When Matt Rothschild was just a baby, his mother abandoned him to be raised by his grandparents.
Sounds like the windup for a sad story, but it wasn't that sad. His Rothschild grandparents — yes, those Rothschilds — brought him up in their 19-room apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York's ritzy Upper East Side. They had servants, Van Goghs, even a white limousine for summer and a black one for winter. They were warm, funny, fascinating people to boot.
But even a rich kid can struggle, and Rothschild did, getting tossed out of several schools and trying for years to come to terms with his homosexuality and his very long-distance relationship with his mother.
Rothschild writes about all that with humor and insight in his new memoir, Dumbfounded: Big Money. Big Hair. Big Problems. Or Why Having It All Isn't for Sissies (Crown, $23.95).
We talked to Rothschild, who will appear today at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading, by phone from his home in the Orlando area.
Why did you decide to publish a memoir — a genre more commonly written by older authors — at age 27?
Part of the reason I do the work I do (as a writer) is that I'm just so terribly self-absorbed. I feel terribly guilty about it, but it's true. I'm trying to teach myself to write a novel, but I'm having such trouble because I'm not in the story.
I taught myself to write using really great books, and one that made a big impression on me was David Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day. . . . We all have these kinds of stories, but what made it work was his voice. I had all these great anecdotes, but I had to figure out how to use them to describe a larger picture.
You've gone from a very privileged lifestyle to teaching public school. Was that a difficult adjustment?
It's an urban high school in Orlando, about 70 percent Hispanic, about 20 percent African-American or Haitian, a small percent Asian and the smallest percentage is white.
The first day, I was looking at their vocabulary words. At my schools, the vocabulary words were, like, "anachronistic" and "deciduous." Theirs are words like "chlamydia" and "prophylactic." I thought, we're not in Kansas anymore.
Many of my students have read the book. I was kind of nervous about it, but their reactions have been terrifically positive. I got an e-mail from one former student, telling me how he had read the book all in one sitting and how incredibly moved he was.
You write about how much you and your grandmother loved watching movies together. How would you cast a movie of Dumbfounded?
Well, the most obvious, logical choice for my grandmother would be Lauren Bacall.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.