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10 Questions with Davy Rothbart
Private Investigator & Events Coordinator Cleve Corner discovers the lost FOUND Magazine interview...
Cleve Corner: What started this affinity with found objects?
Davy Rothbart: When I was just a little shorty, my brothers and me used to go spelunking in my dad's basement study which was filled floor to ceiling with papers and junk. We were forbidden to go in there but every time my dad left the house for a few hours we organized a mini-expedition. Somehow we'd got it in our heads that he was in the CIA; we wanted proof. We never found any CIA stuff, but we managed to piece together lots of other pieces of his life, stuff he never talked about--old jobs, old girlfriends. Yeah, I guess we were big-time snoops, but it was fascinating to me to read through his battered old letters and flip through scuffed-up snapshots. So these were my first finds. Then when I started finding stuff on the streets and in alleys and on city buses, I got high off that stuff too, experiencing all these unknown strangers at their most raw.
CC: Describe the process you go through when selecting the right pieces for the magazine.
DR: Well, I sit at a table with mounds of notes and letters that folks around the world have found and sent in to me--I start sifting through it and when I find something I like, I tape it on to a page. I think I'm most attracted to finds that give you a real powerful sense of someone, you know, enough elements of a story so that your imagination kicks in and starts filling in the blanks. I'm always amazed how deeply you can experience someone through their little abandoned half-page love notes. My favorite finds are the ones that are funny and absurd and heartbreaking all at the same time, the ones with complicated emotions. They feel most true to me since most of the time we really do feel so many emotions all at once.
CC: Now that the magazine has a large distribution, have you received notification from folks that your found items are there original letters, cards, pictures, etc.?
DR: Yeah, I kind of expected that folks like this might feel violated and be kinda pissed off, but their response has surprised me. The few times this has happened and someone's gotten in touch and said, "Hey, that's mine!" they've seemed to feel honored and a bit mystified. One girl said, "I can't believe so many people are interested in the minute details of my love life!"
CC: Okay, here is the obligatory, what is the oddest item that you received? Did it make you laugh or did it cause immense fear?
DR: A guy in D.C. sent in a color slide he found on the street of Sam Donaldson with his shirt off. It caused immense fear.
CC: I think found pictures are the saddest items, they just seem more personal than a anonymous letter or destroyed birthday card. Can you comment on some pieces that left you feeling a tad empty.
DR: There's so much sadness in this world, sometimes it feels overwhelming when you're looking through all these found notes and photos, one after another.
There's so many people who want something so badly but seem like they're not gonna get it, so many folks made miserable by love, so much bleak yearning out there. Sometimes I've started crying after reading a bunch of notes. It's rarely one single note that'll get me to that point, just the compound effect of reading 14 sad notes in a row. The ones that shred me the worst are love letters written either from prison or to someone in prison. The idea of being separated like that from the one you love makes my soul ache.
When I look back through my own journals I see that when I'm feeling crazed and heartbroken I write a dozen pages a day and when times are great I hardly write a word for a couple months. I think folks are most likely to put pen to paper when they're hurting--so that's why the lion's share of found stuff seems to be forged from pain.
CC: You are simply put, a rock star of the caliber of Winger and Motley Crue when it comes to finding discarded items. What is your most impressive find?
DR: It's a crayon drawing of a pretty green hillside, and on the hillside there's a gigantic cross skewering a profusely-bleeding stick figure, and a caption at the bottom that says in big block letters, "Yankees in 5." Inexplicable!
CC: There are collectors of found items (shopping lists, family Christmas photos) who have a private stash. Could you comment on some of the people that you have run into in your travels.
DR: I've been absolutely floored by the dedication of some of these finders--people who've been doing this since before I was born, folks who'll bring a boiling pot of water outside in winter to delicately extract a note they've discovered frozen into the sidewalk ice. The most exciting thing for me to see is that there are so many of us, such a huge community of people who get inspired and giddy over found stuff. And the hard-core finders defy categorization--they are housewives, homeless teens, CEOs, farmers, professional athletes, Denny's waitresses, Navy Seals, skate punks, and senior citizens.
CC: A good find gives you the rare chance to look into another person's life. Have you discovered that most folks are dealing with the same issues (work, love, betrayal, good pumpkin pie)?
DR: Yes. It's always a rush for me to recognize that even folks who seem to be leading very different lives than me still seem to be grappling with so many of the same things. Reading these found notes, I end up feeling connected to all people. We're all sharing this same wild experience of being human.
CC: Another question about the submission process, do you feel that some items you receive are too good to be true and must have been forged? I am thinking of the television show in the mid-nineties where people sent in home videos of funny moments, but near the end of the series they all become men purposely allowing children to toss a baseball at there groin.
DR: The ones that are to good to be true are true. See, truth is stranger than fiction. The couple of fakes we've gotten were easy to spot because they simply weren't weird enough. Our policy of drawing and quartering all hoax-sters has also been an effective deterrent.
CC: What is next for Davy Rothbart and Found magazine?
DR: This Nation of Millions tour is gonna be unbelievable. I can't wait to see what people all around the country have been finding. Then I'm just gonna keep putting out Found collections every 6 to 12 months. Next year we may do a nice color book with some of our all-time favorite finds. And a CD which'll have great Found audio bits, plus some fantastic bands playing songs they've written based on Found notes. Meanwhile, I'm doing some more of my own writing, some more pieces for This American Life, working on a rap album, and finishing up my documentary film about a 9 year-old boy in South-East Washington D.C. named Emmanuel Durant, Jr. I hope to show that around the country next fall. All of these projects feel related to Found--each one's an attempt to capture people's stories.
Davy Rothbart is an all around nice guy and the creator of Found Magazine. He is best known for his role as the skinny kid in Curly Sue with James Belushi. He is currently working on Found the Musical, it is very loud and from what I hear will certainly tap into the teen/young adult market.