In her work, and in all things, honesty is Erin Lee Carr‘s only policy. The 29-year-old writer and director produced a heartbreaking and detailed documentary in HBO’s Mommy Dead and Dearest, and has done the same in “Drug Short,” an installment of Netflix’s docuseries Dirty Money. She will be candid in her book, to come early 2019, about her relationship with her legendary father, the late journalist (and City Paper alum) David Carr. She’ll be even more forthright this Monday, as she tells a story about how he dealt with criticism at Pop-Up Magazine‘s Warner Theatre live show.
Monday, Feb. 12, is the third anniversary of David’s death. Getting up on the Warner stage and telling a story about him on that day will be the furthest thing from easy for Erin. “I hope I don’t cry through it,” she says. “I can’t control if I cry. It’s going to be an emotional day, so I’m just going to have to practice a bunch and practice the not crying part.” It’s the first time she will talk about her father, a person she called and asked for advice all the time, in front of such a large audience. She says if she’s 1/8 the speaker he was, she’ll be fine.
Recently, City Paper caught up with her to talk about her Pop-Up performance, her father, and some of what was said in the 1,900 emails he sent her.
WCP: How did this collaboration come about?
Erin Lee Carr: My friend had been in Pop-Up and she spoke so highly of it. So, I knew about it. I was asked to be on a podcast called the Longform Podcast, and I did this interview with Aaron and it just was this really longform amazing conversation. Pop-Up, I think, listened to it and were like, “Hey, this seems like the type of person who could tell a good story.” They actually reached out to me and said, “Do you have any ideas that you could pitch for Pop-Up?”
WCP: Did you immediately know you would tell a story about your dad or was it a winding road to get there?
ELC: I was right in the middle of taking some time off to finish the book. The book for Random House centers around his communication with me, these 1,900 emails he sent—words of wisdom surrounding mentorship, friendship, health, sobriety, and how to do the next great thing. Automatically, it was like maybe there’s a chapter in the book that could be applicable to Pop-Up that can start this process of trying to put a book out into the world.
WCP: He really sent you 1,900 emails?
ELC: Yes, it’s like 1,946. Obviously, a lot of them are like “Hey, get some bread!” or “Pick up your phone, idiot!” One of my favorites is “Only idiots and drunks have a full voicemail. Clean it up.” Like, thanks a lot. I don’t like listening to voicemails. So there’s those, but then there’s these beautiful emails. That’s what the book is about. It’s about those conversations, it’s about his death, it’s about what you do after somebody dies. Not grief, but more technologically based with all the data of the emails. I wanted it to feel very 21st century.
WCP: What can you say about the story you’ll be telling on stage?
ELC: First off, I’m incredibly thrilled and honored to be involved in that lineup. I took one look at it, and said somebody’s an outlier here. It feels so wonderful to be included in such an amazing cast. I always like to handle these subject matters with humor, so the story is about my dad’s relationship with criticism and what he taught me. There’s some Twitter elements, there’s some yelling. It’s about what, as a critic, was his relationship with criticism, and what did that mean in terms of the internet? What does it mean now that he’s not here and that people can be critical of him? What is it like to be his kid and watch that? There’s so many elements packed up in a shorter story. There will be stuff on the screen, me reading, and a video clip.
WCP: So how did he deal with criticism?
ELC: We don’t have to know a lot about David Carr to know that he was open to criticism. His book, The Night of the Gun, is literally where he investigates himself in all of the moral complexities that occurred in his past life as a drug addict. I’ve always had this very averse reaction to when people criticize me. But you just have to surround yourself with the right people and they’ll be critical but they will make the thing better. That’s what he always did when it came to articles or his column or when he was with A. O. Scott doing “The Sweet Spot.” He would just go on Twitter and retweet people who were saying crappy things. We could all choose to do that a bit more.
WCP: The day of the show is also the third anniversary of his death. Were you conscious of that when you agreed to tell your story?
ELC: Oh my God, so brutal. I literally saw that and said, “Ugh! Is this a sign that I should be doing this? Is it a sign that I should not be doing this?” I do not get up in front of thousands of people on a routine basis. It’s going to make me sweat, it’s going to make me nervous. And that day is a really difficult, emotional day for me. So, it’s like adding those things together, I almost didn’t know if I could do it. But I was like ‘hey man, this is it, I think I’m supposed to do it.’ Last year on the 12th, I went to dim sum and I took a disco nap, and I wrote, and I spent time with my best friend. It was a bunch of self-care. Like, what are the things my dad loved? I can think about him, I can read his book. It’s a day that I just take off and people don’t bother me. This is going to be kind of the opposite.
WCP: How has your perspective changed on the subject of your story in these three years?
ELC: For the first year after a parent dies, after anybody in your life who’s close to you dies, you have a level of shell shock you can’t escape. It’s your first birthday without them, it’s the first time you can’t call them, “Oh my God, I deleted that voicemail.” There are these moments of firsts that are so painful. It’s almost like you’re not focused on anything else, you’re just trying to get through it. I actually got a lot done in that first year. I put a movie out and I got sober. It looked on paper like I was doing a lot of stuff, but in reality, I was stunned by what had happened. In the following two years, there became this momentum because my dad, just in the way that he lived his life and the way he communicated with people and how he helped other people, made me want to be like that. I can’t emulate him, I can’t be him, I will never be his doppelgänger. But I can choose to live my life in a way that feels familiar, and that feels in service to that. It’s this incredible gift that he’s given me, now that he’s no longer here, just to have seen that life so close.
Erin Lee Carr will speak at Pop-Up Magazine: A Night Of Live Stories on Feb. 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the Warner Theatre. 513 13th St. NW. $39.