helen macdonald and mary karr with kathryn schultz!


2016 march 24, 92Y:  love love love.  mary karr is dry and witty, and helen macdonald is like a unicorn -- charming, smart, self-deprecating, all with a sense of humor.  i heard that karr specifically asked to do this event with macdonald, and they were great together.

(my apologies for the terrible photo; the 92Y doesn't allow photos; and this was the best i could get.)

as they were doing their readings -- karr read from her newest book, the art of memoir:

mary karr:  i'm the warm-up band, and i'm more than happy to be the warm-up band for helen.

MK:  no one elected me the boss of memoir, but people have been stupid enough to pay me for it so whatever.

MK:  (about memoir)  there's something about that single voice crying out in the wilderness about being a human being.

MK:  when i was a little girl, i wanted to not be an asshole.

then macdonald read a poem from shaler's fish and talked through h is for hawk, explaining the arc of the book and reading short passages as she moved along:

helen macdonald:  when i talk about hawks, i generally start to do the movements.

HM:  (talking about carrying her hawk around town)  kids would yell out, "harry potter!", which ... it's a hawk, not an owl.

HM:  when you're grieving, you can't be you anymore.  you have to be someone else.  to be able to contain that grief, you can't be yourself.

then onto the conversation:

kathryn schultz:  (to helen)  you had been writing poetry before.  what made you turn to memoir instead?  did you know in advance what form you wanted?

HM:  what had happened with me and the hawk was a story.  and it was an old story; it's what's happened to a lot of people.  this kind of was classical myth, and i thought this wasn't a story about me but a story told through me.

HM:  i liked how difficult poetry was.  [...]  but i wanted just to tell the story, and prose, i guess, was the only way to think about that.

KS:  even the best poets seem to be really marginal to the rest of life [but memoirists don't].  marry, it's been the case that your books have been accepted as revelations, and i'm curious what you think about that and whether your poet self is resentful.

MK:  if that's true, then i've been underpaid.

MK:  i don't know, i mean, i sort of feel like that what happens to my work after i'm done is kind of none of my business.

MK:  part of being a writer is feeling like you're part of a bigger conversation.  what i loved about helen's book wasn't [just the writing or the story] but that she happens to be in conversation with t.h. white.

MK:  there are moments [in writing] when you feel like you're in conversation with the people you admire.  it's like you take your little league slugger in yankee stadium and you feel like you're in the house.

MK:  (to helen)  [it's funny that, as a child] you wanted to be a hawk, and i wanted to be a memoirist.

HM:  you've been more successful than i have.

KS:  (to helen, speaking of t.h. white) one of the things that's very interesting to me about your work is that it's very unusual to see both autobiography and biography in the same book.  did they inform each other?

HM:  it's weird; he was never going to be very much in the book until i started researching him and he began to haunt me.  and then i began to see that the book needed more of him for many reasons, partly because i wanted there to be more than one voice.  but, also, i wanted to try and see through his eyes, like i tried to see through the eyes of a hawk.  writing the book was kind of like riding a half-wild animal.

MK:  i know you'd have written a proposal, but i'm assuming the book morphed as it went along.

HM:  oh, totally.

KS:  mary, i want to ask you about harry cruz.  as it happens, harry cruz also wrote a novel called the hawk is dying.  it seemed to me in reading your new book [the art of memoir] that cruz occupied a fairly central role in terms of shaping your own sense of what's possible in prose, in what can be written about your own life.

MK:  i was living in cambridge -- in cambridge, MA, whereas ms. macdonald is from the original cambridge.  i sort of finagled my way into the academic ghetto there.  [...]  i would go into lamont library, and there was a memoir section, and i was the only person who checked out [the biography of a place] in thirteen years.  [she says she checked it out six times and was immediately taken by the first page.] it was redneck voice, and you know immediately that he's cutting a deal with you that he's telling you a story of apocrypha and family myth and he's desperately trying to reinvent himself and he doesn't want to be a redneck.

KS:  helen, i mean this in the best possible sense:  your book is so weird.  [in that it's part memoir, part autobiography, part biography, part training manual, etcetera.0

HM:  thank -- thank you?

MK:  it's a good thing.

KS:  did you have any influences?  did you have any models?  did you read something that made you think here's the range of possibility?

HM:  i knew i wanted a lot of genres.  in terms of influences, i could bring in a bunch of stuff.  one of my favorite memoirs is by henry green called pack my bag.  [he's a very privileged person, but] it's a book by a man who's convinced he's going to die and he needs to make a reckoning.  and the prose is just like nothing else.  he just went for it.

HM:  but, actually, in the physical act of writing, i found it interesting that i couldn't read any literary fiction.  good writing sticks to you.  i listened to a lot of audiobooks of agatha christie.  and shakespeare on the radio.

MK:  it's so funny.  i can't not read.  i feel like i'd be so lonely, so sad, if i weren't reading.

HM:  i'd go bird-watching.

MK:  that's right.  you're actually interested in the world.  i'm interested in being home in my pajamas.

audience Q&A:

Q:  what do you turn to when you despair?

MK:  do you know why we wear black in new york?  because we can't get any darker.

HM:  i trust that, so far, despair only lasts so long.  trusting in time.

MK:  i pray and talk to jesus.  i know some people might laugh at that, but it's true.

MK:  i ask myself, where is God in this?  like, where is -- i guess, if you don't believe in God, you can ask, where is the light?  and often it's about finding what you can do for someone else.

Q:  do you need to fortify yourself to delve into such painful material?

MK:  yes.

MK:  someone said to me the other day, were you a cheerleader?  and i said, do i look cheerful to you?

KS:  [let's talk about craft.  how do you go about writing?]

HM:  you have to be pretend to be someone who's brave.

MK:  i move from place to place

[KS talks about the criticism of memoir and how women get called self-absorbed if/because they write memoirs and in the "i."]

HM:  [talks about being called self-absorbed]

MK:  so was st. augustine.