12:33 pm Sep. 6, 20121
“THIS BOOK IS FUCKING GREAT!”
That's what Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, writes in a blurb of Davy Rothbart’s new collection of essays, My Heart Is an Idiot. It’s a sentence you may find yourself repeating, as I did, while reading the book's 16 deeply personal essays, occasionally substituting in other adjectives like “crazy,” “hilarious,” and “amazing.”
At this point, Rothbart is probably best known as the creator of Found, a scrappy annual magazine started in 2001 that consists mostly of funny or profound notes that people find on the ground, in the trash, or otherwise discarded, and mail to him. Last year he received a lot of notice for an article on porn addiction he wrote for New York. He has also published a short story collection, The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas; contributed regularly to This American Life; and directed several films, including Medora, a full-length documentary about a high school basketball team in Medora, Indiana, which he is currently at work completing.
But My Heart Is An Idiot, which shares its title with a 2011 documentary about Rothbart’s peripatetic lifestyle, feels like the culmination of his career so far. Many of the essays involve passionate if ill-advised quests to find people he loves, hates, or just wants to know more about. In “What Are You Wearing,” he tracks down a woman he’s been having vigorous phone sex with for months, and whom he has never actually met. (“I knew she might be four hundred pounds, or my grandma’s age, or a guy,” he writes, “but there was also a possibility that she was, well, hot.”) In “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Pee on the Wall,” he trails an Internet scammer guilty of bilking aspiring writers to a hotel in Manhattan, armed with pee-filled Aquafina bottles. And in “The Strongest Man in the World,” he locates and befriends a man who used to send him found notes. As it happens, this man is serving a life sentence for a murder he may not have committed.
Rothbart recounts these stories with a speedy, heart-on-the-sleeve soulfulness that perfectly complements the intensity and openness with which he appears to live his life. Every other page has a laugh-out-loud moment, and each essay contains at least one bizarre plot twist. It’s rare that such a fast and loose character—especially one as fond of pot and alcohol as Rothbart—is also capable of the stillness and introspection required to write long, lucid, and penetrating personal essays. But Rothbart is an unusual man, with an unusually generous Midwestern heart. Some of the observations and feelings expressed are so untarnished by irony or self-consciousness that they seem somehow downloaded directly from his raw interior monologue, totally unmediated.
Rothbart spoke with me over the phone last week from his parents’ home in Ann Arbor, where he was gearing up for his massive book and Found anniversary tour. The following interview has been slightly condensed and edited.
The essays in this book echo some of Kerouac’s travels. Are you a fan?
It’s become a fallback response to say Kerouac is played out. I read his stuff when I was in my early twenties, but I still find it all really inspiring. On the Road is just a masterpiece. It’s so earnest and heartfelt, and I guess that becomes difficult for some people to handle, at least as they get older. Living in L.A. for the last year, I’ve been visiting some of the dusty plains towns he mentions in On the Road and some of the other books.
You once worked as a ticket scalper in Chicago. Is that a career you’d suggest to aspiring writers?
It seemed to work for me. When I was a kid, my dad and I would go to University of Michigan football and basketball games and scalp tickets. We weren’t hardcore or anything. My dad would say: We might as well get there early and buy and sell some tickets, to make some money for hotdogs and stuff. We did okay. But after college, I moved to Chicago and started working for a ticket broker called Triple A Tickets. And for the next few years I got completely immersed in the world of scalping: some of it legal, some on the street. I met a lot of crazy characters, but it was also really lucrative. This was during the Jordan dynasty. People were coming from all over the world to see the Bulls play. A good seat went for a few hundred bucks, and really good ones were a thousand. Then you had the playoffs. I once sold four courtside seats during the Bulls-Jazz finals for $5,200 each. I’d paid $4,500 for them, but the guy I sold them to was a ticket broker in L.A., and he sold them for more! Scalping basically enabled me to retire after five years. It bought me a few years of writing and making Found and some other art stuff.
In the story “Naked in New York,” you wake up naked on a Manhattan park bench, unsure of how you got there. Have you spent much time in the city?
I’ve spent a lot of time there over the years. My dad is from Brownsville, Brooklyn, and my aunt and uncle lived in Coney Island for 50 years, so I visited once a year growing up. I also lived in the East Village for three months. The day you’re referring to was my birthday in 2002. I was playing basketball with some friends at around 3 a.m., after going to the bars, and I got really mad because I was losing. They later told me that I threw my clothes at them and ran off. When I didn’t come back, they decided to bring my shoes and stuff with them, instead of just leaving them on the court or whatever. It was embarrassing and pretty awkward, finding my way back to their apartment naked. But one thing about scalping is that it teaches you how to deal with rejection. When people look at you like you’re a freak or a weirdo, it just rolls off.
A lot of essays in the book come out of your experiences with Found. Has the magazine always been a fertile source for material and adventures?
For the most part, the magic of Found is seeing a fragment of a story and imagining the rest. But occasionally you do get to meet or contact the actual person who created the note, and it’s always interesting to discover who they are. For example, someone recently sent me a promotional photo for this giant white rapper named Biggz. I kept it on my desk for years. Then last year I thought: How can I find this guy? So I tracked down the person who’d sent the photo. It turns out she’d been a publicity assistant at a rap label in Miami, and she still had his number. I called it and someone answered: “Hungry Howie’s Pizza.” I asked for Biggz. It turns out he’s the manager of a pizza place like 10 minutes from my house in Ann Arbor. After wondering about him for years, here I was within his store’s delivery area! We wound up talking for hours. He’s a really funny, soulful guy, who’d tried to make it as a rough and tumble rapper and then come out the other end. He’s on the cover of the new issue of Found, and there’s a really long interview with him. As far as the essays in this book go, I’ve been publishing people’s private photographs and thoughts for ten years now, so I felt it was only fair that I open myself in the same way.
Kid Rock blurbed your book. How well do you know him?
I first met Kid Rock when I wrote a profile of him for Maxim a few years ago. I’ve always been a fan though. Kid Rock and Kerouac are both easy to pick on, but Kid Rock is a straight up guy. He lives in Michigan and he’s an incredibly talented musician. He plays like 20 instruments and can make music in any genre. You don’t have to love his music to admire him. He’s also such a passionate guy and a real advocate for the state. He gives people around here a lot of pride.
So much crazy stuff happens in these essays that it’s hard to believe it all actually happened. There’s a disclaimer at the beginning that says certain aspects have been altered or even fictionalized to “conceal identities and preserve narrative flow.” How true are these essays in your mind?
Well, I think of them as essays because they all happened. They’re all true stories. In the essay “The Human Snowball,” it just works better that the girl at the Chinese food restaurant got into college that night instead of like two days later. Does that make it fiction? Not really in my mind. But for the most part, if I made changes it was to protect people’s identities. Plus, a lot of this shit happened 10 or 15 years ago. You remember the feeling of being there and roughly how things went down. But I can’t remember what anyone said to each other verbatim. In writing about other people, I asked my friend Stephen Elliott, who wrote The Adderall Diaries, for some advice. He said: “If it feels uncomfortable to reach out to someone before writing about them, that’s an even better reason to do it. You’ll be surprised at how generous people are.”
Your book tour for My Heart is an Idiot lasts four months and hits 75 cities across the country. In trying to sell books these days, should authors be acting more like touring bands?
A lot of my friends are musicians. And their approach has always been: You work your ass off for a year or two making an album, and when you’re finished you travel around and share it with people. You make 199 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, put them in a cooler, get in some decrepit van and drive around the country for a few months. That always seemed like a lot of fun. So for the Found books and my first book of short stories, I modeled the book tours on those sorts of band tours. My brother Peter is a musician and writes songs based on Found notes, and we go on tour together. It’s an excuse to see friends and relatives scattered around the country, and a way to sell some books. I think in bookstore parlance they call it hand-selling. So I’m excited to get out there and hand-sell.
More by this author:
- John Holmstrom talks about founding and editing 'Punk,' the chronicle of late-'70s New York
- Ups and downs of the Great New York City Chicken Frenzy