“Maybe my work isn’t a cry for help. It may just be a baby’s need to cry or a dog’s need to bark.”
Jonathan Ames is turning out to be among the most prolific writers of his generation. His new book—his eighth—is called The Double Life Is Twice as Good. It’s a miscellany, rounding up essays, articles, stories, and profiles of people like Marilyn Manson and Lenny Kravitz, for the amusement, and often titillation, of Ames’s ever growing legions of fans. Bored to Death, a new HBO series based on his work will premiere this fall. In The Double Life he’s as effortlessly charming, neurotic, self-aware, and kinky as ever; what’s notable here is that, as the Ames persona grows into a small industry, Ames the writer has managed to remain humble and emotionally naked—in a word, “brave”—which one suspects goes some length toward explaining his appeal.
The Rumpus had novelist Joshua Furst ask Ames a few humble questions of his own, and Ames kindly took the time to humor us.
The Rumpus: You’ve had a busy year—a graphic novel, an upcoming HBO show, and a new collection of stories and essays. It seems you’ve reached a kind of mid-point in your career. I’d love to hear how you’d assess the ways your work, and your objectives for your work, have grown and changed over the years.
Jonathan Ames: I think at one time, I hoped to be seen as a fine writer. With my novel, The Extra Man, I made a real effort to write a beautiful novel, and I think it was judged as such, to a certain degree, by reviewers. But then because I started writing a column about my adventures (for New York Press from 1997-2000) and performing a great deal, it seemed to me that my personality and my subject matter (at times a bit sexually outré), somehow took precedence over the writing, the prose.
All of this was of my own making, but I think this disappointed me; I’m speaking to your question about objectives; but all this was an ego objective (to be seen as a fine writer) and so, naturally, I should be disappointed: the ego can never be satisfied. So at some point, I gave up on these kind of objectives. My objective now is to simply entertain and amuse.
That said, ego is still involved—otherwise why put one’s name on a piece of art? Then again, the name, the associations with a writer’s name, can add to the reader’s entertainment and pleasure. When I read Graham Greene part of my pleasure is that I’m reading Graham Greene. So the same can be said for the handful of people that I’m trying to amuse—they like to read books written by me, with my name on the cover… Some ego is involved because I guess one wants to be perceived as a good clown and one puts one’s name on the art; but it’s so hard to do anything in life, trapped as we are in our bodies, that is purely selfless for others… somehow the self is always involved.
And now the second part—how has my work grown and changed over the years? I’m not really sure. The work changes the way your face changes and ages – it just does. Also, I have very little connection to anything I’ve written. I move on. We all move on. I don’t really know the person who wrote the things I wrote. I kind of know him, but I change so much all the time that it’s like I start fresh over and over and over and over. Writing-wise and life-wise. I feel like that character in Memento: Perpetually forgetting, with just traces of the past still clinging… well, the past clings quite a lot, but I feel like my brain is always changing… probably always dying.
One last thing on objectives—I like to make things, create things, so that’s probably been the primary objective all along, even before the ego objective—to make. To record. But why record… [that] gets back to the ego, a little. Oh, well. Making is good. I like to make things.
Rumpus: You write a lot about instability and uncertainty—psychological, emotional, sexual, economic. In both your fiction and your non-fiction the narrator often seems to be looking up from a great distance at other, seemingly more capable people with a sense of confusion as to how they’ve managed to so gracefully thrive. Would you say, at this point that you’ve found any solutions to these anxieties?
JA: Not really. No solutions. But I’m also not sure that I look up to others as knowing what the hell is going on, except maybe Andre Agassi, who, when I interviewed him, while covering the U.S. Open, seemed to know what was going on. My basic assumption is that we’re all confused all the time. Some people do act more confident, though. Maybe they aren’t confused. I am. I’m confused right now.
Rumpus: The distinction between the nonfictional “Jonathan Ames” and the various heroes who populate your fiction is extremely thin. Frequently, the only difference between the two is in the labeling. It’s as though you’re saying, “These are things that have happened to me,” and “These are things that could have happened to me.” But, as the title of the new book suggests, both are created personas to a certain extent. Does this ever become confusing for you? Do you find, sometimes, that the public selves you’ve postulated become self-perpetuating and begin to affect your lived experience?
JA: The real self and the public self are intertwined, like a tumor around an organ, and you can’t cut the tumor or you’ll kill the organ, so they live together, until the tumor chokes the organ off (but which self is the tumor?). Or it’s like something out of Star Trek. The Borg. No one I interact with—except maybe for family and strangers at the Russian baths and other weird places I may go to—is just friends or lovers with me: they also know something of my writing and this distorts their take on me
I wish I could be authentic. But I think once you open your mouth you lose authenticity. Because of the coded nature of language. Actions can be authentic. But authenticity is just for the witness. Right now, by myself, I’m authentic. Just breathing. Staying out of trouble. Alone. Don’t even need to label it authentic.
Rumpus: You mention more than once in the book that you’ve “retired from looking for love.” Has this simplified your life in a positive way? Does it imply that you’ve discovered a successful way to cope with the loneliness you so frequently write about?
JA: I think one of my fictional characters may have said that. Don’t hold me to anything in the book. I’m a waffler. I like wafflers. They said John Kerry was a waffler, but I admired him for that—showed he could change his mind. Nothing wrong with changing your mind. That’s a very unwaffling thing to say: “Nothing wrong…” Who am I to say that there’s nothing wrong with it? Maybe something is wrong with changing your mind. Anyway, love is very, very difficult. I love. But probably because I hate myself on some deep, sick level, it makes loving difficult. But I do try.
Rumpus: In one essay in the book, “Middle American Gothic,” you write, “This diary and everything else I’ve ever written is actually code for one word: help!” I think this motivation pulses underneath the work of many writers—and artists in general. But of course, what happens is you end up creating a documentation of the cry for help. Readers can’t really reach out and do anything for you. They can identify, sympathize maybe, or gawk or applaud or pass judgment. If they respond deeply to the work, more often than not it’s because they feel as though you’ve answered their own cries for help. It’s a paradox. So where does the help you the writer are seeking come from? And does the writing end up just fortifying the wall between yourself and others?
JA: A lot of readers have actually helped me, been really sweet to me… So maybe my cry for help has sometimes been answered. In my last column for New York Press, which was later reprinted in my book My Less than Secret Life, I asked readers, if they saw me on the street, to give me five bucks. Not sure why I asked that, except that for years I was so broke that I knew I could always use five bucks. Maybe it was ten bucks. Anyway, a number of people have sent me checks after reading that. I don’t think I cashed them, though. Maybe I did. I can’t remember.
Maybe my work isn’t a cry for help. It may just be a baby’s need to cry or a dog’s need to bark. You know, barks that seem connected to phantom noises and cries that just come; though a baby’s cries are usually efficient—something is bothering them. Anyway, I think giving money is a sign of love. If you truly want to help someone, a lot of times giving them money is the best thing you can do. From age 23 to 44—I’m 45 now—I was always in need of money, and I was especially in need of it from 23 to about 34, and my great aunt would always give me money, a hundred bucks, every two months or so, and a lot of times that hundred bucks made a huge difference—I could eat or pay a small bill. It kept me going. She gave me money. It was very loving.
Rumpus: One of the things that has always impressed me about your work is the way your approach everyone, no matter where they stand on the social ladder, as equally fragile and worthy of respect. One example of this, among many, can be found in the essay “The Church of Surface,” when you carry on a long conversation, entirely bereft of condescension or pity, with the homeless man you’ve seen haunting the meatpacking district. What’s touching about it is the sense you convey of the homeless man being your equal, and the equal of the bankers and beautiful girls you meet elsewhere in the essay. How does one attain this level of beatitude?
JA: Wow, that’s a nice thing to say. I’m not sure that I do that, but somewhere in my brain is the statement: “Who am I to judge?” I certainly do judge, but, really, who am I to judge?
Rumpus: The first story in this collection has spawned an HBO show, Bored to Death, that will premiere this fall. Tell me about it.
JA: Oh, man, I’m running out of steam… Somehow I managed to create a whole TV show, with lots of characters and stories. It stars Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson, and Zach Galifianakis, and lots of other interesting people, like John Hodgman, Oliver Platt, Sarah Vowell, Parker Posey, Krisin Wiig, and Patton Oswalt. I worked eighty, ninety hours a week on it and we’re nearly done, just sound-editing left, and it premieres September 20 at 9:30pm.
Rumpus: Did you consider playing yourself in the show?
JA: No. Jason Schwartzman does a much better job of playing Jonathan Ames than I do.