Author Mary Karr has written three memoirs and is often credited with popularizing the genre, but she still jokes that hers is a "low-rent form."
"When I was in grad school, I remember Geoffrey Wolff saying [the memoir] was like inscribing the Lord's Prayer on a grain of rice," Karr tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It was the province of weirdos and saints and film stars with fake boobs — or you could be a prime minister or something."
Karr is neither a film star nor a prime minister, but she has lived a dramatic life. Raised in east Texas by a father who gambled and an alcoholic mother who once tried to kill her with a butcher's knife, Karr struggled with alcoholism as an adult and briefly dated author David Foster Wallace. She published her first memoir, The Liar's Club, in 1995, and then followed up with two more, Cherry and Lit.
"Like a lot of memoirists, I had a tormented past and really started into this business, I think, to scratch at and rout out the truth of my less-than-perfect childhood," Karr explains. "I'm just somebody who scratches and picks and worries the bone of things over and over and over."
But despite her success with the genre, Karr admits that she often mistrusts memory. "I have no doubt that I've gotten a million things wrong and that someday some cavalry of people will ride into my life and say, 'This is so much horse dookie, we can't even believe it.' "
In her new book, The Art of Memoir, Karr reflects on the process of recounting personal stories and writing about loved ones without betraying them. When it comes to the latter, she says that, with a few exceptions, she doesn't spend time writing about despicable people. "When there's a jerk in the book, it's usually me," she says. "I'm the one I'm wrestling with."
On trusting her memory
I'm such a worrier and a nail-biter and a re-thinker. I've always sent my manuscripts out to people I write about, not because I'm afraid of landing all sweaty on Oprah, but because I kind of mistrust my own memories. Like most thinking people, you'll defend your point of view at the Thanksgiving table vigorously, and then I'm that person who goes home and lies in bed and thinks, "Did that really happen that way?" ... With Cherry I stopped putting things in quotation marks because I really wanted the reader to continue to understand or believe or think that he or she was in my head. This is my point of view, it's not objective history; it's memory, which is a faulty form in terms of reportage.
On loved ones' reactions to being portrayed in her memoirs
The interesting thing — other than one minor anecdote across three books, nobody has ever changed anything. ... I think it's two reasons. I think it's because my voice is very distinctive, so the reader never loses sight that this is my point of view. You're never not in my consciousness. It's not sort of written like journalism or reportage; it has a big interior surface. And I think it's because I have generous friends and family.
On rewriting her 2009 memoir, Lit
I threw away 1,200 finished pages, pages I could've published, that were publishable, because they sucked. There was something — it's not that I made stuff up, but there was something untrue about them. ... I actually broke the delete button off my keyboard writing that book, and I always say if I had any guts at all, I'd make a brooch out of it. It was really hard when I threw all of that away. I think I spent about four days in my pajamas and I saw nobody but the curry guy and I was just sobbing, and I thought I'd have to sell this apartment and give the advance money back to my publisher, I just cannot do this. Then I washed my face and put on my big-girl panties and started over writing what I should've been writing from page one. So I find the truth is not — it's not that I had made up events, I was just writing about stuff that wasn't emotionally resonant or important to me. It was more I was sort of telling jokey, cute anecdotes about all these guys I dated in my 20s, and it might have made a bunch of kind of medium crummy magazine articles, but it would've been of no interest to any sane reader.
On dating David Foster Wallace and writing about him in Lit
Believe me, I was still really devastated as anybody who had ever cared about him by his suicide; anybody who had ever talked him out of killing himself felt like a failure, obviously, and was devastated by that death. So David was very kindly treated. If I wanted to burn David's house down I could've done that and chose not to. And I didn't really go into what it was like in any great detail to date him, except that it was tumultuous and very short-lived. ... He was violent, he became violent when he was angry. I'm not the only woman he was violent with. It's common knowledge among women who dated him that he was violent. So we knew each other a long time, we were friends a long time, we got sober with a lot of the same people, but the amount of time that we dated was very short.
On the perception that David Foster Wallace hated fame
Let me correct something: David Foster Wallace wanted celebrity as much or more than any writer I've ever known, let me just correct that. David didn't like going out and being at the center of scrutiny, but David's ambition, if he could have strafe-bombed the planet — which is also true for me, by the way, I'm not talking from the other side of the street — I think most writers want to sell as many books as they can sell. You write because you want readers. So believe me, I had to talk David out of doing a Gap commercial at one point because I said, "Would Cormac McCarthy do it? Would Toni Morrison do it?"
I pray. I pray a lot. I'm somebody who has a big inner life, and for most of my life it had a lot of darkness in it, and for me prayer is a way of standing in a light. It's no more complicated than that. So I pray both for people and I do something called the Ignatian Exercises, which are a way of kind of looking at the end of every day at that day and examining places where you saw God, places where God was present for you. If you do that every day over a long period of time, you start to realize that the things you "value," the things that are supposed to be important to you are often just not that important. And the places that really are sustaining to you in a spiritual way are very surprising — they're not where you think they're going to be. ...
I pray all day. I pray a lot of the day. My instinct, Terry, is to kill everybody on the subway, that's my instinct. ... I'm not a nice person, not such a nice person. I grew up in a very complicated family, and I have impulse-control issues. I need prayer to keep myself awake in the present. ... In memoir you're projecting onto the landscape. For me, getting quiet in the center of myself keeps me from projecting so much onto the landscape, I hope. So if I find myself getting ramped up or worried or irritated, I will start praying for somebody else.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Mary Karr, is best known for her three memoirs, "The Liars' Club," "Cherry" and "Lit." She's credited with helping turn the memoir into a popular literary form. She's had some exceptional material. She grew up in east Texas. Her mother, during a psychotic break, tried to kill Karr with a butcher knife. Her father was an oil worker and gambler. Karr was twice abused by pedophiles. Like her mother, she became an alcoholic. And after getting sober, to her great surprise, she became a committed Catholic. But what makes her memoirs great is the quality of her writing. As she's pointed out, if dysfunction was all you needed to write a great memoir, most of us would have written great memoirs. In her new book, "The Art Of Memoir," she reflects on the process of writing personal stories. How do you know you can trust your memory? How do you write about people you love without somehow betraying them? And how do you find your authentic self and authentic voice? These are questions that are relevant, even for those of us who will never write a memoir. Mary Karr is a professor of literature at Syracuse University and has taught memoirs for over 30 years. Mary Karr, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's really a pleasure to have you back on the show. So I should ask you, why is your new book a book about memoirs instead of being another memoir? Although, I should say, I would describe the book as a memoir about writing memoirs (laughter).
MARY KARR: Well, it's partly that. You know, I'd been thinking about the genre for a long time. And in some odd way, even though it has this huge readership, I felt some lingering obligation to defend it. You know, it's such a - it's a such a low-rant form compared to, say, the novel. I mean, there's no danger of my being invited to the American Academy, you know?
KARR: It's just trashy. It's primitive. It's outsider art, sort of. So - and in some strange way - I have loved the form so long and so hard; and I've taught about it for 30 years - that I felt some, I don't know, sense of cultural jury duty or something to defend it. I'd read a lot of sort of - kind of lite, L-I-T-E, how-to-write-a-memoir books that I found offered all these great exercises or what writing teachers call prompts. And I was always terrible at those. When I was given a prompt, I always just wrote, I'm very sad, Mary Karr. You know, I just - it never prompted in me anything. So...
GROSS: You have an interesting theory in your book about why memoirs have become so popular. And you could argue they've even become more popular than a lot of serious fiction. So you want to share that theory with us?
KARR: Yes. I mean, I think as fiction has become more hyper-intellectual or dystopic or unreal, I think people hungry for the real - for real, lived experience, have been forced to migrate to memoir.
GROSS: So you started writing memoirs before our culture got as confessional as it's become, before the word over-sharing (laughter) was coined.
GROSS: So has that affected your standards of what is meant to be written about and what is meant to maintain silence about?
KARR: That's such a smart question. Damn it, now I'm going to have to think.
KARR: That's really...
GROSS: Oh, I apologize for making you think (laughter).
KARR: I really resent this, Terry. I would rather it just bumble along. Has it changed? No. I think - I think I'm such a worrier and a nail-biter and a re-thinker. I've always sent my manuscripts out to people I write about - not because I'm afraid of landing all sweaty on "Oprah," but because I kind of mistrust my own memories. Like most sort of thinking people, you know, you'll defend your point of view at the Thanksgiving table, you know, vigorously. And then I'm that person who goes home and lies in bed and thinks, did that really happen that way? So, you know what I have done? I - with "Cherry," I stopped putting things in quotation marks because I really wanted the reader to continue to understand or believe or think that he or she was in my head. You know, this is my point of view. It's not objective history. It's memory, which is a - you know, a faulty form in terms of reportage, but which has the added advantage of showing my interior while something is happening. So hopefully a memoir shows lived experience, not surface reporting.
GROSS: But do you find yourself exposing any more or less now that we have the term over-sharing?
KARR: I don't know. I mean, given - given what I wrote about in my first book, it would be hard to...
KARR: You know, to share more.
KARR: I mean, I never talk about anybody's penis who was nice enough to sleep with me.
KARR: I just wouldn't ever talk about that. I think they're nice enough to show it to me; I should keep it to myself.
GROSS: (Laughter) You know, you talk about how faulty memory is. You do this fascinating exercise with your memoir-writing class. And toward the beginning of class - I want you to describe what you do.
KARR: Well, I - what I do is I stage a fight. And I only teach this class every few years, so the students don't see it coming. And it's a graduate seminar at Syracuse University. And we sift through sometimes a thousand applications for 12 students, so six in poetry and six in fiction. So this is a literature class, not a workshop. But these are young, very smart people who are very confident about their memories and mostly should be. But I stage a fight, either with a colleague or with a student. And then I ask them to write what happened.
GROSS: And they don't know it's staged. They think somebody else has come in and that you are fighting with them and something really terrible is unfolding before their eyes.
KARR: Yes. So if I have a fight with George Saunders, who's, you know, this nice, Buddhist, kind person, who's, like, you know, kind for a living, it's interesting that no matter what I have him say and no matter what I do, people perceive me, say, as the aggressor. They will see me, and the way that will manifest - it's not that they make up things I say or do. But even though he might advance across the room and I might back up and say conciliatory things, they'll say things like, she held her ground like a bulldog or, she took steps back, but she was fierce. So, you know, it teaches them not - that we don't so much apprehend the world as we beam it from our eyeballs, you know? We...
GROSS: Right. You have them write down what they saw after this...
KARR: We have to...
GROSS: Staged fight, and everybody saw something different. They all - they contradict - one person's perceptions contradict another.
KARR: And they all project whatever is going on with them. For instance, often I'll have a fight - or have the person call several times at intervals of, say, 15 minutes before they enter the room. So I make an excuse for leaving my phone on. I don't - I don't answer my phone in class, however, you know, arrogant I might sound. So I say, I'm waiting for a call from a doctor; I have to leave the phone on. And instead, this aggravating person I'm going to have the fight with continues to call. And most students resent my leaving the phone on, except for my student who has a serious illness, a form of sickle cell anemia. And she has all this codependent concern for my health. And she feels really bad for me. So other people are annoyed by my self-centeredness or arrogance for leaving the phone on. And this one student takes her experience and projects it onto me. A women who had had a stalker assumes that George and I, say, have been sleeping together and that he's a stalker. Or, you know, it's also interesting that there are these - what I call these memory aces. There are these students, usually a musician or a poet. I had this wonderful kind of New York party-throwing DJ kid, and he remembered every single line we each spoke.
KARR: So there's no variation, no mistake in what he hears. And it's all in perfect order. And his perceptions - they're just these remarkable kids. There's maybe one or two in every class. At the end of what he wrote, he asked, I wonder what Mary had done to make him do this to her.
KARR: So it's like - it's like a no-win situation for me.
GROSS: So is this a humbling experience for your students, realizing that they've gotten a little or a lot totally wrong?
KARR: It is humbling. And what I say is, you know, what you're supposed to do in this class is learn the shape of yourself and learn what you do tend to project onto the landscape, so you can kind of account for that tendency in yourself and question it as you're putting down your memories.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Karr. And she is famous for her memoirs, "The Liars' Club," "Cherry" and "Lit." Now she's written a book about memoirs. And it's called "The Art Of Memoir." Let's take a short break, and we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Karr. She's the author of the memoirs "The Liars' Club," "Cherry" and "Lit." Now she's written a book about memoirs and about writing memoirs, and it's called "The Art Of Memoir." How do you make sure, in your writing, that you've gotten things right?
KARR: Well, obviously I don't. I have no doubt that I've gotten a million things wrong and that someday, some cavalry of people will ride into my life and say, this is so much horse dookey, we can't even believe it. So I'm never sure I've gotten things right. I lie awake and worry about writing a scene - really the sending pages out to people who were in them, you know, which I do with anybody who's alive. But I don't know. I'm just somebody who picks at and worries. I think - like a lot of memoirists, I had a tormented past and really started into this business I think to scratch at and route out the truth of my less-than-perfect childhood. So - so I keep scratching - I'm just somebody who scratches and picks and worries the bone of things over and over and over. So...
GROSS: Your mother is such a - was such a complicated person. And in addition to having periods of profound mental illness, she also had a period where she was a reporter and columnist for the local newspaper in Texas. And I'm wondering if she taught you the importance of accuracy and memory.
KARR: Oh, that's so interesting. I think the fact that she was so well-armed meant I wouldn't lie about her (laughter). I mean, you think about my family, you don't really want to make them mad at you.
GROSS: Do you mean armed...
KARR: It's scary.
GROSS: With a butcher knife, or armed with journalistic skills? (Laughter).
KARR: No, I meant armed, you know, with a Smith & Wesson.
KARR: No, I mean, my mother tried to kill me with a butcher knife, but she never shot at me. She shot at all her husbands that I ever knew.
GROSS: Yeah, you've written about that.
GROSS: So OK - so did she ever get angry with you for writing about her and for writing...
KARR: You know...
GROSS: About shooting at her husbands?
KARR: She never did. I mean, what she said to me - I - first off, my mother was an outlaw in the core of her being. So she really didn't care about what people thought of her. And she said things like, well, hell, everybody knew about that. I mean, everybody did. Everybody in the town knew about that, and she didn't really care about people she didn't know. So no, I - truth be told, I never had anybody complain about anything I wrote about them, oddly enough.
GROSS: In writing a memoir, you're choosing to expose selected chapters of your life. You are in control of that narrative. But the people who you are writing about are not. Do you feel an obligation to protect people? Or do you feel, well, no, my obligation is to the truth?
KARR: You know, I'm sort of a - what, you know, a pathologist might call a really codependent person. So I do worry a lot about the people I write about. And let me also say I mostly write about people I love. I - I'm not somebody, you know, who has to write about Nazis, say, or... I'm not writing about people I don't know that well or don't care about. So I feel obligated to maybe mention in passing if they didn't agree with my take on something. But I don't feel obligated to represent their point of view. So my sister loved our grandmother, and I wasn't nuts about her. And I mention in passing, you know, my sister would disagree with this, you know? But as I also said, my sister would only show me wetting my pants and sobbing quietly in the corner or biting somebody. So - so I mention things in passing. And I also - I try not to guess what people's motives are. I - I mostly try to deal with what I see and what I do. I don't, say, you know, because my mother was blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, she stood over me with a butcher knife. I have no idea why she did it.
GROSS: What is your obligation to the dead when you are writing about them and you can't show them the manuscript? You can't ask them if they mind something being published. Now, you could argue that they're dead, so it doesn't matter. You could also argue that you want to respect their memory and preserve their privacy even in death, especially if they're not, like, a famous figure and this is, like, a biography that's important to history. It's just, like, someone you knew and cared about who is now dead.
KARR: Well, that's only happened in one - you know, I mean, my father - my love for him was so enormous. I think he would've loved how I wrote about him. People tend to love how I write about them. I mean, I've had people complain that I've...
GROSS: Is that because you're funny?
KARR: I don't know, am I funny? Good for me. I have - that's one point for me. I think it's because I - again, I wouldn't spend time writing about somebody I didn't - I just thought was a despicable person, you know, other than my grandmother and a couple of pedophiles. I don't really - in all my books, I don't really - I'm not - you know, I'm my problem (laughter). You know, other people are not my problem. I'm my problem. So when there's a jerk in the book, it's usually me. I mean, I'm the one that I'm wrestling with.
GROSS: You also write you have to be willing to throw away pages and revise. You do a lot of revision. And when you were writing - was it "Lit" or "Cherry"? I think it was...
KARR: It was...
GROSS: That you threw away, like, 1,200 pages. I mean, that's...
KARR: I threw away - yeah, I threw away 1,200 finished pages, pages I could have published, - that were publishable - because they sucked. There was something - it's not that I made stuff up, but there was something untrue about them.
GROSS: How do you deal with the pain of knowing that months or perhaps years of your work was going to be deleted by you because you felt you more or less had to start over again?
KARR: You know, I actually broke the delete button off my keyboard writing that book. And I always say if I had any guts at all, I'd make a brooch out of it. So it was really hard when I threw all that away. I think I spent about four days in my pajamas. I saw nobody but the curry guy, and I was just sobbing. And I - I thought, I have to sell this apartment and give the advance money back to my publisher. I just cannot do this. And then I washed my face and put on my big-girl panties and started over, writing what I should have been writing from page one. So I find the truth is not - it's not that I had made up events. I was just writing about stuff that wasn't emotionally resonant or important to me. It was more - I was sort of telling, like, jokey, cute anecdotes about all these guys I dated in my 20s. And it - you know, it might have made a bunch of kind of medium-crummy magazine articles, but it would have been of no interest to any sane reader.
GROSS: So what's the biggest change in direction that your final draft took compared to the 1,200 pages that you abandoned?
KARR: Well, the one thing I wasn't going to do, Terry, the one thing I could never do, I couldn't write about my mother anymore. I mean, she had died, for one thing. But also, I just couldn't dine out anymore on stories of my mother. And yet (laughter) there are all these stories to tell. And I was writing about becoming a mother. And I thought it was going to be a story the arc of which was something like, I sought love from all these men I got engaged to and one I married. And I failed, and then I found this perfect love with having this child, which, of course, I'm - you know, I'm nobody's example of a perfect mother. But - so instead, it was about how I had to make peace with my mother. I had to write about my mother and my mother's ongoing craziness and her recovery, which led to my recovery - and her death. You know, I had to make peace with my mother to become a mother. So I just was avoiding it. I was like a dog staked to a pole. I just walked around and around and around it.
GROSS: Your mother is such a complicated figure. And one of the things you've written about with your mother is that as a teenager, you used to drink with her. And you'd both get really drunk. And I'm thinking what a strange bonding experience that probably was. What was it like to get drunk with your mother, when - I mean, she had a drinking problem. It wasn't like, let's have a nice drink...
KARR: (Laughter) You think?
GROSS: And loosen things up, so we could have a heart-to-heart talk.
KARR: No. It was like, let's get baked and see if the piano player will buy us drinks.
KARR: No, I mean, - no, it was - I was one of those kids at 17 or 18, one of those really neurotic, nail-bitey girls who says, my mother's my best friend. I mean - and, you know, she was writing - you know, she was also capable of really - you know, of great cruelty and was just not - you know, I loved my mother. I still love my mother. But she was not a super-nurturing human being, which is fine if she's not your mother.
GROSS: Right (laughter).
KARR: It's a fine thing to be. But when that's your mother and the only one you have, it's disheartening. So...
GROSS: Did she initiate you into heavy drinking, or were you already a drinker?
KARR: Oh, no. I mean, I was one of those people - I think it was Paul Celan who describes, you know, taking a drink and feeling a sunflower open in his chest, you know? (Laughter) I was one of those people. I think I just have a taste for it.
GROSS: My guest is Mary Karr, the author of the memoirs "The Liars' Club," "Cherry," and "Lit." Her new book is about writing memoirs. It's called "The Art Of Memoir." After we take a short break, she'll reflect on writing about her relationship with writer David Foster Wallace. And we'll talk about the importance of her prayer life ever since she got sober and became a committed Catholic. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Mary Karr, the author of the popular memoirs "The Liar's Club," "Cherry" and "Lit." Her new book is about writing memoirs. It's called "The Art Of Memoir." She's a professor of literature at Syracuse University, where she teaches a class on the memoir. You got sober in the late '80s.
GROSS: And at about that time - I think it was like a month after you had started being sober - you met David Foster Wallace, who was just going into rehab. And you became very close. And you wrote about this in "Lit." Except when I read "Lit," I didn't know that you had written about this because you used the name David, not David Foster Wallace. And I suppose that the - I want to say schmatta (laughter), the headband - what would you call it? - that he had around his neck. A head...
KARR: I called it a head hanky.
GROSS: Head hanky, OK.
KARR: His head hanky, yeah and his big boots.
GROSS: Which, of course, he was famous for. And I suppose I should have put two and two together, but I didn't. And so I'm interested - since we've spoken about how to protect people or let them choose a pseudonym if they prefer, it seems like you played that one down the middle. You didn't use a pseudonym, but you didn't use his full name either.
KARR: Well, I did notify him as I was working on the book that I was planning to write about him. He was alive. And I let him know some of the things I would cover. And I was hoping to send him pages, which he killed himself before I was able to do. So I did have a pseudonym for him. And then after he died, everyone who knew him and knew me knew it was him. So it seemed kind of disingenuous in some ways. And I did figure, frankly - I did figure, well, he's dead already. And believe me; I was still, you know, really devastated as, you know, anybody who had ever cared about him was by his suicide. Anybody who had ever talked him out of killing himself was - you know, felt like a failure, obviously, and was devastated by that death. So (laughter) David was very kindly treated. There were a lot of - if I wanted to burn David's house down, I could have done that and chose not to. And I didn't really go into what it was like in any great detail to date him, except that it was tumultuous and very short-lived.
GROSS: You do write one sentence in describing your fights. You wrote (reading) if David enters the mindset he calls black-eyed red-out, he's inclined to hurl all manner of objects.
KARR: He was violent. I will - I mean, he was violent. He became violent when he was angry. I'm not the only woman he was violent with. It was - it's common knowledge among women who dated him, you know, that he was violent. So we knew each other a long time. We were friends a long time. We got sober with a lot of the same people. But the amount of time that we dated was very short.
GROSS: But it sounds like he had asked you to get married and had your name tattooed on his arm.
KARR: He did ask me to get - he did ask me to marry him. He did get my name tattooed on his arm. Although, as I pointed out to him, it's not like my name was Lucinda, you know?
KARR: You can always put Blessed Virgin above it, and it could be anybody. So I told him that because he didn't put Mary Karr it was disappointing. But no, I mean - but he - David proposed to everybody he dated - that I know of. Everybody I ever met who dated David has - I have a - I probably have a ream of marriage proposals from David. It's not like he proposed to me one time. It's like he proposed to me a zillion times, you know. It was like a campaign for him. So before we were dating, he was proposing to me. I mean...
GROSS: I'm wondering if you saw the film about him, "The End Of The Tour" because I know a lot of people who knew him feel like his privacy and his wishes were violated by the film because he didn't want celebrity. And he wouldn't have wanted to be portrayed in the film, and some of the...
KARR: Let me correct something.
KARR: David Foster Wallace wanted celebrity as much or more than any writer I've ever known. Let me just correct that. David didn't like going out and being at the center of scrutiny. But David's ambition - if he could've strafe bombed the planet - which is also true for me, by the way. I'm not talking from the other side of the street. I think most writers want to sell as many books as they can sell. There's no - you write because you want readers. So believe me. I don't think David - I had to talk to David out of doing a Gap commercial at one point because I said, you know, would Cormac McCarthy do it? You know, would with Toni Morrison do it?
GROSS: So what are your thoughts about the movie? Did you see it? Would you see it?
KARR: I didn't see it. I wouldn't see it. I don't know, you know. I mean, to me, somebody who's doing this Saint David thing who was in the car with him for three days, to take up that much bandwidth with his memory... I'm a little cynical about it. I mean, maybe, you know - I don't know. It feels so much like cashing in on this small contact with somebody who's a bigger deal than you are. It just - I don't know. I don't know. Maybe it's a great movie. I don't know. It felt a little sleazy.
GROSS: We've talked about what it's like for you to write about people you're close with, including having written about David Foster Wallace. Did he write about you in a disguised form in any of his fiction?
KARR: He certainly did. He certainly did. He wrote about a lot of people in disguised form. I mean, I read an excerpt of "Infinite Jest" where he used the names - the real names - of people. And he used their stories in a way that I found very irresponsible.
GROSS: Were these people who had been in a recovery group with him?
KARR: Yes, people who had been in a halfway house with him. They're people I knew well. And I saw them - I saw their stories. And I saw them excerpted in these kind of cartoony, grotesque ways. And I was horrified. And even then, I sort of felt like, well, it's his book. It's none of my business. And then I met his editor, Michael Peach, at a party, and - right before "Infinite Jest" came out. And he said, you know, I now understand this character David wrote about because she talks just like you, and she's from Texas and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And I really had a hard time. I thought about it, and I thought about it. And I prayed about it. I talked to a priest about it. And then I called the editor. And I just called him on the phone because we had mutual friends. And I said, you know, these people in this excerpt are real people. And I'm not a litigious person. I'm not somebody who's going to sue anybody over a piece of fiction. It's none of my business. I don't care. But, you know, he could fix this. It's just not that hard. He could make this person blonde instead of brunette. He could make her from Arkansas or whatever. But you certainly shouldn't be using their real names.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Karr. She's the author of the memoirs "The Liar's Club," "Cherry" and "Lit." Now she has written a new book about memoir writing. And it's called "The Art Of Memoir." Mary, let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Mary Karr. After writing three memoirs, including the best seller "The Liars' Club," she has written a book about writing memoirs called "The Art Of Memoir." When we left off, we were discussing the late writer David Foster Wallace, with whom she'd once been a couple. She wrote about him, and he'd written about her. David Foster Wallace took his own life, and he had attempted suicide previous times. It seems to me you've been surrounded by more than an average amount of people who've taken their lives. Your mother had tried to take her life. I think you took yourself to a hospital because you were thinking about suicide. You have friends who've committed suicide. And...
KARR: Right, it kind of makes you wonder if I'm a bad influence in the world.
GROSS: Well, yeah, what it makes me wonder is how fragile you must think or must have thought life is. I mean, to know as many people as you've known who have taken their own lives, it just opens the door to the real possibility of that in a way that seems, to me, kind of frightening. For someone who once considered that, as you once did, to know people who really walk through that door...
GROSS: That must be frightening in a way that it is not frightening for people who've never entertained the idea of suicide.
KARR: You know, I think I'm - I think when you grow up with people who are hurt and unhappy and addicted and suicidal, you have an empathy for people who are hurt and addicted. And you could call it a kind of codependence. Or you could just say, you know, you feel bad for these people. And you - this - you know, I grew up trying to cheer my mother up and trying to cheer myself up. And so yes, I mean, I - you know, I've written poems against suicide. I think suicide - maybe you have a terminal illness and you decide to end your life to end your suffering, and that makes perfect sense to me. But I think most suicidal people are killing the wrong people. I think (laughter), you know - I think it's a permanent solution to temporary states of mind. So I know there are people who say, well, you know, David was suffering so miserably, and I know he was. And I do have empathy for that. But, yeah, I wish he hadn't done that. I wish he hadn't done that. I think he'd be feeling better now if he hadn't done that.
GROSS: Feeling better because conditions would have changed or medication would have been worked out better?
KARR: I hope so. But, I mean, David flat-lined when he was - you know, before he was 21. So David tried to kill himself hard many times. Now, I'm not talking - I had a suicidal ideation. I never cut myself or overdosed or...
GROSS: That means you thought about it, but you never really tried it.
KARR: Right, that is correct.
GROSS: So just one more thing about David Foster Wallace. I'm grateful for you to be speaking some of your truth about him. Does it make you uncomfortable to do that in a public way because he can't tell his side of the story?
KARR: Well, if he hadn't killed himself, he would have been able to.
KARR: You know, I mean, no. I mean, he left himself to history. And I'm, you know, one of those who came after. So I'd rather he be alive, phoning in, saying how full of horse dookey I am.
GROSS: Right, so...
KARR: But, you know, the other thing - I spent a lot of - I'm still kind of best friends with his best friend from college, the novelist Mark Costello, who's a great, great writer. And I talked to Mark a lot about David's portrait, and I sent him those pages. And I made a decision before I talked to David's biographer. And, you know, I - it's - people have tried to buy my letters from David, and I haven't yet sold them. So there's a lot of his darkness in there that's - I guess I am protective of in some way 'cause he was ill.
GROSS: Right. So you've actually written a poem about David Foster Wallace that - I'd love it if you read that for us.
KARR: I will. I've written a couple of poems for David. This one was in The New Yorker. It's called "Face Down."
(Reading) What are you doing on this side of the dark? You chose that side. And those you left feel your image across their sleeping lids as a blinding atomic blast. Last we knew, you were suspended midair, like an angel for a pageant, off the room where your wife slept. She had to cut you down, who'd been, I heard, so long holding you up. We all tried to, f;aced with your need, which we somehow understood and felt for and took into our veins like smack. And you must be lured by that old pain, smoldering like wood smoke across the death boundary. Prowl here, I guess, if you have to bother somebody. Or better yet, go bother God, who shaped that form you despised from common clay. The light you swam so hard away from still burns like a star over a desert or atop a tree in a living room where a son's photos have been laid face down for the holiday.
GROSS: Wow. It seems to me like it's a poem that's expressing a certain amount of anger at him for having made that choice, for choosing that side.
KARR: Yeah, and I've got to say - I've got to say, I did, you know, I did think of his wife and her having to find him and...
GROSS: Find him after he was dead?
KARR: After he was dead. I just - I was haunted by that. She wrote about it, and I was haunted by that for her.
GROSS: OK. Well, thank you for reading that poem. Why don't we take a short break here? My guest is Mary Karr. She's written several memoirs, "The Liars' Club," "Cherry" and "Lit," and now has a new book about memoirs called "The Art Of Memoir." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Mary Karr. She's the author of the memoirs "The Liars' Club," "Cherry" and "Lit." She's credited as being one of the people who helped turn the memoir into a very popular form. Now, she's written a book about writing memoirs, and it's called "The Art Of Memoir." When you got sober in the late '80s, that's when you became, to your great surprise, a Catholic.
KARR: (Laughter) So stupid, isn't it?
GROSS: (Laughter) And that - I think - do you feel that that continues to help you remain sober?
KARR: No. I - well, I think my - I think I'm granted a kind of spiritual reprieve every day, so I think any spiritual practice helps you remain sober. But, you know, working with other drunks and talking to other drunks and trying to live a little more scrupulously, looking at your own behavior and trying to correct what you do wrong, you know, I think all those things help me to stay sober.
GROSS: You've said that, to you, being Catholic is a set of activities. What are those activities for you?
KARR: I pray. I pray a lot. I'm somebody who has a big inner life. And for most of my life, it had a lot of darkness in it. And, for me, prayer is a way of standing in a light. It's no more complicated than that. So I pray both for people, and I do something called the Ignation (ph) exercises, which are a way of kind of looking, at the end of every day, at that day and examining places where you saw God, you know, places where God was present for you. And if you do that every day over a long period of time, you start to realize that the things you "value," quote, unquote, the things that are supposed to be important to you, are often just not that important. And the places that really are sustaining to you in a spiritual way are very surprising. They're not where you think they're going to be.
GROSS: I'm assuming you find prayer very sustaining and that you pray every day. Is there ever a day where you think, I'm just too busy; I'm not going to pray today?
KARR: I pray all day. I mean, I pray a lot of the day. I try to pray. My instinct, Terry, is to kill everybody on the subway.
KARR: That's my instinct. If I didn't pray, I would be one of those mass - I know that I would just - I'm not a nice person. My - I'm not such a nice person. I grew up in a very complicated family, and I have impulse control issues. So, you know, I need prayer to keep myself awake in the present. And it really becomes, like, you know, that thing I said in "Memoir" - you're projecting onto the landscape. For me, sort of getting quiet in the center of myself keeps me from projecting so much onto the landscape, I hope. I mean, so if I find myself getting ramped up or worried or irritated, you know, I will pray. I will start praying for somebody else. I have a list of people. I - sometimes, when I'm really irritated with my fellow New Yorkers, you know, when the air-conditioning is off in the subway car, I do this exercise where I start praying for every face I see. It's just - even rich people (laughter), you know, even praying for rich people in New York because it helps me to stop thinking about myself and to become more present to other people, you know? It's something I do for myself, not to be nice but because otherwise, I would just be a shocking wreck.
GROSS: So let me ask you - you're 60 now?
KARR: I am.
GROSS: Are you going to write, at some point, about getting older and how that feels?
KARR: You know, Terry, I have been thinking about writing about getting older because I am getting older. I have thought about that. I have thought about that. And especially for a woman, I mean, you're such a - you become, in the culture's eyes, such a hag. And - but that's not the hardest part. I mean, what nobody ever writes about about aging - or they do in this kind of fluffy way, and then they say, you know, go get your face lifted so it looks like your ponytail's too tight. But there's so much - for me, there have been so many, like I said, spiritual gifts, or just... I spend more time doing things that are fun and healthy and sustaining, and I don't know. I'm just - you know, it's not that I'm not crazy anymore, but I'm less crazy.
GROSS: So I want to end with a song. You wrote a series of songs with Rodney Crowell.
KARR: I know. Isn't he great?
GROSS: Yeah, he is (laughter). And the album that you did together - did you do two?
KARR: We're working on a second now.
GROSS: OK, OK.
KARR: I've got a song on - maybe even two songs on his - he's got a Christmas album coming out. And we have a song called "Christmas In Vidor," which is, like, one of these horrible towns in Texas, so...
GROSS: So the song I want to play is from the album that you did with Rodney Crowell called "Kin." And the song I've chosen from that album is sung by Vince Gill, and it's called "Just Pleasing You."
KARR: Oh, it's my gospel number.
GROSS: (Laughter) So are you singing about God in that?
KARR: We are. We are. We're singing about God in it. We had - here's - here's - can I tell you the origin of that song if we're going to end with it?
GROSS: I wish you will, yeah.
KARR: So the origin of that song was we said, what if Hank Williams had gotten sober...
GROSS: Oh, great (laughter). That's great.
KARR: And he'd gone to rehab - and he'd gone to rehab and he'd gotten Jesus and he came out. What song would he write? And we wanted to write a kind of old-school gospel number. And so that was the thought. And then we had the incredible Vince Gill sing it. What luck.
GROSS: Oh, I love it. I love your story. I love the song. Mary Karr, I really so much enjoyed talking with you. Thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.
KARR: Thank you for having me. It's been a hoot. Thanks.
GROSS: So here is Vince Gill singing a song co-written by Rodney Crowell and Mary Karr. And Mary Karr's new book is called "The Art Of Memoir."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST PLEASING YOU")
VINCE GILL: (Singing) I used to get drunk all by myself. I wanted to be somebody else. There was a mask inside my mind that I hid behind. Out on the point of no return, I crossed a bridge I couldn't burn, turned down a road that led straight to just pleasing you. If just pleasing you is the last thing I do, I'll go to my grave nobody's slave. Most of the friends I used to know gave up a long, long time ago. I blew through their lives, a train off-track, and never looked back. I made each love a nasty joke. Every last chance of vow I broke. I'm down on my knees, surrendered to just pleasing you.
GROSS: That's Vince Gill from the album "Kin," featuring songs written by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, as the U.S. prepares for Pope Francis' first visit, my guest will be journalist Paul Vallely, the author of a new book about Francis. We'll talk about the direction the Pope has been heading in on women's role in the church, birth control, divorce, annulment, homosexuality and climate change. And we'll discuss reforms Francis is making within the church hierarchy and the Vatican Bank. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.