IN MY HEART IS AN IDIOT, Davy Rothbart exposes the workings of his wild heart in 16 essays that are as touching and bittersweet as they are funny. As Rothbart travels back and forth across the United States, he weaves the stories of others with his own, creating what is both a self-portrait and a love letter to the people we meet over the course of a life.
I had the opportunity to speak with Rothbart just before the collection’s release and we talked about the truth of the stories we tell, the stories of others as found objects, the beauty of the United States, and the workings of his heart.
Roxane Gay: There has been a lot of conversation this year about truth and creative nonfiction. How much truth is there to be found in your essays?
Davy Rothbart: I consider them all to be completely true. I try to distill every moment down to its essence. Most of them are just told exactly the way I remember them. That being said, craft is important to me, so occasionally, two characters become one because it’s simpler to tell the story that way. I’m not sure what the right answer to this question is.
RG: There is no right answer.
DR: If you’re writing about something that happened 10 or 15 years ago, unless it’s a specific line that has always stuck with you, generally you remember what people might have said, or the tone people were using. It’s a reconstruction of what you remember.
RG: How do you determine what you should and shouldn’t write, about these people you meet in your travels?
DR: A lot of them I just called and asked. I said, “Hey, this experience we had is something that’s stayed with me, and I was going to write about it. But if I write about it, I want to write about it truthfully and with plenty of detail. How do you feel about that?” And some people said off the bat that they appreciated me reaching out to them. Some people said, “Yeah, go for it. I’d like to see it when you’re done.” Some people said, “Oh, let me think about it for a day or two and call me back.” I think pretty much everyone said, “Go for it.” There was only one I can remember, before I could ask for their permission asked, “Do you have any heroin that we could do?”
I don’t know if it’s the writer’s duty to inform someone beforehand, and I can’t say I did that with every one of the pieces.
RG: Do you ever worry about how much you’ve exposed yourself in the collection in the essays?
DR: I love and respect everyone I wrote about. There’s a lot of affection there, even if the stories don’t always paint me or those people in the best light. Generally I’m the one who’s been painted in the worse light. Still, I have some concern for what people will think.
RG: Is there anything you won’t write about?
DR: I wouldn’t want to write about something that would get someone in trouble, or put someone in a bad spot. I don’t know that I’ve personally gone through something that I wouldn’t write about. The things I write that are the most personal, that’s the stuff people say they can relate to the most. I feel the same about the stuff I read, when I feel that someone is really opening themselves up really honestly, even painfully, it’s really gripping and meaningful. It’s the stuff that makes me really relate and know I’m not alone. Someone else has shared my experience and understands it. That made me more fearless — maybe too fearless and maybe a bit reckless about going over the edge and sharing too much.
RG: I noticed in these essays, and especially in “What Are You Wearing?,” a strong sense of empathy. You meet all these people all over the country, and you still are able to find something in common. With LaKesha on the bus and with Erin, when you find out about this woman who you thought was Nicole, was actually a man. Many people would have absolutely flipped out in that situation, and you handled it with such grace. Did you see a sense of empathy throughout this book and in many of the essays and many of the experiences that you had?
DR: That’s the best word to use. Empathy and curiosity are two things I learned through my parents.
RG: With FOUND Magazine, you have all these found objects, and these histories that come with these objects, and in your essays, many of the stories sound like found stories, and others become part of your story. There was this interweaving. Do you see a relationship between the magazine and the writing?
DR: With the magazine, what’s been so interesting is having people find these things and send them to me over the past ten years, and getting such a powerful glimpse into the lives of strangers. Some of them are so intense, you feel like you’re really getting to know the people. In real life, you have the opportunity to actually engage with people, to hear their actual story. But with the found notes, there is a curiosity you can’t indulge because you can’t talk to these people. A lot of the stories are really just found notes come to life.
RG: The collection took a turn for the serious with “The Strongest Man in the World” and Byron. It really surprised me because I’d been reading these stories that carried an emotional gravity, but then here’s this story about an innocent man who is in prison — serious stakes. Do you know what’s going on with Byron now?
DR: Byron is doing well. He’s incredibly resilient. He’s now been locked up for over ten years, and I believe him to be totally innocent. I can’t imagine going through that and having the strength that he has, that kind of humor he has, without going insane. Having some hope he’ll find his way out is part of what keeps him going, and the odds are long, but he’s a smart guy and he’s really dedicated. He has a few friends and his mom who are extremely dedicated to helping him. Recently, there’s been a little bit of a positive shift: he’s applied for a pardon from the Governor of Missouri and they’re looking at his case.
RG: Did you include the essay in the book to tell his story to a wider audience?
DR: Definitely. I wanted to write about Byron anyway. He’s a friend and I care about him. Some part of me definitely believes people will read this story, get a sense of who Byron is, and what’s happening here. Byron’s one of thousands, but I hope people read the story. I hope they care about his case, because ultimately, often it’s political. If someone’s going to have a second chance at justice, it’s usually because of public interest and political pressure.
RG: How did you start writing?
DR: I always wrote. I always loved doing it. This kid came over to my house once in like third grade, my friend Mike Casura, who I talk about in some of the stories. I was like, “Hey man, you want to play Atari?” He was like, “Let’s write a story.” I didn’t even know what that was. I didn’t know if that was a game or something you did with your friends at a sleepover. We spent hours on it. He would write the story and I would be making up stuff. It was awesome.
RG: What’s the best story you’ve never told?
DR: At some point, when I was writing, I realized that all the stories were happening in the United States so, I decided to just keep it that way. But after the tsunami, I went to do some radio recording in Sri Lanka. I spent about five weeks there, reporting on what was going on.
I was such an uneducated traveler. I didn’t realize the Columbo airport was an hour and a half outside the city. I was trying to figure out how to get into the city when I met this dreadlocked hippie dude, a barefoot white guy from Oregon. Over two to three weeks I learned he was this big time pot dealer. He showed me his bag the first night and he had $10,000 in cash. The tsunami happened and three days later he’s on a plane because he wanted to help. This was the worst idea I’ve ever heard. This guy’s going to walk around refugee camps with $100 bills, you know? And yet, he was so cool. He was this big personality. He would go into these refugee camps, and sit down with the elders of the camp. He would say, “What do you need? How can I help?” We would walk with an elder, tent to tent, and for some it would be asthma medicine. People were dying of asthma because they couldn’t get a certain medicine. They had thousands of blankets, but no rice. It was different at every refugee camp. We would get a list together, and we drive to some bigger town, buy all this shit. It would cost like $500 or something, then we’d bring it back. Some of it was just spices. They already had to eat rice day after day, and we just got things so they had a little spice they could add to the food.
We would go back to the camp and just drop it off and then leave. These community elders would obviously be grateful, but he didn’t want to stay and have people, like worship him or something. He was just doing this amazing thing and then ducking out, going to the next town. We did that for like two weeks. Then he ran out of money, went back to the US, and I know he made about four more trips in the six months that followed because I stayed in touch.
RG: In “New York, New York,” where you write about traveling by bus to New York in the days after 9/11, I can’t believe that bus driver just left you and the other passengers at a rest area.
DR: The roads were anarchy. There were no rules to what was happening that week in airports and bus stations.
RG: It was really interesting to see how the rules of society just collapsed in the wake of 9/11. Do you keep in touch with many of these people in your stories?
DR: Most of them. I talk to Hakim in “Canada or Bust.” I talk to Byron and Jim Thompson, Sarah from “Shade.” Anna from “Ain’t That America?”
RG: Is your heart still an idiot?
DR: I’ve learned a lot, maybe from writing the book, also just from living life. These essays, they mostly take place over the past 10 to 12 years. I’ve learned a lot. I don’t think my heart is an idiot. It can still be an idiot from time to time, like anybody’s heart, but I’ve come a long way.