Considering the harrowing stories of her Texas youth — plagued by the alcohol, drugs, violence and general mayhem she recounted in The Liars’ Club (1995) and Cherry (2000) — it is a minor miracle that Mary Karr lived to tell her tale. The fact that she still has more stories of tumult and survival as an adult to write about, though, really begins to edge into loaves and fishes territory.
In her third memoir, Lit, Karr moves past her “drug sodden” adolescence into her young adulthood where the joys of falling in love, getting married and becoming a mother are overwhelmed by her debilitating alcoholism, depression and family dysfunction. But Lit isn’t simply a catalog of grinding desperation and addiction. Karr combines a poet’s eye for extraordinary detail and tone — she was a Guggenheim Fellow in poetry — with an earthy honesty and humor to create prose that is beautiful, unadorned and filled with a survivor’s wisdom. Lit is Karr’s testimony to the actual, ongoing miracle in her own life: her conversion from devoted cynic to devout Catholic.
In the interview that follows, Karr discusses the difficulties she encountered in writing about alcoholism, sobriety and spirituality as well as her stormy relationship with a young David Foster Wallace and some hard-won advice for spiritual seekers.
Busted Halo: I’ve read that it was really hard for you to write Lit, and you almost gave up on it?
Mary Karr: I had a gun to my head; I was four years late. They gave me a lot of money… I turned down money. They offered me a hefty advance — two different publishers in 2000. And I turned it down, and that was a prayer thing. And I know, everybody said, “You’re kid is older. You’ll have the time. You need the money.” And I really just had a feeling it was a bad thing and I turned it down. And then three years later I got this idea of how to write about prayer and my son and my drinking and various other things, and I had maybe 30 or 40 pages. So I wrote the first chapter of the book and I made notes for this stuff about the going to the West Coast, and then I went to London to see my godson for his birthday and I got dragged to this literary party. It just so happened that my editor, who had offered me the money, was standing there and I said, “I was just going to call you; remember that book you offered me money for? I think I know how to write it.” And she said, “Great, I need to buy a big book, give me a proposal next week.” I’ve had a lot of serendipity in my publishing life. Not always, of course. I’d had poetry readings where there were three people there, and I’d slept with two of them, and the third one thought he was a prospect, I think. Because I was a poet, I had to turn my volume down [in terms of other people’s acceptance], which is good because once I was successful, it didn’t mean anything either, in a way. These are people I’d been not listening to my whole life. It’s an incredible torment, to write about yourself; it’s so close, my son’s involved, his father’s involved. To write about myself at the peak of my “assholery,” and also to write about the spiritual and religious stuff, to write about becoming Catholic.
BH: Is it difficult to write about your conversion?
MK: You know, the novelist Richard Ford sent me a postcard when he heard I’d converted, saying, “Not you on the Pope’s team, say it ain’t so.” No one expected me to become a Catholic; even when I stopped drinking, that was weird enough, but no one expected me to become spiritual — I didn’t have a metaphysical bone in my body. I wasn’t one of those New Agey, “hippie” girls. I was very, you know, walk-behind-the-mule, Anglo-Saxon, kind of peasant girl. And so, to write about that stuff, when you know you’re writing mostly to a secular audience, who think you’re insane, or stupid; I mean, they kind of know I’m not stupid, technically, I guess just in terms of IQ wattage, they know that I’m in the triple digits. But people often think you’re stupid if you’re Catholic, like you’re just some sheep in a herd or something. So how do I actually render my spiritual experience, which for me was very real, and was a huge change from like zero belief to — you know, from cynicism into awe.
BH: Why was this particular memoir so hard to write?
MK: At first, I wrote about the marriage; I wrote my husband too good and myself too evil, not that the events were different, but it’s all slant, it’s all in how you render it. And then I sort of felt like I got some of the marriage stuff right and then I didn’t feel like I got the drinking stuff right. And I threw away over 1,000 finished pages. It’s not that they weren’t true, it’s not that the events in them didn’t happen, they just felt somehow psychologically false, or spiritually false. It sounded like I was proselytizing, because I had all of these amazing experiences. At the end of the book, I had this thing where I’m given these specific prayers during a very dark time and I wind up looking through this bible, and I find these passages marked. And I just had a review on Amazon saying, “She expects us to believe this is what happened.” Like if I were going to make up a miracle, couldn’t I do better than that? Why not see Jesus or something? Why not just go for the gold? Like, “The Blessed Mother appeared to me.” So I had a number of experiences like that in my life that to me are beyond reason, but if you repeat them over and over like that, it sounds like you’re proselytizing. So it became a matter of choosing the best one.
BH: What struck me a lot about the book was how self-pitying you were before you got sober.
MK: I am! All alcoholics are.
BH: And then in those first moments when you started going to AA meetings you wrote very movingly about your experience. It almost felt that it was the first time you’d ever been shown kindness.
MK: No, but that’s the thing, people had been showing me kindness all my life — and that to me is the nature of sin, or the nature of pride, you know — I had a mind that manufactured reality, and that’s what pharmaceuticals were all about. And I wasn’t interested in reality. You know the Simone Weil quote, “Spiritual living is accepting reality at any cost” — that was horrifying to me, like, who would embrace reality? What a stupid idea, it’s reality that brought us death and suffering. So why not just make up a better reality? So I would project — like if you came in here, I would assume that I knew what you were thinking.
BH: That came through in some of your early sobriety where people had to remind you to give people a chance to explain themselves first.
MK: Yeah, like, what is your source of information? But you know, if you’re driving in a car and someone looks at you, or you’re at a party and you haven’t been introduced to somebody or you hear something someone said about you third-hand, part of you is prideful and presumes you understand what that person thought, when it’s hard to know even what I think. It’s hard to know the inside of their hearts. And so, for me, I was incredibly self-pitying, and I do think that’s a symptom of alcoholism and drug addiction. But it’s not like people had just started being kind to me. I mean, I had this little boy — my son — who adored me.
BH: You talk a lot early on about your college professor Walt and his family, and I love that scene where you say, “It’s like I’ve been dragging along an extension cord unplugged from all compassion and suddenly found a socket. The room comes breathing back to life.” Can you talk a little bit about what those moments meant to you?
MK: To me that’s a moment of grace, and it’s also the presence of the Holy Spirit, I think. And whether Walt was Christian or not and whether I was Christian or not, I think God is always looking for us. And as I said to my kid the other day, “Maybe there are some people who are so good and who are so nice, maybe they don’t need God or church.” But I need this stuff. This stuff is required. I’m a better human on the subway than I would be without this. And I see it now as a college professor — people come to college to re-invent themselves, you know, to be who they always wanted to be, and then they get there and discover they’re who they were before, and it’s horrifying to some.
I think for me, my faith has been about realizing not that the suffering doesn’t exist, not that there isn’t evil — I have a girlfriend I was talking to about prayer, she just started praying, and she said, you know, “Well, how do you explain the tragedy in Haiti? I’ve been crying all night,” and I was like, “Hell, I don’t know.” I wish I knew. Yeah, I give God the finger all the time and say, “You’re an amateur; this is a bad idea.” But I also don’t know that dying isn’t a good thing. I mean, we have pretty good evidence it’s not, it looks like it’s not from where we sit, but now I accept mystery. There was no mystery for me before; I really thought I had it all figured out. And now I at least know I don’t know. I do believe that there is a loving and benevolent God who is omnipotent and all-powerful, and yet I believe Haiti happened. And I also believe at the nexus of suffering is where love is.