Jonathan Ames is the reading circuit’s equivalent of a rock star. Most authors know that following his act would be a deflating anticlimax. At literary events with multiple authors, reading organizers always seem to put him in the last slot. His cult followers know the routine and tolerate the wait. Ames sits patiently with his glass of club soda, but once he gets up to speak, the crowd doesn’t look back. His voice is everywhere.
A graduate of Princeton, where he studied with Joyce Carol Oates, Ames penned an autobiographical column in the New York Press that eventually became the books What’s Not to Love?: The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer, and My Less Than Secret Life. They are accounts of self-abuse, drunkenness, arrivals and failures, sexual embarrassment and defeat; in sum, a young romantic’s loneliness and confusion. With a keen sense of storytelling, he imbued the saddest, most piercing moments in his life with humor. These themes also found way into his novels I Pass Like Night and The Extra Man.
Jonathan Ames’s latest novel, Wake Up, Sir!, tells the story of Alan Blair, a dipsomaniacal writer, and his manservant, Jeeves. Facing wrath from uncle Irwin and Aunt Florence, and their threat of rehab therapy, Alan and Jeeves flee to a Hasidic resort in upstate New York. They later wind up at an artists’ colony suspiciously reminiscent of Yaddo. There Alan meets the seductive sculptress Ava and becomes obsessed with her nose. He drinks more and more. Disaster ensues. The following interview was conducted over email.
—epigram from Wake Up, Sir!
PS: When you set to work on something, is your first impulse humor?
JA: You know, my first impulse may be humor. But I’m not sure. It’s very hard to check for impulses. With a pulse you can grab a vein, but with an impulse you have to grab a thought, and that’s nearly impossible.
PS: It’s impossible to capture thought?
JA: Something abstract and utterly ephemeral and invisible like a thought is really pretty much impossible to track. Maybe with some kind of electric GPS they can track a thought, but even then you wouldn’t know what the thought impulse was unless the person told you and by the time they’ve told you they’ve had another thought and you can’t ever be sure they’re right; it’s like looking at the sun or a hummingbird or watching a hair grow on your chin. It’s impossible. Though with time-lapse photography a lot of things are possible. Physical things. Capturing the movement of physical things through time as they age or move or both. Aging is a form of moving, now that I think of it.
PS: So you don’t have a first step in your mind that you tend to take?
JA: I’m not really sure what my first impulse is about anything. I think it’s to breathe; I think it’s to not die. A later impulse is a wish to live forever because then the meaningless of things wouldn’t be so tragic. Well, maybe it’s not the meaninglessness. It’s the not knowing—”not-knowing” as one word. It’s the confusion. It’s the feeling of sliding down a hill and leaving something precious behind. Always leaving something precious behind and you don’t know why.
I used to be crazier than I am now, and I would find myself in bad spots late at night with criminals, and I would say in my mind, “Home, Jeeves.” Like there was a Jeeves inside me who would save me and take me home.
PS: What got you to write the book?
JA: Well, if I didn’t write it a small child was going to be dropped from a ledge by a madman, so I agreed to write the book. Luckily, the madman was an honorable madman and after I finished the book, three years after his initial threat and demand, he let the child go. He didn’t actually dangle the kid the whole time. The boy (the small child was a male) was allowed to go to school and be with his family and just had to show up once in a while and come near the edge of the ledge so that the danger of the whole thing was apparent to me. There’s something vulgar, I have to say, about your phrasing: “What got you to write the book?” It’s the use of the word “got.” What the hell is got? Sounds German. Probably is.
PS: You’re right. “Got” is an ugly word, but when I hear people ask, “Why did you write something?” I tend to think it’s an unanswerable question. It’s easier to qualify the persuasions outside the writer that initiate a work. OK, so, what were the things that spurred Wake Up, Sir! and allowed it to arrive?
JA: Here’s the quickie answer: In 1999, I read a lot of P.G. Wodehouse to cure myself of a depression and this made me want to write something like what I was reading. I think other writers’ books are often the inspiration for . . . writers. It’s like a jazz musician responding to another jazz musician, either on the stage at the same time, or just listening to the records. In the Ken Burns documentary on jazz, I seem to recall hearing that Miles Davis was responding to Charlie Parker and that other musicians later responded to Miles Davis, and so on.
It’s also like baseball: Cal Ripken wanted to do what Lou Gehrig did. I wanted to try to do what P.G. Wodehouse did, which was to give pleasure in a particular way. Also, I used to be crazier than I am now, and I would find myself in bad spots late at night with criminals, and I would say in my mind, “Home, Jeeves.” Like there was a Jeeves inside me who would save me and take me home. This also, somehow, gave birth to the book and the original title was Home, Jeeves! Now it’s Wake Up, Sir! I kept the exclamation mark.
PS: Wodehouse was born in the U.K. You grew up in Jersey.
JA: Yes, that is true. I was born in New York City, though—at what was then known as “Babies Hospital.” They sent me a birthday card every year until I was 18 and then they didn’t care any more. I don’t know what the name of that hospital is now, and I wonder if it was a group of volunteers that sent out those cards. A different era. Now you might get an email that your baby has been exposed to hepatitis C, certainly not an annual cheery birthday card.
About where I grew up—it was not far from Paterson, N.J. In fact, I delivered the Paterson Evening News as a boy. My father thought it would be good for me. He cited some fact that most Annapolis graduates had delivered newspapers. So I was glad that I was improving myself as I trudged up hills in the cold winters for three years. And the winters were cold then—the 1970s—since global warming didn’t really kick in until the ‘80s, from what I can tell. Anyway, what’s relevant about all this is Paterson. William Carlos Williams lived there and wrote a great book-length poem called Paterson, inspired by the famous Paterson waterfalls. And Allen Ginsberg was from Paterson and [Jack] Kerouac and [Neal] Cassady traipsed around there, and because of that they all met Williams, I believe.
PS: Aside from having had an elevated testicle, you had to wear a corset in your childhood. Did you work the paper route during the corset years?
JA: No, the paper route was after the corset years. The corset years were third and fourth grades; paper route was sixth through eight grade, maybe even ninth. I wish I still had that corset so I could bring it on stage with me as a prop. I remember the way it looked in my drawer for several years after I busted free from it—some weird reminder of my imblich—that’s Yiddish for problem, but it’s more than a problem. I can’t think of a proper English word for it.
Of course, Yiddish would have a good word for a medical problem, something that implies greater suffering than “condition” or “ailment,” which are so cold sounding. Yiddish is good for suffering—very sympathetic about it and very vivid, too.
PS: I know what you mean. Despite not being Jewish, I like to say Yiddish words. In the book, Alan Blair visits a Jewish resort and tries to impress a grandmotherly woman by saying a few Yiddish words. He fails. With a last name like Ames, do you find that to be all too familiar?
JA: No, my name doesn’t get in the way with me connecting to Jews. When I was younger and very blond—now I’m bald—sometimes Jews doubted my Jewishness, but that was only a first impression. Once they looked me in the eye and I flashed a little Yiddish, their Jewdar signaled my authenticity.
I’m sorry my Jeeves was not what you were looking for. I’m sorry he wasn’t ambisexual. I don’t even think he’s ambidextrous. I see him as being right-handed.
PS: How do you consider yourself as a Jewish writer?
JA: Shouldn’t it just be, “Do you consider yourself a Jewish writer?” Where is the “how”? Hmm. Well, I say a brucha [prayer] every time I write…that’s the how. I’m not sure what you’re trying to say. I’m a writer. I’m Jewish. I have a United States passport. I have DNA—I’m human. All this is abstract—I’m a brain floating around in a body that will someday die; that is, the brain and the body will die, though it should be pointed out that the brain is part of the body. So I should probably just say that I’m a body that will someday die. That’s my only identity.
PS: God, I have no idea why I asked that question. I get really annoyed when people bring up identity issues in that context. Let’s talk transsexuals. In your work, transsexuals seem to provide comfort and solace.
JA: I think the transsexuals in my book have provided wisdom. Sexually mixed people have long been considered by a variety of cultures—see [the Greeks’] Tiresias and Native American practices—to be wise creatures, combining the best of the feminine and the masculine. Granted, not all the transsexuals in my “work” have been wise, but quite a few have been. And, yes, they did provide solace in that they provided companionship and friendship and sometimes sensuality.
PS: I was halfway hoping for Jeeves to be somewhat of an ambisexual character. Sancho Panza as RuPaul.
JA: I’m sorry my Jeeves was not what you were looking for. I’m sorry he wasn’t ambisexual. I don’t even think he’s ambidextrous. I see him as being right-handed. And as for sexuality, I see him as being beyond sex.
PS: Parts of the book loosely recall Freud and Jung, and theories of sexual fetishes, so that the character Alan Blair seems like an obsessive pervert fixed on sexualizing certain unorthodox anatomies. Other times, he seems profoundly romantic, in the most old-school sense.
JA: He doesn’t seem like a pervert to me. He has vague fantasies of being raped in prison and he’s drawn to a woman’s nose, but, to me, he’s not a pervert. A pervert is someone whose sexual practices hurt others or whose sexual practices are so limited that their chance at love and connection to another is extremely unlikely. And that’s probably not a very good definition of a pervert. That’s off the top of my head.
Regardless, pervert is an unfair characterization of Alan and I don’t agree with you. He has some confusion but he’s not sexually disturbed. And yes he’s something of a romantic, but I think all people are romantics; well, just about all people. Some people are deeply cynical and not romantic, but I think I may have only read about such people and have never met one.
PS: I don’t mean to imply that he’s a socio-pathological pervert, but I think as a character, he is limiting his chances at love and connection. He’s what your great-aunt might call a nebbish [simpleton], but he’s likeable.
JA: Yes, he definitely limits his chances at love and connection, because he’s nuts, alcoholic, and self-destructive, which may be three words to say the same thing. I don’t think, though, that he limits his chances because of his nose fetish. He only develops that when he sees Ava, his object of desire, and will probably drop it once Ava is out of his life. I have a friend who will only date short women, which is not quite a fetish but certainly limiting and I wish he’d get over it but he can’t. Conversely, Alan, my character, will go out with women with all sorts of noses.
PS: Still, I think he touches that part of us that can’t help but drive over cliffs.
JA: I like this business about driving off of cliffs. So are you saying that Alan lives out suppressed impulses to dash ourselves? I always think of these impulses as a sort of Tourette’s in my head, like wanting to grab a policeman’s gun. And just the other day, I was in the hospital visiting my father and my great aunt, both of whom are ill, and I was sort of losing my mind and I saw a clergyman ahead of me in the hallway and I thought momentarily that I wanted to kick him in the nuts. I never would act on such a thing and I don’t know why I thought it. I’ve had all sorts of disturbing thoughts lately. I’ve been visiting my father in the hospital for 20 straight days. My mind is like a caged monkey. So I think it’s screeching weirdness inside my cranium.
PS: Do you think people love your work because it allows a voyeurism of self-degradation?
JA: Hmmm, voyeurism of self-degradation. That could be why people like my work. It’s hard for a writer to know why people like his or her work. The writer can’t ever see it quite the way other people can. I do think that most good stories involve struggle. I once had a dream that I was telling a creative writing class: “No pain, no story.” So, following your lead, there’s pain of self-degradation in my stories and I would say that must be correct, and so then I would guess that maybe there’s some kind of pathos in watching [reading about] someone hurt himself. The pathos of identification or the pathos of, “But for the grace of God, go I.”
Being a clown and being a good son and trying to be a good dad and trying to be a good friend are the four things I do that are half-decent and meaningful.
PS: I was at a talk recently where George Saunders and David Foster Wallace expressed how difficult it is to write about politics in fiction without tainting artfulness. Are there any subjects that you find hard to write about?
JA: Not in fiction, I don’t think, but in nonfiction, yes. I really choked on an assignment last year. Harper’s sent me on a Greenpeace boat for two weeks—we sailed along the inside passage of Southeast Alaska—and I so loved the Greenpeace people and am so upset about the environment, that I somehow choked and couldn’t write the article. I was too crazed on the subject—in this instance, the possible destruction of our national rainforest in Alaska, the Tongass—that I couldn’t write a coherent article and utterly failed, letting down Greenpeace, Harper’s, and myself in the process. I’m hoping some day to write something about my incredible trip on the boat. I feel terrible that during this election year, I wasn’t able to put out one more piece of bad news about the current administration; the bad news being what they’ve done to the forest service, which is essentially to turn it into a provider for the timber industry and for the timber-lobbyists in Washington. It’s all such a mess and I felt so heartbroken that I couldn’t write and I’ve been hating myself over it ever since. I failed! I failed!
PS: Hey, don’t be so hard on yourself.
JA: I did take solace in something David Foster Wallace wrote in an interview with Dave Eggers in the Believer, in which he expressed how polarized we’ve all become politically in this country and how hard it is for writers to be objective. I’m simplifying what he wrote but he addressed exactly what I was going through with my Greenpeace article. I just wanted to shout: “Bush, you’re wrong! Please don’t kill the Tongass! If you kill the Tongass you kill the salmon, the whales, the eagles. You destroy the land for the natives who still live off it. You also kill the fishing industry. And if the Tongass is sensibly logged, it can last forever, keep loggers employed, but current corporate logging practices—massive destructive clear-cutting—will destroy the land for hundreds of years! “
Anyway, I couldn’t write about it the way it needed to be written about…So there we are. I hate myself for not doing something to help. My only consolation is my usual contribution to things—being a clown. I make a few college-educated people laugh and feel a little less lonely when they read my books. It’s not a gigantic contribution to the world, but it’s something. Why I think I need to make a contribution, I don’t know. But it has something to do with wanting some meaning while being alive. There’s also loving one’s family. I try to do that. Being a clown and being a good son and trying to be a good dad and trying to be a good friend are the four things I do that are half-decent and meaningful.
PS: You do make people laugh, and you also have a reputation as an amazing reader. Now you’re getting a shot to star in your own TV program. Not a lot of writers have made that transition, for better or for worse. How do you feel about being somewhat of a frontiersman?
JA: I don’t feel anything about being a frontiersman or a pioneer, but I do feel a bit daunted and worried about the whole endeavor. Who wouldn’t? But things in the future are always scary. In the moment, when it comes, I will probably be less afraid.
PS: Are there other writers whom you’d like to see more on TV?
JA: I watched the movie The Music of Chance the other night, which is based on Paul Auster’s novel of the same title, and Auster has a cameo at the end and that was fun to see. I like the movie and love the novel.
I also spotted David Sedaris on The Late Show With David Letterman the other night and I enjoyed his interview. He and I read together in Amsterdam and I like Mr. Sedaris, so it was fun to see him on TV. We had a good time together in Amsterdam. We gave a reading at a noisy rock club that was a really bad spot for a reading, but we both survived.
PS: Tell me more about the TV show.
JA: I wrote a pilot-script called “What’s Not to Love?” drawing upon a few real life adventures I had. If it were to become a series, it would capture the time-period of my life when I was writing the column for New York Press. And those columns were gathered in two books: What’s Not to Love? and My Less Than Secret Life. The episodes for the series would be drawn from many of the columns, but reshaped to make for a 30-minute TV show, a situation comedy. I like saying situation comedy, as opposed to sitcom. I wrote the script for Showtime. We are going to shoot the pilot sometime this fall. If it’s any good, then it could be picked up to be a series. I’m to play myself. I like to say, “It’s the role I’ve been waiting for.”
PS: That’s so wonderful. Are your parents and great-aunt excited about it? Can they hardly wait for the “that’s my boy” moment?
JA: My parents are certainly pleased, but it’s all so abstract at this point that they’re not brimming with excitement. First we have to film the pilot and then it would have to be approved as a series. If that happens, then I imagine it will be quite exciting for my parents to watch it on TV.
As for my 92-year-old great-aunt, she has really bad short-term memory deficit, so I’ve told her at least one hundred times that I wrote a TV show, and then I tell her how much I was paid, and each time she’s very proud and pleased. It’s the one time that her memory problem is a sort of benefit for me. I’m able to tell her the same piece of good news over and over again and each time it makes her happy, so I enjoy that. Making her happy. Also, every time I tell her how much money—it’s not a gigantic sum, but better than what you get for writing novels—she says, “Have they paid you?”
You see, to her it’s too good to be true and she’s worried I’m being conned, so then when I tell her I’ve been paid, she really smiles.