When moderator and news legend Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press died in 2008, he left behind a son and family struggling to find themselves in his absence. For author Luke Russert, it meant working in journalism before finally moving on to what would become a global journey spanning 67 countries and more than three years. In his recently released memoir, Look for Me There, Russert combs through the journals that helped chronicle his journey to deliver a stunning examination of self-discovery through loss and grief.
PW spoke with Russert about the book’s success, traveling the world, and more.
How does it feel to see the book on bestsellers lists?
It was completely unexpected to see it get so high on the New York Times bestsellers list. That momentum started earlier, when we sold out the stock on Amazon on day one, and it remained number one on Barnes & Noble for a couple of days. By then, your mind automatically goes, Oh gosh we got to get more stock! It’s like that moment at the end of The Candidate where they ask, what do we do now? You're enjoying the success but then you're also a little fearful because it was unexpected to have that amount of reaction so quickly.
It's just very humbling. I wrote the book to help one kid who lost his father, that was the goal. I never expected it to have the legs, to have inspired a lot of people.
I've gotten so many messages in the last few weeks, some from people in their 70s, even 80s that go, you know, I lost a parent 50 years ago, and this book helped me out. That was unexpected. It's been incredibly rewarding. And it's one of those things where for such a personal piece of writing, you are always worried about whether it's going to land.
The fact that it did, it makes you feel good. You expose yourself, you're always a little bit concerned. You worry, what if nobody likes it? Thankfully, that wasn't the case.
I love the title and what it symbolizes, this concept of always knowing where to find a loved one.
The one thing that publishers tell writers is you better have a good title! There's a lot of pressure on coming up with a title, and I surely felt that. I took out a legal pad, which is something my father used to always do, started writing things down about what the book, in essence, was about. It was a difficult yet rewarding exercise because there's a certain humility about being able to put four years of work into a few words.
There was an “aha moment” when I realized the book was really a journey of looking for the acceptance of being my own person independent of my father.
My dad used to say to me, “look for me there.” I grew up in the pre-cellphone era so when he was picking me up after a rock concert or ball game or things like that, he’d tell me “Look for me there.” The actual first time I remember hearing it, we were at a baseball game, and we're walking through a crowded concourse. He was holding my hand. It was a very hot, Mid Atlantic, summer, humid day, and we became separated. I sort of fell back with the crowd. He went up about 10-15 yards ahead and came running back noticing what had happened and put his arm around me and said, “Look for me there.” He pointed at a hotdog stand, that memorable Oriole bird logo. In reviewing my writing, one of the things I had been doing was looking for him in so many places, internally and across six continents. I'm grateful the title came to me.
Could we talk about your father and his legacy?
When Tim Russert passed away from a heart attack on June 13, 2008, he was really at the height of his career. When he passed, it was sort of the end of an era for journalism; by that, I mean broadcast journalism and newspapers, it was still a time when social media was in its infancy as a news vehicle. We still had that reliance on the morning broadcast, the TV broadcast, cable news and newspapers. There were articles on the web, but blogs are just starting to come into their own. Facebook news had just begun, and Twitter was not really a factor at that point. He was moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press for over 17 years. Number one in the ratings and was highly regarded as very honest and objective. He took that responsibility seriously. When he passed away, a lot of people reached out to me and said that it felt like they lost a member of their family. That was very unexpected. We knew there would be some outpouring of grief, but we didn't know it was going to be as big as it was. It led me on my way, trajectory into journalism.
Can we talk a bit about that? You left a successful career in journalism to travel the world. To feel the end of an era, there really isn’t anything quite like it.
I wrote and gave a eulogy at his funeral. After the private funeral service, I gave the eulogy again, similar form, at the public memorial service at the Kennedy Center. It was broadcast live on television; a lot of people saw it, and immediately people went, Oh, wow, there's that Tim inside of Luke. They considered having me work in television. I didn't know if it was the right decision, so I mulled it over, but I was a big believer in sort of fate and divine intervention and figured I’d do it for a year. It'd be silly to waste an incredible opportunity.
I jumped headfirst. I wanted to keep working, so I told them, Let me just be an off-air reporter/producer. So I went up to the Hill, and I proved useful. I parlayed that into being a congressional correspondent, which was a job I loved for many years. One of the things I write about is the greatest cure for misery is hard work. I threw myself into hard work. I really enjoyed covering Congress, especially the House of Representatives, because it was like getting a PhD in American government.
I was a history major so I'm obsessive about primary source documents, and like there I was living in a world of primary source documents. It was so exciting. And I did that for a number of years, but then I kind of reached a point. I was turning 30 and saw my friends getting married and getting mortgages, some were having children. I began to wonder if this was all I was, this "DC bubble?" I had this off-chance meeting with House Speaker John Boehner who I covered rather extensively; he stopped me in the hall and said I want to talk to you. He asked me this very simple question: What are you doing here?
I write in the book that what really pushed me into get out of here was when I had this story about veterans and Congress working on a bill to get them some money and it got bumped because of coverage involving Donald Trump. I was like, Okay, it's time to try something else.
I’d love to hear about the travel itself, the peaks and pitfalls, the various hurdles and breakthroughs that helped shape both you and the book.
Originally, I was going to travel for six to 12 months. That was the idea. I had this notion in my mind like, okay, you know, just unplug. Seriously unplug and put everything away. You've been working towards something in some capacity since kindergarten. My parents are very demanding, getting good grades and being accountable and I had never really done anything “solo” for myself.
So I took this drive in Maine. It’s very Steinbeck Travels with Charlie. I took my dog with me in the pickup truck my father gave me, and I just drove. I started to listen to the voice in my head. I yearned for a sort of freedom, to be untethered. I was looking for something that was independent of my last name and of the career that I had forged in journalism, and I realized the only way I was really going to start over was to travel. When I started, it was incredibly rewarding and fascinating. Being able to see a diversity of cultures… I was able to learn a lot of things about the world and myself that I thought were beneficial.
It started me on a process that helped me face some hard truths, and to acknowledge my own limitations in life, things that could be improved. I think the most rewarding part of travel was finding comfort in uncertainty. That was something that I had ever had, having complete untethered freedom.
I turned to the journals that I had kept, and ultimately decided to make a book out of it. It’s a very organic book. It wasn't planned out so much as it was something that I came to.
You were journaling throughout your travels?
Yeah, journaling was a very important exercise for me because it kept me centered, especially at the beginning when I had all this sort of stream of consciousness coming out.
It put me in reporter mode, where I would notice things about my surroundings, notice things about the different towns, villages, people that I was coming across, and it was a really helpful exercise when I was going through a difficult period in 2018, when I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. My mom was on my case, and friends were concerned about me. I broke out the journals and started reading them. I realized there was some good stuff in there; a lot of bad stuff too, but there was good stuff too.
I decided to start by writing out all those journals. I wrote about 300,000 words, which is crazy, but the exercise was really helpful because that process taught me how to how to write in a meaningful and organized way. Secondly, the amount of research I put into it, including checking on historical facts and figures of different countries and what I'd seen, followed by helping establish the through-line of the story I wanted to write. At first I thought it would maybe be a travelogue or essays but what I came to realize, after going through all those journals, was that I was trying to answer questions like: Who were you, independent of your father? Can you be your own person, and how do you seek that permission? Secondly, I was processing grief. I didn't really realize the extent to where I was running away until I read those journals. The journals consisted of a lot of words of pain and anguish, and self-doubt. I also saw glimmers of hope.
The journey has led you to a great and relatable book. Where is your mindset is now, as you’ve gone through this publishing journey?
It’s incredibly emotional when it comes out. You get a little bit choked up. Part of you is just, It’s finally here. It’s finally happened. You get the galley, and that for me was a “wow” moment. The book is here, and it’s a real thing. Then it goes into the hardcover and it’s all glossy and great. That is, in terms of process, is gratifying and there’s also this sense of accomplishment and validation. As a history nerd, what floored me was my Library of Congress number. It my own mind, well, this lives in my country forever. It’s very humbling and neat. Moving forward, it’s been wonderful to see how many people, especially younger people, are accomplished readers. It’s been cool to be in that community, especially with independent bookstores. It’s so gratifying to see your book in the store. I really don’t have words for it.