Jon Ronson: LibraryThing Author Interview
Jon Ronson is a journalist and documentary filmmaker whose books include The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. Ronson's new book, Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries, was recently published by Riverhead.
For those who haven't had a chance to read it yet, give us the nutshell version of Lost at Sea. What's the thread that ties these twenty-two short pieces together?
These are funny, sad stories about people lost at sea, trying to make their way through the world. Sometimes they reach for crazy ideas to get them through, sometimes horrifying ideas, sometimes silly ideas, sometimes even inspiring ideas. I see this as an empathetic book about people spiraling out of control.
They sometimes feel like adventure stories. I get into some dangerous scrapes. Other times they feel like mystery stories: there are actual mysteries that need solving. Sometimes the mystery is, Why does this person believe this crazy stuff? Or, Why does this person act in this baffling way?
There's a Christmas-themed town in Alaska where every day is Christmas and the kids have to be Santa's elves. A bunch of them were recently arrested for being in the final stages of plotting a school shooting. There's a real-life superhero who dresses in a supersuit of his making and breaks up gangs of armed crack dealers in the dead of night. I went along with him. It was terrifying. There's a billionaire filtering her money into creating a robot version of her real-life partner that she's convinced is about to burst into spontaneous life. I interviewed the robot. And so on.
Do you have a favorite among the stories included here? Which, and why?
I love the Christmas-town story. I'm also very fond of "Citizen Kubrick". I was the first person ever to look through the thousands of boxes Stanley Kubrick left behind at his home. It was mysterious and exciting and a great honor, and also a real challenge to try to piece together this enigmatic man through the things he left behind.
And I love the story about the incredibly violent rap act Insane Clown Posse, who have been surreptitiously embedding cryptic messages about their secret love of God within the lyrics of their songs. We had a fantastically absurd conversation about whether elephants constitute miracles: "Have you ever stood next to an elephant, my friend?" one of them asked me. "A f***ing elephant is a miracle. If people can't see a f***ing miracle in a f***ing elephant, then life must suck for them, because an elephant is a f***ing miracle. So is a giraffe."
The original idea was the editor of US GQ, Jim Nelson. He was thinking that income disparity is so important yet people tend to be bored by stories about it. He asked me to find a way to humanize it. We talked about looking at the subject mathematically.
I went off and did sums, and I worked out that there are six degrees of economic separation between a minimum-wage dishwasher making less than $8 an hour and a Forbes billionaire, if you multiply each person's income by five. Then I decided to journey across the United States to meet one of each multiple.
How did I pick the people? It was completely mathematical. For Frantz, the Haitian dishwasher, I approached a restaurant workers' advocacy group in Miami. For Dennis and Rebecca in Des Moines, who earn five times what Frantz makes, I heard that local charities offering food to the needy were seeing more and more middle-class families; I found Dennis and Rebecca through a charity. I was the person who made five times what they made. Above me was a woman I've done some work with, who wanted to remain anonymous. Above her was a progressive gazillionaire named Nick Hanauer. I met him at TED, where I had been invited to give a talk. I loved how he was on a crusade to be forced to pay more tax. And the guy at the very top was a Forbes billionaire—once the sixty-first-richest man in the United States. He made his money from public storage.
What I learned kind of astonished me. All of them, from every income level, basically justified their place on the ladder by inventing illusory fears of terrible things that might happen to them if they got richer. Dennis and Rebecca, for instance, said people with more money tend to fall into a destructive hedonistic abyss of sex and drugs because they can afford it. The woman who made five times more than I did said she didn't want to be richer, because then she'd have to have her own plane and it would be stressful to have friends and family beg to fly on it. She meant it!
Another thing that really surprised me was that the only person who was angry about the politics of his situation was the storage billionaire—the richest man. He was angry about all the spongers below him, with all their "entitlements." Those at the bottom looking up showed no such animosity.
What's your typical process for writing pieces like those in Lost at Sea? Do you find the stories and then pitch them to editors? Are they commissioned in advance? How long do they take to research and write?
Every way you mention. Most of the stories are my idea. Sometimes they are my editors' ideas, at The Guardian and GQ. I'm fortunate enough, and have been at it long enough, to know that if I like a story—if I feel driven to write it—it will be commissioned. So quite often I start working on a story, and at some point I mention it to an editor, who says yes. On average, it takes me a month or two to research and write a shorter piece, 5,000 words or so. But sometimes it takes longer. "Who Killed Richard Cullen?"—about a man who committed suicide because of credit card debt—was a huge research job and took about six months. Other, more fun stories, like the one about Insane Clown Posse, can take just two weeks. I can't write any faster than that. I need to rewrite, day after day after day. I can't simply write and press "Send." I need a clear head over many mornings to feel ready to publish.
How much follow-up do you do on your stories? Do you keep in touch with folks you've profiled? Once you've finished writing, do you move on to other projects?
I like to keep in touch—I'm never happier than when people from my stories appreciate how they've been portrayed. That doesn't always happen. I've stayed in touch with maybe half the people in my books. Just today I corresponded with two of them: Phoenix Jones, the real-life superhero, and Mike Coriam, the father of Rebecca Coriam. Hers is the title story of the collection. Rebecca was a young woman who worked on the Disney Wonder, a cruise ship. She went missing on it one day—she just vanished. The Coriams have had no luck trying to find out what happened. They feel they're hitting a brick wall. I went on a cruise on the ship to learn what I could.
If you could interview or profile one person you haven't had the chance to talk to, who would it be? What would you want to ask?
Right now—and this is unusual for me, because I'm not so interested in writing about famous people—David Bowie. He seems to have retreated from the world. He's barely been seen for six years. I would love to know why, and would like to ask him to reflect on his life.
Do you have a few favorite books? Are there any authors or journalists you consider role models for your own writing?
Journalists: I adore Lynn Barber. She's most famous nowadays for her memoir, An Education, which was adapted into a film starring Carey Mulligan. Barber's kind of my hero. Favorite books: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. What A Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe. Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver. Most recently, I was really taken with the ambition of A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.
What's your library like? What books would we find on your shelves?
I've just moved to New York, so my shelves are empty. Everything is in boxes. I stare at the boxes and can't muster the energy to open them. So I'm finding this question stressful and guilt-inducing.
I know the feeling! Well, then, what books have you read and enjoyed recently?
Can you give us a sense of what you're working on now?
I've just finished cowriting a movie with Peter Straughan, who adapted one of my books for the cinema: The Men Who Stare at Goats. The new film is called "Frank". It's a comedy about being in a band. The singer wears a big fake head that he never takes off. Michael Fassbender and Domnhall Gleeson are starring in it, and the director is Lenny Abrahamson. It starts filming in just a few weeks.
Now that that's done, I've started work on my next book. I haven't told anyone what it's about. But I'll tell you. It's about humiliation. You realize I'm now scrutinizing all your facial expressions to make sure that you look suitably intrigued. If I see a flicker of anything other than intrigue it'll be crushing. Humiliating, in fact. And you wouldn't want to pile that onto me.
Indeed we wouldn't, and the project sounds fascinating! Thanks Jon!
—interview by Jeremy Dibbell
Books by Jon Ronson
The Men Who Stare at Goats (1494 copies)
Them: Adventures with Extremists (1246 copies)
So You've Been Publicly Shamed (656 copies)
Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries (471 copies)
What I Do: More True Tales of Everyday Craziness (73 copies)
Frank: The True Story that Inspired the Movie (40 copies)
The Elephant in the Room: A Journey into the Trump Campaign and the "Alt-Right" (Kindle Single) (33 copies)
The Amazing Adventures of Phoenix Jones: And the Less Amazing Adventures of Some Other Real-Life Superheroes: An eSpecial from Riverhead Books (25 copies)
Clubbed Class (9 copies)
One For The Trouble (Book Slam) (3 copies)
Intrepid Africa Pb (2 copies)
James Mollison: Playground (2 copies)
Strange answers to the psychopath test (1 copies)
The Secret Rulers of the World (1 copies)
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