DAVY ROTHBART'S MY HEART IS AN IDIOT, a collection of romantic foibles and piecemeal human-interest stories, is unquestionably about its narrator. Rothbart’s gift for first-person storytelling is ever present; known best as editor of Found Magazine (a popular scrapbook of detritus) he has also contributed to “This American Life,” GQ, and Maxim, the latter for which he wrote a stunningly empathetic portrayal of hip-hop hillbilly Kid Rock.
At Found, lost dispatches are celebrated anew — scrappy love letters, pubescent poetry, bad prom photos — a hash of forgotten ephemera repurposed and resurrected for public consumption. Rothbart sees them as signposts, coaxing us toward a buried appreciation of life around us, and doing battle with the phantom of anonymity.
But the deeply personal stories in My Heart Is An Idiot don’t tug at the heartstrings so much as knowingly yank at them. Like a wartime reporter, Rothbart is embedded in the narrative; through his lens, we’re privy to love’s fatal contradiction: toxic and throbbing, the heart that aims to save can savage you.
Shona Sanzgiri: Do you have a sense of how all the pieces in the book work together?
Davy Rothbart: There are some themes that run through the book. One that I've been thinking about a lot on this tour has been the importance of connecting with strangers, and the rewards of doing so. Like the story about the hitchhiker — I felt so lucky to be able to help him achieve his lifelong dream. I mean, it was easy on my part. But we hit it off.
Though especially with Found Magazine, they way those notes and letters give you a glimpse into the lives of strangers — you've never met these people; it's just a fragment of a story. You have to try and imagine what the rest of their story is.
But the story of the book is the story of the people I've met and their real lives. It's like Found come to life. We added a new part to our show this year. We figured if we're going to 79 cities this fall, it'd be cool to meet 79 strangers. We've been pulling a volunteer from the audience — they don't even know what they're volunteering for. Once they come up on stage, I explain how rewarding I've found it to take a chance and be open to people and connect with someone you don't know. I'll take questions from the audience and use those questions to talk to that person about their life. It's been really fun.
That's a theme in the book: being open to adventure, letting people into your life, and actively engaging with people whose path you cross.
SS: One review of the book suggested that as the reader is happily plunging into Davy's life, it very much feels as though you're reaching back. Does that kind of intimacy prove discomfiting, given how much you reveal?
DR: Not really, but I am a little embarrassed about some of the stuff that happens in the book. It's not that I have zero boundaries or zero shame. But this book was on my laptop for five years, so I think a part of me forgot anyone would read it. If anything that’s a good thing, it makes me more comfortable with being honest. Sometimes someone says they've read this book and they'll shoot me a look. I feel sheepish, like, “Oh, so you know that I peed in bottles, that I had phone sex with a man, that I've done some shit I'm not proud of.”
By the same token, it's life. Even though I've done stupid shit, I don't think I've intentionally done things that were harmful or malicious. At the end of the day I can live with it all. It's kind of nice to be known by someone you've just met. When I meet someone for the first time, I usually dig in and ask personal questions because why fuck around with small talk? So this is basically a shortcut to be able to talk to a stranger about what's going on in their lives. It's the psychology of mutual disclosure: we exchange something personal about ourselves.
The most innocuous stuff in the book has been too much for some people, though. The stories about my mom, where we pulled pranks on her — she doesn't care about it. We thought we were pulling tricks on her, but she was pulling tricks on us, as it turns out. For some people, they said they had to tune out, and I'm just thinking, “You had to have a square life to be bothered by this!”
I do think the point of these essays is to ask questions of the reader. That's why I've always loved personal essays and personal storytelling. I always find myself relating to other stories, and feeling connected to these people and to the rest of the world. If anyone else is having that kind of experience, it's really thrilling.
SS: There's been a flood of interest in the genre. On one hand, they trend toward scathing self-analysis, and that's exhilarating. I sometimes wonder though if the writer is conscious of being a character in their own story, if it doesn't accidentally feel stagey. Is the storytelling potential for these experiences immediately apparent to you?
DR: I don't think so. I don't feel like they're a form of stunt journalism. There are certain books that I've read, some that I liked, but that still felt manufactured — you know, the ones where the guy says “I'm going to eat all these burgers across the country and also come to terms with the death of my parents.” Where it seems like the idea for the book precedes the experience. The kinds of books that I respond to are those where it seems like the person is just living life, and where they just know to write it down.
I will say that there were definitely times that during an experience that was particularly painful or humiliating, there was a part of me that said, “God, I'm really fucking heartbroken right now. But I could probably write about this one day.” And somehow even the idea to channel it into writing did blunt the pain, just a little bit. It took the edge off. Even if it was years later.
SS: There is a growing minority of readers who want these stories to read like traditional reporting. What's odd is that by virtue of being a personal story, we're looking for the writer to take a stand. But your stories involve other people, so on face value it would appear that you're more likely to honor their experiences. How do you ensure that someone else's story is going to be just as true as yours?
DR: Several of the people, not all, but several of them I spoke with before or during the writing, because I wanted help remembering the experience. Someone like Sara from the story "Shade" I stayed in touch with. Years have passed, but Sara and I have had conversations where I asked her about it, to be respectful. You want to be fair to the other people involved. I changed some of the names and some of the locations to disguise it. But I asked people, "What do you remember? What was your take?"
It's not straight reportage because it is subjective. The conversations are not verbatim — some of these things happened ten years ago. It was helpful to ask. Sometimes I was more tentative about letting the person know. I did try to share it with every person before. I didn't want them to stumble upon it. I wanted them to read it and put their two cents in. Sometimes I made small changes after they saw it to respect their wishes.
Like in that story "Tarantula" — the girl involved. It's a story about dead bodies, and cheating, and all this stuff, and she wanted me to change the part about the bartenders drinking at the bar because she said it was really illegal.
SS: Out of all the things to take issue with.
DR: Yeah. I talked with her at length about it and she was eventually cool about leaving it the way it was. But I wanted to be very vigilant in order to stop anyone from being harmed.
SS: Were your memories accurate?
DR: Yeah, I think so.
SS: But there was never a moment when you thought you might have idealized it out of the proper context?
DR: Sometimes I disagreed with the person. I remembered something a bit differently. Sometimes we just had differing ideas about how things were unfolding. At other times I figured it's not my job to go and correct things. It's helpful to know that I was wrong, to include what I was thinking at the time and what I came to realize later on.
I think generally I had a pretty good hang on most of the stories. I'll tell you that I had about 30 or 40 stories for the book and initially just wrote seven or eight of them.
SS: About the representation of women in your stories: we learn a lot about them as objects of your affection. But we don't learn about them as they exist outside of being objects, or rather, outside of your projections. Were you conscious of that?
DR: I think that's fair. I was probably somewhat aware about that in writing the book. Maybe it's the adventures that ensue, in your efforts to make something happen with one of these girls, it's less about the thing that makes them an individual. But they are completely individuals. It's a fair criticism. But I feel like they are fairly distinct. I think the feelings I feel for each of them appeared similar, but they each have their own unique qualities. Maybe they're under-realized as characters in the story.
SS: I imagine some people want to scold you. But these stories span a good chunk of your life, and it seems oddly diminishing to take you to task because it assumes that you can't change.
DR: I appreciate that. At some moments in the book, I'm 25; I'm not the same person. A lot of them do take place in the same span of years. Even if I'm not as changed as I could or should be, I don't know if it's a fair criticism to be frustrated by the ways someone interacts with the world.
SS: It is your perspective after all, however imperfect in hindsight.
DR: It might be frustrating as a reader. It hasn't bothered me to read that response from a few people. I probably have an insulated perspective about the book because I keep getting positive responses, from strangers or friends, men and women — just how much it's meant to them. It's thrilling, and it's fortified me against those people who've had this response.
Editors and other writers I've talked to have told me about this phenomenon: reviews are not going to be uniformly positive — in their effort to be a good review. Not every book I've read is the greatest. There's this kind of review, though, that's miserly, where you wonder why they're doling out compliments in this one way, and taking issue with obscure points. But about the women characters being underdeveloped, it's valid. Some of the stories do run a little similar in terms of basic emotion.
A story like "Canada or Bust" is different. It starts off being a story about a girl, but it quickly becomes about the guy we meet, Hakim. By trying to impress this girl, I ended up forming this friendship with him.
SS: She very clearly served as a reason to encounter something bigger and more interesting.
DR: Yeah, I think that's true for some of the other stories too. Being in love with this girl gives the story a kind of propulsion. It's about what happens along the way. Hakim is a good example. One of the good things about this tour is that I've been able to see all these characters — I mean, the real people. I saw [Hakim] in Brooklyn. I saw Anna, the British girl from the last story in New York when I was there. It's been cool to see this book come to life in that way.
SS: One of the things about your book and Found and really about our culture at large is that we're extreme voyeurs, especially when people are faltering. It seems like our grand obsession.
DR: Yes. Found certainly is voyeuristic. But I think a degree of voyeurism is healthy. It’s curiosity, essentially. We're surrounded by strangers all the time, so it's natural to be curious, to want to know what someone else's experience of being human is like. It's what makes Found Magazine so potent. Some of these stories have that same curiosity about the lives of strangers. I think the reason people respond to Found so much is because it's so honest — the notes have been written so un self-consciously. The person who wrote it never expected so many people to see it.
My mom once said of Found: “It's like reality TV— but real.” I thought that was pretty cool. People love reality and authenticity and truth, and that's what these Found notes really give you. I tried to capture some aspect of that in the book. The characters are Found notes come to life. Like Hakim: we've all seen a guy selling bootleg CDs outside of a bar, but what's his life like? What's he like on a long drive? Or the people from “New York, New York,” on the greyhound bus. You want to know what their story is. You want to know, and that's part of the fun of being a reporter and carrying a microphone around.
I think it's voyeurism in the best and most meaningful sense of the world.
SS: Have you gotten any great love letters?
DR: That's a good question. I certainly have over the years. One of the stories I really wanted to write was about this girl Liz, who lived in Burlington, Vermont. I met her once at a party. I was leaving Chicago and she was arriving the same night. We just met and really hit it off. We didn't kiss. We probably only talked for half an hour. I said let's write letters and keep in touch. And for the next three years we wrote these really intense love letters. They were love letters of a sort, not fawning over each other as much as they were these soulful descriptions of what was happening in our lives, or special moments we'd witnessed in the world. They were love letters — of a truly meaningful sort. Then I spent three weeks on a road trip with her and it was intense and everything got fucked up. But those letters are the most meaningful to me.
SS: I'm asking because so many of these stories are about you pining after women — I wonder if the situation has been reversed.
DR: Not as much as I would have liked. [laughs]
There's been a couple times when I was on the other side of it. It certainly gives you some insight into how uncomfortable it can be, about what I was doing to some of these women. I learned a lot. When someone who didn't seem to actually know me that well would decide that I was their soul mate, that I was the object of their love that felt so unspecific, I would think, “This is exactly what I've been doing.” I felt like they didn't know me. I was half-into it; sometimes they were pretty cool or pretty hot, but it would still feel like too much. No wonder a lot of these girls were heading for the hills. I was too intense.
I learned how to become less intense and equally how to fake being less intense. Slowly trying to reel someone in without overwhelming her right off the bat.
SS: Even if you're bubbling up inside.
DR: Sometimes it's really painful. You're really into someone. I have this friend and I'll sometimes wipe a number off his phone and put it on mine and tell him he's not getting it back for five days.
The game playing might be silly: "Oh if we had this connection, it wouldn't matter." But people don't want to be the object of your craziness. I always tell my friends to chill out. That's always easier advice to give.
SS: Do you think there is something to be learned from your mistakes?
DR: I hope so. I've been signing some books at the events with the phrase, “Learn from my mistake.” I wonder if that's even true. It's not a self help book. I'd say the biggest lesson is the universality of struggling, of loving relationships not being easy for people. The biggest thing is the connection with people. I'd be happiest if someone took away a sense of connection, that all of our hearts are idiots.