Davy Rothbart, editor and co-founder of the wildly popular FOUND magazine, has been on the hunt for wacky shit since early 2001 when he found a note mistakenly placed on the windshield of his car. Inspired by the small glimpse into another person’s life, Rothbart, along with pal Jason Bittner, began soliciting other found items. Soon, they had enough for a small ’zine. Eight years, six issues, one spin-off mag, one David Letterman appearance and seven books later, Rothbart’s stopping in Philly to chat about FOUND’s latest release, Requiem for a Paper Bag, a collective of essays by Rothbart’s favorite musicians, writers, artists, actors and other awesome folks including Seth Rogen, Miranda July, Sarah Vowell, Patton Oswalt and Michael Musto. Rothbart gave PW the scoop on the book’s release party this Tuesday and why the FOUND magazine guys have always loved Philly.
Tell me a little bit about how Requiem for a Paper Bag happened.
“Basically I realized as you travel around and do these kinds of FOUND shows that a lot of times people had a story. After the shows a lot of times people would come up and share their finds with us, which I loved and that’s why we do these kinds of trips. And sometimes the story they had about where they found it or how it had affected them was as interesting as the found item itself. People always have some story about the favorite thing that they ever found so I thought it would be kind of nice to reach out to my favorite writers, artists, musicians and ask them about their favorite finds—if they had any strange or interesting or funny or tragic stories about stuff they found. And really it was also kind of just like a fun way to get in touch with people who are my all-time heroes like Chuck D of Public Enemy and Jim Carroll. I sent magazines and a letter to each of them just kind of explaining the idea for this book, not really knowing who, if anyone, I’d hear back from. I was really thrilled that over the coming weeks and months I started to get just a stream of emails from people—Susan Orlean next to Del tha Funkee Homosapien, and then like an email from my mom. It was kind of cool and people wrote these really funny and touching pieces.”
Do you have a favorite piece of the book?
“I have a few favorites, like Jim Carroll’s. I read the Basketball Diaries when I was like 12 or 13 and just loved his work and had seen him read so many times. He has this distinct reading voice and I can hear it when I read the piece. I just think it’s hilarious. It’s pretty disgusting but it’s pretty funny about a trip to a colonics spa in San Francisco and what came out of his friend. What they found—which is a little plastic army solider—and Jim Carroll talks about the phrase “you are what you eat” and how it exemplified this friend and how he was always a fighter and he must have swallowed this thing when he was six years old and it’s been in his system for 20 years. He said he really mellowed out after that came out of him.
I’ve got other favorites. I think Miranda July, who’s another favorite writer and song-maker of mine. She talks really interestingly about the ways you can look toward found stuff. Sometimes when you find something you wonder, did I find this thing or did this find me? Is the universe trying to deliver me some kind of message that this would turn up in front of me?”
One of my favorite was the first one by Seth Rogan. How did you choose the order of the pieces?
“I would say there was some conscious thought put into the order of the pieces but it was also somewhat random. I thought that was a really funny one. I thought it would be a good one to start with. The magazine has always been about these kind of found notes and letters that really reveal human story, whether funny or sad. But I thought the magic of finding it wasn’t constrained to notebooks that have a lot of text in them. I thought his story about finding this wet porno mag and his writing partner Evan Goldberg. I liked it as a paired story about where they used to hide the magazine in the tree. But yeah, I tried to alternate between some of the more serious ones and some of the funnier ones and stuff like that.”
Was there anyone you contacted that didn’t respond? Was that disappointing?
“That’s a good question. I would say most people responded and some said they couldn’t do it for one reason or another. Even the rejection notes that some people wrote me were so nice. Spike Jonze was like, “I love FOUND, I have half a dozen issues in my bathroom. I’m right in the middle of this movie, but if you’re going to do a project about this again I’d love to participate. I can’t right now.” I was so excited. I love his stuff. Stephen Colbert really wanted to do something. He called me a few times but my phone wasn’t working right or something. Another writer, T.C. Boyle, also sent me a friendly letter explaining that he couldn’t do it. There weren’t too many people that I wrote too that I heard nothing from. A lot of people I didn’t hear anything for, like, three months and I was like, ‘I’m never going to hear something,’ and then there it was in my inbox. They were like, ‘Hey I’ve been checking out the magazines you sent. They’re awesome. I wrote this little piece, I hope you like it, I hope it works.’ That was something great.”
How heavily did you edit those pieces? Was it difficult to edit some of your literary heroes?
“I edited them a bit. I wanted to include as many of them as possible so it meant cutting some of them down. Jacob Slichter is this writer I really like. He was the drummer for that band Semisonic. They had that song “Closing Time,” which took him around the world. He wrote sort of an amazing little book about that weird experience that they had of being at this pinnacle of rock stardom for one year and then coming down the other side of it. I think it’s called So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star. Anyway, he’s a really cool writer and he wrote this really long piece that was awesome and we had to cut about half of it because I wanted to fit in as many contributors as I could. But most people, you’ll find, I like the way people write. You know, people who aren’t known as writers even. They might be a musician or a filmmaker or an artist, but they have nice ways of expressing themselves. So any editing was pretty light.
I felt most intimidated by some of the New Yorker writers like Tad Friend and Ben Greenman and Nick Paumgarten because these guys are badass editors. And they’re excellent writers, but Nick Paumgarten is primarily an editor so it was funny to edit his piece and be like, ‘So I made a few changes here. Just wanted to give you another pass at it.’ Everyone was pretty cheerful and easygoing about it, though.”
How many submissions do you get for the magazine?
"We probably get about 10 to 20 a day mailed in. Maybe the same amount are scanned and emailed in. So it adds up to about 100 or 200 a week, whatever that multiples out to, 5,000 to 10,000 a year. It’s amazing. I feel lucky because I always love finding that stuff and maybe every month or two I would find something really great. So now I go to the mailbox every day and there’s a stack of it coming in to look through or read through. It’s so fun. Every time I get to the last letter I wish there was another one. And there’s such an endless combination of story and emotion. Still, everyday there’s a note that’s unlike any I’ve ever seen before or could’ve imagined."
What should people expect for the show in Philly?
“A really rowdy reading and note music performance. I’ve got a bunch of brand new finds that people have just sent in over the last few months, weeks, and even just a few days before we left town. It has been fun the last few nights sharing all these new finds with people during the shows. For people that have never been to a FOUND event, I get up there with a stack of my favorite FOUND notes and letters and I just read them aloud but I always get a little bit carried away because I try to read them with the energy and emotion that they were written with. The notes are so incredible so I get into it and just try to bring them to life.”
Are other FOUND magazine editors coming?
“My brother Peter has written songs based on some of the FOUND notes. Some of them are touching. In fact, this new song he’s written—it’s based on a find from the newest magazine, FOUND number six—literally made me cry. I’ve heard it now the last three nights and I’ve just cried every time. It’s this beautiful song based on a note a woman’s writing about having a second miscarriage and sort of struggling to make sense of it and desperately wanting to have children. So Peter wrote this beautiful song about that. But then he also plays some songs that are just incredibly funny and hilarious and so the whole show is an hour or an hour and a half and we hope people will leave feeling exhilarated and inspired to go out and find stuff. We love when people bring found stuff to the shows and we love you getting a chance to look through all that stuff afterwards, too.”
I’ve heard you have a special appreciation for Philly. Is this true?
“This show is a special show because the book’s official release date is May 5. The whole tour is celebrating the release of the book. We thought that May 5 would be a fun day to be in Philly because I consider Philly sort of one of the homes of FOUND magazine. It was one of the first places that we started getting a ton of stuff from. My mom is from Philly. For the first few months they just had FOUND magazine in Chicago, my hometown, and Philly. My mom’s friends with Larry Robin who owned Robin’s Bookstores and he’d been carrying it since the very beginning.”
Gabriel García Márquez, 1927-2014