As you may know from her groundbreaking debut memoir, The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr’s alcoholic, unstable mother, a woman who shot at more than one of her six husbands and once threatened to kill her children with a butcher knife, was also one of the few intellectuals to set foot in the swampy, poisonous East Texas town of her childhood. And Karr, who found success with that book, is likely one of the few best-selling authors to live in a tenement apartment close to the polluting poisons of the Port Authority bus terminal. She wrote her third memoir, Lit, to keep herself there.
Karr turned down “two big fat steaming advances” for a third memoir; she wasn’t ready to share the grown-up part of her life. “Everybody thought I was Huck Finn after The Liars’ Club,” she says in her bright, renovated, art-packed apartment. “Nobody was gonna read this and think, ‘God, what an angel.’ ” By the time another steaming advance came along, she’d already written parts of Lit. Still, she struggled. “I considered selling this apartment and giving them back the fucking money and leaving New York so I wouldn’t have to write this book. So when I say I’m doing this for the money, I really mean it.”
Before Karr became a memoirist, she was a poet struggling with a low-paying teaching job, a troubled marriage to another writer, and being a mother to their infant son, Dev (now 23). Soon she was sliding into the same miasma of alcohol and depression that clouded her childhood. “Certainly I wasn’t as bad as my mother—I’ve never shot at anybody,” she says. “But give me another ten years drinking … ” Then came recovery, where she got to know David Foster Wallace (their stormy relationship makes a cameo in Lit), and a most improbable transformation—in some ways more controversial to old pals than being a drunk: She found God. Or, more precisely, Catholicism. (“Not you on the Pope’s team. Say it ain’t so,” wrote Richard Ford in a note.) Granted, she did it in her singularly cranky and outspoken style. “You have the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” she says. “I came in on the Holy Spirit. I thought the Son was a chump, I thought the Father was a sadist or a fool—an amateur—but the Holy Spirit stuff, it’s like a force for good in the world.”
As a Catholic, Karr is as religiously tolerant as they come, Jewish boyfriend and all—to a point. She remembers a knockdown fight in Corsica (not Liars’ Club caliber, but still) with some high-and-mighty agnostics, whom she told, “Minoring in religious studies and thinking you know about religion is like watching porn, reading gynecology textbooks, and thinking you know something about pussy.”
Her next project is a collection of poems, a “song of myself” about characters she sees around the neighborhood. “I’m crazy in love with the city,” says Karr, who, in addition to teaching at Syracuse University, is writing songs for a new Rodney Crowell album. “Humanity on parade. I love humans—though it’s a gauge of my spiritual condition how friendly I am with my fellow New Yorkers.”