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Celebrity, Judaism, and the Lower East Side: An Interview with Royal Young

Thursday, July 25, 2013 | Permalink
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 noconversationleftbehind.blogspot.com.

Crossing Delancey: Royal Young on Lee Brozgold

Thursday, June 13, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Royal Young discussed his decision to change his nameinterviewed his grandparents, and wrote about his parents' reaction to his debut memoir Fame Shark. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My father's artwork was always how I made sense of the world around me. The sometimes scary, ghetto Lower East Side I grew up in was beautiful, interesting and safe when shaded by his paints. His devotion to his artwork, but also creative, compassionate parenting inspired me early on to pursue my own artistic passions. I would sit in Dad's sun drenched studio dictating stories about suicidal whales before I could write.

Dad encouraged my taste for tragedy and drama by reading me bedtime stories beyond my years. With me in the cozy crook of his flannel arm, under soft yellow lamps he turned the pages and read ten year-old me Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham, Dickens’s Great Expectations and Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain. These guilty, lonely, decadent, sexual stories were a dazzling escape from the Lower East Side of the early ‘90s. They infuse my writing to this day.

I also got my fascination for celebrity from my artist father. He was intrigued by what fame stood for; the levels of luxury, artistic recognition and happiness Americans believed it could get you. Yet, his was an outsider’s stance. He felt more comfortable around the edges. The works which gained him newspaper write-ups and radio interviews were skull shaped masks of American conservatives, people he felt propagated the unfair conservation of money and power. These death heads, wildly colorful in papier-mâché ranged from Nancy Reagan and George Bush Senior to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Andy Warhol.

And though, as a wild teenager I would throw myself right into this celebrity world my father so mistrusted, it was the loving foundation he had laid for me that ultimately saved me. There is always a dance between an artist’s ego as projected into their work and their own personal feelings of self-worth. Dad taught me that family was the most important grounding influence and throughout my young career as a writer it has been family that has constantly inspired me and brought me back down to earth when old streaks of megalomaniacal mad artistry threatened to take over my true sense of self.

Though, it hadn’t helped to often be my father’s model as a child. Seeing myself front and center both in the work of the Dad I loved but also hanging on gallery walls and public murals all over New York City was a heady experience; a seductive taste of celebrity that would later completely consume me.

Here, my mother, younger brother and I walk across Delancey Street: 

My father took the photograph and had a monument modeled after the Eifel Tower superimposed in the background. This was part of a proposal by community artists to create ambitious pieces for the Lower East Side. My father’s idea was for a massive memorial dedicated to the lives of Jewish immigrant women lost in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. These were more innocent days, pre-gentrification when the whole world didn’t dream of adulation.

Royal Young's debut memoir Fame Shark will be released June 2013 from Heliotrope Books. Young contributes to Interview Magazine, New York Post, BOMB Magazine and The Lo Down.

From Shtetl to Star: A Jewish Tradition of Changing Names

Wednesday, June 12, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Royal Young interviewed his grandparents and wrote about his parents' reaction to his debut memoir Fame Shark. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I changed my name from Hazak Brozgold to Royal Young when I was 20 years old. I was a drunk college drop-out who had moved back into my parent's Lower East Side apartment with big, unrealistic dreams and a drinking habit too large for my childhood bedroom. Getting rid of my hard to pronounce Hebrew name felt like a step toward escaping my youth and my disapproving Jewish parents. My moniker had set me apart in classrooms and the ghetto downtown streets I'd grown up in. The Lower East Side of my youth was broken glass on uneven sidewalks, fast domino games, sneakers hanging from streetlights, Hip Hop blasting bass heavy from car windows. My grandparent's days, when the neighborhood was an Eastern European shtetl transplant, were long gone. My parents had literally missed the boat.

They named me Hazak Brozgold to make up for it. Hazak means "strong" in Hebrew. But I always felt weak. A shy, quiet bookworm I shrank from the rough streets around me, finding escape in making my neuropsychologist mom administer me Rorsach tests instead of going on play dates, or painting crude canvasses with my artist/social worker father in his cluttered studio.

Perhaps I escaped too much into my parents. By 20, I wanted to run away from them and hide behind dive bars where they couldn't reach me or speak the slurred language.

Yet, what started out as a pompous challenge—changing my name to Royal Young (my younger brother changed his name to Fury Young in a show of stubborn solidarity)—strangely allowed me to become closer to my parents and my Hebrew heritage. I took to Royal naturally. I was used to sticking out. I cut down on drinking and started getting published under my new byline. Small articles that didn’t pay my rent but made me feel, for the first time in my life, able to provide for myself. I was more comfortable with a name that people pinned to a profession rather than a religion.

There are legions of Jews who have changed their names to take on larger than life careers in writing, acting, as artists. Taking on an identity that encouraged success seemed like a rite of passage to join this group of my fellow tribesmen and women. I began to wonder if picking your own persona had less to do with disguising your heritage and more to do with finding a shield to deal with the more unpleasant aspects of making your work public. Countless rejection, hate mail, harsh editing, scrutiny when my pieces were published, Royal took them all in stride. I’m not sure if Hazak would have been able to.

I also relished having a part of me that was private. My parents would never stop calling me Hazak. The way it tripped off my grandparents tongues was with the “Ch” Hebrew pronunciation at the beginning. I loved being able to catch up with my parents over weekly dinners and be reminded, simply by the name they had so lovingly given me, that I had a healthy, whole, strong family to support me when work became overwhelming.

It’s been eight years since I started calling myself Royal. Only this year, with the publication of Fame Shark, did I change my passport. The change is about coming into my own, accepting the past, but pushing forward. It’s not about shame, or leaving my roots behind. It’s a decision Hazak made. One he is finally ready to fully be proud of.

Royal Young's debut memoir Fame Shark will be released June 2013 from Heliotrope Books. Young contributes to Interview Magazine, New York Post, BOMB Magazine and The Lo Down.

Famous Roots: An Interview With My Babbi and Zayde

Tuesday, June 11, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Royal Young wrote about his parents' reaction to his debut memoir Fame Shark. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

My maternal grandmother fought to escape her Lower East Side. My Babbi was born in 1932 and raised on Pitt Street and Houston, a few blocks from where I would grow up years later. She was the daughter of Orthodox Austrian immigrants who came through Ellis Island in 1919 with thousands of other displaced Jews, gazing in awe at the Statue of Liberty from the steerage deck of a third-class freighter.

The Lower East Side of the ’30s was an Eastern European shtetl transplant, an unruly Jewish village struggling through the end of the Depression. Its tenements teemed with immigrants who practiced wild customs—matchmaking, interpreting prophesies from dreams— that they’d imported with silver menorahs hidden under rags during the ocean passage.

My handsome grandfather had a bachelor pad on Henry Street before he was a Zayde. They met when he taught my Babbi art and their hearts filled over many hours developing photographs in dim darkrooms. Images of her from that time are coy and striking, he bold and laughing. Their eyes gleam for adventure, conquest, love, glory, knowledge.

To this day my grandparents teach me about loving fully, they have always fully believed in my writing, encouraged me to pursue it no matter what the odds. In a career filled with rejection, this fighting spirit buoyed me. Their beautiful old home in Long Island with a swimming pool and lush garden is my refreshing escape from the downtown New York hustle I still live in. Their wisdom, tenacity and verve inspire me every day and so I decided to sit down with them before the publication of my memoir Fame Shark and talk about their first meeting, performance as love, competition, what art means to them, and the perils and pleasures of celebrity.

Royal: What was your sense of yourselves in the city when you were growing up?

Babbi: I was a very happy child because my family was a happy family. Every Shabbos we would go to shul together, everyone. Then out to a beer garden and we would have drinks and chickpeas. The children used to play with each other and laugh and we were all dressed up as beautiful dolls.

Royal: Yet, your family also had idiosyncrasies. Your mother would feed drunks on the Bowery.

Babbi: That’s right. My mom was very interesting from the point of view of her humanity. If my mother saw anyone who even looked hungry she would immediately give them food or make me go down to give them bread. Crazy people used to come to our apartment and knock on the door.

Royal: Did you feel stuck in the Lower East Side?

Babbi: No, I was always an adventurer.

Zayde: When I was sent off from home in Philadelphia to go to yeshiva in New York, I was expected to manage my own affairs at the age of 15. In my tenement I had a room with a window but it didn’t look outside. It looked into another room. I didn’t last there very long. But we survived.

Royal: You both always had a huge interest in arts. Do you think that helped you see that there was a larger world out there?

Zayde: Oh, yeah! Unbelievably.

Babbi: Oh yes and my mother was a dressmaker, she made clothing.

Zayde: You would call her a stylist these days [laughs].

Babbi: Okay, well she also helped heavyset women to fit into their clothing. We would sneak away to go to the museums or look at art in the windows of Cooper Union.

Zayde: My father lured me to leave for New York by taking me to the Educational Alliance art school.

Babbi: And then he ended up being a teacher there and I convinced my mother to sign me up for classes. She would say it was the best fifteen cents she ever spent.

Royal: How do you feel about the changes in the Lower East Side?

Zayde: Inevitable. In many ways regrettable.

Royal: What does performance mean to you in your life?

Babbi: I was certainly a performer as a professor. I enjoyed that aspect of it.

Zayde: My father was a cantor, I used to spend my hours listening to him rehearse for his performances in the synagogue. He sang his heart out. In addition to studying art and art history for many years, I also had a career as a rabbi and you have to realize you are a performer when you lead a congregation.

Babbi: For me I also think it was about competition. I had so many other children to compete with like my twin sisters, that I felt I had to act things out to gain attention.

Zayde: I translated my father’s memoirs from Yiddish and I would read them aloud. This too was a kind of acting performance. I put my soul into trying to recreate what my father had lived through.

Royal: Interesting that performance is equated to emotional connection. You want love, attention or understanding and in order to get those things you have to act out.

Babbi: Yes, of course you do. I could perform in front of my relatives all the time and I got presents for it, good food, nice cookies [laughs].

Royal: [laughs] So you had to sing for your supper!

Babbi: Yes.

Zayde: It’s not a compulsion, but it’s very satisfying.

Royal: But for you performance is not equated with fame. I think for the modern mentality it is.

Babbi: For me, performance is equated with love.

Royal: How do you feel about fame?

Zayde: Fame can be a terrible burden. It could hang around your neck. Be careful what you wish for when you wish for fame. The striving for fame can overwhelm you.

Royal: Now everyone knows about celebrity.

Zayde: [laughs] Yes, ever since Andy Warhol saying everyone was entitled to fifteen minutes of fame. I don’t agree with fame for its own sake. If you are talented and work and receive recognition for your art, fine. That’s about as far as I go. I like to feel people can appreciate what I offer, but it’s the offering of it that is more important than receiving accolades.

Babbi: Not celebrity, but the important level is that people recognize you do good work. If you know who you are and can project that, it’s so much better for you. People will listen to you if you know who you are.

Royal Young's debut memoir Fame Shark will be released later this month from Heliotrope Books.

My Family’s Reaction to Fame Shark

Monday, June 10, 2013 | Permalink
Royal Young's debut memoir Fame Shark will be released June 2013 from Heliotrope Books. Young contributes to Interview Magazine, New York Post, BOMB Magazine and The Lo Down. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

"I sound like a cheap, mean kyke," my father raged. "I sound like an idiot, a complete non-entity," my mother was furious too. I had been nervous about them reading my first memoir, Fame Shark, but none of my jitters had prepared me for this ballistic reaction. We were sitting down to breakfast at Castillo, a Dominican restaurant in New York's Lower East Side where I had grown up eating delicious homefries colored orange from Sofrito. Now they stuck in my throat.

For me, the book was a monument to the obvious: I was in love with both my parents. But raised by two Jews who were brilliant psychoanalysts, my love had a darkness, a depth, an introspection I'd learned from them. Wasn't that a good thing? Wasn't that flattering?

"So, it's basically fiction," Mom said,"a lot of this stuff never happened." It was true that I had purposefully pandered to a modern American culture that had the attention span of meth addicts. I'd cut all the "boring" bits out of my life in this telling. But fiction? No way. It had been hard, terrifying and humbling to write truths about myself: I had been bullied to the point of molestation as a kid, I had later exchanged sex for money and movie roles, cultivated friendships with drug dealers, sunk to supreme unhappiness at the altar of celebrity worship. I had begun writing Fame Shark still half in the throes of an idiotic, unoriginal fantasy that the book itself would lift me into celebrity. Only the therapeutic writing of it had helped take me out of my own narcissism/self-hatred (a diagnosis my parents had once agreed with, in our darkest conflicts).

It had been seven years since the last chapter of the book. Years I had spent doing hard work in real life. I had worked as a journalist at The Forward, Interview Magazine, New York Post and others. I had drastically cut back on drinking, stopped doing drugs, fallen in love with beautiful women, gotten my heart broken, fought hard through much rejection to see the publication of my debut memoir. But achievement was not redemption. Now, I feared my own creation was dragging me and my parents back to a black place of contention we had bravely worked past in family therapy sessions.

That first breakfast, my immediate reaction was to match their anger. Suddenly like a petulant teenager again, I swung between fury and sadness. I was outraged they didn't "get" my art; I was crushed I didn't have their seal of approval. Even more devastating, it seemed they felt the book was evidence of some deep malcontent I held toward them. The day ended with me crying on their couch.

Like any modern moron, I posted about my parent's outrage on Facebook. "I thought they came across as very endearing. Feel free to pass that on :)" wrote one friend. "If your parents aren't angry, then the memoir is no good. So congratulations!" typed another. It felt comforting to be supported by cyber solidarity.

But that didn't seal up the hole in my heart. I had hurt Mom and Dad and was no longer the too skinny, shitfaced, stubborn and stylishly blasé adolescent who didn't care a wit. I felt awful about it. Jewish guilt that got me angry all over again. Which I then felt awful about. It was a vicious Freudian cycle, a problem only a Jewish boy raised on the Lower East Side by two mental health professionals in the early '90s could have.

There is another version of my life. My parent's lives. My father is a handsome artist born in Detroit, who fled a conservative upbringing in the Midwest to pursue big city success. And he found it. He's been commissioned to do several public art projects, many of which still adorn New York. My mother is a smart beauty who speaks seven languages and helps countless people rehabilitate their lives. They have always been inspiring, loving, creative parents who encouraged me to realize my own dreams. And even when uncomfortable with their portrayal in my writing, they have remained understanding, proud and unshakably loving towards me. The truth is people are complicated.

My way of digesting and dealing with life is through writing. My father's through art. My mother's through therapy. We all have different ways of exploring the powerful bonds of family. We all try to make sense of our closest relationships in the best way we can. We hurt each other, heal each other, learn from each other. The most important thing is that we do all this together, as a family.

There have been many and varied reactions to my book so far. The way I have tackled the main subjects of fame and family. But the response that never changes is that as a family "you were all so involved. You cared about what happened to each other." And this aspect of my family is what enabled me to write so personally in the first place. Like it or not, my parent's enduring love allowed me to explore our conflicts in a way I couldn't have if we were fractured.

As my parents come to terms with my book, I hope to show them how my cautionary confession can help other people. A compassion I learned from them. There will always be struggle with the people we love the most, but it's this love that remains our defining bond.

Besides, "You know I'm going to write about all of this too," I recently told Mom and Dad. My parents both laughed. They had grown a sense of humor about having a scribe in the family. Though actually, I think my next book will indeed be pure fiction.

Check back tomorrow to read more from Royal Young, author of the memoir Fame Shark.