Sometimes Things Land Right: An interview with Davy Rothbart

By Clark Allen

A few days after I read My Heart is an Idiot, a new collection of personal essays by writer, This American Life contributor, and Found magazine creator Davy Rothbart, something happened that got me thinking about it. I was at a bar with some friends. I don’t remember what sparked the conversation, but someone said something that forced me to recall the book, and I ended up telling the entirety of one of Davy’s stories—a particular one that ends with him flipping out in a hotel room, throwing a bunch of bottles of his own urine at this crazy dude who’s being a jerk. Seriously, it’s a good one. We all sat around laughing about it until, in the way that conversations at bars happen, we moved on to recant more bullshit off into the night.

I didn’t think much of it at first, but then about a week later, it happened again. I was suddenly telling one of Davy’s stories over lunch with a couple of coworkers. Then again. Somewhere else, just a couple of days after that. What I’m getting at is that My Heart is an Idiot, while written in Davy’s warm, agreeable tone, has a layer to it deeper than just “lol funny stories.” It’s got a conversational resale value. It makes you want to think about your own stories—the strange, silly, shitty, and sad stuff that makes up just being a regular person that has to go around being alive.

Davy Rothbart will be in town to read from My Heart is an Idiot at 8 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 7, at the Allways Lounge (2240 St. Claude Ave.). His appearance will be part of the Found Magazine 10th Anniversary Tour, which also includes a musical performance by his brother and Found collaborator Peter Rothbart, the release of Peter’s new album, and a new issue of Found. Tickets are five bucks.

I thought it was kind of weird that Davy’s publicist had sent me his number to do the interview instead of the other way around, which is how it usually works in my experience. Not some office line or anything, either, but his own private number. Well sure, why not? I sat down on the edge of my bed and held out my cell phone with the speaker on in one hand, my tape recorder between it and my face in the other, and awkwardly dialed out. It rang once before he picked up the line, answering with my name with a deliberately slow, drawn out way that sounded fond, as if he was answering the call of an old buddy: “Claaaaaaark.”

I was immediately under the impression that Davy was sitting in the back of a van. He was in St. Louis, audibly tired, with several more events that week in various cities before a day off.

Room 220: I want to start by asking a question about Found before we get to your book. You’ve opened up this pretty intriguing national—even international—dialogue based on fragments of stories told through found objects. I’m curious though how much you find yourself omitting items or editing them to fit a certain aesthetic.

Davy Rothbart: I just choose my favorites. I try to think of it as a giant community art project. It only exists because thousands of people are finding stuff all over and sending it in. Some are more inherently interesting than others—there will be a ton of story and you get this insight into some other life. Others are great because they’re so opaque or bizarre or cryptic, like you just get one piece of a puzzle and it’s up to you to fill in the blanks.

If I leave something out, it’s either because it doesn’t really grab my attention or it’s similar to something published previously. I’ve never omitted something because it was too personal—a lot of the notes in the magazine are extremely raw and intimate, extremely personal, and those are my favorites, but we do things like change certain identifying info, because the last thing I want to do is put anyone in a compromising position. We try to find a use for every find that comes in, though. If they’re not in the magazine then maybe we’ll put them on the website or in a book. We have our exhibitions that go on the road where we travel around and put stuff up in art galleries, things like that. Sometimes a find may not be so spectacular on its own, but sometimes two finds, picked up across the country from one another and paired together, will speak to each other in this harmonious way.

Issues 4 and 6 of Found Magazine, which Rothbart created in 2002. His book tour for My Heart is an Idiot is also Found’s 10th Anniversary Tour, which features the launch of a new issue.

Rm220: Your last book was fiction, and Found is a “community art project” that piles together bits of stories that end up sort of being told by the missing pieces. These seem like ways of associating with real life from a healthy distance. How did you find your way into suddenly writing autobiographical essays, and how were your goals similar or different?

DR: I’d written a couple of personal essays for the Believer and I’d had a lot of fun with them. Writing is pretty natural for me— that’s not to say it’s ever that easy, but in this case I felt like I had command over the voice, being that it’s my voice, you know? And I knew the stories because they’d already happened and I wasn’t inventing anything from scratch. I thought that these personal stories—even though they’re unique to me and so distinctly my own—had sort of universal aspects to them. I’ve been getting so many great emails and Facebook messages from people around the country letting me know that the book has really resonated with them, that they’ve “been there” before, which is really exciting to hear.

Rm220: In the process of writing the stories, did you ever feel like you were searching for some redemptive qualities in yourself, or taking opportunities to damn certain things, since you have total editorial power in retelling this stuff?

DR: One of the things I struggle with—something that’s not entirely ironed out of the book—is that I’m kind of a maximalist. Sometimes write way too detailed. Some stories may still be a bit too long. That’s one problem that’s constant because, well, when you lived it, you have to go back and figure out what just the relevant details are. You can’t put down every fucking thing that happened. I don’t think I really worried too much about making myself appear too awesome. When I’m reading a book and someone is just too great, you know, that sets off my bullshit detector pretty quickly. With mine, I just tried to laugh at my younger self, having a new perspective after years had passed, looking at the sort of crazy shit that I did. Not that I’m all sage now. I still do stupid shit.

Rm220: The tone of the stories from one to the next is pretty different. You’ve got anecdotal stories like “How I Got These Boots.” There’s “Human Snowball,” which is super sweet and fun, and then right next to them there are some darker tales, “Tarantula” and “Shade,” particularly. Were you looking for a balance in selecting what kind of stories you wanted for the book? Were you ever concerned that the tone of one would outweigh others once they came together in a single volume?

DR: I wish I could say there was some kind of more careful plan, but there wasn’t. I think it was pretty subconscious, trying to mix it up between somber stories and the more lighthearted ones. I was more focused on just what I was writing and moving on to the next. I started with a list of about forty story ideas. I wrote about five or six of those, and in the process of writing the book—the book took about four years to write—I’d come up with other ideas, or sometimes new things would happen and I’d think, “Ha, that’d be good to include.” Eventually I ended up with about twenty-one stories, I think.

Rm220: I personally gravitated toward were the darker stories, “Tarantula,” in particular.

DR: I’m glad you said that. “Tarantula” is probably the story I’m the most proud of, my favorite story in the book, and people don’t mention that one as much—and if they do it’s only for the more salacious details.

Rm220: It kind of sticks out as the sore thumb in the book. It seems like you took some risks in writing that one that you didn’t at certain opportunities in others. The part where you hook up with the girl is portrayed as relatively obscene, which is a moment that sets a particular tone for the rest of what happens in the story, things that aren’t necessarily easy to write about yourself. Were you consciously structuring the story around that point?

DR: That story translated kind of raw just because it was such a weird, fucked up experience. I wish I could take credit for some of the structure choices I made, but I’m sure I’m probably working on some kind of subconscious level when I’m making decisions on how to make a certain scene work. I’m not masterful enough, craft-wise, though, to actually pointedly make those decisions. I just kind of get lucky sometimes. I hope that doesn’t sound falsely humble. Sometimes things land right, and maybe that’s why that one’s my favorite. The tone is darker. And reading it, it feels real to me.

Rm220: What about the stories that juxtapose that feeling, where things wrap up nicely in the end? In “Human Snowball,” you literally say something about how, although things didn’t end where you cut the story off, at this really picture-perfect moment it doesn’t matter, and that’s where you ended it.

DR: I realized that is a technique I use. The process is that I’ll feel like I need to explain all these things that ended up happening, and I usually don’t know where the story is going to go, but at some point as I’m going along the fog just kind of lifts and suddenly I see right through to the end of the story, to where I need to go. I think what’s so scary about writing is that it is a craft, which I’ve learned to respect, but there is still this very mystical nature to it that I think makes many writers fearful. As if they won’t be able to reproduce it. So often, when I finish an essay and I’m really happy with it, I look at it and I’m like, “Oh my God, I don’t know if I can write another one. How can I write another one?” I won’t really know how I got there or if I’ll ever get in that space again. Somehow I do, but it’s pretty weird. It’s a skill unlike a lot of other skills in that it’s not something you just know how to do.

Rm220: It is pretty scary in that respect, especially in the realm of non-fiction. You run the risk of your work being beaten down by time, or your sentiment disproven. How do you go about packaging stories that haven’t necessarily come to a real ending?

DR: In the story about my friend Byron, since writing it nothing has really changed. He’s still in prison. My understanding of his story has evolved, but his situation has remained unchanged since he’s been locked up. I’d like for it to be something I thought was a little more nicely put on the shelf, like where he gets out in the end, because that’s something I’d like to have happen in his life. I’m distrustful of stories where everything is placed too neatly with a bow on top. In a way that’s one of the neat things I learned from Found, is how when you’re given the fragments of these stories and you don’t really know how they end, you just have to wonder about what happened in this situation that you’ve only caught just a small segment of. It’s got me to be cautious about wrapping things up too tightly.