To say that Davy Rothbart is a writer is like saying that Paul Newman is an actor. Both statements are true, but for-in Mr. Newman’s case — a guy who also directs, has a culinary empire, and in his spare time races cars, it seems rather limited in scope. Sure, Davy’s a writer, but he also spent time scalping tickets in Chicago; a career choice that eventually turned into a story for Public Radio International’s This American Life — with whom Davy spent this last summer on tour. Another of his pieces for the program lead to Davy being asked to eulogize Fred Rogers upon his death earlier this year, in the New York Times. Then there’s the magazine Davy, er, founded: FOUND, which in only three issues (at the time of writing this article) has gained a huge following, as well as a regular feature in many alternative weeklies nationwide. Plus, he’s recently finished up a book-signing tour for his first, self-published collection of short stories, The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas, which will be coming out in an expanded version through Simon & Schuster in the near future. Did I mention he also spent time teaching creative writing to the inmates of a couple of different prisons? Not surprisingly, finding time for our interview was easier (graciously) agreed to than done, but I was at last able to catch Davy by phone.
What have you found to be the biggest difference between writing prose and writing for radio? And, what do you prefer about each?
That’s interesting. Writing for radio, you more write how you talk, whereas prose… I mean, ideally prose isn’t too stilted, but it’s even more conversational, writing for radio. That’s something I try to do, at least, in both: try to make it feel natural. When you write something that’s on the written page, people can spend a little more time with it; you can have details that are a little bit more involved, and that they can sit with. Whereas, with radio, they hear it, and then it’s gone, so for some people [it’s] maybe more direct.
Is it that you’re looking for more of an immediate impact with radio?
Or I think things are kind of streamlined, a little bit. There’s probably less room for flourishes.
And do you have a preference between the two?
They’re very different. In terms of plain old written stuff, I probably prefer writing a story. But I do believe that stories are meant to be brought off the page. I have friends who are in MFA writing programs; they’ve complained, because, when they do readings, they’re really fiery, and they’ve been told to tone it down. But stories were told for thousands of years before they were ever written down. I think stories originally were an oral form, and so I appreciate people that can tell stories, and really bring them to life. Radio allows maybe a little more room for that, which I think is cool.
It’s like choosing between two children. How can we pick a favorite?
You know, though, that there always is a secret favorite, whether [a parent will] admit it or not…
You’re assigned a story tentatively titled “Twentysomethings Who Still Obsess About Boybands” for This American Life. What questions do you ask to get the best story?
Alex Blumberg [of PRI], he’s the guy who taught me a lot about — and, Ira [Glass, of This American Life], too — but Alex taught me a lot about asking questions. I would keep watching him in action, and he would ask one question–the usual question–and then he would ask a really interesting follow-up. It was always the next question he would ask that really got to it, or even the one more. He would always ask one more question. He would say, “Why is it that…” something. So I would [ask] not just, “What is your favorite boyband?” but, “Have you ever worn matching outfits out with your friends?”
In ten words, describe your favorite potato dish.
Let’s see. They ask me that in all the interviews. I already have this one ready. Are Doritos potato?
Heh. Uh, no. Good try, though.
Ten words. Let me just… Driving through Nebraska in winter with some Arby’s curly fries.
Very nice. Compare your speaking voice, as heard in your head, with your speaking voice, as recorded for radio.
The one that’s heard in my head is much more handsome, confident, rich…
(laughing) No, just, I guess, deeper, and sexy. And then, the one on the radio, should I give you some adjectives to describe that? Well, it’s kind of mumbly, and rapid, and goofy, and pipsqueaky.
Chris Webber–naive innocent or criminal genius?
Gosh, it’s really probably more complex than that, but how about if I call him… You know what, I’d say he’s actually a naive genius, and he’s an innocent criminal. How does that sound?
That sounds good. Nice way to weasel your way out of that one.
But it’s true, sort of. Well, that’s my feelings about it, about him.
What made you decide to teach at Cotton Correctional Facility?
I ended up teaching there because my friend, Aaron Hurst, organized a group of college students that were going to go and teach out there. I really didn’t know much about it. I think he had done it once or twice before, and then he organized a group, and he encouraged me to try it. It sounded interesting and appealing, and I have to say, it’s been one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I ended up doing it for a while.
How long did you do it?
Well, I taught there, and then at a prison in Virginia, for a few years total. A couple years in Jackson, and then over the course of a year or two in Virginia.
What was the most lasting thing you took away from the experience?
The lasting experience that I took from it is just that, you know, Americans have a terribly skewed idea of [who] an incarcerated person is. I was in medium security and maximum security prisons, but they felt like Adult Ed classroom[s]. These were just interested, curious, eager learners — great writers, some of them. Very human.
I could talk on and on about it, because it upsets me that so many people are in prison in this country. Any intelligent, thinking person, when they truly learn the ridiculousness of who gets locked up in this country, and why, for what offenses, and if they were to meet any of these people, they would be as upset and affected by it as I am. I think it should be mandatory for all college students, at least to teach there, because when you form connections with people and see that they’re not so much different from you… You see that, it’s pretty powerful.
So, if you were offered the Director of Baked Goods position in Shorty Smooth’s operation, what would your focus have been–what would have been your business plan–in hopes of accruing the greatest revenue?
Wow. Well, I love cookies, myself, so I don’t know if this is a great business plan, because I’d probably end up eating most of them myself, but there [are] two kinds of cookies that I love: just your regular chocolate chip cookies — awesome, even though if you eat half the dough before you make the cookie — but, when I was a kid, my mom used to make these cookies called rumballs. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them. They’re basically just these little chocolate balls with sprinkles on the outside of them, but she would literally put rum in there, she’d mix a bunch of rum in.
I know. I was 8 years old, with fourteen rumballs, and I was like, “Yeeeaaaah. Wassup? Merry Christmas!” So, I’d sell chocolate chip [cookies] and rumballs.
Chocolate chip cookies and rumballs.
I just remembered that. I gotta ask her — we haven’t had those for years. This holiday season, maybe.
Do a resurgence in the rumball tradition.
Basketball shorts seem to have grown from wee-and-tight to large-enough-to-fit-a-small-family. What does this say about the evolution of the game, and are they going to get even bigger?
Evolution of the game…it says that the game has grown in stature, and in short-length. But actually, there [are] all these throwback things, like, people wear headbands–that’s a throwback to Slick Watts–and, you ever see the knee-high socks?
I believe short-shorts are going to come back. Big. Yes, that’s my fashion tip for 2006. Get in early. Start wearing the short-shorts now, because they are coming back.
Right, so, if you want to be ahead of the game…
To be ahead of the game, rock ’em this holiday season, while you eat your rumballs.
Where is the best outdoor court, [at which] you’ve played a pick-up game?
My favorite court — even though I’ve lived in Chicago and DC and a lot of places, and [had] favorite courts in each of those places — my favorite court growing up is Wheeler Park [in Ann Arbor, MI]. And so, when I moved back to Ann Arbor, I wanted to live right across the street from it, and I do. I can hear the balls bouncing in the afternoon in the summertime.
In your years as a ticket scalper in Chicago, what was the highest priced ticket you ever sold?
I remember that. It was for the NBA finals Jordan’s last year as a Bull, so, ’98. I sold four courtside seats for $5200 each.
Oh. My. God.
Of course, I paid $4500 each for them, but it still was pretty nice turnabout. And the scary thing is that I sold them to a scalper that I knew in LA.
Who probably got even more?
He probably got six [thousand] each for them.
Incredible. And for that particular era, was that something that would happen all the time, or was that simply because…?
That was when it was just out of control. Everyone was thinking that this was Jordan’s last game ever. His last year, things started getting really crazy. Certainly, they were worth two or three grand during the season, too, for those courtsides. Courtsides are really hard to get; there’s only like sixty of them. [Gene] Siskel, he would sit in one, and all the others… they’re pretty much taken. It was really rare to get your hands on them.
What goes through your head, when you’re asked to eulogize a childhood icon like Mister Rogers for the New York Times?
Well, I remember at the time, [thinking] “How do you fit a man’s incredible life into 700 words?” It felt like an awesome responsibility, and when I say “awesome,” I mean in a frightening way.
In the biblical sense of the word?
Exactly. I guess I’ve never had anything that I’ve written that I cared more about getting it right. And, also, what goes through your mind is, “How much time do I have to do this?” You know, you have, like, four hours. That was really scary. But it came out okay, and the editor there was, fuckin’, really helpful. It was a great honor. It was one of the biggest honors I’ve ever had.
I was going to say, is there a part of you that’s, like, “You’re asking me? To write for the New York Times?”
That was the first thing I was going to say, actually. I mean, why me?
“Are you sure you’ve dialed the right person?”
That does go through your mind. What a tremendous honor, and am I really the right person for this? And to hear them say, “Yeah, you are, and you have four hours.” But that did go through my mind, for sure.
And were you happy with what you [wrote]?
I was really happy with how it came out. I felt really good about it. You realize how many people read the New York Times. There was fuckin’ a lot of response. I mean, a lot of people read it and I felt good about it. I felt like it was honest. The greatest part about meeting him, and knowing him the little bit that I did, was to see that he was both; a saint of a man — I mean, he truly was an incredible human being — but at the same time, he was a regular dude, too. So, that was what I tried to express, and I felt like I was able to.
One of the pieces that you did for This American Life was about your mother, and the channeling that she does. If you could channel somebody, who would you choose to channel? Living or dead.
Probably Bud Abbott. [The other] half of Abbott & Costello. He’s awesome. That would be great, if I could channel Bud Abbott.
Now you’re really going to have to think. Write a haiku describing your book, The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas.
Let me think here. 5, 7, 5. Is “girls” one syllable, or two?
Well, when people ask me what it’s about, I always say, “It’s mostly about girls.” So, that can be the first line, “Mostly about girls.” Let me do my syllable count. “Also…prison…and driving./On the Road, Part Two!”
Does that sound too self-…?
Does that? Maybe that does.
But it fits!
I know what would be a better one. My mom actually said that, so, let’s do this.
Mostly about girls,
And prison. My mom said it’s
On the Road Part Two.
Kool Moe Dee, Ice Cube, Vanilla Ice, Ice T, Snow, and Kool Herc; what’s with the cold trend in rap names pre-1995?
This is actually little-known; there was so much talk of global warming in the 80s, but if you look at the temperatures, as average temperatures in that decade, and compare [them] to previous decades, it was actually quite a bit colder, in just about every part of the United States.
So there were some spikes; there were days where it was much hotter, and there were these record-setting temperatures, but it was much, much cooler, as a decade, and I think that’s reflected in a lot of things, probably most noticeably in rapper’s nicknames.
Wow. That’s either the most incredible answer I’ve ever heard, or remarkably… creative.
Thank you, thank you.
On your book tour travels, over the summer, what did you find to be the biggest differences between different areas of the country, and when it comes to FOUND submissions, are there trends in what comes in from different places?
I don’t know if this is a satisfying answer, but each part of the country feels very uniquely itself. But it’s hard to identify the reasons. This is a phenomenon I’ve noticed; when I’m switching planes, what’s it called, a layover? So I’m walking through [an airport], and there’s all these gates, each one going to a different city… Everyone waiting at that gate looks like someone from that city they’re going to. Half of them probably aren’t, even, they’re just visiting, or doing whatever. But, you go past the Louisville gate, and you’re like, “Wow. Definitely some…”
You get a slice of that town, almost. I don’t know, when I pull into Portland, Oregon, or Portland, Maine, I’m like, “Yes. Exactly. Portland, Oregon.” But it’s possible that if that was Madison, I’d be like, “Yes.”
So, they’re each uniquely themselves. And, in terms of FOUND submissions, I really have not noticed much of a [regional] trend. It’s weird, but people have marked similarities, all around the country.
Continuing with the book tour theme, did you develop tour groupies? And, did they throw things at you while you read, like, their underwear? Or something else?
Usually little pieces of hardware, like bolts, or sometimes screws, or nails, or…
Anything small, sharp and pointy?
Or even little brackets, and stuff. I think it’s in The Blues Brothers, where their band plays behind chicken wire? That’s what we ended up doing by the end of the [tour], we had put up chicken wire at the bookstore, or the bar, or wherever it was.
Simply for your own protection.
To protect ourselves, yeah.
Or, you could have opened a hardware store, had you thought ahead.
And we have.
It’s 21 Balloons Productions: documentary work, and all your hardware needs.
If you were given a hot-air balloon to be your primary mode of transportation for a year, with what would you trick it out?
Sweet. I am planning on getting a hot air balloon, actually.
And learning to fly it. This guy lives in west Michigan, and I actually traded him all these Bulls tickets in the last year of the playoffs, and he now is going to teach me to be a balloon pilot.
He’s going to hook you up with a balloon?
Yeah, he has a used balloon. But I probably won’t get to do that until, not this next summer, but the following summer. But I’m fuckin’ hyped. And, what would I trick it out with? Spinners. I’d probably definitely have to get me some tinted Mylar. And a gold basket.
That’ll be a little…you’re going to have to compensate for that somehow.
You know. I’m pretty light.
Right. “No passengers, sorry. It’s a one man operation.” I think you should get some of that black-lighting, for underneath…
That would be sweet. Some neon. Ground effects.
There you go.
Has there ever been anything that either you’ve found or has been submitted to FOUND that you haven’t included, or you’ve refused to publish?
Not really. Even when someone sent a dead frog in, I put that in the magazine. Actually, there is something. We get so many pictures of people’s penises and vaginii. Penii and vaginas, I mean. And, it’s nice, but they’re ultimately not that interesting. So I don’t include those, just because…
There’s only so many.
Plus I need them for the walls of my room.
But they don’t tell that much of a story. Although there is something about, how does this Polaroid — one person sent me a picture of a guy’s penis, and it was a Polaroid, taken on this foggy morning, and he found it in a parking lot, and clearly the person had been there an hour before. Why is this person in the parking lot, taking pictures of his penis at five in the morning? There is some story there, some mystery, like other FOUND items, but I don’t print that many of those. Really, there’s nothing that would be too personal for me to publish. I try to change names, or block then out, because I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but I haven’t not printed anything.
Have you ever “lost” something — a ticket stub with cryptic notes scrawled on the back or a particularly revealing grocery list — in the hope that somebody else would find it?
Not really, but I will tell you this weird story. When I lived in DC, once I was bugged out about a bunch of different things — I actually went to see Jim Carroll read, he’s one of my favorite guys–and I was just wandering around, lost. Or, not actually lost, just lost feeling, through different neighborhoods in DC — Adams Morgan is where all the parties are — and I didn’t feel like walking all the way back home, so I went to a youth hostel. I went up there at four in the morning. I asked this guy if I could stay there — he was really nice, he actually invited me to stay in his bed with him — I told him I didn’t want to, but asked if I could stay on one of the sofa’s there, and he was very cool, he was, like, “Yeah, sure.” I told him I didn’t have any money. Late that night I wrote this long letter to a girl — it was this weird, cryptic letter, that I was intending to leave when I left early the next morning. I wrote all about how I was headed to Florida, I talked about how nice the guy was to let me stay there. It was sort of like, in lieu of a thank you note, I was going to leave this weird cryptic note that I had written to somebody else. But then, I finished it, and I went to sleep, and the next morning when I got up, I liked it too much. It was too much of a record of how I was feeling that night. I didn’t want to leave it behind, so I took it with me. So, that’s the closest I’ve ever come, I guess.
What’s the one thing you’ve lost that you’d really like to get back?
That’s easy. 1983 Topps Wade Boggs. And my innocence. Can you put both?
Well, that’s technically two, but I can probably squeeze [them] in.
In that order, too. Wade Boggs and then…
First the card, and then the innocence.
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