On January 16, 1955, Mary Karr was born the second daughter of J. P. Karr and Charlie Marie (Moore) Karr in Groves, Texas, in the Port Arthur region. Karr called her hometown Leechfield because of its location amid the oil fields and refineries of East Texas. As she observed in The Liars’ Club, her father worked in one of the refineries and frequented the local American Legion “liars’ club,” while her artist mother thought of herself as a Bohemian Scarlett O’Hara. When she was eleven, Karr wrote in a notebook that her goal in life was to write poetry and autobiography.
Karr traveled to Los Angeles after her high school graduation and plunged into the counterculture. Later that year, she enrolled at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. She eventually received an M.F.A. from Goddard College in 1979. At Goddard, Karr studied with the novelist and memoirist Tobias Wolff—who influenced her enormously—and the poets Robert Bly and Robert Hass. In 1980, Karr moved to Boston, where she worked various jobs in the computer industry while continuing to write and publish poetry. In 1983, she and poet Michael Milburn married; they later had a son, and they divorced in 1991, an event that spurred her to write her first memoir. Karr has taught at several colleges and universities, including Tufts, Emerson College, Harvard, Sarah Lawrence, and Syracuse University, where she became the Jesse Truesdale Peck Professor of Literature.