Roy Schwartz is the author of Is Superman Circumcised? The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero. His book explores the Jewish roots of Superman and the entirety of career. Roy graduated magna cum laude from The New School University with a BA in English, majoring in creative writing, and cum laude from NYU with an interdisciplinary MA in English and social thought. YEM was able to speak with Roy about the title of his book, some of his writing inspirations, and what is next on his plate.
Young Entertainment Mag: When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
Roy Schwartz: I’ve never not known. I wanted to write for a living for as long as I can remember. Which on one hand is very liberating, because you don’t have to wrestle with the question and you always have the clear goal and drive, but it’s also very daunting because you can’t afford to fail. If all you ever wanted to do was one thing, what do you do if it doesn’t work out? Become an accountant? Luckily it did work out. But success really is equal parts fortitude and fortune. So I’m very grateful.
YEM: Having your BA and MA in English, what is one of the most useful things you learned about writing?
Roy: Honestly, that if you want to be a pro don’t focus on the artistic side of it. Focus on the craft and the business side. No matter what you do in life, you’re only going to be as successful as your business sense.
I don’t wait for the muse; we have a standing date at the beginning of every workday. If she shows up and everything flows smoothy and my writing is the most brilliant thing since Shakespeare, great. If she stands me up and it’s a sludge and I produce mediocre work, well that’s what it is that day and it’ll just have to do. It can’t always be great. If you’re always doing great work, in anything, you’re aiming too low.
YEM: What is your favorite part of writing?
Roy: I’d have to say the creation. That struggle of thinking, of figuring out what you want to say and the best way to say it, picking just the right words to be clear and have the right structure and rhythm and connotation and nuance. That’s how we get poetry. But you don’t have to be poetic to put out something good. An essay for school, a webpage for work, even an email can be good writing. It all depends on your audience and your message.
And, as I said before, when the planets align and the gods look upon you with favor and the muse descends and you manage to produce something insightful or beautiful, that’s art. And when you create something really new and special in the world using your thoughts and words? Man, there’s nothing like it.
YEM: What is some advice you would give those who want to become a writer?
Roy: Save yourself and become a doctor instead! Just Kidding. Mostly.
First of all, know that there are different kinds of writers, just like there are different types of doctors. People tend to imagine a solitary figure sitting in some attic or cabin, chain-smoking and banging away at the keyboard possessed. If that’s what you want to do, all the power to you. But you can also write for TV, for example, where you’re usually hashing out ideas as part of a team and writing within a rigid episode formula. You can be a playwright. Or a satirist. Or a journalist. Or a ghost writer. Or a memoirist. Or a ghost memoirist. You don’t even have to do creative work to be a writer. You can write content for a website, or marketing collateral, or instruction manuals, or cookbooks. If you’re getting paid to write, you’re a writer.
The best advice I can give is, be professional. Artistic or not, this is a job. If you expect someone to give you money for your words, you better deliver. On time, by hook or by crook—missing deadlines is the cardinal sin. Always be respectful. Keep in mind your boss’s needs and the needs of their clients/audience.
On the same token, be nice and helpful to everyone. First because being a good person is more important than being a good writer. But also because you almost never write in a vacuum, and you succeed as a team. And because your coworker or intern today can in ten years be the editor you’re pitching to or the publisher interviewing you for a staff position.
For more inspirational advice, I’d say write as much as you can and as often as you can. I know they say write every day, but if you’d rather dedicate more time fewer times a week, do that. Personally it takes me a while to warm up, and if I had to choose I’d rather write one full day a week than an hour every day. Whatever works.
Also, live life. Have adventures. Travel. Take risks (responsibly and mostly figuratively). Life experience will give your writing verisimilitude and vigor that just won’t be there otherwise.
YEM: What made you want to write Is Superman Circumcised? The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero?
Roy: It started out as my grad thesis, actually. NYU has an annual thesis competition where masochists like me can defend their thesis, instead of in a room against three professors, on stage in front of the entire school against three deans. I joined on a lark with my best friend from school, Chris. I didn’t prepare or rehearse or anything, I just had fun with it. Surprising no one more than myself, I won second place. That led to some press and eventually to a contract with my publisher.
YEM: The title is hilarious. What has been the response to the book?
Roy: The book has been well-received, which I’m so grateful for. It took me 6.5 years to write, two as a writer-in-residence fellow at the New York Public Library. I was more than a little anxious putting in all that time and work, and it’s extremely validating to see it succeed.
I’m glad you like the title. It’s meant to be playful and the subtitle tells you what the book is about, which I thought was obvious, but I was surprised by how many people took it literally or even got upset. Cracking jokes I get, I basically asked for it, but who in their right mind thinks I wrote an entire book about Superman’s foreskin?
The book’s really about the origins of the comic book industry and the superhero genre, which started with a handful of Jewish immigrants and their children in New York during the Depression and WWII. It follows the development of the field over the decades from this perspective, with a focus on Superman as the archetype. It’s written to be fun to read, for anyone with interest in comics, superheroes, American history or Jewish culture.
YEM: Is it a Jewish book?
Roy: You don’t need to be Jewish or care about Jewish culture to enjoy it. But if you do, there’s a lot to sink your teeth into. If you like superheroes and comic books and the behind-the-scenes of it all, you’ll like this.
Here’s the thing; comic books are a Jewish-American invention. So is the superhero genre. The industry was a predominantly Jewish industry for the first fifty years. So I’m looking at the history of comics from the Jewish perspective, and at the same time using comics as an exploration of Judaism. This book is many things but it’s mostly a history book. One that’s fun to read! (And hey, if you’re bored there are 96 images to look at.)
YEM: What is something that you would like your readers to have taken away from your book after having read it?
Roy: More than anything, an appreciation for Superman. The OG superhero. He’s such a rich, complex character with such an amazing history and he’s woefully underappreciated. In a genre teeming with characters that can do what he can and more, he’s still the most inspirational.
YEM: Tell us a little about your last book, The Darkness in Lee’s Closet and the Others Waiting There.
Roy: It’s a horror fantasy for middle graders. Think Coraline or Beetlejuice. It’s about a young girl who travels into the afterlife on a quest to rescue her father. Along the way she meets dead people from all over the world and from throughout history. Some are friendly and some are not, and she has to face truly frightening dangers and use all her courage and cunning if she’s to save her father, her friends, and herself.
YEM: Who are some of your writing inspirations?
Roy: My wife. Seriously! (I mean, I’m totally gonna show this to her and rack up some brownie points, but for real.) She’s an international bestselling author and editor with tons of awards and accolades, plus the editor-in-chief of a national magazine. She’s the real deal. Her writing style is naturalistic and intimate in a way that inspires me. When I’m struggling I imagine her over my shoulder critiquing my work and it makes my own writing better.
Another cliché, but is also true, is Shakespeare. I know a lot of young folk don’t like him because he gets crammed down people’s throats in high school, and that’s a tragedy. But he really is the master. Do yourself a favor—take a college course about him.
I don’t really have a favorite modern author, but one I had the good fortune of studying under and who I think is brilliant is Dennis Lehane. He wrote Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island, etc. Look up “Until Gwen,” it’s a short story that you can read online for free. You’ll see what I mean. (But be advised, it’s adult.)
In superhero comics, my current faves are Tom Taylor and Jason Aaron.
YEM: What’s next on your plate?
Roy: Is superman Circumcised? has opened a lot of doors for me. I’m an overnight success, years in the making! Right now I’m focusing on the book tour, which is mostly virtual. You can check out upcoming appearances and talks at royschwartz.com. After that I’m starting my next project, which is already under contract. All I can say for now is that it’s a graphic novel. I’m also in early negotiation for another book, but it’s too early to discuss. And there’s some stuff in other media. It’s very exciting.
YEM: What book do you love so much you wish you could have written it?
Roy: Ooh, that’s a good one. Let’s see. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which my book in a way is the nonfiction equivalent of. The Confessions of Max Tivoli is basically a modern adult fairytale that’s written so beautifully it makes your heart ache. And pretty much any Superman or Captain America comic book, because I really want to write them!