June 2004

Carl Lennertz

Teach your children well
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Rock ‘n’ roll bridges the generation gap Somewhere around the time his 11-year-old daughter grew bored with listening to his Beach Boys mix tapes and started worshipping Britney Spears, it dawned on Carl Lennertz that if he wanted to impart what he knew of life to his only child, he’d better do it soon. Lennertz wasn’t too sure how many actual pearls of wisdom he had to pass along when he began scratching out short, humorous essays that compare and contrast his small-town Long Island boyhood in the ’60s to his daughter’s midtown Manhattan upbringing in the ’90s. As a 20-year veteran of the New York publishing world, Lennertz knew everything about books except how to write one. For that, it took a father’s love, a dash of chutzpah and some of that old-time rock ‘n’ roll to reel in the 40 years between them.

Cursed by a Happy Childhood is Lennertz’s sweet and funny mix tape, a greatest-hits package of parental moments big and small, combined with a fond look back at his own boyhood spent happily lost in the music that changed the world.

“There was a New Yorker cartoon three weeks ago where a little girl says, gee, Mom and Dad, thank you for the happy childhood. Now I have nothing to write about,” Lennertz chuckles by phone from New York. “We have lived through 20 years of very depressing books about childhood, from Mary Karr [The Liars’ Club] to [Augusten Burroughs’] Running with Scissors. I didn’t read those, I didn’t feel that I wanted to, but that was their exorcism. I just sat down one day and started writing to my daughter and thought, geez, I have mostly only good things to talk about.” Lennertz began framing his fatherly missives on the night after George Harrison died. The soundtrack of his life was never far from his thoughts as he assiduously avoided the usual parental topics (sleepless nights, changing diapers, etc.), concentrating instead on less-plowed fields such as “home echhhhh,” getting braces and the joys of comic books. As he wrote, he found that reflecting on his childhood love of rock ‘n’ roll lifted a kind of inner velvet rope, admitting him to a vast common ground between father and daughter.

“I wanted it to be like a record album where the songs are paced: fast song, slow song. It is slightly chronological, and I tried to pace it with some serious stuff and then quickly go back to a lighter piece. Things get slightly more serious as it goes on. I start with collecting comic books and end up talking about drugs and drink.” As Cursed came together, his publisher suggested opening each chapter with an image of an actual 45 single from rock’s heyday that comments in some way on the topic that follows. “I Only Have Eyes for You” by the Flamingos ushers in the chapter on his daughter’s first glasses, “My Back Pages” by the Byrds ends the collection, and so forth. It turned out to be the book’s signature touch.

“Music was incredibly important to me back then,” Lennertz admits. “I recall sitting down with the Beatles’ White Album and I read those liner notes and looked at those pictures like they were the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Through music, Lennertz formed an instant connection with his daughter. “We went from Sesame Street to Raffi and Disney songs, and then I made a Beach Boys tape for her, and she liked that. Then some Beatles, she liked that. I played some Santana. Rascals; that was good. Then she kind of moved off of that at about 10 to 11, and found her own, and that was Britney Spears. I have no problem with pop music; I went through the Archies and the Cowsills. I get it. So Britney Spears I sort of liked,” he says.

“But my first glimpse of a dark storm cloud was a group called Good Charlotte. Those lyrics are depressing. And I thought, OK. I had the whole debate. Do I want her to listen to this? And I said, you know what? I listened to Procol Harum and Led Zeppelin and I turned out pretty well.” Viewing the publishing process from an author’s point of view was both enlightening and nerve-wracking. Though he’d written more than 500 subtitles during his years as a Random House marketing vice president, he only submitted two for his own book, and both were rejected. He estimates he rewrote more than half of the essays, killed some entirely and substituted new ones under deadline. The five-month wait between final draft and publication proved excruciating.

“There’s that freak-out period where you come to realize that people are going to actually read this. I flipped. I had a meltdown one week when I got my copy of the editing notes because I couldn’t read the symbols. I had this moment of, oh my God, I hate this book! I finally said, Carl, relax. This is a sweet little book. Read through it, change what you can, and let it go.” Upbeat and life-affirming, Cursed contains no reference to either the Kennedy assassination or 9/11, the single biggest traumas of each generation. “I didn’t want to preach and I didn’t want to go on at length,” Lennertz says. “I had a mental list of things not to write about.” In the end, writing Cursed bore out the truth of the famous Nietzsche quote, “Child is father to the man.” (“That’s also the title of the first Blood, Sweat and Tears album,” Lennertz quickly notes, “one of the great albums of all time.”) “I was kind of doing a report card on myself as a father, as well as passing along what little knowledge I had. We’re an overly introspective generation, I think to a fault. All along, I was thinking, how have I done, how have I done? I guess I kind of wrote it to say, hey, you’re far from perfect but you did OK, and at least you’re listening. In the end, I ended up learning from her.” Writer Jay MacDonald is still enjoying his happy childhood.

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