Q&A: Memoirist Mary Karr on Being the Only Woman in the Room

Mary Karr’s New York Times bestselling memoir The Liars’ Club was one of my mom’s many book club books, and it sat on our living room coffee table for a month when I was in middle school. I’d page through between commercial breaks as I watched The Oprah Winfrey Show after school, and nibbled on string cheese and drank a Capri Sun.

There was a passage in the book that stood out to me one day: “Sure the world breeds monsters, but kindness grows just as wild…” I loved that phrasing, and the idea of kindness growing wild and big, like a patch of Queen Anne’s Lace.

Karr’s gift for sharp, distinct, conversational language is evident in all her works, and also in speaking with her. I had the pleasure of talking with Karr on the phone earlier this month.

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How would you describe your latest book, The Art of Memoir, in one sentence?

A basket of adorables, vis–à–vis a subject I’ve been in love with since I was ten; 50 years of thinking about it – it’s sort of everything I’ve thought about in some way, since I’ve been passionately reading memoirs.

In the book, you write: “A Jesuit pal asked me…What would you write if you weren’t afraid?” What’s been the scariest thing for you to write, and how did you overcome your fear?

The scariest thing I think is just to reveal your actual concerns, and what you actually think. I think there’s a trend of information right now in literature, and a friend of mine calls it “obfuscating on thin ice.” I think if you obfuscate, you risk nothing. If you make fun of other people, you risk nothing. The scariest thing to write is always hope.

I think hope is the scariest thing. We live in an age of doubt. It is very fashionable to disbelieve – whoever believes the least, wins. So, I think when you dare to hope, you’re putting your metaphorical nuts on the mantle.

You also write: “No matter how much you’re gunning for truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-crawling bastard…” How do you move past ego when you are writing? Do you ever still get embarrassed about anything?

Always. I always get embarrassed. And the only way I move past it is through revision. I asked my editor recently how much more I revised than other writers. And she said eight times more than other writers. Isn’t that frightening? It really is just that I go over and over and over it, and say: Is this true? Is what I’ve written true? And often the answer is no. It’s not that I make things up, it’s that I want to think of myself in a certain way, or represent myself as a certain kind of person, and often it’s not true.

Which one of your books do you like the best?

I don’t even think about that. I think the common thing to say is, “they’re like my children.” But they’re like strangers. I don’t really remember what’s in them. I just have a vague idea of them. And a lot of times I’ll find myself speaking in language I sense I’ve written somewhere before. But I couldn’t tell you what book, or where. I don’t think about them much once they’re off my desk. They cease to interest me.

What do you like best about the genre of memoir?

I don’t know. I like a lot of things; it’s changed over time. I guess anybody who writes them has a passionate, emotional attachment to the subject. And I think there’s a fashion now in fiction for, you know, learning everything about 18th century shipping practices and writing a novel based on that information. Or, writing about some arcane subject. And in memoir, you don’t have that. The stuff you remember has been self-selected, and it’s things you’re very passionate about. There can also be too much self involvement, and things like that; memoir fails in other ways. It can lack a self awareness. There can be pretentiousness, in one way or another. All books fail by lying in some way. So, I guess the passion and impassion of the writer.

It’s a very primitive kind of book. Whatever awful thing has befallen the person, they’ve lived to tell the tale. So to some extent, it argues for survival. And that encourages me. It’s a childish idea. Because obviously, people lie and obfuscate.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

When I was a little kid, there was a little girl and she called my mother a whore, because my mother had a job. She worked at the local newspaper during Vietnam, reporting on it. You know, in my town, she worked for Dr. King and she was hung in effigy [for it]. So, my mother was reading Simone de Beauvoir when I was a little girl. So, certainly I’m a feminist.

Do you think it’s important for women to self-identify as feminists?

I wouldn’t do anything to shame a woman about her political stance or lack thereof. The truth is I’m not a very political person. It’s not my nature; I just don’t think that way. I mean, am I outraged by the election? Yes. Am I a left-ish voter? Yes. But I’m not somebody who follows politics with a passion. And you know, when I was a young woman, being a feminist meant you had shitty bra technology. Now, you can wear booty shorts and call yourself a feminist. I’m not in the business of berating a woman for how she decides to represent herself.

How does your feminism affect your work?

Well, I think it permitted me to do it! I think I had the courage to do it at a time when there weren’t that many women writers as examples. I happened to have these great women writers that I was around as a young woman. I was part of a writing group, and I was in it when I was pregnant – I was the only woman in the group – and one of the men in the group said to me: “I hope you’re not gonna be one of those women who has sex and then writes about it.”

And I said, “You know what? I probably will be. My guess would be that, yeah, I’ll do that.”

As a young graduate student, I had a lot of older, male writers try to fuck me. I didn’t sleep with them; I didn’t see that as a solution. I thought it was hard enough to be a female writer without sleeping with people, as a political choice. I mean, as a 61 year-old woman, rather than a 50-something man who might be seen as whistling with literary talent and sexual talent, I am seen as a hag or a crone or whatever.

But, that’s not as big of a problem as the fact that I’m gonna die. On a scale of 1 to 10 of shit I worry about, that’s a small thing. You know what I mean?

Who are some of your female role models and heroes?

Joan of Arc. Gwendolyn Brooks; I’ve been thinking of her a lot lately. There’s Elif Batuman. She has a book coming out called The Idiot, and she has another book called The Possessed. She’s an absolute genius. Oh, and Saint Teresa of Avila.

What is one of the best pieces of advice you’ve ever received?

Oh gosh. I guess being told “write from your heart.” Which is a very romantic idea, but one I’m still romantic enough to believe, and deluded enough to think is relevant. Another piece I got was: “Take no care for your dignity.” I think those are two classic pieces.

Anne McCarthy is a contributing writer to The Telegraph, Second City Network, Bonjour Paris, France Today and more. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Westminster in London and is a graduate of the Writing Program at Second City and the Soho Theatre Writers Lab. She lives in New York City, where she is writing a memoir about life in London.

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