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
For the long version, youd 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 (hes
a Jewish guy from suburban New Jersey who went to Princeton, majored
in English, and visits his parents often) that its a wonder
he isnt 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, Whats
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 Im 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 thats
me, thats 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
(weve already read the answer), but also decidedly mundane.
Its 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 youve written ever embarrass you?
A: Yes, thats definitely happened. And Ive definitely
regretted things that Ive published, maybe because I was rushing
to get something out, or because of the state of mind that I was
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 its also a lot of mental pressure to have
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.
Ive thought about starting a new column, but I really want
to finish the novel that Im working on. I have to delay the
gratification of being published, since a novel doesnt come
out for two or three years, and Im not able to share it during
that time, Im not able to make someone laugh. But thats
where Im putting my energy now.
Q: What is your new novel about?
A: Its hard to say its not a murder mystery Its
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 youre in, The Girl Under
A: Its a feature length film. Its 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: Im 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 Ill
pay the rent.
Q: What are your shows like?
A: Its a kind of mixture of storytelling, stand-up comedy,
Q: Are writing and performing very different?
A: Theyre pretty different. Performing is very athletic and
of the moment. Youre 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.
Its 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 cant BELIEVE that you said that.
I tend to get less of that now. Maybe because Ive been doing
this for a while.
Q: What do your parents think of your work?
A: They are incredibly tolerant, accepting, and by now theyve
become veterans. They are very loving. Also, Im not trying
to be hurtful or put down anyone. Im the only one I might
make fun of. At first it wasnt so easy for them. But its
become increasingly easier. They come to my performances. [In fact,
Amess 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 its hard with girlfriends. Im constantly
trying to negotiate. I dont want to write about them but sometimes
I write things that may be hurtful. Its a constant dilemma.
Q: What about your son? Has he read your writing? [Ames has
a 16-year-old son who lives with the boys mother.]
A: He hasnt read my work. I dont think he is much interested
in me as a writer. Hes 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 youre doing with your life? Do
you feel separate from most people, like you dont 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 youre doing with your career,
I think youre still going to wonder what youre doing
with your life. Im writing these weird books. Maybe theyre
frivolous. They are filled with a lot of questioning and self-doubt.
But on the other hand, Im kind of doing what I want. I am
my own boss. And in that sense Im grateful that Ive
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
A: That was fun.
Q: Have you given other readings there? Or in Princeton?
A: None there. In Princeton Ive 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. [Amess 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.