An Interview with Jonathan Ames, Writer of 'Bored to Death' and Your New Favourite Author
Jonathan's book <i>Wake Up, Sir!</i> is finally being released in the UK.
Alan Blair is a neurotic, alcoholic, struggling artist. He has an uncle who is fanatical about firearms and a butler called Jeeves who may or may not be imaginary. He is also the main character of a fictional novel called Wake Up, Sir!
The book was written by Jonathan Ames, a multi-talented New Yorker with a lackadaisical drawl and a taste for English literature. It was published in America in 2004, but is only just reaching British shelves now. In that interim period, Ames has gone from writing self-effacing confessional columns to writing a hit HBO show, Bored to Death, with some boxing and graphic novel writing in between.
I spoke to Ames about how his life, his writing style and the world at large have changed between the publication of Wake Up, Sir! in the US and the UK.
VICE: Is it strange to have to talk about a book you wrote ten years ago?
Jonathan Ames: I remember writing it, so it's not totally strange. I think it may have taken so long to come out here because it pays homage to [PG] Wodehouse, who is kind of a national treasure in the UK. Maybe it was a bit much that an American would even presume to play with Wodehouse. But it is out of complete affection and admiration and fascination that I wrote the book.
There's a distinct strain of Britishness in Wake Up, Sir!, and in all your work. What is it about Britain that appeals to you so much? You can be as complimentary as you like.
It's the literature that has appealed to me over the years, mostly in my formative years as a writer. When I was writing Wake Up, Sir! I was enamoured by Wodehouse – it was the only thing I read. Two of my favourite writers, Raymond Chandler and PG Wodehouse, were in school at the same time at Dulwich. What I love about both these writers is their sentences. Whoever taught grammar at that school must have been phenomenal.
In your HBO show, Bored to Death, the character Jonathan Ames is really into Raymond Chandler. You seem to wear your influences on your sleeve; do you think you are easily influenced?
There is a documentary about jazz by Ken Burns. In it, all the great jazz musicians talk about how, when they made music, they were responding to people whose music they loved. They were responding to sounds they had heard.
Writing and music are very similar. I respond to the sounds of sentences I hear in my mind and the kinds of stories I enjoy reading. So, in that sense, I do wear my influences on my sleeve.
A while ago you said there were more writers now and less readers, and this has presumably only become more pronounced since then. What do you think the implications of this are?
I don't remember saying that, but it sounds good. It's an epigrammatic statement that could probably easily be proved wrong. But we all know that there has been a radical shift in literature because of the internet. I don't know what will happen to reading, but I don't know what will happen to the oceans. I'm just like all of us, hanging on in my middle class way.
How have these changes affected you?
There must be something about the internet that affects our brain the same way cocaine affects a rat's brain. We all keep dipping at it, but it doesn't require the sustained attention that a novel requires or the sustained solitude of just sitting down and reading.
Consciousness is becoming more fragmented. I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing; it's simply change. Luckily, for now, we still have books, and Wake Up, Sir! is coming out soon.
In the book, Blair struggles to write his second novel and turns to drink. A lot of writers seem to have dependency issues – or, at least, the ones with dependency issues have very public dependency issues. Do you think the creative process and overindulging go hand in hand?
Well, lots of professionals other than writers have dependency issues. Lots of humans have dependency issues, in fact. Probably, if you're artistic, you're oversensitive and need to express your oversensitivity. Or you're a whiner or a complainer and you want the world to know how much pain you're in, and so maybe you self medicate.
At the time when I was writing the book I was somewhat fascinated by the notion of chemical dependency, and that was something I was trying to figure out in my own life. That doesn't interest me so much any more.
How have your interests changed over time?
In the 90s my work was much more autobiographical. I had a column in a newspaper and used myself as a character. When I wrote nonfiction people would say: "Oh, come on! you made that up." And when I wrote fiction people would say: "Why don't you just call it a memoir?"
As I got older, the need to use myself as a character to confess became less strong. It would embarrass me now to talk so much about myself.
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A lot of your characters have either fucked up or are in the process of fucking up. In the past this came from the autobiographical aspect of your process, but doesn't match up any more. How has your success change your writing?
First of all, I think all human beings are screwing up all the time. Human existence is mostly defined by confusion, or at least that's my confused perspective. Most of my characters are confused but trying to find their way. In that sense, things are still autobiographical, and I can put my confusions into all my characters, even if their circumstances are different from mine.
I'm still definitely struggling, at least mentally. That never really goes away. I guess you get a little bit better at being alive, but then the older you get the less you know. It never gets easy. Or maybe it does when you're senile. I don't know.
I sometimes think that people who seem to be confident and are comfortable with themselves lack some self-awareness.
Yeah. I'm not good with tweeting and such, because as soon as I say something I doubt it. But we project a lot. We may see people who seem completely on top of things, but who knows what they are like when at home alone. Think about sports heroes – who knows what Roger Federer is like behind closed doors?
In Wake Up, Sir! Blair and Jeeves have a conversation about everyone being sexually tormented in one way or another. Do you think we're getting more or less healthy in our attitudes to sex?
I think maybe in London and New York and Los Angeles there's greater tolerance, but I can't speak about the rest of the world. I live in a privileged ghetto. People will always have a lot of issues about sex, but they will also always enjoy it. It's an interesting one. Sex and the toilet are areas people have issues. Let's leave it at that.
You released Sexual Metamorphosis, which is about trans people, in 2005. How do you feel about the advances that have been made since then?
I've always been fascinated by trans issues, and I think the greater acceptance of transgender people is a bit of a phenomenon in the 21st century. I wonder if it speaks to a change in humanity itself. This could just be one stage in our development and humanity is moving to a more androgynous place, and a more androgynous place would be a less violent place.
You often take a playful approach to violence. The boxing match in Bored to Death, for example, or Blair's uncle's gun obsession. Is that a reflection of your perspective on violence?
In You Were Never Really Here, a novella I wrote a few years ago, there are some violent passages, mostly just because of my fascination with the pulp and noir genres. But then I thought: 'Why am I adding more senseless violence to the world?'
Then again, it's hard to get away from violence. The human condition is defined by just two things. Comedy celebrates life. Tragedy ends with death. These two genres are hard to escape from. Even the internet can't get rid of life and death.
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