There’s something fascinating about a single voice telling you its life.
They wanted another “Eat, Pray, Make Money.” But the pages were duller than a rubber knife. Writing about spiritual stuff for a secular audience is like doing card tricks on the radio.
I can only compare my early memories with my sister Lecia’s. She’d admit that mine are keener than hers. She’ll say, Oh my God, that’s right, that did happen. She doesn’t remember many details until I write them—which seems, by the way, like a much better way to be. She just moves forward through the world. If I could do it her way, I would. It’s much more functional. Time never passes for me.
It’s scary how my memory became the family memory. My mother, before she died, and my sister both remember events as I rendered them. They’re carved in stone, in a way. That’s a lonely feeling. It’s too much power. I’m sure I misremember a lot.
I remember going to work in business, for instance. At first, wearing a suit and toting a briefcase, I felt promoted to being an actual citizen.
There’s no magic in it. Just one moment at a time, one detail at a time. I’m just asking myself as I go along: What was it like when I came home for Christmas? I remember Daddy came to fetch me at the bus station—a greasy bus station if ever there was one. He passed me a pint bottle of whiskey, which surprised me. If you had asked me whether my father had ever given me whiskey, I’d have said no. But once I revisited that instant, I could see him offer me a bottle across the truck cab. What a strange thing to offer your seventeen-year-old, whiskey. It’s what worked for him. Many memories are dead ends. That’s why I throw away a thousand pages. If you haven’t thrown away a thousand, then you don’t have four hundred that are worth a shit. You have to edit ruthlessly.
INTERVIEWER: When do you write?
KARR: Mostly mornings at home. I made a habit in grad school of getting up at five in the morning to work. When my son was born, in ’86, I had to get up really early, like four. I was teaching six sections of comp at three different schools, and that was the only time I had. For ten years there, I didn’t have time to shave both legs the same day. If I had even an hour, I could work anywhere. I was very unpersnickety. But I usually can’t write big prose while teaching. I can write journalism or lectures. And I’m always scribbling poems.
I always say that a poet loves the world, and the prose writer needs to create an alternative world. Poetry relates more closely to my present experience, and it’s aesthetically harder, because you’re trying to create a form that embodies the content. With prose, you spend so much time evoking a place that it’s emotionally more catastrophic. It’s like someone’s holding the back of your head and putting your nose right in it. When you do prose, you are deep in another element for months or years. I’m sure that private intensity is no different for novelists.
I corresponded with Toby Wolff after This Boy’s Life. Toby nudged me to read Harry Crews’s A Childhood. I also read Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Robert Graves’s Good-bye to All That, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, and Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. I read loads of biographies, too—W. J. Bate’s books on Keats and Samuel Johnson. Ian Hamilton on Lowell. Henri Troyat on Chekhov and Tolstoy. The letters of Flannery O’Connor—The Habit of Being.
-Mary Karr quotes from The Paris Review