Davy Rothbart

The Rumpus Interview with Davy Rothbart

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Somehow I had missed that Davy Rothbart, the creator of FOUND Magazine, was also a short story writer, essayist, and documentary filmmaker. Shit, he’s even an amateur rapper. And I’m sure there are few rappers from Michigan who write so vulnerably, so openly—as Arthur Miller once put it, “with his whole heart.” As soon as I began soaking in his latest collection of vignettes, My Heart is an Idiot, Davy felt familiar to me, like a neighbor or a cousin. Someone eager to share, scrappy and tender, charming and curious. I was reading essays written by Davy, but it felt like he was reaching through them to know more about me.

And that’s generally his mission: to get to know strangers, whether by publishing their letters or by falling in love with people he meets. In 2001, he launched FOUND, a publication dedicated to reprinting lost scraps, correspondences, doodles, and random, discovered bits of people’s lives. His first foray into the literary world was The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas, a collection of stories partially based on real experiences, and which garnered praise from the likes of Judy Blume and Ira Glass. A decade later, he decided to try pure memoir instead, and says he found it easier, because he wasn’t slave to fiction’s “paralysis of choice.”

My Heart is an Idiot stems out of Davy’s realization that “some folks fall in love gradually; for me it always happens in an instant.” In these essays, he finds and follows and courts women, often clumsily. He sheds layers of decency to reveal the embarrassing, the crude, the unmentionable. At the end of the day, he’s usually just psyched to be around good people, eager to celebrate connections between them. As he rejoices in the story “Human Snowball”: “I…looked around at my new, glorious tangle of friends, letting my eyes briefly catch their eyes and linger on each of their faces, the whisky in each shot glass sparkling like a supernova.”

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The Rumpus: How has being the editor and curator of FOUND prepared you to write stories and vignettes?

Davy Rothbart: I can see two ways in which they connect. Over the last ten years, since FOUND has been going, I’ve been publishing a lot of other people’s most private thoughts and experiences. Writing a book about some of my own adventures seems only fair. What FOUND is about is just getting a glimpse of someone through a found note, and kind of wondering what the rest of her story is. I guess I feel that I’m like that in everyday life. I meet a stranger and I just try to get a sense of what’s going on in their minds and hearts. My Heart is an Idiot—a lot of them are relationship stories, but a lot of them, too, are about picking up a hitchhiker on the side of the road, or being picked up as a hitchhiker. It’s almost like FOUND magazine come to life. Some of my favorite stories are from people on the Greyhound bus with me on the way to New York City, in the story “New York, New York.” As much as I like the FOUND notes and the glimpses they give you of people, I kind of like finding out more.

Rumpus: Your first book, The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas, was fictional. Why did you decide to do a memoir-based collection this time? It struck me that the way the stories in the two collections are structured is not that different.

Rothbart: It’s true. In The Lone Surfer, some of the stories are mostly fictional, others are, I’d say, half true and half could-have-happened, but were invented. A few years ago, I wrote a series of fun, first-person adventure stories for The Believer. Something about those pieces was really a lot of fun, so I thought it’d be fun to do a whole book about those stories.

Rumpus: What were some of the challenges you came across when you realized you couldn’t fictionalize to the same degree for My Heart is an Idiot?

Rothbart: You know, it was surprisingly easy. I mean, not writing the book. That wasn’t easy at all! But being bound to nonfiction, it didn’t seem like too much of a handcuff, you know what I mean?

Actually, if it doesn’t seem too insular, Stephen Elliott was one guy that I sought advice from about writing memoir. He ran a one-day workshop at 826 Michigan about writing memoirs, right after The Adderall Diaries had come out. I couldn’t really remember all the rules. You can’t really remember a conversation you had twelve years ago; you remember the gist of it. He gave some good guidelines: constructing things from the best of your memory, trying to be true to the experience. You might not remember what someone is wearing 10 or 15 years ago, but you are true to who they are and what they might have been wearing. So I thought of that. The core experiences are all totally true, but I felt like there was some freedom to even amalgamate two characters just to simplify things. Fiction—you could write anything, so it’s actually harder in a way. You have a paralysis of choice. When you’re writing about your own experiences, it’s almost like writing a book made from a movie. Like the movie is the version I’ve already seen which is what actually happened, and I experienced it so I remember what I felt, what things smelled like. So you’re really just kind of translating that onto the page.

Rumpus: How did you decide what to include of a scene?

Rothbart: You try to distill each scene to the core moments; you know, the emotional peaks and valleys and the things that were funniest. In a way, maybe it’s like curating FOUND magazine, because when I read through the “Finds,” I try to find the notes that make me laugh the most or make me tear up. So I just try to find the moments with the most intense emotions or, you know, where the funniest and weirdest and saddest shit happened.

Rumpus: One of my favorite moments in the book is when you choose to treat a certain phone-sex partner—whom you reveal wasn’t totally honest with you—with respect and a lot of dignity. Where do you think this ability to dignify flawed people comes from? Does any one person or belief inspire that in you?

Rothbart: I think actually both my parents—it came from being around them. My mom is a spiritual counselor; she channels this ancient spirit called Aaron, and she also does a lot of counseling. It’s her and this crazy spirit she talks to, helping people through problems. In a way it’s not that different from regular counseling. And she’s also deaf—you know, in that first story I talk about it—so now she has an operator-assisted phone. But when I was a kid, people would call and I would have to translate the calls for her. And that includes when she was giving personal counseling to people. So people would call my mom from all over the country with serious problems they were dealing with, and I’d be like seven, eight, ten-years-old, signing to her what they were saying. Seeing the way my mom gracefully and compassionately worked through those heavy emotions just made me curious about people. I also noticed the way she was around my friends. If somebody just mentions something a little, oh, “this is the anniversary of my father’s death,” or “I didn’t get this job I wanted”—you know other people will say some kind of pleasantry or back away from it. My mom just goes straight in. She gets almost weird, but people actually appreciate it because you see that people want to talk about these things, that’s why they mention them.

And then my dad, too. I just went out to have breakfast with him and he is just the most friendly—not in an obnoxiously gregarious way—but he’s the most curious person. And when you go to a restaurant with him he’ll ask the waiter or waitress about what they’re doing in life, and half the time they’ll end up sitting down for a few minutes, and they’ll check around to see that their manager’s not looking. They’ll sit down and chat it out. He engages everybody, and that’s a really wonderful ability, I think.

When a moment happened like that—meeting this long-term phone sex partner for the first time—yeah, maybe I’m surprised by who they might be, but I think in essence it was like, this is still a person I’ve connected to, this is still a person I care about and have feelings for, so no matter who they really are in real life, that doesn’t matter; they’re still a human, they’re a soul that I can connect with and I want to know more about who they really are.

Rumpus: You claim you fall in love all of the time—that’s kind of the premise of this newest book.  Not trying to sound uncompassionate here, but are you sure you’re not just horny?

Rothbart: Well, I think I can make a distinction. Because, like, my end goal if I see some girl that I’m feeling all woozy, excited, miserable-in-love-with, it’s not usually to get in her pants. If that happens eventually, that’s cool too, you know, but I feel like the attraction is some kind of soulful, dizzying…it’s that feeling of being in love or at least being completely intoxicated by somebody, more than it is, “I really want to stick my dick in that person.” To me it’s a pretty easy distinction to make. Not that I haven’t ever felt the latter, but I wouldn’t describe it that way. I’d describe it as a purely physical attraction and not—I wouldn’t couch it in those terms of, “Oh, I’m in love with that girl.”

This is fun, by the way.

Rumpus: Agreed. You know, at first, the story “Shade” kind of made me mad as a woman. You’re always falling in love with the ideal of a woman, and then when you meet her, and she isn’t as beautiful and haunted as you envision, you fall out of love. But I also appreciate how honest you are about that process. Often, it seems like the revealing of the woman’s real self takes you somewhere unexpected. Can you talk more about this idealization?

Rothbart: Well I hope, first of all, that I didn’t let myself off the hook too easily for how shitty I was treating that girl Sarah in the story—or in real life, I guess, when it happened. Because, even as it was going on, I realized what bullshit it was and kind of how unfair it was, and how cruel and crappy. So then and now, I don’t excuse the behavior as much as try to describe what was going on.

I think idealization is what that story is about. I idealized that character in a movie, and I loved the movie and I loved the girl in it. I think it’s a really appealing trap that all of us fall into. When you barely know somebody, it’s really easy to fill in the blanks of what you don’t know about them, and make them into this confection of perfection. No matter what, when you get to know them more, it’s common to be disappointed or disillusioned because how can they possibly match up to who you imagined them to be? I don’t think it’s a healthy cycle for people to get [into]. But I think it’s a common one and it’s certainly one I’ve experienced, and I know a lot of my friends have gone through that kind of thing, too. I think at some point you learn to not do it so much, or not to such extremes. But, it’s always easy to do, and I can’t say I’ve completely stopped doing it.

Rumpus: Your muse in that story, and in many stories, is almost always haunted, beautiful, and “someone who is filled with a bewitching sadness,” like Shade. Describe the first iteration of this muse, whether it was a real person, a TV character, or a literary figure. She comes back again and again for you, even as different people.

Rothbart: I can remember girls as young as when I was in junior high that had some of those qualities. Definitely Shade was an iconic one for me, just because she was exactly like that and this movie, for whatever reason, just had such an effect on me. Sadness is not a sign of great moral character, intelligence, or a fun person to be around, necessarily. It’s not an indicator of the things you actually want to look for in a relationship. But I think the one thing that it does mean, is that I feel like it does indicate some textured understanding of the world, sometimes. If someone’s experienced some difficult things in life…in most ways I’ve had a blessed life in that I haven’t had to deal with too much darkness, personally. But I have had dark times. And I feel like you know the appeal of when you do meet someone, that you feel like they’ll understand those darker parts of you. You want to be completely understood by someone, and if someone’s been through some shit, they can get you a little more. But partly it’s just, yeah, my own weird predilection, but maybe not just mine. I’ve heard other guys say shit like that, and definitely girls who are into guys like that—brooding. Jordan Catalano types.

Rumpus: Who?

Rothbart: That guy from My So-Called Life. The character, Jordan Catalano.

Rumpus: What did writing this book teach you about women?

Rothbart: I would say…well, I would say it taught me more about myself, and the ways I’ve approached relationships. What I learned about women I learned from the women in my life who are awesome.

Rumpus: So how do you think you handle relationships differently after writing about so many of them?

Rothbart: I think that, you know, in a way—I’ve never done extensive therapy or anything like that—but it was therapeutic and educational to write these stories, and think that much about how much you repeat your own mistakes and missteps.

Rumpus: It’s kind of a hard question.

Rothbart: But I think it’s a fair question. It’s probably a question I’ll need to figure out an answer for, because it makes sense for people to want to ask me that. Just thinking in detail about your experiences is important and you can learn a lot from it, and you’re less likely to repeat your mistakes.

Rumpus: Are there any downsides of writing with your “whole heart,” as you’ve been commended for doing?

Rothbart: I’ll find out maybe once this book begins to have a life beyond just my computer. To me, it’s kind of fun. It’s kind of like, I always used to write a journal, for years and years and years as a teenager and during college and even in my twenties, but I haven’t for like ten years or something. And some of the pleasures of writing the book were some of the pleasures that I used to remember from writing a journal. You’re kind of in touch with yourself when you are alone, writing these raw experiences as they happen. I think it was fun to write with my whole heart. What it will mean for other people, or how people respond to it, that’s something that’s yet to be determined.

Rumpus: You seem to think about prisoners a lot; I noticed that in both books. In My Heart is an Idiot, you have this very heavy story about Byron, who is a friend in prison and may have been wrongly accused. Did you ever serve time? Or did you have close friends or family members who served time?

Rothbart: In college, my friend Aaron Hurst started this program where [University] of Michigan students would go teach creative writing at this prison in Jackson, Michigan called the Cotton Correctional Facility. I helped lead these creative writing classes a few years in a row. So it was really that time I spent getting to know those guys. That’s a medium security prison, but you have people serving ten, twenty, thirty-year sentences. Just spending time with those students had a huge effect on me and kind of gave me a lot of insight into what that experience is of being in prison.

I’ve been arrested a handful of times and spent a few nights in jail, here and there, enough to just get a sense of how sad and frustrating and really painful it would be to be locked up for years. If four nights is hard, what’s four months? Four years? What’s forty years?

I go to visit Byron like once a year. Even when you’re there you’re looking around in the hangout room at some of the other guys who are there. And just hearing other stories from Byron. And then you get a sense of what prison is like and how hard it can be.

This woman from San Francisco, named Heidi Swillinger (she worked for the San Francisco Chronicle for many years)—ten years ago when FOUND was starting, she sent me a note telling me that every day she walks her dog in Oakland and always finds money. Ten cents here, five dollars there. She said she wanted to send us like $200, just for us to use it for whatever we wanted to use it for… She was like, “Buy yourselves pizza,” or, you know, “Use it to help pay for the next issue.” So that was a really sweet, wonderful thing for her to do. [I'd] decided to take that $200 and start sending FOUND Magazine to prisoners who were locked up and were requesting an issue. We had gotten a couple of letters from people. And I know how much they loved books—at least the guys I was teaching creative writing classes to. Especially if you are a thinking person, books are everything to you, and magazines, and reading. And I actually was stunned with how excited people in prison got by FOUND. And I think part of it is the sense of being involved in people’s lives. I think guys in prison especially appreciated it. With the money that Heidi gave us, we started sending free magazines to anyone in US prisons who wrote us and requested one. And a lot of people now have been sending us money that they found on the street that funds this ongoing thing. Now, over ten years, we’ve sent thousands of magazines to people in prisons, and the best part are the letters we get from them, requesting them, and guys and women who have read the magazine and really enjoyed it, asking us for the next issue. Anyways, it’s kind of a real interest of mine. Prison reform, too. I’m curious about the political side of it.

Rumpus: Have any prisoners sent you pieces for FOUND?

Rothbart: Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s the other great thing about having so many readers in prison; we get a ton of finds from these readers. In the new issue, which is Number 8—which comes out in about a month—there’s a really interesting series of letters that [were] found in a prison in Colorado. It’s like eight letters from this girl to this guy in prison, and she’s kind of slowly breaking up with him over the course of a year. People on the outside forget about you or they fade away. And it’s depicted really intensely in this series. You understand her side, too, though. She’s so articulate about her feelings and why she’s slowly separating from him. It’s sad and kind of beautiful, but you feel his pain.

And of course Byron is a great finder and has sent us a lot of great finds over the years.

Rumpus: So he’s still in prison.

Rothbart: Yeah, there’s been some recent positive developments. So this guy John Allen, who wrote this book about Byron, The Skeptical Juror and the Trial of Byron Case, has become active. And some of the Innocence Project groups have become interested in Byron’s case. His was especially hard because he was convicted with no physical evidence. Now, Byron has applied for a pardon from the Governor of Missouri, and they’ve actually been considering his case, which is so rare. It’s still a real long shot, but it’s providing some hope. And, it’s just nice to know that there seems to be some momentum building. But, you know, it’s like the West Memphis Three; it took almost twenty years to get out. And they had all the support you could ever hope for. It’s nice to see people beginning to learn about Byron’s situation.

Rumpus: In one story, you admit to mailing a nemesis plastic bottles of your own urine—

Rothbart: It was one thing to write it down, but now I can’t believe people know about this.

Rumpus:  Well there are things in the collection that are maybe even more gross and embarrassing.

Rothbart: Fuck.

Rumpus: What’s something you wouldn’t write about?

Rothbart: Hmm. Well, I’d say, as open as I’ve been with my own secrets and wounds, I think I would probably be cautious about writing about other people in my life. I wouldn’t be as quick to be so open and honest with other people’s private moments. In the book, if there’s anything that seemed too compromising, I went to pretty great pains to disguise people’s identities. There were a couple of things that I wanted to write about, but because they involved other people and not enough time had lapsed, I decided I would wait for some future book or never write about them.

Rumpus:  Do you ever get in touch with people you want to write about beforehand, to get their reaction?

Rothbart: Yeah. I did, for example, get in touch—in that story “Shade,” I still talk to Sarah every once and a while. She’s a friend of mine. I don’t talk to her too often, but I definitely asked her permission to write about the experience, and I asked her for her thoughts and feelings about it, and even just her memories. And she was really generous about giving me permission and encouraging me to write about it, and helping me remember it all.

Rumpus: Are you planning to do anything different for this book tour?

Rothbart: I think I’m going to do this thing where every night, I’m going to solicit questions from the audience beforehand. I’ll put those in a hat and invite someone on stage and ask them questions out of the hat. Because I do think it’s important to engage with people. We’re surrounded by strangers all of the time, but I think good things happen when you start mixing it up.

Rumpus: What’s a piece of advice for young writers hoping to pen essays about their own lives?

Rothbart:  I would say don’t shy away from the things that make you look bad, or are embarrassing or painful. But actually, go toward those things. Write about why they are so painful. That’s what people relate to and are curious about.

Rumpus: Whom are you reading or do you look to for guidance in the literary world?

Rothbart: Probably the writer that influenced these stories the most was Jim Carroll, who wrote Basketball Diaries. Actually, it was his book called Forced Entries. It’s personal essays from his twenties and thirties when he was living in New York City. I just think his prose and his imagery [are] incredible, but also just his sense of humor and his storytelling. I love his stuff, he’s a big inspiration for me.

I love Jack Kerouac’s On the Road­—it’s a divisive and polarizing book, a lot of people hate it. But to me he does a good job of writing about traveling around and falling in love a lot. He has a sense of energy and real honesty in his writing.

Charles Baxter was a professor of mine at University of Michigan, and he’s the person I would give the most credit to for teaching me to write. Anyone who’s been taught by him will sing his praises all day. Not every great writer is a great teacher, but he was. Beyond that, I read a ton. Magazines, stuff online. A lot of my friends and acquaintances are awesome writers: Miranda July, I love Dean Bakopoulos, Elizabeth Ellen. She’s from Ann Arbor.

Rumpus: How many times do you think you’re going to fall in love on your book tour?

Rothbart: Haha…um…six.

Rumpus: Okay, you’ll have to update me.

Rothbart: I want to add…that one of the best things about traveling and doing tours isn’t just falling in love, but meeting awesome people. A lot of my best friends in the world are people I met pretty randomly. At a bar, at a theatre where we went to do our show. So falling in love happens, but also making life-long friends.

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Photographs of Davy Rothbart © 2012 by Dan Busta.


Maddie Oatman has interviewed musicians and writers for The Rumpus. She's the research editor at Mother Jones, where she also writes. A Boulder transplant, she can often be found on her bike, skis, or cooking with vegetables, and she wrote her English thesis on a gay red-winged monster and Billy the Kid. Follow her on Twitter or read occasional musings on her blog Oats. More from this author →