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I’ve been reading up on Mary Karr–awesome poet and memoirist, author of the classic Liar’s Club and the recent best-selling follow up, Lit–since I’m teaching a reading-as-a-writer workshop on her, and since she’ll be the next Writer’s Studio guest in October, I don’t want to seem like a slouch when she gets to town.
Anyone who’s read Karr knows her razor-sharp wit, her unique-as-a-signature turn of phrase–all things I admire in her writing, to be sure. But in my research, I’m also getting a clearer sense of her, shall we say, feistiness.
And sure, she’s feisty, but she also has a great, big sensitive heart, especially when it comes to family and friends. The tenderness of the opening to Lit–a missive to her son—makes this clear: “You’re disembarking now, I can see it. Maybe by telling you my story, you can better tell yours, which is the only way to get home, by which I mean to get free of us.”
Contrast this tenderness to perhaps my favorite of all the recent interviews she’s given, this one from Paris Review.
Not only do I love her attitude toward folks like James Frey, I also like how, finally, she challenges the interviewer—in a great, funny, sassy way. (I also appreciate her thoughts on the nature of truth and memory—that well worn memoir writing topic.)
INTERVIEWER: In your books you readily admit to forgetting certain scenes or details, sometimes important ones. Why do that?
KARR: Memoirists can make the mistake of treating readers as an enemies and trying to dupe them. I feel like the reader has given up twenty-plus dollars, and I owe her a vivid experience without lying. But certain events she expects aren’t there. You have to collude with her if your head is blank. Plus sometimes what you forget says as much psychologically as what you remember.
I don’t try to reconstruct empty spots. I’ve been vigorously encouraged by various editors to fictionalize. They would say, It must have been a very dramatic scene, saying goodbye to your mother. And I remember reading that Vivian Gornick said to her students, “Just make it up and see if it’s true.” Bullshit. In fiction, you manufacture events to fit a concept or an idea. With memoir, you have the events and manufacture or hopefully deduce the concept. You don’t remember something? Write fiction.
It pissed me off when I saw James Frey on Larry King saying, You know, there’s a lot of argument about the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. You know what? There isn’t. If it didn’t happen, it’s fiction. If it did happen, it’s nonfiction. If you see the memoir as constructing a false self to sell to some chump audience, then you’ll never know the truth, because the truth is derived from what actually happened. Using novelistic devices, like reconstructed dialogue or telescoping time, isn’t the same as ginning up fake episodes.
INTERVIEWER: But memory is faulty, of course. What if you get something wrong?
KARR: I think of Mary McCarthy in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood saying, I changed some of these names, or, I thought that we all had the flu that one time but my uncle has corrected me. None of her corrections were relevant or betrayed a reader’s confidence. In the forties, memoir was akin to history, which was absolute. One reason for a surge in memoir is the gradual erosion of objective notions of truth, which makes stuff like assembled dialogue seem more acceptable. We mistrust the old forms of authority—the church and politicians, even science.
INTERVIEWER: [You never kept a journal] yet you’ve never had someone tell you that you’ve gotten something seriously wrong?
KARR: You love this question. One guy corrected the year that Hurricane Carla hit Texas. Which doesn’t feel like a betrayal of the reader. You can ask me that another eight hundred and seventy-five times. I know I’m supposed to say, All the time. I must get a million things wrong, but I’ve not had people come up and say, I was there and that didn’t happen. Never. Not one time, not once.
I remember an interviewer asking me, You expect me to believe you opened a trunk in your attic, and your grandmother’s prosthetic leg was in it? I said, Why don’t you check it out—I bet it’s still there. You think I have that good an imagination? If I did, I’d be writing novels.
“You can ask me another eight hundred and seventy-five times.” That makes me smile.
It’s going to be an enlightening weekend, to be sure, October 22 and 23. I wonder, if I ask her nicely, if she’d bring along her grandma’s leg?