“I Don’t Know Who I Am”
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.
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.
Recorded on: November 4, 2009
Fits of self-loathing, the challenge of being unlovable, and the general sense that you are tripping through darkness are part and parcel of the grand confusion of life—-Jonathan Ames explains.