It has been four years since the sudden death of New York Times columnist David Carr. His daughter Erin Lee Carr, a documentary filmmaker, has written a memoir out this month about her relationship with her father and how he influenced her career.
To discuss her book, "All That You Leave Behind," Carr (@erinleecarr) joins Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson.
"I think David Carr in his professional career, personified honesty, directness, and basically looking at institutions in a way that, you know, brought it down to all of our levels," Carr says. "He was also a deeply ambitious person. And so when I was growing up and I wanted to engage and do media, he was like, 'Yeah, you know ... step up, get ready.' He wanted me to succeed and not fail."
Carr says there is a whole side to her dad that wasn't obvious in his public life, particularly his "softness."
"This book is like full of harshness and intensity, but it's also incredibly soft and tender and loving," she says. "It's just like there's people who got to be mentored by him — Ta-Nehisi Coates, Lena Dunham, you know, I could say 15 people right now — and they got some of these lessons, and I got access to these lessons because I was his kid."
On the advice her father gave to her
"I think that it was really practical, great advice. I mean, he said, 'Get to a meeting 30 minutes before. Always do two to three hours of research on the person, have 10 questions prepared.' You know, I think it's just be prepared and know your stuff. And he said, 'Do your [expletive] homework.'
"Well he said, 'Talent is cheap.' Because he saw that I had talent, but he said, 'I've seen others that have talent.' You couldn't rest on your laurels. You couldn't rest on being a Carr. It had to be about, you know, showing up."
On why she wanted to write a book about her father
"So the book is about his e-mails to me, and he died incredibly early in his life. He was 58. He died of metastatic lung cancer that he did not know that he had. And I said, 'I have to contribute to this.' There is a whole side of my dad that people didn't know, and my dad was the author of 'The Night of the Gun,' this incredible memoir about going from being a crack addict to a writer at 'The New York Times.' And I know that he had a second book in him, like you know what I mean? He just didn't get to it.
"Yeah I mean, he was a writer. That was one of his love languages. And every year on our birthday, he would write us a long note about being who we were and who we were becoming. And so I felt like I kept reaching for his guidance and mentorship. I was a fairly troubled young person, and I think that he was great at not being like, 'Hey, like figure this out.' Like he was going to help guide me and ... the way in which he did that was through these e-mails."
On the best lesson she learned from him
"A big part of the book is that you do not have to drink to exist in this world. He was a sober person. He suffered from alcoholism. I was somebody who was suffering through alcoholism, and it was almost like I could not conceive of a reality that did not involve cheap white wine.
"I think that the whole concept of open bar would just slay me. Like I would go to events with my dad or I would go to events from my own stuff, and I just like I would just get blackout drunk, and there's no way I don't think to have a deeply ambitious career and trajectory when you're half in the bag all the time. And so basically when it really reached a head, he said, 'You should stop drinking for a month,' and I said, 'I will stop drinking for a week.' And he said, 'No, you will stop drinking for a month and you'll see how it goes.' And the reason why I bring this up is not because you know, it's like you need to know David Carr to know this, but I think that to have somebody in our lives that can see us clearly like I could see that I was really troubled was a huge gift. And so like I would not be here. I would not be talking to you unless I had a very honest relationship with someone in my life.
"He modeled me to be like himself and that was both exciting because he had a protégé, but is also deeply frustrating because I was like an asshole like him. So I think that we had a lot of like, we had conflict about that."
On her father's views of technology and journalism
"It was deeply thrilling to be a part of. I mean, he was somebody that was sort of an unknown writer writing about media, and then suddenly, he had this like global megaphone. He got up to like 425,000 Twitter followers. But it's addictive. I recalled a time in my life where it was more important what was going on in his phone than what we were going to talk about. So how I feel about the internet and texting and Twitter is it is dangerous but also incredible. You know with great power, comes great responsibility."
On what her father would think about Carr writing a book about him
"He would say, 'Who knew?' We knew. That's what he would say to me on the streets of New York.
"It's like we knew that we were big deals. Who knew? We knew! He would say that. Like the first time I ever had a press screening for one of my films, he just leaned in and said that we had a gut feeling that this was going to work out, and yet it has. I mean it hasn't worked out because he's not here. I think a lot of people right now are texting me being like, 'You're killing it. It's going great for you.' I'm like, 'Well, my dad is dead.' Like people keep reminding me to be gracious, but like I'm David Carr's kid and like I wish he was here. I wish that I didn't have to write this. But I think that I really I mean, it's the most profound love of my life, and whatever I can do to honor him and like what he left behind and consider it very thoroughly is what I will do."
Book Excerpt: 'All That You Leave Behind'
By Erin Lee Carr
The Blue House
When I think back to my early childhood home in Minneapolis, my brain conjures up a dim outline of a blue house on Pillsbury Avenue. While it is hard to remember the exact details of the house, the memories of its inhabitants come quite easily. I can picture my hands on the furniture, always trying to spread my mess out onto our sparse belongings. I see my dad putting one of our purple tutus on his head and declaring to no one in particular, “I am TUTU MONSTER,” as he scoops my sister and me up in his arms while we shriek and try to scramble out of his grasp, giggling the whole time. He had a gift for creating worlds.
Our parents shape and create our reality. For a long time we have no sense outside of their worldview.
A while back I spent some serious time digitizing hundreds of decades-old photos tucked away in ancient red photo albums so that I could pull them up in a moment’s notice. The images tell a familiar tale. Two little girls encased in baby buckets, looking up at the bad hair and fashions of the 1980s. Sometimes we are smiling in the photos. More often, though, we are not. We were born without so much as a wisp of hair, so naturally my grandma JoJo took to scotch-taping bows on our heads. She needed people to know that we were baby girls, not boys.
My mother is absent from these photos. It’s just a flurry of aunts and uncles and Mountain Dew cans. My arms are chubby, and I am often reaching out for more. There is no baby book that recounts my first words or steps, but when I asked my dad in my teendom what my first utterance was, you better bet he said DaDa.
Meagan is so tiny in these early images, her body so small it looks like she could evaporate. Our nicknames mimic our stature; as luck would have it, I am known as Beefaroni and she, Noodles. I am often captured with a bottle in hand, and in a couple of photos, trying to grab the bottle from Meagan’s hands.
There’s one photo of my dad in these albums that I studied carefully. It’s not like the others. He is in some sort of rec room, and he is standing up at a podium. He looks like he is clocking in around three hundred pounds, and he has a beard. Not exactly in fighting shape. Other men fill the room. He looks focused and nervous, photographed in midsentence.
I called Uncle Joe. He is warm and charismatic with a bald head and small circular glasses. I’d been remiss in calling. Life had gotten busy.
“Do you remember this photo?” I asked, after describing it to him. “What was he like then?”
Joe paused to think about it. I could tell that he was placating me. This was the second time in ten years he’d had to revisit a past that was very dark for his entire family. My dad spent some serious time excavating the facts of his life for his own memoir, The Night of the Gun. “Well, your dad was a mystery to us. He tried his hand at treatment on numerous occasions, and it just never seemed to stick. We knew—and I think he knew—that this time had to be different. Must have been at a meeting.”
We were the stakes. These little babies needed a parent, and my mother was not going to magically reappear from Texas or Mexico or wherever she was at that time. We needed him. “But didn’t that intensify the pressure?” I asked.
“Well, didn’t your dad always thrive under pressure?”
Why, yes, he did.
As Meagan and I age in the photos, our hair begins to grow and we go from looking like little old men to looking like little girls. Starting around age four, a soft white-and-pink checkered baby blanket starts appearing next to me, as if it were surgically attached. As I sought out other archival material from this time, I came across his column in the Family Times, a local paper that had given him some space to muse about life as a single dad. The column was aptly titled “Because I Said So.” In one installment, he told of how he’d turned away for a second to look for my ever-quiet sister, and before he knew it I had gotten myself into our junker of a car and started backing out of the driveway. The minor heart attacks that surround the life of a young parent astound me.
In those early days in Minnesota we were poor. We needed government assistance just to get by—something I have no shame about and am frankly grateful existed at the time. You can tell our circumstances from the backgrounds in the photos, but you definitely wouldn’t know it to look at Meagan or me. Grandma JoJo was a hawk at rummage sales and would find matching outfits (plus bonnets, no less) for us to wear for family photo ops. My dad, on the other hand, looks pretty ragged. I can see in his face that the financial fear was alive and well. He, alone, was responsible for these two little beings. Sure, his family could help here and there, but they needed their money to stay in their own pockets.
In the photos, he’s always looking at us—his daughters. He isn’t mugging for the camera, like he did in his early party-boy days. Instead, he is watchful, careful, and looks exhausted as hell. Someone caught him cracking a smile in one photo. We are at our grandparents’ and Meagan and I are standing on top of the picnic table. There are garbage bags that hold something bulky underneath. We are told to open the bag and OH MY GOD we each have our very own tricycle to ride! The next photo is me on my trike, in my Easter bonnet, grinning from ear to ear. Dad watches us with parental glee but also relief: Good, something to keep them busy.
Excerpted from ALL THAT YOU LEAVE BEHIND copyright © 2019 by Erin Lee Carr. Used by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
This segment aired on April 19, 2019.
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