Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

November 6, 2002

Monologuist and comic
Writer Jonathan Ames ’87 exposes himself in newspaper columns and booksIn many ways

Jonathan Ames ’87 is doing exactly what he set out to do when he was in 10th grade. He is living a literary life. He writes novels, newspaper columns, articles, short stories, essays, and reviews. He often teaches. He lives in Brooklyn. He goes on book tours. He gets reviewed. He wins grants, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1999. He goes to writers’ colonies. He has his own (albeit not fully functional) website (jonathanames.com). He gets invited to appear on the David Letterman Show (his initial date of October 2, 2002 was cancelled and will be rescheduled). One of his books is under development as a movie, another as a TV series. He has a second career as a monologist, in the tradition of Spaulding Gray. He even has a lead role in a film, The Girl Under the Waves that was purchased by the Independent Film Channel.

So what does he have to complain about?

The short version of the answer to that question is: just about everything.

For the long version, you’d have to read his angst-ridden, hilarious, heartbreaking, wildly exhibitionist, and shocking books that chronicle a life so far removed from the “norm” in some ways (he is a depressive dipsomaniac with a flatulence problem and a sexual resume that includes exhaustively detailed encounters with transvestites and prostitutes), and so familiar in others (he’s a Jewish guy from suburban New Jersey who went to Princeton, majored in English, and visits his parents often) that it’s a wonder he isn’t schizophrenic. Although, as a fairly imaginative hypochondriac and a chronic worrier, perhaps the possibility of schizophrenia is one of the topics he should add to his menu of preoccupations.

From 1997-2000 Ames detailed his adventures and misadventures in the biweekly column “City Slicker” for the New York Press. Those columns are collected in two of his books, What’s Not to Love? The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer and the recently published My Less Than Secret Life, which also includes essays and short fiction. Ames is also the author of the novels The Extra Man and I Pass Like Night. He is currently at work on a novel, Wake Up, Sir!, scheduled for 2004 publication and is editing an anthology of memoirs by transsexuals, Sexual Metamorphosis, also scheduled for publication in 2004.

“Most people like to keep things at a safe distance, but, nonetheless, they are curious and voyeuristic, especially when it comes to sex,” Ames wrote in his October 12, 1999, column, in an attempt to explain what it is, exactly, that he does. “And then there are those of us – I’m referring to myself here – who are nearsighted, so to speak, and need to be right on top of things or on top of someone to fully appreciate them. So it all works out. The sexually sane people need a liaison to the sexually insane. And that’s me, that’s where I fit in. A man behind the lines. A kind of erotic war correspondent.”

Interviewing Ames after reading his books is a peculiar challenge. His writing is so revealing that most questions feel not only redundant (we’ve already read the answer), but also decidedly mundane. It’s seems off the mark to ask Ames how he feels about his recent reviews, for instance, or how many hours a day he writes, or whether he uses a computer or writes in longhand – the types of questions that authors are often asked by publications such as the Paris Review – when what one really want to ask him is what he did last night, or whether his parents actually do let him in their house. As a compromise, Andrea Gollin ’88 asked a little of both.

Q: Do you ever—
A: Want to shoot myself?

Q: No, no. Does what you’ve written ever embarrass you?
A: Yes, that’s definitely happened. And I’ve definitely regretted things that I’ve published, maybe because I was rushing to get something out, or because of the state of mind that I was in.

Q: Do you miss having the column in the New York Press?

A: Sometimes. When I meet people and they say that they used to read me, or that they miss reading me. It was nice to have a voice in the city. But it’s also a lot of mental pressure to have a column.
I got tired of the form, and tired of using myself as a subject. I got tired of constantly narrating my life to myself. And it interfered with fiction in some ways. Even though it was supposedly nonfiction, it felt like fiction in that I was creating a persona.

I’ve thought about starting a new column, but I really want to finish the novel that I’m working on. I have to delay the gratification of being published, since a novel doesn’t come out for two or three years, and I’m not able to share it during that time, I’m not able to make someone laugh. But that’s where I’m putting my energy now.

Q: What is your new novel about?
A: It’s hard to say – it’s not a murder mystery…It’s the usual. The agony and the ecstasy. Loneliness and love. And, you know, comedy. The usual topics. More of the same.

Q: Tell me about the movie that you’re in, The Girl Under the Waves.
A: It’s a feature length film. It’s an improv movie that my friend, Jay Anania, made. We improvised it during an acting studio and it was bought by the Independent Film Channel. There are four people in an apartment and we were given prompts. I was playing myself but not really myself. It was fun.

Q: Are you working on a new one-man show now? [Ames frequently performs in nightclubs and theatres and has developed two one-man shows, “Oedipussy” and “How to East P***y.”]
A: I’m not working on a new show, but I perform all the time. In the past week I performed three times to probably 500 people collectively. I made 500 people laugh. So maybe 10 will go out and buy a book and maybe 5 will tell their friends and somehow I’ll pay the rent.

Q: What are your shows like?
A: It’s a kind of mixture of storytelling, stand-up comedy, and reading.

Q: Are writing and performing very different?

A: They’re pretty different. Performing is very athletic and of the moment. You’re hoofing it, doing anything you can to please the audience. With writing you take your time. You take naps. You crap around a lot.

Q: What kind of reactions do you get to your writing and performing?
A: Thankfully one only tends to hear from the people who are going to be kindly and generous. People will say things like “thank you for making me laugh,” or “I feel like less of a freak.” It’s just very generous. People tell me that they really enjoy my work. Some people even say that it helped them. Then, of course, people will say, “I can’t BELIEVE that you said that.” I tend to get less of that now. Maybe because I’ve been doing this for a while.

Q: What do your parents think of your work?
A: They are incredibly tolerant, accepting, and by now they’ve become veterans. They are very loving. Also, I’m not trying to be hurtful or put down anyone. I’m the only one I might make fun of. At first it wasn’t so easy for them. But it’s become increasingly easier. They come to my performances. [In fact, Ames’s father even accompanied him on an assignment he did for Gear magazine, in which he visited the set of a porn video. Both wrote about the experience; the pieces are included in My Less Than Secret Life.]

Q: What about other people in your life?
A: Sometimes it’s hard with girlfriends. I’m constantly trying to negotiate. I don’t want to write about them but sometimes I write things that may be hurtful. It’s a constant dilemma.

Q: What about your son? Has he read your writing? [Ames has a 16-year-old son who lives with the boy’s mother.]
A: He hasn’t read my work. I don’t think he is much interested in me as a writer. He’s more interested in me as a dad.

Q: The description (which you wrote) on the back cover of your new book, My Less Than Secret Life, begins by asking, “Do you often wonder what the hell you’re doing with your life? Do you feel separate from most people, like you don’t belong anywhere?” As you achieve more success with your work, and continue to define yourself as a writer and performer, are those questions that you wonder about less?
A: Even if you sort of know what you’re doing with your career, I think you’re still going to wonder what you’re doing with your life. I’m writing these weird books. Maybe they’re frivolous. They are filled with a lot of questioning and self-doubt. But on the other hand, I’m kind of doing what I want. I am my own boss. And in that sense I’m grateful that I’ve carved out a little bit of a life for myself.

Q: In your new book you describe the reading you gave at the Princeton Club [during the question and answer session one of the attendees told Ames that he had made history not only by being the first openly gay writer to ever read at the Princeton Club (a misinterpretation, as Ames is not gay), but also by being the first person to ever say the word “erection” at the Princeton Club].
A: That was fun.

Q: Have you given other readings there? Or in Princeton?
A: None there. In Princeton I’ve read at Micawber Books and at an event for alumni from the creative sriting program.

Q: Did you study writing at Princeton?
A: Yes. Princeton was very good for my writing. I got to study with Joyce Carol Oates. I wrote a creative thesis. [Ames’s senior thesis was the basis for his first novel, I Pass Like Night. He sold the book immediately after graduation and then spent a few years revising it.] During my senior year, writing my thesis, I really began to apply myself. It was kind of like a dream to be able to do so. I sort of came to Princeton with a fantasy that I would be able to work with Joyce Carol Oates and write a novel. And it kind of came true.

Andrea Gollin ’88 is a Miami-based writer and editor.