Q&A with Liar’s Club and Cherry Author Mary Karr

Written by J.T. Leroy on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

I first read
Mary Karr’s memoir The Liars’ Club when I was 17. I was in
awe of the heartbreaking humor her troubled Texas characters evinced in the
face of severe adversity. I studied the complex beauty of her sentences. I wrote
her and she wrote me back a wonderfully encouraging letter. I quit writing.
After a couple of years I felt Mary’s spirit move me and I wrote Sarah.
I sent it to her and she gave me a warm Texas welcome into the community of
writers. Cherry–now out in paperback from Penguin–her sequel
to Liars’ Club, equally buoyed my spirit with its strappingly poetic
prose and dazzling storytelling gift. We spoke recently by telephone.

After reading
Liars’ Club I stopped writing for a while. I was working with Mary

Oh yeah, she’s
such a good writer. Well, she was the one who first put me on to you.

She directed
me to your book, which made me realize how you need to combine craft with humor.
That when you’re talking about certain things what a difference weaving
in humor makes.

Oh yeah, it
gives the reader a release. Otherwise it’s too much. They feel too fucking

I read Cherry
with a pen because there’s just so much in it. Every page was so beautiful.
I love at the start of chapter 13 where you write, "Kids in distressed
families are great repositories of silence and carry in their bodies whole arctic
wastelands of words not to be uttered, stories not to be told."

About my girlfriend,

It’s like
my shrink says, it’s being like hypervigilant.

Yeah, you get
very alert. The great news I think as a writer is you wind up getting more frames
per second than the average human. I think there’s a theory about great
athletes, that they actually get more information in, that they see more. I’ve
just watched that IMAX Michael Jordan movie, where he’s like great big
and he’s up in the air making all these amazing moves, and I think that
must be true for that kind of kid. I mean I think it makes a perceptive human
unit. It means you pay a lot of attention, and I think as a writer it’s
a good thing and it’s a hard thing. I think your head winds up talking
to you all the time is the bad news.

Yeah, it’s
hard to turn that off, to get the volume cranked down.

I just tell
mine to shut up. I’m just much better at ignoring it.

Are you still
the "grief-seeking missile"? I related to that so much. In your interviews,
it almost seems like they’re leading down the path of pain and doom, and
you kind of give it the upswing.

Well, I feel
like I’ve been snatched out of the fire. You know? It’s funny, when
I was in California and the guy I write about, the dope-dealer guy, my friend
Doonie, who’s still like my best friend–he lives in San Diego–we
were there with a friend of ours who’s in a witness protection program…
I mean, he’s basically still on the street, and he’s had all kinds
of maladies, and he looks like he’s about 90 years old. We were up until
about 3 o’clock in the morning and we just laughed our asses off, had a
ball, but I don’t want him to be that way, you know? I want him to quit
doing dope… Doonie now has a big construction business and he’s been
sober for like 15 years. I’ve been sober like 11 years…

Doonie is one
of the most lit-up human beings you’ll ever meet anywhere, and he just
has this tremendous generosity and humor. And if you met him, he kind of looks
like a pimp. He wears like big gold jewelry and diamonds and, you know, kind
of Elvis clothes. But there are all these people that we knew that still are
really fucked up, or a lot of them have died. Doonie finds them, he keeps up,
he finds everybody.

[the Cherry character] Meredith do?

had a lot of trouble. She’s just had a really hard time. She actually went
to two really big-deal universities and did fabulously well at both of them.
She just has a lot of darkness. She’s done amazingly well. I mean, she’s
functioned, and she’s had a job, you know, when a lot of people could have
just thrown in the towel. And she’s still one of my–I still love her
with all my heart. She’s still one of my best friends, still one of the
smartest women I know.

Did she read

Oh yeah. I
think it was really hard for her, but I told her. I pretty much told everybody
in the book, people who were the main characters, like John Cleary, who was
the guy I first had a crush on, and my girlfriend Clarice. So she knew in advance,
and I said, you know what I’m going to be writing about? It’s funny,
I mean Meredith is not her name, I changed their names, and usually change a
small thing about them and so they sort of have the option mostly of whether
people know it’s them or not. And people who know it’s her, whom she’s
told, I think she’s gotten a lot of, I don’t know, just people are
impressed. I mean, she’s an impressive being.

You know that
Tobias Wolff quote?

no care for your dignity."

It really seems
like in Cherry that you take that to heart.

Yeah, don’t
I look like an asshole? God!

What struck
me is what you wrote about Meredith and the brother, and how you didn’t
take the car to drive them.

I didn’t
want to know, you know? We’ve all talked about this, me and Doonie and
Meredith and you know a lot of people, the people still alive I doped and drank
with, that we ignored all that growing up. That in fact all of our families
were really alcoholic, really fucked up, and it was almost a kind of courtesy
we did to each other, to pretend it wasn’t going on. But yeah, I had a
lot of that survivor’s guilt. And I feel she rescued me at a time when
there was just no fucking light anywhere. She showed me what to read, she bought
my act when I didn’t even know what my act was. And yeah, I feel like I
should have snatched her out of there. And I tried to. I tried to at various
times. But certainly at that time I was just, I think my self-involvement, my
narcissism, my own pain, I think, made me even more narcissistic than I am naturally,
or than most writers are…

Alan Grossman
is this poet I really like, and he has this great line I quote all the time,
he says we don’t write to immortalize ourselves, we write to immortalize
our beloved. And in a way that’s an incredibly sentimental way to approach
art, but I think for me that’s true. Somebody pointed out after reading
Cherry that my best friends were the funniest girl and the nicest guy
and the smartest girl and the biggest criminal. And it’s true, they were
all. I mean all of those people are still in my life because they really are
amazing human beings. That John Cleary guy, his wife is an invalid and he’s
raised these three kids and taken care of her and made a living, not a big living,
just kind of regular, middle-class, work-your-ass-off-you-can-buy-two-cars kind
of deal. And he’s got these three kids, and she was sick and he’s
always having to go to the hospital and stuff in the middle of the night, and
I remember saying to them one day, you know, why aren’t you screaming?
I was at his house and she was in bed and he’d been working all night and
driving these kids around and trying to get everybody fed and get the laundry
done and I said how do you fucking stand it? I would be losing my mind. And
he coached his daughter’s softball team and he said, well I go out there,
I watch those little girls out there throwing that ball and they just put all
their hearts into it. And I just think, well, if they can do it, so can I. He’s
a truly amazing human being who’s just this kind of regular dude, and he
just has this amazing heart. And all those people are like that. I just think
they’re extraordinary, so, I mean, they would have been extraordinary whether
I wrote about them or not. I mean, my friend who was getting sober was saying
that people who grew up where we grew up, it’s like having been in Vietnam
or something. You see them in the real world and you’re like, can you believe
that shit? You know it sucked. Yeah, it sucked.

happening with the Liars’ Club movie?

Oh, you know,
they say they’re making it, they’ve given me all the money they’re
gonna give me on it, they have a screenplay, which I couldn’t even really
read. I don’t know anything about movies. I just like action movies. I
just like movies where shit blows up. So they sent me the screenplay and I was
so freaked out. Do you know who Michael Herr is? He wrote Dispatches
and he invented the voiceover for Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket.
He lives in this little town near here, and so I see him every now and then…
So I call him up, and I’m crying, I’m just inconsolable, I’m
like oh my God, I read like two pages of this and I just want to shoot my fucking
self. And Michael said, "Do you want the money?" And I said, "Absolutely."
He said, "Okay, well then you should just know that the book is to the
movie as real life is to the book." And I said, "Oh. So this is none
of my business if I’m not about fixing it?" And he’s like yeah.
So I’m in that sort of beautiful nether state where they’ve given
all the money they’re going to give me but they haven’t made the movie,
so I don’t have to watch me and my family being portrayed as baboons or

What do you
think about folks’ preoccupation with "Is it memoir or is it fiction?"
They go through everything and want to pick out how much of it is true.

I disagree
with the whole notion of memoir being a big deal because it’s real. There
are lots of people who have had way worse lives than I’ve had. Way more
interesting lives than I’ve had. I don’t think it’s the facts
of what you did that are going to make your books work or not. James Atlas in
The New York Times Magazine talked about memoir enjoying this
huge readership because it’s fact, and I disagree. I don’t think that’s
right. I think the issue is quality. I think people read memoir because they
are guaranteed a first-person narrator who is emotionally engaged with his or
her work. I think that is of interest.