Unexpected Twists Occur: A Chat With Jonathan Ames

Photo by Ted Quackenbush, via Wikimedia Commons

“Joe felt something behind him,” Jonathan Ames writes. “It was the presence of life and the coming of violence, and that anticipation, that sensitivity, enabled him to turn in time and catch the blackjack on his shoulder, which was better than taking it on the back of his head.”

And so opens the pot-boiling novella You Were Never Really There, telling the brief but bloody tale of Joe, who’s not a card shark. He’s a shadowy repo man for young girls kidnapped into the sex trade, and has survived the FBI, Marines, and his own abusive childhood, but may not survive his latest gig extricating the daughter of a New York senator from a high-end bordello. That blackjack is a sawed-off billy club.

Ames is gearing up for the re-release of the expanded edition of You Were Never Really There this month, followed by Lynne Ramsey’s big-screen adaption (with Joaquin Phoenix as Joe) this spring. One-two punch aside, this New Jersey native is a lover, not a fighter, excepting his occasional foray into the boxing ring as ‘The Herring Wonder.” He’s also penned a Bukowski-esque column for New York Press collected in four volumes of non-fiction prose, written a handful of novels (1998’s The Extra Man was adapted into a 2010 film with Kevin Kline) and created the three-season television series “Bored To Death” for HBO (Ames appears full monty in a season two episode) and more recently the STARZ sitcom for Patrick Stewart called “Blunt Talk.”

If we were to parse Ames’ extracurricular activities—he’s driven a cab, modeled with Beverly Johnson and served a brief stint in the Army—we’d be here all day. Let’s not even get into his exploits for New York Press or work as a porn extra. Today finds the 53-year-old rough-voiced and ringing up from Los Angeles while he waits for “some water to boil to add some coffee to my coffee.” Let’s let him tell you the rest himself.

SIGNATURE: You first published this book in 2013. It’s now 2018 and you’re revisiting the work. What’s changed?

JONATHAN AMES: So much has changed, obviously. I originally wrote the book in the fall of 2012. My goal was to write a thriller, an entertainment, something absolutely non-comedic because I’ve written primarily comedy all my career—some essays and my first novel—and of course there are moments of pathos, but this was an attempt at a sustained page-turner. And then, for this new edition, I did expand it by twenty pages. It was fun to come back to this sort of writing and I fell into the voice quite nicely and easily. So, in a sense, the writing and that feel didn’t go away.

SIG: Your publisher says it’s expanded by 25%, which I guess sounds more impressive from a marketing perspective. How would you describe this work?

JA: It’s bleak, but I just tweeted that the book was written in a lighter time. The world has always been a mess and terribly corrupt, but we’re looking at even stranger corrupt times. I’ve always been concerned about the environment and it’s just escalating. It was a dark book written in slightly lighter time, and now coming out in time of greater terror in the world.

Humanity’s been in rough shape for a long time. The political corruption that’s in the book is quite severe, but it actually seems somewhat fitting now. Human beings are so troubled. And the men in power in this book are very troubled, sick individuals, but from the writing till now, it’s held up. Joe is an instrument of justice, maybe too brutal justice.

SIG: People’s Court calls that “some rough justice.” I’m also curious about the format. Back in 2012, these electronic “singles” were going to save publishing, or at least writers. Were you writing specifically for that format?

JA: I was writing on assignment for a friend for, as you say, a single…hold on, the water’s boiling [kettle whistles in background]…yeah, um, this friend of mine was an editor at I don’t think it exists anymore or if it does, it’s changed form. I’ve lost track. But they had a high word-count and were running long-form pieces—fiction and nonfiction—and paying nicely. I thought, hmmmmm and saw it as an opportunity to write something different. It came out as an e-book, or single, in 2013. Then it started coming out in other countries as a little pulp paperback. France had some really nice reviews. A French film producer read the book and got it to Lynne Ramsey, so that’s how the movie happened, because it came out in France.

SIG: The single promised, I think the buzzword is wealth creation. Do you think that panned out?

JA: I’m not very on top of the economy of prose writing. I do feel like I’ve never read a book on an electronic device myself. Are you a big books on electronic device person?

SIG: That’s not the first way I would describe myself, but yeah.

JA: I never even attempted to read a book that way, but I remember at the time it felt like God, the book is really going out. Everything is Kindle or the iPad, but the physical book seems to have held on. I could be wrong. I don’t know that a big market for the single has opened up, but I’m not very savvy that way.

SIG: The set pieces in your book really lend themselves to film, but there’s also a lot of interiority. We spend a lot of time in Joe’s head. How does Lynne approach that?

JA: She approached the interiority through flashback. That’s also where casting Joaquin Phoenix was such a coup. He’s a human being you can put on film and there’s really a sense of an inner life. There’s not a lot of dialogue in the movie, but she really captured his torment. She didn’t use voice-over, it was more through silence and resting the camera on his incredible face. I once heard a quote—I think it’s attributed to Lillian Gish—movies are about faces and music. Joaquin Phoenix has a great face and they got really great music from Johnny Greenwood.

SIG: If I can editorialize for a moment: that beard is crazy! You really describe this character in great physical detail. Was the beard as shocking for you?

JA: I wanted a feeling of strength, of course, but that’s the fun part of film and collaboration: it becomes its own thing. In the book, he doesn’t have a beard, but Joaquin needed his beard for his next movie. I think he was playing Jesus after this. So the beard became one more way he’s hidden. He was a fantastic choice and I’m glad he responded to the material.

SIG: I really responded to that jammer that blocks cell signals. If that’s actual technology, I want one.

JA: It is actual technology! I had an acquaintance who would use one sitting on public buses in New York. I looked it up on the internet and such things do exist. Well, when I wrote the book they existed, but I wonder. Do they work on iPhones? Cellphone technology has changed, but just look up cellphone jammer on the good old Google.

SIG: I don’t want to sound elitist, but those bus people do not have iPhones. This book seems research-heavy and so much of the underbelly isn’t really that Google-able. How do you get those details?

JA: What details are you referring to?

SIG: One of the things that jumped out was the underage section of the brothel being called “the playground.” That sounds so authentic.

JA: Well, actually, I did make that one up. I don’t know if such places are called playgrounds, but it sounded so nefarious. In terms of the brothel, there’d been one, gosh, twenty years ago. I had a little writer’s room in a very nice house on 48th Street. There was a brothel on the street, high-end, near the United Nations. I wondered what this building was. It was a modern brownstone on a street with older brownstones, and it had these metal curtains. It was very mysterious. Even the people who gave me the writer’s room wondered what it was.

One day I was walking on Second Avenue and ran into this guy I knew from downtown. He had this bag of groceries and was kind of embarrassed, but said he was the towel boy for this brothel on 48th Street. I said that building! Holy shit! I never forgot about that brothel and this notion of a towel boy—this guy who run errands for the girls—so I didn’t do a lot of research. I did look up the number of millionaires in the US and did my own statistics. The little research I did was disturbing: how many children are abducted and put into the sex trade, from overseas or kidnapped here in the US. It’s staggering.

SIG: At the same time, aren’t you a little nostalgic for that New York? I mourn the Dinkins administration almost daily.

JA: I left New York three and a half years ago, but we might be going back to Dinkins New York. Who knows? What’s happened to New York has happened to many major cities around the world. The artists got pushed out. And took a lot of the grit with them. Some of this is positive, of course. There’s less crime, though that may have just been farmed out further from the center. I wrote something once about how the colon needs bacteria to function well. It’s the same thing with a city. Some of that Times Square-ness added to life, but it’s more that New York was an artistic center. Artists were moving among the people. Painters who had shows in Chelsea—or SoHo when I first moved to New York—they lived in the city. There were artists in TriBeCa. They had studios. It’s long gone, but that’s what hurt the city. Not proud of it, but… I was a young Times Square prowler in the ’80s and ’90s and it was pretty
disgusting. It was like: this is the center of our city? Peep show after peep show after peep show? At the same time, what took its place isn’t much better. It’s incredible commercialism, flashing lights, but those brothels still exist. I wouldn’t be surprised if that building is still a brothel.

SIG: I’m with Fran Leibowitz on old New York, she always says she never felt “imperiled.”

JA: I definitely felt imperiled in New York back then. I began hanging out in the city in my high school years—the early ’80s—but in the early ’90s, when I was really living there, the East Village was still pretty scary. I had a friend on Avenue B and I would run across the avenue and ring his bell rapidly hoping to be buzzed up. There was a threat of mugging. I had this other friend. She wasn’t raped, thank God, but some guys grabbed her in her vestibule, locked her in her closet and robbed her apartment. There was a lot more of that in Manhattan. It was definitely scarier. I remember in 1986 I had a job as a doorman at The Four Seasons restaurant. I was living down in the Bowery because it was the only room I could afford. This disgusting little room with cardboard walls in this guy’s loft of Christie Street. My pockets had cash from my tips and I’d come out of the subway on Spring and run down the middle of the street because I didn’t want to get jumped.

SIG: I remember—same hood, same era—this club called The World. I would go with a trans friend of mine who would insist on stopping at this super-sketchy deli on Avenue B and Second Street. If she could pass under the bodega lights, we would head to the club and kill it. But if any of the bodega homies clocked her, we would head straight back to her apartment. The night was over.

JA: You had to be smart and keep your eyes open. I even know the bodega you’re talking about. If you knew the right person, you could buy cocaine right at the counter.

SIG: And those Santeria candles with the saints on the side! Can you talk a little bit about nonfiction versus fiction?

JA: I don’t write that much nonfiction any more. My career began as a novelist, then I spent years writing a second novel, but got a column for New York Press that began several years of writing almost primarily nonfiction with an exaggerated version of myself. I wasn’t one of these journalist writing for The New Republic and creating a totally false narrative, but I was trying to do the Bukowski thing, using myself as a character. I did so much of that, I got tired of writing about myself so I went back to fiction. Then I bounced back and forth, but nonfiction was always easier because if you knew the story well, you didn’t have to make things up. You could just tell it because it happened. You just had to recreate it. I’ve probably produced a lot more non-fiction. I have four books of essays and probably two more books-worth that haven’t been collected. But then I ended up in television so primarily wrote scripts from 2008 to this past year. This novella and occasionally prose pieces were interludes. I’ve been on many different paths, but the writing of the sentences remains the same: trying to write as precise and entertaining a sentence as possible.

SIG: How do you feel about releasing this type of story into the current political climate?

JA: People will always want entertainment. I had to pause before putting something this violent out into the world. Also while I was writing it. I was fascinated with the genre and experimenting with that meant violence, but I have been concerned about putting more violence out into a violent world. But the book is a thriller. There is a hero you want to root for. And Lynne Ramsey’s film is not gratuitous. It’s somehow lyrical. In terms of the climate maybe comedy is in more demand, but a gripping film like this with political corruption could also be fitting for the times.

Ultimately, I wish the world was in better shape. I don’t care so much about success. I just wish the world was more  at peace with itself and as a country there was greater equality and we were seeking solutions for the environment, but like all of us, we’re trying to find ways. We have to be kind to each other and do what we can as a species. It’s a pretty wide-ranging question. I also don’t know what’s going to be happening in April. It’s been such an unpredictable year as is.

SIG: That seems like a great place to wrap, but I have one more question. With so much suspense, I always wonder how much the author is comfortable giving away to describe the thing.

JA: Well, there’s one big plot twist in the book. I wouldn’t necessarily want that revealed. But I wouldn’t know how to get people into the theaters or to get them to read this book. I don’t know what the one thing to say would be. With the film, it’s like, come see Joaquin Phoenix, a very tormented hero… anti-hero… an anti-hero-hero because he’s not a force of evil, per se. Or, see the beautiful work of Lynne Ramsey, who’s a true cinema-maker—an auteur—trying to do things with imagery. Her films don’t look like anyone else’s.

In terms of the book, I would just say if you wanna read a page-turner and, like always, I tried to write something hard to put down, then maybe give this a try? But I know that’s not very good marketing copy.

SIG: No, it’s fine. I shouldn’t have even asked, but I just don’t want to include any spoilers.

JA: Wait, let me try again! There’s a web of corruption, he goes in search of a young girl… Ah, then you could say, “unexpected twists occur!”