by Patricia Grandjean
Mar 10, 2011
12:34 PMBox Office
Q & A Web Exclusive: David Rakoff
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What a pleasure it is to simply chew the fat with essayist and raconteur David Rakoff, 47, author of three books (Fraud, Don't Get Too Comfortable and Half Empty), regular on Public Radio International's "This American Life" and contributor to publications such as The New York Times Magazine, Outside and GQ and the website Salon.com. On Monday March 14 at 7 p.m., he'll bring the award-winning National Public Radio program "Selected Shorts"—devoted to readings of classic and new short fiction—live to Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, along with host Isaiah Sheffer and "Sesame Street"'s Maria, Sonia Manzano. The performance is co-sponsored by R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison and WSHU Public Radio Group in Fairfield. Tickets $25. For more information, call (203) 787-4282 or visit longwharf.org.
A part-time actor, Rakoff has also appeared in the short film The New Tenants, winner of a 2010 Academy Award. His 2010 book, Half Empty, is—to put it oversimplistically—a very funny and heartbreaking paean to the power of negative thinking. It ends with the essay "Another Shoe," detailing his ongoing struggle with cancer, which has resulted in several surgeries and nearly led to the loss of an arm.
What story will you be reading for "Selected Shorts?"
I'm going to be doing Delmore Schwartz's "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," which is truly one of the greatest short stories ever written in the English language. It's just an astonishing, astonishing story. Truly one of the best coming of age-family dynamic stories I've ever read. It's one of those stories I read as a younger person that made me understand the power of the form.
Have you ever tried writing any fiction yourself?
Not really. I'm too scared. I just find it too easy for life to provide me with the actual details, and I can't make stuff up very well.
As a reader, do you prefer fiction over nonfiction?
No, I try to read pretty widely. I haven't been very good about reading fiction over the last couple of years. I'm sort of getting back into it a little bit. The way in which I'm getting back into it, actually, is that I bought a Complete Stories of Bernard Malamud at the Strand bookstore [in New York City], a nice, cheap edition. It's been a long time since I've read his stories, but they hold up beautifully.
I wanted to ask you how your health has been. Having read Half Empty, the most recent news I recall about that was what you shared on "The Daily Show" last fall.
It's an ongoing process. I've had multiple surgeries. It continues to be something of a challenge, but I'm okay, and I shall make this event. I may have to sit on a stool to read, but I'll be reading.
Regarding Half Empty, I really loved the concept of "defensive pessimism." Would you mind talking about it for people who haven't read the book?
It's been very helpful to me. It's not a term I coined; I think it was coined or identified by a psychologist named Julie Norem, who's at Wellesley College. And it's basically an anxiety management technique. You go into an experience with a presentiment of disaster—you know, "the following experience will be completely terrible"—and you lower your expectations. By doing so, you set up a scenario where you work through all the contingencies of those lowered expectations, like "if A happens, I shall do B, if C happens, I shall do D"; and by so doing, you've managed your anxiety. So if disaster does strike, you at least have some plan of action. It really makes you feel like you've got some agency in an otherwise anarchic universe. It's a way of getting out of bed in the morning.
How has it been brought to bear in your life most recently, would you say?
Oh my God, it's like being double-jointed. When the anxiety is overwhelming, it really does help enormously. Rather than being overwhelmed by the presence of a forest, you isolate a tree here and a tree there and try to give yourself a sense of agency. Even when I feel most powerless, I focus on the things that i can exercise some control over. It's been absolutely key the last little while.
In reading the book, I laughed out loud over certain details. When you talk about interviewing Julie Norem, and you let the recorder auto-reverse and tape over earlier parts of the interview, I reflected upon journalistic gaffes of my own . . .
Oh God, not understanding enough to put in a new tape . . .
But that kind of thing has happened to me so many times as a writer—once I did an interview that was really crucial to a piece I was writing, and I let the recorder run the whole time not realizing I never hit the "record" button.
Ohh, I've done that, too. [groans] I once did an interview with the recorder on "pause" the entire time, and then had to sort of act very dense and make them recapitulate everything they said. That was awful.