Yid Lit: Matthew Sharpe

Betsy Seder

By Allison Gaudet Yarrow

Published March 28, 2011.
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Matthew Sharpe is the author of a story collection and four novels. His most recent is “You Were Wrong,” published last summer by Bloomsbury USA. He spoke to Allison Yarrow about writing of a suburban house, his Jewish sensibility and Kafka’s inexplicit religious authority.

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Allison Yarrow: Your most recent novel, “You Were Wrong,” is dedicated to the year 2008 and takes place amid suburban excess. Why did you choose to set a novel at this time?

Matthew Sharpe: Even though I haven’t lived in a suburban house in over 20 years, the floor plan [of one] is in my unconscious and expresses itself in my dreams and my writing. [Houses] are the stage set on which we act out the drama of our lives. They are very resonant places. As for the year 2008, it’s the year that the sense of home, which is hugely important to the sense of self, began to disintegrate.

Do you think of yourself as a Jewish writer, or did you have a particularly Jewish upbringing that influences your writing?

I have this goyishe last name, an assimilated last name. Jewishness, but not Judaism, is an important part of my sensibility, my personality, my upbringing, yet I don’t feel compelled to write about Jewish themes. Non-Jews can also be darkly comic, but a certain kind of dark comedy — as, for example, with Mr. Kafka — I associate with Jewishness.

I think the tent is big when it comes to the canon of Jewish literature. It’s important that we include anybody who is addressing Jewishness at all, or anyone who is just Jewish.

Kafka is a perfect example. You don’t see a lot of explicit Jewishness in his writing. In “The Trial,” Joseph K. goes into a Cathedral, so his encounter with religious authority is with Christian religious authority, and yet being a Jew in this Czech nation, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, had a profound influence on his sensibility and the way that he wrote. He was interested in the Yiddish theater and his Jewish forbears, but it doesn’t express itself all that explicitly in his writing.

The New York Times Paper Cuts blog allows authors to put together musical playlists. A song on your playlist is “Smells Like Bootylicious,” which is a mash-up of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylicious.” That song and your novel “Jamestown” (which retells the founding myths of America and the Jamestown colony) occupy similar space in my brain.

I’m drawn to the mash-up and the cover. I come from a musical family, and very much think of writing in musical terms. When I was writing Jamestown I was thinking of it as a cover of the Jamestown story. Nature meant for these two songs to be together as one.

The Yid Lit podcast was edited by Meredith Ganzman and produced by Allison Yarrow.


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