He's a former ticket scalper, NPR contributing storyteller, author of two books and longstanding editor of Found Magazine. Also, Davy Rothbart delivers the occasional pizza. He'll be in Dallas tonight (Tuesday) at the Texas Theatre doing what he was born to do: engage an audience of voyeurs with stories from abandoned scraps of paper, and give tiny windows into the lives of others. But on this tour, there's a twist: You'll get a look at Davy's life also.
He's just released his first, fully autobiographical book of essays, titled My Heart Is An Idiot. So when you slump into your seat this evening, you could learn what it was like for the author to decant his own urine, follow his heart on unlikely escapades or have long-running phone sex with a stranger.
I caught up with Davy, mid-tour, and he filled me in on all of the details. Mixmaster: How long, exactly, has Found been going now? Davy Rothbart: Ten years. Man, I read that the other day and thought, 'Shit, I'm so old.' You've been with it for a decade, so the magazine itself must feel like an extension of you at this point. How has your relationship with the publication changed over time? I know. I found some old pictures of us puttin' that first issue together by hand the other day and it was crazy to see what kids we were. It's still great and it's really grown. I liken it to a giant community art project, where we get these little glimpses at other people's lives.
I feel lucky to have sort of stumbled on this thing with no grand ambition or plan, but to see how it's grown and brought me to the frontlines of human emotion and story. ... Well, I've experienced so much of life through reading these profound notes. And people keep bringing them. We get a ton of journals and soulful, passionate letters. You know how when you smoke weed you feel everything more deeply?
Sure. It's kind of like that when you're reading some of these letters. Plus, it brings people together that you wouldn't expect. This happened on a previous tour: We were in Louisville and these two punk rock kids who were in high school said that their principal was there. This guy was a real hard-ass and was always riding them, and then it turned out he was a huge dumpster diver!
Now after a decade I talk to people who met at an earlier Found event, or went to one on a first or second date, and now they have a six year old kid. It's funny to know that we had some positive effect in some lives.
I've been to a few of your Found events, but never when you're also releasing a book. What's the order of operations for this tour? Will we hear excerpts from My Heart is an Idiot , Found stuff and songs by your bro, Peter? Definitely, the show is similar with songs written about found objects and favorite Found stuff, but I've also been reading a couple stories from the book each night.
There's this other thing we've added this year, since so many stories in the book are about meeting a stranger. I ask the audience to write down something they'd like to ask a stranger, then I call somebody up and start interviewing them about life. It's always thrilling and unpredictable. It's been really fun.
What are audience members most interested in learning? There's a range: "Who'd you lose your virginity to?" or "What happened?" "Do you want to eat Popsicles in my basement?" "Has a clown ever tried to flip your car while screaming that a tornado's coming?" "What's your life's biggest regret?" "What color is your soul?" There's been some really good ones.
Your first book was a mostly fictional collection of short stories that felt drawn out of first-person encounters. Your new book, My Heart Is An Idiot, is a collection of personal essays. Could you tell me about why you wanted to explore both formats? I just wrote a couple personal essays for some magazines like The Believer and I liked the form, and I like reading them. Especially authors like David Sedaris and Jon Ames and Jim Carroll. So I was experimenting this time with writing about my own life. It felt easier because I already knew what the story was and I just had to find the details.
And having some time helps. If something happened seven years ago, you can see it for the humorous situation that it was without feeling those tragic moments. That's the thing: There's no time-stamp on the stories, so while reading them, we don't know if they were distant or recent. Are you still as brazen with your heart as you were when you were younger, or are you more protective? I would say that I've learned a lot, and even just writing the pieces was a really interesting way to gain perspective. You gain an ability to learn from your own mistakes when you comb through these experiences. Even though most didn't really work out.
Well, I don't know. Maybe you didn't wind up with the lasting romance you hoped for when you hopped on a bus to chase a girl, but many seemed to lead you to a greater understanding of a different component of your life, or a series of fortunate chance encounters. You're totally right, none of them were mistakes or regrets, but those situations where my own heart was broken -- well, some of them led me into a larger adventure. So anytime a search for love leads to an adventure and brings other people and experiences into your life, it isn't a mistake. It's something you're thankful for.
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I read that Steve Buscemi might turn your first book, Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas into a film? How did that come about? He is! He wrote a screenplay based on three of the stories from that first book, and he's been a little busy with Boardwalk Empire, but we saw him in NY a few weeks ago and he's excited to start working on it next year. He's got some great people lined up and he's such a good writer, he even made some changes that improved the stories! I thought, "Why didn't I think of that?" Do you think he'll let you cameo in it? I hope so. I'd be happy to just be an extra at a party somewhere. "What Are You Wearing?" [a chapter from Davy's latest book, previously released as an article for GQ] got adapted into a film by Kyle Alvarez, and he let me hang out on the sofa next to a character named Davy. I love your contributions to This American Life, they've always felt a little more rough and tumble than the rest of the show's content. That one about Mister Rogers still floors me. Do you have any more coming up in the near future? I have a couple that I've been working on -- My parents took a road trip in 1970 (I was born in '75) and they audiotaped it. It was back before my mother lost her hearing.
They audio-recorded their entire road trip? Was that a common thing to do around that time? I think people just had audio players, and they experimented with them. I really like it because it's the only thing I have of her speaking and interacting in a normal way, you know, with other people talking to her. I want to retrace some of those locations and weave in modern stories. I also delivered pizzas for seven years and I still work there one night a year on New Year's Eve.
So, despite your book writing, Found compiling, editing and NPR contributions, you still deliver pizzas. And you pick the one night a year that everyone else asks off, to do it? Yeah! I get to go to 40 parties instead of one. It was a big part of my life for seven years, so I like being back with my old work friends and driving around on the streets, and my buddies know I'm in town so I'll get about 5 friends who will order during the night. I love that. How did you wind up contributing to This American Life initially? This producing job opened up there and I loved the show. I was depressed about how farfetched it was that I'd ever get the job, so I decided to apply but I was really honest about it. On my resume I put: Ticket scalping, pizza delivery, and then I wrote a really compelling, I think thoughtful, story about it. I sent it in as a lark, then I got a message from Ira on my voicemail for an interview. They wanted me to tell ideas for stories, and one of mine was that Mister Rogers one. Within a few months I was working on that story for them. I didn't get the job though. It's for the best. You would have spent your days and nights in that studio, rather than making new adventures. It's so true. I could have done it, and I would have done it, but it worked out a lot better this way.
Join Davy and his songwriting brother Peter tonight at 7:30 at the Texas Theatre. Need a $10 ticket? Of course you do. Get it at the door.