North of your head, south of your neck, or right between your eyes!
There is a point on the threshold of adolescence when hormones come shimmering and a child is suddenly an id-embattled teenager. Although both sexes undergo it, this sea change is most often documented—in semen-stained and bloody-knuckled prose—by men. But in Cherry, Mary Karr leads us where others have feared to tread: into the heart of a girl’s sexual coming of age.
As she sits poised on the brink of junior high school—the young Mary, smart and sassy, rides her bike shirtless around the block one fine summer day, much to the consternation and amusement of neighbors. With this act of rebellion Mary takes the plunge into the bewildering territory that will mark her teenage self: contempt for authority, thrill-seeking derring-do, and a will to ride into the heart of whatever terrifies her. Whether daring her mother at high volume through the locked bathroom door to make good on her repeated suicide threats or cooking up a “sex club” in her garage where she French kisses her first crush, the adolescent Mary displays the moxie that powered her through the hardscrabble east Texas childhood Karr writes of in The Liars’ Club.
In high school, Mary encounters further complications: the pill and pills (as well as a host of other substances), boobs and the fear of a Reputation. Through this murk, Mary tries to “manufacture a whole new bearing or being, some method of maneuvering along the hallways that will result in less vigorous psycho-social butt-whippings than those endured in junior high.” The personas come and go (and come again), as do various friends, teachers, and other sources of succor. There’s Meredith, who tempers Mary’s hotheaded shenanigans with literary wit, and Doonie, the wild-man beach afficionado who crawls into Mary’s life “on his hands and knees like a reptile,” and Phil, the long-haired bundle of coolness (or so it seemed) who fully initiates her into the countercultural triumvirate of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. While she revels in the high-octane tunnel-vision of male sexual desire, the ever-restless Mary finds herself yearning for the emotional intimacy that is promised yet strangely missing from the physical act. In an account suffused with warmth, hilarity, honesty, and heartbreak, Mary negotiates the confusions and illusions of sex and romance.
Along the way, rebellious Mary butts up against authority in all its forms—from the school principal to various Texas law officers. And her repeated yanks at the chain reveal truths, both universal and particular: the vastly different standards to which boys and girls are held, the ignoble groping for identities endured by both sexes, the tough east Texan culture that allows a wide berth for personal idiosyncrasies yet wreaks a mean vengeance on cultural transgressions, the dark turn that the sixties’ hippie culture took as it rounded the corner into the seventies, and the pain of facing our parents’ all-too-obvious failings. And by casting all these hilarious, sad, and outrageous events, Karr does far more than show us her teenage years; she raises up a mirror to the first stirrings of our own sexualized selves.
Mary Karr grew up in east Texas near Port Arthur, a rough-and-tumble industrial region. She has won Pushcart Prizes for both her poetry and her essays, and her work appears in such magazines as Granta,Parnassus, Vogue, Esquire, Poetry, The New Yorker, and American Poetry Review. Her three volumes of poetry are Viper Rum, The Devil’s Tour, and Abacus. She has been awarded grants from the NEA, the Whiting Foundation, and the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe, among others.
The prize-winning tale of her hardscrabble Texas childhood, The Liars’ Club, heralded a renaissance in memoir when it was published in 1995. It was a New York Times paperback bestseller for more than a year, was selected as one of the best books of 1995 by dozens of periodicals, ranging from The New Yorker and The Washington Post to Time,People, and Entertainment Weekly, and was named one of the ten Notable Books of 1995 by the American Library Association. The book won the PEN/Martha Albrand award for best first nonfiction work, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was given the Texas Institute of Letters Prize for nonfiction.
Cherry has likewise been on a plethora of bestseller lists: The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle,New York Newsday, New York Post, The Boston Globe, and Book Sense. In addition, it was a New York Times Notable Book and an Entertainment Weekly Best Book of the Year.
Mary Karr currently teaches literature and creative writing at Syracuse University, where she is the Jesse Truesdale Peck Professor of English Literature, and lives in upstate New York with her son, Dev Milburn.
“—The smart sassy, wickedly observant voice first met in The Liars’ Club.”
—The Washington Post
“—[Mary Karr] proves herself as fluent in evoking the common ground of adolescence as she did in limning her anomalous girlhood…the self-portrait Karr draws in this volume is that of a girl avid to grow up and yet reluctant to relinquish her remaining innocence.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“—A fully achieved, lyrically rendered memoir of a bright young girl’s coming of age in the seventies.” —Joyce Carol Oates,The New York Review of Books
“—Cherry is about the dizzy funk of female teen sexuality, and Karr captures the innocence and dirt of it, the hunger and the thrill, with exquisite pitch . . . Karr continues to set the literary standard for making the personal universal.” —Entertainment Weekly
“—No one tells stories like Karr . . . the voice of the young Mary is funny,
profane, eloquent, shameless.” —USA Today
“—A bittersweet look at first kisses, first loves and first times . . . it is also a layered examination of the many ways in which we grow from children to adults, assembling ourselves as unique individuals.” —Los Angeles Times
You grew up near Port Arthur in east Texas, and Cherry does a great job at communicating what that was like. In what ways do you think growing up there held you back? In what ways do you think it helped you?
It’s a little like asking how you would be if you were not yourself. The poet Louise Gluck has some great lines: “How ignorant we all are most of the time, seeing things only from the one vantage, like a sniper.” Of course, it was a tough place to grow up; it has a high suicide rate. But like it or not, a certain amount of suffering breeds a kind of vigilance into us, and I guess as a writer that is a good thing. It teaches you to pay attention, puts you on alert. I think of the Mark Twain line: “Nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of a hanging.” Also, the idiom of the place is infused in my fiber. In what ways did it hold me back? I can’t imagine. It would have been nice to have more books.
Cherry really captures the tension that many teenagers feel between conformity and rebelliousness, between wanting to do whatever is necessary to become one of the “chipper, well dressed girls” and wanting to stand out from the oppressive atmosphere of sameness. How do you think the countercultural winds that were blowing in the early seventies answered both of these needs? Do you think this tension plays itself out differently today?
There’s an outlaw tendency innate to adolescence, but I also came of age when a lot of powerful chemicals were in evidence. Thanks to drugs and alcohol I drove into a lot of objects that had more molecular density than I do. I also learned about funerals early. The book opens when I’m moving to California with this bunch of surfers who hollowed out a board to transport a brick of pot and various pharmaceuticals. Most of them went to prison. Two were suicides. One vanished into the Witness Protection Program. The only ones thriving today are me and my pal Doonie, and we both stopped drinking and drugging more than a decade ago. That says something about how the countercultural winds blew over me.
As for kids today, either I’m in psychotic denial or my son seems way smarter than I was. Does he have the teenager’s need to act recklessly as a way of defining himself apart from his nagging parents? Absolutely. The fact that he plays three sports gives him an outlet I gave up when I discovered the wonderful world of pharmaceuticals. That said, I pray a lot.
The teenage Mary found a lot of solace from female friends like Meredith and Stacy but also felt drawn to the largely all-male surfer crowd of Doonie and his friends. Can you compare the different things that you got out of your friendships with girls and those with boys? Which have proven more durable?
Actually, I was sort of driven to hang out with boys as much as drawn to them. Meredith disappeared on me first, into her relationship with her boyfriend. Then she and Stacy went away to college at a time when most other girls wouldn’t be seen in public with me. So I took up with Doonie and the guys when my girl posse vanished. Having a great dad probably permitted me to pal around with guys in a way that some women don’t. But the major characters in this book—male and female—still stand among my best pals. Clarice is still the funniest woman I know. And before Meredith died of liver cancer last year, I was traveling, but we talked at least once a day till the end. Stacy was in New York two years back when I scattered my mother’s ashes. So was Doonie, the ex-dope dealer. He and John Cleary, whose first kiss stopped my heart, helped me clean out the house I grew up in three years ago. They showed up with trucks and boxes and this crew of burly guys. I told them all in advance what period the book would cover and was very lucky that they all seemed to love it, or at least no one brandished a firearm in response. Each one has done amazingly well. Meredith was a lawyer. John’s in sales in L.A. Clarice has a great job in business managing boatloads of logistics stuff. Stacy runs an ad agency she started. Doonie runs a multimillion-dollar construction business on the coast and still surfs every day. So these hometown friendships have proved extremely durable regardless of gender.
One of the things that stands out in Cherry is your mother’s frank, even defiant openness about sex. How did her attitude affect your approach to sexual matters as a teenager?
I think we’re hard-wired to be private about our sexual activities, especially where parents are concerned. From the time I was a teenager, my mother’s candor about subjects like masturbation and birth control horrified me, but perhaps that ultimately endowed me with a more candid acceptance of carnality in the long run. When my son was little—say, seven, eight, nine—I used to be able to talk frankly to him about AIDS and birth control and now if we’re watching a movie and kissing comes on, he tends to leave the room.
Since the publication and success of The Liars’ Club, you have been associated with memoir and its resurgence. In your opinion, what role does fiction and fictionalization play in that genre? What about in your work in particular?
Don’t make shit up. Period. I read with horror some textbook on memoir that says, “just make it up and see if it’s true,” which is horse dookey. As a memoirist, I strive for veracity. Still, these books are acts of memory, not acts of history, but the reader understands at this point in literary history that the memory is subjective and ergo flawed. The friends and kinfolk about whom I’ve written all tend to be well armed. So I’d be loathe to manufacture stuff about them. Obviously you reconstruct dialogue. People have asked how I remember all this stuff, and of course I’ve only convinced myself that I do. But if you don’t remember something, or a memory seems unlikely, confess it to the reader—whom I consider a kind of partner in the enterprise, rather than some dupe or adversary. My pals and my sister all read both my books in manuscript, and I’ve had no corrections beyond spelling and miniscule points of fact. But before Meredith died, she asked that I alter a passage from Cherry she feared would hurt her mother. So I did. But to enter the memoir stadium prepared to lie is like deciding to play football without being hit. If you don’t remember, call it fiction. It’s how it’s written anyway that will determine its value, not the actual events.
Your first forays into writing were as a poet. Can you describe the process of turning to memoir? What role has your background in poetry played in the writing of Cherry and The Liars’ Club? Has the success of these two books affected your self-definition as a writer?
Joyce once said that everybody starts out to be a poet and then realizes it’s too hard. I published an essay in Parnassus called “A Memoirist’s Apology” about how that’s true. Poetry privileges music and prose privileges information.
One of the things Cherry talks about is how poetry saved my life. Words literally fed me, in a eucharistic sense. Taking somebody else’s words into the meat of your body is to be nourished by another person’s passion, transformed by it. It’s like communion, also, in the sense that reading binds us as a community—to know others have felt as you do, or to glimpse grand, noble, or terrifying feelings you’re not otherwise privy to. It flexes your compassion muscle. Plus poetry’s so portable; so easy to download into your head. No other art form that I know of is comprised of such common tools. The same language everybody uses to get butter passed is what makes Shakespeare. With lyric poetry, you can hold in your mind an entire artistic experience, not abridged, not telescoped, not just the melody, not just a generalized image minus light and brushstroke. The whole thing. It’s available to you while you’re pumping gas at the 7-11.
Success has affected my self-definition in that I have more money. Writers pooh-pooh that idea, but it’s a huge deal.
How did the experience of writing Cherry differ from that of writing The Liars’ Club?
With The Liars’ Club, I had this great inherited idiom, my father’s language mostly, which was also the language of east Texas where I grew up. When you describe somebody with an ample backside, you might say she has a butt like two bulldogs in a bag. The sentence is graphic and florid, poetic and hilarious. It also operates right at the bounds of what the public can stand in terms of propriety. As soon as I stopped trying to sound like Eudora Welty and let myself write in my own childhood tongue, the gates of The Liars’ Club swung open.
The Liars’ Club narrative was also inherited like the language. It’s the kind of family coming-of-age tale we all tell whenever we make a friend or fall in love.
With Cherry, I felt I was inventing a language, wrenching it out, which was not so different than writing poems for me: there are lots of experiments and myriad failures. Once I hit the voice, or the idea of several voices, (Cherry changes tense and person to try to capture the angst or ardor of different ages) I still needed to find some narrative truth of the period. I threw out about 500 pages before accumulating stuff and, before the last draft, tossed two-thirds again as much as saw print. With Cherry I also lacked anonymity—I couldn’t bullshit myself that nobody would read it. When The Liars’ Club sold so massively, I was thunderstruck, having written it doubting anybody I wasn’t kin to would read it at all. Writing Cherry, I started out feeling conspicuous from the git-go till the tale got kick-started. Then I magically forgot all that through some massive preoccupation with the work. Or psychotic denial.
What writers did you like to read when you were young? Which were most influential in your development as a writer? Which helped you the most in your personal life as you negotiated its difficulties?
Starting when I was four or five, I began to memorize poems, and by the time I was seventeen, I’d memorized Shakespeare and cummings by the yard, Eliot and Frost. Great writing truly makes you feel less lonely. In personal terms, it helps you the way love does sort of (love being the ultimate palliative). I read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in high school. The French Existentialists—who don’t really improve one’s mood one whit—do teach you to observe suffering in a way, and inadvertently, they offer a stoic response as an example. Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor seemed to be talking about my people in a way Salinger wasn’t—much as I loved him.
Why are there so many men’s coming-of-age memoirs and so few by women?
Male adolescence saturates the culture anyway. Look at most rock ‘n’ roll. One reason I wrote Cherry was to plug a hole I perceived in the literary canon. I taught classes in memoir at places like Tufts and Syracuse, and women seem to pole vault over adolescence.
There’s one kink in that observation: aberrant sexual stuff. About such events, women writers seem way loquacious. Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings meticulously describes being raped around twelve, all the conflicting feelings. But, when she gets knocked up in high school, the boy and all the specific events are just skated over. Same as Katherine Harris’s controversial The Kiss. She writes with great frankness about her mother taking her to the gynecologist to be de-flowered and later about her affair with a long estranged father. But when she becomes sexually active with a boy at Stanford, those episodes are dismissed with a single sentence containing almost no detail. Frank McCourt has no problem writing explicitly about “interfering with himself” all over Ireland, and so does [Frank] Conroy, but teenage girl masturbation just isn’t done, even in fiction. Although Mona Simpson’s Anywhere but Here deals with these feelings in fiction…
That’s partly because no language exists for female sexuality at this age at all. Look how common the parlance is for all this stuff for guys—there’s no female equivalent to the words for male erections “chubby” or “woody.” Those words are light-hearted and almost childishly stupid sounding. This is a very libidinous culture in terms of imagery meant to stimulate or simulate male longing. Boys are able to tease each other openly about taking showers that are too long or ogling Victoria’s Secret catalogs, even in front of their parents. In There’s Something About Mary, we have Cameron Diaz using male ejaculate as hair gel. Yea, it’s supposed to be gross, but try to picture a female equivalent.
Is there any difference between the male and female adolescent sexual experience?
Obviously, I’ve no idea, and no one elected me to speak for my gender. The common wisdom says young girls feel the same as boys only less strongly, claiming the feelings are identical but guys feel more. It seemed my teenage sexual feelings differed in quality, but were of equal intensity.
Guys certainly get to talk more openly about their longing and sound more action-oriented. “I wanted to ask her to the prom,” “I wanted to peek in her window and see her bra,” etc. In Cherry, my fantasy wasn’t boffing John Cleary into guacamole, or being boffed. It was him skating over to me with a long-stemmed red rose. That had gut-wrenching ardor attached to it, strangely enough. Real passion. How can you write about that as sexual? It doesn’t ding the cultural bell. Also, there are these humiliating rituals your crushes prompt. You write some guy’s name on your notebook eight thousand times. Who wants to admit that?
What are you working on now?
It’s a secret, the prose I’m hammering on. But I just finished the introduction to a new edition of Eliot for Modern Library. I write lectures on poetry and memoir through the academic year and for speaking engagements. And I always scribble my ladies verses. Plus love letters.