Interview with Harvey Rowe,
conducted by email between
May 2nd and 5th, 1998
Note: a few details have been edited out to protect the privacy of certain people.
The earliest copy of theFossil Barbie story I could find was dated March 1994. When did you write the article? How many people did you email it to in the initial period?
I wrote it one day at the end of February, 1994. I emailed it to five or six friends. I knew Tucker was sending some of the stuff I wrote on to others but never anticipated anything like this.
According to data I gathered, the Fossil Barbie story started to achieve some wide distribution in late 1995. Can you recall when you first realized that the story had taken on a life of its own?
We moved from Charleston to Virginia in the fall of '95. A few months later Txxxxx emailed me to tell me that he'd been sent it by someone to whom he'd never sent it. Then Bill, my boss at Txxxx you talked to got it, several other friends I've made here got it, etc. It seems to have achieved critical mass around that time, and there was some evidence people were taking it seriously, despite the many hints that it was written with humorous intent. Shortly after that I did a search on my name and found it on about 100 websites, which surprised the hell out of me.
Many people have speculated about the story being based on some real life news stories that appeared in print in various cities over a number of years. Were you inspired by any particular story?
No, it was all totally fabricated. Sometimes I get an idea and things just flow like that.
Do you have an interest in archaeology and/or paleontology? Have you ever gone digging in your backyard? Did you invent the pseudo-scientific terms used in the story?
I've always been interested in Archeology, Paleoanthropology and Paleontology since I was a kid, and I like reading the popular non-technical books on the subjects. "Lucy" by Donald Johanson, for example, and guys like Richard Leakey and David Attenborough and the paleontologist with the long hair and the hat. It isn't hard to pick up the jargon from books like that and documentaries on TLC and the Discovery Channel.
I did invent the pseudo-scientific terms used in the story. The obsessed character in the story digging up his back yard is someone slightly further divorced from reality than I am right now. But he's like me in that he knows just enough about paleontology jargon to mount a case for a dog-chewed Barbie head and a Sears Craftsman wrench to be fossils.
The surprising thing to me is that I think I screwed up on the criteria for carbon dating and in putting the Pliocene period at two million years ago. I have no idea if any of that is right and I still haven't looked it up in four years, so I suspect it isn't. As far as I can tell no one has complained about those technical details. I also have no idea if the interior of a Barbie doll head will contain 9cc's of water. I'm guessing it might but I'm as much an authority about that as I am about the rest.
Have you seen some of the press coverage of the story -- Washington Post, Denver Post, ABC Nightline. How does it feel to have these major media all claiming that you don't exist?
I saw the Post article. I've talked email with Claire Martin who wrote the Denver Post piece.
I haven't seen the ABC Nightline stuff. I'd like to request a tape if you could point me at the date. It would impress the kids.
As for the media claiming I don't exist, that obviously is in context with being an employee of the Smithsonian, and I've never been one. I'm fairly certain I exist; at least I'm willing to entertain the notion. If it turns out that I don't then you should probably feel a little spooky reading this.
Please describe yourself so that readers of this interview will know you're a real person.
I'm a 42 year old Emergency Room physician turned computer nerd. I'm widowed with two boys, aged 8 and 10. I apparently have the power to cloud minds.
How long did you live in Charleston, South Carolina?
We lived there from 1990 to 1995. I was going back to school to get an MS from the Department of Biometry and Epidemiology at the Medical University of South Carolina. Before that we lived in North Carolina where I practiced medicine. I never enjoyed medicine, and when my wife got sick I went through a mid-life crisis kind of early.
Did you realize that the name "Charleston" is one of the most common local names in the United States. There are numerous towns and counties named Charleston in this country. Just like the TV show Simpsons being set in "Springfield", your placing the writer in Charleston County allows many people around the country to identify the story as local to them.
Actually, my children attended Springfield Elemetary in Charleston. It's actually named that.
Do you regret signing your own name to the story? Has the story had any impact on your life (either online or offline)? Has any stranger who sees your name (bank teller, UPS delivery person, store clerk, etc.) asked you about the Fossil Barbie story?
I don't regret signing my name to it at all. It was a spur of the moment decision at the time. I didn't usually do that for the stuff I was writing then. I'm not sure why I did it in that case, aside from the fact that I absolutely cracked myself up writing it, and was proud of it.
Have you ever been to the Smithsonian? Have you seen their press release denying the story?
I've been several times. It's great. I understand that I've inadvertently caused some pain at the Smithsonian over the letter, and the quantity of inquiries about it apparently became irksome. I'm sorry about that.
The subtext of the Fossil Barbie story shows the curator to be a sensitive, caring person, with a wry sense of humor. Would this describe you or just your fictional persona?
I'm not sure about describing the curator as sensitive and caring, given what he says. He's a sarcastic man having his fun in his dealings with an idiot, and wanting more in a proposed visit. I don't really see him as a nice man.
Yes, normal people see the letter as sarcastic, but the tone of the letter is vaguely reminiscent of the calm and soothing words said to Blanche Dubois in "Streetcar Named Desire" just before she is put in a straitjacket. The letter treats the "backyard archaeologist" gently -- he is immune to sarcasm and humor. The letter never directly discourages him from continuing to submit his specimens.
I guess I can see the "archaeologist" being immune to sarcasm. I guess there are advantages to being clueless.
You have posted to medical listservs about your frustrations with the medical profession. While working as an emergency room doctor did you encounter people who were as clueless as your "backyard archaeologist"?
Well, sure, but anyone who is in a service industry dealing with the public has run across their share of clueless people. It gets worse in Emergency Medicine because when the clueless have what they think is something bad happening to them they tend to wind up being clueless, loud, and in the ER.
Some of your online postings show that you have a well developed sense of humor. Have you written other humorous pieces? Have you also sent them out to your friends by email?
Thank you. You're apparently referring to the Emergency Medicine stuff and maybe the bonsai stuff.
I've written lots of shorts. The Smithsonian piece is probably the best. I've never in my life laughed so hard writing something. It's in the back of my mind to approach a publisher some day with a collection.
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Ócopyright EM Ganin, 1998, 2000
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