Mary Karr, the tough talking best-selling author and poet, told a gathering of more than 200 people at McNally Amphitheatre on Tuesday, March 20, that memoirists have the duty to tell the truth about their lives as they experienced it.
Speaking at a forum organized by the Fordham University Center on Religion and Culture, Karr said that a memoir is not an “act of history, but of memory” and thus the truth is subjective. Nonetheless, the writer must be honest in recounting the experience and emotion of a life lived, otherwise the story becomes a work of fiction.
Karr, whose chronicle of her East Texas childhood, The Liar’s Club (Penguin, 1995), spent a year on the New York Times best-seller list, said that readers don’t expect an annotated history of events, but neither will they accept outright fabrication, as in the case of James Frey’s now-discredited memoir, A Million Little Pieces (Doubleday, 2003).
“By the time I was writing Liar’s Club, the reader understood that it’s an innately corrupt form, so that I could reconstitute dialogue and skip whole years when stuff didn’t happen,” said Karr, who engaged in a conversation about truth in memoir and poetry with Brennan O’Donnell, Ph.D., dean of Fordham College at Rose Hill. “At one point I make a 13-year leap in The Liar’s Club and my editor kept calling me saying, ‘How are you going to get across that 13-year gap?’ I finally called her one day and said, ‘How about ‘Thirteen years later, comma?’ The reader understands that I’m not writing the history of Mary Karr for perpetuity, but that I’m recreating an internal, subjective experience.”