Big Think Interview With Jonathan Ames
Jonathan Ames is a writer, boxer, storyteller and, most recently, the creator of the HBO series, "Bored to Death." His books include "The Extra Man" and "Wake Up Sir" and the collection of essays, "The Double Life is Twice as Good." Ames is a frequent performer at the storytelling group, The Moth and has appeared in boxing tournaments as "The Herring Wonder." A graduate of Princeton and Columbia Universities, he lives in Brooklyn.
Jonathan Ames: I’m Jonathan Ames, I’m the author of several books, and I’m also the Creator of the HBO Television Show, “Bored to Death.”
Question: When did you take up boxing?
Jonathan Ames: I first did a little bit of boxing in the fall of 1992. My first novel had been out for three years, but I was really struggling to write a second novel and I went back to school. I moved to New York and went to Columbia University and I took this three-day seminar with the writer, Richard Price. He said a few things to me that were very important. I had told him I was struggling to write a second book and he had talked about how he struggled to write a second or third book and he had forced one out and he realized he should never do that, but he had been under the mindset that good dog when published, bad dog when not published. And so he wanted to be a good dog but wrote a book just to publish a book and that’s the state of mind I had been in for three years.
He went on in this seminar and in a private conversation, I’ll mix the two, but he said, “I realized that I could only write about something I loved and that when you write a book you have to be in love.” He also said, “Writers hang out.” He must have said that in the class and then I followed him down the street, down Broadway, after the class and I said, “I totally identified with what you said, ‘good dog, bad dog’ and I’m really struggling to write a second book.” And he said, “Are you into cops?” And I said, “Well, sort of. My father had been an Auxiliary Policeman.” What had turned around Richard Price’s writing career was, for a movie assignment or something, he went and hung out with cops in Jersey City, and he just loved the dialogue and the stories and this is where he fell in love with this and he was just hanging out. These two principles, being in love and hang out.
So, he gave me a number of a detective in Jersey City that I could call whom I could possibly hang out with. I didn’t call the guy, but I was like, “all right, I’ve got to hang out. I’ve got to find things I’m in love with.” And I realized that I’ve always loved boxing. So, I found a gym in Times Square area, back when there were boxing gyms still in Times Square, and peep shows, and I started boxing. And I also realized I had a fascination, I translate the word “love” as fascination obsessed by, haunted by with transsexuals. So, I would box at Kings Way Boxing Gym on 40th and 8th Avenue and then I would walk up three blocks to 43rd of between 8th and 7th and go to this Transsexual bar called Sallie’s. I was in these two very different worlds and eventually I stopped boxing and just was going to Sallie’s and then found something else that I was in love with, which was this mad older roommate I had moved in with and all that world of going to Sallie’s and living with this older gentleman as a roommate, that became the basis of my second novel, The Extra Man. So, the first little bit of boxing, was in 1992. [00:06:35.00]
Question: What do you think of Times Square today?
Jonathan Ames: I don’t think too much of Times Square. I mean I don’t think little of it. I mean, it’s a spectacle when you go there at night with all the lights and it certainly is very cleaned up. I mean, I was of two minds back when it was much more hard-core. On one hand, I’ve always been drawn to the gutter and so I liked that whole seedy world. On the other hand, as a New Yorker, I did feel some embarrassment for the tourists that would come to Times Square and 42nd Street, the center of the city, and it was just sex and people hawking things. And now I guess it’s the same thing, but just very glossy. I don’t know, it’s not very sexy though, but a lot of hawking. But the lights are spectacular, so that’s a spectacle.
Question: What is the appeal of boxing for you?
Jonathan Ames: The appeal of boxing, I like to test myself, I like to take risks. I also think I would like to be free and adventurous, but it’s very hard to be free in life. The boxing ring is this chance to be a hero, or to engage in probably primal aspects of the mind and the body that you wouldn’t tap into and there’s a lot of myth and romance coming through those ropes. It would be like getting to play center field for the Yankees.
So, I think for me, it’s a lot of the metaphors of it, the romance of it, the chance to test myself, to test my courage. At the same time, it hurts a lot. I don’t necessarily want to hurt anyone else. Though I like the idea, as in any sport to see how you can score. It’s not a very good left hook, but I’m limited here with the camera. So, those aspects of it I don’t like and the part of hurting your brain or hurting someone else’s brain is not pleasant.
Question: What was your greatest moment in boxing?
Jonathan Ames: My greatest moment in boxing was – and I’m the rankest of rank amateurs, you know, so my great moment is not like I am a wonderful practitioner of the Queensbury Rules. I had two bazaar amateur fights, so I’m no great boxer. But my greatest moment was at the end of my second fight that I had survived and that I hadn’t gotten hurt. And that I had won. But I hadn’t humiliated my opponent, but it was just a good match. And just to survive it, it’s so hard to be in the ring. You get so exhausted; you’re so frightened. And I was injured going into it. My jaw was all out of line and I was really concerned that I was going to mess up my jaw and why am I doing this, I’m a writer. I don’t think I had health insurance at the time. What am I doing putting myself at such risk.
But to have survived was glorious and it was over and I didn’t have train anymore and I didn’t have this pressure that I was going to go into a match and maybe injured. And my girlfriend rose up to the ropes and we had this kiss after the fight and it was photographed, but at the moment, it was just very glorious. And when I stepped into the ring, a lot of my fans were there, and I fight as the Herring Wonder. And the cheers I received were really warm. I almost made me cry actually. It was kind of like, all my years of writing and performing in New York, I got a huge “thank you” in the sound of the cheers as I entered the ring.
Question: Do you have a strategy for storytelling?
Jonathan Ames: I don’t know about strategy. I know that whenever I get on stage, normally I don’t memorize the stories I tell, but I do, do an outline, or the headlines. It’s kind of, how I believe, Spaulding also worked. And I would know the headlines, the stories from my life, and then I could improv my way along as I checked them off in my mind. But I don’t know if it’s turning everyday moments, but just being honest about one’s neuroses. People would really identify, or just being honest about one’s insecurities. I think a lot of people are afraid to speak in public. I’m lacking that particular gene or something. I have other fears; I don’t have that particular fear. And I also, at some point in time, whenever I would get on stage, or before I get on stage, I would try to take a breath and just remember, I want to entertain these people. I want to give them something, and I would try to open myself up, literally, physically and otherwise. And let me just show these people a good time. Because then it was about that and not about me doing well, or you know, ego, or something. I mean obviously ego is always involved, you can’t quite get away from it, It’s like trying to get away from a shadow.
But if my impulse was to give and to entertain, I think that always helped the performance.
Question: How did you become involved with storytelling?
Jonathan Ames: I got started as a performer in the fall of 1990. I was at an artist’s colony in News Hampshire called the McDowell Colony and I was struggling, as I mentioned earlier to write my second novel. And I would be in this cabin all day long, not writing, sitting in front of this enormous fire that I would make for myself, sweating and just wearing my underwear, and then I would have dinner at night with the other artists and I found that when I talked at the dinner table, people were laughing. I had also found this when I sometimes attended support groups, that when I talked people laughed, even if I was talking about the most painful things going on with me. So, a lot of people at the artist’s colony would give readings at night, or have open studios with their paintings. And I decided to have what I called an Old Fashioned Night of Storytelling at this beautiful old library that was at the colony.
I had built a big fire and I sat in the care and everyone at the artist’s colony gathered around about 30 people and I gold like three stories from my life. Someone at the colony was impressed by this and told someone else about it and then that person then had me perform and at another artist colony I went to months later. Then that person then had me come to a café and perform in New York in I think 1991. And I hadn’t yet moved to New York.
And then in 1992, someone who had seen me at that café, it was called Skep Café, I believe somewhere near Thompson Street in like Soho, she now was the booker for the Fez Performance Space that had just opened up in the Fall of ’92, where Jeff Buckley would go on to perform quite a lot. The Charles Mingus Band. And this woman had seen me a year before and I hadn’t performed in whole year. And she said, “I’m putting shows together, would you want to come and tell some stories. So I told a story in part of a group show, I believe, in the fall of ’92 at the Fez, and then starting in ’93 began to put on my own shows there several times a year until 2005, until it closed. At one time, I think – I know it sound name dropping, but Jeff Buckley and I were the two people who had performed the most at the Fez in a certain time period. I also was working the door there to bring in extra money.
But I would put on these shows and I would have friends do music and odd acts and then I would always end the show by doing 30 or 40 minutes of monologues. From that, that led to me having a one-man show at PS 122 called Edipussy [ph]. Because of all the shows I did at the Fez, when the Moth, a storytelling group started up, they asked me to be a part of it. So basically, in New York, my performing career kind of began in the fall in ’92, and then really in earnest in January of ’93 when I put together, I believe, my first show of my own at the Fez. I had been doing monologues and getting on stage and sometimes acting pretty steadily from ’93 till now, 2009, sixteen years.
Question: What is your creative schedule?
Jonathan Ames: I don’t have much of a routine. I’m a slightly disorganized person. I tend to resist routine. It’s been a while since I worked on a novel. When I did and let’s say I wasn’t having – I often had to teach no matter what, but luckily most of my teaching would take place at night. So, it was mess around in the morning, drink coffee, read the newspaper, come back – most of my writing career has been during the era of the e-mail. Do email, waste time, and then start looking over what you’d done the day before, feel a little bit less afraid, and then work for a few hours with breaks and lying down.
Now most of the writing I do, whether it be for magazines or for the TV show, “Deadline” and so maybe I have two days to write a script, or I have a day, or three days. So, then a similar routine, get up, drink coffee, read the paper, sit down, and having a deadline can work. And then you just write until you can’t write anymore and you take breaks and you know.
Question: How does the writing process differ from storytelling?
Jonathan Ames: Well yes, there are two dual things. When I sketch out a story, it’s To unlike writing because sometimes I would write it out a bit more than the headlines and that would be my way to start formulating those things that on stage I would then verbally kind of improve my description of what someone looked like, or what a moment felt like. So, in some ways, the initial crafting of the story is the same. So, I do much less performing of new material now. I tend to just do all my old material and most of my creative impulse goes into writing.
But actually performing and writing are two very different things and I’m glad that I’ve had both in my life, because performing at night was very athletic and ephemeral. I also could meet people afterwards, it was social, it was the opposite of the writer’s life. And, yes, you are responding, you see someone; something comes to you in the moment. But then it’s gone. Even it’s recorded, it’s every quite the same when you can’t see the audience, you can’t feel everything.
So, I liked it for it just being, like I said, almost athletic, almost like nature. Oh, the light was beautiful that day, but it’s gone. Oh, the performance was great that night, but it’s gone. Whereas, writing is, you’re alone and it’s very much about the sentence and you’re responding to other writers and books and you’re trying to do something in a sentence. You’re trying to make beautiful sentences as well as move people along and keep them interested.
So, it’s a much more craft – for me the writing is about the craft. How can I write a beautiful and concise sentence that gives pleasure and entertains.
Question: Has it been difficult adjusting to working in television?
Jonathan Ames: I’m recognized more on the streets because of HBO. I did a “Making Of,” In which I am interviewed quite a lot. Not unlike the way I am sitting her now. There was also a tour of Brooklyn, Jason and I went on a tour of Brooklyn. So, I was very visible and I think my red beard, which I’ve had for a year now, people notice its. So, policemen stop me on the street. Initially, I thought maybe he thought I was drunk, it wasn’t, but I had just tripped when he said, “Come here.” But it turned out he was a fan of Bored to Death. A fireman stopped me; some other people have come up and said, “I love your show.” So, there’s been more of that. People had recognized me from my books, but there’s definitely been a slight increase in being recognized.
My personal life hasn’t changed that much. I still live very frugally, although I did buy a new bed. I had the same bed for about a dozen years. I seem to be picked up and taken in cars more often. You know? And maybe being involved with a TV show – when you’re writing a book, it’s just you and the pressure of the world is just on you, or you feel the pressure of the world, or one’s own self-involved universe. But here, I do have a lot of people involved and a lot of people that I want to please. You know the actors with the lines I write, HBO with the stories I’m coming up with and to justify their investment. So, in my personal life, I do feel there is an increase in pressure, but there are also greater rewards and I might as well try. I’ll try, and if I fail, I’ll be in a lot of pain, but there’s – as I’ve said before, I have the crème fresh of problems. These are good problems to have.
Question: Was it strange of having somebody else play you?
Jonathan Ames: Well, we would be filming – well he’s not playing me. I mean, it has my name, but it’s not me, so in the same way that I never feel like me. So, I’m watching him play this guy that has my name, but I don’t feel connected to my name. I don’t know who I am. I look in the mirror and I recognize myself, but I’m so confused as to my own identity that it certainly was fun to write things and to have it come alive, and to write a fight scene and see it play out, but I get more of a kick out of that then he’s playing Jonathan Ames. I feel divorced from that name especially because I know it’s not me.
Question: How are you confused about your own identity?
Jonathan Ames: Well, how am I confused about my own identity? I think we all struggle with self-loathing and our secret notions of ourselves, or feeling unlovable. I don’t know, I think it’s just a general confusion as to who I am and what I want in life. I feel very much like I’m tripping my way through darkness, but I think we all feel that way. It’s not easy to be alive and I have a very privileged life. I’ve always been lower, to now, upper middle class. So, these are luxurious struggles, you know? I’m not worried about food at the moment, or shelter, so for most of my career, my goal as an artist was to just simply pay the rent. Maybe a little bit of identity with having this TV show and people, for the moment, perceiving me as a success. And I never have perceived myself this way. And I’m not sure that people even do, so it doesn’t – I don’t know. I’m hanging in there. I want to pay attention and be loving to the people in my life and I guess on that sense I’m not confused about my identity.
Question: Do you feel that using your name for the character adds anything?
Jonathan Ames: But it adds something. I kept the name because when I wrote the short story, I wrote it in the style that I’ve written my essays. And I did that on purpose because whenever I would write my non-fiction, people would say to me, “Oh, you made that up, didn’t you?” And then when I write my fiction, they go, “That’s all true, right? Why’d you call it fiction?” You know, it’s like I couldn’t win. So, I thought, “ All right, I’m going to write a piece of fiction in the style that I write my essays and I’ll use my name as the character and then people would be like, “Wait, did this happen?” You know what I mean, it was almost like when you cross your fingers, and you go like that. You don’t know what finger is being touch, something like that.
And many writers have, of course, played with this idea of using their own name in fiction, or what have you and making themselves the character, it’s nothing new there. But it was my second stab at it really. In my graphic novel “The Alcoholic,” I named the character, Jonathan A., kind of a Kafka story, “A” could stand for alcoholic, or alone, or Ames. But then with this short story, which was the next thing I wrote, I named the character completely myself.
So, I like what the TV show that it again creates that same **** of like, is this guy Is this an autobiography? Did this really happen to someone? People like to know about the artist behind the work as well. It’s part of their enjoyment of a piece of art usually, to feel like they’re communicating with someone, or someone is communicating with them. That’s why we’re drawn to art. I know for me, it’s like books are like friends. The book itself is a friend, or the story, or I’m connected to the characters. Then there’s also – that’s why we have author photos and bios. Who is this person that made this thing that is enchanting me?
So, having the character have my name I think adds something for some viewers. Is this real? And it makes perhaps a little bit more pleasurable for them.
Question: Is there a particular joy in writing about sex?
Jonathan Ames: I’ve often been drawn to writing about sex. I’ve tried to answer this question before. I did in some interview recently. I do a lot of these written interviews. I almost would like to collect them. I do these email interviews and I sometimes put a lot of effort into them. But, I think sex is always, obviously, very fascinating and is this little theater where all sorts of issues and problems can express themselves between two people, or one person. And so as an arena to like explore a character, that’s why I like a character’s troubles or heart, or perversions – not perversions, but inclinations. That’s why I’m drawn to writing about sex. Not so much for the physical act, though it’s not bad to titillate people also too. Because a lot of times people read books and they love the sex parts. “Oh, that’s what its like for me to be in bed.” Especially if you’re honest about it about how difficult it might be, or how insecure one might be, or the thinking one has while making love. So, it’s one more area to connect to the reader and to make them feel less alone as well as, like I said, exploring what really makes a person a person, and a lot of times that’s most expressed in their sexuality.
Question: Do you have any personal stories with Craigslist?
Jonathan Ames: I’ve never personally used Craigslist for anything. But at one time, I used to love to read all the ads where people wanted to meet people. All the variety – Henry James’ brother, William James, wrote the book The Varieties of Religious Experience or something like that. Well “Craig’s List” was the varieties of sexual experience. I mean, I would read these ads and some would be like, “I live in Ohio, and I want to come to New York and be transformed into a woman and be your maid.” And it was so plaintive, and a lot of times it was very well written. Or someone else specifically wanted this kind of sexual act, or someone else just wanted to be in love. And it was all these narratives. I was just kind of drawn to this mad chorus on Craigslist of need.
But I never knew part two of any of the stories. I wanted to write to the people and say, “Did you meet someone?” Or, you would read one ad, “I want this.” And then someone would write, “I want this.” I’m like, why don’t they connect. You know, they’re each looking for the coefficient. Don’t they see that ad? I hope they hood up. You know. But mostly for me, it was just a source of reading material. I’ve never actually used Craigslist to purchase anything in any way.
Question: Is New York becoming more tame?
Jonathan Ames: I don’t think New York has become less wild because people are still insane and they’re still living here. There’s not necessarily a whole neighborhood that’s completely mad the way Times Square is. But if one’s definition of wild is peep shows, you have peep shows kind of off on the edges of Brooklyn, off the BQE, or I mean, Manhattan itself definitely was a lot more wild when I was a kit coming into the city and through the early 90’s. It used to be scary to cross Avenue B. You really thought you might be mugged at any time, and Avenue C was like, “Oh my god.” Now Avenue C, you know, restaurants everywhere. Also, there were so many neighborhood were there were many street walkers. Like in the ‘20’s around Park Avenue that you used to see prostitutes. Or down off of 9th Avenue, or obviously near the Lincoln Tunnel. And I don’t think you see any of that any more. Or the meat packing district used to be filled with transsexual prostitutes, and now its fancy restaurants and shops. So, Manhattan itself has definitely much more upscale. But behind closed doors there’s still plenty bad behavior going on.
Question: Why does your new show skip Williamsburg?
Jonathan Ames: I have nothing against Williamsburg. We didn’t film there this past season. I think Williamsburg is a neighborhood that I remember hanging out there a bit when I was living in Brooklyn in ’95, sort of right before it kind of exploded. I would sometimes take the L-Train to the Bedford stop, and I was living over on the border of Bed Stuy and Clinton Hill, right by the Navy Yard. And I had a car, a beat up car, and I would sometime drive over to Williamsburg, park my car and take the L-Train when I had to go into Manhattan. So, I liked the neighborhood. I mean, I haven’t been as drawn to it the last few years it got built up so much that it wasn’t the neighborhood that I was too curious about. I guess I wanted to show more obscure parts of Brooklyn, at least in this first season. But I’m aware that we haven’t gone there at all, and it is very lively and people outside New York might not know it, so I was thinking of trying to set at least one scene there in our second season.
Question: What are your thoughts on Green Point?
Jonathan Ames: Yeah, I liked Green Point. Like many neighborhoods in the early stages of gentrification, you’re kind of walking along, its barren or abandoned buildings, or just kind of charming, old, working-class neighborhoods. And then, being very bourgeois, “Oh look, and organic restaurant.” It’s charming and wooden, and attractive, young, hip people are sitting there. I want to sit there. So, Green Point is interesting.
I also like the neighborhoods that aren’t being gentrified and they are purely beautiful, whether they’re beautiful-ugly, or just beautiful-beautiful. I’m mostly drawn to neighborhoods on the water. That’s why we filmed on Brighton Beach, even the Guanos Canal that little bit of water or going down in the Dumbo area, near the water. I love how New York is very much a city of rivers and the ocean
Question: Are there any recurring obsessions in your works?
Jonathan Ames: Well, I’ve written eight books and in almost all of my books there’s a great-aunt character. I have a very close relationship with my great-aunt who’s been a friend, like a grandmother. I may have spent more time with her than most human beings. So, I always have a character somewhat based on her in my books. So, that’s a recurring theme. I think for my novel, “The Extra Man,” my novel, “Wake Up Sir,” the short story, Bored to Death very much play on this theme of someone being obsessed with books themselves, and wanting their life to be like something out of a book. For my novel, “The Extra Man,” the character, from reading a lot of Somerset Mom and Tomas Mann and Fitzgerald and Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Woodhouse, wanted to be what he thought of as a young gentleman. And he’d seen all these books as the literature of a young gentleman. How a young gentleman might live. And so he had this fantasy that he was a young gentleman. The book was kind of constructed almost like the “Magic Mountain,” by Tomas Mann.
And in my novel, “Wake Up Sir,” in my mind it was very much about someone who had been driven insane by reading too much P.G. Woodhouse. And this all came from my spending a year reading "Don Quixote" and the way that Don Quixote read all these books on chivalry and believed that he was a knight. I really got into this notion of seeing life as this fantasy very much influenced by the books you read.
And then the same thing with Bored to Death. The character has been rereading all of his Raymond Chandler novels and some David Goodis and he gets it in his mind that he should be a private detective. And so then the story is about someone being driven by literature to do something. And then I get to write it in the style of a thriller, whereas, with my novel Wake Up Sir, I kind of wrote it in my mind in the style of somewhat of a Woodhouse novel.
So those are obsessions. I think obsessions with sexuality of trying to define oneself or trying to escape definition is also a theme. New York City – most of my work is set in New York, except for Wake Up Sir. So these would be some of my themes.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Jonathan Ames: Well, a couple of things. Sometimes I might get upset – I’m not very good with confrontation, or anger. I tend to swallow it all down and so if someone’s hurt me, I’m not very good at telling them, “Hey, I’m angry at you.” And so I might stay up late at night trying to figure out in my mind, writing them emails, or trying to figure out how to smooth relations and it’ll keep me up. At the same time, because I’m not good at anger, it must be circulating in my body and if I could just express it someone or accept anger, then maybe I wouldn’t stay up late at night. I think I might stay up worried about letting everyone down if I can’t do a good job or late at night if I’ve been neglectful of people that I care about. I worry about disappointing people, and I think that keeps me up late at night.
Recorded on: November 4, 2009
Big Think sits down with the author and creator of, "Bored to Death."
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