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David Rakoff: The Powells.com Interview

David RakoffIf the title of David Rakoff's new book, Half Empty, seems to portend a celebration of pessimism, you're only half right. Yes, in these essays hopes are raised only to be dashed. Rakoff's Big Acting Break ends in failure; the sunny sky's-the-limit optimism of the dot-com boom proves a chimera; the promisingly named Exotic Erotic Ball and Expo proves a bore... Hell, even the Jews in Rakoff's world are pork-obsessed.

But Rakoff is no Eeyore. Eeyore was not nearly this observant. Or incisive. Or witty. Or let's face it, this much fun to read. As a writer and performer, Rakoff is sought after by some of the top publications and productions in the country — This American Life, Salon, the New York Times Magazine, and, that Holy of Holies, The Daily Show — for a reason.

Emily Gordon may have overdone it when she described Rakoff as "a delectable Cole Porter, Nicholson Baker, and Sarah Vowell smoothie," but you get the idea. Rakoff has the rare ability to do cynical, world-weary, and playful at the same time. He's also a world-class wit. It was David Rakoff, after all, who spawned a thousand protest T-shirts when he made the classic rejoinder to the homophobic Religious Right: "Well, of course not Adam and Steve. Never Adam and Steve. It's Adam and Steven."

Rakoff's world may not be coming up roses. But, let's face it, who the hell really wants roses?

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Chris Farley: You've talked about how much fun acting is and how relaxing you find crafts projects. But you describe writing as being "like pulling teeth — out of your dick." I'm curious how it's different, and why you do it.

David Rakoff: Well, writing is completely different in that it is tremendously difficult and it never gets easier. There's a long part of a long piece in the book called "Isn't It Romantic," which is about the myth of Bohemianism. You know, the myth of that kind of heady, raffia-wrapped, Chianti-bottled, carnal-mayhem kind of fantasy. And how, in fact, sitting down with oneself to make art is the very opposite of that kind of fun cavortingsitting down with oneself to make art is the very opposite of that kind of fun cavorting. It's literally about sitting alone with yourself and seeking out the work and tolerating yourself long enough to do it.

I can really only speak to writing, because the acting is done as a lark. I don't particularly consider myself an actor. I have no training. I love doing it, but I would never consider myself to be a colleague of an actual actor. That would be stepping way up in class on my part.

But, writing, it always begins poorly. It can only begin poorly. As I describe in the book, it's more like trying to reverse engineer something edible from rotten food than assembling a meal out of palatable ingredients. It goes on the page poorly, and then you have to live with the fact that you create bad work the first time around. Because that's what one does in writing. You have to live with that — and with yourself — long enough to then dial it back and work on it and make it better. That is tremendously difficult. Yet, in the end, it's incredibly sustaining.

It's the difference between refined sugar and complex carbohydrates. They're not as fun to eat in the short run, but are more sustaining in the long run. Arts and crafts, or getting to be in a play with people, or making a little short film, that's pure sugar, because the stakes are so low. At least they are for me.

Farley: Do you think if the stakes weren't so low, you would still do those things? Say you made arts and crafts for a living. Would it become less fun?

Rakoff: It's funny. I did a story about exactly about that in my last book, about working at Martha Stewart, and, in fact, doing crafts for money. Yes, I think it would become immediately less fun. I mused on the fact that even before I wrote for a living, when I was just writing for the love of it (oh, let's be honest; when I was still writing for the hate of it — and for no money) I still found it incredibly difficult. I guess that's why I respect it so much. It doesn't come easily.

Farley: Why didn't you go out and get the training as an actor and try that instead, if it was more fun?

Rakoff: I certainly wanted to do it, but I don't really come from a family where that would have flown, particularly. So there was certainly that aspect to it.

Farley: An element of family pressure?

Rakoff: Not to become a writer. But certainly to not be an actor. That was part of it. I thought about it for a long time, but life really did intervene. That's not to say that I abandoned the dream before I took it up. I really did try, and there was a period where I did have an agent. But it coincided uncomfortably with the time when I was becoming a writer as well, and there was really no contest between the two because in writing people want to see you exercise your critical faculties, which is incredibly heroin-like.

This isn't even a word, but it's a tremendously adultifying experience, if one can say the opposite of something being infantilizing.This isn't even a word, but it's a tremendously adultifying experience, if one can say the opposite of something being infantilizing. Do you know what I mean? It made one feel tremendously three-dimensional and present and real and manifest.

Acting, on the other hand, at least for me, is very much the opposite. When people give you a writing assignment, they're asking what you think. That's the very opposite of being an actor. When you're an actor, no one wants to hear what you think. No one wants to hear that you think the material that you're being asked to deliver is feebleminded, or borderline homophobic, or a step-and-fetch-it, anti-Semitic, stupid caricature. They just don't want to hear it. And more power to them. Why should they? So that vesselhood was far less comfortable for me the more I became a writer.

Obviously I know a great many actors who are incredibly intelligent, and I would never think of them as being less than fully adult artists. But that requires a degree of power in the field, and I never garnered anything remotely like that. I was still very much at a stage in my life where I would have to really shut the fuck up. Fortunately for me, I had this wonderful outlet of other expression that was tremendously fulfilling, but at the same time it laid waste to my dreams of acting.

Farley: It sounds like writing is more about the satisfaction of having reached a satisfying end product, as opposed to the actual process of doing it.

Rakoff: No, I don't necessarily know that that's the truth, but the process can be very difficult, the process of first draft. The second draft is always easier. It's much easier to rewrite than it is to write. As you yourself know, it's hard to face a blank page. It's easier to face a sheaf of pages sometimes. Of course, there are obviously moments when one just feels great, and it's going along well. Do those moments last for more than 10 minutes before one has to abuse oneself or have a snack or call a friend or have a nap? That's very hard to say. I don't know. But those moments when it's working, it's lovely.

Farley: And then of course, if you're a comic writer, you're amusing yourself as well while you write, I assume.

Rakoff: I guess, but I think entertainment can take many forms, not just being funny. I'm sure one can break one's own heart. But that seems a narcissistic trap, doesn't it? And laughing at oneself is also a narcissistic trap. I try to withhold approval from myself at all turns.

Farley: Since you brought up your family, I thought maybe we could talk about your upbringing as a red diaper baby. First of all, in Canada? Do they even have red diapers in Canada? Sounds too radical for a Canadian.

Rakoff: There are very few people in Canada who are like, "It's my right to carry a gun. Why can't I?"There are very few people in Canada who are like, "It's my right to carry a gun. Why can't I?" There just aren't that many, at least where I'm from. Certainly, the baseline Canadian is somewhat more progressive and something closer to a Western European than the baseline American family. That's probably true. But I did grow up in a somewhat socialist, Kibbutz-based Jewish household.

Farley: And have your family's politics changed over the years?

Rakoff: Not particularly, no. They've pretty well stayed constant. But, you know, I only ever glancingly refer to my family. I don't write super comfortably about my family. Those data are pretty sporadic. But, yeah, their politics are largely the same. A little more conservative.

But, I think the world has gotten a little more conservative. You know, I went to a Hebrew day school that could be completely lefty and completely nonreligious. Yes, we studied the Bible in Hebrew, but as literature. I don't think that even sort of exists as one of the phenotypes of modern secular Judaism anymore. It's weird. I don't know. I truly don't know. But, I think it's all gotten a lot more conservative out there.

Farley: Yes, this country has become much more conservative over the past three decades. I'm interested in the fact that you moved to New York City from Canada and found a home there. But over the past few decades your adopted country has transformed around you. I mean, New York City and America at large are not necessarily the same thing.

Rakoff: No. Well, isn't that also sort of the case with Portland and Oregon?

Farley: Yes, true.

Rakoff: I mean there are pockets for people like us. And by people like us, I mean shirt-lifting, pillow-biting, homosexual Jews, who need to live somewhere. So, yes, New York is a pocket. But it's less of a pocket than it used to be. Everything has become a little more conservative, and certain differences have become a little more effaced. It sticks out like a sore thumb less, I think. It's become a little more homogeneous.

I think most places have become less distinctive. I don't know whether that's a function of the Internet. The gestational period of anything — you know, anything cultural or informational — has been lessened to essentially seven minutes. Regional accents and indigenous businesses, all these things get disappeared. It's everywhere. But certainly in New York.

Farley: And now, after 9/11, New York has become such a symbol of the country for Americans. The rest of the country has tried to make that day more about them and their values than about the people who actually lived through the attack.

Rakoff: Absolutely. And the truly disgusting way in which the tragedy has been co-opted. I'm thinking particularly — obviously — about Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, the controversy of the Islamic center recently, and the real blindness to the fact that the reason we were attacked (not just in the United States, but specifically in New York City) was because of those very legislated, entrenched freedoms that made us — and make us — so diverse and so fractious; precisely the kind of place where you would put an Islamic center near the Ground Zero site. That is why we were attacked. We were attacked for those very values.

And so turning that around and perverting that is disgusting to me, especially coming from people who have such contempt for New York. And when I say New York, I mean contempt for diversity, for the very values and tenets that we're supposed to be about.

Farley: Yes, on the one hand, the people on the East and West coasts are not "real" Americans...

Rakoff: Exactly. We're either not real Americans, or we are the ones who were attacked. So, we neither comprehend nor deserve the experience.We're either not real Americans, or we are the ones who were attacked. So, we neither comprehend nor deserve the experience. It's truly disgusting. The cynicism of it is just... We seem to live in such truly intractable times that you can say anything. And the people whose battle lines seem already to have been drawn... I don't think any minds can be changed at this point. It feels so completely polarizing and intractable. So, why should Palin not get credit for sticking to it, when in fact she's a job quitter? The actual facts no longer seem to affect anything.

Farley: Yes, and Glenn Beck co-opting the moral authority of Martin Luther King Jr. for white people, as though his followers were going to take up the Civil Rights mantle, while just a couple months ago he was raging that the term "social justice," which is very closely associated with MLK Jr., is a sure sign that evil is afoot.

Rakoff: Or even that we're being taken in a socialist direction by a REALLY not-socialist president. Or, when we attach our ankles to our ears with a $100,000 tax break for the truly upper echelons of society, and that's somehow "class warfare." It's appalling. We're just living in appalling times politically. I'm not being remotely articulate about this, so you might want to save me from myself and edit this out...

Farley: That's how I feel. All I can do is just sputter...

Rakoff: That's the thing; I sputter. I have like five words at my disposal. It's just so completely enraging.

Farley: I'm curious about the relationship in your writing between humor and a sort of melancholia. I think in particular, in this collection, you wrote about going to the exotica fair.

Rakoff: Yes, the Exotic Erotic.

Farley: Which, of course, was hilarious, but also just sad.

Rakoff: Most things in the world are sort of hilarious and sad. Everything houses that kind of Manichean duality, which is usually light and dark. But I think hilarious and sad is a nicer way of looking at the world.

That might be a particularly Jewish kind of humor. I'm not sure. But that bless-his/her-heart kind of melancholic humor is among my favorite things in the world. I guess it exposes a kind of humanity — or that's the hope at least — a kind of grudging respect for human frailty. Unless it's actually kicking human frailty while it's down, I'm not sure. But that melancholic humor is really among my favorites. There's nothing nicer, in fact, than getting a laugh, and then immediately turning that laugh into something twinge-y and uncomfortable and sad. It's a nice place to take an audience. I think it makes for an ultimately richer experience.

Farley: But humor can also be a way of deflecting, can't it? I really enjoyed the essay about your therapist. You wrote about how, when you decided to stop seeing him, he told you he was angry and thought you should at least come by for coffee. And you felt...

Rakoff: ...that I'd somehow hoodwinked him, that he had drunk my Kool-Aid.

Farley: Yes. It sounded like you were a pretty entertaining patient.

Rakoff: I was a very funny patient. I was tremendously entertaining. I once, in fact, basically held his feet to the fire and essentially made him admit that, yes, I was his funniest patient.I once, in fact, basically held his feet to the fire and essentially made him admit that, yes, I was his funniest patient. But then he gave the perfect answer to that. He said, "You are my funniest client. Indeed, you're one of the funniest people I've ever known. But, that's not why I like you."

The fact that he would use the term "like me" made me briefly uncomfortable, but he said, "The reason I like you is because, despite the fact that this is very hard for you, you still do it. You still do the work." Which I thought was very nice.

But, as for the part that's specifically in the book, where I feel like I have somehow hoodwinked him and made him drink my Kool-Aid, I realize that, somehow, the one person I'd hoped to be impervious against my powers turned out not to be.

There are other parts in the book where I talk about the notion of charm. In the piece where I talk about having been tiny as a child and very, very conscious of the fact that, long before my body could follow suit — when I was really a tiny, tiny little kid — I had this verbal acuity and capacity to interact socially that is a deception of sorts. And, that's the nature of charm. That's what charm is: it's a trick. While one is authentically oneself — I'm not "lying" — one also has a sense of the tools that one is employing.

Farley: It's a bit of a strategy.

Rakoff: Entirely. It's a social coping strategy. Everybody has them. It's socialized behavior. I'm not sitting in some bush eating berries and scratching myself. I am aware of the mechanics of it perhaps a little more than people who are less self-conscious.

But, when you're teeny, and you don't look like the rest of the population, and you're gay to boot, I guess you become a little self-conscious, and you grow up with a greater sense of how you're moving through space and how you're manifesting in others' eyes. Does that make sense?

Farley: Yes. But also that if you're tiny, or whatever particular difference you have, you have to come up with another way to get what you want.

Rakoff: Exactly. But it turns out that everybody feels that. Even the beauties felt that. The danger is, of course, in dismissing their concerns. You can only feel the way you feel. To say, "You weren't insecure; you were gorgeous," is to be dismissive of other people.

Farley: It gets you what you want, but maybe not what you really want.

Rakoff: Precisely. Everybody's got their dramas and their traumas. It was both a wonderful triumph when my therapist said that, and, at the same time, a kind of strange defeat, a feet-of-clay moment.

Farley: I thought your reaction to your therapist's comment was one of the most poignant and revealing moments in the book.

Rakoff: Thank you. But, just between you and me, [whispering] I never had a therapist. I totally made that part up. I don't even know what therapy is. [Laughter]

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One Response to "David Rakoff: The Powells.com Interview"

    jefergus November 13th, 2010 at 1:30 pm

    Rakoff's book is a bore, a wannabe. So he is witty. So was my wonderful grandmother.

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