Interview with Jonathan Ames

I first became acquainted with Jonathan Ames‘ writing when he read at a bar down the street from my old apartment. As the audience entered, he passed out a diagram of his bald spot and tried to make sure that everyone had a look at the corresponding area on his person. Then he Photographer:  Travis Roozeedid a sort of pirouette on the stage so the latecomers could see his head from all angles. At last, satisfied that he’d done his damnedest to preempt any whisperings about his hairline, Ames settled into the best reading I’ve seen to this day.

The nonfiction essays he read (taken from What’s Not to Love? and My Less Than Secret Life) are funny, blunt, edgy, and sometimes unexpectedly moving. In my favorite, overcome with loneliness when his young son goes home after a visit, Ames winds up smoking crack in a motel room with a transvestite on Christmas night. Critics rightly applaud the author’s humor and daring. But it is the deep sadness and anxiety at the core of Ames’ characters that draws readers into their plights.

Wake Up, Sir!, Ames’ novelistic homage to P.G. Wodehouse, appears next month. Its protagonist is Alan Blair, a writer who’s come into enough money to hire a personal valet (named Jeeves, naturally) but lives with his aunt and uncle in suburban New Jersey. Blair’s activities don’t vary much from day to day. He drinks too much, plays solitaire, avoids his uncle and pretends to write until his aunt shatters his placid lifestyle by insisting that he return to rehab. Then Blair and the ever-affirming Jeeves hit the road. Their adventures culminate at a Saratoga Springs writers’ retreat where Blair tries to woo a beautiful sculptor with huge nostrils.

Ames and I talked — emailed, actually — about his writing habits, his admiration for Chandler and Wodehouse, the ratio of drinking time to writing time at writers’ retreats, and much more. On Friday, well after we’d finalized our interview, The Hollywood Reporter announced that Showtime has greenlit a TV pilot that Ames adapted from What’s Not to Love? If the series works out, he’ll be playing himself. And if you’re interested in Ames’ thoughts on marriage, be sure to visit Nerve every day this week. He’ll be holding forth on the subject there.

Do you write every day?

Yes and no. I write emails every day — does that count? Real writing — fiction or essays — I sometimes go weeks without writing anything. Then there are very productive times, like this past summer and fall when I had to get my novel, Wake Up, Sir!, done. I wrote every day for three or four months and wrote most of the book during that time. From start to finish I worked on Wake Up, Sir! for three years, but I wrote about 60-70% of it from July 2003 to November 2003. I wish I was the kind of writer who wrote every day, but I’m not. I do think about writing every day, not thinking that I should be doing it, but thinking about what I’d like to write next, planning, coming up with ideas, forgetting the ideas…

Do you write longhand, on the computer, with a typewriter, or some combination of these?

Mostly on a computer, though I take notes in little notebooks that I carry around, and I write in my journal by hand. I write in my journal primarily when I’m travelling and when I’m really losing my mind … that is when I’m really losing it, as opposed to the daily sense of confusion and muddle and anxiety and craziness, all of which are provoked by personal troubles or made-up troubles. Then there are the world’s troubles which are so troubling that it’s beyond troublesome. In fact, I’m going to go to Moveon.org as soon as I finish your queries and to Greenpeaceusa.org and write some letters to Senators and Congressman or just get very upset and then I’ll pray to all the deities that man figures out what the hell is going on. I once read in a children’s science book a great quote from Richard Leakey; it said something to the effect that no creature on earth was as destructive as man, but there was also no creature on earth that possibly had the capacity to change itself the way man could. I take a little bit of solace in that; not much, but a little…

Meanwhile, back to me and the important issue of my creative process: I wrote my first novel, I Pass Like Night, by hand and had a typist type it, though I also typed a few chapters. The Extra Man, my second novel, I wrote that on a typewriter and by hand for the first two years, then in 1994 I purchased my first computer and started using that, though I often still wrote chapters out by hand. Now I’m totally computerized and have a bionic left eye. When I edit printed up pages, I edit with a pen, sometimes writing in new sentences.

The protagonist of Wake Up, Sir! arrives at a writers’ colony with two black eyes and a broken nose that have resulted from a call he made while drunk. Although he’s resolved to stop drinking, Alan soon finds himself confronting the prospect of drinks before dinner, drinks at dinner and still more drinks after dinner.  Blackouts and sexual escapades ensue. In your experience, what percentage of a writer’s time at a retreat is spent drinking or recovering from drinking, and what percentage is spent writing?

Well, if a writer drinks at a colony, they usually drink at night, so let’s say they start at 7 p.m. and go to midnight. That’s five hours. Then in the morning, they recover from 8 a.m. till 11 a.m. Then they write (with breaks but breaks are part of the writing process) until 3 p.m. before giving up. Then maybe they get a second-wind and throw in a half hour sometime between 3 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. (when dinner is served). So that’s 8 hours of drinking and recovery and 4.5 hours of writing. Well, that seems like a very good ratio, because if any writer puts in 4.5 hours, drinking or not drinking, then they’re being very productive. After all, we’re not teletype machines. So I don’t know how that works out percentage wise — I’m not good at math — but I’ll give it a shot. 33% of the time is spent drinking and recovering and about 17% is spent writing, another 33% is spent sleeping, and the remaining 17% is probably spent reading, going into town, talking on the phone, going for walks, doing weird obsessive personal hygiene things, looking out the window, and so on.

There are exceptions, though: One time I was at an artist colony and this poet was on a real bender and was drinking around the clock. He was also writing. Drinking and writing. There was very little recovery time. He was more or less constantly drunk and his room was littered with poems, which were probably lousy, but who knows? I was sober at the time, but I helped him steal other people’s booze, which was a bad thing to do, but I probably wanted to live through him; god, I’m blanking on the word where you want to live through another person — I’m dying! — Anyway, on his last day, this poet showed up at breakfast wearing a woman’s dress and a man’s chamois shirt with the front-pocket loaded with pens. That’s what struck me as most funny: if you’re going to come to breakfast in a dress, why wear a working-man’s shirt loaded with pens? Then he went and played tennis in the woman’s dress and chamois shirt and he wasn’t half-bad.

Now, I’m also an exception. For the last eighteen years I’ve tried not to drink and when I have it’s been catastrophic, whether or not I’m at a colony. Only once did I drink at a colony — I went into town and destroyed myself — and I spent the whole next day sick in bed, with a few trips to the toilet to vomit. But that’s the only time I can recall — this was more than 10 years ago — that I drank at an artist colony. I sobered up the next day and went back to my usual schedule of writing, napping, procrastinating, fondling of self, and playing sports, such as basketball, tennis, ping pong, and swimming.

You’ve said P.G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler are your favorite authors. Wake Up, Sir! is a direct homage to Wodehouse.  When do we get to read the Ames homage to Chandler?

I’d like to try that. I was thinking maybe I would do that in my next novel, but I want my next novel to be an academic/comedic novel, like that great book Kingsley Amis wrote, the title of which I can’t recall. But I also want to do some sort of Chandler homage, so I was thinking of making the hero of the academic novel a professor who ends up trying to solve a murder, a professor who has always wanted to be a private dick, maybe a professor who has read too much Chandler and Hammett and is a little brainwashed and maybe delusional (the same trick I just did with my Wodehouse novel — a character who has read too much Wodehouse and it changes him; most writers only have one or two tricks, so why should I be any different?)… But it would have to be a funny murder, since it’s a comedy, but murder is never funny… Anyway, I may have to keep the two stories separate: academic novel, then private detective novel. There’s also the problem that the Chandler rip-off has been done to death. But it’s still tempting, that’s why it’s been done to death. Just because a million people have gone to see the Grand Canyon, doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing, so just because a million writers have tried to mimic Chandler’s magic…

Jonathan Lethem borrowed from Raymond Chandler in both Gun, With Occasional Music and Motherless Brooklyn.  He says of Chandler: “The secret … is that he’s really very romantic. Behind all that ennui there’s this enormous yearning that causes him to reach, in this very precarious way, for all sorts of beautiful phrases and unlikely poetic comparisons. And then he’s always making fun of himself for doing it at the same time. That’s why writers obsess over Chandler — because he’s found a way to have his lyricism and make fun of it at the same time. I also think there’s a degree of self-loathing in Chandler that’s really interesting.” 

Are you attracted to Chandler’s work because of the yearning, lyricism and self-loathing Lethem describes, or is it something else?

I’m not not attracted for those reasons and those are very good reasons and beautifully stated, but I guess I have my own. I want to be Marlowe. I read Chandler and I get to be Marlowe. I’m tall and strong and I throw a good punch. I’m independent and know how to make good coffee. I can drink and hold my booze (see #3 above) and I get to kiss green-eyed blondes with skin like ice that’s warm. And I get to live in Los Angeles when it was still beautiful and I never seem to age.

Aside from getting to be Marlowe, I do love, as Jonathan writes, the lyricism of the prose. I’m mad for the prose. If I was a music connossieur, it would be like listening to Brahms or Coltrane, depending on whether you went for classical or jazz. I also love the dialogue, which isn’t quite lyrical, but snappy and funny and hard-boiled. I should say that from Chandler, I went to Hammett, though Hammett preceded him chronologically by a little, but I went backwards — started with R.C. and then went to D.H., and I love Hammett nearly as much as Chandler. But Chandler … well, he was my first, and you know how it is with firsts … he popped my hard boiled cherry and I’ll never forget him.

I heard an interview with you on The Next Big Thing a few years ago.  In it, you said your nonfiction essays (such as the ones included in What’s Not to Love?) are not strictly autobiographical, but are from the point of view of an exaggerated version of yourself.  Does that same voice tend to find its way into your fiction, or do you separate yourself more fully from your fictional characters?

I don’t think I said that on The N.B.T. since they’ve never interviewed me, though I’ve done a number of pieces for them; I probably said it on the Lenny Lopate Show. [Ed. note: oh, yes, my bad.] I certainly said it because it sounds like the kind of crap I would say. I don’t know — it’s all a huge mess this business of first-person fiction and first-person essays, both of which I’ve written, and is all I’ve written (except for a third-person omniscient novelization of the movie 200 Cigarettes, which I wrote under the name Spencer Johns and dedicated it narcissistically to J.A., and my epigram was the Surgeon General’s warning.)

Anyway, sometimes I don’t know what’s truth or not truth in my fiction and non-fiction; in both ‘genres,’ some events I change and some I don’t and over the course of time, I’m not sure what really happened, which sort of stinks; if there’s one person who should know what went down in my life it’s me and I don’t, dammit… All my main fictional characters (narrators) are me and also my non-fiction narrator, but, and this is boring, not me. And they’re probably not me, because who can capture one’s self? And who would want to? I want to entertain, so I use myself like a clown. Jim Carrey is really good at making funny faces, and that’s what I do with my characters: I take myself and make a funny face. Is it me? I don’t know. People often tell me that I’m so honest. I am, but there’s plenty, in fact, there’s more I don’t tell. But incomplete disclosure is not dishonest. It’s called being sane. Only insane people reveal all. But I must be a little insane, since I’ve revealed more than most … I do think that people think I spill all my secrets, but I don’t. I spill a few to make people think there aren’t any others. It’s confessing to burglary to avoid a murder rap.

Fiction is a bit easier in a way: a little bit more protection from people’s projection, but not much. And that little bit of protection can free you up to be wilder or more honest or more dishonest … I’m more or less retired from writing revealing personal essays. I did that because I had a column; I don’t feel compelled to do it now, and I don’t want another column. So, on occasion, for an assignment, I’ll ‘expose’ myself, I imagine, but for the most part, I’d rather expose myself in fiction and have people wonder a little whether it’s me or not… Though they also wondered whether I was telling the truth in the non-fiction. They thought I was making stuff up, and sometimes I was. I always used to say: there’s a lot of fiction in that non-fiction. But see what I mean? Nobody knows what’s going on: the writer or the reader. I’m sorry that I’m not making a lot of sense.

Anyway, none of this is important, but I hope some of your readers find my ridiculous answers distracting, and distraction is okay — we can’t all be in deep Buddhist meditation or making phone calls for Moveon.org all the time.

Some writers shy away from reading fiction while they’re immersed in writing a novel because they feel they’re too susceptible to other people’s prose styles. Others say they read books that counteract their own stylistic weaknesses. Donald Barthelme once said, “I keep reading while I write and I don’t think it hurts me. My writing is sufficiently various that someone else’s style doesn’t take over. I don’t suddenly turn into John Updike if I’m reading Updike. One can’t just imitate another. Everybody is influenced by the people they read, but the pleasure in the situation is that usually there are so many influences—so many fathers—that they all get blended
together. In the best case, no single influence dominates.”

Do you read fiction while you’re writing? If so, which authors do you gravitate toward?

Yes, I read fiction while writing. In fact, I only read fiction all the time. I never read biographies or memoirs or anything, just novels and story collections. I get all my non-fiction from newspapers. Well, that’s not entirely true, sometimes I read non-fiction, but it’s rare. I’ve read George Plimpton’s books and some other memoirs … but it’s really quite rare … So I don’t gravitate towards any particular writer while writing, though back when I was writing my New York Press columns, I would look to Bukowski’s old LA Free Press columns to be inspired stylistically by his straightforward prose…

In early 2003, Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker, famously said, “Someone who’s submitting themselves directly to the fiction editor probably isn’t all that savvy about publishing and probably not about writing either.

Do you think there’s any connection between business savvy and writing talent?

No, no connection I don’t think, but to succeed as a writer, you do need to get a little clever about things. When I published my first novel in 1989, I didn’t know anything about the writing game — how I might help publicize the book and so on. Now, by my fifth book, I have some idea how to help get the word out so that the thing isn’t a total failure, and you don’t want it to be a total failure, because then the publishers won’t buy your next book.

What are you reading now?

Just finished a Philip K. Dick novel, Martian Time Slip, which didn’t make much sense except on a psychotic level, which was the point, and will start another one, The Divine Invasion. I was visiting the offices of Vintage and was allowed to take a few books from their stock room, so I grabbed two Dick novels. After I finish the next one, I’ll mail them down to my son. He’s a pretty good reader and likes it when I give him Philip K. Dick books. I also need to reread Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, because I’m writing an intro to a reissue of the book.

Care to talk about anything you’re working on at the moment?

Well, it relates to why I was in the Vintage offices. Three years ago, in the spring of 2001, I put together an anthology of the memoirs of transsexuals; I had read one such memoir (see, there I go reading non-fiction, but it was for the purposes of giving a blurb) — Aleisha Brevard’s The Woman I Was Not Born to Be — and I realized that there was something to the whole tranny story that was like the Bildungsroman. Well, at that time, I was at Indiana University, which has the Kinsey library, and I started looking at transsexual memoirs, and came up with this idea that it was a whole sub-genre of memoir. So I put together an anthology, which I sometimes call a ‘tranthology,’ and it’s titled Sexual Metamorphasis; but it’s taken me years to get the whole thing together (permissions and so on), but Vintage is publishing it next year if it all works out. So that’s why I was able to go in their stock room and grab, fittingly enough, some Dick. So I’m sort of working on that anthology, but working on it an abstract way, as in waiting for permissions to come through. About Aleisha: I wrote a wild story about her in my book, My Less Than Secret Life; what’s wild is that I had met her years before her book was sent to me to blurb, and her publisher, of course, didn’t know that we had actually once met one time. And when I met her in 1990, I didn’t know she was a transsexual … It’s an interesting story of a bizarre coincidence — that ten/eleven years later I should be sent her book … And about being at I.U. — that’s why I want to write an academic novel. I’m also sort of working on editing a new collection of old essays, which if it’s any good, would come out next year some time. I don’t have a title, though I’m thinking of calling it: I Love You More Than That. And, mentally, I’m ‘working’ on the academic novel, but I haven’t written a word. Well, I think that answers all your questions.

Thanks, Jonathan!

Photograph by Travis Roozee


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