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An Interview with Jonathan Ames

Conducted by Mark Schofield

The voice in Jonathan Ames’s memoir, My Less Than Secret Life, his collected columns, What’s Not to Love?, and two novels, I Pass Like Night and The Extra Man, is that of a very bright man who may or not be coming apart. His words make you laugh tears and bite your lip with truth. During his recent stretch performing Eric Bogosian’s monologue ‘Notes from Underground’ in Manhattan’s East Village, I inquired about his frame of mind.

FF: I’ve been trying to decide whether you’re a novelist who also writes personal histories or a personal historian who also writes novels. Can you help me out?

JA: I don’t know that one has to precede the other. I guess I’m just a writer and for a while I was writing novels, and then I got my column for New York Press and started writing personal essays (though your phrase personal histories is more elegant), and now I’m writing novels again, but still, sometimes, writing personal histories. And added to all this mix, to make things more confusing, is that first I wrote a novel, I Pass Like Night, and then I couldn’t find my ‘voice’ in fiction, so I started telling stories from my life on stage, and then I did find a fictional voice in The Extra Man, while still telling stories on stage, and then I stopped the stage stuff for a few years to finish the novel, and then I started the column and returned to the stage, which sounds overly dramatic in a number of layered ways . . . Anyway, before I started writing personal histories, I was telling personal histories.

FF: Do you have a favorite among your books, or one of which you’re proudest?

JA: I think I’m proudest of The Extra Man. That I sustained a story for a ‘long’ book; that I had a singleness of purpose for four years to write that book and it happened. Lately, I’ve been feeling good about What’s Not to Love? as a testament that I was doing some interesting stuff writing my column every two weeks.

FF: You’ve styled for yourself a niche I find enviable: you get to write in a funny, direct voice the things people actually want to read. How has your style evolved?

JA: I’ve always liked the straight-forward “American” prose style, as seen in Hemingway, Hammett, Bukowski and numerous other practitioners. I think when I first started writing, my ‘ear’ was more genuinely musical and poetic while being straightforward. I wish I could write like that again; but I think that takes a certain amount of inner youthful pain and self-seriousness that I’ve lost. And I have to say answering questions about my work and writing makes me feel a little embarrassed. But what the hell, it’s nice to be asked questions and so I’ll pretend that I’m a real writer who gets to answer questions like these.

FF: How did it begin for you? Were you writing for the New York Press when you sold your first book?

JA: I sold my first book in 1987. It was a novella, my senior thesis at Princeton. I was 23. I took a year and a half to expand into a novel, and it came out in 1989. Then I had a severe case of second-novel psychosis and didn’t publish my second book, The Extra Man, until 1998. I started writing for the Press in December of 1996, after The Extra Man had been rejected by about 25 publishers and I was going to quit being a writer, but a friend of mine read some of The Extra Man to the Press’s then editor, the great and incredible John Strausbaugh, and he decided to publish some of it as a short story, and from there I started writing essays for him and the Press for about 10 months and then started my column in the fall of 1997. If any of this makes sense, and in February of 1997, The Extra Man was finally accepted by a publisher, the last one in New York that hadn’t yet said no, Scribner. So thank the deities for them and the editor who purchased it, Leigh Haber.

FF: I didn’t see Eric Bogosian perform ‘Notes from Underground,’ but your performance includes tics and actions that struck me as your creation. How much input did you have in the piece?

JA: I added a few lines, not much, and Eric was wonderfully flexible to work with in allowing me to find a way to become the character. I ended up hamming it up a lot more than he initially wanted I think, but he was very generous with me and allowed me to ham it up, which is my natural inclination.

FF: Your hilarious readings of your own work hinge on self-deprecation and goofiness. Is that your instinctual reaction to performing or is it a strategy you’ve developed?

JA: I guess it’s instinctual.

FF: Which dead or otherwise impossible-to-meet writer has affected you most personally? Someone who has soothed or outraged you or made you wonder why you bother.

JA: I love so many writers; they’ve all kept me going. I love books. I think every writer is a book lover. But the writers I reread . . . let’s see: Raymond Chandler, Bukowski, PG Wodehouse . . . recently I reread John Barth’s The End of The Road. Some day I hope to reread Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which I think is the greatest book I’ve ever read.

FF: Okay, bad living is fun. Should we really just limit ourselves to coffee?

JA: I don’t tell people what to do, except maybe to appeal to them not to hurt themselves, if they can help it. For me, at the moment, coffee is my only chemical vice. The other ones just beat the crap out of me. But I’m fine with it. Boxing is not fun when you get your ass kicked all the time, so it’s the same thing with me as far alcohol and its cousins are concerned.

FF: You make a big commotion about being bald. Would you swap four inches of height for hair? Would you accept six extra inches of waist-line as a trade?

JA: Good question. I guess not. So I will count my blessings.

FF: What’ll your next book be like? When will we see it?

JA: It’s a comic novel; an homage to the novels of PG Wodehouse. It is titled, Wake Up, Sir! It will come out with Scribner in the spring of 2004, if all goes well.

Copyright 2003. Mark Schofield.

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