There are authors. Then, there are storytellers — Mary Karr, whose Southern background gave her an ear for a tale and whose early career as a poet gave her an eye for vivid imagery — claims the latter category. Drawing from experiences in her troubled childhood that included a gambling father and an alcoholic mother with a mental illness, Karr’s debut memoir The Liars’ Club earned her critical praise, the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction, and ignited our obsession with memoir, a trend that continues to blaze. Published in 1995, the book stayed on the New York Times’ bestseller list for more than a year. “Karr’s most powerful tool is her language, which she wields with the virtuosity of both a lyric poet and an earthy, down-home Texan,” wrote Michiko Kakutani in a review for the New York Times. “It’s a wonderfully unsentimental vision that redeems the past even as it recaptures it on paper.”
Other works followed, including Cherry, about her adolescence, and Lit, about getting drunk and then getting sober. She can count many awards under her writerly belt, including The Whiting Award, a Radcliffe Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She’s released four volumes of poetry, and her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and the Atlantic. Recently, she added songwriter to her repertoire with the release of “Kin, Songs By Mary Karr” and “Rodney Crowell” on Vanguard Records.
Regardless of the genre, Karr doesn’t hold back. And what she delivers is brutal honesty, biting humor, and characters that retain their humanity despite flaws. Of course, the character she most often conjures is herself, who she describes as a “black-belt sinner.” Lucky for us, her talents remain close by. Karr is the Jesse Truesdell Peck Professor of English Literature at Syracuse University.
Here is a passage from The Liars’ Club:
“Because it took so long for me to paste together what happened, I will leave that part of the story missing for a while. It went long unformed for me, and I want to keep it that way here. I don’t mean to be coy. When the truth would be unbearable, the mind often just blanks it out. But some ghost of an event may stay in your head. Then, like the smudge of a bad word quickly wiped off a school blackboard, this ghost can call undue attention to itself by its very vagueness. You keep studying the dim shape of it, as if the original form will magically emerge. This blank spot in my past, then, spoke most loudly to me by being blank. It was a hole in my life that I both feared and kept coming back to because I couldn’t quite fill it in.”
— Lydia Chan