David Carr Q & A: To Hell and Back, then Back to Hell, Then to the New York Times
David Carr is riding high. That's a bad phrase to use given the subject matter of his latest book. Let's say, after years of struggle, things are going his way for once. The former editor of the late Twin Cities Reader is touring to support his heartbreaking memoir The Night of the Gun. In it, Carr writes about his time spent in Minneapolis getting high, wasted, and in trouble with the law. His approach to the book was to interview people from his past, and report on himself as he would anybody else. Carr will be reading Aug. 14 at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis and Aug. 18 at Common Good Books in St. Paul at 7:30 both nights.
City Pages: How are you? David Carr: Good. I've always been a hopeless fanboy, and Paul Westerberg read my book. I mean, my only role in the Minneapolis music scene was drug-addled fool, and I played it with enthusiasm, but I always loved those Twin Tone bands.
CP: Can you describe the journalism scene in Minneapolis during the 80s and 90s? It seems like a much more robust time for the craft.
DC:It was incredibly competitive. I've worked with a lot of good people in Washington and New York. Are they of a different order or magnitude than the people I worked with in Minneapolis? Absolutely not. I don't know if I've ever worked with a better editor than Claude Peck. I've learned a lot since I've left there. Did I meet somebody who was willing and as able to teach me as Terry Fiedler did at Corporate Report Minnesota? No I did not. The problem with Minneapolis journalism has never been the talent base, it's the level of opportunity there. I think it tends to turn people into crabs in a pot. I was so busy competing with Steve Perry, that I failed to notice that not only was he making a really great paper, he kept finding all these wonderful, talented people that are still doing great things in Minneapolis and elsewhere. One thing I would say: it was a lot more mixed up between music, comedy, journalism, bad guys, club girls. I do think there was a lot more of a kind of kinetic energy where people weren't really in verticals. The rate at which you guys have to file with, you pretty much have to be either working a story or blogging about something, it's this file and face-plant thing. It's not like you're out in the community rubbing up against other communities of interest.
CP: It seems that most people from your past have forgiven you. Did you expect that, or were you prepared for people to hold grudges from things you did decades ago?
DC: I tried not to think about it because, I don't know, it's uncomfortable. I said, 'Oh, I'm going to report this.' Then I got on the airplane and it was just like, 'Ahh. This is going to be awful.' And the first person I saw was the last boss I worked for. And it was just like, 'OK. It's on. Off we go.' And for a lot of people it didn't necessarily require forgiveness. I had been in and out of their life and done good things and bad things and we were sort of evened up. Not in all cases. You know, I was a pretty good friend until I was not, and people tended to remember that. And, you know, I spent an awful lot of sober time in Minnesota. I was there seven or eight years sober, so the amends I needed to make had been made. People tend to forget what you say and watch what you do, and most of them were happy with choices I was making.
CP: You found out a lot about yourself while writing this book, and some things weren't very positive. Are you going through a process of self-forgiveness?
DC: Hmm. Well, I don't know what to say about that. I'm going through a process of public ownership for odious behavior and wonderful behavior. In the past I tended to focus on the wonderful things: that my kids turned out great, that I'm back in the business, that I still have a job writing. I don't think it's up to the self to forgive or not forgive. I don't feel that way. I feel I'm evened up with the people I care about. Do I have significant regrets about what I did? Yes, and I don't think there is any sort of therapeutic process that will make that go away. I don't feel like a bad guy, I feel like a good guy. It isn't like I wake up and look in the mirror and say, 'You're a jerk.' I mean, you and everyone else who calls, the person they want to talk to is the thug. And that's not who I am. I live in New Jersey and have a Ford Explorer, and three kids I adore and a wife I like and a job I like. That's the skin I wake up in. So what seems like a revelation to you and an epiphany is something that occurred organically over 20 or 30 years of my life. It's not going to respond to the kind of therapeutic apparatuses you're talking about. The only meaningful amend is how you live. It's not what you say.
CP: Do you see a connection between your addiction to drugs and alcohol and your voracious appetite for facts and news?
DC: Yes. It's like, when I hang up the phone, will I sit and think and turn over the interview—he seemed nice, or that fun, or that was weird—will I contemplate what I'm going to do tomorrow as my first reading as the author of a book? No. I will walk over to my laptop, get on the grid, work that until I go to one of the little cult meetings I go to. Then I'm going to go out with Patty Calhoun the editor of Westword, who is going to show me all around Denver. And why is that? I sort of know Denver. Well, in two weeks, I'm going to be back to cover the convention. It's just like, what can I find out? It's less about, 'oh, and then I'll really kick butt (at the convention).' It's just that thing that I can't have or don't know is of a real primal interest to me. Maybe I'm making that sound really complicated; it's not. I think my wife would tell you it's not very attractive to be around. And the book was a whole other level of that. Until my wife started talking to friends in front of me about what I was like when I was working on the book, I had no idea was a raving asshole I was, how maniacally obsessed. I was essentially a hairy, non-hygienic person in a cabin in the Adirondacks that they would come and see every once in a while. Not a pretty thing to crack the door on. I wrote the book in three months. There's a secret to that: you don't wait for the muse to come. You just start typing.
CP: Do you take that attitude toward all your writing?
DC: I think the muse lives in the hands. I think writing is a verb. That's part of the reason I enjoy blogging; my first thought is often my best. Although it's weird, I liked working on a book and would do it again if I could think of something someday. I mean, I really did. I liked it a lot. Admittedly, I did it in three months. I was in this cabin, one of my daughters was up there with me. I would write, then I would read Melville, or Proust, or Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, or Norman Mailer. And I would think, 'I'm like a cartoon here! I'm a writer reading books and working on a book, all summer long! I did that.' Then when I handed it in, everybody started treating it like a book. That totally freaked me out. I was like, 'That's just my idea of a book.' And immediately the mechanism takes over and begins turning it into a book. I felt like I was sort of pretending. It didn't feel real.
CP: Do you worry that from now on, you will forever be labeled 'the writer that used to be a cocaine addict'?
DC: No, I don't. I'm part of the people at the Times that are going to cover the convention. And they didn't do that because they thought my book was good or terrible. They just know I'll do a good job for them there. I have a 20-year professional history to point to. Yes, I tried drinking again, but it's not like I fell off the map or missed deadlines. I worry about being 'that guy' in terms of who I am in the elevator or something like that. Like I was in Bryant Park the other day, and people were staring at me trying to figure out who I was. And my answer is I'm nobody special, keep moving. I still want to be able to go and do my job. In terms of having a rep, yeah I have a rep of excellent, steady production as a hardworking journalist. Not brilliant, not the best writer who ever lived, but a stand-up guy who turns in his work and mostly gets it right. That is my reputation.
CP: It's one thing to reveal all your secrets and past misdeeds to your family, but how did you feel exposing these things to the general public?
DC: I never really hid that. When I got hired at Washington City Paper, I let them know that I had significant issues with substances, and it came up in the course with my interviews at the Times as well. But if I thought it would hurt my ability to do my job, or if it does, I would not do it because I like my job. Maybe I'll end up on the defensive, I'm not sure. The book hasn't been out there long enough to know. My work sometimes makes people angry, like any good reporter. But you know what? Ann Coulter had already called me a crackhead, I'd already had my picture on Bill O'Reilly as a drug addict. I was sort of used to it. One other thing they're going to know about me is that I can write a pretty good book. I'm happy about that.
CP: Are you the luckiest guy you know?
DC: By a million miles, I would say.
Carr will be reading Aug. 14 at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis and Aug. 18 at Common Good Books in St. Paul at 7:30 both night.
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