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Interview: August 15, 2008

August 15, 2008

In this interview with's Shannon Luders-Manuel, Matt Rothschild --- author of the coming-of-age memoir DUMBFOUNDED --- names the famous essayist who inspired him to pen his own story and reflects on how his family would have reacted to his written portrayal of them in his full-length debut.

He also discusses his use of humor amidst the rather serious topics covered in the book, offers words of advice to aspiring authors looking to write their own memoirs, and shares ideas for a future book involving his experiences teaching at an inner-city high school. The book’s back cover says that you are what "David Sedaris could have been if he'd been part of an esteemed family on Manhattan's Upper East Side." Was he your inspiration for the book?

Matt Rothschild: In a way, I suppose he was. As a writer, I think you look to the greats in your genre and their work influences yours. Though I enjoy the work of many memoirists (Augusten Burroughs and Mary Karr, to name a few), I think Sedaris influenced my work more than anyone else. I hadn’t thought of writing seriously until I read his work, and after I finished ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY, I could think of little else. His work showed me the importance of voice, and that no observation (if properly contextualized) is too small.

BRC: When writing your memoir, did you start from the beginning or from some point in the middle?

MR: In the beginning, I intended to start at the end because that’s how we meet people. When you meet a stranger you’re meeting them in the most recent part of his or her life, and as you get to know this stranger it’s like entering a flashback. So I thought I’d start at the end, and beginning with the second chapter I would go to earliest memories and work my way chronologically from there. This made sense to me when the book was still an idea, but it didn’t work too well in practice and I ended up writing the whole thing chronologically.

BRC: You touch on a lot of deep issues in your memoir --- the abandonment from your mother, your sexual orientation, your grandmother's failing health. Was it one of these or all three that first got you thinking about writing a personal memoir?

MR: I think it must have been those things that led me to believe I had a story to tell. While writing, I found myself trying to figure out what happened to my family, and how it was that I was cast in the role that I played. I found those events in your question played pivotal roles in my development, though in many ways we were damaged long before any of that.

BRC: It seems it's usually easier to write about beloved family members after they have passed. Was that true for you in writing about your grandparents?

MR: I still wonder what my grandparents would say if they knew that I’d written this book. For a long time, I harbored incredible guilt because I felt my grandfather would be mortified. My grandmother wouldn’t have cared much, and would probably have championed me through the process. Would I have written this book if they were still alive? I would have written a book, but it wouldn’t have been this particular one.

BRC: I assume by this point that your mother knows you're gay. How did she react to the news? Was it somewhat of a relief never having to tell your grandparents, or do you wish they could have known? Or did you feel like they always knew without you having to tell them?

MR: I never told my mother I was gay. When I finally came to terms with my homosexuality, she and I were no longer speaking. Recently, I found myself saying that I was glad I never had to tell my grandparents, that telling my friends was hard enough. But I wonder now how they would have responded. Ultimately I know they would have accepted me for who I am, and it’s sad to know that they never had that opportunity.

BRC: You've had a rather tumultuous relationship with your mother. What kind of terms are you on now? Are you worried about her reaction to the book?

MR: I haven’t spent much time worrying about her reaction, no. You have to remember that my mother and I never lived together; she wasn’t a mother. A mother isn’t someone who gives birth to you and gives you away. We haven’t spoken since I was 19 years old. As far as I’m concerned, my mother was my grandmother and sadly, she is dead. I will admit to having some worries over how my grandparents would have reacted to the book. Eventually, I let that go, because I think they would both be proud at how well I treated everyone in the book, and I think they’d be proud of how I turned out in the end.

BRC: You use humor to connect with your audience before bringing in any type of serious narrative. Is this intentional?

MR: I don’t know if it was truly intentional or just an accurate representation of my own character. I do almost everything through humor. I love to laugh, and thankfully, I’m the kind of person who can laugh at himself and his follies. And in books like these, when there are heavier issues to convey, I think humor can soften the blow and draw readers into the story. It’s an effective way for a writer to form immediate relationships with new readers.

BRC: You say in your author's note that some of the details of your memoir are made up, as far as changing chronology or location, etc. Would you mind humoring the readers with an example? Was the part about your crazy next-door neighbor true?

MR: Actually, yes, the part about the crazy neighbor was entirely true! Most people would probably be disappointed that the things I chose to embellish were so tame, but because I’m pretty open about most things, I’ll give you an example: there’s a story in the book called “Intra-Family Feud,” all of which is true except for one detail (as long as you don’t count changing their names). The story actually took place at my grandparents’ house in Washington D.C. and not our New York apartment. So, you might then wonder, if that’s all that was changed, then why bother? Now the answer to that is much more complicated than the simple alteration, but I’ll do my best to answer…

On the surface, my book fits nicely into that genre of quirky coming-of-age memoirs, a genre trailblazed by David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs. But if you really look at my story, there are a number of stumbling blocks that, if not properly addressed, would make reading my book impossible. The first stumbling block is why I ended up living with my grandparents at all. I learned early on that you can’t gloss over parental abandonment in a few words without most readers guffawing and stumbling. They want to know why you were abandoned, if you have a relationship now, where the offending parent went, etc.

The other major stumbling block, and the one that relates mostly to this question, is the issue of wealth. I knew early on that I didn’t want my book to be about money, but that it would be easy to classify it as another Poor-Little-Rich-Boy book, and so I consciously decided to downplay the topic of money. I thought the strength in the story was the universality of the relationships. We’ve all had spats with siblings or parents, and many of us are from dysfunctional families, or at least we’ve seen movies where these families play out their drama during holidays. But I knew that if I went on and on about our house here or our 15 servants there, nobody would ever see us as universal. In fact, they’d probably say our falling apart was good. “Serves you right, you rich hoity-toities!” So, I didn’t talk about multiple houses, and I set mostly everything in New York’s Upper East Side. As it turned out, that was really for the best as it allowed me to really develop the Upper East Side as a character and explore the folks who live there.

BRC: Was it your first job teaching kindergartners that made you decide to teach as a career?

MR: Actually, I took that job mostly because I had planned to go into diplomacy and I thought it would teach me some patience. I reasoned that if I could communicate with a five-year-old, then talking to Castro wouldn’t be a problem. Of course, what happened was that I realized I liked it more than I thought I would, but I knew that I couldn’t teach elementary-aged kids full time. So, after I graduated from college, I took a job teaching high school at an inner-city school.

At the time I thought I’d only stay a year and then go back to school, but my life took some twists and turns (as most people’s do…), and I stayed. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine me doing anything else. I mean, I write obviously, but teaching and getting involved in kids’ lives keep me grounded. I find that, despite the obvious differences in our upbringings, we communicate very well in my classroom and that I can effect real change on a practical level. That feeling is almost addictive.

BRC: Did you major in Art History in college, or did you switch to English and/or creative writing?

MR: I studied art history, computer science and religious studies. I never studied creative writing. I learned to write by reading and working with excellent, patient editors.

BRC: What advice do you have for anyone wishing to write their own memoir?

MR: I think the conventional answer is “Write.” But even though writing is a major part of the equation, I think you have to read first in order to figure out how to tell the story. Reading can teach us so much if we just pay attention. You can learn about how to craft a sentence and how to organize a story. If you don’t understand how to tell a story (even a true story), you may fall into the trap of wanting to summarize your entire life. One of my favorite anecdotes comes from Annie Dillard, where she says you have to rise above the temptation to lead the reader around like a drunk saying, first I did this and then I did that, and isn’t that interesting?

On another level, I think you have to be comfortable in your own skin in order to tell these stories. Even though it is your story to tell, you have to live with yourself once you’ve told it. We’ve all done things we’re not terribly proud of, but most of us aren’t revealing them to the entire world in a book. You may find that your writing reveals some unattractive things about yourself, and it might hurt to include those parts, but it’ll make for a better story if you can be completely honest about your flaws. Of course, to write a memoir, you end up reliving memories, which can be terribly painful even years later. While writing my book, I often thought of myself as the narrator so that when I came across something younger Matt did, older Matt didn’t have to feel ashamed of including it.

BRC: Do you have any more books in the works?

MR: Yes. Currently, I’m putting together my notes for a second book about my life in the classroom and the odd cast of characters I’ve met along the way. To say that I was naïve about education and teaching before entering the profession is an understatement. I had never set foot in a public school, much less an inner-city school. So, I went from an environment where my vocabulary words were "assiduous" and "myriad" to an environment where their vocabulary words were "Chlamydia" and "prophylactic." It’s made for some good stories. I’m also working on a screenplay.