Mary Karr may not be the president of the memoir — the first line in “The Art of Memoir” states “No one elected me the boss of memoir” — but she is probably its superstar.
Karr, who will be the keynote speaker at the Kentucky Women Writers’ Conference on Sept. 16, is credited with igniting a memoir renaissance with “The Liars’ Club” in 1995, followed by “Cherry” (2000), “Lit” (2009) and “The Art of Memoir” (2015).
For a writer who deals in memory, she’s remarkably unattached to the books themselves, be it memoir or poetry.
“I’ve never read anything I’ve ever written again,” she said in a telephone interview, be it a book or poem.
She’s talking as she walks in Manhattan to visit author Philip Roth for tea. Karr, who teaches at Syracuse University, is plainly living her most literary life.
In “The Liars’ Club,” Karr recounts her chaotic childhood with parents matched in hell and living in a Texas oil town so vividly described you can almost feel the petroleum slick on your skin. But although her mother stands over her with a butcher knife, there are also moments such as the one where a tiny Mary behaves herself desperately well in a grocery store in order to get one of those Little Golden Books with the foil seal.
I don’t think the reader sees me as anything but an authority on what it’s like to live in my skin.
Karr’s writing is generous toward her parents and, later, the friends of her youth, the drugged and the restless, and finally toward her ex-husband, the father of her beloved son. She wields a wicked pen, but at no one more than herself: In a New Yorker article earlier this year about tossing her stilettos, she describes how heels had left her feet “gnarled up like ginger root.” (After she adopts flats, she looks down to see her feet “shod in large loaves of rye bread.”)
In “The Art of Memoir,” she warns off potential memoir-writers who are motivated by revenge.
“The cliche of it is somebody in the middle of a divorce,” Karr said. “It’s a man or a woman, probably they really have been wronged in a tremendous way, as we all are by people we love. ... What I want to say to them is, you’re not going to feel this way in a minute. ... It’s not how you want to represent them.”
In “Lit,” Karr describes her alcoholism in unsparing detail, but there’s one detail that every mother worn down by a morning of kid bedlam will recognize: “By afternoon I can’t abide Mr. Rogers asking me to be my neighbor without a cocktail.”
Now sober, her son grown, “The Art of Memoir” allows Karr to not only discourse on what makes a memoir moment — a brief battle between Robert Graves and Michael Herr, in which Herr’s gritty Vietnam triumphs over Graves’ solemnly distant WWI — but she also discusses the best of the current crop of memoirists, including Cheryl Strayed (“Wild”), Kathryn Harrison (“The Kiss”) and Maya Angelou (“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”), and how she threw away over 1,200 pages of “Lit” and started again.
Karr is self-conscious about the overarching ambition behind her book on writing memoir and how she sometimes feels less than up to the challenge, writing: “Reared in the Ringworm Belt, I am a dropout. The grad program I went to folded the day after I got my MFA. And yet I planned this book as a work of aesthetics and literary history and phenomenology and neurobiology and yahditah yahditah blah blah.”
She is not a memoirist who sneaks up on people: “I’ve always sent my manuscripts out. I send them out to anyone in them who’s alive. ... The best memoirists ... are very interested in what happened.”
It’s not, as in the case of her unsettling relationship with her mother, that embarrassing or sordid moments are left out to spare feelings and tottering relationships.
“I don’t think the reader sees me as anything but an authority on what it’s like to live in my skin,” Karr said.
But she also talks about the shaping of voice in “The Art of Memoir,” writing that “most memoirs fail because of voice.”
Karr’s own voice is distinct from the first sentences of “The Liars’ Club,” in which she ropes in the reader by describing a scene of chaos in her disordered house, with police quizzing the child Mary on whether she has been abused and no parents around at all.
“The minute you tell this thing instead of that you begin to shape an opinion,” she said. “I’m writing most about people I love. ... My mother was not the perfect mother, but she didn’t have a lot of maternal feeling, period. It doesn’t mean she didn’t do the damage.”
Nonetheless, Karr said she wouldn’t have traded her house for a home without books. As she gets sober, she also finds religion: Chapter 29 in “Lit” is titled “Ceremony (Nonbelievers, read at Your Own Risk: Prayer and God Ahead).”
On Terry Gross’ radio program “Fresh Air” in 2015 Karr said she prays “a lot of the day. My instinct ... is to kill everybody on the subway, that’s my instinct.”
Finding the quiet center that religion provides helps her calm her sometimes unsettled psyche. During her phone talk and walk, she says, “I became a Christian in part because I think I have a natural tendency to be an asshole.”
If you go
Kentucky Women Writers Conference
When: Sept. 15-18
Daytime events: 8 a.m.-5:45 p.m. Sept. 16 and 17. Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, 251 W. 2nd St. $125-$200 general admission, $30 students.
▪ Sonia Series performance and talk with Ursula Rucker and Patrice Muhammad. Carnegie Center. 6 p.m. Sept. 15. Free.
▪ Writers Reception. University of Kentucky King Alumni House, 400 Rose St. 5:30 p.m. Sept. 16. $20 with conference registration, $40 without registration.
▪ Keynote address by Mary Karr, introduced by Jennifer Bartlett, plus question and answer with Dana Spiotta, Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St. 7 p.m. Sept. 16. Free and open to public.
▪ Wild Women of Poetry Slam, with Melissa Lozada-Oliva, Amena Brown, Siaara Freeman, Ashlee Haze, Rheonna Thornton, Rachel Wiley, and Alyesha Wise with emcee Sara Volpi. 7 p.m. Sept. 17. Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St., Free and open to public
▪ Stars of the Commonwealth readings by Sarah Gorham, Julie Hensley and Bobbie Ann Mason, with introductions and question and answer session by Julie Wrinn. Carnegie Center. 10 a.m. Sept. 18.