I’m Matthue, And I’m Not A Brand

My friend Cynthia is a singer and a poet. She writes her own poems. She doesn’t write any of her own songs, though — she plays cover versions. At one of her concerts, someone asked her why. She told them, because when she gets the urge to sing a song, every song she’s ever wanted to sing for that feeling already exists. And when she wants to read a poem, no poem for that feeling has ever existed.

I think that’s why I started making up stories. Because I wanted to read something, and the story I wanted to read didn’t exist.

These days I juggle a lot. I’m reading The Hobbit out loud to my kids every night. By day I design video games for a studio in Brooklyn. And when I get a chance, I write these weird little books — I wrote a picture book based on the stories of Franz Kafka, a novel about Russian Jewish immigrant hacker geeks, and then a bunch of other stuff. Some of my stories are explicitly Jewish. Others are very not. My next book, another picture book, is a really really subtle retelling of a Baal Shem Tov story that takes place on a space station being invaded by monsters.

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As my agent keeps reminding me, it is a lot easier, and a lot less confusing, to create a brand identity — in other words, to write the same book half a dozen times. It’s also a lot better if you’re reacting against Judaism instead of living inside it. (I wrote one story about old Orthodox men who are secretly pirates, and one big publisher rejected it, saying that Orthodox stories don’t sell unless they’re about someone who hates being Orthodox.)

And maybe one day I will be a guaranteed brand, and I’ll learn how to repeat myself. For now, though, I like it this way a lot more. Taking the inspiration the good L-rd sends me, playing with it, trying to make it into something that other people can understand. The truth is, I really would love to write the Great Orthodox Novel, some beautiful and poetic expression of our existence that combines the faith and the questioning I’m constantly going through. And maybe that’s one of those stories that becomes like my friend Cynthia’s poems, one that nobody else has made up yet so she has to. But I wouldn’t at all be upset to open a book and find that someone else has written exactly what I wanted to express. In fact, I’d be totally cool with that.