Feeling-Making Machine: An Interview with Mary Karr

by Scott F. Parker

While Mary Karr’s 1995 book The Liars’ 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 Karr’s writing so rich is not the stories themselves—though it doesn’t 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 Liars’ 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 1998’s Viper Rum, which contains her controversial essay “Against Decoration”), 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: You’re best known as a memoirist, but you came up as a poet. There’s 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 “to write ½ poetry ½ autobiography,” which is exactly what you’ve 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 didn’t get paid for them, I wouldn’t 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 can’t be entirely true, because I do have a sense of responsibility to the written word, and to anybody who would read my books. I wouldn’t 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 there’s 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 don’t have to identify very closely with the kid, because that’s 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, who’s a shrink—not my shrink, just a friend who’s a shrink—and she said, “I don't know how you fucking did this. I remember you eighteen months ago sobbing and saying, ‘I’ve written twelve hundred pages and every one of them is bad. I’m going to publish a shitty book.’” I just can’t stand to fail on this scale when I’ve put this much money in the bucket. I’ve invested seven years—that’s half of my publishing life, and a third of my writing. Fucking nightmare. But I don’t know, it got better. It’s not Speak, Memory, but it’s 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 you’ve undergone. Is that why there’s always a big time gap—even with Lit there’s 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 that’s because that’s the nature of the relationship—you’re 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 everyone’s life is painful. Like the Buddhists say, life is suffering. But that’s 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 aren’t self-aware and use the memoir as an excuse to explore themselves. People always say, “Was it cathartic writing the book?” Of course it’s 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 what’s happened to you—the way you’re ambushed by the truth.

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

MK: You don’t 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 you’re doing for your own satisfaction. If it’s private, don’t publish it and don’t make us read it. If it’s just for you, that’s fine, but then there’s no need to murder trees to have it see the light of day.

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

MK: I don’t know . . . we always remember through the filter of who we are at the time. If I wrote The Liars’ Club now it would be different. I think you’re 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 doesn’t 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 don’t write as if there’s a documentary of your life that you’re accessing; you’re always pointing out the flaws of memory (e.g., mentioning when you don’t 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. It’s the art form we’re all addicted to and affected by, so I don’t think that’s something particular to me. Novelists do that, too. I’m trying to create an experience in the reader. I’m not trying to recreate an experience that happened to me. I’m trying to make the reader feel something, have an emotional experience that will be powerful for them. So I’m not recounting things because they happened to me; I’m trying to make a work of art the way a novelist would or a poet would. I’m 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 “teaches you about the human heart. Suffering and despair force you to plumb the depths of the human heart in a way normal life can’t. It makes us wise beyond our years. Most people just go along.” 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 you’re 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 that’s the beauty of it. You know the first Noble Truth is that life is suffering, and I’d like to claim I thought of that, but I didn’t—it’s a truism that people suffer. You walk into a Christian church, in my case a Catholic church, and there’s somebody nailed to a cross, suffering. I think it’s 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, “Affliction 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.” That kind of suffering is complete emptiness, but somewhere on the spectrum of suffering we’re almost hardwired to turn to God, to turn to something beyond ourselves. There’s a nexus between God and suffering; by being pulverized, the heart is tenderized.

SFP: So what does religion give you that literature doesn’t?

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, they’re 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, “Why would God let this happen?” And I said, “First of all, it’s not God who’s throwing snowballs at you, it’s the little assholes down the block. And secondly, you’re going to grow up and be really good looking, tall, you’re going to be smart, and if you didn’t have somebody kick your ass you wouldn’t necessarily have compassion for people in pain. You wouldn’t know what it feels like to be picked on and left out. This experience is going to permit you to empathize with people.” I think that’s 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 didn’t like you they’d kill your cat, they’d put firecrackers up its ass and light them; these were bad people), but reading Faulkner’s 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 else’s suffering into your body and you’re changed by it, you’re made larger by their pain. You come to understand pain in a way that maybe otherwise you wouldn’t.

SFP: And religion?

MK: I think religion’s meant to be the Truth. It’s something people don’t 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—that’s supposed to be the word of God. That’s 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, We’re going to talk about God now or You may want to skip this part.

MK: Yeah. I didn’t want to lose readers who really thought it was horseshit. I didn’t 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. It’s clear how much Catholicism has helped you, and it’s 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 that’s my truth. If you think it’s true there isn’t a God, you get to believe that. We all get to believe what we think is true. That shouldn’t bother anybody. I’m not running a crusade and I don’t 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 it’s not like God was saying, “Go fuck yourself, you’re in the wrong line.” I still feel that way. This is the path I’ve chosen, but atheists believe atheism is true—that doesn’t 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 I’ve ever known. That’s just true. He didn’t need baby Jesus, he didn’t 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 it’s sort of like watching a lot of porn movies and thinking you know about pussy. You just don’t. Until you’ve 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 there’s 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 don’t have any more confidence in them. There could be a pope that’s Satan—that seems completely likely to me! So I still have a lot of cynicism. But I’ve chosen this practice. I don’t think you need to be a Christian to be guided by God or to access what I’d call the Holy Spirit or what the Native Americans would call the Great Spirit. I think that’s a breath away for each one of us. So I don’t need to protect Jesus from people who don’t believe in him. It’s kind of comical. That’s what a lot of Catholic theology says, that you can’t have communion because you’re going to hurt Jesus’ feelings or something. It’s crazy. If you read anything about Jesus, he just wasn’t that kind of guy.

SFP: So it sounds like you’re not all that interested in the metaphysical stuff.

MK: Well, I’ve 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 who’s 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. He’s a realistic person. He’s not off in la-la land dreaming that he’s going to be living with Jesus. His attention is right exactly where his ass is. He’s just right where he’s 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 can’t use his legs, and someone has to wipe his ass. And when I asked him, “Is that humiliating for you?” he said, “Not at all.” And I believe him. I don't think it bothers him in the least. He said, “It’s a blessing, really, that people’ll do it.” So I believe there’s something that goes on. I sincerely doubt that it’s 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 it’s 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: “And we are put on earth a little space / That we may learn to bear the beams of love.” So for me that’s trying to be a loving presence in the world, which is a real challenge—I’m not that nice a person. That’s hard for me. And also to try to give those beams off, to do something good and useful. But that doesn’t 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 what’s hard for me about people like, say, Christopher Hitchens, is that he can’t imagine that there’s a mystery he doesn’t understand. To me, the arrogance of someone thinking that they know inside and out about the universe and how it works . . . I admit that it’s entirely possible that I’m 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 doesn’t work for me. I’m not Walt Mink. I’m not a nice enough person.

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

MK: It’s funny, people say that, but my mother never lived in the same place for more than a couple years. I’ve had the same job for eighteen years. I was married to Michael Milburn for thirteen years. I mean, my mother didn’t 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 . . . I’m just passionate about pretty clothes, and I have her extravagance, a lot of her capriciousness. But I’m not as good looking as my mother. My teeth are reasonably straight, I’m 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 Liars’ Club I kept seeing you as your dad’s daughter and your sister as your mom’s 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 wouldn’t get on a plane to see you, but she’d talk to you on the phone if you called her, which my father wouldn’t have done. But of course morphing into mother was my fear. I said to my sister when I was in the loony bin, “I’m turning into Mother.” She said, “You pay your taxes.” My parents didn’t take care of me, but they didn’t 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 don’t pay that much attention to it. I know that sounds disingenuous because I’m on the road and I talk about it all the time, but it’s not something I have to do now. It’s sort of like—Did you hate high school?

SFP: No.

MK: You’re 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, you’re not feeling that hatred now. It’s an idea to you. You know, so-and-so broke up with me in 1976 and I was devastated. But remembering that, I’m not devastated now. So it’s the same thing. Writing this book was really hard when I was writing it, but I’m not writing it now. The truth is, I don’t read this book. I talk about something that happened to me a long time ago that I don’t really have to worry about anymore because I’m not doing it. I relived it all while I was writing. That’s 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 it’s written, I don’t think about it. I’m sure there are all sorts of devastating things in your life that you think about and think I’m really glad that’s not happening anymore, but you don’t actually feel that pain after you’ve been through it. And it’s the same thing for me: I don’t feel the pain of having written the book. I’ve already written it. It’s out there. If people think I’m 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 you’re telling your own story in the hopes that one day he’ll be able to tell his own. Do think that’s one of the projects of memoir, for the narrator to claim his or her story?

MK: No, I think it’s 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 don’t 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 that’s 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, “I went to the store,” you think,That’s a pretty fucking tedious sentence. How can that be better? “My mother drove me to college.” No,My mother’s car moved like a Monopoly icon through fields of Iowa corn. That’s 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 I’ve cultivated over years. This book is not in the same voice as The Liars’ Club and Cherry, but it’s akin to it, you can tell it’s 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 Liars’ 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: That’s a very adroit reading. I never thought of it that way, but that’s probably true.

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

MK: Yeah, and that’s what I tell people all the time. I remember telling David this when he was really depressed. I tell people now when they’re trying to quit drinking, or when they’re just really unhappy. I say, “Okay, you’re sitting in Bar X, or you’re in bed with Man X, snorting cocaine off his dick, and you feel like an asshole because you don’t even like him and you find him disgusting. Who is telling you that’s disgusting? No one knows this is happening but you. Who is that? There’s a voice that says, ‘that’s disgusting, you stupid bitch,’ and there’s a voice that says, ‘you can really do better than this.’ Who is talking to you?”

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 I’m smiling. Now, I’m pretty happy. I laugh a lot. I have joy on a given day. I’m not a blithering idiot, and I suffer when it’s hot out or it’s raining and I can’t get a cab. I worry about my kid or my friend getting chemo or whatever. I suffer. But I’m pretty happy. And it’s almost like, I remember my mother saying when I was getting sober, “you’re going to come back to that [childhood happiness].” And I said, “Mother, I don’t even fucking remember that.” I just don’t remember feeling that way. But I really think that voice—not the one that says, fuck you, you stupid bitch, you’re a whore, but the one that says, you can do better than this, honey—that voice is God. And that’s actually who you really are. The other stuff that’s 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 doesn’t matter what you call it. It’s my fucking head talking. My girlfriend with cancer, she goes online and looks that up and looks this up, and I say, “Are you going to become a fucking oncologist? Do you have any more information having done this eight months in?” “No, I don’t.” “So then, why fucking do it? What are you doing? You’re stabbing at stab wounds.” So I think that part of all of us, not just of me, is who we really are, is what our soul is like; there’s light in there, and it’s loving, it’s not terrified, and it’s not angry, and it’s not sad. I see it with Father Kane. I call him and say, “I feel bad you’re suffering like this.” And he says, “I know you do, but I can handle it.” That’s amazing to me.

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

MK: Absolutely. I’m writing poems right now. I can’t imagine writing anything but poems. I have these notes for this book on memoir that I would like to write, because people act like it’s some mysterious thing. James Frey says there’s a lot of argument between what is and isn’t nonfiction. You know, there really isn’t. If you didn’t 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 I’m saying about writing a memoir is just obvious—I’m not that smart. But people really have to care about the reader. The reader’s been left behind. Everybody talks about the writer’s feeling and the writer’s expression and the writer’s experience, and, you know, I don’t give a fuck how the writer feels. I want a fucking book that I can be in love with. I want a book that I’ll reread seventeen times. That’s what I want. And that has nothing to do with how I fucking feel. If I cared about how I felt I wouldn’t have written this fucking book in the first place. It was too hard to write. I needed the money or I wouldn’t have done it. Swear to God, I would not write these books if they didn’t pay me. But that said, once I’m committed to it and once I’m 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, it’s like, let’s just try not to make them pitch forward with boredom. I’m 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 Hunger’s not boring.

MK: The cover says, “If you’re sick of conventional writing . . . ” I’m 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 Smith’s response to the book. While Shields thinks we’re grasping for truth in a world full of lies, Smith thinks fiction can still be relevant when it’s done well.

MK: It’s about quality. And people won’t talk about quality anymore, because they’re afraid it excludes people who write badly. Let’s exclude them! I can see people wanting truth, too. But I think it’s more that we don’t believe in objective truth anymore. The subjective has an ascendency. My memory, I admit, is corrupt. You know that my memory is corrupt. So it’s not that it’s not corrupt, it’s that I admit it’s 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 Charlotte’s 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 don’t fucking like. I find them tedious.

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

MK: Yeah, I liked my mother. My boyfriend says all the time, “I can’t believe your mother did X or Y or Z,” because, believe me, whatever’s in the book doesn’t scratch the surface. She was so capricious. But if you met her you’d fucking like her. She was smart. She’d be very interested in whatever you had to say. She’d ask you questions, genuinely. She’d 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 don’t want this to be over yet? I reread One Hundred Years of Solitude because I miss those people. If I don’t read that every couple years I feel like I haven’t visited my friends or something. I think that’s the problem. People aren’t that interested in how the reader feels. They’re interested in getting across some ideology or making a point about something that’s usually pretty fucking self-referential. Even though it’s not autobiographical, it’s 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, “You wrote this to help the reader.” I’m like, “No, I didn’t.” I did not write this book to help people. I’m thrilled if it helps people, obviously. But I did not write this book in order to help. I’m not that nice. I’m really not. I promise I’m not. I’m not just pretending I’m not.

SFP: But it’s 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 other’s feelings, not just mine but anybody’s. A lot of times I want you to feel ways that I didn’t feel at the time. Sometimes I thought I was having fun, and when you see me you’re probably going to feel disgust. It’s not about replicating my feelings for you. It’s about creating an experience for you that allows you to know exactly what it’s like. My shrink said, “I’ve never read a book [prior to Lit] that helps me understand why somebody keeps getting drunk even though it’s clearly a bad idea. I just really didn’t get it.” That’s 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, that’s where God is. I think these novels that are so heavy on ideas, while perfectly clever, often just show their cleverness. They’re not in the business of creating feeling. That’s not what they’re trying to do. They don’t care about that. I think the minute that novelists start caring about that, memoirists will be out of business. It’s like Wallace Stevens says, “People should like poetry the way a child likes snow, and they would if poets wrote it.” Insert novels there. The problem isn’t 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 that’s going to help them somehow, that’s going to make people smarter or something. Well, I don’t 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 you’ve most enjoyed. What were you reading when you wrote The Liars’ Club?

MK: I’d read quite a few. I’d been teaching memoir at Tufts since 1985. Always read a lot of memoirs. Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, Michael Herr’s Dispatches, and Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior. Those would probably be my top four.

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

MK: The book I just read that I’m excited about is by Hilary Mantel, called Giving Up the Ghost. I really liked Frank McCourt’s [Angela’s Ashes]. I read it in manuscript and thought it was pretty damn good. I even blurbed it. I get a lot of memoirs I don’t like.

SFP: What don’t you like about them? Do they tend to make the same mistakes?

MK: I think they do. First off, they’re just not that well written. The sentences aren’t so interesting, and they don’t seem to understand that how it’s 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 don’t really evoke any feeling—other than gratitude that you’re not related to any of those people.

Click here to purchase Lit at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase The Liars' Club at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010