Beneath her charcoal sweater, dark denim and fashionably buckled gray leather boots, Mary Karr is still a pool-shootin', crawfish-catchin', Texan hurricane of candor. She connected easily Monday afternoon with a room full of aspiring writers dressed in jumpsuits emblazoned with the words "Allegheny County Jail."
The 55-year-old author, who spoke Monday night as part of the Drue Heinz Lectures, answered inmates' questions with the same unvarnished brand of storytelling that made her three memoirs -- "Lit," "Cherry" and "The Liars' Club" -- so popular with readers.
"Reading and writing saved my life. Both my parents drank. My daddy drank himself to death," the author said, adding, "I'm an alcoholic and a drug addict and I'm 21 years clean."
The author, who teaches memoir and poetry at Syracuse University, said she tried to escape the warlike atmosphere of her parents' marriage and childhood home by reading poetry.
"People think of me as a bad-ass. I was a little nerd ball. I was a lonely kid. I was weird."
She said she still gets chills when she recites a 5,000-year-old poem titled "Liar" by the Greek poet warrior Archilochus. The room fell silent as she recited it Monday .
"I would read something like that and it made my heart soften, it made my heart bigger," she said.
Asked to give advice to budding writers, she invoked Etheridge Knight, the African-American poet who told her "to write out of my heart, not out of my head." And the wisdom of Tobias Wolff, her classmate in graduate school, who said, "Take no care for your dignity. Just tell your stories."
Ms. Karr would rather write poetry but knows it doesn't pay.
"If they didn't pay me to write these books, I wouldn't do it. It's too hard to go back into those places," she said.
"I never felt like not drinking. I'm a relief-seeking missile. I don't want to be disappointed. I don't want to be hurt. I don't want to be scared."
Ms. Karr, who converted to Catholicism during her struggle with addiction, lives in New York City, where she volunteers at her church's soup kitchen and sponsors single mothers with children who are trying to break free of drug or alcohol addiction. How did she discipline herself to keep from reverting to old, bad habits, one man asked.
"I didn't want to be my mother," she said.
No such gathering ends without a question about writer's block, which, Ms. Karr said, is solved by, "the application of your ass to the chair. Don't answer the phone. Don't go online. There's just only so much coffee you can drink."
What makes a person a good writer, one man asked.
"Being fearless. ... Knowing the nature of your talent."
To illustrate, Ms. Karr recalled one of her students, who nearly got thrown out of school, turned in work that sounded like pale imitations of Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce. When she asked him why, he admitted that he wanted to look as smart as his classmates.
"Smart doesn't make a great writer. It's all south of your neck," she told him.
The student, Phil LaMarche, wound up landing a book contract and is the author of the novel, "American Youth."
Marylynne Pitz can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1648.