an interview with Jonathan Ames      
photo of Jonathan Ames

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  To what do you attribute your success in Turkey?

That's an interesting question; I don't know why I go over well with the Turkish population. I'm having some trouble there, actually. My first book, I Pass Like Night, sold well; I actually made some royalties. Not enough to get me out of the financial trouble that I talk about in this piece, but it might have helped that particular month. My most recent novel, The Extra Man, has actually been banned by the government in Turkey. The translator and the publisher were hauled into court and the book was confiscated, so I got PEN American center involved and letters have been drafted. They're fighting it. I think the book was banned because of sexual content. The Extra Man is not nearly as salacious as the first book, so the publisher felt that it was a matter of the government coming down on this particular house, which tends to do more edgy, Western-type of literature. I don't know that I'm wildly popular in Turkey, but maybe the sexual content draws readers because it's more taboo there than elsewhere.

What do you think of the fact that you were banned?

In some ways, it's not for me to judge if the Turkish government feels that the book is morally endangering to its people. They labeled it as, "morally dangerous to youth," or something like that. But I did feel badly for the publisher and translator, that they might suffer in any way because of my book. That's why I'm trying to help them out. It turns out Turkey imprisons more writers than any other country. I attended a Freedom to Publish meeting, and I learned that Turkey is a hot spot for that. I'd like to visit some day. My parents actually went to Turkey as part of a cruise on the Mediterranean. They went into a book shop and found my book, I Pass Like Night, and they bought it.

There may well be people in this country who are offended by some of the content in your book. Where do you think these reactions come from?

I worry about that, because I don't want to offend or hurt anyone. Invariably some people will be offended if you bring up topics that they themselves wouldn't discuss. You know, "Who is this kid and why is he talking about sex and bathroom problems?!" Maybe they're offended on an aesthetic level. I don't know that they'll be offended on a moral level. If anything they just might think that I'm nuts, which is alright.

Nonfiction is scarier than fiction, yet even this is exaggerated nonfiction. They're columns that I wrote for The New York Press; I tried to create a persona. I want to write an essay called, "I Should Sue Myself for Libel," about the fact that I've defamed my own character in this book. It's a little worrisome, the prospect of upsetting other people.

Is there any one that you would not want to read your work?

My son is too young to read this stuff. However, I can't censor anyone from reading it, even my great aunt. She's read my novels, where there are fictional characters based on her, and she hasn't minded that. I don't think she'll mind this book, though she might find the bit about her taking infant suppositories when she was constipated a few years ago to be indiscreet. She would also probably claim not to have done that; people want to forget things. Mostly I have to try to censor myself so as not to write things that will hurt other people, or that will go too far.

What is too far for you?

I've really never written about my relationships, or things like that. I wouldn't want to divulge things that were too private.

You say this book is "exaggerated nonfiction." How much have you exaggerated?

I think I created a persona. Nothing is quite real; as soon as you write about yourself, you're not going to get the whole picture. In the column I tried to create a persona that was almost like a fictional voice. I might exaggerate traits of myself. The more sensitive pieces tend to stick closer to the truth, but in the more outrageous ones, I used a persona to entertain the reader. I had in mind Charles Bukowski, who wrote a column for The L.A. Free Press in the late '60s. That column is what saved him as a writer, what got him known. He put it all out there, whether it was persona or not, but his life was already destroyed. He was in his fifties, a mad alcoholic, his face was ravaged; I have a lot more to lose by destroying my reputation, by exaggerating nonfiction events. I guess I exaggerate to make myself wackier than I am.

There may have been one or two episodes of conflating, even though I was told not to do that because of the guy from The New Republic who got in trouble for his conflated "journalism." But, I thought, this is about myself. If I say that I had gas on a date, who's going to check? I'm fine at the moment, by the way.

Good to know. Have you had any negative reactions from friends or family?

Nothing too bad. When someone who's never read me is first getting to know me, and then they read my stuff, sometimes they'll be shocked or repulsed or worried about getting too close to me. But for the most part, thank God, it hasn't been too bad. People tend to be pretty taken up with their own lives.

Besides Charles Bukowski, is there anyone else that you compare yourself to?

I think that during this nonfiction portion of my writing life Bukowski is a big inspiration. In one of the longer pieces, where I write about Harry Chandler, the street artist friend of mine who's missing a leg and who later went on to invent the Mangina, I sort of had Joseph Mitchell in mind. That's in the long piece called "An Erection is a Felony," where the character really gets a chance to talk, I thought of Mitchell's very first Joe Gould piece in The New Yorker, where the character recreates his life story.

Who else inspires you--writers, filmmakers, anyone?

Literature-wise, I recently went through a huge P.G. Wodehouse phase. I want my next novel to be comically-shaped like Wodehouse's books are, particularly the Bertie and Jeeves cycle of Wodehouse's comic English novels. I always return to Graham Greene as a great plot-oriented writer. All of his protagonists are suffering; you read them and you feel like you get to know the characters, even in some of his weaker books. I'm also a big fan of Cervantes. I wanted to come up with an answer to the question, "What's your favorite book of all time?" and I think it would be Don Quixote. I spent six months reading it; I laughed so much while I read it. I don't laugh that much, but I do like humorous books, and I like to entertain readers that way.

I'm not a big cinephile but I recently saw an amazing movie that had the effect on me that literature does. Movies almost never have that effect on me; for me they're more just entertainment. This movie was called Memories of Underdevelopment. The director's name is Gutierrez. It's a Cuban film shot in the early '60s, an amazing film based on a novel.

Other writers that come to mind are Bernard Malamud and I love Fitzgerald. I've gone through many different phases of writers.

Do any female writers come to mind?

Carson McCullers is one of my favorites, as is Flannery O'Connor. I tend to be drawn to the Southern women writers.

Touching back on the issue of shock-value and censorship: I read an article recently about American Psycho, how the book caused such a stir when it came out. This writer doubted that it would have the same impact today, ten years later. What do you think of how shock-value has changed over the years?

I'm not so sure that American Psycho wouldn't still be shocking. I reread it recently, and it's wildly violent. I still had to turn away from the page; I think it's a testament to Bret Easton Ellis's writing. I'm very squeamish, so I could never watch one of those science shows where you see a heart operation. I almost never watch TV, though I saw on David Letterman that they were showing his surgery. I was disgusted. I think Bret's book could still have the power to shock, because it's so visceral. I still think people have some sensitivities and sensibilities, but I also think that it's a crazier and crazier world, and we are seeing all sorts of things, with all this cable television coverage of tragedies. They move from one to the next--Columbine, J.F.K. Junior--it's become a constant theater. Our whole life is a mixture of theater and reality.

What are you working on now?

I've just started it. It's a comedy--not quite a comedy of manners, but definitely a comedy. It might be sort of a sequel to The Extra Man; I think the narrator's going to be the same. I did finish another nonfiction book called The Herring Wonder: A Diary of Travel, Boxing and Some Sex. This book, What's Not to Love, is two-and-a-half years-worth of columns and pieces I've written for the Press, and The Herring Wonder is the next year, from 1999 to 2000. I quit the column a few months ago.

I had a boxing match in November. It was a real boxing match against a performance artist, and I trained for two-and-a-half months with a real trainer at Gleason's Gym. I called myself "The Herring Wonder" because I saw myself as a reincarnated Lower East Side Jewish boxer, and I was going to eat herring both to give me strength and so that I'd have herring breath in the ring to keep my opponent away. I wrote several columns about the fight. It was wild; we had about 400 people, and it was Web cast.

Who were you fighting?

This performance artist named David Leslie, who MTV had named "The Impact Addict." in the '80s because he was a stuntman, who did things like jump off of buildings and get shot out of cannons. He was trying to be the Evil Kenieval of performance art. He was retired all through the '90s, but came back for this boxing match. We had a wild fight; I'd broken my nose nine days before the fight, but went through with it anyway and got it rebroken in the second round. It was a brutal affair. I probably got minor brain damage, though I hope not. So that's the new nonfiction book, which is done and with the publisher.

Why did you stop writing for The New York Press?

I was getting tired of the form, or writing about myself in that persona. I was also getting tired of having to censor myself. The form itself, being a specific word count, was like writing a sonnet every two weeks. I was getting tired of that; it had played itself out. It was fun for a while, was fun to be out there in New York. I'm amazed at the number of diverse people that picked up the Press and read my column. I'd heard that the director Brian DePalma was a fan of my column; his kids go to school with a friend of mine and somehow my name came up. I also had people coming up to me in the street and telling me that they read my column. It's pretty interesting.

I'd imagine that when you're immersed in writing the column, everything you do becomes a possible anecdote for your work.

There was some kind of a subconscious, half-conscious camera on. I'd think, "This is funny" or "This is a funny thought." I'd get a caffeine headache and think, "Maybe I should write about caffeine headaches." Or I'd seek out something more unusual.

For instance, with The Herring Wonder, a friend of mine is really into African religions, and was going to hold a live animal sacrifice at her house. When she told me about it, I thought, "I should go to that." Even though I didn't want to see an animal get killed, I knew this could make a good column. So sometimes I'd seek things out, but I was also always mentally taking notes.

Now what's nice is that, since I'm freed up from the column, my mind is constantly taking notes for the novel. The column was an ongoing nonfiction novel that I was writing for two and a half years. Same thing when you have a novel, your brain is always working on it. Sometimes you'll get a random idea on the subway. I like the fact that I'm back to thinking about novels and performance; I also do storytelling. Not having a column has freed up my brain, even though I only wrote it twice a month. I could crank the column out in one day, but I realize that mentally being on that wheel was keeping me from creating other stuff.

Could you see yourself living anywhere other than New York?

I feel a little bit less wed to New York now that I've stopped writing the column. Performance-wise, I've been in the same groove playing little theaters for a while. After a while it gets a little dreary to keep doing that. Not that I want to stop performing, but maybe I don't need the city as much as I used to. It might be nice to live in the country. After reading that Philip Roth profile in The New Yorker, living the country life seems like a great way to get a lot of work done. I've also thought about living abroad. It's hard to leave New York: this is where my friends are, my parents are. It is so vital. The whole world seems to look to New York. When you're in Paris, you're reading about New York. I can't imagine living in any other city in the U.S. I would try L.A.--Santa Monica, which is right on the beach. But for now New York is it.

Do you have any upcoming performances to talk about?

I have a one-night one-man show, as part of the Toyota comedy festival at PS 122. That's called "The Herring Wonder: Stories of Minor Triumphs and Profound Humiliations." I'm also working on a new one-man show; I had a one-man show called "Oedipussy," and I'm thinking of writing a new one called "Alcohol," all about the effects of alcohol on my life and how it's shaped my life.

Do you prefer the one-man show format to theater?

I guess I do, though I wouldn't mind collaborating. I did an improv film with a filmmaker back in November, kind of like the Mike Figgis idea, though we didn't know about Figgis's idea at the time. I like interacting with people, so if I could do more of that, that would be great.

interview by Laura Buchwald
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