Literature

The Mystique and the Mistake of the First Person: an interview with Jonathan Ames

Jonathan Ames is the next big thing. There, we’ve said it, and probably jinxed his career from this point forward. But seriously, ask anyone. Okay, ask anyone who’s read The Extra Man. Ask anyone who’s been to his readings, seen his one-man show, or read his columns way-back-when in the New York Press. Ask them, and they will tell you that they can’t believe that he’s not wildly famous. Ask them and they’ll express awe for and admiration of the earnest manner he discusses the sexual exploits of both he and his characters. Ask them and they might be a little upset that you’ve heard of him too, that he’s no longer their little secret.

The Modernist’s Jason Mojica met with Jonathan Ames at his hotel in Chicago’s gold coast. The author was in the middle of his recent tour to promote his new novel, Wake Up, Sir! Born out of Ames’ love for P.G. Wodehouse, Wake Up, Sir! introduces us to a 30-something alcoholic author who, due to fortunate slip on some ice, has become wealthy enough to justify hiring his own valet, a man named Jeeves (of course).

The Modernist: Do you like doing these book tours?

Ames: Is that part of the interview, are you recording already?

Yes. Would I get a different answer if it wasn’t?

No no no! A number of things are fun. I have different friends in each city, so I get to see them… I like staying in hotels… it’s fun to see these different cities… I’m very grateful that these sort of odd and interesting people come out to my readings.

What are some of your favorite places to visit?

Anywhere with an ocean. I went out to Lake Michigan just now, and that was kinda cool, but there did seem to be a fair amount of garbage washed up along the edge, so I just put my feet in. I kind of thought of swimming in there because on this little book tour I’ve swam in the Pacific, I swam in Puget Sound, so I go “oh, I’ll swim in Lake Michigan,” but then I’m like, “well, what’s the point of doing all these things just so you can do them?” But I put my feet in.

The thing I’ve most often wondered about your work is… I get the impression… I’ve read your columns, which I assume are non-fiction, but much of your fiction comes across as thinly veiled autobiography. Just how thinly veiled is it?

I don’t think it’s that thinly veiled. I definitely draw upon myself, but is the narrator… do I feel like I could have just said I as in Jonathan Ames for The Extra Man? No. I change things, I create a different history… you know, my life tends to be much more full than these characters’. It’s hard to fully represent a complex human being, or to even try to explain yourself or all the aspects and vagaries of your life, so those characters are quite distant from me, but like I’ve said in other interviews, they certainly share a lot of DNA, or I might give them my dimensions so I can hang some clothing on them, do you know what I mean? Or I give them some of my basic resume background, “born in New Jersey,” because it gives an outline, but then they’re very much their own strange human beings.

A long time ago Joyce Carol Oates gave me the advice that you can take a character and give that character an aspect of yourself, and build a whole character of that aspect. For example in The Extra Man the character had this “young gentleman” fantasy, I mean, that was the prevailing, dominant thing in his life, and the other thing was this obsession with transsexuals. Those were little aspects of my life, but I could create a whole character out of that. This new one is my most… like, nothing, none of those events happened in my life that happened in Wake Up, Sir!, I mean, the entire thing is imagined. And then the first book is almost not even worth talking about because I wrote it fifteen years ago, so it’s like a whole other life… I don’t even know what I was trying to do. But even that character was different from me, his life was a lot more narrow, he had fewer opportunities.

So in that sense I don’t think it’s so thinly-veiled, it’s the mystique and the mistake of using the first person- not mistake, but it lends that presom to the reader like, “oh, this is just him talking,” but it’s really just the use of the “I,” but I like it because it makes it natural, you get to talk through that person.

In line with the last question, have you found yourself having to defend the sexual exploits in your book to potential lovers?

Well, yeah… I mean, earlier in my life, because of the first book— there was a lot of raw sex, and the AIDS specter in that first book… early on it made things sometimes weird with women. Later in life, most people I meet have read my books before meeting me so it’s kinda like “well, if they still want to go out with me…” you know what I mean? They’ve cleared that first hurdle. Sometimes people will ask me what’s true, or… it’s not easy, it’s not always easy. Someone might ask, “have you really gone to a prostitute?” and I usually just, sort of somehow don’t answer the question, or maybe I’ll judge what they can handle, “yes, one time.”

Now this interview will blow that out of the water.

You mentioned somewhere that you might be doing a book based in Midwestern academia?

I’ve been thinking that the next novel I’d like to write, I’d like to draw on some of my experience teaching at Indiana University. An academic setting is often a funny setting for a novel, and it’s kind of like the Wodehouse thing I did in Wake Up, Sir!, sort of choosing these classic arenas for humor: the academy or the university is kind of a classic set-up for quirky characters to be in a confined space.

How long did you teach there?

Just two semesters, fall and spring, not quite a full year, and I was going back to New York a lot.

How old were you then?

This was four years ago. So, four years from what I am now which is forty- which my line about saying you’re forty is that it’s kind of like saying you have active herpes 365 days out of the year.

What were some of your more memorable teaching experiences?

Mostly what was memorable was that I had irritable bowel syndrome that whole year and I kept, really crapping my pants. It just seemed like I was constantly dashing for the toilet, never knowing if I’d make it through a class without my stomach exploding. I had the irritable bowel syndrome because this girl back in New York had broke my heart. I think the heart and the stomach are related.

What’s an aspect of your work or your life as a writer that people don’t tend to realize?

I find that people emphasize the humor, which is good, I want it to be funny. People sometimes emphasize the outrageous confessional nature, especially of the columns. What’s nice is sometimes people comment that there’s a sweetness to a lot of the stories, that I don’t ever try to hurt anyone, and that there’s a general kind of kindness about my fellow human beings. I don’t want to think about that too much, because then I’ll be like, “am I going to try to be sweet?”

But people have commented on that, and I don’t know that that’s something intentional, but it makes me feel good when they point it out because it seems to be something they like. So the important things in my work seem to be noted.

You’ve been becoming more popular as of late. Have you found yourself at all the subject of professional jealousy?

The nature of jealousy, or schadenfreude or whatever, is that usually when you’re the object of it you don’t know about it. So if anyone’s jealous of me, they haven’t let me know. It’s usually when you’re a best-seller, and you’re a young writer and somehow your first book sold for a huge amount of money, then you get jealousy. No one associates me with huge amounts of money or best-sellers. I still fall under the category of “hey, this guy is kind of quirky… oh yeah, I think I’ve heard of him.”

Can you talk about this cable show you’ve been working on?

I wrote a TV pilot based on What’s Not to Love, for Showtime. We’re going to shoot the pilot in September. If that becomes a series, then I imagine some people will be jealous, like “why does he have a TV show? Ugly, bald creep!”

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