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Monday, June 24

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Davy Rothbart is known most for FOUND Magazine — a magazine that features all manner of pictures, notes and scraps of paper that offer a little glimpse of another life. Rothbart has found some amount of success tying these snippets of life together, so it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that his first short story collection, The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas, employs the same rationale. That is, sometimes the little glimpses are the most interesting ones.

No two of Lone Surfer's eight stories are remotely similar. Collected from settings all over the country, the stories offer just a little window of sight into eight different lives. We're taken from a pathological liar who lies even to those closest to him, those whom he knows are completely aware of his lying; to a young man who freaks out when he sees his widowed grandmother getting closer to another man and suddenly feels the need to make good on his grandfather's dying wish that he read the entire History of Judaism; to a group of inmates who, in a split second, seal their fates as they pick up trash along the interstate. The settings and characters are as diverse as can be imagined inhabiting a single book, but because Rothbart manages to capture the humanity in each of them, they exist amicably.


Take, for example, the title story, which finds a couple, Gully and Sally, driving across the country to start a tenuous life together. Gully is always just a little bit afraid that Sally is going to dash back to her home in Virginia at the first chance she gets and, thus, makes sure to steer clear of all bus stations so as to prevent the thought from entering her head. While in Kansas they spot a boy moving oddly in the sand, almost like a mirage that wavers in one's imagination. Sally realizes that the boy is "surfing," — standing on a surfboard and moving his body with the waves in his mind. As the couple approaches him, they end up frightening him and causing him to fall off the surfboard, resulting in a badly broken arm. What ensues reads like a comedy of errors: Gully speeds along the highway, his shirt tied around the boy's bleeding arm and gets stopped by a cop who has previously issued a speeding ticket and who is all too happy to issue another one. With the surfboard clattering out the window, Gully tries to convince the cop of their speed's necessity. Meanwhile, the boy becomes hysterical in the back seat, believing his accident is punishment for secretly wishing his sickly sister dead. It's the kind of story you wouldn't believe unless you were there.

"Lone Surfer," however, is also the kind of story you might not ever hear in its entirety, because while it might be fun to countlessly retell those parts where luck runs awry, Rothbart is also careful to include those quieter parts that make the story memorable to its participants. As the troupe reach the hospital, they find the boy's parents watching over their daughter's bed and Gully has a startling realization that the boy would never see the ocean — "As simple and obvious a notion it was, it hit me like a gut punch and triggered a terrible, low-sinking chain reaction." It's this realization that makes the story real, that changes it from an amusing anecdote to relate over beer to the kind of story that's impossible to forget. Rothbart successfully illustrates the calamity's poignancy, because while Gully may never recount his feelings upon seeing the distressed family all together, we never question that the incident has surely changed his life.

My favorite story was "Maggie Fever," which follows a young guy living with his grandfather after his older brother is shipped off to war. When the grandfather's cat becomes sick, the two resort to stealing luggage from the airport in the hopes of finding enough money or items to sell to pay for the cat's costly operation. One piece of luggage — a small green backpack — yields something more. Inside are lined notebooks filled with handwritten journal entries from someone named Maggie Smith, a guitar magazine and a Walkman with some mixed tapes. After reading the journals and listening to some of the tapes, our narrator stumbles upon one final tape filled with Maggie's own recordings. He listens to this tape over and over again, finding himself falling in love with the tape's maker and becoming convinced that fate brought him to find her backpack. When he arrives at Maggie's house, ostensibly to return her belongings, he's faced with her reality, which is quite different from the version in his imagination.

Davy Rothbart

What I love about the story is that it captures how easy it is to attribute character traits to a person based solely on their musical tastes and aspirations when those things may mean completely different things for completely different people. Even candid journal entries fail to reveal everything about a person because they only tell a certain portion of their thoughts. In truth, these things are only distractions for the narrator who, upon having his hopes of a romance with Maggie dashed, must face what's really troubling him. The narrator's fixation on Maggie is a bit odd and even a bit random, but then, as our author might argue, so are many of the things we focus on in life.

Davy Rothbart recently stopped in Chicago while on his Lone Surfer promotion tour. Rothbart rolled into the Neo-Futurarium on a bike, wearing a bright pink shirt paired with green pants and a safety-orange jacket whose sleeves had been covered in spray paint, bejeweled dollar signs and treble clefs hanging from his neck. The outrageous outfit was only a hint of what was to come that evening, as Rothbart read animatedly, not only from his book, but from a variety of found notes as well. In the small but packed theater, those written words were given license to come alive; Rothbart injected so much emotion into his words, I couldn't wait to get home and reread the stories in an entirely different light. After talking about the excitement of getting found objects, the audience was treated to a set of found-inspired songs written by brother Peter Rothbart. The two had the entire audience proclaiming that "The Booty Don't Stop," and four two-minute plays by the Neo-Futurists further expounded on the found tape that sparked a fevered search for its source. It was one of the best literary-minded evenings I'd ever had and I left the Neo-Futurarium with a couple of Found pins to decorate my bag, Peter's CD stuffed inside it and a sparkling admiration for the young author.

A few days later I had the great pleasure of speaking with Davy Rothbart about the inspiration for "Maggie Fever" and Lone Surfer, the rationale behind his high-energy readings and the importance of visiting small New Mexican towns.

How much were the stories in Lone Surfer inspired by or influenced by your work on FOUND Magazine?

I think they were influenced a lot; with some of them it's directly clear how. "Maggie Fever" was most recently written. It's about a kid and his feelings of being consumed with some girls' journal. It's happened to me several times and with some of the stuff that's sent into FOUND, I know what it's like to be completely absorbed. You feel like you're falling in love with them. It's touching a very private part of them; they're expressing themselves so unselfconsciously and you're connected in this intense way. "Maggie Fever" is directly related to those things.

"Maggie Fever" was actually my favorite story. You captured so well two opposing ideas — the idea that journal entries and mix tapes reveal a person's inner thoughts and the idea that, because these things are so close to a person, they can completely obscure who that person is. They can be entirely different from the person you've built them up to be.

Exactly. I think that happens a lot with found notes. Two different people can look at found notes with two different ideas and who is right? With a found journal, I can feel like I know her really intensely, but who knows what I would think if I really met the person.

How else has your work on Found affected the transition to fiction writer?

I've always written stories from the very beginning, since I was four. I've always been interested in found stuff. I think they go hand in hand — they're both so much about storytelling and expressing your own story and your own take on the world, whether it's me trying to do that for myself or for someone's inadvertent story. That's the attraction of a found note — trying to piece together the rest of the story.

With "How I Got Here," it's written in all caps... I taught creative writing in prison for a few years and it was the kind of story that people would write. A lot of found notes are written in the same kind of voice, not a lot of punctuation. It's not so much one found note that's an influence, but more in a general way, when I read through all the notes and hear all the voices, there's an entire landscape of feeling and urgency, love, hope, anger all swirling around in the notes. When I sit down to write, I feel all these characters. I don't realize where they come from, I can't trace it precisely, but it's the thousands of notes from strangers that have brought them alive.

Your reading is really more than just a reading — it's much more like a live show. How did that come together? Did you intentionally try to change up the traditional idea of a reading?

It sort of just happened; there was no specific plan. When I started out I think just read more shyly. I think I try to read with the energy and emotion that the notes are written with. A lot of times the notes are intense. A person is upset or angry or hopeful and I guess I get carried away with it, but I see it as trying to bring them to life. Going from city to city, with this gigantic collaborative project that requires participation from thousands around the world, it's more fun and exciting to put it together this way. More people are inspired to find stuff when they leave.

It was just so great hearing the stories with your intonation because you go back and read them with a different voice. A lot of times writers aren't particularly good readers, and you can't fault them for that because it's kind of contrary to the profession, but it's so nice to hear an author animate his stories so well.

They don't have to go hand in hand. I have friends who are brilliant writers but shy readers. It doesn't diminish them as writers, but with my background, in terms of interests, I did a lot of rap and music shows and I learned that you have to bring life to the show to capture the audience's attention. I used to go to readings when I was in college and sometimes it would make me feel bad because they would be great writers and people wouldn't appreciate the work. It's sort of like theater or music. I enjoy bringing these things to life, whether it's a story or a found note.

At the show you mentioned the 50 states tour; how did that begin?

When the FOUND book came out, I realized that there were finds in every single state. I felt like if people participated from every state, we should take the show on the road and share it with everyone. It started last April and was finished by December. It was an epic journey, 136 cities and several provinces. This tour is much smaller, 50 cities.

Do you ever think you'll go through every state again?

It'll be a while. It was amazing and I feel so proud and happy that I did it. It was great to go to some of the states off the map. In Chicago, there's lots of cool shit going on all the time, so it's not quite as special, like in Oklahoma City or in places in Arkansas and Alaska. People responded in a way that was almost hungry. For people who are out of the mainstream and feel like freaks where they live, some real freaks roll in and they feel good about it. I loved it, but it was exhausting and I don't feel the need to go again. We planted some nice seeds in states. Mail used to come mainly from places like Chicago or Portland and I've noticed that mail is coming from everywhere else now.

I was impressed when I saw dates for New Mexico on the tour. I grew up in a small town there, and nothing cool ever came our way so I can say from experience that including those sorts of places is really meaningful.

Most of the stories in Lone Surfer were actually written when I was living outside of Taos. I thought it would be neat to go back there and have an event.

Did you move around much as a child?

Not at all. My parents still live in the house I was born in, in Michigan. In the years since I've been out of school I've been on the road a lot. I lived in Chicago; I lived in DC for a year and New Mexico for a year. I've just been traveling.

Is there a connection between your love of traveling and your keen interest in the objects of strangers?

Definitely. I think they're really similar. I've always been interested in the objects of strangers and curious about the people we share the world with. Traveling is about that too, making connections with strangers, getting a glimpse of their lives, seeing what's in their minds and hearts. Sitting with a crate of found notes is sort of a way of traveling without leaving the house. I have all kinds of stories delivered right to me. I just love the different landscapes, I love meeting the actual people and going to different places and chatting it up with strangers.

What are your writing plans for the future? A novel? More short stories? A quirky memoir?

I really want to write a novel; I have a couple of ideas. One is a road novel about a population of kids that live in New Mexico and, really, all over the country. They're drifter road kids and the story is about me trying to track this kid I've grown up with. It's loosely based on me. When I was living with them it felt like straddling two worlds because, in a way, I understood the allure of kids living off the grid in the desert. They had separated themselves from the world, but they were surrounded by the beauty of it. I felt like I didn't fit in because I wanted to a part of the world, yet at the same time the "real world" also has its own maladies and makes you long to get away from it all. That's one of two books I'm trying to write about. The other one is about this kid outside Kansas City, a FOUND Magazine subscriber, who's convicted of murder.

It's pretty unclear whether he committed the murder — I'd like to think he didn't — but he's in jail for life now and the evidence against him is that he's this weirdo in a conservative town. He's wearing eyeliner... he's a goth kid. That's used against him in the trial. It's pretty sketchy. I'm going to visit his family after the tour is done, around Thanksgiving. I've been talking to him about it and it sounds like it's a non-fiction story, but it'll involve real people as characters and still be fictional.

The Lone Surfer tour runs through mid-November. If you happen to live near the last few stops, I highly recommend getting yourself out there to see it. You'll definitely laugh, you may almost cry and, what I think the Rothbart brothers want most, you'll have one hell of a good time.


About the Author(s)

Veronica Bond is a Slowdown editor for Gapers Block. She is a voracious reader.

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