David Rakoff, a regular contributor to public radio's This American Life, just can't accept the fact that he's one of the sharpest - and funniest - essayists writing today. "I am the world's worst reporter," he claims in a piece about four Austrian twenty-somethings arriving in America "green as new bamboo" to teach high school in Brooklyn. He explains, "I am apt to try too hard to help rather than just document my subjects."
Don't believe him. As his friend and sometimes collaborator David Sedaris explains, "With Fraud, David Rakoff manages to successfully pass himself off as the wittiest and most perceptive man in the world."
Whether investigating elf populations in Iceland, impersonating Freud in a Manhattan department store window display, attending a New Age retreat hosted by movie star Steven Seagal, playing a two-day guest part on a popular soap opera, or tracking down three long-forgotten straws of his prechemotherapized sperm (at the age of twenty-two, Rakoff was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease), he brings to his satire a rare, compulsive blend of humor and compassion.
Dave: It's hard to categorize Fraud. You're not a reporter, exactly. In fact you claim to be the worst reporter in the world.
David Rakoff: Pretty well the worst, yes. I've got to get better at that.
Dave: But you're not writing personal essays. In most of these pieces, you are going out on a story.
Rakoff: There is some journalism in the book, certainly. Even the week in wilderness camp is reporting, on Tom Brown and his camp. Similarly, Steven Seagal and stuff like that. Some of the stuff approaches journalism, but not entirely.
Dave: How did you settle on this approach, this style?
Rakoff: I have so little control over the act of writing that it's all I can do to remain conscious. Actual formal considerations are almost beyond my capacity.
Before I sat down and became a writer, before I began to do it habitually and for my living, there was a decades-long stretch when I was terrified that it would suck, so I didn't write. I think that marks a lot of people, a real terror at being bad at something, and unfortunately you are always bad before you can get a little better.
But one of the big things that I really worried about was how would I ever sound like I do when I speak? Then of course you start and you can't help it. It becomes an inexorable, horrible mask you can't take off.
I would love to sound like someone else at this point. There are days when I can't bear the thought...it's like watching a glass fall from a shelf and before it even crashes you realize, Oh shit, I'm having this thought, this paragraph, this sentence, and I know that it's going to be parenthetical and digressive and there'll be a movie reference... You can't help it. That's who you are. You essentially make your peace with it. How I arrived at it, I had no control.
Dave: Most of these essays appeared first on the radio, on This American Life. When you create them, do you think of them as voice pieces or as words to appear on a page?
Rakoff: For me there's not much difference. Certainly not in terms of language. When something is going to be performed, it's different only in as much as when you're speaking to someone you're essentially guiding a blind person along a thread in the dark. They can only really negotiate those few inches of thread that they're following. Things are a lot more direct, they're quicker, they move along more rapidly, and they're a little simpler in construction when it's for voice, for a listener.
When it's for the page, you're allowed to put back in all the parentheticals, all the tangentials, all the things that you really wanted to say. Because in fact the book itself is both physically open - there's a two-dimensional landscape, the pages open before you - but also it's easier, as a reader, to negotiate a story when you can turn back. Though it's not as though this stuff is so dense and intelligent. Oh, it's so dense I must turn back! But you cut more fat when you're doing it for performance.
Dave: I listened to a number of the pieces on the Internet, where they're archived at thisamericanlife.org. I noticed a lot of differences in cuts and transitions between the radio versions and the written ones.
Also, the essays were re-edited and arranged specifically for the book. How did you choose and arrange them? How did you construct a book from a series of separate projects?
Rakoff: How did I? There is some necessary narrative linking. There's a certain assumption that some of the readers will be reading it as a book, not just dipping in and out - although I think you can do that and not be damaged; I certainly don't think it does violence to the writing or anything like that, I'm not that pure.
Also, there was an opening up of certain things I wanted to explore more deeply. Again, for the exigencies of performance and entertainment, on the radio you're essentially a vaudevillian: you want to get in and out and leave them laughing as you go, maybe with some little epiphany where they get misty eyed or something like that. I guess I credit my book editor for allowing me to open things up if I wanted to.
All the stories that began as reported pieces start with me somewhere with a notebook. That notebook is a very good psychosocial prop for me. I find traveling alone lonely and a little weird, and I'm kind of self-conscious so it's always good to have a little notebook.
I usually come back from a story with thousands of words of notes, so I was actually able to revisit a lot of things I had some fondness for. And then of course I revisited a few too many of those things and they were cut out because they were just dross and self-pitying muck.
Dave: You mention during the first story that it was the first time you'd been sent out on a story, from which I gather that the book's presentation is somewhat chronological.
Rakoff: I was still working full time in publishing when I wrote that. I took vacation days to do it. There were years when I was doing both, writing freelance and working full time.
It does begin chronologically, and then moves back and forth in time. You try to pace it performatively. You don't want to put too many long pieces together. You don't want to put too many ponderous ones together. And there did seem to be a logical ending to the book.
Dave: Some of the stories surprised me. I didn't expect you, for instance, to be so wholeheartedly involved with the survival camp.
Rakoff: I didn't expect it either, but possibly that has to do with a number of factors. One is that I was there for seven days. Generally my disinclination has me in and out of something within forty-eight hours so I never get a chance to really lose myself as I did there. The other thing is that the survival camp is the perfect example of what I love to do: I'm essentially a generalist dilettante with a short attention span, so I love to be able to go in and become sort of a mini-expert in something, then never have to do it again. It furnishes your mind and you have more cocktail party conversation - you know more stuff, and it's always better to know more stuff than less stuff.
But the thing that I really loved is that because I make stuff in my daily life, this was like an arts and crafts course, but the stakes were life and death. It's like an arts and crafts project that's going to save your life in the wilderness. When we carved the little components of our fire-making kits, mine was the nicest. I was the art fag at wilderness camp. I say it with no fear of contradiction: my little hand-hold for my spindle was nicer than everybody else's, and they knew it, too!
That and the fact that I was wearing black boots marked me immediately. One woman said, "Are you from New York?" She knew immediately.
It was surprising to me as well. In fact, I spent the first two days of the course on the phone in the barn calling my editor, only half-jokingly telling him what a shit I thought he was for sending me there. I was really out of my element. I was really freaked out. We were sleeping in tents, and it was really cold the first night. I was really pleased when I finally got to go home, but it was an extraordinary experience.
Dave: In a piece that isn't in the book but is available on the Internet, you visit the crafts department of Martha Stewart Living magazine.
Rakoff: I felt I screwed up that story, unfortunately.
Dave: How so?
Rakoff: It was a missed opportunity. I didn't write it well enough. I didn't report it well enough. I have no real excuse except that I fell down on the job. But it was totally an interesting experience for me. It was like going to Mecca.
First of all, they have the most extraordinary arts supplies I've ever seen in my entire life. There's office upon office of multitudes of wire in every gauge, the best paper, perfect glue...if you make stuff, you're in heaven.
The other thing that was fascinating to me was that there is a kind of secret language among people who make stuff, people who have an uncontrollable urge to do things with their hands. I don't for a minute mean to put myself on the level of these people who make things for Martha Stewart Living - they're extraordinary artists - but there is a shared kind of monomaniacal incapacity to look at something without wanting to turn it into something else. It's like a certain part of the population can roll their tongue and a certain part of the population can't? I just have that impulse.
So it was really interesting to talk to these women - they were all women except for one man. I was in heaven. I wanted desperately to stay. I was also desperate for them to see me as one of them, which I don't necessarily think they did because I'm not, sadly. I didn't go to art school. I'm not an artist.
Like many of the stories in the book, that piece started out as something done for another venue. The versions in the book are the story behind the story, the story I managed to tell more successfully because I either had more time or I was less freaked out about the deadline.
For example, there's a story about attending the Aspen Comedy Festival, which I did for GQ. When I did it for GQ, I don't think I did such a great job. I think it's a better piece in the book. I'm hoping that the Martha Stewart thing, where I really investigate what it means to need to make things or having hobbies or being a dilettante, if I ever get my energy back up to write seriously again, I'd like to revisit that.
Dave: What intrigued me about that piece was the question of whether getting paid to do something destroys your capacity to enjoy it fully, to lose yourself in the process. You explain the idea of flow as expressed by a Hungarian psychologist...
Rakoff: ...Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, yes.
Dave: Right, like a basketball player who hits ten shots in a row. That player is "in the zone," announcers will say. To consider that kind of transcendence in the arena of crafts-making...
Rakoff: It's interesting. I almost never get that with writing. Very few times do I ever achieve flow, but with making things, absolutely. I made little illustrations for the book, little linocuts. That was a complete lifesaver because it used another part of my brain. I was able to achieve a kind of relaxation and flow in the thick of having to finish the book.
I find writing extraordinarily difficult and not very pleasurable, though I find having done it very pleasurable. I won't lie about that.
Dave: You make a living by entertaining people, quite often by making them laugh. I think it would be surprising to people that it can be so painfully difficult. It seems so natural.
Rakoff: It is hard work, but at the same time it's inevitable. If you're the kind of person who makes jokes about stuff, whether they're good jokes or bad jokes, it's just what you do. You've probably been doing it since even before you had verbal language.
Dave: But making jokes for a living isn't the same thing as making jokes when you're out with friends.
Rakoff: That's completely true. And again, if you do something for money, does it become less pure or less fun?
Also, there are always people who say, "Oh, you should be on television" - and there are a lot of people out there who say it: "You're the funniest guy in the office." For years, that's who I was, the funniest guy in the office, which is sustaining on a level, certainly, but it also went through me like a heated knife because it meant that I was the funniest guy in the office. We know that person, right?
Dave: You write a lot about memory. I love the way you talk about the x-ray and the song in "I Used to Bank Here," for instance, each of which you remember with absolute certainty while admitting that neither might be true.
Rakoff: They're absolutely true. I still maintain that they're absolutely true. The x-ray of Princess Margaret's hand, may she rest in peace, where her jewelry glows against the x-ray, and the song - yes: I maintain that they're absolutely true.
Dave: It's important, as a writer, that you maintain a sense of confidence in these memories. The story about the ice cream parlor, also...a lot of these stories are built upon old memories. Does it matter how many of them are distinctly true? In "I Used to Bank Here" the veracity of those memories is very much a subject of the piece - how you remember certain events in your life, whether they live on with you, or how they live on with you, if they do.
Rakoff: About the only thing that I have - or had, because it's failing me lately - is my memory. I had a really good memory. I was always terribly protective of that fact.
But I've also read pieces by other people, remembrances of scenes in which I was a player, where I've felt misrepresented. It's one of those complete double standards: I accord my own memory as being the better one.
Dave: Thirteen years after you underwent chemotherapy, you went back to search for your...
Dave: Your jism. Your frozen splooge. That sperm wasn't something you thought about much for thirteen years.
Rakoff: No, I really tried to kick over the traces and not think about it at all. I suppose what embarrassed me was that I had allowed this experience to have an effect on me, that I hadn't moved on. And I would occasionally say to people, among them licensed professionals, "I really don't want to talk about this because I feel like I talk about this all the time." And the response was, invariably, "You never talk about this."
So that was a little odd, to find out that my perception was one hundred percent opposite to what was true. In fact, I hadn't thought about it.
One of the icky things about being a writer is that you're constantly trying to create circumstance for yourself, or to mine your own life in certain ways. There are certain things I don't write about - I don't write about my family, I don't write about sex. It's a very controlled kind of self-revelation. But it was actually a friend who said, "What ever happened to that sperm?" I realized that I had no idea where it was.
Dave: In retrospect, do you feel better for having written the piece?
Rakoff: I do. Both the act of writing it, then also putting it into a book sealed the event in a way, which was nice.
Dave: It's a good, strange story.
Rakoff: It is. And I feel like - again, to use an apt term - I really shot my wad on that one, and I'll never be able to write another really good story. Life and circumstance will inevitably afford me all manner of horrific mishaps and such, but it did seem like the most real revelation I could bring forward.
Dave: Your Canadian heritage comes up repeatedly in the book. Having gone to school in Montreal, a lot of that humor struck a chord with me. For instance, you joke about the fact that Canadians can and will identify any Canadian who's ever done anything remotely important.
Rakoff: Isn't it weird? It's extraordinary. I'm losing the capacity. I've been out of Canada for twenty years.
Dave: You don't get a newsletter or anything to keep you up to date?
Rakoff: No, isn't that terrible? I thought that along with my homosexual cabal and my Jewish, media-controlled, banking conspiracy newsletter I would get one, but they stopped sending it, so I'm losing that edge.
Dave: Have you found that certain pieces in the book are favorites of readers?
Rakoff: I haven't actually found that to be the case. But there are pieces in the book that I don't read publicly because they're better on the page and I think they lack the kind of vaudevillian flair that they ought to have.
Some people really groove on the piece about the Austrian teachers, and that's always a little surprising to me. The book was recently published in Germany. I went over and people loved the Christmas Freud story, which was fascinating to me. They loved the Austrian story. To them it was mother's milk, which was just amazing. I couldn't really work that out. And some folks very much like the cancer story. The poignancy!
Dave: I listened to a piece that you did shortly after September 11th about what had previously been the worst disaster in New York City history.
Rakoff: The General Slocum, yes. When the ship caught fire and sank in the Hudson River.
Dave: Speaking of poignancy. And I also found an article you'd written for Business 2.0 about irony and its return after September. Living in New York, as a humorist particularly...
Rakoff: ...It removed the last bone from my body. Coming up to September I was already having some trouble with writing. I was feeling a little burned out and had an enormous crisis in confidence. The jig was up. It was over. I no longer had the goods. Certainly that was operative at the time. I wasn't working efficiently, and I wasn't terribly well.
I was working on a piece for the New York Times magazine, a long piece, the longest piece they had ever assigned me. The piece was failing to emerge. You start with a hypothesis, and of course there was no story there. So it was really, really proving problematic for me. I was waking up at five in the morning every day, not sleeping, and all I could really do was this strange Penelope-like...I would just interview more psychologists. I was amassing sixty-thousand words of notes and I didn't know where the hell I was going.
September 11th happened, and that was really the final I can't do anything. I think a great many people in New York just suddenly felt...it was like being hit in the face with a frying pan. And I'm speaking only about those of us who were not directly affected. For others, of course, it was a great deal worse than being hit in the face, and I don't mean to use cheap metaphors for that; I'm truly speaking of folks like me.
It was just an unbelievably sad time. And it wasn't born of those larger considerations of What is my purpose in life? How can I ever be funny again? I absolutely knew I would be funny again - or what passed for funny before. But it was just so, so sad. There was a time when the "I Love New York" commercials would come on, and I could not watch because I found it so unbearable, those canyon-like vistas of tall buildings, and the people....
I'm responding to marketing obviously, but the city really is the great love of my life. It's my total boyfriend. I can't be rational about it.
I mean girlfriend! I meant girlfriend, that's right.
Rakoff: Well, there was one actor who shall remain nameless. He'd been a star in cult films in the sixties and seventies, and part of the reason he was a star was because he was simply the most beautiful young man who ever lived, and he had a real propensity for taking all his clothes off. His ass was just a work of art. It remains the great nonmarble ass of civilization.
They were re-releasing one of the films he'd been in, for the thirtieth anniversary or whatever. His publicist told me, "You know he's not the greatest conversationalist." When you can get a publicist to say that, it should ring an alarm bell. Of course, I thought, He's never spoken to me! Very arrogantly.
I lasted with him all of seven minutes. It was beyond monosyllabic. To the point where I finally said something about, "What was it like for you in the 1980s?" And he said, "I really wasn't here during the 1980s." And I had to ask him, in all seriousness, "Do you mean here America or here conscious?" If he had said, "Oh, I was in a coma for twelve years" I wouldn't have been the least bit surprised.
Another memorable one was Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. [Carter, a champion boxer, was twice convicted for three murders he did not commit.] We were talking, and it was very nice, very cordial, and totally interesting. He was a great guy. Then I said, "I have a question that I want to ask you and I'm kind of scared to ask it." He said, "Be very careful what you ask because you might get the answer you deserve." I thought, Well, whatever. I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. So I said, "In the movie, when you're a kid, you're approached by this man who's kind of a homophobic monster character, and I just wanted to say that it's really kind of a homophobic moment." He said, "Well, that's what the guy was," and he sort of chuckled. I said, "What did you think I was going to ask you?"
Then of course I got home and I was transcribing the tape, and I was like Oh, my God! Of course I wouldn't ask him if he did it! But it had never occurred to me that this was the moment that was being played out. And of course it was fairly pregnant. For a fairly astute guy, when I'm not astute I'm a moron.
And Mary Tyler Moore. I got to meet Mary Tyler Moore.
Dave: How was that?
Rakoff: It was really cool. She was nice. And you can tell when someone is a bitch covering it up and when they're actually not a bitch. She's not a bitch. She's totally cool! It was a thrill.
Dave: Read any good books lately?
Dave: I haven't read it yet but I've heard nothing but great things.
Rakoff: I didn't bring it with me because it's a hardcover and I travel with a carry on so it's too big for my bag. I reread Low Life by Luc Sante every three months or so. And there's a book coming out in July from St. Martin's called Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.
Dave: Georgie was just talking about that. The publisher sent her an advance reader.
Rakoff: I loved that book. I think that book is a great book. It's quite wonderful.
David Rakoff visited Powell's City of Books on April 25, 2002, the same day David Sedaris was in Portland to perform at a downtown theater. After their events, they met for dinner and drinks. Not until the next day when I related this information to a coworker did I realize how much I might have extorted from neighboring book lovers who sought the precise location of that meeting.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State