Interview: Author David Rakoff, on the Charmed Life of a Writer


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In his collections of essays and as a regular contributor of Chicago Public Radio's 'This American Life,' David Rakoff has aired personal anecdotes aplenty, including his stint as Christmas Freud and spending the summer at a kibbutz. Rakoff, who performed at Zellerbach last Saturday along with 'This American Life' host Ira Glass, sat down with the Daily Californian to talk about the pain that is writing and being a one-man duct tape wallet factory.

Daily Californian: Does the prospect of Huckabee on the ticket in any capacity make you glad you still have your Canadian citizenship?

David Rakoff: I don't find Huckabee nearly as scary as John McCain. The prospect that there might be another Republican in the administration certainly freaks me out a little bit. The only comfort one can draw from it is that everything really is cyclical. I've lived here since first term Ronald Reagan and I didn't think things could ever get worse than that, so things can always get worse, which sort of cheers me up a little bit as something to think about. But no, I don't find Mike Huckabee nearly as scary as John McCain.

DC: Any particular reason?

DR: John McCain seems to have managed to paint himself as a moderate and he's in no way a moderate. Huckabee is at least emphatically an Evangelical. And in fact I sort of like what Huckabee says about immigrants. The fact that he doesn't believe or claims not to believe in evolution which I don't believe-I think he does believe in evolution-is neither hear nor there. Luckily I actually don't think in my heart of hearts think the Republicans will win the White house. And indeed, the very reason I got my American citizenship after having lived here for 20 odd years was because I did want to vote, I did want to be part of the process. So that sort of ace of the hole prospect of me leaving and going to Cananda isn't really an option. Something terrible would have to happen for me to really contemplate leaving and certainly a McCain Huckabee ticket winning the White House would be pretty terrible. Would I leave? Hard to say. I doubt it.

DC: I've seen you adeptly and self-effacing evade this question in other interviews, so I wanted to pose it early in the day so you couldn't squirm out of it.

DR: (Laughs) I'm fascinated to hear what that question is.

DC: I'm curious as to what you think draws people to your writing and programming like "This American Life," particularly in this culture which is so celebreity obsessed and kind of this spectacle of media.

DR: I'm trying to-how have I evaded that question in the past? That doesn't seem like one worth evading.

DC: I've just seen interviews where you write it off as "Oh yeah, I can't imagine why anyone would be itnerested in reading what I write. It is a tad mystifying if one is to accept the prospect, or rather the assertion, that we do live in celebrity obsessed and media obssessed times, which I think really in large part very true. It is a little surprising to me that I have any readers at all. I think you're overestimating how many readers you have, I don't have that many readers. If I have listeners on "This American Life," that's wonderful, but it's really the secondhand smoke that I'm receiving from being part of that machinery. They're certainly not tuning in because I've got a piece of-if you know what I mean.The hope is-here's the thing, I noticed that this is hopelessly out of touch and unfashionable for me to say, but I still respond to writing. I like language ... I like words. And the hope is that I'm not alone in that .... I guess they read my stuff because they think it's going to be like my more famous cohort of other writers who come through "This American Life." But what can you do? I can only write the way I write.

DC: You describe writing as something you approach with a certain amount of dread.

DR: Yes.

DC: I was wondering if you could elaborate on that a little more.

DR: Well I can! It's interesting, I was just thinking about it, I just wrote a few paragraphs about it a few years ago, but no probably only a few months ago. Writing is ... how do I describe this ... it seems that developmentally ... all organisms developmentally go through a trajectory where you learn things and gain mastery over them. So when you're a child your chubby little hands can't hold things properly and as you grow up you can hold things and grasp them and you gain mastery over objects and in many ways life is like that. It's about a mastery and you become better at things. Writing, and I guess any creative pursuit or any kind of art, is the very opposite of that. It starts out terrible, the older you get, the more terrible it starts out. It's such a complete reversal and upending of the way every other process in life goes for one that it's incredibly rough and uncoupling in that way. So writing only ever starts out badly and then you have to make it good. And it's not like, and I've said this before, it's not like being presented with raw ingredients and then having to create a cooked meal out of them. It's like being presented with spoiled ingredieints. So it's like trying ot rever enginere a meal, a palatable meal out of rotten food. And for that reason you have to really tolerate yourself in this really unpleasant and difficult way you ahve to live with your crappy shitty writing until you can sort of vomit it out onto a page and it's completely embarassing and you have to go back and re-write, re-write, and rewrite until it's something you're vaguely satisfied with.

DC: How do you continue to motivate yourself to keep doing something like that?

DR: I'm very fortunate. I have other people telling me that they need things from me. Which to me is a huge goad. I don't know how else I would do it. There was obviously a point in my life when I was not writing to deadline, when I was not a writer anybody wanted to know. Nobody knew me, nobody knew my name, nobody was giving me assignments or wages. So clearly there was a time when I was just writing in my room, alone. I can't really recall that time, which is probably one of nature's great safeguards: you can't ever remember the things that are truly the most difficult or painful. But at this point I respond well to deadlines, as evidenced by the fact that I have this huge deadline but it's so far off, this book. Today, what have I done? I've been reading but I haven't been writing, I ate some almonds, then I had some dried mango, then I ate the rest of the vegetables in the fridge. There's a good deal of snacking that goes on in my life before the writing happens.

DC: At what point does writing become something that's rewarding for you?

DR: When the syrup starts to pour it can become tremendously rewarding. Then it's really almost pleausrable. And having done it is great, great pleasure. And, as you yourself know you write for a paper, being listened to, it's nice, right? It's for really secretly bossy people or not so secretly bossy people.

DC: Can you tell me a little bit about this upcoming book-is it formulated enough in your mind to talk about it?

DR: Kind of. Essentially what I can say is it's like my previous two books it's a collection of essays and ideas, none of them, most of them unwritten-almost none of them written. Again with an organizing principle. So the last book was about the culture of excess and how we all have too much stuff. This is essentially about pessimism and melancholy. All the other less than pleasant to feel emotions that because they are less than pleasant to feel have been more or less stricken from the public discourse but in fact have their uses and even a certain beauty to them.

DC: What do you do when you aren't writing or dreading writing? You mentioned there's a lot of snacking involved.

DR: I've been making a lot of duct tape wallets. Really pretty ones, I bought some beauitful duct tape online. I was going to a Hannakuh party and there were going to be kids there and I ddidn't want to go empty handed. And I remember that duct tape wallets were big in the '90s. I make crafty things, so I thought "Oh I'll make the kids duct tape wallets." So I bought some shitty duct tape, just from the craft store on the corner. It was crappy and it was thin and the colors were lurid and horrible. But the kids really liked them and I really enjoyed making them. So went online and I bought some really beautiful duct tape, a lot of it. I have like a thousand yards of ductable. Maybe now it's down to 750 in 18 different colors. So I've been making a lot of duct tape wallets.

DC: I'm a bit of a bibliophile and for someone like you woh is invested in the industry of books, I'm wondering how you assess the state of reading today and what you think it would be like say 30 years from now. Especially with the advent of electronic reading devices like the Kindle.

DR: I don't know that electronic reading devices are really contributory to the state of reading, such as I hear about it anectodally. And anecdotally-and you must hear the same thing-it's not good. Apparently people just don't read books, that kind of thing. I don't know that electronic readers are going to-again those are simply devices that the already self-selecting group of people who actually read might be deploying 30 years from now. But in terms of reading, I don't know. It's very, it's extremely worrisome. I don't know, I really don't know. I'm not a sociologist. I hear people who get the Kindle-these are other biliophiles or people who work in publishing-some people really love them. I like a book. I like the physical object of a book, I like turning pages, I like the way they look, I like the way they feel. Maybe it will change. I also I'm not enamored of technology, I don't get hot for gadets unless they can make food. I don't have an iPod, you know that kind of stuff. I don't text. I only recently got cordless phones. I'm not a gearhead in that way. I don't know what the kids are going to be doing. If there going to be downloading audio books onto iPods, I think that's fine, that's great. I love being read to.

DC: I try to imagine a world full of people with Kindles, as you were saying, I'm all about the tangebility of having a book in your ahdn. What do you think we'd be losing to live in a world like that?

DR: I liked to see what people are reading on trains and the only time I see people reading is on the subway and such. The Kindle would sort of take that away, but that's not the loss of a social value, that's simply a thwarting of my innate nosiness. There's no reason that I should be able to see what other people are reading, and I will frequently wrap my books like a little Japanese school girl becuase I don't want people to draw conclusions on what I am or am not reading. I'll just be upfront about this. Should I say this? Okay. It filled me with a small dose of dispair whenever I saw a grownup reading "Harry Potter." I can't help it.

DC: How'd you get involved in "This American Life"?

DR: I got involved with "This American Life" ecause I knew Ira when he was still a reporter at NPR. And I met Ira through David Sedaris because I was doing theater with David in New York and then Ira started the show. So it was all ground floorish.

DC: What's been your favorite contribution?

DR: Oh golly, that's interesting. I don't know! You mean my favorite piece?

DC: Is there anything that stasnds out that you're particularly proud of?

DR: Noooo. The glib response is that I hate all my writing. I don't know! Some have been a pure joy. There's one about about climbing a mountain on Christmas Day. That was pure joy because I got to perform it in front of an audience and there's that heroine thrill. I have a particular affection for "Christmas Freud" because it was the first famed piece I did for them. Some I think are less sucessful as pieces and missed opportunites because of my own laziness and lack of intellectual rigor. I don't know! I don't know, it's a hard question.

DC: Is there any one piece that stands out in your mind as a complete disaster?

DR: Complete disaster? No. Because if it was a complete diaster it wouldn't get on. The things that are missed opportunities ... more sort of parts of pieces. There's a cheap joke I might tell it here but sort of loathe myself for telling it. But I don't necessarily revisit a lot of old work. It takes me a long time to go back to old work.

DC: Do you listen to the show on a regular basis.

DR: I do, sort of. I'm not part of the podcast generation, so I do have to make the time for it. I have to clear my schedule, that kind of thing. If it's online I do sometimes listen to a streaming episode. Is that what it's called? Webispode? You know what I mean.

DC: Do you enjoy reading your work?

DR: Yes very much. As I said, there's the heroine thrill of a receptive audience. But that's followed almost immediately by a kind of an intense self-loathing that I would need that affirmation and then a kind of beating up on myself of not being sufficiently industrious on the work.


Contact Sofia at [email protected]

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