Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Matt Rothschild, DUMBFOUNDED No More

The Washington Post called it "A family dysfunction story at its best. . . The former trustifarian's portrayal of his bold and brash, potty-mouth grandma is a hoot . . ." The Los Angeles Times said, "Funny and defiant." USA Today: "With genuine affection and brutal honesty, [Matt Rothschild] paints vivid, delightful portraits of the colorful characters who crossed his path."

The book that generated so much praise? Dumbfounded, by Orlando writer Matt Rothschild. Both heartbreaking and hilarious at the same time, Dumbfounded is Rothchild's memoir about growing up with his Jewish grandparents in a luxury Fifth Avenue building of WASPs after his mother left him for Italy and a fourth husband.

I first met Matt at a Florida Writers Association meeting. I was immediately struck by his self-deprecating sense of humor, and since then, every time I've seen him, he keeps me in stitches without even trying.
Matt was gracious enough to take the time to answer the some questions about his life and his memoir.
Julie: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer, and what made you decide to write a memoir about your childhood?

I’m trying to think if my Jackie Collins fantasy was when I decided to be a writer. As a kid there was something so terribly glamorous about her and all of those made-for-TV movies that were created from her books. Sydney Sheldon, too, and he really interested me because of all his work on "The Patty Duke Show" and "I Dream of Jeannie," because when I was younger I thought it might be fun to star in my own television series. It never happened obviously, and so I spent the better part of my childhood pretending I was on television, often posing for imaginary camera shots and memorizing imaginary lines.
I do have a brief memory of responding to a contest in Jack and Jill Magazine. I think you had to write some kind of children’s book, or maybe you just had to write a book, period. I was maybe six at the time. I did it on notebook paper and bound it in a three ring binder. So that was probably my earliest creation. Sadly, I don’t remember what the book would have been about.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I saw writing as really viable. At the time I was something of a lazy reader, really just reading anything that crossed my path. A friend had come out to visit me in San Francisco, where I was working the summer between my sophomore and junior years, and he left a book in my car, David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day. Well, it took about a hot minute for me to fall in love with the book. It was after reading it that I knew what I wanted to do with my life; I wanted to write something that would affect people the way Sedaris’ book affected me. The problem, of course, was that I had no real idea how to write. So I found some materials about writing and saw that old truism: Write what you know! So what did I know? Not much, unfortunately. So I wrote a book about a isolated upper class delinquent who pretended to star in his own television series: Me.

Julie: There's so much detail about conversations with your grandparents, your mother, your teachers and friends (some hilarious, some tragic, some both). Do you have vivid memories of these events, or were you forced to recreate how you thought particular events or conversations might have happened? In other words, what process did you have to go through to write a memoir and feel that you'd told the story accurately? After the debacle with James Frey (A Million Little Pieces), were you nervous about it?

Annie Dillard has this great line in an essay about writing memoir that basically says every memoirist has two major dilemmas while writing: What to put in and what to leave out. I felt that acutely while writing Dumbfounded. I guess I had to decide what the real story was. The temptation with any story is to always start at the beginning, but that’s so rarely a good idea. The writer of any book (fiction or nonfiction) has to figure out the best way to tell their story, and sometimes you have to improvise. That said, I think most of us can probably remember twenty or so anecdotes that define our families. That’s what I did while writing Dumbfounded. I thought, Why am I like this? And the events within the chapters answered that question. Now, is everything 100% factual? The easy answer is no. How could it be? I mean, you and I could be sitting in the same room and experiencing the same events and remember the experience in two very different ways. Not only that, but over time, as we gather more experiences, our perspective shifts. That became difficult, too, while writing. Who was the narrator? Was he the boy going through the events, or was he the adult me looking back? So I had to take liberties. I chose which stories to include, and I chose which to leave out. Sometimes I could remember things vividly, other times I had to ask myself, What would he/she have said? It’s really not a far stretch to answer those questions for people you’ve known your whole life and think about every day.

I didn’t think too much about James Frey, because from the beginning I was always very up front about what I changed and what I left alone. I knew that certain things had to be changed, and that it was my responsibility to do that. It wouldn’t have been fair to keep some real names, etc. I think we have all done our fair share of tomfoolery that we are all sorry for, and who needs to be beaten over the head with a club twenty years later for it? Then there were the writerly things that had to be changed to streamline the narrative. That goes under the category of fashioning the text and taking liberties. Admittedly, some readers take a dim view of that sort of thing, and so I put it all in the Author’s Note. I figured the reader could decide for himself/herself if the book was worthwhile. So while I did change things, I’m not afraid to admit to it; nothing I changed altered the fundamental truth of the stories.

Julie: Were your grandparents aware that you were writing a memoir? Or had they already passed away when you started it? How about your mother? Has she read it? How did she react?

No, my grandparents had already passed away. In many ways it was their death that provided the climax for the book. I’ve often thought that if they were still alive, and I chose to write a memoir, the ending would be drastically different. As for my mother, I haven’t spoken to her in about ten years. I don’t believe she’s read it.

Julie: Did your experiences as a child bouncing around to different schools influence your decision to become a teacher?

I’m sure in many ways it did. In the classroom, I used my experiences as a troubled kid to relate with my students. We came from very different worlds, my students and I, but teenage angst is teenage angst. Most of the time, kids just want someone to listen to them and tell them they’re not crazy and to treat them with respect. That wasn’t the case when I was in school, and maybe if someone had done that for me, I would have been much less obnoxious.

Julie: Every writer has a "how I got published" story. Tell us yours.

I’ve known my agent Dan Lazar for the last six years. He’s been my agent nearly three years now. We first met through friends and when he found out I wrote, he asked to see something. I sent him a story I had written, and he asked if I had a book. At the time he was an agent’s assistant, and in his business an assistant gets promoted up to an agent if they can demonstrate that they have a good eye for talent. I was flattered, but didn’t have a book. Fast forward four years and I did. So I emailed him one day and asked how he would feel about having another client. By this point, he’d risen substantially at his firm. He was already a full agent and selling all sorts of titles for enormous sums of money. In response to my question, he told me he wasn’t representing friends because often friends would send him things he didn’t think was right for him and when he’d tell these friends that he couldn’t represent them the friendship would usually evaporate. I understood this and asked if he’d be willing to give me a referral, which he agreed to. He even said he’d critique my query letter. So I sent him my query letter and he emailed me back and said, “I changed my mind. Send me that book!”
After I sent him the book and he’d had a week to think about it, we spoke on the phone. He shared his editorial suggestions and they made sense to me. Essentially, I had to rewrite the whole thing, but he validated that the concept was good. So I rewrote a portion of the book to send to publishers, and then wrote the outline. (Memoirs are usually sold based on the strength of the first few chapters and the outline for the rest). I’d send Dan what I had and he’d comment/critique and then I’d go back to work. It probably took a couple of months. When the proposal was done, we tried to place some of the chapters as stand-alone pieces. Because I didn’t have any publishing credentials, Dan thought that placing the stories in magazines or newspapers would increase my chances of getting picked up by a publisher. We tried to place some stories for a few months and nobody was biting. Eventually Dan decided to send out the proposal anyway to see what people would say.

I have to admit that I wasn’t too optimistic. I had no idea what to expect, but getting a book published is such a long shot. But he sent out the proposal anyway, on a Wednesday I think. By Friday there was already initial interest from Harcourt. The following Monday there was interest from Harper Collins, Penguin, Algonquin and Random House. I spoke with each of the editors, and they were all so terribly nice. I remember being nervous, because I thought they’d be mean and be like, “Why should I publish your book, you nothing?!” But that’s not what happened at all. Two weeks later the book was sold to Random House, and two years later I still don’t think I’ve gotten over the shock.

Julie: What's next for Matt Rothschild? Are you working on another book? Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Matt: As a matter of fact I am! It’s taken me a while to figure out what I wanted to write about next, but I think I’ve nailed down a story that I’m still firming up in my mind. It’s basically what happens after Dumbfounded ends, when I, through a series of random coincidences, end up being taken in by a family that appears to be the opposite of my own dysfunctional Rothschild clan, but who end up being more messed up than we ever were. It just took me being in their lives to bring out their dysfunction! It’s supposed to be funny, though. I realize that might read far less hilariously than it should. Shrug.

You can learn more about Matt and Dumbfounded at http://www.mattrothschild.com/