Writer finds fame a little, well, freaky

Steve Dubner is a literary rock star.

As co-author of 2005's "Freakonomics," the 47-year-old North Carolina expatriate is one of the forces behind the wildly popular franchise that delves into the psychology of economics. It begat a sequel (2009's "Superfreakonomics"), a public-radio show, a documentary movie and numerous public appearances, including one Thursday in Charlotte.

Strangers now recognize Dubner when he's riding the subway home in New York City, which leaves him somewhat aghast.

"It's not like I'm even remotely famous compared to 'real' fame," Dubner says. "But the movie has gotten it to where I get recognized in public pretty regularly, which has become a little uncomfortably weird. The price of fame is interesting to me. Most everybody seems to think being famous would be cool. It would be cool to have the things fame can bring - power, wealth, access. But the actual being-famous part is a nightmare. Right now I have this teeny sliver of recognizability. It will fade soon, and that's good."

There was a time when Dubner was trying to be a literal, not literary, rock star. A quarter-century ago, he played keyboards in a rock band called The Right Profile, fondly remembered as one of the greatest shoulda-been stories in N.C. music history. Local producer Dick Hodgin remembers the band as a great live act - especially the dynamic between Dubner and guitarist Jeffrey Dean Foster.

"Jeff was the serious singer/songwriter - very thoughtful, earnest, sincere," says Hodgin, who worked with The Right Profile in the studio. "Steve was this crazy, almost comic relief - a brash, loud, out-of-control rock singer who was just off the chain on the piano. Then when they'd do things together, it became this third thing. The whole really was greater than the sum of the parts."

Terrible, but then poplar

The Right Profile formed in the early '80s at Appalachian State University - an unusual choice for a kid from New York. But Dubner, the youngest of eight kids in his family, liked Appalachian's rural environs, which reminded him of the farm where he grew up in upstate New York. And after his father died when he was 10, times were tight. ASU offered him a full honors scholarship.

"This was important as I had zero dollars to my name," Dubner says.

Dubner had played in a series of bands in high school, "all of them terrible," and The Right Profile also was terrible at first. But the group improved fast and built a solid following throughout the Southeast.

Dubner's first book, 2000's "Turbulent Souls," recounted one night when a bartender explained why a crowd showered the band with empty beer bottles: "That's what they do sometimes when they're really into the band. When they don't like it, they just find the power cord and rip it out of the wall."

Eventually, record labels got interested, and a bidding war broke out. Arista Records won out, signing The Right Profile in 1986. But the deal soured, and the band never released an album. Dubner decided he'd had enough in 1987, and quit the band to go back to school.

"He'd quit before, and we always talked him back," says Foster, who still performs and records under his own name. "He just always had plenty of other things he could do because he's a smart guy. Playing rock 'n' roll was only one thing for him."

Writing and journalism

Dubner moved to New York and earned a master of fine arts in writing from Columbia University, figuring he'd write novels and teach college. But a teaching fellowship made Dubner realize he didn't want to teach, either. So he went off to write, and found his niche in journalism. Along the way, he married; he and his wife, Ellen Binder, have two children.

As a journalist, writing for The New York Times and other national publications, he spent time in a Chicago prison with the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, and three days in Los Angeles with Steven Spielberg.

The journalism eventually led to books. His first, "Turbulent Souls," a memoir about Dubner's conversion to Judaism, was expanded from a 1996 cover story for The New York Times Magazine. He was working on another book, about behavioral economics, when he interviewed University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt.

Dubner and Levitt decided to write a book together. Thus was born "Freakonomics," a title coined by Levitt's sister.

"She used to work in advertising and publishing, and we gave her the manuscript with a bunch of names that were just horrible," Dubner remembers with a laugh. "She came back with a list of about 200 titles. As soon as we saw 'Freakonomics,' Levitt and I both just laughed because it was so bad, it was great. The publisher was dead-set against it for months. But at the 11th hour, something changed their mind and they agreed to the awful name. It worked."

At the time, Dubner says, he and Levitt had no inkling that "Freakonomics" was going to resonate far beyond the egghead world of economics and enter the pop-culture vernacular. But its quirky worldview and sometimes-controversial methodology (such as linking drops in crime rates to the legalization of abortion) turned the book into a best-selling sensation. It's a must-read at many universities.

"I've been recommending it to my students for quite some time," says Ralph Byrns, an economics professor at UNC Chapel Hill. "In fact, I'm teaching an honors section right now, and I'd say that at least 70 percent of my students have read it. The book's approach is to apply conventional economic analysis to some very unconventional topics to prove all sorts of odd theories. It's brilliant."

The dynamic duo

Levitt does most of the duo's research, while Dubner handles the writing, although there is considerable crossover in their roles. But the solitary part of writing suits Dubner fine. Give him a desk and a typewriter and a phone, he says, and he's good. He even looks writerly - appearing in the film and in promo shots as slightly rumpled, wearing round glasses and a bemused smirk, his mass of unruly hair the only recognizable remains of his days in the band.

Even so, part of Dubner still misses music. He talks wistfully about recently bumping into another of his old Right Profile bandmates, Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster, at the airport in Chicago.

"Jon was on his way somewhere with some band, and I was on my way somewhere to do something 'Freakonomics'-related," Dubner says. "It was great to see him, but also bittersweet. When you're in a band with someone, it's a very intense bond. Something else I miss is that I don't enjoy reading my own writing like I did listening to my own music. Music is transportive emotionally, writing much less so.

"Yeah, in retrospect, I quit music at a pretty stupid time," he concludes. "I do wish I had a record to show for those years of work. But I didn't want to do it anymore. I'm not the kind of person who wants a life where everyone knows who you are wherever you go - or wants to depend on the admiration of others for daily self-worth. As much as I wish I'd made that record, it was still the right move for me."