‘My Heart is an Idiot’ Reveals the Magic of Everyday People – 5 Stars

‘My Heart is an Idiot’ with Davy Rothbart, September 26, 2013 at 7pm, at Porter Square Books, 25 White Street, Cambridge, MA. See www.myheartisanidiotbook.com/tour/.

By Johnny Monsarrat

Just like every couple has a love story worth telling, every person you pass on the street has a story worth hearing, too. This is the premise of Davy Rothbart, writer, director, author, and NPR guest favorite on shows such as This American Life. His sensational art project, FOUND, is a series of photographs from objects found on the street and turned in: a teen’s scrawled love note, a note written to a bike thief with a cartoon skull, and a handwritten will that could be a prelude to suicide. For 13 years, the website and now FOUND magazine have thrilled fans with insights into the ordinary. Now in the new book My Heart is an Idiot Rothbart has brought this concept out and onto the road, taking on the challenge of meeting seemingly ordinary people and revealing their extraordinary stories. It’s about them. It’s about everyone. It’s about us.

The book is a series of short stories drawn from real life. Whether he’s visiting a friend sentenced to life in prison, trying to prove his innocence, or mailing bottle of urine for revenge, the book is so gritty and honest that even Rothbart’s less good intentions and criminal friends seem empathetic. It’s a heartwarming look at how we all live. It made me laugh out loud by page five and say, “Wow!” to myself at the end of the first story. It’s an engaging read with a tone of voice so conversational that it feels like you’re shooting the shit with an old friend over beers. Or you’re playing truth or dare, and you’ve come to the truth part. I have read the book and highly recommend it, whether you read as a hobby or save books for long craps on the toilet. It’s an inspiring demonstration of how any story told the right way, or any life looked at the right way, draws you in, and I’ll be sure to study it when finishing my own book.

Rothbart comes to Somerville this Thursday to Porter Square Books in Cambridge, and kindly spoke with me by phone.

Events INSIDER: You’re best known for selecting the best from what must be mountains of throwaway documents and photographs sent to you. How do you curate what scraps get published in FOUND?

Rothbart: Some of them are heartbreaking and some are hilarious. They’re snapshots of another person’s life that you wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to know. I tend to pick the ones that give me the most instant powerful response. You sort of just know which ones to choose. Each FOUND note is just a fragment of a story. You wonder, “Who is this person? What’s happening here?” You get just the tone. To me, I laugh when I read a lot of these notes because I see that in myself, it’s that flicker of recognition I have. A total stranger on the other side of the world is going through the same things that I am, that you are. What is on the note, I’ve thought the same thing myself a hundred times. I think to laugh at the people or in any way to mock them would be the least interesting way to present them. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in how we relate to these notes, how they bring out the universal. That’s not to say that some of them aren’t weird or goofy, but it’s important to keep in mind the aspects of real people, real human nature that each note hints at.

Events INSIDER: How many notes have you received? You must get a ton sent to you in the mail.

Rothbart: We don’t publish on the website every note that we get. Some go into the magazines and the books, and some are almost illegible in their handwriting [so they can’t go into a book] but I can figure them out and read them at live events instead. We also have exhibitions of the FOUND notes that happen all over the country and the world. There was one in Stockholm where they just hung the notes and we even included the envelopes that the notes came from. [Seeing them that way] gives you a sense of the community of the art project. It’s a gigantic community art project. And then of course on the website every day we post our new favorite find. I would guess that we’ve received tens of thousands of notes over the 13 years. I love that there are new ones coming in. And not every find that we get are that interesting. Even some of the finds that we don’t publish, they’re still cool: they might be a photograph or an ordinary shopping list. For a lot of issues of FOUND Magazine we decorate the covers with individual finds. Somebody somewhere will have [an actual found note, not a photograph] taped directly onto the cover of the magazine they buy.

Events INSIDER: Have any of the heartwarming, true-to-life notes in FOUND turned out to be fakes? I’m thinking, you know, how many letters to the Playboy Forum can possible be real?

Rothbart: There was one, a lost cat flyer, that I put into one of the FOUND books, and later I learned that it was an art project by this guy. It’s still an interesting art piece. Whether it’s an art piece or actual flyer, it’s still really interesting.

Events INSIDER: Tell us about ‘My Heart is an Idiot’. (I received and reviewed the book only after this interview.)

Rothbart: It’s sixteen personal essays. Some are about my own misadventures in relationships and many are about interesting people I’ve met over the last ten years traveling the country doing FOUND Magazine, and stuff about people I’ve crossed paths with and gotten to know. There a couple impetuses for writing the book. For thirteen years I’ve been sharing people’s most intimate notes and letters in FOUND magazine so I thought it was only fair to share these raw revealing aspects of myself. Also I love reading personal essays and thought it would be fun to try writing some. There was one I wrote for GQ magazine about this phone sex relationship I have with a total stranger, and I was worried that people would think I was a complete freak, but people really enjoyed it and it emboldened me to write more personal essays.

Rothbart: These found notes, they spark your imagination, they make you wonder about a stranger’s life. Glimpsing somebody, whether it’s a girl across a bar or an old man on a bus, getting to know these people, it’s like a found note come to live. Someone you might ordinarily pass by, a kid selling hip hop CDs on the sidewalk outside a bar in LA — you might just glimpse him and keep walking. I feel like I had the opportunity to talk with that person. In that case his name was Hakim Selby and he was trying to go up north to Canada, so I ended up giving him a ride to San Francisco. I ended up getting his whole life story and he’s now touring with me on this trip, playing DJ. The book is about discovering the actual lives behind strangers you might just pass on the street. There’s also a sword swallower I met in West Virginia, Brett Loudermilk — he also tours with me.

Rothbart: The book, I’m proud of it. It came out in hardcover a year ago but in paperback last week. I’ve been getting these beautiful emails from people who have told me how much the book has inspired them, excited them, and made them want to hit the road looking for their own adventures. People tell me, “I’ve read your book and I feel like I know a lot about you,” and I respond, “You probably do know a lot about me,” and that makes them comfortable opening up to me and telling me their own life stories.

You can catch Davy Rothbart in Somerville this Thursday, or later in Portland, Maine and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Buy the book in any bookstore, and for details on the tour, see www.myheartisanidiotbook.com/tour/.