In that sense, literature is Eucharistic. You take somebody elseís suffering into your body and youíre changed by it, youíre made larger by their pain. You come to understand pain in a way that maybe otherwise you wouldnít.

SFP: And religion?

MK: I think religionís meant to be the Truth. Itís something people donít think about much anymore. They think of the Bible as literature, something you may or may not read, but religious literature—the Upanishads, the Vedas, the Koran—thatís supposed to be the word of God. Thatís supposed to be the Truth. So while we might get some of the things from great literature that people from various religious traditions get from the scriptures, none of those things really represents itself as capital-T Truth.

SFP: Okay, well in Lit you go to lengths to accommodate the skeptical reader. You have these parentheticals that say, Weíre going to talk about God now or You may want to skip this part.

MK: Yeah. I didnít want to lose readers who really thought it was horseshit. I didnít want to bore anybody. I was trying to give people a pass. But I started to believe this stuff—that was genuinely my experience.

SFP: Reading the book, I get that. Itís clear how much Catholicism has helped you, and itís very moving to read that. But the thing a reader like me gets hung up on is how you make the move from religion as being helpful to religion as being True.

MK: Yeah, but thatís my truth. If you think itís true there isnít a God, you get to believe that. We all get to believe what we think is true. That shouldnít bother anybody. Iím not running a crusade and I donít proselytize. I think the Holy Spirit assumes many forms, and I think God was in my life when I was praying before I was baptized; before I was Christian I think I was being guided by God. So itís not like God was saying, ďGo fuck yourself, youíre in the wrong line.Ē I still feel that way. This is the path Iíve chosen, but atheists believe atheism is true—that doesnít hurt my feelings. I believe God is guiding us all to refine our souls in whatever way it is for each of us. Walt Mink [a college professor described in Lit] was an atheist and also one of the most Christ-like people Iíve ever known. Thatís just true. He didnít need baby Jesus, he didnít go to mass every week. But I need this shit. This is necessary, this practice. People make the mistake of confusing religion with theology or ideology or history or ideas . . . religion is a practice. So itís sort of like watching a lot of porn movies and thinking you know about pussy. You just donít. Until youíve gone through the practice of it.

A lot of my cradle-Catholic friends have had horrible experiences in the Catholic church. Horrible. Hideous. I think thereís a lot of evil in any hierarchy, and the Catholic church is full of hierarchies, but so is every faith. Every faith has the big dog and the little dog, the most holy and the least holy. And I mistrust them as much as you do. I donít have any more confidence in them. There could be a pope thatís Satan—that seems completely likely to me! So I still have a lot of cynicism. But Iíve chosen this practice. I donít think you need to be a Christian to be guided by God or to access what Iíd call the Holy Spirit or what the Native Americans would call the Great Spirit. I think thatís a breath away for each one of us. So I donít need to protect Jesus from people who donít believe in him. Itís kind of comical. Thatís what a lot of Catholic theology says, that you canít have communion because youíre going to hurt Jesusí feelings or something. Itís crazy. If you read anything about Jesus, he just wasnít that kind of guy.

SFP: So it sounds like youíre not all that interested in the metaphysical stuff.

MK: Well, Iíve been thinking a lot about death this year because my priest is dying, and I go to see him a lot. And I have a friend whoís dying of ovarian cancer. Father Kane, who baptized me, is teaching me a lot about death, and the quality he has that I most admire is this strange sense of reality. Heís a realistic person. Heís not off in la-la land dreaming that heís going to be living with Jesus. His attention is right exactly where his ass is. Heís just right where heís sitting. And it sucks. He has cancer on his head like bloody tree bark that went from being as big as a nickel to being about half as big as my hand, and he canít use his legs, and someone has to wipe his ass. And when I asked him, ďIs that humiliating for you?Ē he said, ďNot at all.Ē And I believe him. I don't think it bothers him in the least. He said, ďItís a blessing, really, that peopleíll do it.Ē So I believe thereís something that goes on. I sincerely doubt that itís me, Mary Karr, wearing my high-heeled boots, sitting around on a cloud. And if I were meant to know about it, I think God would tell me about it. I kind of just feel like itís none of my business, like what I need to pay attention to now is really trying to be a—Reinhold Niebuhr, the great theologian, was fond of quoting those great William Blake lines: ďAnd we are put on earth a little space / That we may learn to bear the beams of love.Ē So for me thatís trying to be a loving presence in the world, which is a real challenge—Iím not that nice a person. Thatís hard for me. And also to try to give those beams off, to do something good and useful. But that doesnít mean to be crucified, which I think is how people think of this thing.

SFP: One of the challenges you describe in Lit about getting sober was putting down your intellectual guard.

MK: I want it to make sense. And whatís hard for me about people like, say, Christopher Hitchens, is that he canít imagine that thereís a mystery he doesnít understand. To me, the arrogance of someone thinking that they know inside and out about the universe and how it works . . . I admit that itís entirely possible that Iím full of shit and this is wrong. I understand that. But does it help me any to live that way, to think that way? It just doesnít work for me. Iím not Walt Mink. Iím not a nice enough person.

SFP: Another surprise for anyone who reads Lit after reading The Liarsí Club is the extent to which your life becomes like your motherís—even if your sister points out there are still plenty of differences.

MK: Itís funny, people say that, but my mother never lived in the same place for more than a couple years. Iíve had the same job for eighteen years. I was married to Michael Milburn for thirteen years. I mean, my mother didnít pay taxes. The degree to which my mother was feckless and irresponsible . . . No one ever paid my rent. My mother never supported herself. I always supported myself. I was afraid in those moments with my child as a parent I would become her.

SFP: Okay, but with the drinking—

MK: That was like my daddy. I drank much more like my daddy. I drank mostly alone and hid my drinking. My mother was somebody who would go out and get drunk and tell everybody to go fuck themselves and tip things over in the supermarket. But her love of beauty, her love of clothes . . . Iím just passionate about pretty clothes, and I have her extravagance, a lot of her capriciousness. But Iím not as good looking as my mother. My teeth are reasonably straight, Iím not hideously fat or anything, but no one ever thought of me as a great beauty. My mother was really very pretty as a young woman.

SFP: When I read The Liarsí Club I kept seeing you as your dadís daughter and your sister as your momís daughter. It seems like as you got older you moved closer to your mother.

MK: Yeah, my father was totally out of my life by the time I was twelve years old. My mother was never nurturing and she was capricious, but she was there. She wouldnít get on a plane to see you, but sheíd talk to you on the phone if you called her, which my father wouldnít have done. But of course morphing into mother was my fear. I said to my sister when I was in the loony bin, ďIím turning into Mother.Ē She said, ďYou pay your taxes.Ē My parents didnít take care of me, but they didnít take care of themselves either.

SFP: Do you feel some separation from Lit now? Is it still difficult to be involved with it?

MK: I donít pay that much attention to it. I know that sounds disingenuous because Iím on the road and I talk about it all the time, but itís not something I have to do now. Itís sort of like—Did you hate high school?

SFP: No.

MK: Youíre somebody who liked high school? Well, did you hate college?

SFP: I liked it less than high school.

MK: Okay, if you look back on college and you think, God, I fucking hated college, youíre not feeling that hatred now. Itís an idea to you. You know, so-and-so broke up with me in 1976 and I was devastated. But remembering that, Iím not devastated now. So itís the same thing. Writing this book was really hard when I was writing it, but Iím not writing it now. The truth is, I donít read this book. I talk about something that happened to me a long time ago that I donít really have to worry about anymore because Iím not doing it. I relived it all while I was writing. Thatís why it was so hard. Writing about my mother, writing about my father, writing about David [Foster Wallace], who just fucking hung himself, writing about my baby and me not taking good care of him—I felt like shit, absolutely. But when I go around and promote it, now that itís written, I donít think about it. Iím sure there are all sorts of devastating things in your life that you think about and think Iím really glad thatís not happening anymore, but you donít actually feel that pain after youíve been through it. And itís the same thing for me: I donít feel the pain of having written the book. Iíve already written it. Itís out there. If people think Iím an asshole, oh well. What am I going to do? Once it was written it was okay if it failed and everybody hated it. I knew that I had done as well as I could do, and it was as good as I could make it.

SFP: You write in the prologue to Lit, a letter to your son, that youíre telling your own story in the hopes that one day heíll be able to tell his own. Do think thatís one of the projects of memoir, for the narrator to claim his or her story?

MK: No, I think itís one of the projects of becoming a grown-up. And, in fact, I think you have to be a grown-up before you can write a memoir—otherwise, put a fucking cork in it, and donít waste my time. You have to be a grown-up to be able to ruthlessly examine what happened. I wrote this book three times—and thatís multiple drafts each time. I wrote it the first time to remember what happened. I wrote it the second time to get some psychological perspective. Each one of those times took years. And then the third time, I was doing some work on the religious stuff and what I call lapidary work, just trying to make the sentences good. You look at the sentences in it, and if it says, ďI went to the store,Ē you think, Thatís a pretty fucking tedious sentence. How can that be better? ďMy mother drove me to college.Ē No, My motherís car moved like a Monopoly icon through fields of Iowa corn. Thatís just a better fucking sentence. I got that from reading Isaac Babel. He has some amazing sentences. I have a voice that I know how to do, that has certain qualities of syntax and diction that Iíve cultivated over years. This book is not in the same voice as The Liarsí Club and Cherry, but itís akin to it, you can tell itís the same person. If it seemed like a totally different person it would be weird.

SFP: You told me the first time we met that the last page of The Liarsí Club is a hint in the direction of your religious conversion. Cherry ends on a similar note, with you reassured you are your Same Self (though it will take decades to find out what this is). And of course this is all made explicit in Lit when you describe that transition.

MK: Thatís a very adroit reading. I never thought of it that way, but thatís probably true.

SFP: So finding Catholicism was the key moment in you becoming you.

MK: Yeah, and thatís what I tell people all the time. I remember telling David this when he was really depressed. I tell people now when theyíre trying to quit drinking, or when theyíre just really unhappy. I say, ďOkay, youíre sitting in Bar X, or youíre in bed with Man X, snorting cocaine off his dick, and you feel like an asshole because you donít even like him and you find him disgusting. Who is telling you thatís disgusting? No one knows this is happening but you. Who is that? Thereís a voice that says, Ďthatís disgusting, you stupid bitch,í and thereís a voice that says, Ďyou can really do better than this.í Who is talking to you?Ē

I differ from the most diseased part of myself, and I think that an irony of spiritual practice is that when you get out of yourself you kind of more become yourself. When I was a little kid I was bouncy and I made a lot noise and I broke shit. I ran around, I was very enthusiastic. In all the pictures of me Iím smiling. Now, Iím pretty happy. I laugh a lot. I have joy on a given day. Iím not a blithering idiot, and I suffer when itís hot out or itís raining and I canít get a cab. I worry about my kid or my friend getting chemo or whatever. I suffer. But Iím pretty happy. And itís almost like, I remember my mother saying when I was getting sober, ďyouíre going to come back to that [childhood happiness].Ē And I said, ďMother, I donít even fucking remember that.Ē I just donít remember feeling that way. But I really think that voice—not the one that says, fuck you, you stupid bitch, youíre a whore, but the one that says, you can do better than this, honey—that voice is God. And thatís actually who you really are. The other stuff thatís telling you what an asshole you are all the time is fucking noise, your ego or your head or whatever. The Buddhists would call it your ego. Pentecostals would call it Satan. It doesnít matter what you call it. Itís my fucking head talking. My girlfriend with cancer, she goes online and looks that up and looks this up, and I say, ďAre you going to become a fucking oncologist? Do you have any more information having done this eight months in?Ē ďNo, I donít.Ē ďSo then, why fucking do it? What are you doing? Youíre stabbing at stab wounds.Ē So I think that part of all of us, not just of me, is who we really are, is what our soul is like; thereís light in there, and itís loving, itís not terrified, and itís not angry, and itís not sad. I see it with Father Kane. I call him and say, ďI feel bad youíre suffering like this.Ē And he says, ďI know you do, but I can handle it.Ē Thatís amazing to me.

SFP: So if all three books combine to tell the story of how you became you, and youíve covered most of the years of your life up to that becoming, are you finished as a memoirist?

MK: Absolutely. Iím writing poems right now. I canít imagine writing anything but poems. I have these notes for this book on memoir that I would like to write, because people act like itís some mysterious thing. James Frey says thereís a lot of argument between what is and isnít nonfiction. You know, there really isnít. If you didnít talk to me for this interview, and then wrote down what I said, that would be a fucking lie. This is not hard. A lot of this stuff Iím saying about writing a memoir is just obvious—Iím not that smart. But people really have to care about the reader. The readerís been left behind. Everybody talks about the writerís feeling and the writerís expression and the writerís experience, and, you know, I donít give a fuck how the writer feels. I want a fucking book that I can be in love with. I want a book that Iíll reread seventeen times. Thatís what I want. And that has nothing to do with how I fucking feel. If I cared about how I felt I wouldnít have written this fucking book in the first place. It was too hard to write. I needed the money or I wouldnít have done it. Swear to God, I would not write these books if they didnít pay me. But that said, once Iím committed to it and once Iím going to put my name on it, I feel like I ought to try not to bore the dog fuck out of people. If people are nice enough to buy my book, itís like, letís just try not to make them pitch forward with boredom. Iím so sick of reading boring books. I get them in the mail all the time. I got four today. [Sounds of rummaging through books.] Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields.

SFP: Reality Hungerís not boring.

MK: The cover says, ďIf youíre sick of conventional writing . . . Ē Iím actually not that sick of conventional writing. I just want good conventional writing, as opposed to bad conventional writing.

SFP: Then you might want to check out Zadie Smithís response to the book. While Shields thinks weíre grasping for truth in a world full of lies, Smith thinks fiction can still be relevant when itís done well.

MK: Itís about quality. And people wonít talk about quality anymore, because theyíre afraid it excludes people who write badly. Letís exclude them! I can see people wanting truth, too. But I think itís more that we donít believe in objective truth anymore. The subjective has an ascendency. My memory, I admit, is corrupt. You know that my memory is corrupt. So itís not that itís not corrupt, itís that I admit itís corrupt. People find that friendlier. Also, I think people are writing novels about people no one likes. No one fucking likes the characters. When you read Charlotteís Web, you like Charlotte and Wilbur and Templeton. When you read To Kill a Mockingbird you like Scout and Boo Radley. You like everybody in the fucking book. You want to see them again. And there are a lot of people who are stand-ins for allegory or ideology who I just donít fucking like. I find them tedious.

SFP: I originally read The Liarsí Club in a class, and when we finished the book someone said, ďShe had all this terrible stuff happen to her, her family was crazy, but at the end of the book you think thatís a family that loves one another.Ē And it makes the reader like them as characters.

MK: Yeah, I liked my mother. My boyfriend says all the time, ďI canít believe your mother did X or Y or Z,Ē because, believe me, whateverís in the book doesnít scratch the surface. She was so capricious. But if you met her youíd fucking like her. She was smart. Sheíd be very interested in whatever you had to say. Sheíd ask you questions, genuinely. Sheíd say what she thought. She was witty. She read a lot of different shit, so she would have all kinds of different ideas. And when was the last novel you read where you think, God, I want to reread this because I just donít want this to be over yet? I reread One Hundred Years of Solitude because I miss those people. If I donít read that every couple years I feel like I havenít visited my friends or something. I think thatís the problem. People arenít that interested in how the reader feels. Theyíre interested in getting across some ideology or making a point about something thatís usually pretty fucking self-referential. Even though itís not autobiographical, itís often very much about them and their enterprise and their life and what they care about.

SFP: So what are you trying to give the reader?

MK: People say, ďYou wrote this to help the reader.Ē Iím like, ďNo, I didnít.Ē I did not write this book to help people. Iím thrilled if it helps people, obviously. But I did not write this book in order to help. Iím not that nice. Iím really not. I promise Iím not. Iím not just pretending Iím not.

SFP: But itís more than just entertainment.

MK: I want them to have a deep emotional experience that humanizes them, because when we feel together we share each otherís feelings, not just mine but anybodyís. A lot of times I want you to feel ways that I didnít feel at the time. Sometimes I thought I was having fun, and when you see me youíre probably going to feel disgust. Itís not about replicating my feelings for you. Itís about creating an experience for you that allows you to know exactly what itís like. My shrink said, ďIíve never read a book [prior to Lit] that helps me understand why somebody keeps getting drunk even though itís clearly a bad idea. I just really didnít get it.Ē Thatís good; she now understands something that she never experienced. The same as when I talk to her about medicating psychotics and she tells me stories, I have a feeling for what she does. And when we empathize with each other, thatís where God is. I think these novels that are so heavy on ideas, while perfectly clever, often just show their cleverness. Theyíre not in the business of creating feeling. Thatís not what theyíre trying to do. They donít care about that. I think the minute that novelists start caring about that, memoirists will be out of business. Itís like Wallace Stevens says, ďPeople should like poetry the way a child likes snow, and they would if poets wrote it.Ē Insert novels there. The problem isnít that the culture is too dumb to understand what the brilliant novelists are doing, the problem is the novelists are so self-involved that they really think that how they feel should fucking matter, that people need to be edified to how they view the fucking world, and thatís going to help them somehow, thatís going to make people smarter or something. Well, I donít think people are that fucking stupid. If you look at critical or literary history, before Wordsworth nobody was thinking about how the fucking artist felt. Everybody was thinking about the reader.

SFP: Maybe we can end then by talking about memoirs youíve most enjoyed. What were you reading when you wrote The Liarsí Club?

MK: Iíd read quite a few. Iíd been teaching memoir at Tufts since 1985. Always read a lot of memoirs. Tobias Wolffís This Boyís Life, Nabokovís Speak, Memory, Michael Herrís Dispatches, and Maxine Hong Kingstonís Woman Warrior. Those would probably be my top four.

SFP: And post-Liarsí Club, what have been your favorite memoirs?

MK: The book I just read that Iím excited about is by Hilary Mantel, called Giving Up the Ghost. I really liked Frank McCourtís [Angelaís Ashes]. I read it in manuscript and thought it was pretty damn good. I even blurbed it. I get a lot of memoirs I donít like.

SFP: What donít you like about them? Do they tend to make the same mistakes?

MK: I think they do. First off, theyíre just not that well written. The sentences arenít so interesting, and they donít seem to understand that how itís written makes any difference. Also I think people really try to make themselves seem bizarre and grotesque, like whoever has taken the biggest ass-whipping wins. And then they become sort of like characters on Jerry Springer. They donít really evoke any feeling—other than gratitude that youíre not related to any of those people.


Click here to buy Lit from Amazon.com

Click here to buy Lit from Powells.com


Click here to buy The Liars' Club from Amazon.com

Click here to buy The Liars' Club from Powells.com