Post Road Magazine #11

Jonathan Ames

Q:What was your mentorship with Joyce Carol Oates at Princeton like? And how would you describe your time at Princeton generally?

A: I first studied with Joyce Carol Oates my freshman year. The first story I wrote for her was called "Peep Show" or "The Confessional," I'm not sure. Either way it was about a young guy who goes to peep show and masturbates in a confessional-like booth. J.C. Oates liked the story. I studied with her again my sophomore year and I wrote a story about a lifeguard who worried about what leaked out of the old people who swam in the health club pool where he worked. She liked that story, too. Then she was my advisor on my senior thesis, which was a novella and which I later expanded into a novel, my first, I Pass Like Night, published in 1989, two years after I graduated. And so as my advisor, Joyce was incredibly encouraging and generous in her praise, which was a real gift she gave me, and I learned from her that the best thing a teacher can do for a writing student is to encourage. As I look over that sentence I see that the word 'courage' is a big part of encourage, and so that's what she gave me-courage to write, to not be afraid of my subject matter, and to believe in myself. She was also very helpful with the structure of my senior thesis-she suggested I make it a mosaic, that the story would emerge when all the disparate pieces were viewed from a distance. She also told me to read Last Exit to Brooklyn and that was exceedingly helpful. So I had a great relationship with Joyce. As for Princeton-well, I met many great people there, but I was fairly troubled back then and so life was rather dramatic and full of the suffering that comes with one's college years, so I don't think what I went through, in some ways, was specific to Princeton. It was the backdrop for the morphing and molting that occurs as one goes from one's teens to early twenties. And come to think of it, I'm still troubled. So whereever I am is simply backdrop to some internal problem. Anyway, I enjoyed my time at Princeton. I'm not a great scholar and I was pretty immature, so I didn't take full intellectual advantage of the place, but I did learn a fair amount and I made some great friends and had some great adventures.

Q: What inspired your initial interest and curiosity with regard to transsexuals?

A: Transsexuals: I think I've been a mess emotionally and sexually my whole life and transsexuals, early on, were some kind of screen for me to project my confusion onto. They were/are changelings. People beyond the fringe. I'm thinking mostly of pre-op transsexual prostitutes. Maybe they are the ultimate outsiders and when I was feeling cut off from the world, I liked being around them, though even around them I was an outsider. I don't know, we're all so alienated and alone. I certainly belong to certain groups and I'm well-received and liked, but in my private, desperate moments in the past, I must have felt very alone and outside of everything, and the trannies were so far out there, that's where I ended up, kind of like some life-saving pier which kept me from metaphorically jumping into a river and killing myself. So they were a way station for me, and I would linger around them, like a shadow, like a freak, watching, lost in the depressed haze of my mind, hiding, hiding with the trannies. And yet not even with them, since I was just another lurker like the other lost lurkers. But somehow the trannies helped me. They were often kind to me. I guess that's how they helped me.

Q: Can we get some behind-the-scenes dish about your appearance on

A: There's not much to report. Let's see. I've been on three times and always I wait in this little dressing room, not the fabled 'green room.' The theater is quite cold, as reported. I think it's supposed to make people laugh more when they're cold, keeps them lively. Mr. Letterman has always been incredibly gracious and nice to me. My second visit to the show, I was going to do a joke with a spatula, but there wasn't enough time, so I had to sit on the spatula during the whole interview. On my third visit, I brought the spatula back and talked about how I had sat on it the last time, and then did the joke, which is that a spatula can be good for applying sunblock to your own back, especially if you're shy and alone at the beach and don't want to ask anyone to touch you, thinking that they would be repulsed to touch you. I also pointed out that a spatula, with its frying motif, is well-suited for sunblock disbursement. What else? Paul Schaeffer complimented me one time on my appearance; another time, my parents came to the show and my mom got to sit in Mr. Letterman's chair. Overall, it's been great, great fun to be on the show, and I'm grateful that Mr. L somehow read my books and had his staff find me.

Q: "Fitzgeraldian" is a word I see associated with your work. Are you an F. Scott Fitzgerald fan?

A: I am, though my prose is not at all life Fitzgerald's. He was a prose-god. The only reason why Fitzgerald comes up in relation to my work is that my characters have professed an admiration for him and this has somehow led to a comparison.

Q: Your characters in Wake Up, Sir! and The Extra Man seem to have sport coat fetishes. Do you, personally, have a sport coat fetish?

A: I used to, in my late twenties and early thirties, but it has since dissipated. I still like to wear sport coats, though. I view them as male purses- you can carry your wallet, a paperback novel, a small note-pad, a cell phone, change, etc.

Q: I Pass Like Night is imbued with sweet resignation (or maybe not sweet but sad), a sense that we are all on a continuum that we exert little control over. Can you remember your state of mind when you wrote this book and talk a little about how successfully the book fulfills what you set out to do?

A: I can almost remember my state of mind, because I recall the moment when the book was done. I was using Princeton's Firestone Library as a writing-room (I wrote by hand back then, this was 1988) and I finished the book and I walked out of the library into the sun and I thought to myself, "I'm free of Alexander Vine, I don't have to think like him any more." Alexander Vine is the narrator of the novel, and what I meant by 'think like him,' was that I wouldn't have to be so dark and frightened and tormented any more. That I wouldn't have to constantly evaluate the world through his prism. And then right after I had that thought, which felt like relief, there was the immediate feeling that I would then miss Alexander Vine, that his presence in my mind had been like having a friend. Granted, he was a part of me, but he represented an alternative me. If I had taken a different path in life, I might have been him. What we shared was that he was a young man who was broken-hearted and self-destructive and loved people but hated himself . . . he was lost to himself and didn't want to be. So I don't know that I was thinking of a continuum that we have no control over, so much as we have no control over ourselves.

Q: Is there a book that has obsessed you, either now or in the past?

A: Obsessed is a strong word. So I'm not sure it's the right word for me, but here are some books/authors that have made a big impact on my life at different times: Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan) and Tolkien-early teens. Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter Thompson-mid-teens (15, 16, 17). On the Road -senior year of high school (17, 18). Last Exit to Brooklyn-my early twenties. A Confederacy of Dunces and The Magic Mountain -my mid-twenties. Paul Auster's novels-late twenties, early thirties. Don Quixote-early thirties. Wodehouse's Jeeves books-mid-thirties. So far in my late thirties and early forties, nothing has impacted me just yet. But the above were all books that I talked about and raved about and was just amazed by. Why these particular books impacted me as they did is not clear; a lot of it must to do with what I was going through in those particular periods. If I reread some of the books now, I doubt that I would be as 'obsessed' or mesmerized. I would certainly admire them, but not as I did then, which in part has to do with the 'first time' and part with just changing, evolving, disintegrating.

Q: You reveal a lot of personal details in your nonfiction. Ever regret revealing too much? How do you decide what to hold back and what it's okay to expose?

A: I don't write as much non-fiction as I used to. From 1996 to 2002, I used to write personal essays quite frequently for the NY Press. The height of this was 1997-2000 when I wrote a bi-weekly column for the Press entitled "City Slicker." My role model was Bukowski and the column ("Notes of a Dirty Old Man") he used to write in the late sixties for Open City, a free LA weekly. He didn't hold anything back-or so it seemed-and I followed suit. My goal was to entertain and I entertained by shocking people with my honesty. But writing is never completely honest. Language is never completely honest. I don't know what is. A touch? Stroking someone you love? Maybe that's honest. Maybe not. So I tried to tell the truth, while at the same time exaggerating, making myself a 'persona'. . .Anyway, when I wrote the columns I would sometimes think I had gone too far, but usually that was an indication that I had written something worthwhile, and I had the comfort of knowing that it would disappear off the streets of New York in a week and would be forgotten. But then I took most of the columns and essays I wrote and turned them into books (What's Not to Love?, My Less Than Secret Life, and to be released in 2006, I Love You More Than You Know), and suddenly these things which would disappear in a week are around somewhat permanently, or for as long as the book stays in print. And I regret much of it. But I also have amnesia. I don't really know what's in the books anymore. I've forgotten much of what I've written. I mostly regret things that make people afraid of me or disgusted by me. For the most part, I've never tried to hurt anyone with what I've written, so I don't have that guilt hanging over me, but I do worry about people thinking poorly of me. Like if I'm dating a girl and she's read some of the books but still wants to be with me, than I've cleared one hurdle, but then maybe her parents want to read the books and that's just bad. At this point, I have one book, my latest novel, Wake Up, Sir!, which is more or less acceptable for people to read. Anyway. . .this amnesia about what I've written is really what saves me. Oh, I glanced back up at the question. There's plenty I held back. Plenty. Part of it is that I did many of the same stupid things over and over and over and over but I only wrote about it once. The volume of my strangeness, therefore, was misrepresented. And then there are dark things which are just too dark. . .but that's where fiction is good. Sort of. You get a lot of grief for what you put in your fiction. So there is no winning.

Q: How does the process of writing nonfiction differ for you from that of writing fiction?

A: When I write fiction, it's almost always novels-I'm not a big short story writer. So right there that's a big difference-novels vs. essays. With novels you're looking at some grand scheme, picture. With essays, you often have a word-count imposed by the publication you're writing for, and you have one main point and a singular story you're trying to tell, and usually there's a theme chosen by the publication and so you try to write an essay to match the theme, though when I was writing my column there was no theme per se. Each column tended to be a nonfiction short story (with myself as the protagonist and my friends as the other characters) or a rambling diary entry. So right there that whole process is much different than producing and writing fiction. An essay, I can write in a day usually. They tend to be 1,500 to 2,000 words. A novel takes a few years-you get a little bit done each day, not like with essays which I can crank out in one session. Furthermore, with novels, I can rely on things that happened but I can also manipulate real events or wholly create new events, new characters. When I write non-fiction I stick to what really went down. What is similar, for me, in nonfiction and fiction, is what I try to do with the prose (clarity) and the pacing (speed).

Q: The sex scene between Alan and Ava in Wake Up, Sir! happens to be simultaneously sexy, hilarious, kinky, and tender-it's one of the most memorable sex scenes I've ever come across. I'll never look at a nose in the same way. How did you approach writing it, and how did you manage to make it so funny?

A: Originally I wasn't going to have any sex in Wake Up, Sir! I wanted to write a sex-free book because my reputation was so bad-I had become known as a sex-obsessed, perverted writer, and I had no one to blame but myself. I had subtitled my memoirish book What's Not to Love? 'The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer,' and after that I was constantly referred to as 'perverted'. It wasn't just the subtitle, though, that gave me this reputation, it was also the content of the book, and my previous two novels, The Extra Man and I Pass Like Night, had a lot of sex as well. So I had clearly earned this limited reputation. But I did want people to notice other things about my writing, the prose for example, or the characters, or the humor, and these things were noted, but not nearly as much as the sexual content. So when I set out to write Wake Up, Sir! I had two mandates for myself-no toilet humor and no sex. I was doing this to change my reputation and to appease the woman I was dating at the time, who didn't like the toilet humor in my books or the sex scenes. But about six months after I started the book she left me, and I realized that a lot of people who like my books would want some sex in Wake Up, Sir! and so I had better have at least one sex scene. I also figured that a lot of people liked the toilet humor in my books-many people had told me that their favorite thing I ever wrote was an essay entitled "I Shit My Pants in the South of France." So then I decided I would take care of the sex stuff and the toilet stuff in one scene, which is the reason why Alan has gas when he's in bed with Ava. I had written down on a scrap of paper something about slowly releasing gas the way one might release the gas in a seltzer bottle and I really wanted to use that, so that's why that bit of toilet/gas humor/seltzer reference-made its way into the scene. All that said, I don't know what my approach was, except that I wanted to put in some rapture about the nose, the difficulty a man has in holding back his orgasm, and some cunnilingus to titillate the female readers. How I made it funny, I don't know, but I'm glad that this question-asker found it to be so.

Q: Where did you get the idea for the novel Wake Up, Sir? Did you set out to create an homage to Wodehouse, or did you have a story in mind that seemed to call for some Wodehousian situations and style?

A: I don't really know where or when I got the idea exactly, but I was reading a lot of Wodehouse-specifically the books that feature Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves-in 1999 and then at some point, I got the idea of mirroring a Wodehouse novel and in most of those books, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves end up at a country estate and the only equivalent I knew of was Yaddo, the estate-like artist colony in Saratoga Springs, NY. So that's why my narrator Alan Blair ends up at Yaddo. And I must have wanted to write a Wodehouse-ish book because I was enjoying them so much. I do know when I started Wake Up, Sir! in September 2000, my original title was Home, Jeeves!, but, ultimately, I couldn't use that title because of legal reasons. It was too close to a Wodehouse title. Anyway, I had been thinking about the book and then I had dinner with the writer Bret Easton Ellis in early September of 2000 and I described my idea-a Wooster-esque writer goes to an artist colony with a valet named Jeeves-and then I asked Bret, "Do you think it sounds stupid?" And he said, "No, I think you should write it." And that bit of simple encouragement was enough and I started it shortly thereafter.

Q: How much is your character Alan Blair a mirror of yourself? Which of your characters do you feel closest to?

A: He's a fun-house mirror of me-he's a distorted version of me, which is true of all my narrators/protagonists. My teacher at Princeton, Joyce Carol Oates, told me that I could take a small part of myself and turn it into a whole character, and I think I've done that with the three narrators of my novels. Alexander Vine in I Pass Like Night was the part of me that was wildly self-destructive in my teens and my early twenties, and the milieu was the Bowery, where I lived one summer in 1986. Louis Ives in The Extra Man was a character I invested with my fascination-at the time, late 1980s, early 1990s-with the 'young gentleman' in English novels, and I also gave him my curiosity about transsexuals, aligning, autobiographically, with stuff I was experiencing in my late twenties and early thirties. And Alan in Wake Up, Sir! is the screen upon which I projected my struggles with booze, my love of Wodehouse, and the time I spent at Yaddo, which would align, autobiographically, with my mid-thirties.

Q: I read an interview with you where you talked about doing a television show with Showtime. Is that really happening?

A: I wrote a TV pilot based on my memoir What's Not to Love? for Showtime. We filmed the pilot in November of 2004 and I played myself. It was a hell of a lot of fun. The idea was that maybe it would become a series, along the lines of Curb Your Enthusiasm. But it won't become a series. I fell short at the one-yard line. But the pilot will air, so I've been told, sometime in 2005 or 2006.

Q: What's the most exciting thing you got to do for a journalistic piece?

A: Harper's Magazine sent me to Alaska to spend two weeks on a Greenpeace boat. The Greenpeacers were on a grass-roots, coalition-building mission to address and prepare for taking action about the logging situation in Southeast Alaska. Back then it looked as if President Bush would dismantle Clinton's 'Roadless Rule,' which was helping to protect some old-growth forests and the Greenpeacers were heading up there to see if they could help in the effort to save what is left of America's rainforest-the Tongass. I loved being on that boat and I deeply admired all the Greenpeace people. It was probably the most amazing two weeks of my life. I saw whales, eagles, bears, incredible landscapes-glaciers, trees, and I was in close company with idealistic brave people. I also saw the terrible destruction that industrial logging has wrought in many of the forests. Well, I was so overwhelmed by the whole experience that I couldn't write about it. I couldn't do it justice. It was too important to me. All my heartbroken concerns about the environment, all my frustration that the wrong people seem to be running the world. . .well, I couldn't get it into an essay. I was completely blocked. Also, at the time, I was finishing up Wake Up, Sir! and had to write my TV pilot, and I was just overwhelmed and blocked and frustrated. It was my chance to maybe do something decent-to help get the message out that yet another piece of natural beauty was on the verge of being destroyed, and for no good reason, since it doesn't make any economic sense, except to lobbyists-and I failed. I wrote about 12,000 words but I couldn't make it work. I let myself down and I let Harper's down and I let the Greenpeace people, who had welcomed me into their fold to help spread the word, down. Naturally, Bush has repealed the 'Roadless Rule' and so I'm sure there will be more devastation to come. That plus the ravages of global warming, make everyday life feel so dream-like and surreal.

Q: What was the most significant event in your career as a writer?

A: Back to me now. Okay. Well, I guess selling my first novel at age 23 and suddenly being a 'writer' before I was really ready. My first book, I Pass Like Night, was originally a novella and it was my senior thesis at Princeton, and I sold it before graduation, with the contract stipulating that I double it in size, which I did. The original title was Eye Pity Eye, which looked to me somewhat like a face-the e's were eyes and the y in pity was the nose. . .and it was supposed to capture the self-absorption of the narrator. In Wake Up, Sir!, Alan Blair's first novel is entitled I Pity I, which was a little inside joke to myself.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm working on a screenplay for The Extra Man, and I just finished polishing a new collection of essays, entitled I Love You More Than You Know. This book will come out in February of 2006 and is comprised of essays that I wrote from 1998 to 2005.

Q: I read somewhere that you are "the reading circuit's equivalent of a rock star." What do you think about that?

A: It sounds like 'hyperbole' to me. But people do come out for my readings, which is very nice and I try to entertain and not bore.

Q: I heard a rumor that you wrote the novelization of one of my favorite movies, 200 Cigarettes, under the name Spencer Johns. True? Victor Ushmann, Red Bank, NJ

A: Yes, this is true. I wrote it in seventeen days, reshaping the story somewhat and altering the dialogue and giving the characters' thoughts. . .I wrote it without seeing the movie (it wasn't out yet) and the final manuscript, interestingly enough, was 200 pages. I dedicated the book to J.A. and my epigraph was the surgeon general's warning about cigarettes. I think there are some passages in there of which I am proud, but I haven't looked at it for a long time. My middle name is Spencer and I once called a character in a mediocre short story 'Spencer Johns' . . . it was published by Open City magazine but I'm not proud of that story.

Q: If you could go back in time and meet any person, who would it be?

A: What a trick question! It's very frat-boyish of me, but I guess I would love to be drinking and smoking pot (even though I'm sober now) with Kerouac and the other beats in the late 40s or early 50s before it all fell apart. Is that ridiculous?

Q: Do you read much contemporary fiction?

A: Not really. When I do, it's usually books by friends or writers I meet. Some of the older-generation of fiction-writers of whom I've read somewhat extensively-Alice Munro and William Trevor (only his short stories) and Philip Roth. I think Charles Portis is still alive and I've read a few of his novels. But maybe he's not alive. I've read most everything Paul Auster has written, and he's contemporary. •

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