Some Little Half Page Love Note: An Interview with Davy Rothbart

It’s a chilly October night in Indianapolis, and Davy Rothbart and I are in a Fountain Square parking lot, sitting in a van. Not just any van. The official FoundMagazine and Lone Surfer Tour 2005 van, in which Rothbart is traveling the country (Michigan vanity plate: THG LFE.) He’s promoting his new book of short stories, The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas, along with the Found magazines that begat a book by the same name. The previous night, Rothbart and his singer/songwriter brother, Peter, performed for a standing-room crowd at the Wells Center in Lafayette, IN. Fifty-one scheduled stops in fifty-four days. Halfway done. Now, about twenty minutes before the Indy show at Big Car Gallery, he pops open a beer, settles back in his seat, and does what he loves to do: tell stories. –Sarah Layden

Sycamore Review: How did you come up with the idea for Found? I’ve heard a couple versions.

Can I tell you the story? I always loved finding stuff, even when I was a kid. I remember walking across this field to get to the school bus, and there was all this debris – trash, paper, pictures. And I’d just pick them up. I was always kind of amazed at how powerfully you could connect with someone, just through some little half-page love note you see blowing across the grass. I’d show ‘em to my mom, and kind of wonder who the person was, what their story was. I kept collecting for years, never in an organized fashion. My friends would pass stuff on to me because they knew I collected it.

Then I think there was one note in particular that sparked the idea to do this. There was a note on my windshield. It was in Chicago, where I was living, and there was a thin layer of snow on the cars. They all look a little bit the same. I can see how the person made the mistake. You know, obviously my name is Davy, and this note on the windshield is a note to Mario. It said, ‘Mario, I fucking hate you. You said you had to work – then why is your car here, at her place? You’re a fucking liar. I hate you, I hate you,’ signed Amber. ‘P.S. Page me later.’ Oh my God. There’s something so fascinating about how she’s so upset, so angry, and yet also a bit hopeful and in love. That combination of emotions – I thought it was great. I started showing it to all my friends. I wished I could share it with more people.

As I roamed around the country, visiting friends in different cities, I’d notice people have their great, prized find on their fridge. It just seemed like a shame to me that only the people who trooped through their kitchen would get to see that stuff. The magazine just seemed like a natural way to share it.

A lot of the finds you’ve read or described seem to have this turn. We talk about that in short story writing, too: the idea of either a reversal or a turn, something unexpected.

I wouldn’t say every find has that quality, but some of the ones I’m most attracted to are the ones where you think it’s going one way and then it turns and goes another way, and maybe it turns again and goes another way. There’s like a sudden reveal. Sometimes in fiction writing, it feels manipulative, because you’re withholding. You’re withholding information. And yet in a way that’s what these notes have over (fiction.) It’s hard to match the power and surprise of these found notes, because they often just have these reveals that are unbelievable. The person they were writing to knew, so it’s not like they were hiding it from them. But you as a reader, finding this note, you’re suddenly brought into the information, and it’s so surprising it makes you laugh out loud, or well up with tears. I like ones like that.

Do any of these finds find their way into your fiction, or inspire it?

Yeah. Many, many of them do. And I think it’s probably not so much one specific find or this note inspired me to write this story, I think more just reading through all these notes, there are probably hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands I’ve read through, and each one is, you know, a very particular voice, a character, and you do get this strong sense of these people. And I think because of having read all these, there are so many voices, so many situations and characters kind of bouncing around in my head, and when I sit down to write, I think they find their way out.

I wrote a couple stories that draw real heavily on found stuff. Maggie Fever – a kid’s dad orders him to steal some luggage from the airport, and he finds this girl’s journal. I’ve certainly had the experience reading through some of the found notes, the journals especially. The notes, you get to know someone a little bit. A journal, you get to know someone a whole lot. And sometimes I’ve had that experience of just feeling completely absorbed with this person, feeling, Wow, if I met this girl in real life, we’d really get along, you know? Just feeling consumed with them for awhile. That’s what happens to the kid in the story.

(Peter Rothbart climbs in the van to get equipment. The show’s starting in a few minutes.) This might be good timing to talk about your family influences. Do you guys have writers in your family?

Davy: Well…

Peter: His shy and modest demeanor is from getting his ass kicked by his younger brother.

Davy: I used to call him my little brother, but that’s a misnomer. Younger brother. He’s bigger than me. Well, our grandmother’s a painter. She lives in Florida. Actually, I wrote that story ‘Neverglade’ about when I went out to live with her for a few months after my grandfather passed away. My mom’s a meditation teacher, but for years she was a sculptor and an art teacher. So I think maybe some creative gene might be operating there. Both our parents really valued creativity and art. They encouraged us to do theater. I think just learning that it was a valuable thing to do, to make art or write or make music or whatever, they were encouraging in that way.

You’re on this tour, which you did this last year, too, when the Found book came out. How does promoting the work and sharing it compare to producing or composing it?

It’s an interesting balance that you try to strike, because you work really hard on something, you make something and it’s not enough for me to just make it in a vacuum and then be done with it. After I make it, if I worked hard, if I like it, if I feel good about it, then I want to share it with as many people as possible. That’s a lot of the fun. Found in particular requires the participation of thousands of people. I actually do this so I can personally harangue people in every city to send in their found stuff. It’s fun to go on the road. Yeah, I wrote a book of stories, and I’m excited about it and want to share it with people. But at the same time you think, man, I’m aching to make new stuff. I have all these other ideas. Tonight we’ll do the show almost word for word exactly what we did last night. I don’t know, it might be boring. It might be interesting to see all these moments that seem spontaneous actually become scripted. It’s just easier to do it that way, and you see what people respond to. In a way, it’s nice to share it with a new set of people every night, but it’s not creating something. This year’s a shorter trip. Last year was an eight-month trip. But it feels new each time. It’s fun to see people get excited and enthusiastic about something I’m excited about.

With the website (www.foundmagazine.com), is that a good way to promote both your books? How do all the projects intersect?

My friend Jason Bitner puts the whole website together. Some people may not be able to find the magazine, and we put up a new found thing every day (on the website). We’re getting so much new found stuff. As a promotional tool, I think anyone with any band or film or art project, I think it’s useful to have a website just so anyone can access it. I also think of it as its own project. It’s not just a billboard, it’s a place where people can share their finds with one another.

Do you ever meet the authors of any of the found notes?

Yeah. It’s funny. When I first started this, I had no grand ambitions for it. I was going to make fifty copies of the magazine. I was just thinking of it as a little ‘zine, you know? And I ended up making more and more, it just kept growing, unexpectedly. It stunned me, but it was really exciting. But, I never thought, when I was making fifty copies, that anyone would see their own note. Now the book’s out, and people have seen the website, and it’s happened. Someone will say, ‘Hey, that’s mine.’ And I didn’t know if they’d be freaked out or pissed off. The few times it’s happened, they’ve been really cool about it. Either they’re honored, or more often just totally mystified. Like, ‘How did you get that?’ first of all, and ‘Why would anyone care about these little details of my love life?’ They don’t understand that it would be interesting to other people. And I explained to them that it is! We can relate to it. It’s probably something we’ve experienced before. I’ve probably written that same pitiful love note a hundred times before.

This girl just emailed me, and she had this note in Found (the first issue.) She was writing to a friend. There were two guys she was dating, and it was kind of a painful predicament and she was trying to figure out what to do. We e-mailed back and forth a little bit. She ended up sending me an update of everything that had happened since the first letter. She was like, ‘Now I’m back with Kevin, but Chad’s coming up this weekend, and I still don’t know what’s going to happen.’ For the second book, which I’m putting together as soon as I get back from this trip, I’m thinking about putting together a “Where Are They Now?” section.

Do you suppose people ever send in stuff they’ve made as opposed to have found?

I don’t think so. I can’t say it’s never happened. I’m sure people sit around with their friends, bullshitting, saying, ‘We should do that. We should make something up and send it in.’ But I think that to actually take the time to write something, weather the paper so it looks found, send it in, then sit around for a year-and-a-half to see if it’s one of the few we actually publish, there’s just not enough payoff. I think truth is just far stranger than fiction. The stuff you could really find is weirder, more heartbreaking, stranger, funnier, crazier, than what you could make up. So, I think people respect the integrity of the project. If they’re into Found anyway, they probably would rather just find something cool and pick it up.

In the story you read last night, Lie Big, there’s a line about the character Mitey-Mike: “Preposterous lies, he said, have more style.” Do you know this from experience?

I know it from experience with a couple of friends I grew up with named Mike, who kind of merged together to form Mitey-Mike. And they were definitely consummate liars, very charismatic liars. It was stylish, it was fun to watch them in action. Even if you met my dad – it’s not so much lying as bullshitting. I taught creative writing in prison for quite a few years, and a lot of the guys in prison who were most revered by their fellow inmates were the ones who were the champion storytellers. And the other people didn’t care if it was true story or not, just that they could tell stories that were engrossing. They were wild stories, but people wanted to believe. They were willing to believe. Even my dad, when salespeople would call, he’d just make up crazy stories. ‘Oh, he’s in Nigeria. Could you call back on December second? December second of next year. Actually, why don’t you call the third, because the second is the day he gets home, and he’ll probably want a day to rest.’

It sounds like you’ve seen lots of examples of how powerful stories can be, and how powerful storytelling can be.

Yeah, exactly. I think it’s the most fundamental building block of our society.

How long do you see yourself doing what you’re doing?

Drinking in a van?

Sure. Or Found magazine, writing stories…

I want to keep making more Found magazines, more books. People keep sending in great stuff. More and more, actually, it’s accelerating. And then I want to do more writing. I want to try to write a novel. I’m really excited about it. Do more radio (Rothbart also is a regular contributor to Public Radio’s This American Life.) Mess around with documentary film.

How do you find time to write with everything else you’re doing? You’re a rapper, too, is that right?

Yeah, I do that too. Honestly, I’ve done very little writing in the last few years. It kind of makes me frustrated when I think about it. For me it’s best if I have nothing else to do, but I’ve come to realize I don’t know when that time will be again. A few years ago when I wrote maybe half the stories in that Lone Surfer book, when I lived in New Mexico in the mountains, and I had nothing to do every day except get up and try to write. I’m going to try to arrange a schedule. Come January, I’m going to try to write for a couple months. Being around (Purdue teachers and friends) Porter (Shreve) and Bich (Nguyen) is inspiring, because it’s their real work. They have a lot of other responsibilities, but writing is on their plate every day. I miss that a lot.