The VICE Interview: Jon Ronson
Talking skinheads, being fat, and high school hell with the writer Jon Ronson.
This is the VICE Interview. Each week we ask a different famous and/or interesting person the same set of questions in a bid to peek deep into their psyche.
Jon Ronson was born in Cardiff, Wales. He reluctantly grew up there, survived high school and moved to London, where he studied media and became a journalist, filmmaker and author. Somewhere along the way, Jon acquired some nice glasses and learned to charm bigots of all kinds into letting him interview them.
Jon's bestselling books include Them: Adventures with Extremists, The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. Over the past summer, Jon has split his time between trailing Donald Trump's presidential campaign in the US for an essay on Kindle and visiting porn sets for an Audible podcast series called The Butterfly Effect.
We caught up recently in the foyer of Dean Street Townhouse in Soho to talk about love, skinheads and the worst four years of Jon Ronson's life.
VICE: If you were a wrestler, what song would you come on to?
Jon Ronson: Can I choose what song [would play] when I get knocked out? What song would be my knockout song? "Candle in the Wind", the Princess Diana version. Like, when I'm down on the floor it would go, "Goodbye, England's rose."
What would your parents have preferred you to do as a career?
I think they're kind of happy with it. From time to time, in the early days, I would have a story published in an anthology and my mother would say, "I read that story of yours in that anthology. The story before yours was amazing." So I think my mother would rather that I was the writer who wrote the story before mine. She doesn't do that any more. I remember, from time to time, when I wasn't being good with money, she'd say, "Well, if you carry on like this, you're going to have to move back to Cardiff and move back in with us!" I think she was maybe hoping I would do that.
When in your life have you been truly overcome with fear?
A few times with work. One time, when I went to Aryan Nations in Idaho and the skinheads all surrounded me and asked me what my genealogy was, I said I was Church of England. They were staring at my Jewish face. I drove past all the signs that said "No Jews", "Jews not welcome", "Turn back, Jew" and then I just kept going, like, "Dee-dee-dee." I got out of the car and they surrounded me and I was overcome with fear then. One of Trump's spokespeople tweeted not long ago, something about how Mitt Romney's dad is Mexican and Barack Obama's dad is Kenyan, "Are there any pure breeds left?" That reminded me of being at Aryan Nations.
Who is the worst person on Twitter?
I think there's a huge amount of people who do bad things on Twitter. Every single time people pile on top of somebody on no evidence, you just see it day after day. Sometimes it's people who do it for the thrill of trolling. People who just gleefully destroy somebody, they're the worst people on Twitter.
I was just remembering this morning, the kind of brutal attacks I got for tweeting something nice about Rachel Dolezal. I felt that nobody knew anything about her and there was a possibility she was kind of troubled. Instead, everybody just assumed the worst about her and tore her apart. I tweeted something about it and I just had days and days... I couldn't believe the kind of attacks I got for just saying, "Can we be a bit more patient and compassionate towards Rachel Dolezal?" It just went on and on like a stomach bug that never ends, just these waves of relentless attacks. Every single one of those people are the worst people on Twitter. It happens to everyone all the time, over and over again.
If you won the lottery tomorrow, would you carry on what you're doing, change jobs or stop working?
I'd definitely carry on what I'm doing. The quality of the work that I do is completely inextricably linked to my feelings of self-worth, like a lot of people. I remember I was saying to Randy Newman one time, "Why do you write songs?" He said, "It's how I judge myself and feel better." That's exactly why I write – it's how I judge myself and feel better. If I stopped, what would I do?
Why did you break up with your first girlfriend?
I had a lot of one-night stands in college, but I don't think they count. I wonder whether Beth would be my first girlfriend... but she broke up with me! I was introverted socially. A lot of the bad things that have happened to me have happened because I'm introverted and socially awkward. I think she met some guy on holiday who was more fun. He was, on a daily basis, in a nuts and bolts kind of way, more fun than me. That's my best guess. Beth's coming to my show in Manchester. I'm doing a Psychopath Test tour and she's coming to that. We're still in touch.
What was your worst phase?
I would say from about 14 to 18. There was nothing good about me. I was just, you know, overweight and unpopular. I'm sure a lot of it was my fault. I was very awkward and didn't know who I was. I was just kind of lost. But then I moved to London and overnight – literally overnight; my mother dropped me off at the hall of residence, and literally instantly, my life got good. There were people on the first floor at the halls who just embraced me and we went out. Within six months I'd lost all the weight and I was going out with girls and got my confidence. It all happened just straight away. It was leaving Cardiff and moving to London that did it. And since then, pretty much everything has been OK. There's definitely been some bad days, but nothing quite as bad as being at Cardiff High School. That was not for me, that place. Not at all.
What is the nicest thing you own?
I own an apartment in New York with views of the Hudson. You always see the boats. I mean, the Hudson is a very well used river, so every time you look out the window, there's boats going down. The sun sets over New Jersey, so every night you get these amazing sunsets.
What's the grossest injury or illness you've ever had?
I had glandular fever. When I get the beginnings of a cold I get nervous in a way I don't think non-glandular people do.
You're having a conversation with a family friend and they say something unequivocally racist. What do you say?
That's happened! I'd say, "I don't like that. That's racist. I don't want you to say that." I'm an advocate for saying something. I remember in the 1970s what passed as Saturday night TV – it was all racism and homophobia and misogyny that people sat down to on a Saturday night. I think people mingling on social media has helped to sort that out. I'm an advocate of calling it out. More to a person than on the internet.
What have you done in your career that you're most proud of?
What popped into my head was probably The Psychopath Test. I really like the way that I took this really complicated, dark topic about mental health labelling. You know, these are complicated questions: Do psychopaths exist? Or is it psychopathic to label people as psychopaths? And why are there so many disorders in the DSM, is that good? They're complicated. To take all those questions and give it a sort of absurdist narrative, a bit like Kurt Vonnegut would have done, or something, is... I'm really proud of that. I'm really proud that it was totally my own narrative and a real page-turner and breezy and funny, yet it didn't shy away from really trying to grapple with those really big questions, in a way that's never kind of heavy.
What is the latest you've ever stayed up?
I've definitely stayed up all night, but these days I got to bed about 10. If I'm still up at 11 I panic, like I'm doing something wrong or bad. Mainly because I feel like my life is a battle with energy and I value my work enough that if I'm too tired to do it I feel like I've taken a wrong turn in life.
How many people have been in love with you?
A number, I'd say. I've been with Elaine, my wife, for a long time. I'd like to think that my son has some feelings of affection towards me. You know, I'm loved. I'd say I've had fallings out with people. Some people I've interviewed haven't been happy with how it's worked out. But I am loved.
The first episode of 'The Butterfly Effect, A Nondescript Office Building in Montreal', is available on Audible now.
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