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Davy Rothbart

Monica Uszerowicz

Photo: Dan Busta.

If you maintain even a slight interest in humanity or, at least, have a keen set of eyes, you might’ve stumbled upon notes or photos or objects set adrift from their rightful owners. Grocery lists, unsent notes, half-torn documents, withered and aged photographs: in thrift stores or on the Metrorail, they are abound—floating, fragmented pieces of the human fabric. Writer and founder of Found Magazine Davy Rothbart has shared these pieces of strangers’ lives for the past fifteen years. Often heartrending and usually funny, these notes come to him daily, and he sometimes features them on the Found blog. Through his appearances on NPR’s This American Life and projects like Medora, a documentary about an impoverished high school basketball team set in the titular Indiana city, Rothbart continues to share these strange tales of existence. Last year, he published My Heart Is An Idiot, a resounding, returned call to all the bared souls in Found. Rothbart, too, is full of embarrassing stories, and the pithiness with which he relives them makes them easy to swallow, despite how painful they can be. Rothbart read at the Miami Theater Center on April 18th.

MONICA USZEROWICZ (RAIL): Have you always been interested in writing and storytelling, even before Found?

DAVY ROTHBART: Definitely. In fifth grade, they asked everyone what they wanted to be when they grew up, and I said, “a writer or an NBA player.” I don’t have the height or jumping ability to play pro basketball, but I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. My parents are interesting characters, and I think they affected me in a lot of ways. My mom is deaf; she lost her hearing before I was born. Now, there’s technology that allows her to use special phones to sort of hear people, but when I was growing up, she depended on me and my brother to translate for her or even talk to people at the house. My mom is a counselor; she channels an ancient spirit named Aaron. People would come to our house or call her on the phone seeking healing, and I would be an intermediary and help translate the conversations. I remember being young and helping people discuss these pretty heavy issues. Seeing how therapeutic it seemed to be for people to share their stories and sift through difficult moments in their lives affected me a lot. As I got older, it made me curious about people, wondering what each person’s story might be. I think about these things as the impetus for Found magazine. Pressing people’s stories onto a little piece of paper gives you a glimpse into their lives. I think it comes from the same kind of empathy and curiosity that I learned as a kid.

RAIL: When did you start compiling pieces that ended up in the first issue of Found?

ROTHBART: I always saved that stuff, even in high school and college. I thought it was interesting: someone’s to-do list, some report they left behind at the computer center. But there was one in particular that sparked the idea of doing Found Magazine. I found a note on the windshield of my car, in Chicago. It said: “Mario, I fucking hate you. You said you had to work. Why is your car here, at her place? You’re a liar, a fucking liar. I hate you. I hate you. Signed, Amber. P.S. Page me later.” She was so angry and upset with Mario, but also still hopeful and in love. It seemed really true to life—all those complicated emotions. I loved that note and showed it to my friends, and I was surprised by how many of them had some great note to share with me, whether it was a kid’s drawing or some Polaroid they found in the gutter or heartbreaking love letter of some kind. I just realized that all these finds are floating around on the street. A magazine seemed like an easy way to share what we were finding with everybody else.

RAIL: Are you still compiling notes with the same consistency, given how digital everything has become?

ROTHBART: That’s a great question. It’s much less often that people put pen to paper and write a handwritten note. As technology evolves, the way that you can find something also evolves. People have shown me emails sent to the wrong address. Emails can be printed and lost. My friend got a cell phone for her dad, and when she powered it on, it still had all the text messages from the previous owner. Also, though there are less notes being passed around, I do think that if someone is ending a marriage after fifteen years or writing to a sibling whose wife has passed away—I think there are times when people will still write a handwritten letter, and that’s when it’s the most powerful story. We still get 10 to 25 sent to us every day. Some send original finds or photocopies; some scan them and email them.

RAIL: Have owners of the found objects ever contacted you?

ROTHBART: That has happened. Fortunately, they’ve all been cool about it, and usually mystified that someone would care about their love life or something. I explain to them how much I relate to it, how much everyone can relate. We are careful to change people’s names, so no one gets embarrassed. I’m happy to say that in ten years, nine issues of the magazine, and three books, nobody’s ever seen their find and felt upset, even though the finds themselves can be very raw and revealing—it’s pretty personal stuff.

RAIL: When I read Found as a teenager, I felt a lot better about being a teenager and all the weirdness that comes with that.

ROTHBART: I think that’s the magic of these things. As personal as they are, they feel so universal. When we’re laughing at the notes, we’re laughing at ourselves because we relate to them so strongly. To me, it’s important that the tone is one of respect and celebration—celebrating our collective weirdness, and not simply mocking people.

RAIL: Has being a collector of other people’s stories informed your own work as a storyteller?

ROTHBART: I’ve been sharing other people’s most private thoughts in the magazine for over 10 years, so it’s almost fair to put myself on the line in the same way. In a larger sense, having the opportunity to read the personal intricacies of strangers’ lives automatically makes me reflect on my own life. I think being more in touch with other people’s most inner, core selves makes you more introspective about your own self. It was really fun and weird and difficult to think back on some of the adventures and misadventures of my life with love and relationships. Things didn’t always go the way I’d hoped, but usually they left me somewhere interesting or positive. I think everyone can relate to the idea of the heart being an idiot.

RAIL: Because you’re a storyteller and a generally sensitive person, you’ll find the notes that are hilarious or heartbreaking. Do you find yourself searching for these kinds of moments in your life?

ROTHBART: I’ll be sitting on the bus, for example, and find myself gazing at strangers’ faces, wondering what’s going on in their minds. It makes you feel like you’re living in a rich world of stories. You realize the depth of everyone’s interior selves.

RAIL: When you distilled these experiences into a book—when you essentially turned your life into an object—did you become an objective observer of yourself? Were you able to see yourself differently?

ROTHBART: I certainly got some perspective. It’s a very instructive thing to sit down with your own experiences and comb through them so carefully. You can’t help but gain added insight to your own life, the way you’ve blundered through it. I feel like it’s been a great opportunity to learn from my own mistakes. I feel like, a lot of the time, we’re doomed to repeat our mistakes, because we forget them and make them again. Having had a chance to write about them and think about them and talk about them helps me learn.

RAIL: Writing about one’s experiences is difficult, especially those that feel too dark or too personal.

ROTHBART: Those are the ones that you should probably be writing about. To me, some of my favorite stories, or the ones I got the most out of, were the ones that were kind of tough to write about, or that I least wanted to share or think about.

RAIL: There’s such a risk for it to become melodramatic. You’ve found a way to make it humorous.

ROTHBART: That’s part of craft issues and editing, and depends on who you’re writing for. The first draft of anything really personal might feel melodramatic. There are ways to shape them, I think, so that they’re more relatable and not overbearing. Even if it’s only for yourself, if it’s too frightening to share them with other people, writing your experiences in a personal, journal type of way, you can learn a lot from it. It can be meaningful.

RAIL: I’m thinking about the accompanying documentary, My Heart Is An Idiot. Because you put yourself out there, is there ever a risk of becoming a caricature of yourself? Once the camera is there, or once you know you’re going to turn something into a story, do things shift?

ROTHBART: I can imagine a danger when someone is their own main subject, and they feel the need to write about adventures from their own life. They might purposefully seek them out. It could seem a little inauthentic. If my book was a huge bestseller and it felt like millions of people knew about me as this character in the book, I might feel some impetus to live up to that character’s wildness. I’m happy the book got out there and people are continuing to discover it, but when I meet most people, they’re not comparing me to what they’ve read. I do like meeting people and being open to adventure. But if you’re open to it, it’ll find you, and you end up having lots of stories to write.