Interview: Found Magazine's Davy Rothbart
"Jim Carroll goes to a colonic spa in San Francisco with a friend of his, and his friend shits out this plastic green army soldier... his friend, after the soldier was out of his system, he got a lot mellower."
Eight years into a project that began when he discovered a note meant for someone else--"You're a fucking LIAR," it read..."PS Page me later"--Davy Rothbart is as enthusiastic as ever about his latest finds. About once a year he publishes Found Magazine, each issue a collection of strange, moving and often absurd pieces of ephemera (letters, old photos, lists) discovered by complete strangers. His third and latest Found book--Requiem For A Paper Bag: Celebrities & Civilians Tell Stories of the Best Lost, Tossed & Found Items From Around the World, out this week on Fireside--includes entries from the lit world (Jonathan Lethem, Charles Baxter), movies (Seth Rogen), music (Chuck D, Henry Rollins) and TV (Andy Samberg of Saturday Night Live). These celebrity contributions range from material objects to the intangible, from Devendra Banhart's discovery of a photo of a woman "wearing only makeup and a slew of gangsta tattoos" to how Damon Wayans "found comedy: my career, my best friend."
Rothbart brings the most recent Found tour to New York this week with stops in Brooklyn, at the Bell House tonight, and Manhattan, a fundraiser for the Institute for Collaborative Education this Friday, May 8. He plans to amuse with readings from Found publications, and he'll get a hand from his brother Peter who will perform songs inspired by Found's greatest finds.
So tell me about the tour.
We're in Knoxville, driving the van that becomes home this trip. I've slept in it, I think, three of the last four nights.
And you're calling this the "Denim and Diamonds" tour?
Yeah, exactly. One of our favorite finds is this one that was Found in Kansas City. This woman had apparently left copies of this note all over every car in a parking lot outside this bar called Denim and Diamonds. She had met this guy there a few weeks before, and had taken him home, had a little fling, met up with him a couple more times. Then he changed phone numbers or something, and she was just trying to find him. So she's saying [in the note]: He had a five-year old kid, he was dark-haired and he rode bulls. And then in her note she even comes out and reveals that she knows he was married, but the night they met was also her bachelorette party.
You and your brother are stopping in more than 50 cities on this tour, like you've done with other Found books. You're promoting the book, but what else do you guys get out of this, and what does the audience at these events get?
Found Magazine, it's just a community art project, and it require the participation of 1000s of people all over the place. I feel like doing these tours is a way for us to share all the amazing finds that people have sent in to us, but also to collect new stuff from people. People bring us great Found stuff every night. By the time we get home our van is packed with awesome new finds. And [the tour is] also just to spread word about the idea of Found. I'll see that after we get home there's a flood of mail from each city we've been to. My grandmother calls it a Johnny Appleseed-type thing.
Aside from the obvious--that it's easier to sell a book with some celebrity names attached--why ask Seth Rogen what he's found, or why ask somebody from SNL?
It was really just an excuse to reach out to my all-time favorite people. Like Jim Carroll. I read The Basketball Diaries when I was 12 and I've always been inspired by his other writing. People like Miranda July, whose writing and films I love, and Chuck D from Public Enemy. It was awesome to open my e-mail inbox and there's an e-mail from my mom, from college loans, and then Chuck D.
Tell me about one of your favorite finds from the new book.
Well, Jim Carroll's. It's pretty disgusting, but in a fascinating way. He goes to a colonic spa in San Francisco with a friend of his, and his friend shits out this plastic green army soldier, one of those little toy ones that you have when you're a kid. What's so funny about it is that he talks about that phrase "you are what you eat." And he says his friend was a nice guy, but when he drank he turned into this fighter and he wanted to fight with anybody. So now it makes sense--he had this soldier inside him that he remembered swallowing 20 years before. And the crazy thing is that Jim Carroll says his friend, after the soldier was out of his system, he got a lot mellower.
Wouldn't the stomach acids break that down over the years?
It's almost unbelievable, but I believe it.
Another one of you contributors, Chuck Klosterman, writes about a "monthly budget" that was Found and included in an early issue of Found. It's the one where the guy listed his expenses and set aside $600 for booze a month and another $600 for crack. Klosterman suggests that maybe this was the sort of thing that was maybe lost on purpose.
The only rule we have for Found stuff is that it has to really be Found, and I think people respect that. The stuff that people really find is so much more beautiful, cryptic, weird, sad, hilarious than anything you could make up. It's possible that somebody made that [budget] as a prank. I like his piece and I think it's interesting and it's funny, but having seen as many finds as I've seen, I...don't think that one was invented. Truth is far, far stranger than fiction.
How much mail do you get?
We get about 10 or 20 things mailed in a day and probably the same number scanned and e-mailed in, so I'd say it's about 100-200 a week. It all goes to my folks' house. I go over there once a week, pick up a crate of mail. My mom will always be waving one at me when I walk in the door: "Check this one out!"
So she's allowed to read them first.
Yeah, but I made a rule that if she's gonna open them she has to do what I do, which is write a line on the outside of the envelope summarizing what's inside of it, put a star on there if it's a good one. So she and her friend Donna, the neighbor across the street, they'll sometimes open stuff when they're drinking tea in the morning. It's funny because sometimes I'll look at a new crate of mail, some of it's open and it has her or Donna's handwriting on it. But then there's always a couple open but have no writing on them. And inevitably that's like a Polaroid of someone's dick or something like that.
And those are all from Seth Rogen.
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly.
How long will you do this? Are you in Found for the long haul?
The pace we do it, which is one magazine a year, I think is a good pace because it's really sustainable, and I can balance it with other interests. I love Found, and we keep getting more and more great mail, great finds coming in every week. I'd like to think that I could just do one magazine a year forever.
The first Found note.
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