David Rakoff has dealt with paralyzing anxiety, two bouts of cancer and a childhood spent as a “freakishly small” gay boy in Toronto.
He subsequently has written three books of acerbic short stories and is
a frequent contributor to Chicago Public Radio’s “This American Life,” which is distributed by Public Radio International.
In his latest book, “Half Empty,” released last month, he argues for “defensive pessimism” with stories about life as a Jew who loves pork, a new malignant tumor in his neck and others.
Rakoff was in San Francisco last week to take part in the City Arts & Lectures series; his appearance was part of the fall literary series benefiting 826 Valencia, a nonprofit that helps students with creative writing. He spoke to j. by phone from his Union Square hotel room.
Question. It seems like people often want uplifting stories from books. Have you had any backlash with the pessimism throughout “Half Empty?”
Answer. The response to the book has actually been fairly positive. People have been saying, “Oh, that’s exactly what I am, I’m exactly like that.”
I’m not telling people not to be optimistic if they are naturally optimistic. And I’m certainly not advocating it to someone who is so pessimistic they stay in bed all day — that’s just mental illness.
I’m just simply trying to say that it takes all kinds of cognitive types in the world — some people are naturally going to want to find the darkness in life.
Q: Was there a moment in your life when you realized you didn’t have to be the eternal optimist?
A: There wasn’t a particular moment. There was just the realization that whether I liked it or not, I couldn’t be optimistic. It was not so much that I didn’t have to be a positive person all the time; it was that I understood myself not to be one of those people.
I was an anxious kid, I was scared of everything. I was a little neurotic, tiny kill-joy. I was prone to bursting into tears of anxiety or fear. I was kind of vibrating with anxiety and wasn’t that pleasant to be around. But what can you do? It was who I was.
Q: Do you still feel those anxieties?
A: Some things have gotten more acute. I think my claustrophobia is far more acute. But other things get mellowed. I used to be rigid with fear at the prospect of walking into a party where I didn’t know anybody. That’s a thing of the past, whereas my claustrophobia is off the charts.
Q: How do you deal with those more acute anxieties on a daily basis?
A: You go through various scenarios, and you work out the details. So I generally try to ride in the front car of the subway, and I always have on my person a pill that I could take.
You never want to be the person on the subway who, should the train stop suddenly, screams, “We’re all going to die,” then soils yourself and passes out. You’d wake up 15 minutes later, the train is moving, and you’re that guy.
Q: When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
A: I was working in publishing and I knew I wanted a creative life of some sort. I was also trying to be an actor, but writing was a lot more sustaining and a lot more fun than speaking in someone else’s words.
Q: Did you write much as a child?
A: I think I did, probably more than the average person. I was very verbal. Language was so important, especially since I was such a tiny kid. My life in that body was far less pronounced than my verbal life.
Q: In the short story “Shrimp” from “Half Empty,” you write of your disillusionment with childhood.
A: In all its attributes, my childhood, I had nothing to complain about. I just didn’t like being a kid. It just wasn’t my thing. Nothing was particularly awful, I just didn’t enjoy it.
Q: There was a moment in “Shrimp” that did seem pretty awful.
A: When the drama teacher said that I was too small [to be in the play]? That was horrible. I thought being a teenager was awful. I hated the lack of autonomy. I hated the lack of power.
Q: When did things shift?
A: It was gradual and incremental. It was marvelous to move to New York at age 17 in ’82 to go to college. But then even my 20s were marked by crappy day jobs and a bout of illness. But simultaneously there were deep, wonderful n n n from 4b
friendships and mo-ments of screaming laughter.
Q: You previously documented the Hodgkin’s disease of your 20s and in “Half Empty” you write of you more recent bout with cancer (malignant peripheral nerve sheath sarcoma, likely caused by the previous radiation). Are you in remission?
A: It doesn’t work that way with this particular cancer. I’m currently undergoing chemo, so I go home [from the book tour] on weekends and have chemo. So far so good, my body is tolerating the chemo and my lungs remain clear. I’d obviously rather not be in chemo right now, but it’s not that bad.
Q: How does Judaism influence your writing?
A: My first book [“Fraud”] was translated into German because [it was] perceived to be such a Jewish book. [Rakoff told Tablet magazine that many Germans were fascinated with “what they perceived as my Jewish sensibility.”] I realized what they were responding to was my very Jewish way of writing. I feel like [my Jewishness] comes off the page, every page.
Q: Were you raised in religious household?
A: Not at all. I went to Hebrew day school where I had to take Hebrew and Yiddish, but it was not a kosher school. We read the Bible, the Torah, but strictly in a literary way. It was a good old Bundist labor–style Hebrew day school in Toronto. I didn’t keep kosher then, and I still don’t.
What I’ve really been enjoying recently is seeing my friends’ kids’ bar mitzvahs. I find the ritual of it interesting, and the longstanding tradition. I find it quite moving to see people I care about up there, including my siblings’ kids.
Q: How many nieces and nephews do you have?
A: Three nephews and a niece. We’ve had two bar mitzvahs already, and have one bar and one bat to go. They’re nice family affairs. I did the invitations, my mother makes the tallises — she embroiders them — and my sister does all the cooking. My brother-in-law plays music at the services.