Interview with Davy Rothbart (profile)

Davy Rothbart talks about his adventures touring with his brother, writing in the later parts of the evening, and how we can all sympathize with his book's title. By Danielle Pedersen

1. You’ve made a video asking strangers about your book and you’ve gone on tour basically telling stories of your life. Have you met up with anyone that’s in the book?

That’s a great question. Yes, as a matter of fact, one of the really cool things about doing this tour has been getting a chance to see friends in every city. And also getting to see some of the characters from the book, I say characters but they’re real people obviously. Here’s an example in Brooklyn. There’s one story in the book called ‘Canada or Bust’ and it’s about this kid named Hakim who was from University of Las Vegas. I met him in LA one night. He was selling rap CDs on the street. He was trying to get north to Canada and I was heading to San Francisco the next day so I picked him up and gave him a ride. We hit it off. He was a really cool kid. We hung out for a while in San Francisco. We stayed in touch, and I wrote this piece about him which is one of my favorite, but I really hadn’t seen him in person in years. On tour, every night I’m reading new pieces, so I think I was reading the one about him while I’m looking out in the audience and I go “Oh my god, I think that’s Hakim.” And it was! Which was cool, so we got to hang out that night and again the next day. 

2. Are there people in the book that you wouldn’t mind running into again?

All of them. Absolutely, I would love to see all of them. They’re all people that are special to me for one reason or another. I’m always excited to see these people that I’ve written about. I can’t think of one that I wouldn’t be excited to see.  

 3. Did you have to do research on the essays? I know that after the first essay, bigger and deafer, you end with your mother telling you an addition to the story that you previously did not know. Did you get other aspects of the story from the other participants in your research for the book or was the book mainly taken from memory?

I would say it’s almost entirely from memory. The one thing that I did do a few times was talk to some of the people involved in the stories. For instance, there’s this story called ‘Shade’, which is about this girl from Tucson, Arizona. I talked to her, partly to get her blessing for writing about the experience, partly to talk and see if she could help me fill in the blanks. So talking with her helped. And with a few of the stories it definitely helped. The story that really took the most research is the story called ‘Strongest Man in the World.’ It’s about a friend of mine named Byron Case, who is serving a life sentence in a Missouri prison for a murder that I don’t believe he committed. He’s a good friend of mine, and I know him pretty well, but there’s just so much of the story, so many technical aspects to his case legally, and just little details about the crime itself and the aftermath. It was just important to me that I got all the details really, really right. 

4. While you’ve done Found since 2001 but this is your first collection of essays. What made you decide to break into essay writing?

I’ve always loved writing. In college I was writing fiction, and I always feel like there’s a truth to fiction.  Even my first book, which is a book of short stories called The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas. Some of them are based on my real life experiences. Many of them are semi-fictional. The emotions that the characters go through are ones that I felt and experienced. From there, I started writing some funny personal essays for The Believer magazine—a magazine I really love. I had a lot of fun with those essays so I thought it would be fun to write a whole book of them. And I really enjoyed the form. I really enjoy writing personal essays. It comes more naturally to me than certain other things. 

5. What is your writing schedule like? Do you write in the evenings? In the mornings? In between adventures?

In between adventures for the most part. I’m a late night person. I usually write late into the night, being up late when no one else is awake. I had a house for the last couple of years in Ann Arbor Michigan, my home town, and I had 5 housemates. It’s quieter in the middle of the night. I’m not getting calls or emails and it’s a good time to be focused. If I’m making progress on a piece, I’ll work late into the night, go to sleep, then just keep going. I’ll work days and days just to finish something. Then it might be weeks or longer before I’m writing again.

6. Being the co-creator of Found, you must have gone through many segments of people’s lives. Now you’re letting people into your life. How is that a change for you?

I think they’re really connected. Like you said, with Found magazine, we’ve been publishing people’s most private thoughts for the last ten years. So it’s only fair to open myself up in the same way and share these stories. I think that the found notes are very raw first of all and there’s an honesty to them, an authenticity. People are expressing themselves, not self-consciously, and because of that these notes are really potent. And so I try to be just as honest while I was writing. Hopefully I’ve managed to do that, but I like how the stories turned out. 

7. In this collection you talk about playing around with your deaf mother, doing spontaneous visits to girls and a touching story about a friend of yours who was convict of the death of a teenage girl but the title is my heart is an idiot? How did you come up with the title?

Well, there’s a good story to it. My friend named Frank Warren, he does this really cool project called Post Secret. I was over his house one day looking through the secrets that had come in that day, and I was with a couple of friends of mine and Frank’s wife. He gets like 200 secrets a day, which is so fun as you could imagine. We were just looking through a pile, and this one pops up with ‘my heart is an idiot,’ someone had written that on a postcard and sent to Post Secret. And I liked this wonderful phrase because I could relate to it because I think it’s this universal truth in a way. I think that all of our hearts are idiots in one way or another. So we made these buttons for the book that say ‘my heart is an idiot’ and people will come up. They don’t know what the phrase means, but people will just laugh. They’ll see the pin and they’ll laugh, and grab one of them and put it on their sweaters. It’s cool to see that the phrase itself has such resonance with people.  I had about forty other ideas for what to name the book, including one of my favorites, which was “Up Knob Creek without a Paddle” because Knob Creek is one of my favorite whiskey bourbons. I was also thinking about calling it “Drive About” because of the walkabouts in Australia. Many of the stories in the book are not necessarily love stories. They’re also about other interesting people I’ve met on my travels, or interesting strangers who have come into my life in one way or another. Ultimately, Shawn McDonald’s, who’s the awesome editor of the book and a great guy and brilliant mind, convinced me that “My Heart is an Idiot” is a great title and that we should run with it. In the end, I’m happy with it. People seem to really respond to it. 

8. You also made a documentary that has the same title. How is the documentary different from the book? Also how could people see the documentary now?

Well what happened was my friend David Meiklejohn came on the road with me and my brother Peter to do a documentary about Found magazine and the tours that we do but he realized that he actually captured the ups and downs of my love life. He was actually one of the friends that was with me at Frank Warren’s that day when we saw that postcard with ‘my heart is an idiot’ on it. That was when I was like ‘ That would be a great title for the book’ and he was like ‘That would be a great title for the movie that I’m working on.’ So the movie is set like a story from the book, but just one told visually—cinematically—instead of through prose. You could call it the title story to the book or something. It just happens to not be in the book. It’s just its own film which he plans to eventually put out on DVD.

9. You’re currently on tour with your brother. How is that? Have you had fights or do you generally get along?

Yeah, we get along famously. I think Peter really looks up to me and I think that’s it really important for him to get this time with me. We draw an imaginary line down the back seat. My stuff is supposed to be on one side. His stuff is supposed to be on the other side. So if mine encroaches on his side, I get in trouble. I’m really lucky to have such a talented brother. I mean, first of all, if he wasn’t as accomplished of a musician as he is, these events wouldn’t go as well as they do. The songs that he writes that are based on found notes, and his other songs too, they’re all so powerful. There is one song called “You Are What You Dream” that is just absolutely beautiful.

10. Do you have any other projects in the works?

I do. There’s a documentary film that I’ve been working on for the last three years called “Medora.” It’s about a small town in rural Indiana called Medora, Indiana, which is one of these small towns where the factories shut down and drugs have moved in. Things have gotten pretty bare. It’s about the high school basketball team there, the Medora Hornets, who had not won in years when we went there. We went to go document a season in the life of this high school basketball team. Most sports documentaries try to film a championship but here, they’re trying to win one game. So every time, every game kind of takes on the drama and the intensity of a championship game. It’s also about this small town, Medora, which like many other small towns in the country, is fading away. The people of Medora were so welcoming to us. It was me and my co-director, Andrew Cohn, a bunch of strangers with cameras and yet they really opened up to us and let us into their lives. It’s going to be a special film. Hopefully we’ll be able to share it with the world next year. 

11. Which authors motivate or inspire you most? Also, what are you reading these days?

With this book, I think I can point to Jim Carroll, who wrote The Basketball Diaries and he also wrote this book that I love, probably more than The Basketball Diaries, called Forced Entry. It’s just kind of personal essays from his time in his twenties and thirties in New York City. He’s so funny. He’s so completely honest and self-deprecating.

Charles Baxter is my writing mentor at University of Michigan and I love his stories. I learned so much from him. I’m reading a book right now by Mark Twain called Roughing It and it’s really awesome. I’ve been thinking about it a lot today as we were driving across Wyoming. It’s just about his road adventures back a hundred some odd years ago. He came out west for like six years I think and then wrote this awesome book. I’m just going to mention another author, her name it Bich Nguyen. She’s written some memoirs that I think are some of the most beautiful things I’ve read. She writes with such honesty. So she’s someone else I admire. 

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