Georgie Lewis, Powells.com
Jonathan Ames has drawn on some extraordinary life experiences (and some rather ordinary ones, too) to contribute to his body of work, including: a self-confessional stage show, Oedipussy; personal essays for the New York Press; and two collections of autobiographical essays, What's Not to Love?: The Adventures of a Mildly Perverted Young Writer and My Less Than Secret Life.
His second novel, The Extra Man, is in development as a movie, and Ames has adapted What's Not to Love? as a TV series for the Showtime network. A pilot for the series is scheduled to be filmed this fall (2004), with Mr. Ames playing himself. He has said of this opportunity: "It's the role I've been waiting for!" In a return to fiction, Ames now graces us with his delightful new novel, Wake Up, Sir!
Alan Blair is an orphan who, at the age of thirty, is living with his aunt and uncle and working on The Great New Jersey Novel, a prolonged follow-up to his well-praised debut novel I, Pity I. His drinking has gotten out of hand (again) and he decides to preempt his eviction by taking off for a writer's colony, with his valet, (conveniently named Jeeves) by his side. Jeeves may be in Alan's employ thanks to a huge monetary payout for slipping on a sidewalk, Alan is comfortably well-off or Jeeves may be a figure of Alan's imagination. But a more tolerant, wise, and infinitely patient companion Alan could not find real or not so real. At the Rose colony the eccentric Alan certainly meets his match the "artistic" inhabitants initially make him fear he has been tricked back into rehab. A merry caper or two ensues, and Alan's tribulations in love, theft, and bar fights make for a page-turning romp.
Ames's prose is simply enchanting, and readers should leap at the chance to accompany his charming and hapless narrator Alan. Like P. G. Wodehouse, whom Ames read copiously during a period of depression and to whom Wake Up, Sir! is a gentle tribute, Ames's language dashes and dips, skims and quips. Wake Up, Sir! provided me with one of my most enjoyable reading experiences of this year, and so it was with pleasure I had the chance to interview Ames when he visited Portland.
Georgie: At the start of Wake Up, Sir! the scene is quite frenetic, the action is slapstick, and quite visual. The whole episode in which Alan is trying to hide and maneuver himself through the house to avoid his intimidating uncle, and finally running across him with disastrous results, is a whirlwind piece of writing. I could see how cinematically this would be edited in a way to capture the fast pacing. But how, as a writer did you achieve this? Are you typing fast? Is your adrenaline up?
Jonathan Ames: I don't think I'm typing fast, since I know this scene was the first scene in the book and I probably rewrote it many times. But I used to be into drawing a lot as a kid, and the cartoonist Charles Schulz said that when you draw a face you should feel the emotion that you want the drawing to feel, so if you are to draw a sad face you should feel sad in that moment. I feel the same with writing. So if I want to capture something that feels frenetic, maybe I try to feel frenetic, though I'm not typing fast per se, but I'll try and create sentences that convey that, whether they be short and quick, or something like that. Though, Alan goes on digressions a lot, and it could slow things down, so I had to be careful not to digress too much, and I really had to choreograph it. I think I was very aware of choreographing. Alan is going up the stairs, and here comes the uncle, down the stairs, and then BOOM, together! So I think I was trying to write quick sentences.
Georgie: Are you seeing it visually, like a film, as well?
Ames: I do see it. I saw the uncle coming down the hall, I saw Alan going up the stairs and somehow his head went into the belly, and then he steps back because he is on the middle stair and his uncle says "You idiot!" and then he is like "Ahhh!!" and the coffee shoots of out the cup. You know, it is like a delayed spasm.
Georgie: Have you ever, as a writer, seen something in your head and described it and then given it to someone else to read and they don't see it the same way you had hoped they would? Perhaps you missed a whole detail that pulls everything together, but being so familiar with what is in your head, you forgot to write that bit in?
Ames: I don't know that I have had the experience of someone saying, "Oh, I don't see that at all." Or at least I don't remember. But that is because I don't really show people my writing in that way anymore. So it has been a long time since that kind of thing. But I do know that I teach writing and you have to see the world or give enough detail so that the reader then sees it. A visual representation in their head. And you don't have to describe every fiber of the carpet. But enough so that they then take these little clues and create a world. That is what is fascinating about reading: each reader will see a different scene, will see a different staircase, will see a different uncle, so that book is different for however many people.
When we see a movie we almost all see unless we have skewed vision or we are slightly disturbed see the same thing. It is static, whereas a book is different for every person who reads it. And when you reread a book it is different for you again because you've changed and maybe you see things differently. You may see the room differently, or the character differently. So I try and put in enough clues.
Georgie: So do you think that there is an art to being funny? Or do you just hope that your work finds an audience who shares your sense of humor?
Ames: Comedy is often asked about, and there are courses on it, but sometimes I think that comedy is one of those things, kind of like sports. Either you can shoot a basketball nicely or swing a tennis racket in a way that is fluid, or not. And so I don't necessarily think about what would make something funny. It just happens that way. You know? And I wasn't always aware that I was funny.
After reading my first book my mother said to me, "You know, you are so good at being funny, why don't you do more of that?" I also had the effect that when I would speak in public not necessarily right at this moment that people would laugh. And I wasn't necessarily expecting them to laugh. But that kind of led to my performing career, so that I would just go on stage and just talk and people would laugh. Again, not at this moment, so don't go thinking, "What's he talking about?"
Georgie: [Laughs audibly]
Ames: Heh, well there you laughed. So there you go. Somehow, some weird... something happened. I'm telling you that I'm not funny and you laughed. So, I don't know that there is an art or a particular rhythm to it. Some people find it funny and some people don't.
Georgie: In your novels, and sometimes in your columns, you have mentioned being Jewish but looking fair and somewhat "Aryan." Did you ever witness anti-Semitism by people who presumed you weren't Jewish?
Ames: I referred to myself as not looking Jewish when I was younger. In fact, on your desk I left a copy of my first novel which I'm going to show people in the audience tonight. You see on the back of the novel a picture of me with this full head of hair and I've been doing this "before and after," where I hold up this old author photo and then I say, "Look at me now. This picture is before fifteen years of irritable bowel syndrome and this [points to himself] is after." [Grimaces]
And then someone wrote to me just recently and he asked, "Has anyone told you that you look just like the robots in I, Robot?" That is a great comment. But in my youth, for a brief period, probably between nineteen to twenty-one, I probably didn't look Jewish, my hair was very blonde from being at the beach a lot, from the ocean, so I think I made mention of not looking Jewish during that period. And I think it was during this period that people would make anti-Semitic remarks, assuming I wasn't Jewish, and it had the effect on me that I wouldn't say I was Jewish, because I think that I was embarrassed embarrassed for them, embarrassed for me, and wanting them to like me. But I was also hurt, and a little bit disgusted, and that, I think, has to do with the thing of the Aryan appearance.
It's an interesting phenomenon of the Jew, who is a minority, and yet can sort of assimilate into the culture. Someone I was talking to, during an interview, was talking about the unusual place of the Jew, in the way of being this minority that isn't necessarily visibly marked as a minority. Of course, if one is wearing the yarmulke or is Hassidic, then you know. But sometimes we can walk amongst you!
Georgie: The Jewish identity, and what it means for you and for others, is present in your books. And, similar to someone like Woody Allen, you use humor to convey self-deprecation and self-doubt. Do you think this sort of humor, bred of anxiety, is a Jewish trait?
Ames: Well, yes, I guess self deprecation is a trademark of Jewish humor, but then again, you know, not just for the Jews. I think comedians of all ethnicities will use it, and they'll make fun of their ethnic type, whether it be Richard Pryor or other black comedians making fun of black men or black women, or Irish comedians talking about the way the Irish drink. You know, they will put down their particular group, and maybe Jews do it a little more personally sometimes.
But I guess it is a relief for people because they probably think many of those negative things about themselves and maybe they don't discuss it with others. We're all plagued by insecurities and so it is almost a relief. "Oh, that's me too! Oh yes, when I go into public I'm so worried that my hands are so wet, and I don't want to shake anybody's hands. Oh, I'm so embarrassed." You know everyone is thinking "Oh that's me. I wouldn't say that, I wouldn't admit that, but that is me."
There seems to be an aspect of Jewish humor that is to complain, to be nervous, and to express this. And people laugh and enjoy this, and maybe they identify. Yet their cultures maybe haven't allowed this, haven't allowed them to be so openly insecure.
Georgie: Your columns, and collections of columns, unless you have been making up a whole other life, are extremely open, and you use experiences you relate in your columns to some extent in your novels from getting crabs to being at a writers' colony to being related to members of the NRA. I'm gathering, here, that your uncle is based in part on your father?
Ames: Yes, in fact my father's name is Irwin [name of uncle].
Georgie: Ah! So, what do you think is the difference between memoir and fiction?
Ames: Well, there is a big difference part of the reason I gave up the column. I think it was in 2000, although I did do some more essays for the New York Press, stopping in 2002 when my editor got fired. I have written a few more first person sort of things, but not very much. I have another collection's worth of stuff that I must have published since 2000, but I have to put that together.
But there is a difference. With the nonfiction I have to take and use myself as a persona, and I have to exaggerate things and simplify things because there is no way I can capture my full self. So I have to create a self that is amusing with a lot of basis in truth. Part of the reason I quit the column four years ago is that I wanted to get back to fiction, where I wasn't constrained by my life and having to draw so much on my life and not having to to use the Christopher Isherwood phrase "I am a camera" to be constantly photographing my life all the time with the idea that I might have to write a column about that. I wanted to be relieved of all that.
So fiction frees me up. And also, the columns were only 1500 words, so I had to hit the story in a certain amount of words. Always the word count. So I wanted to get back to fiction where there wasn't this importance of word count or the restriction of it having to somewhat be based on the truth, or something that had happened to me.
But, again, I take a character. It's just that this time I create a different persona I might add elements of myself, but I think of it more like a mannequin. Ok, it has my clothing and maybe my date of birth, but really he is wholly his own person. And this latest book, Wake Up, Sir!, really is my most fictional, because none of these things happened; it is totally imagined. I might have people who gave DNA to some of the characters or the location is based on a place I've been but these events and the way things transpire are totally made up. It is freeing that way, and I think, now, I prefer fiction. I don't really want to write essays. And I haven't for a long time, anyhow. I think the last nonfiction thing I did was for Slate[.com], about a year ago. I wrote some diaries. And I haven't done any more since.
Georgie: Ah stop living the self-examined life for a while, eh? At least don't do it so publicly.
Ames: Well, you can still examine things, but you can do it in the fiction.
Georgie: I admit, I read Wake Up, Sir! before I read The Extra Man, and only in reading The Extra Man did I realize that Henry and Louis [the main characters] are... they're sort of "transposed" into Wake Up, Sir!. Alan, the narrator in Wake Up, Sir!, is working on a novel about his experiences in New York, and these experiences and those characters resemble that of Louis's life, and the Henry character is called Charles. This unique character that you describe in Henry and, thus, Charles, is he based on a real person? Did you have the living experience of sharing a tiny New York apartment with an eccentric older man, like you describe in The Extra Man?
Ames: I based Henry on three men one more than the others. So yes, I did live in the circumstances that I described in The Extra Man, but, yet again, changing things, compressing two years into one year. And there were events created to create drama, that didn't happen in real life. I changed the Henry character, because the real Henry was pretty racist.
Wake Up, Sir! was originally going to be a sequel to The Extra Man, but I didn't want to be constrained in that way, but it is a thematic sequel. It is almost as if you could view Alan as Louis a few years later, but then it casts The Extra Man in a whole new weird way. Because when you read The Extra Man, it is a novel, and when you step back it is almost like you are hearing a person tell a story, but then in Wake Up, Sir!, you suddenly think, "Hey wait, this is a novel that he is trying to construct from his life, but then he says it is a roman á clef," and so you think that it is like a memoir. I don't know it gets a little loopy; it's like time travel in the Austin Powers movies or something.
Georgie: Postmodern, perhaps?
Ames: I don't think of it as postmodern. I think I'm just referencing myself but not in a way that would exclude anyone who hasn't read The Extra Man. It would only be an added pleasure for those who had. Because, actually, the two excerpts that you see Alan writing are excerpts from The Extra Man that I didn't put in the book.
Georgie: You make obvious references to P. G. Wodehouse in Wake Up, Sir!. Although Jeeves, the stalwart, is present, how much of Bertie Wooster do you think is in Alan? I can see that sort of sparkling, carefree, witty character. But how much else?
Ames: Well, I think Alan is or I am trying to sound like Bertie, who narrates all the Jeeves and Wooster books. But I think he is quite a bit different from Bertie, because Bertie doesn't really think too deeply about things and he doesn't ever put himself down too much. He is always shocked when he finds out other people think he is an idiot; or he doesn't even seem to hear it. But, at the same time, Bertie never wants to lose himself. That's why he doesn't want to get married, because he likes the way he is and doesn't want to be changed.
Then again, Bertie has this incredible vocabulary and a way of describing things and so I think maybe that part of Bertie I wanted Alan to have. I once read that P. G. Wodehouse said he wanted to give pleasure with every line, and so through the vehicle of Bertie, at least in those books, almost every line has some turn of phrase not every line, because you have to have dull lines, and I wouldn't be able to compare to Wodehouse, but I wanted Alan to be really entertaining.
Georgie: And you succeed. You have some wonderful turns of phrase that are really laugh-out-loud funny.
You made mention that this book was inspired by a period of depression that lifted after reading many P. G. Wodehouse books. Tell me about Wodehouse as an alternative to Prozac. Do you think it worked?
Ames: I think it must have worked. I was very depressed at the time I read all that Wodehouse, and I think it really helped me. It probably... Well, yeah, I think laughter is the best thing for everything. You know what I mean? Loosens up the muscles.
Georgie: I think they say when your mouth is smiling it releases something into the bloodstream. Endorphins or something.
Ames: I think it is all about fooling your body into thinking you feel well. But I don't know if [Wodehouse] really is as good as Prozac. I've never been on antidepressants. Then again, I certainly think it would help. Maybe in conjunction with medication you know, the way they say talk therapy, in conjunction with an antidepressant can be very helpful. But never having taken one I really don't know. All I know is Wodehouse gave me a lot of joy. I can't really read him now, having read so much of him at the time. Then I immersed myself in the book. I'll have to return to him in a couple of years.
Georgie: I remember hearing Kent Haruf say that he reads one of his favorite authors, Faulkner or Hemingway, for a half hour before starting work on his novel. Is this something you have ever done or, as you say, were you sick of Wodehouse by the time you started writing your novel?
Ames: Early on I did, but then I didn't look at him for a year or two. Although, now and again, I'd perhaps take a glimpse at it, at night, sort of in a hope that it might work on me. Just to remind myself of the rhythm of the prose. I didn't by any means seek to recreate it, it was just like a song that is in your head that you are humming. But, as I said, I'd take a glance at it. Although it would also sometimes be intimidating. I'd think, "Oh I can never recreate this."
At the beginning, when I first started the book, around September of 2000, I was reading a lot of Wodehouse, and marking things, and really trying to immerse myself, and then that stopped, probably in early 2001. Then I would work on the book in fits and starts and I wrote almost two-thirds, maybe three-fifths of it from last July to October. So for about two and a half years I got maybe 150 pages done, and then in five months I got 250 pages done.
Georgie: It is a very plot driven book. Do you think that this second burst was easier, perhaps because you had the first-person voice down, and you were able to concentrate on plot more?
Ames: Yeah. I think it takes a while to get the voice exactly right. I think at the beginning I sort of had it, but then it just got easier to write in that voice it takes a while to get it exactly.
What took quite a bit of time was to figure out what the story is. I knew that he has the aunt and uncle, and originally he was going to go straight to the Rose Colony, and that he had been there before and he already knew Ava. But then I changed it, realizing he should meet Ava. That would be more exciting for the reader. Not to have all this back-story that they have to be caught up on.
I tried to mimic the structure of a Jeeves and Wooster story, in that he has to steal something for a woman because Bertie is always having to steal something, or getting in trouble, and Bertie always goes to a country estate. So I knew that Alan ended up at the Rose Colony. I had the structure laid out.
Joyce Carol Oates has this very cool quote in the Paris Review Interviews about how James Joyce used the Odyssey story structure; that he made a parallel with what was going on in his story. As a means of telling the story of one man's day, he would take the structure and say, "Here's the moment when Ulysses is trying to get his army over the bridge and here is my parallel." And the Wodehouse structure was a way for me to tell the story, like the architecture that could enable me to fill in what I wanted to fill in.
Georgie: Right. And using different genres... You take the farce of Wodehouse, and yet there is something sad, something poignant about Wake Up, Sir!
In an interview I read, I believe you speak of Jeeves as an alter ego. Telling you the right thing to do, a fighting voice of conscience in your head. In Wake Up, Sir! Jeeves says that he sees tolerance as Alan's best virtue. Is this true for you? Is tolerance the virtue that Jeeves represents: accepting human frailty?
Ames: I don't know that I would say that "alter ego" is the term although someone has described Jeeves that way. I would say more a guardian ego. I don't know the Freudian terms. There is also "superego" and I never know what that is an ego with super powers perhaps! But what I was referring to is something that I don't do anymore I have other things in my head now.
Earlier, when I would get in trouble late at night, and I would be stuck in some place, kind of mesmerized, just waiting for something catastrophic or strange to happen, I might know that I should go home, and I'd say to myself, "Home, Jeeves!" and I would hope that something in me would take me home. It didn't always work. But I think from that dialogue, that call for inner help, came the idea for the book.
In fact, the first title of the book was Home, Jeeves! but I couldn't use that title legally because it was too misleading for the Wodehouse readers. I had to be very careful in the book and that's why I have that whole dialogue at the beginning that this is a different Jeeves.
So, about tolerance... you know, I'm no guru but I think that anybody, any religion or any kindly person, would say that tolerance is a form of being kind and generous and not judging and not being cruel. And you don't necessarily want to be tolerant of hateful behavior, but I think tolerance is a virtue and that is what Jeeves is saying, and perhaps encouraging Alan to feel that. Although, I think Alan is pretty tolerant. Sometimes he is frightened by people and he might make slightly unkind remarks but I think later he sees that everyone is doing the best they can. You know, he doesn't think that anyone is horrible. Even Beaubien he realizes at the end that she is okay.
Georgie: I guess I was struck when Jeeves said that. I thought what a lovely compliment, what a lovely thing to elevate in someone.
Ames: I don't know that I wish I've read it, but I am carrying around Moby Dick on this trip and I'm hoping to, although I haven't started it and I don't know that I will.
Georgie: My mum read it while ago, and she loved it! She couldn't put it down.
Ames: Yeah it must be something. I have actually not read Ulysses, I've gotten through the first 120 pages of that. Um... those are two. And those are pretty high up in the canon.
Georgie: Any books that you have read recently that you've really liked?
Ames: I've been struggling to find a book, actually. I was just reading some Philip K. Dick.
Georgie: Are you going to see I, Robot?
Ames: Well, that is Asimov.
Georgie: Ah, yes, but you mentioning Philip K. Dick reminded me of classic sci-fi, and after that comment about how you look like the robots...
Ames: Haha oh, yes. I'm going to mention that in the reading tonight. And after that, the guy sent another email with a link (which I haven't had time to look at yet) saying I look like John Patrick Henry. I don't know who this person is, but apparently I look like some figure in constitutional history.
But recent books?... I'm really in one of those time periods where I can't find anything to read. It happens sometimes.
Georgie: I'd recommend the new novel by David Mitchell called Cloud Atlas. It is amazing.
Ames: Hmm... well, I almost never read contemporary literature. I need to tap into that more.
Georgie: Well, I'm pretty fussy myself, but I'd thoroughly recommend this one. Anyhow, it looks like we are out of time here. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me.
Ames: Thank you.
Books mentioned in this post