Memoirist Royal Young on misbehavior, the nice Jewish boy inside him, and seeking fame after a stint on the casting couch.
One night, I encountered Royal Young at the top of a narrow staircase, standing beside a woman who introduced herself as “Royal’s mom.” She offered me a tangerine and a glass of fruit juice. The disarming gathering was a literary salon, held in what I later discovered was the setting for Young’s memoir: the art-laden living room of his parents’ rambling Lower East Side apartment. The bohemian dream home to a certain species of New Yorker, its trove of handmade objects reminded me of how I grew up—gazing at tribal talismans, masks, and weapons. Young and I were raised in similar circles, centered on art and film, but two decades apart. Our fathers led parallel lives. His is a painter with an outsider’s flair, edge, and verve. Mine was the pioneering documentary filmmaker and explorer, Robert E. Dierbeck, now dead. We’d been raised by a pair of men who’d achieved prominence in their respective fields yet had been set mysteriously adrift for a time, like two isolated desert wanderers. Though I knew little about Royal Young, I became curious and then beguiled that night as he took the stage—a stretch of carpet between the sofa and the table—and began to read.
Young’s memoir, Fame Shark, unfolds in a seamier, dingier New York—a city whose sidewalks glitter with broken glass. Brooklyn attracts more drug dealers than poseurs. Manhattan is populated by rich foot fetishists, poor artists, and seedy modeling agents who prey upon bright young things while thinly disguising their pedophilia. Darkly comic, this harrowing coming-of-age story chronicles a teenager’s desperate hunt for stardom. It exposes its narrator’s naked ambition, sad yearnings, and bad decisions with such self-deprecating wit that we can’t help but like him, even if his own father locks the door against him and his mother tearfully admits she hates him.
The book is Young’s first. At the end of the summer, we made a date to talk it over.
Royal Young It’s hard being back in New York. When you’re away, you’re surrounded by trees and you don’t see fifty shitheads when you get out your door.
Lisa Dierbeck It’s like the first day of school. Everyone’s scurrying around. I had so much anxiety with all my meetings and deadlines, then realized they were largely imaginary.
RY It’s totally imaginary. There’s this mad rush to get back to what you need to do.
LD Everyone’s so wound up.
RY Wound up with no purpose. I got more done the month I was away than the whole rest of the year in New York.
LD What are you working on?
RY I’m working on my second book. I had time to focus and concentrate. The rest of the time I’m always working, writing for a byline.
LD Are you one of those writers who hates to talk about a book until it’s out of its embryonic stage?
RY I can talk about it. It’s out of its embryo. It’s staggering around. It’s wasted right now.
LD That’s a good condition for the start of a book. What’s it about?
RY The new book is a novel. There was so much that was intense about writing a memoir, dealing with strong reactions from family and non-family. You feel you’re exposing these dark parts of yourself. So I thought I’d try something else. It’s a work of fiction about a young boy who has a relationship with an adult woman who is a family member. It’s Lolita in reverse.
LD It’s interesting because apparently when Nabokov wrote Lolita, it was rejected all over the place. One editor suggested that he’d publish the novel provided Nabokov turned Lolita into a boy.
RY That’s crazy. Well, this is a book about a straight relationship though.
LD My first novel was about an underage girl who has a sexual encounter with an adult, too.
RY I know.
LD It makes me think of that beautiful chapter you have in Fame Shark about a fantasy relationship, when you were just a kid, with an older woman. Who was she?
RY Iris. We met at a grand old house in South Hampton that belonged to my mom’s best friend’s family. I’d go out there as a kid every summer. Iris was a guest one summer. I formed an erotic attachment. It was my first really positive experience. When I was younger, I had a negative sexual experience with a classmate. Iris was this older fantasy women. It had something to do with getting away from the city, like we were saying before. You’re in this new place and there’s trees and beaches. It’s perfect to have sex involved.
I like exploring these dark areas of male sexuality. I’m interested in how fucked up straight male sexuality can be. Pushing that boundary. So many male friends who read Fame Shark have been confessing their weird sexual hang-ups to me.
LD You talk about Fame Shark as exposing the dark side of male sexuality. I’m not sure I read it that way.
RY That’s good to hear. I guess when I say darker side, I mean as I get older in the book, and I get paid for a blow job. Or flirting with a fourteen-year-old girl and then feeling her up. And then there’s the foot fetish girl.
LD I thought the foot fetish part was hilarious. And so New York.
RY But it’s seeing people as sex objects. Me, viewing myself as one. In that celebrity world of New York, where the tried-and-true formula for making it is the casting couch. So I played with that.
LD But he’s so open and likable. I mean, you are. In your memoir. Because I’m a novelist, I read memoirs as if they were novels. I guess that’s bad.
LD I read Fame Shark as if it were fiction. It has such a strong story and characters.
RY Well, I wrote it that way purposely. I mean, I’d be totally fucking out of my mind if I was really monomaniacally fixated on fame 24-7 the way the boy in the book is.
LD You shaped it. All memoir, because it’s shaped, has an element of fiction.
RY Right, I agree. I gave it an arc. Because of the book, I reconnected with Georgie the foot fetish girl.
LD I liked her. She was cool.
RY We became friends again. I said, “I have to tell you, you’re in this book. If there’s anything you feel uncomfortable about, let me know, we can change it.” I obscured her identity more. It was interesting to hear her side of the story. She told me, “I was so attracted to you and I wanted to be your girlfriend. But you seemed very virginal and innocent. I didn’t want to corrupt you fully.”
LD The way you depict your younger self, you have a veneer of cynicism and sophistication and perversity, but deep down there’s an inherent sweetness. And you’re bad at disguising that. It never descends into creepiness.
RY I’m not good at disguising things. One part of me always just wanted to fall in love with a girl and be monogamous. I’m old-fashioned in a weird sense. But I felt like that made me boring. Here I was around drag queens, and my dad’s kinky sex paintings with huge penises. I thought I needed to amp up my game.
LD (laughter) You describe your young self as having this hunger for attention. What makes it comical and heartrending is that it has no focus. I suspected that this wasn’t true in “real life,” if I can call it that.
RY When I was in my teens and twenties, our culture exploded with reality television and instant internet celebrity. I thought I could be famous for not doing anything—just getting drunk and fighting with my parents. It’s a weird phenomenon. My aim was pretty nebulous. I was not going to auditions. I had this tenuous connection to celebrity. When I’d give up on it, I’d go home and write drunken scrawling poetry and short stories. But then the next day, I’d be out on the street, and I’d get spotted by a shady modeling agent slash pimp. New York is good at reminding you this world is out there. Especially when you’re nineteen years old. At the height of my Fame Sharkishness, it was so much more exciting to go out and have people paying attention to you because you’re wearing a mink vest with gold chains and have flashbulbs go off, than to stay home and do the hard work of writing.
LD It’s like that forever. To be a writer in New York takes such discipline. Instead of going to parties you stay in, writing the same six pages over again. It’s like being a monk.
RY A monk at an orgy. Eventually I found it in me to focus on the craft and hard work. I spent seven years working as a journalist and years on the material that became Fame Shark.
LD You’ve mentioned that part of your ritual in writing the book was to revisit the places in the memoir and to conjure the feelings that these experiences had brought up—or maybe feelings that you couldn’t really feel when these things first happened. As a result, the book is very emotional and powerful without being sentimental. I wondered if this technique had anything to do with your training as an actor.
RY It may have come out of my early acting training, and having two parents who are therapists. I was taught to ask questions to get to the root of what I was really feeling. The book was my therapy. It was my way of processing these experiences. There was a modeling agent from Wilhelmina who told me to stop running around trying to be a cool downtown kid. That it was stupid and awful and was never going to work. But also he read some of my writing and he said, “This is what you should work on.” The earliest drafts of Fame Shark came out of this conversation I had with him when I was eighteen years old. I have notebooks full of stuff, dialogues and scenes.
LD You started to chronicle your adventures with an eye toward one day shaping them into a novel. You figured: I need some good material.
RY Yes. It actually made me even more insane.
LD It was the ultimate stunt book.
RY But that lends the emotion to it. After the editing process, you know how it is. You feel very removed from the emotional impact. Everyone who has read it, they all related to the intense emotional pull, which always surprises me.
LD It also has great energy and momentum. A real volatility.
RY I try for that. I like writing that’s really accessible, that has energy, volatility, and pull. There’s this guy Thomas Thompson who wrote about celebrity in the 1970s. He’s forgotten now, but I love him. I like Ira Levin and Anne Rice—propulsive, sexy books with drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll. So I took from that and I added in psychology and New York City. And I read the New York Post a lot: Headless Man in Topless Bar. I like that stuff.
LD Having two therapists as parents—the book makes it sounds like it was fairly horrible. They were obviously well-intentioned and adored their sons, and I’m sure they were good therapists . . .
RY (interrupting) Excellent therapists.
LD But somehow the combination is disastrous. Yet you had this psychological education. Was it useful for a writer and novelist?
RY Very. It meant being interested in other people’s emotions and issues. I’ve always brought that to friendships and I’m interested in listening. My parents are lovely people and are incredible shrinks. But the thing is, you can’t shrink intimate relations. They’re so much messier than that. I’d be that “therapist” friend. I’d analyze everything and help you through it. There’s a lot of over-analysis in my life. The good side is, I’m relatively self-aware. I’m an empathetic person, but I have trouble shutting that off. I go down the rabbit hole and disappear.
LD Reading Fame Shark and knowing you a little, I get the sense that you have changed in a radical way. The guy in the book is utterly lost. He goes through this dark night of the soul and comes through the other side. What changed you?
RY This is the cheesiest answer, but love changed me. There’s this line at the end of the book, and it’s cheesy also to quote myself, but I said something like “love demands I improve.” [The actual line is: “If fame forced me to outdo myself, love expected me to improve.”]
In my darkest moments, there was a vulnerable, introspective, nice Jewish boy deep down saying, “Oy vey, I’m not comfortable with this.” I just poured Jim Beam on it, but he was always in there. I needed love and connection to pull out of it. Familial love and romantic love. I had my first real girlfriend. And my second real girlfriend. I got my heart broken.
And then there was being poor and having a job and paying rent. These changes in my character came out of human necessities that facilitated them. How long can you sustain it, the way I was acting? I got to a point where I knew: I’m either going to be a poor alcoholic drug addict, or take steps to be a successful person and human being. My drive for success saved me. I channeled my ambition into writing. It became the best high I ever experienced and the thing I’m most addicted to. Getting high and being an asshole? I wouldn’t let that distract me or stop me from writing.
LD You’ve brought up being a nice Jewish boy and Jewish identity. That’s an important element of the book, how you recreate yourself as Royal Young, without a Jewish name. And when there’s this tentative reconciliation between father and son at the end, it’s like an embrace of a family tradition—the ambition and hunger for fame that you trace back to your grandfather, and it becomes tied to Jewish roots and history.
RY That’s a good way to put it. I can’t speak for Jews everywhere obviously, but the Jewish immigrant experience is holding onto your shtetl roots while frantically, ferociously becoming American. I mean, Jews invented Hollywood. They understood escapism and the business of dreaming. And tapping into the rush forward of America. Then there’s tremendous nostalgia. Both are embodied in my character.
LD You’ve talked about your parents’ reaction to the book. How are they handling it now?
RY My parents have issues with the book. My grandparents, whose families are Orthodox Jewish, fucking love it. It’s their ultimate American dream and they want my name to be in newspapers and magazines. They love the attention and the spotlight. It runs in my family, this ambition for celebrity and success and pursuing it. They’re hustlers. My grandmother’s sister, she’s in her eighties, she read it. She grew up on the Lower East Side. She loved it. Didn’t you notice the part with the cocaine? She did, she got it. And she still loves it.
LD They’re proud of you.
RY That’s true.
LD Can you say anything more about your parents’ ambivalence. You wrote: “My parents fucking hate my book.”
RY The initial reaction was bad. My dad said, “I hate it. I sound like a cheap Kike.” My mom said she sounded like a complete idiot. This was terrible, partly because we’d repaired our relationship so much. I live ten minutes away from my parents, and I feel very close to them. It put us back in the roles we’d been in. All the old shit ripped open. We didn’t talk for a few weeks. I told them that I understood, they were hurt, but that it’s about love, exploring identity and conflicts that are in every family—that I don’t hate them and it’s not an act of revenge—that I gave it to them to read so they could tell me to change things.
The more public the book became, and the more praise the book got, the more they started coming around. Being exposed to readers helped. People would come up to them at readings and say, “You were such involved and caring parents.” Praise from friends and strangers. My dad’s art work is in the book, which is a cool way for him to participate in it. They saw it changed my life in a really good way. They are happy and proud.
LD Were you surprised by your parents’ reaction?
RY I was shocked. It blew me away. My dad is such an out-there artist. If dad wants to download orgy photos and use them, fine. Anything for the sake of art was what I learned as a kid. I was so emotionally divorced from the material, I didn’t think they’d be upset by it. But it was so personal, and told them things they didn’t know about me. They felt they were being held responsible in a public way. It was shocking for them.
LD It’s obviously being told with hyperbole to recreate the point of view of an adolescent.
RY Here’s where the therapist parent thing doesn’t help. They over-analyzed everything. They thought, “Holy fucking shit, our patients will read this!”
LD They thought they’d lose face.
RY Yes. But also on a practical level. “If any of my clients read this, we’d have to spend a year of therapy talking about you.”
RY I worked with them to be more comfortable with this. I took out their names and one personal detail. At the end of the day, they said, “As hurt and angry and uncomfortable as we are, except for these minor things, you’re right. This is your piece of art and we’re not going to get in the way. You should be able to express yourself however you want to.” It was very cool. It was an angry Holden Caulfield character. It’s a book about growing up. The specter of public opinion is really tough.
Lisa Dierbeck is the author of One Pill Makes You Smaller, a New York Times Notable Book, and The Autobiography of Jenny X, a Vanity Fair Hot Type selection.