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New York's Dirty Darling Interview with Jonathan Ames
by Sarah Venart

Jonathan Ames is the author of two novels, I Pass Like Night and The Extra Man, the memoir, What's Not to Love?: The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer, and a new collection of fiction and non-fiction, My Less Than Secret Life: A Diary, Fiction, Essays. Ames performs as a storyteller and his one-man show "Oedipussy" has appeared off-off-Broadway. He is the winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship for writing and is a former columnist for the New York Press. Educated at Princeton University, he now lives in Brooklyn.

Ames' depiction of the tug-of-war between grace and vice is not so much perverted as it is honest. His column in the New York Press and his essays draw from his personal life highlighting the small celebrations and deep humiliation of his personas (onanist, father, "The Herring Wonder" pugilist). In his fiction, Ames' characters are stoic men-about-town with penchants for canonical literature and pansexual promiscuity who live in New York's squalor of hotels, parks and transsexual clubs in a pre-Disneyfied Times Square that is still proudly dapper.

I met Jonathan Ames in Brooklyn at The Fall CafT, a small yellow rectangle of a room with local art on the walls and world music pipping away in the background. Ames came through the door in jeans and a plaid shirt. His wide-set blue eyes and triangular face give a peacock-like impression of polite interest minus the arrogance of such a bird.

Sarah Venart: I'm a little uneasy about sitting so close to you, Jonathan. Your reputation precedes you.

Jonathan Ames: Don't believe everything you read.

SV: When you walked in, I was thinking about "Hair Piece", your essay about the humiliation of hair loss in What's Not To Love. I was going to get you to show me the infamous bald spot ű

JA: I can show you (Ames removes his hat).

SV: It's barely there!

JA: Like I said, don't believe everything you read. I exaggerate. That's a good place for us to begin.

SV: In the essay your bald pattern sounds ominous. It looked horrid in the little caricature included in the book.

JA: That drawing is after I shaved my head. The fringe in front here has grown in and I comb it back over the bald spot giving the deception that there's hair, albeit very thin hair.

SV: Right. So, when did you start writing?

JA: In high school, I was on the soccer team and injured my ankle and I started writing sports articles for the local newspaper and that led to writing for the high school newspaper. I started reading Hunter Thompson and liked the idea of the crazy writer who covers things and lives on the edge, so I tried to make my high school articles Hunter Thompsonish, and then I read Kerouac¨another writer on the edge.

SV: Tell me about Princeton and working with Joyce Carol Oates.

JA: She was very good¨she wasn't scared of the things I wrote. The best thing I received from her was encouragement. I always try to encourage my students that I think are good and certainly be kind to the ones that don't show as much promise. I think that's the best thing a writing teacher can do¨encourage. Then I did a creative thesis with Oates. It became my first novel, I Pass Like Night. I remember she told me that writing is about solving problems and I've taken solace in knowing that she struggles too. I tell my students the same thing, and have added to it that stories are about problems, people with problems, and how they can or can not solve them. A while ago, I showed her pictures from my boxing match because she's a big boxing fan. She told me I shouldn't box anymore.

SV: Did she suggest that you stop boxing because you lost that match with The Impact Addict?

JA: No, because of my brain. I took a lot of shots to the head.

SV: Let's talk about the characters that inhabit your work. You tell the stories of outsiders who live and work on the streets of New York City: transients and transsexuals and prostitutes. What draws you to write about these people?

JA: When I was a little boy, my best friend and I used to play 'bums'. I use the word affectionately, romantically. We'd wear old clothes and roll around in the bit of forest by our houses. To me, being a bum meant freedom from school, responsibility, being clean. Even as a kid, I was struck by how imprisoning these obligations were. In 1986 I lived on the Bowery, which back then still had men who fit the profile of the American 'bum'¨ an older alcoholic lost to the world. I quickly learned that they weren't free. As one bum said to me, "There's a difference between wanting and needing a drink." The narrator in my first novel is drawn to these men, likes them, wishes in part that he could save them, help them, but he can't, just as he seemingly can't save himself. And in an interesting way, transsexuals at one time represented, to my developing psyche, other outsiders, people who were free. Free to choose who they wanted to be. When I was thirteen or fourteen, I was intrigued by Renee Richards, the transsexual tennis player. I was fascinated by the idea that somebody could change their sexual identity, change their destiny. Or so it seemed. What I later found when I met transsexuals was that they felt themselves to be in a particular sort of prison: feeling like they weren't born into the right sex, then making the almost impossible transition to what felt like the right sex, so impossible perhaps, that the transsexuals I met were in some middle ground, half-man, half-woman. So I think I've been drawn to outsiders from an early impression that they were free, free in a way I could never be; and maybe in some ways they are, but I guess nobody is free. Or we all are. Something like that.

SV: You use what one critic has called New York's "underbelly" as settings in your work. Why?

JA: It's not necessarily conscious. You have to write about things that you love. And then the word love can mean "fascinated by," "scared by," "intrigued by" "horrified by." Maybe love is what you find exciting. So I think I always find the edgy stuff exciting.

SV: You often write about sex. How would you classify your writing?

JA: I guess somewhere between R- and X-rated. The first story I wrote, "Peepshow", was about sex and at that time I hadn't read Henry Miller or Philip Roth but I guess I'd read Penthouse Forum (laughs). As an influence for writing about sex, I've always gotten a kick out of reading Bukowski, who wrote about the craziness and messiness and pleasure of sex with humour. Joyce Carol Oates told me to read Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn and I was blown away by the scariness and power in that book, how people were driven by sex; most people are, to one degree or another, or they're tormented or hurt by it. But I don't mean to offend people. I want them to laugh, enjoy it, maybe be shocked, like "Oh my God, what a weirdo!" Either the writer is or the characters are.

SV: In BookForum, you said that you write to get laid and confess your sins. I'm guessing that's your persona talking.

JA: (laughing) It was mostly just to be silly and outrageous. But then on some level, is it? Because Freud says all writing is confession. Certainly those aren't the only reasons I write. Maybe it's to unburden these things, give them less power. I've been told I write what people think but would never write, so maybe I write to connect with others. I certainly like the act of trying to make something; Shaw said that we need to use ourselves up like light bulbs burning and writing makes me feel I'm utilising myself. I'm not coming up with cures for disease or figuring out how the world can have peace or how to bring healthcare to America; but this is what I've been assigned to do, more or less. And that's alright. Maybe what I write makes people laugh and in a hopeful world that might have meaning.

SV: Let's talk about research. For The Extra Man did you actually work as a walker?

JA: I sort of fell into this wacky world of the Upper East Side and I got to escort older rich ladies in a friendly way, not in a paid way. It was fascinating.

SV: You used an episodic structure for this novel. It reminded me of Cervantes' Don Quixote. Were you consciously tipping your hat to an older style of literature?

JA:Well, yes. I didn't necessarily pick that up from Cervantes though. I used Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain¨each section having a little title that somehow is a story unto itself.

SV: The newest collection is called My Less Than Secret Life. Why the title?

JA: That title is a play on a 19th century memoir called My Secret Life written by this unknown aristocrat. It was all about his sexual adventures. So I went with 'My Less Than Secret Life' because in my New York Press columns and my other essays my life is seemingly all out in the open.

SV: You've divided the book into a diary and also into essays with sexual content and essays without sexual content. Why?

JA: The diary is a memoir of a year, my columns from 1999 to 2000. I called it a diary since there's not much flashing back in it. As for the essays, I was looking for a way to divide them up and was aware that, thank God, there are some essays without sex. I don't want to be labelled as a writer who writes about sex all the time.

SV: Overall, it's an eclectic collection.

JA: There are many different nutty moments: In the diary part, there's the boxing match I mentioned earlier, an orgy, an animal sacrifice. And separate from the diary there's a section of erotic short stories written by this persona, Leon David, plus book reviews, and a 'true-crime story'. There's a lot of weird stuff in there . . .

SV: The stolen writing piece, "A True Crime Story: The Nista Affair", is compelling. It's disconcerting to think there are kooks out there who would make up a magazine called Nista and fake an interview with you to steal a section of your novel. After reading that essay, I thought about the trust a writer puts in an interviewer, say a Canadian interviewer from Books in CanadaÓ.

JA: I didn't have any trepidation about you. But, oddly enough, I recently got an email, from someone at a real Swedish literary journal who wants to introduce me to the Swedish reading public. Life imitating art.

SV: Would you say you have more weird experiences than most people?

JA: Certainly, everyone's had weird experiences or strange tales. I'm curious about people. I might be more open or I might put myself in environments to meet these people, whether it is hanging out with bums or going to transsexual bars. . . It's like this: if you hang out in a barbershop, you're going to get your hair cut; if you hang out in weird places, you're going to meet weird people. And if you're weird, you're going to hang out in weird places. So I guess I'm weird, getting back to your original fear of sitting next to me. ˛

Jonathan Ames' My Less Than Secret Life, came out in July, 2002. His novel, Wake Up, Sir!, comes out in 2003. His novel The Extra Man is being developed into a movie.


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