Interview: David Rakoff

The author ponders the worst
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  October 13, 2010

Nine years ago, Wellesley College psychology professor Julie Norem wrote a book in defense of negative thinking. At the time, David Rakoff — journalist, essayist, and This American Life regular — went to speak with Norem, and he accidentally taped over her interview. In spite of this mishap, Rakoff's explanation of defensive pessimism landed in the New York TimesMagazine, causing Debbie Downers the world over to rejoice in the knowledge that someone was on their side. Throughout the years, Norem's theory stuck with Rakoff. In his third book, Half Empty (Doubleday), he devotes the opening essay to explaining her work. The rest explores what life is like when you expect the worst. The New Yorker spoke with us from his San Francisco hotel room. He'll be in town this weekend for the Boston Book Festival.

I had this idea that authors go to book festivals because they're held in exotic locations. Is that true?
That seems to undersell the attractions of Boston. Truthfully, I'm paranoid about heat, so the attractions of Copley Square are much greater to me than, say, baking in the sun somewhere.

You say you've quit smoking.  I'm trying to quit. How did you do it?
I can't really remember. I quit various times over the years — it's been well over 10 years since I smoked. I lost my taste for it, and just the fear. It's interesting that you still smoke! So few people smoke! It's not even like you have the opportunities for smoking that we used to have. We used to be able to smoke in the balcony of movie theaters, which was this absolute confluence of so many glamorous and romantic things that were happening. You'd be in the Paris Cinema in New York City, and, obviously, you'd be seeing some arty film, which was already glamorous and fun. Then, you'd be in the balcony smoking, obviously emphasizing your deep sensitivity and ability to understand the material in ways that your fellow moviegoers weren't, and all via cigarette, whose smoke was twining up into the beautiful beam of light projected by the film. It was a very, very romantic thing, but you don't have that anymore.

I remember being so thrilled when I read your 2002 article in theNew York Times Magazine — finally someone had a name for how I think! And I was so excited when you returned to it in the first chapter of your book. Have you been sitting on the idea this whole time?
It took nine years to get around to writing, and I've tried many, many times. I tried, in fact, to write the essay for my last book. That book was about the culture of excess, the unwarranted exuberance of the age; it certainly fit in with that as well. So the piece had been gestating, but it was a bear that was difficult to tackle and wrestle to the ground, and I still don't feel that I necessarily managed to say everything I hoped I might.

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