An Interview with Jonathan Ames
A couple of weeks ago, my horoscope read, “Soon, you will meet someone very interesting.” It was no coincidence then that a few days later I interviewed Jonathan Ames. As much as I hate to admit there just might be some validity in a random horoscope reading, the forecast couldn’t have been more accurate. Known for his self-deprecating humor, the alacrity with which he freely recounts bizarre situations he’s been in, all while bordering on the precipice of disastrous adventures, Ames seems to be at the top of his game.
Jonathan Ames, owner of the “Hairy Call” and even of the great Testicle debate (the cover of I Love You More Than You Know appears as if some portion of his genitalia may be peeking out of his shorts) is the kind of person you’d never expect to be shy. The author of I Pass Like Night, The Extra Man, Wake Up, Sir!, What’s Not to Love?, My Less Than Secret Life and most recently, I Love You More Than You Know, he writes the stories of an often regretful exhibitionist who has an immense capacity to make the reader feel his heartbreak. But without the thoughtful insight into these situations, they might otherwise make be ordinary stories.
Ames takes events in his daily life and infuses them with real emotion and humorous anecdotes, all of which make them wickedly funny and at times even sad. Whether he takes us to his apartment filled with sorrow after a break-up or his tub with shark-sized cockroaches, he never fails to keep the reader laughing. Jonathan Ames is the quintessential artist. A teacher, writer, comedian and storyteller all reside inside of Jonathan Ames. I met with him to discuss his Great Aunt-Doris who always told Ames, "I love you more than you know," why it’s so important to be encouraging as a teacher, and more importantly why we all need to be encouraged as writers.
What are your thoughts on the “whole truth” when it comes to writing nonfiction? It seems like James Frey is getting a lot of flak for tweaking the facts in his book.
I may not read a whole lot of contemporary literature, but I read the newspapers so I’m aware of what’s going on with James Frey, but I think he did more than tweak the facts. If it hadn’t been a best seller, and if it hadn’t been chosen by Oprah, and if it hadn’t been held up as a book that could change people’s lives, then okay, maybe he received too much flak. But the fact is that is put up on this pedestal and this was presented as a work of truth and as inspiring nonfiction so, he really messed up. And the fact of the matter is that the reader knows that the dialogue is being remembered and it might be exaggerated but all of his pathos hot points, as it were and plot twists turned out to be false. And so it really undermines the whole experience with the reader because in part when you write nonfiction you get the reader to first base by the fact that you’re extensively talking from your own experience. And that’s where it has an advantage over fiction. Fiction has to work harder to get the reader. So, in my essays, which tend to be comedic, I really stuck to the stories. I might enhance the dialogue or maybe sometimes I give myself a thought that maybe I didn’t have at that moment. But he (Frey) made a whole change of event. I feel bad for the guy. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. But at the same time, he did more than tweak the facts and did an injustice to people who are trying to write honest memoirs.
A good portion of the essays in I Love You More Than You Know were originally published for the New York Press. How did you begin working for them?
I first published for them in late 1996 and then started writing regularly for them in 1997. All of 1997 I started writing a column for them and my novel, The Extra Man had been rejected by many publishers. A friend of mine brought a chapter of my novel to an editor at the New York Press and it happened to be an autobiographical, totally nonfiction chapter and the editor said, “I’ll publish it” and nobody had wanted to publish anything of mine in a long time. So that was just about the first piece of mine that they published. It was called “Puberitas Agonistes” and became the first chapter of my book, What’s Not To Love when I collected my stuff. And then I just started writing these sporadic essays for the New York Press and they just gave me total license... and then after doing that for about eight or nine months I got a column. I wrote that for about two and a half years every two weeks and then I stopped that in 2000. Over the next two years I just started doing this sporadic thing... two or three times a year writing an essay and then my editor got fired. And so I stopped writing for them.
Do you prefer to write your stories in the first person?
I always write in the first person. I’ve written three novels, they’ve all been in the first person. I like to do this thing of sort of becoming the character and getting to speak through that person directly. Only one time did I write a novel in the third person to see if I could and I did this novelization of a movie called 200 Cigarettes where you take the screenplay and turn it into a movie. I did that in the third person omniscient as it were, but I wrote that book under a pseudonym because I didn’t create the general plot or the characters though I invested them with thoughts and consciousness.
I like that you’ve included the definitions you contributed to the Future Dictionary of America. Do you have a favorite word?
I’ll try to think off the top of my head. I like “Your Forties-are-your-Thirties” and I thought the concept of, “The Nearly Pain Free Break-Up” where it was proven that "it’s not you, it’s me" was actually the truth. Something like that. And I also like “Bald-is-Beautiful” and the ones that were most directly connected to myself.
I liked "Pleasant-Bowel-Syndrome."
That’s a good one.
It made sense since you have IBS.
I actually don’t have the IBS anymore. It was only during this year where I was sort-of heartbroken.
I’m glad to hear you’re over it.
I actually wrote about it in one of the essays.
Yes, the story where you are at Yaddo and you have a big black funnel covering your crotch in the picture for a fictional treatment. “My New Society Testimony: Able to Love Again.” I wanted to talk about your cover -- speaking of nudity.
There’s this whole debate going on right now about whether or not you can see my testicle sticking out of my shorts. Some people say it’s a shadow. Do you see anything?
Well, yeah. It looks like there’s definitely something. I dunno -- I could see why people would say that. I didn’t see it before but now that you mention it...
Someone said they thought it was my butt-cheek. Who knows.
You have a suitcase on the front and back cover. You mentioned being a vintage guy and liking vintage clothing. Did your suitcase come from a vintage store too?
I don’t know how much I’m a vintage guy as far as buying a lot of clothing. In the past I used to go to used clothing shops now I don’t even do that so much, but I occasionally get a new piece of clothing. I’m more of Gap person, unfortunately. I’m almost exclusively wardrobed by the Gap. The suitcase is actually from my parents' honeymoon set. I’ve often used it when I perform. As a monologist I usually have my props in there. And the cover photo is from this photo shoot which is about me as a performer and writer so it seemed fitting that I should have my suitcase, which I always used for performing when I did that photo shoot.
Where did they shoot the photo?
It was up in the Catskills because New York Magazine, who I did the photo shoot for, in part was doing something about the Catskills and so they thought maybe part of the angle of the article is me being an old-fashioned comedian. So, we went up there to do it.
I like the boxers versus the fully-clothed you.
My idea for the photo shoot when we went up there was, “Hey, this could be funny. Here I am running down the street in my clothing and then I’m running down the street just in my underwear so it makes a narrative like, 'What happened to this guy?!'”
You’ve said you’re a lover of Bukowski and his work. Have you seen the documentary, Born Into This?
Yeah, yeah. Someone sent me an early cut of it.
Does that love extend to John Fante as well?
Well, because of Bukowski I read Fante as everyone does and it’s almost like a breadcrumb trail or something. I liked Fante. I didn’t enjoy him as much as Bukowski but I could definitely see the influence but I read a couple of novels and I liked him. Maybe there was just more of Bukowski but I don’t know how many Arturo Bandini novels there are, but the ones I read I enjoyed.
You performed, "I Called Myself El Cid" at Skylight Books. Has your son seen you perform that piece before?
I don’t know if he’s seen me perform a monologue for that. He’s come to a couple of performances over the years. He’s seen some tapes of my performances but I don’t know if he’s seen that particular one.
Has he learned any fencing moves from you? Does he share your love for fencing at all?
When he was a little boy I was the assistant coach for a high school fencing team and I brought him to practice. It was a long time ago, now. Yeah, we did some stuff and he liked it. It didn’t go further than that because... you know fencing is kind of an obscure sport. Where he grew up they didn’t have fencing. He’s studied aikido and he does these things with this big stick, you know? So it’s very similar to fencing.
In this new collection, you dedicated the book to your Great Aunt-Doris. You wrote an essay in this collection about a visit you had with her too. How did you wind up becoming so close?
I guess ever since I was a little boy she would come out to our home in New Jersey. She didn’t have kids, she didn’t have a husband, she may have had lovers but my family was her main family. She was always there and paid attention to me. She was always so good to me and would play with me. I had my sister but I think I was her favorite. I reminded her of her father who she’d lost. So I think that made her extra loving of me or something like that. I’ve just had this life-long relationship and I guess she always pursued me too. I remember she came to visit me in college and stayed in my dorm room! As a freshman in college! She took a bus from New York. She must have been in her seventiess and spent two days with me at Princeton. I don’t remember what we did. I mean, when you think about it, she had a real zest for life. And even now in the nursing home... you know she’s got a lot of her brains -- and I know that sounds terrible. You know, one of her comments is, “It’s boring.” You know what I mean? And it’s like she’s 94 but you can be bored at any age. Anyway, we were always very close and when I moved to New York I began to visit her regularly and we just developed this thing.
Has your son become close with her too?
Yeah, Growing up whenever he was with me we’d always see her probably every time. Famously one time, at least in our family -- we went to visit her in Queens and he got lost in this little dressing room/bathroom she has and I tried to kick down the door and just as I was about to kick the door down my sister, mother and great-aunt were like, “No! You’ll hurt your foot!” and it threw my kick off and so I didn’t kick it down. We called the police and they weren’t coming and my son was crying. He was probably around five. So, I said, “Let me try again. Ricky, stand away from the door!” and I kicked it down, which was cool. He came bursting out of the room and into my arms just in a pure, loving leap.
In Wake Up, Sir! you demonstrated your love of Wodehouse. It’s been said that one of the biggest compliments there any artist can have is to have someone emulate one’s work. Do you agree with that?
Well, I couldn’t compliment Wodehouse because he’s so... it’s like trying to compliment Michelangelo’s David. You know what I mean? I’m not worthy to compliment him, so if he was alive it wouldn’t be like, what I tried to do was a compliment or something like that. But I know that sometimes younger readers of my work might send me a piece of writing and say, “I tried to write this in your style” and so I take that as a compliment. But I don’t think what I did was a compliment to Wodehouse.
When you were at Princeton you worked with Joyce Carol Oates. When she was a mentor to you did she give you any advice as a writer starting out that sticks with you now?
Oh yeah. Not so much for the essays because we didn’t talk about it that much but she gave me a piece of advice that I’ve always used in the fiction... sort of going back to the question about first person. She told me I could take an aspect of my personality and form a whole character out of that. And that’s kind of what I’ve done, a little bit with my fiction. Like my first novel, the character -- I took the self-destructive aspect of my character and kind of formed a whole character with that as almost the central elements of him. In the second book I took my fascination with what I called the “young gentlemen” and English novels and made a whole character and novel out of that. With Wake Up, Sir! I kind of took my love of Wodehouse and some of my time at an artist’s colony and... I don’t know, created a whole character out of that. So, that advice she gave me still really helps.
Do you keep in touch with her?
I see her at things and I sent her one of my books and she sent me a book so we’re in touch. But I don’t want to bother her. You know? She’s a very busy person.
Is there anyone now who has impressed you in the same way you felt impressed by Wodehouse when you wrote Wake Up, Sir!?
Yeah, but I kind of don’t want to talk about it because when you talk about it, you end up not doing it.
Is The Extra Man still being adapted for the screen?
It’s less far along than my novel, Wake Up, Sir! but The Extra Man had been under option with a company called Killer Films for about five years. They did Boys Don’t Cry and but now I have the rights back and I’m nearly finished with the screenplay for it. So, at some point I’ll be trying to shop that around. I’ve written a screenplay for Wake Up, Sir! which is now being produced by Ben Stiller’s company called Free Arts and we have some actors attached and the director. So that’s moving along.
Do you find writing screenplays more difficult than a novel or your nonfiction?
Well, no. Screenplays are little bit more like building something. There’s not as much room for creativity but it is fun. Maybe it’s not as fun as writing prose, but you just have to be very stripped down. I enjoy it though and hope to do more of it.
One of your essays is titled “Kurt Cobain” in your new collection. Many people felt he was a groundbreaking artist back then. Is there anyone now you feel the same about that is outside the normal group of people you like to listen to?
Well, I’m just kind of sort of retarded when it comes to music. I don’t think I listen to anything that’s like Nirvana. Yeah, I’m just retarded. When I come to LA, which is where I’m at right now, I like to buy a CD and listen to it because you drive so much here. Right now I’m listening to this band called The Decemberists. People kept mentioning them to me so...
Yeah. The lead singer’s sister is the author Maile Meloy. A UCI alumni.
That’s interesting. I saw that she just had a new book that came out. I’ve heard of her but I’ve never read her.
They play The Decemberists on KCRW a lot. Have you listened to that out here?
That’s the NPR affiliate?
Yes. They play very cool music in the morning on Nic Harcourt’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic.”
I did a piece for them. Not the music -- I don’t remember which show. It was awhile ago.
Speaking of eclectic artists -- I read on your website that you’re doing an event with Moby.
Moby saw me perform a number of times during my monologues and so then he e-mailed me wanting to know when I’d be performing next. He’d also performed with this group called, “The Moth” which is a storytelling group in New York and so we kind of met through that and then he had me perform at one of his concerts, which was cool. He came to one of the variety shows I was doing in New York and then he suggested that we do it together and maybe try to make a TV show out of it. So, we’re just going to fool around and experiment and he’s going to join me at the end of March and be my co-host. We’ll see what happens. It should be fun though. He’s very bright and funny.
In your essay, “My Weiner is Damaged” you buy your son a brand new Game Boy for the holidays. You had mentioned having a difficult time feeling like it was okay to spend money on yourself. Do you still feel that way?
Yeah, I wrote that essay in 1998 so that was 8 years ago or so. But I think I’ve gotten much better about being profligate. I mean, I don’t own a lot of things and I don’t need a lot of things but, I’ve done better with buying shoes... and I hate to shop. But I don’t have quite... generally speaking, I’m not quite as neurotic as I used to be.
That’s a good thing! Tell me how you became involved in the project you edited about transsexuals?
About the project... years ago... In 1990 a friend of mine picked me up at the airport and we stopped at a gay bar out in Pennsylvania and I kind of got picked up by an older, sexy woman. We just flirted for awhile and she gave me her number and we talked on the phone a few times but then I threw away her number because I had a girlfriend and I didn’t want to... She was in her early fifties. I was in my mid-twenties. That was that. But then ten years later I was sent the memoir of a transsexual called, The Woman I Was Not Born To Be by Aleshia Brevard. Temple University Press sent me this book to blurb and the whole time I was reading it, I was thinking, “Why is this name so familiar to me?!” And I kept reading it and I got towards the end of the book and it talked about there being a theatre troop in the very town in Pennsylvania where I’d met her and I realized, “Oh my God! That’s the woman I had met 10 years ago.” I didn’t know it was a transsexual and so I e-mailed the publisher. And when the woman at the bar had met me, she said to me, “Where have you been my whole life, baby?” So ten years later when I e-mailed the publisher saying, “I love the book. I’ll be happy to blurb it. But something very unusual is going on. I think I’ve met Aleshia. Can you ask her if she remembers meeting a Jonathan Ames?” So, a few hours later I got an e-mail from her saying, “Where have you been, baby?” Right around the time I read that book I noticed that there were a number of books that had come out where they were masquerading as the other sex or changing sexes. Also around that time, my friend Jonathan Lethem was putting out an anthology about amnesia and I was thinking, “Hmmm, I’m going to put out an anthology. Maybe I can make some money.”
Didn’t he mention that you would make a great deal of money doing an anthology and then it didn’t end up being that way?
Right. I think I lost money on it. I thought it would be a way to make some money and it was just this concept I had. So, then I kind of put it together. It took awhile. I was at Indiana University at the time so I had access to the Kinsey Library and I just did a lot of Xeroxing and submitted it to Vintage and they went for it. And then it took a long time to get all the rights. Anyway, so now it’s out in the world and I lost some money on it.
Are you still working on a pilot for Showtime?
No. It was a pilot that I wrote and acted in based on my book, What’s Not To Love but it didn’t go to series. At some point I guess it might air but it hasn’t so maybe it won’t. And it would have just aired one time.
Your essay “No Contact, Asshole!” you find yourself in a situation with a pre-op Transsexual and his/her girlfriend. There are other equally precarious situations you happen into that you discuss in some of your essays. Do you have any regrets either in the moment or after you’ve had time to think about it?
Oh yeah. Full of regret. You’re talking about if I’m behaving pathologically and nuttily? Almost the whole thing is filled with regret. It would be cool to be a different kind of person where you don’t... where you accept yourself and you don’t have regrets. But I’m not that person.
Most of your stories are told with a good portion of self-deprecating humor. Is there anyone in your life that you feel you’ve acquired your good sense of humor from?
I don’t think anyone else in my family is/was self-deprecating like that. I think my father was kind of deprecating. Not of himself, but of others so I might have gotten it from that.
Are you teaching now in New York?
I was teaching this fall. Teaching nonfiction at the New School and fiction at Columbia. This semester I’m not teaching but I’m a thesis advisor for a bunch of students at the New School. I don’t know if I’ll teach again in the fall.
Do you prefer writing to teaching?
I prefer writing to teaching. Teaching is okay but it’s something that writers have always done to make a living. But at the same time I enjoy the students. It can be pretty draining though. I try and make sure the students have a good experience. It’s so vulnerable when you produce a piece of writing in the workshop experience and it can be scary. A lot of times people have been stunted by teachers or peers. I try mostly to encourage. That was one thing I learned from Joyce Carol Oates. She was so encouraging of me. That was the best thing she could have done.
What can we look forward to from Jonathan Ames?
Well, right now I’m working on just doing the tour, but the next thing I want to do is finish my screenplay for The Extra Man and I have to start working on this graphic novel with a friend of mine, Dean Haspiel, who is the illustrator for the book, The Quitter. So I’m going to collaborate with him on that so that would be the next thing.