Found magazine creator tells other people ‘s stories-and his own

Author Davy Rothbart explains the appeal of scraps, his interest in rap and how he uses homemade porn

Erin Adler

Some people have all the luck. Or maybe they have what the rest of us classify as luck only because we are jealous.

Either way, Davy Rothbart, creator of Found magazine, contributor to Public Radio International’s “This American Life” and now author of a book of short stories, is doing what parents tell artsy children is impossible.

Rothbart is making a living – a pretty good one – utilizing his arcane literary and artistic interests.

If his success is any indication, the topics he explores are more universally intriguing than anyone – Rothbart included – could have imagined.

“It’s cool,” he said. “It’s just a matter of a project like Found – which was my own private hobby. It was stunning to see that others shared my fascination. I stumbled onto something.”

Found magazine launched Rothbart to fame. Started in June 2001, the publication features unusual notes, photos and artifacts left by their owners only to be “found” by strangers.

This “demands people fill in the blanks,” which is part of what people find “riveting” about it, he said.

Some of the finds are hilarious, while others are gloomy or just plain confusing. Regardless, the magazine struck a chord and fans are now just as enthusiastic about sending in their own items.

“The concept caught on because it lets us in on how others experience being human,” he said. “People reveal themselves in raw, intimate ways (through the items). We’re all voyeurs in some way.”

Rothbart’s success with Found allowed him to explore other interests, and from there, cobble together like clippings in a scrapbook.

His interest in rap music and amateur rap career (“I can sort of rap,” he said. “I’m not awful.”), for instance, are not as out of place as one might think, Rothbart said; the common theme to all his work is storytelling.

“All my interests are about finding a way to tell stories,” he said. “Some people don’t have the opportunity to tell them themselves.

“I try to find the voices of people who aren’t heard from much, who were never told their voices are important.”

Once the storytelling piece is in place, the rest of the collage makes sense.

Rothbart is a contributor to radio show, “This American Life,” where his writing – his storytelling – holds its own next to that of David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell.

And his book of short stories, “The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas,” debuted to rave reviews. The cover features the endorsement of playwright Arthur Miller and the back includes compliments from author Judy Blume and radio show host Ira Glass.

“I guess I’m a writer now,” he deadpanned.

His stories are simple. The words stumble off the page until they are coming out of the mouths of your neighbor, the kid you sat next to at lunch in fifth grade, your dry cleaner. They sound like they were meant to be spoken rather than typeset on pages.

It’s hard not to wonder if these stories once starred Rothbart himself, as details of his life surface in them. The story by the same name as the book is told (in first person, as all eight of the book’s tales are) by a ticket scalper, a profession Rothbart once held. And “In a Black Dog” muses about beats and flow as a rap fan, such as Rothbart, might do.

The stories are also, well, weird. The quirky and human tales of various troublemakers, from a highway crew of inmates to a notoriously beloved liar named Mitey Mike, feel like diary entries of someone you thought you knew.

Rothbart counts current University English professor Charles Baxter (formerly at the University of Michigan, Rothbart’s alma mater) among his literary influences. Rothbart had Baxter as an undergraduate creative writing professor and said that “The Lone Surfer” was either “to the credit or blame” of Baxter.

Rothbart said he plans to complete a novel soon. He also wants to continue producing Found and the books of Found compilations he creates.

A spin-off of Found is Dirty Found, which showcases those materials too racy – or “titillating,” in Rothbart’s words – to be printed in the magazine, including photographs clearly meant for very private audiences.

Yet again, Rothbart seems to have stumbled onto something with universal appeal – homemade porn.

“I just had no idea how many people were taking that kind of picture,” he said of its contents. “And then, to not only let someone take them, but then to lose them?”

Despite his modesty and “aw, shucks,” demeanor, Rothbart is not just lucky. He is smart. He is shrewd. He’s an artist, a writer and a lengthy Wikipedia.com entry.

But that’s not why he plans to keep doing what he’s doing.

“I just feel things really deeply; everything makes me feel a lot,” he said. “If I couldn’t release some of that by expressing myself, I’d probably dissolve.”