The Mystique and the Mistake of the First
an interview with Jonathan Ames
By Jason Mojica
Jonathan Ames is the next big thing. There, weve said
it, and probably jinxed his career from this point forward.
But seriously, ask anyone. Okay, ask anyone whos read
Extra Man. Ask anyone whos 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 cant believe that hes not wildly famous.
Ask them and theyll 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 youve heard of him too, that hes no
longer their little secret.
The Modernists Jason Mojica met with Jonathan Ames at
his hotel in Chicagos 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 wasnt?
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
its fun to see these different cities
Im 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 Ive swam in the Pacific, I swam in
Puget Sound, so I go oh, Ill swim in Lake Michigan,
but then Im like, well, whats the point
of doing all these things just so you can do them? But
I put my feet in.
The thing Ive most often wondered about your work
I get the impression
Ive read your columns,
which I assume are non-fiction, but much of your fiction comes
across as thinly veiled autobiography. Just how thinly veiled
I dont think its 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
you know, my life tends to be much more full
than these characters. Its 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 Ive 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 theyre very much their own strange
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 its like a
whole other life
I dont 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 dont think its so thinly-veiled,
its 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
its really just the use of the I, but I
like it because it makes it natural, you get to talk through
In line with the last question, have you found yourself
having to defend the sexual exploits in your book to potential
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 its kinda like well,
if they still want to go out with me
what I mean? Theyve cleared that first hurdle. Sometimes
people will ask me whats true, or
easy, its not always easy. Someone might ask, have
you really gone to a prostitute? and I usually
just, sort of somehow dont answer the question, or maybe
Ill 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?
Ive been thinking that the next novel Id like
to write, Id like to draw on some of my experience teaching
at Indiana University. An academic setting is often a funny
setting for a novel, and its 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 youre 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 Id 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.
Whats an aspect of your work or your life as a writer
that people dont 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. Whats
nice is sometimes people comment that theres a sweetness
to a lot of the stories, that I dont ever try to hurt
anyone, and that theres a general kind of kindness about
my fellow human beings. I dont want to think about that
too much, because then Ill be like, am I going
to try to be sweet?
But people have commented on that, and I dont know that
thats 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.
Youve 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 youre the object of it you dont
know about it. So if anyones jealous of me, they havent
let me know. Its usually when youre a best-seller,
and youre 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 Ive heard of him.
Can you talk about this cable show youve been working
I wrote a TV pilot based on Whats
Not to Love, for Showtime. Were 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!
For more on Mr. Ames, vist jonathanames.com
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