Carl Lennertz is a true publishing insider, and he's got the blog of the same name to prove it to prove it. On the HarperCollins blog, he shares details about both the business of bookselling, as well as random news of contests, poetry, credit card advice, memories, and other miscellanea, or, in his words, "books, music, movies, the big picture, and absurd rants." A thirty-year veteran of the book industry, the 53-year-old Long Island native has worked at various bookstores, as well as Book Sense, Knopf and Random House, before landing at HarperCollins, where he serves as VP of Independent Retailing.
But what prompted him to make the leap to becoming an author was his daughter's impending entry into the often-tumultuous teenage years. He began recording mini life lessons for her, about everything from music to eyeglasses to jobs, jealousy, teachers, and time, and soon founds they might be applicable to other parents attempting to bridge the generation gap and share honest advice and memories without being patronizing or condescending. The result, Cursed by a Happy Childhood: Letters from a Dad to a Daughter, was originally published in 2004 with the subtitle "Tales of Growing Up, Then and Now," and was just released in paperback. Interspersed with his quick hits of wisdom are classic albums paired with each essay to add flavor to the piece. It's clear from reading this extended love letter to childhood⎯his own and his daughter's⎯that Lennertz cares passionately about letting kids grown and learn at their own pace, with a little help from books, music, and the community surrounding them. Gothamist emailed Lennertz about his parenting learning curve, city kids vs. rural kids, being a writing "impostor," and the mysterious art of predicting the next bestseller.
How did Cursed by a Happy Childhood come about? Were you originally intending to publish these essays?
No, it began as a diary in my despair after 9/11 and what kind of world lay ahead for my daughter. Then, when George Harrison died, I adapted one of the essays and submitted it to The New Yorker, which is like showing up at Yankee Stadium and saying you’re ready to start in center field. Hilarious that I thought The New Yorker would be interested! But it got me thinking about extending the diary into themed pieces. I was encouraged by a writer friend, and then by Sarah Burnes, an editor and agent who really helped me find an arc for the whole thing.
You write that at first, your wife "seemed much more secure in her parenting style, while I felt thoroughly confused most of the time." When did that start to change, and how have you grown as a parent and a person as your daughter's gotten older?
It changed when I saw a psychologist who unburdened me of my penchant for being too self-critical, and I started going with the flow more. I had to especially find the separation from work as my main definer and take as much pride in being a good father. And in the process lightening up, if that makes sense. “Quality time” is a bullshit notion; it’s quantity.
Did your daughter get to read them first before publication? Which one's her favorite, and what has she had to say about it?
She did, and she didn’t mind anything; I think she loved it and was flattered and even proud of me. I didn’t include anything embarrassing from the outset. Favorite piece? Probably the swearing one.
Was there anything you left out that might have incriminated you?
Oh yes. I stopped at 16 in my life and the more serious drinking and drug challenges of small town life. And I totally avoided any discussions of sex! I was going to have one chapter called Sex. And it would be one line long: Talk to your mother. Those issues were too sensitive and personal and private for the book. Maybe a cop-out; guilty as charged. I chose to lump all of that into a piece about getting lost, of stepping up to edges but not going over.
The overall tone of the book is one of both nostalgia for a simpler time as well as appreciation of modern, city life. What are the biggest differences between how you grew up in North Fork and how your daughter's growing up in Manhattan? What are the advantages and drawbacks to raising a child in a city like New York versus the suburbs or the country?
I started writing thinking my youth was oh so idyllic and hers so bleak. Then I thought about Vietnam and the assassinations, and on a local level, about a pre-Title IX world where girls took home ec and boys shop. And as I wrote, I saw that her world was so wonderful by comparison. It’s cool to be a smart girl with glasses in our current world! Really. And New York is the real world, full of variety as well as danger. There’s so much more opportunity now than before, I feel. The current world situation is so awful and yet, my wife reminds me that she was in Florida during the Cuban missile crisis, and they felt they might go up in smoke any day.
You write that you've become more like your father as you age; is part of that process from you becoming a parent, or do you think that would've happened regardless?
Probably regardless, but I certainly understand his lack of time and attention with his travels and with six kids to deal with. I had one and could barely keep up. He is much more conservative than I, but we both valued setting limits. He was stern about it; we do that in a more loving way, but again, we just have the one. But we were determined from day one not to spoil our daughter. She was welcome to join adults in conversation, and we insisted on good manners.
You write about you and your daughter finding common ground regarding music and other pastimes; do you feel there's less of a generation gap between your generation and hers, versus yours and your parents', or do you have to make an extra effort to understand what she's going through?
Much less of a generation gap now. I feel young for my age and, as you say, we share music, hobbies, movies (especially Napoleon Dynamite!), and more. But I don’t try to be like one of her pals. That would be pathetic. But hell, I am still her pal in a way. A pal with benefits, if you will. And on the matter of politics, my daughter and I can talk about it and agree. In fact, she loved the Bush countdown clock I gave her. My little liberal.
Do you think that most of the lessons you recall in the book, such as your brief, one-puff foray into smoking, are ones your daughter will still have to figure out for herself?
Oh yes, she will. But I hope I can shorten the trip down some of the side roads, or at least help her develop that inner voice that says no. She’s a confident, wise kid.
You hail teachers as being the unsung heroes and major players in children's lives. Do you see teachers as being underappreciated and what can parents do to let teachers know how important they are in their kids' lives?
Teachers are just plain underpaid. The best thing we can do is tell them how thankful we are, and to support fundraisers, to go from the intangible to the very tangible. I don’t begrudge athletes their money and I worry that kids only see the surface of celebs and the bling. Thankfully, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan disgust my daughter as much as they do me. And she loves her teachers, and has a feeling for them that I don’t recall feeling as much. (There’s less of a generation gap now between the teachers and kids, too, which helps.)
One of the biggest changes between your childhood and your daughter's is the Internet. How does that fit into the themes of the book?
It’s so different and the same. The Internet for a kid is just a big dictionary in many ways, though a living one, and the information is newer, which is great. As for music downloading, in our house, she has to pay. Copyright rules, though I’m sure I would’ve burned CDs like a fiend in college, if it was available. As for the IM and cell phone part of the technology picture, she loves text messaging her friends and that’s cool. She feels very connected to her friends, and I’d rather that than hogging the phone, as you and I did when we were teens. You did, didn’t you? Ha. Got you.
You said in another interview that, "We have lived through 20 years of very depressing books about childhood." Was your book a reaction to these negative treatments of childhood? Were there times when you were tempted to go in a darker direction, or did the upbeat tone come naturally?
My book was therapy for me at the beginning, and the upbeat tone came out of wanting to accentuate the positive. A close reading will reveal some dark clouds towards the end of the book, but I made it through that time and here I am, a little wiser. The book title is meant to be a bit ironic, and I had plenty of miserable experiences as a kid, but nothing remotely like the horrifying and sad stories we hear on the news too often.
You call yourself an "impostor" and "pretender" in the world of writing; does this mean it was a hardship for you to write these essays, or are they an aberration? Are there more books in your future?
I was just lucky to have stumbled into the book form of a diary, and the writing was actually fun. But when it hit me that the book was actually going to be published, I freaked a bit. Who would care what I had to say? And I had this old fashioned notion that only real writers deserved to be in book form. I couldn’t see myself with a binding and jacket and all, just like all my writing heroes.
Having said that, while my wee book is not literature and I cringe at some of my naïve writing, I did pick it up and read it again recently, and I was very proud of the relaxed, calming tone that I did maintain throughout the book, and that I never take myself too seriously. Quite the opposite: I poke fun at myself.
I will immodestly say that I felt then and feel now that I have some pretty useful things to say, especially about slowing down and not being quite so crazed about everything. I still practice some things I only learned to do in writing the book! Looking up at the city as I walk, exploring new neighborhoods, taking naps without guilt, and enjoying the hell out of watching our kid grow up.
Note: The book I wished I’d written was Chronicle’s The Three-Martini Playdate a hilarious send-up of parental obsession with kids. Kids should not be the center of the universe; they are along for the ride . . . and us with them.
I do have 3 other projects sketched out, none of them a sequel, but I’m just having trouble finding the time. I edited a book this year, and took some weekends. I taught a marketing class; more weekends. I loved doing both but it knocked out a lot of writing time. Also, I had a greater sense of urgency back when she was 10 and I was writing myself out of a funk. I’ve gone back to diary writing and I’ll see what comes of that.
You wrote about the top ten moments of your first author tour. What advice would you give to a first-timer author in terms of both writing and publicity?
That your first book will probably not sell well, to learn from the experience, and be kind to all around you in the process.
You run HarperCollins's Publishing Insider blog, appropriately named since you've been in the book business, in some form, since the 1970's, from bookstore jobs to helping launch Book Sense. What's the purpose of the blog, and what's your favorite part of running it?
By accident, I adopted a very short style in the blog vs. a longer form. (Though I have a long essay about Woodstock I recently posted.) I love just writing about music, books, pop culture and the links between them, a little each morning and at the end of the day. Yes, I do want to alert readers to new books of ours, but I’ve written up other publishers’ books as well, something I’ve done throughout my career.
You write that you're fascinated by how and why books sell, and one thing I've been learning about the publishing industry is that even veterans cannot accurately predict which books will and won't sell. Are there any insights you're gained from your time in the business?
The beauty of the world of books is that it is completely unpredictable. It is heartbreaking, maddening . . . and why I come in each day looking for a new favorite book to champion. As I think we all do. The joy of a book you love that does well outweighs the disappointments.
My main insight or motto is that all marketing is organic and that it must derive its energy from the book itself⎯the writing, the content. And, that word-of-mouth starts in house. Always.
You also thank the many booksellers who helped promote and talk up your book. How important is word of mouth to a book's success?
Ah, I wrote the answer above before I saw this. Except for the big publicity driven book, which takes off 30 seconds after Oprah or Terry Gross talk it up, word-of-mouth is our lifeblood, and even the big media hit feeds the phenomenon.
You open the book with this quote by Garrison Keillor: "Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known." What does this mean to you and how does it relate to Cursed by a Happy Childhood?
Well, I really wanted a musical quote, from Joni Mitchell or someone like that, but that’s a rights issue, I gather. I found the Keillor quote online and I love him and the quote seemed to sum up the confusing, loop-in-on—itself nature of things.
One thing you didn’t ask and I want to say something about: Lest your readers think I’m even more of a dork than I sound, the 45’s in the book aren’t mine and I didn’t listen to 45’s as a kid. I was a 33 1/3 kid. I’m being foolishly defensive, but I want all to know that, while I loved the top 40 as much as anyone, albums were my food.
Having said that, I love the book design, and I borrowed a cache of 45’s from a friend and I was able to match up the song title to the content of the piece that followed. My favorite tongue-in-cheek one is Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, followed by a piece about trying to be cool, and the Edward Hawkins gospel hit, Oh Happy Day, followed by my piece on religious tolerance. That piece is one of my favorites, along with the ones about cliques, libraries, over-competitiveness and my rant about the “good old days” not being that great!
Cursed by a Happy Childhod: Letters from a Dad to a Daughter is available now; read the first two chapters here. Visit Carl's Publishing Insider blog for the latest book and writing news.