Mary Karr's Sober Period

The bestselling memoirist talks to John Douglas Marshall about her brutally honest new book, Lit, and how she put away the bottle and found God.

12.07.09 1:00 AM ET

Mary Karr is pissed. The 54-year-old writer, who is from New York City, faces two nights of bookstore appearances in Seattle, and she has a fever and a scratchy throat, with various remedies scattered throughout her hotel suite as her temperature hovers around 100.

Part of that fever may be from the germs Karr has encountered on airplanes during three weeks on book tour. Part may be from her internal motor, always on high rev. But maybe the biggest part of the fever results from her upset over sales of her new book. Lit, Karr’s third memoir, has gotten some of the best reviews of her career, right up there with her classic best seller, The Liars’ Club, but rather than rocketing into the stratosphere of The New York Times’ best-seller list, it is hovering on the “extended list” at No. 22. The extra 2 is none to her liking.

Her ambitious new memoir could have been titled Drink. Study. Marry. Parent. Crack Up. Sober Up. Split Up. Pray.

Karr has villains in this disturbing scenario, other memoirists now on book tours, headline hogs named Andre Agassi and Sarah Palin (“that meth-head tennis player,” in Karr’s description, and “the biggest moron ever to run for public office”). No wonder Karr is hot. As she emphasizes, “Not that many writers have had the shithouse luck that I’ve had with my three memoirs. If I don’t get on the main New York Times’ list...I mean, what does it take? Who do I have to blow?”

Lit: A Memoir. By Mary Karr. 400 pages. Harper. $25.99.

Karr in person is Karr in print: Profane. Smart. Self-critical. Brutally frank. Outrageously funny. Her disappointment over sales of Lit is intensified by its difficult birth—the thousand pages she wrote and later discarded, plus the four years she fell behind deadline, prompting serious thoughts of returning her hefty advance and abandoning the book. This was the toughest territory Karr had ever covered in her well-documented life, harder than her bizarre Texas upbringing with her two drunk and erratic parents in Liars’ Club (1995), way harder than her sex-laden teen years in Cherry (2000). Karr had been the spunky heroine in past outings, but in Lit, as she says, “It’s clear who the asshole is.”

Far from chronicling crowd-pleasing sojourns, as Elizabeth Gilbert did in Eat, Pray, Love, Karr stuck uncomfortably close to home in her ambitious new memoir, which could have been titled Drink. Study. Marry. Parent. Crack Up. Sober Up. Split Up. Pray. There has been a flood of memoirs in the last decade on several of those subjects, but Karr goes for the rare six-fecta (marriage/divorce, parenting, alcoholism, depression, recovery, faith). At times, this complex juggling act defies even Karr’s prodigious talents—her 386-page narrative does get repetitive, in particular accounts of her stumble-down boozing—but there is no denying its Olympian degree of difficulty.

Lit begins with an open letter to Karr’s son, Dev, and this admission: “Any way I tell this story is a lie...” This seems a strange mea culpa from one of the godmothers of memoirdom, but Karr insists it reflects her approach to what she writes. She only recounts what she remembers well, and checks its veracity with those depicted, but is acutely aware that everything is filtered through her own lens. Karr explains, “As soon as I write about this or that, I leave something out. And I do not speculate on the motivations of others. It’s not like I walk around with a video camera strapped to my chest.”

Karr is so rigorous that she offered to let her poet ex-husband critique the manuscript but she says he declined, opting for use of a pseudonym (Warren Whitbread). The author instead had her version of their marital “slow fade” vetted by the couple’s counselor. Karr’s depiction of her husband and their marriage is the one part of the memoir that has drawn significant criticism, since this master of telling detail produces a cardboard construct of both.

Memories of her marriage were sketchier than those of her binges, but Karr is not surprised by the criticism: “I didn’t remember conversations with my husband, but maybe I was unconsciously trying to protect him...When I was drinking, my relationships were superficial, except with my kid.”

Karr’s route to sobriety, recovery, and faith is a tortuous coast road with big boulders, washouts, hairpin turns, and precipitous drops without guard rails. She recounts countless Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, several falls off the wagon, a car crash, a suicide attempt, confinement in a psych ward (“the Mental Marriott”). Her account is too gritty, harrowing and hard-won to be inspiring, at least in the standard bootstraps-up recovery manner. But the memoir’s most startling turn is this committed agnostic’s kicking-and-screaming tiptoe into Catholicism. Karr’s reluctant first prayer was X-rated: “Help. Me. Help me to feel better so I can believe in you, you subtle bastard.”

A decade has passed since the period covered in Lit, and Karr has been sober for 20 years. Her trademark black attire now includes a necklace with a large artisan silver cross (“a gift from my Jewish boyfriend”). Karr, who teaches during autumns at Syracuse University, stayed out of restaurants serving alcohol for her first three years of recovery but now has kept alcohol in her Manhattan apartment for five years and feels no cravings. Her deepened faith is the foundation of her “less-stressed” life and the decided mellowing of her intense persona. Karr seems serene as she emphasizes, “Having a spiritual practice, charity work, and being Catholic are all part of my recovery. I might have stayed sober without all of that, but I would have been as mean as a snake.”

The best reward is Karr’s relationship with her son, a 23-year-old aspiring filmmaker. When she was confined in the hospital, Karr worried that she was becoming a carbon copy of her “cuckoo” mother and her disengaged parenting. Asked if that indeed has come to pass, Karr exclaims, “Oh my God, no!”

Her worst years with her son were his first three years. But Karr’s efforts as a mother improved with sobriety, so much so she wonders now if she was an “over-involved” parent. She and Dev remain “very close,” Karr reports, but then adds: “He has no problem telling me to go fuck myself; I have no problem telling him that either. But Dev is unnaturally spectacular. He turned out millions times better than I had hoped. But then all I wanted was for him to not be HIV-positive, or incarcerated.”

Plus: Check out Book Beast for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

John Douglas Marshall is a critic for The Daily Beast. He was the longtime book critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it ceased publication in March.