When Life Becomes Fiction
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: 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 Maugham 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.
Recorded on: November 4, 2009
From sex to his great-aunt, Jonathan Ames’ oeuvre is laced with a variety of obsessions, including the desire to let books themselves shape our fates
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