Mary Karr On The Art Of Memoir, Defending Lena Dunham & Her TV Plans

Photo: Deborah Feingold/Courtesy Harper Collins.
Long before your book club started gushing over Bossypants, Yes Please, and Not That Kind of Girl, and all the cool kids were nose deep in copies of Just Kids and Girl in a Band, it was Mary Karr, not Kim Gordon or Lena Dunham who was the face of modern memoir. Published in 1995, Karr's best-selling The Liars' Club set the genre on fire with its suffer-no-fools, Southern-fried account of growing up in a small Texas town with a yarn-spinning daddy and a pistol-firing mother the likes of whom you've never seen. Now, Karr is sharing her writing expertise with The Art of Memoir. Out this week, the writing guide draws from Karr's own processes for The Liars' Club and its follow-ups, Cherry and Lit, as well as the examples set by fellow memoirists Cheryl Strayed, Vladimir Nabokov, and Frank Conroy, to nudge prospective navel-gazers into fully fledged authors. We spoke to Karr over phone about her top memoir picks, her plans to bring her own stories to TV, and her take on Lena Dunham.

You've said that memoirs shouldn't be used as a tool to get everything out on paper.

"That’s what you go to therapy for. No, the point of writing memoir is to give an emotional experience to the reader. That’s the point of writing a memoir. It’s not about you. You’re trying to create an experience in another person, so I disagree. It’s cathartic, but your own catharsis is not the intention of it. I think if you need an emotional catharsis, you should go to a mental health professional or an exorcist or, you know, join a cult, like I did. The Catholic Church, you know? [Writing a memoir is] just a literary event."

You’ve been teaching for so long, but what prompted you to actually sit down and write about the memoir process for others to share?

"I did it for the same reason I’ve written every other one, which is they gave me some money for it. It’s a book I thought about writing for a long time and then my editors at Harper made me an offer I couldn’t refuse."

Did you ever keep diaries or journals as a child?

"Always off and on, but I only had one that survived. My mother threw everything out when I went to college; my mother threw out all of my stuff. It was her way of saying I’ve earned it."

You list Lena Dunham’s
Not That Kind of Girl in the appendix of suggested memoirs. There was a lot of fallout over her stories about her relationship with her sister when they were children. Should she have held back?
"You know, I think the world loves to hate a successful woman, I’ve got to say. I’m not somebody who pulls the feminist card all the time, I’m really not. I’m in no way a proponent of victim consciousness, but I think her biggest sin is being a successful young woman. No man is ever gone after the way she’s been gone after. I think her biggest sin is being a smart, successful woman."

Were there times when you asked if you should leave something out because it might be read the wrong way, or be too much information?

"It's scary. I think it’s why I say writing a memoir is knocking yourself out. I think often the things that you’re most timid about writing are the things you most need to write. But, I think we all deceive ourselves about what our story is, you know? I always say my family, and all the stories of getting me back. Just let me feel good about it."

How do you deal with readers knowing so much about your personal life? I feel like I know you and your family.
"Yeah, you sort of do!"

But is it weird having people like me say, 'Oh, how’s your sister?' You know, like, knowing you, but
not knowing you?"
"I don’t know. I think it depends on how you approach that. I know this will sound strange, but often when people talk to me about my family, I find ways to ask them about their own. I would rather hear about other people’s stories. I’ve already told mine."

For those new to the memoir genre, what books would you recommend as a sort of primer?
"I would say Black Boy by Richard Wright, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy. Stop-Time by Frank Conroy, and maybe Michael Herr’s Dispatches."

You wouldn't include any of your own?
"Oh, absolutely — I would include all of mine! Scrap what I just said! Top three are all mine. No, I wouldn’t recommend mine. I’m narcissistic, but I’m not that bad yet."

Do you think social media is encouraging people to write more?
"Social media is reductive. They reduce things, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The nature of a memoir is deep. It should be about deep things and deep feelings — things that require a lot of complicated depth and explanation. So, it’s not comparing apples to oranges, it’s comparing candy to steak. They’re just not even in the same silo. They both involve language, but I don’t think there’s any danger of the memoir business drying up because of social media. If anything, you know, I think the reductiveness of social media and the reductive nature of film makes memoir more interesting."

Speaking of film, will we ever see one of your memoirs be adapted for the screen?
"There is a TV show that I’m working on for Showtime that I’ve written a pilot for with Mary Louise Parker. It’s [based on] The Liars’ Club and Lit, although I ultimately think it will have parts of Cherry in it."

Do you feel like you would ever write another memoir?
"I don’t know — if they offered me a lot, a lot of money."

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