From the moment Mary Karr first walked up to me, at a Christmas party with an intimidating population of acclaimed writers, I wanted to hold onto her like one of those toy koalas with a mighty grip. In her skin-tight shift dress and eyelashes that took over the room ("It's Latisse, honey, that's why I look like Bambi"), Mary exuded a kind of confidence and resolve that made me calmer than an urgently chewed Klonopin. Mary's journey from feral Southern child, witnessing both the best and worst of what parents have to offer, to addicted poet, to single mother and sober woman of God has been well documented in her three electric memoirs (The Liars' Club, Cherry, and Lit). But to see it borne out in her day-to-day life is a joy.
Over the course of her adult life, Mary has tirelessly pursued enlightenment and honest, no-holds-barred humanity, even if she does admit to being "a venal bitch who loves to shop for geegaws and make-pretties." But she has never lost the signature peppy aggression and powerful wit that make her such a balm for sore souls.
Mary welcomed me this week into her new apartment, a perfectly appointed one-bedroom that she found after a recent breakup (tip: if you're heartbroken, Mary Karr seems like the ideal person to find you a new spot and to decorate it with playful wallpaper and lacquer accents). Taking a break from her new novel, and having just finished a book of poems, Mary made one of the most casually delicious kale salads I've ever tasted, along with half a loaf of corn bread, and brewed a fresh ginger tea she called "trying to avoid getting fucking sick" tea. Speaking of the F word, in her cabinet I spotted an oversize mug that read simply I'M A BIG FUCKING DEAL. I'm so glad, after everything she's seen, done, and been, that she really seems to know it.
Lena Dunham: So many people I know have been unable to wrap their heads around the mind-set of the people who they think of as the opposing team in this past election, which was Southern and Midwestern white men. You came from a world, and have written memoirs about a world, that probably contains a lot of Trump voters.
Mary Karr: Yeah, all my cousins and people I grew up with voted for Donald Trump. That is correct. But I'm a lefty ho.
LD: You are a lefty ho. Do you feel like your history gives you empathy for the way that Trump voters think, or why they're scared?
MK: Yes, I do. I did a little short thing for The New Yorker called "Donald Trump, Poet" about the vernacular of vitriol and bullying. I grew up in a scrappy little neighborhood. I remember this guy saying to me one time, "Your mother's a whore." He said that based on the fact that my mother was a newspaper reporter and went out at night in the car by herself. I said, "So what? Your nose is flat." I knew to go straight to personal appearance. Part of meditating every day and trying to think about Jesus and stuff like that is about not going to the "So what? Your nose is flat" place.
I've been seeing the language of bullying coming. It's been building in social media and blah, blah, blah, and on Fox News. There's no question. Whether you like Hillary Clinton or not, or Donald Trump, it doesn't matter, you have to admit that he has pushed the boundaries of social propriety. That's what people have liked about him. People who feel dispossessed, who wanted to change. They were voting for change. It's not that they agreed with what he said, but I think they saw it as candor. They saw it as unfiltered. That doesn't offend me at all.
I guess what I'm hoping for, it seems like the left, on the one hand, has to come back as strong as the right has come out, and yet, nobody can deny that Hillary Clinton was the more circumspect candidate. Whether you like her or don't like her, you have to say, if you were trying to talk people out of having a fistfight, it would be better to have her in the room than him.
LD: He would encourage the fistfight.
MK: If you're in the bar and everybody's yelling across a table, she's the one you want to come to talk to everybody, and not him. He's going to escalate it.
I really have to discipline myself not to sink to that "Your nose is flat" level, and also to try to have the conversation [with Trump voters]. We're not going to change each other's minds yelling and screaming at each other, but we're going to have to do something going forward that we're less bunkered. It's the vernacular of Donald Trump that scares me, because I'm afraid that there's no bottom to it.
LD: When you mentioned Jesus, it brought me to another thing that I had wanted to ask you. What's it like to be a person who thinks about and cares about Jesus and has religion in your life but hangs out with the New York literati?
MK: People think I'm an idiot. You just have to understand. I say to my liberal friends, here's the great thing about the Catholic Church. There's a tradition among laypeople like Dorothy Day and whatever, the leftist nuns in El Salvador, of working with the poor. Every religion, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, everybody says, "Take care of poor people and widows and orphans." It's not like it's a particularly Christian thing, but in the Catholic Church particularly, there is a tradition of leftist, hands-on events with the poor, not just write a check, but go work in the soup kitchen and volunteer at Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying.
Anybody who knew me before I became Catholic would agree that I'm a better person. I disagree with a lot of the Church, but no religious thing is about doctrine. All religious things are about practice. I would just say to anybody, "Try any religious practice for 30 days. If you're cynical about religion, pray on your knees every day for 30 days and see if you feel better."
It makes me feel better. I had this amazing thing happen to me in Mass a couple of weeks ago. A guy came up to me. I had my iPad, and there's a thing that lets you follow the readings, the Church readings. I'm looking at that. I'm not reading my email, I'm looking at that. This guy comes up from the back of the church, dressed up in a coat and tie like Uncle Assistant Principal or something. He says, "Could you turn that off?" I said, "Excuse me?" He said, "The light is bothering me." I thought for a minute, I'm trying to be a Christian, and I said, "OK, yeah, sure. I can. Yeah, no problem." Then I sat there and wished him dead during the entire Mass. Then when I was walking out of the church, he came up to me and said, "I'm so sorry. I know there's something wrong with me."
LD: No, he did not.
MK: He did. I was so glad that I had turned it off. I got to help him to feel a little better or whatever, feel like he had some agency in the world. What did that cost me? Do you know what I mean? For me, a lot of times I walk into Mass and I look at people and I think, These are not my people. Invariably, by the end of Mass, I walk out and people look different to me.
LD: That's amazing. Not to bring everything back to Hillary Clinton, though that's just what I'm going to be doing for the next four years, but it's been the most insane moment of taking women and tying their entire legacy and experience to the men they've known and loved. Whether it was people questioning Hillary's ability to lead because of the relationship she potentially did or didn't have with her husband, or whether it was the way that Donald Trump and his cronies talked about women as extensions of their own bodies and brains. I was rereading some articles about you, and in every piece, you always get asked about your relationship with David Foster Wallace, despite your own incredible career. I wonder, does that create rage in you, or do you feel like at this point, it's just a fact of life and you know how to mow past it?
MK: Sometimes people go on and on about David Foster Wallace. As though my contribution to literature is that I fucked him a couple times in the early nineties.
LD: Thank you for your service, Mary.
MK: Thank you. Everybody in America owes me a dollar who read Infinite Jest. I guess having grown up in the period of time that I grew up, I grew up with this. I think women of your generation, they have better underwear. They have better eyebrows. They have better bra technology. Better politics. I think they like themselves a little better. I think the men of your generation are a little better, a little more sophisticated. They're not going to call a woman a whore because she has a job that she goes out at night in a car. You have freed women to talk about the shitty sex of hookup culture and how hard it is to have relationships with other women at your age, through your twenties when you get out of school, those pressures. As I say, I think you've made the all-American menstrual hut.
LD: That means so much. I am menstruating as we speak.
MK: I'm so honored.
LD: I'm doing it right in your chair.
MK: I'm so honored you are. I wish I could.
LD: One of the things I love about you is how you've always been so open about the things a poet needs to do to support themselves, the fact that you wouldn't necessarily be a memoirist if you hadn't been a single mother who needed to take care of her child.
MK: I needed the money.
LD: Do you feel the same way about teaching, or has it become a passion?
MK: Oh, no, the teaching has always been a passion. I've never resented it. The way a lot of writers say, "Oh, God, you know." It's not that I haven't had irritating conversations, and I'm sure the older I get, the crankier I get. But I feel pretty enriched, I've got to say. I'm not that democratic a person. I think I'm an elitist in my personal life and a communist in my politics. You know what I mean?
But I've always had a tender spot for [my students]. I don't know what it is. There's something about that position I feel protective of them. Even the ones who hated me or who I wouldn't have liked in the world, I felt like it was my job to figure out how to get the information into their heads, and in order to do that I had to know, as a professor of mine said once to me, "You have to know what's in there."
LD: This is such a dorky, women's-magazine question, but what would you tell our readers to read to get them through the next year if they're feeling terrified and confused about this moment in history?
MK: Oh, Jesus.
LD: Is there anything that you've read that's made you feel like, "I can survive fucking anything," besides your insane childhood? Besides being Pete Karr's daughter?
MK: Besides being Pete Karr's daughter, what have I read? [Elif] Batuman, my friend who writes for The New Yorker, has a little piece on the Stoics. I think in a strange way, it would be some combination of that [and the] Buddhist thing about detachment. When I first got sober, I used to say all the time, "How can you believe in God, you know, when there was a Holocaust?" And a friend of mine said, "But you're not in the Holocaust."
Yes, we're worried about what's going to happen. We're not in a nuclear war right now. Our hair's not on fire. That doesn't mean I think we should be passive, and shouldn't take action, but I think there should be a reality check. I think people have talked about this election in terms of trauma. I think the language of bullying, if you have been bullied ever, is traumatic. I'm a candy-ass. Everybody thinks I'm a tough girl. I'm a big crybaby. I cry at card tricks. I saw the guy on the ice yesterday with his walker, trying to go over the curb. At night I was praying for him, "God, help that man." You could just see it hurt him to walk. Help him get over the curb.
The Buddhist idea of detachment or the Christian idea of love is the idea, anything like that, anything that explains the concept of kind of let go or be dragged. It's not that we like the Cabinet picks. When somebody says, "So, you think the Trump administration is going to be better than you think?" No, I do not. I don't have an optimistic thing to say about it, but right now, I'm sitting here with a kale salad and one of the most interesting women on the planet, talking about how to be cuter.
How to be cuter, and smarter and faster and funnier at the same time. What can you do? I sent money to Planned Parenthood. I sent money to the American Civil Liberties Union and to various causes that I feel like are threatened. Look for what you can do. This is what I told my students recently when they were talking to me about the election. Within a two-mile radius of this university, there are hundreds of women on welfare who can't get their GEDs. Help them to study for the damn test. Find something to do.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Lena Dunham is also a lefty ho.