Matthue Roth, blending Orthodox and Pop culture
Former Lakeview resident Matthue Roth has always been a writer, spending many of his early teen years running home after school to write science fiction stories. His new novel,
might not be about outer space, but the story of a Russian Jew named Jupiter Glazer’s struggle against loser-dom does have elements of a stranger in a strange land.
While Roth has written about Jewish life before—his first book,
Never Mind the Goldbergs
, tells the story of an Orthodox punk-rock girl who runs off to Hollywood to star on a sitcom—he says that Losers is a more personal story.
“When I was in Jr. High and I had no friends, I would come home every day and write more. I grew up in a working class Jewish environment in Philly, the neighborhood is somewhat like Rogers Park, just a little too far from the city to go hang out after school. Because the story takes place in the kind of neighborhood I grew up in, writing Losers was like going home.”
I spoke with Roth about the book and his life as a self-described Hasidic Jew who embraces the modern world.
Oy!: You’ve written about teenagers a few times now. What is it about that age group that inspires you?
Roth: I kinda feel like I’m still 15 sometimes! Teenagers have the autonomy to inspire themselves and the real world hasn’t gotten them down. When you’re a teenager, you’re angry and righteously so, but you’re idealistic. I hope I haven’t lost my passion, idealism or the ability to stay up all night. It’s the time in life when stuff is starting to happen and you’re in control of your destiny. Nothing has ever been so hard or so exciting.
How much of your own life inspired the character of Jupiter Glazer? Do you miss him now that the book is finished?
I miss my characters tremendously. I want to write more about the characters from Goldberg but I am not ready. A lot of characters in Losers are based on parts of people I know—the book is dedicated to my best friend who died recently. We met in third grade and became friends and stuck it out. Everyone thinks that I’m Jupiter or he is, but that’s not it. There are parts of him in [all of the characters]. I am writing because I can’t hold these characters back, they surprise you and they should.
What do you do when you’re not working on novels?
I’m an editor at MyJewishLearning.com--it’s actually really cool, I get to do the weirder things like videos and multi-media and the blog. The whole concept of a day job is still really new to me, in the past; I have done a lot of freelancing and a lot of spoken word performing. But now I have a baby and I want things to be a bit more stable. My wife and I had a baby eight months ago and it’s really awesome. Every time you hear a song on the radio it’s like a new song for the first time. She’s in love with everything--right now she’s in love with Prince and They Might Giants. I’m in love with Losers. I see a million flaws in Jupiter, but that’s why I love him. But love for my kid trumps my love for the book, which is a new concept.
Your bio describes you as a Hasidic Jew who embraces the modern world. Can you talk about those seemingly opposing religious and cultural ideas?
I grew up conservative and then became modern Orthodox. My wife grew up Hasidic. My Rabbi had always said the difference between modern and traditional Orthodox is that modern Orthodox people sees holiness in everything—his philosophy is that everything is holy, all music has some degree of passion and holiness and godliness. I met my wife’s family who are all Hasidic and learned that my father-in-law’s favorite band is Dire Straits. I mean you can question his taste but there’s a degree to which passion extends to the things they love.
How does that blending of religion and pop culture influence your work?
My first two books are about being Orthodox. The sitcom in Never Mind the Goldbergs is about an Orthodox family, but she is also a punk girl playing a straight Orthodox girl. At its heart, the book is about how you can’t say this is Orthodox, this is Judaism, this is God. In Losers, Jupiter is just a Russian dork that is not sure about himself or his place in the universe. But over the course of the book, he is learning and making connections to people. That’s religion to me, this process of discovery where you never actually discover anything –the process is where the love is.
What advice do you have to aspiring authors or performers?
Before I sold Losers I had literally five books I have written get rejected. When I sold my first book, I came to New York to walk into offices and tell agents to be interested in me. After doing that a lot and people looked at me like I was crazy, I got a call from a company in San Francisco asking me to write a memoir. They had seen my ‘zines and heard about my spoken word--I was at open mikes six nights a week for three years. My advice would be never underestimate the power of saying things. Say things loud and in as many places as you can because you never know who’s listening.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a sequel to Losers, right now it’s called Enemies but I’m bad with sticking to a title. I’m also working on big project called G-dcast, it’s basically getting artists and musicians and writers and other cool people to tell stories from the Torah portions each week.
For more from Matthue Roth, check out his blog