Almost Famous

For Susan Orlean, there was a day before The Orchid Thief. Julia Alvarez? She once edited a newsletter called Special Reports: Ecology. And James Franco . . . well, let’s just say that not all that long ago, McDonald’s eaters in L.A. were handed bags of Big Macs by a college dropout and future Academy Award nominee. (And let this be a lesson to the kids out there: this successful actor never forgot his scholastic ambitions and is now a PhD candidate at Yale.)

These are just a smattering of the fascinating items revealed in the Days of Yore, a critically and popularly acclaimed website founded and staffed by Middlebury graduates who want to know what life was like for artists before they had “money, fame, or road maps to success.”

Astri von Arbin Ahlander ’07, Lucas Kavner ’06, and Evan Dumouchel ’06 take us behind the scenes and beneath the hood of the Days of Yore.

Walk me through the site’s founding. Was there one eureka moment? Or did this evolve over a series of conversations?

LUCAS I think it came out of being confused and living in New York City after college and looking up interviews with artists I admired and finding that they often skipped this huge chunk of their lives that I was really interested in—the chunk where they weren’t sure how to play the game quite yet. Most interviews I was reading would say, like: “I was just waiting tables, totally broke, and then all of a sudden I was starring in Die Hard!” And I wanted to know details about the struggle period. So I was walking with Astri one day, and I brought up the idea for an interview site, and she really liked it, too.

ASTRI To be entirely frank, that walk took place on a dark street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when Lucas and I were on our way to or from a neighborhood party—one of those hazy post-college get-togethers where an impossible amount of NESCAC grads squeeze together in an impossibly small apartment. When Lucas told me about the website idea, I turned to him and said, “So, just do it.” He mumbled something about, how would we get people to agree to be interviewed? I kept up my pushy routine and said, “No excuses. Just ask.” The next day, there was an e-mail in my inbox from Lucas, who wondered, since I was so cocky, if I was interested in starting a site like that with him. I said I was. Definitely. Lucas and I brainstormed a few interesting people, and we just asked them. They all said yes. That was the beginning of the wave of positivity that we have been riding ever since. We just ask. And people just say yes. Not all of the time, but an overwhelmingly large part of the time.

I think that is a testament to the fact that the DoY idea is a good one—one that people want to support—but it also shows that, perhaps contrary to popular opinion, successful people are often fundamentally kind and willing to help young artists. At first, Lucas and I opted for a simple Tumblr platform. But after a few months, we realized we were going to need to up the ante a little on the technical side. So, I reached out to Evan, who was a friend of ours from Middlebury. Evan is a talented computer maverick, and I thought maybe he would be willing to help us a little. He did more than help a little; he came on board.

EVAN The subject line of the e-mail was, in classically flattering Astri style, “As luck would have it; or the day we remembered there was a computer genius in our midst.” I wasn’t one, but I guess I had kept up enough of the act in college to have convinced somebody I was. I figured this whole project they had started was about figuring it out, so I did, and just kept figuring. It started with retooling their old site, but before I knew it, I couldn’t walk away from the project. I woke up, many cups of coffee later, having pored through all this content, built a completely new website, and had it ready to go if they said the word.

So, how to do you go about selecting people to be interviewed?

ASTRI In the beginning, the selection was often determined by whom we had some sort of personal connection to. Could we find their e-mail? Did we know someone who knew them?

LUCAS Yeah, for a while we didn’t have to connect any publicists or agents or anything like that, it was just us looking at the people we could get connected with.

ASTRI I did a lot of research, read all their books, and wrote them long, personal e-mails detailing why I was a genuine fan of their work or why I thought their story would suit the site specifically. I still write personal e-mails and do as much research as possible, but now the whole process has gotten easier because we have this incredible archive to refer to. It’s easier to ask an artist for an interview when you can say that you’ve interviewed Marina Abramovic. Or to approach some legendary writer when you can refer to your recent conversation with E. L. Doctorow. That doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult.

LUCAS I’ve definitely been turned down a bunch, especially by actors and directors early on. They seemed more skeptical of the press than writers. Also Jonathan Franzen, who still will not let me interview him, however hard I try.

Who was your first interview?

ASTRI The very first person I interviewed, and the first interview to be published on the site, was the writer Gary Shteyngart. He is a phenomenal writer; I’ve always loved his work. He was also my teacher at Columbia where I was getting my MFA in writing. Gary is one of those incredibly generous and accessible people. He didn’t hesitate, even though the site didn’t actually exist yet.

LUCAS Mine was Kristen Schaal, a comedian and performer I’d done some improv with in New York, and she was starting to get big at the time. Now she’s everywhere: she’s a Daily Show correspondent, she just had a big part on 30 Rock, and she’s in a bunch of movies.

EVAN My first interview was with Patrick Fischler, a friend of mine and also an actor. I think it was important to have a softball interview as my first, and I was still completely nervous. Once the interview got going, as they often do, it took on a life of its own, and I didn’t look at my list of questions once.

Most difficult?

ASTRI Do you mean most difficult to do or to get? I have to say that I’ve never had a bad interview experience. One that I thought was going to go terribly at first, though, was when I interviewed James Franco. He came 20 minutes late to the Starbucks where we were meeting, and he started out by basically telling me he didn’t want to be there. His assistant had said I would get 15 minutes, and his attitude made me fear I’d hardly get that. We ended up talking for an hour. And he warmed up. In the end, the interview was just great. As for the most difficult one to get, Marina Abramovic was pretty tough. I spent nearly a year trying first to track and then pin her down. In the end, I flew to New York from Stockholm to see her (terrified that she would cancel at the last minute!), and it was worth everything. The most difficult one to get, though, I’m still trying to get. It’s been nearly two years. I haven’t given up. I’m close. And I’m really, really stubborn.

LUCAS I’ve only had lovely interview experiences with the people we’ve featured. Honestly, nobody’s been very difficult at all. As far as difficult to get, I’ll go back to the Franzen Problem. I’ve e-mailed that guy so many times over the years that now he almost seems used to it. He’ll just write, “Hi Lucas. I’m sorry. Please keep trying.” Though he was nice enough to include me on his mass e-mail when he changed his e-mail address. So maybe he enjoys my persistence.

ASTRI That’s hilarious. Never stop trying.

Of all the people you’ve interviewed, who has the craziest Days of Yore story?

ASTRI Oh, so many. The photographer Thomas Roma stands out. His story is just so crazy, and his completely uncompromising attitude is both unnerving and inspiring. He was kicked out of high school for starting a fight. Then he got a job at 16 on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Then he was hit by a truck and sustained a serious brain injury. While recovering, he had to sit very still in his bed. All he could do was look out the window. His brother gave him a camera, and he started taking photos out the window. That changed everything. When he recovered, he quit a very successful career on Wall Street, embraced near total poverty, and unflinchingly pursued his dream of being an art photographer.

EVAN Thomas Roma was one that floored me, absolutely. His seems like so many different lives. A recent interview that Lucas did with actor and musician Jake La Botz seemed the most like what I’d imagine a movie version of the Days of Yore would entail. Jake’s story just read the way I’d expect a tortured, searching artist’s story to unravel—complete with drug dens, Bret Easton Ellis-styled Los Angeles, and long roads to redemption.

Ok, if you can interview anyone you want for the Days of Yore, who would it be?

EVAN I’d love to interview Martin Scorsese. That would blow my mind. I always want to know about a director’s journey from the first films that resonate so much (like Mean Streets with Scorsese) and how that journey winds, meanders, relates to their lives as they go on. That’s a goal of mine, to get more director interviews.

ASTRI Such a dream interview! Scorsese, definitely. I’d also love to interview Wes Anderson. I adore his style, the films he has made, the way he works. And Meryl Streep—what a woman. Also, Toni Morrison. And Tomas Tranströmer, but I’m afraid I’m too late for that.

Last question, but it’s a two-parter. It’s 20 years in the future, and you’re being interviewed for the Days of Yore (yes, it still exists in some form). First, what do you tell readers about your “days of yore,” your first steps starting out on the road to success? And, two, what does success look like 20 years from now? How will you define success?

ASTRI Wow, that’s a big question.

LUCAS That is very large, yes.

When I interview artists, I often ask what they would tell their younger selves that they think it would have benefitted them to know. In 20 years, I think I would tell my younger self to stop doubting herself so much. I am constantly wracked by self-doubt! But, like pretty much all of the DoY interviews show, this 20-something in-between time is somehow meant to be full of doubt. Am I doing the right thing? Making the right choices? Where will all these small, incomprehensible steps lead me? Like Steve Jobs said, you can’t connect the dots going forward, only looking back.

I interviewed a wonderful writer yesterday who said that, yes, the goal was always to publish books. But in the end, success for her is not actually that her work exists in print or that she has won a bunch of awards, but that she is able to take the image she has in her head and render it on the page.

EVAN Oh God, that seems like such an easy answer—it isn’t. But the first thought that came into my head was do more. Think less. Just do more. Our 20s can be a time of navel-gazing introspection. I would love to reach back in time, tilt my head upwards, move my legs forward, and just do. I would absolutely worry less about making the right choices and just commit to making choices, period.

LUCAS For so many of the people I’ve interviewed, their 20s represent this big, long blur of a decade, where all the events got lumped together, and they were throwing lots of things out there, seeing what stuck. That’s been the most helpful advice—realizing that every artist was deeply confused about something. Every artist wondered how they were going to pay bills early on, even once they started becoming well known. I’ve been lucky these past few years (or screwed, depending on how you look at it) in that I’ve been able to make a living doing lots of different things that I like doing, without thinking of those things in respect to a long-term, ultimate goal. I guess I’m still trying to figure out what “success” means to me. The one thing I do know is that it means owning seven white tigers.

EVAN As far as my definition of success goes, if I’m still acting, it will be when I’m getting the calls asking me to play a part instead of the other way around. In general, to be able to do whatever I love at an expert level will be enough. A sense of mastery in whatever it is I’ve chosen to do at that time will be successful in my book. To put a finer point on it, when I “know” instead of “think I know,” then I’ll define that as a success.

ASTRI But don’t you think the over 100 DoY interviews so far show that even the most successful artists never stop feeling like they don’t quite know? Which I guess, in a way, is comforting in and of itself.

EVAN You’re totally right. I’ll settle for knowing one thing, and seven white tigers.

LUCAS Nobody Ever Really Knows What They’re Doing: The Days of Yore Story.

ASTRI Publishers, come get it.

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