When it comes to writing about the pain of growing up, author Mary Karr isn't one to hold back. Her new memoir, Lit, describes Karr's early years as a writer, wife and mother, years that were marked by drug use, drinking and the dissolution of her marriage.
Burrowing into painful family stories has long been a Karr trademark. Her first book, The Liar's Club, focused on her volatile relationship with her mother, who had a psychotic break while Karr was a child. Her followup, Cherry, mapped the author's rebellion and coming of age.
Karr's new book, which follows Cherry by nine years, recounts her own descent into alcohol abuse through more family trauma and eventually her unlikely — as she describes it — conversion to Catholicism. Along the way, she grapples with her place in a lineage that she sometimes feels was preordained for disaster.
"My mother fell off the wagon at my rehearsal dinner," Karr tells Terry Gross. "Shortly after that, she got sober and was sober until she died, almost 80, so more than 20 years. I was in my early 30s, and it's almost like she got sober right about the time my drinking picked up. I say it's almost like our genetic code owed the universe some really wretched alcoholic, and I stepped into the slot as she left it."
No amount of self-awareness made her vices easier to cope with.
"I didn't want to stop drinking," Karr admits. "I didn't quit drinking because I wanted to stop drinking. I want to do all these things that aren't particularly good for me. My hells are pretty much self-constructed."
Karr found escape from her self-made hell when she finally turned to religion, a topic that found its way into Lit at length. But even after her conversion, she understands why talking about her relationship with God might turn some of her audience away.
"Talking about spiritual activity to a secular audience is like doing card tricks on the radio," Karr says. And it wasn't easy for the author herself to buy into religion.
"I thought faith was a feeling. My intellect told me this was insane. The only way I was able to do it was through practice," she says. "[I'd] been trying to get sober and not really listening to the ways you're supposed to do it, and somebody said 'pray on your knees every day for 30 days and see if you stay sober.' And I just saw it as, like, self-hypnosis or like talking to yourself."
Though she eventually learned to embrace the meditative and spiritual aspects of Catholicism, religion didn't make the writing process any easier. Karr says writing Lit was "horrible."
"I threw this book away twice," Karr says. "I walked around in my bathrobe for three days and made obscene gestures at the rafters. And there are a couple people I call at such times, sort of the way the president would push the red button. I'd call these people. So I called Don DeLillo, and DeLillo sends me a postcard that says 'write or die.' " Karr's reply speaks volumes about her thick-skinned perspective and dark humor. "I think I sent him one back that said 'write and die.' "
With Lit finally on bookshelves, Karr's view of the book's place in the world is almost serene: "I know God wanted me to write this book. That doesn't mean he wants it to be a best-seller, you know? But something about surrendering a lot of that stuff, it just quiets the fear in my head. It just quiets it."