by Joseph Win­kler

Roy­al Young’s mem­oir, Fame Shark, was pub­lished last month by Heliotrope Books. Read his Vis­it­ing Scribe posts here.

Joseph Win­kler: Your book is a doc­u­ment of, but also appears to serve as a method for your per­son­al growth and change — how has writ­ing this book changed you, whether as a Jew­ish per­son, or just a person?

Roy­al Young: When I start­ed Fame Shark I was still under the spell of this delud­ed, nar­cis­sis­tic idea that it would cat­a­pult me to celebri­ty. The writ­ing of it was the best ther­a­py, a shock of awak­en­ing. In dig­ging into hard truths about my own lone­li­ness and unhap­pi­ness I was able to see the shape of myself. Doing hard work as a jour­nal­ist for The For­ward, Inter­view Mag­a­zine and New York Post for sev­en years, and deal­ing with pover­ty and con­stant rejec­tion forced me to become hap­py with myself as a per­son. Celebri­ty was always a means of escape for me. Yet, wher­ev­er you escape to, you take your­self with you. I think being crushed by life, being forced to deal with the under­ly­ing issues behind a quest for exter­nal grat­i­fi­ca­tion is so healthy — and hon­est­ly saved my life. It’s some­thing we all come up against. Whether it is fame or suc­cess, food or drugs, we all have a crav­ing to get out­side our own lives. The trick is to embrace who we are. That is the only true way of get­ting out of it.

The most impor­tant part of being a Jew for me has always been the idea that ques­tion­ing, con­stant­ly chal­leng­ing and explor­ing cul­tur­al norms is impor­tant. I think when we believe we have noth­ing left to learn, that is when our souls die. 

JW: You apt­ly cap­ture the wild­ness and almost insan­i­ty of the now famed Low­er East Side. Do you miss that crazi­ness at all, do you feel that you live, and per­haps the NYC world lives a more sub­dued life since that time? 

RY: I know it is insane to be nos­tal­gic for wav­ing hi to hook­ers on my way to kinder­garten and junkies col­lapsed in pud­dles of their own piss, but there it is. I can’t help but miss my youth and the city as it was. There def­i­nite­ly was a wild­ness, but also beau­ty to pas­tel col­ored murals by Chico, sneak­ers dan­gling from street­lights and hydrants blast­ing jets of end­less water into sum­mer streets. 

I also yearn for his­to­ry. My grand­par­ents grew up in the Low­er East Side of the 1930’s when it was an East­ern Euro­pean shtetl trans­plant. This sense of con­nect­ed­ness to a shared past is gone. All of New York feels like a mall to me now. Every cor­ner is now a Duane Reade, Chase Bank or 7 – 11. I don’t hate it. It’s just bor­ing. New York feels so san­i­tized now. 

JW: When all is said and done, does fame mean any­thing to you any­more? Do you feel a cur­rent affin­i­ty for it? Do you think it has any val­ue, at all, this pur­suit of fame you so elo­quent­ly document? 

RY: Not real­ly. It depress­es me hon­est­ly. Suc­cess as an artist is still impor­tant to me. Get­ting my work to a wide audi­ence, sure. And I do think there are so many writ­ers and artists who deserve more expo­sure than they get. But Fame Shark is in many ways a satire. I think it’s pret­ty obvi­ous that fame can make peo­ple utter­ly mis­er­able, even suicidal.

Our cul­ture is so obsessed with rais­ing peo­ple on pedestals, invad­ing their pri­va­cy, exploit­ing their inse­cu­ri­ties. In an Amer­i­ca racked by pover­ty and a world wrecked by cli­mate change I com­plete­ly under­stand the escapism of Hol­ly­wood. But it is pret­ty clear­ly dam­ag­ing to the humans we pro­mote to demi-god sta­tus through tabloid wor­ship and real­i­ty tele­vi­sion. I crave some­thing deeper. 

JW: Per­haps one of the great­est shifts in the pub­lish­ing world has been the rise of mem­oirs of trau­ma and desire as opposed to mem­oirs of accom­plish­ment — i.e., young peo­ple are writ­ing mem­oirs at the begin­ning of their lives as opposed to peo­ple writ­ing mem­oirs after they’ve accom­plished some­thing. Do you see this as significant? 

RY: Absolute­ly. I think both are equal­ly impor­tant in dif­fer­ent ways. To look back on and reflect on a life gives incred­i­ble per­spec­tive. But my hope is that young mem­oirs of tur­moil, cau­tion­ary con­fes­sions about strug­gling youth are more help­ful to the youth that still strug­gle. As a frus­trat­ed young per­son, read­ing the rev­e­la­tions of writ­ers I could relate to helped me under­stand I was­n’t alone. Fame Shark is a book for any age, but my great­est inspi­ra­tion is when par­ents come up to me after a read­ing and say ” My kid is going through some­thing sim­i­lar right now and I want to get the book for them. I think it will help my child.” 

JW: Instead of ask­ing the clas­sic ques­tion about see­ing your­self as a Jew­ish writer, or not, I would rather ask how you see the rela­tion­ship between your Judaism and your writ­ing, in your life and in your book? 

RY: Being a Jew for me is about explo­ration. It’s about pur­su­ing cre­ativ­i­ty and being your­self despite per­se­cu­tion, no mat­ter what the odds. Obvi­ous­ly prej­u­dice is most­ly — though not com­plete­ly — removed from my life expe­ri­ence, but com­ing from an immi­grant fam­i­ly, I always iden­ti­fied as an out­sider. Being the only Jew amongst my class­mates until junior high school rein­forced this. 

As a writer, I explore what I know, what I was brought up in. That is a cul­ture of fight­ers, sur­vivors, peo­ple who want­ed to escape their old-world pasts into an Amer­i­can future that promised bright­ness, inclu­sion, but more often brought pain, exclu­sion, sad­ness. It’s about push­ing past that. Not through reli­gion, but through spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and a con­nec­tion to my roots. 

JW: There’s an elec­tric, almost kinet­ic ener­gy to your fast-paced book, much of which comes from your writ­ing style, but some of which comes from the sub­ject mat­ter of youth chas­ing fame. How do you, in your writ­ing, and in your life, find a bal­ance between what we might call the rel­a­tive­ly bor­ing sta­bil­i­ty of adult­hood and the fre­net­ic and exper­i­men­tal ener­gy of youth? 

RY: Thank you. I’m still fig­ur­ing that out. 

JW: Look­ing back now, is there any advice you would like for young Roy­al Young to know? 

RY: Patience. All that cliche bull­shit that is actu­al­ly true wis­dom: that it is about the jour­ney, not the end. That there is a time for every­thing. And humil­i­ty is a huge one. When you’re unhap­py with your­self I think you’re so much quick­er to trump your­self up, to self-glo­ri­fy, to be mean. Kind­ness comes with lov­ing your­self. I hurt myself for so long because I did­n’t believe I was worth much more. The hard­est thing I’ve ever had to do is admit how lost I was, how much I need­ed love and time. Let your­self know what you know. The hard­er I work, the luck­i­er I get.

Joseph Win­kler is a free­lance writer liv­ing in New York City. He writes for Vol. 1 Brook­lyn, The Huff­in­g­ton Post, Jew­cy, and oth­er sites. While not writ­ing, Joe is get­ting a Mas­ters in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture at City Col­lege. To sup­port his extrav­a­gant lifestyle, Joe also tutors and unabashed­ly babysits. Check out his blog at nocon​ver​sa​tion​left​be​hind​.blogspot​.com.

Joseph Win­kler is a free­lance writer liv­ing in New York City. He writes for Vol1Brooklyn, The Huff­in­g­ton Post, Jew­cy, and oth­er sites. While not writ­ing, Joe is get­ting a Mas­ters in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture at City Col­lege. To sup­port his extrav­a­gant lifestyle, Joe also tutors and unabashed­ly babysits. Check out his blog at nocon​ver​sa​tion​left​be​hind​.blogspot​.com.