Pirates in Brighton: A Chat with Author Matthue Roth
I met Matthue Roth when I was eight years old. It was Shabbos Chanukah, and Chabad of San Fran was jammed packed. Among the other curious members of the shul, was a guy with long Payis and even longer hair. He was sitting at one of the tables on Friday night, rapping about driedels and maidels. Who would have thought that twelve years later, Matthue’s review would be on the inside cover of Shattered Illusions?
How old were you when your first piece was published?
For me, there wasn’t one single moment where I was, you know, published, so much as there were stages. In high school, I typed up and printed and stapled my own little underground magazines with my stories. Then I started giving stories to other magazines, other people who were doing the same thing. At first, it was just magazines that my friends were putting together. Then it was magazines that I thought were huge but that nobody else had heard of. I still hadn’t placed any short stories in “legitimate” magazines when Scholastic decided to publish Never Mind the Goldbergs. We were writing my bio for the back of the book, and I told my editor, David Levithan, exactly that. “Who cares?” he said, and he listed, as my sole publishing credit, “a bunch of underground magazines you’ve probably never heard of.”
Do you find that your work is semi autobiographical or based on real events, or is as far from your personal life as possible?
I hate the phrase “emotionally autobiographical” — it sounds like someone making excuses for lying — but i think that’s what it is for me. Goldbergs was about a girl who’d grown up Orthodox and stars on a TV show. I’m not a girl, and I didn’t grow up Orthodox at all. But the idea of the story, of being Orthodox and having a really intense relationship with G-d, and with your rituals, but not in the way that everyone expects an Orthodox Jew to act — that’s the autobiographical truth of the story for me.
What was your greatest writing ‘success?’
Oh, man. Everything I do. Of course, that means everything is also a failure. My new picture book, My First Kafka, was just profiled in the New Yorker. That was awesome, especially that the writer understood that I really did write it for kids; it wasn’t just a joke. But that’s essentially just a weird status thing. This doesn’t sound true, but every time someone reads one of my stories, that’s my greatest success. That’s being a writer. That’s exactly what I want to happen to my stories.
What advice would you give to someone starting in a literary field?
Do something else! I’m kind of serious. The more you rely on writing to be your career, the harder it will be to write something that’s full of heart and poison and honest emotion and all the things that great stories have. I never have enough time to write — I have a day job and kids. It’s hard to squeeze in writing. But my whole day, I’m looking forward to that hour that I do get to write. And, when I write, it’s not something that I think the New Yorker will buy; it’s something that I’d want to buy.
Tell us a little bit about the other projects you are involved in.
By day, I’m a video game designer. It’s a day job, but it’s a pretty amazing one. In general, I think writers need to stop thinking of themselves as writers and embrace the fact that everyone needs words written. I write, but I’m writing ideas for adventure games and I’m describing art to these incredible pro artists who take my ideas and draw them. I also co-created a video series called G-dcast, and I wrote a feature film, 1/20.
How has being an Orthodox Jew influenced your writing? Do you think it has an effect on your overall readership?
You know, I’m not really sure. In some way, it influences everything I do — large parts of Candy in Action, my not-overtly-Jewish-at-all novel (it’s about supermodels who know kung-fu) were written while I was learning a lot of Gemara Sanhedrin, and it plays together, but you probably wouldn’t be able to tell just by reading it. I like it that way. It’s like, we suck in ideas and we spit out ideas, but in the in-between time, when the ideas are just in our heads, digesting, they can take on completely new attributes or evolutions.
As for my readers, I’m not sure at all. I hear from a bunch of Orthodox people who read my stuff, as well as some people who are interested in Judaism but aren’t Jewish themselves. Then there’s people who come across me in a totally non-Jewish context, and when they find Jewish stuff in my work, it’s almost like reading science fiction.
What can you tell us about your current project (s)?
I’m writing a novel about New York, and pirates, and it’s sort of a revenge story, and it’s also a little bit magical. It’s about old Jewish men who live near Brighton Beach. At first it was weird — I’m basically a teenager inside my head, and most of the stories I tell are about teenagers. But it actually fits really well: both ages are kind of outside social expectations and rules. Both groups don’t care what other people think of them. And you get to sleep as late as you want.
What are your creative outlets outside of writing, if any?
I’m not really sure if I have any?
Do you have a daily writing routine? If so, what is it?
I have two kids and a fairly demanding job that I love. It’s hard to find time to cram it in. My only writing time is on the train, going to and from work. I use a small stapled paper notebook. I stand up. I usually try to brace myself against a wall or a door of the subway. It sounds awful, but it’s really amazing — no phone reception, nobody I know around to distract me. It’s a solid hour and a half of writing. But I make sure that entire hour and a half is filled with writing.
Who is your favorite author? (You can list more than one). How has their work influenced yours?
Right now, I’m going crazy on Haruki Murakami. His last novel, 1Q84, is a really simple love story where the characters in love don’t actually interact until the last pages. A large part of the book is about one of the main characters, who’s an assassin, coming to believe in G-d. It’s really unexpected and it’s really tangential to the plot, but it’s a crucial part of the character. It’s so hard to write about G-d. It’s writing about a relationship with someone who, well, doesn’t necessarily answer you in revealed ways. But that’s what we do as writers, right? We’re always looking for the things that nobody else sees.
You can check out Matthue’s work here and here. You can read Matthue’s review of Shattered Illusions here.