Author and stand-up storyteller Jonathan Ames has published I Pass Like Night, The Extra Man, What's Not To Love and My Less Than Secret Life and most recently Wake Up, Sir!, a novel. He has also contributed to the New York Press, GQ, Slate and Public Radio's "The Next Big Thing" and has a one-man, off-off Broadway show, Oedipussy, which he claims he also performed in Germany and at several pleasant American colleges. He is also the editor of the forthcoming [February 2005] Sexual Metamorphosis: An Anthology of Transsexual Memoirs. Jonathan Ames has also recently participated in Operation Ohio, readings organized by Stephen Elliott, whose purpose is to register college students to vote. He lives in New York City and is possibly working on his next book and television pilot for Showtime.
Wake Up, Sir! is Ames's tribute to the much beloved British author P.G. Wodehouse and his Bertie Wooster stories. As Ames reveals, "'Why Wodehouse?' It was just timing. I rediscovered him and was loving them [the novels] and I was going through a depression of some sort. Any year I could be going through a depression. This particular one I happened to pickup a Wodehouse book again. And just had so much fun. I couldn't get out of bed so if I couldn't get out if bed I might as well be in bed laughing. And enjoying the incredible prose and the voice of Bertie Wooster. So I think that sparked the idea of 'I want to write a book like this.' It's mimicry and it's responding to the books you love and trying to write a similar book."
In our chat below, Jonathan Ames and I address a far-flung repertoire of concerns and conceits beyond his latest tome. With Ames's nimbleness of mind it would have been impossible to have a narrowly gauged talk. Which, of course, suits us fine.
Robert Birnbaum: I was impressed with some of the causal links that you establish as you develop this character, and thus I wondered if there are any theories that you are fond of?
Jonathan Ames: Theories?
RB: Yeah, theories that you impose on life, on reality?
JA: On life? Or on writing?
RB: We may get to writing. But as you go through your life do you go, "I have a theory about dealing nasty people"? Or "I have a theory about waiting for something"?
JA: I don't seem to be a big theory person because maybe I have too much self-doubt, and so I change my mind a lot or I don't feel very certain about things. I do know that before [encountering] things that might be scary or intimidating, I agnostically pray. That might be the closest I come to a theory or a modus operandi that I take a moment and—you know, just calm down a little somewhere inside myself. So that might be the closest I come to a theory. I might have some literary theories.
RB: I was caught up in what an agnostic prayer might be.
JA: I ask for help. I say, "Please help me." It feels funny because talking about God seems like talking about voting Republican. It's not something I immediately bring up, but it is the closest thing I come to having a theory on life. Or just something that gets me through. Maybe some people would have a prayer bead or a rabbit's foot or something. I just for a moment might say, "Please help me." I feel I am agnostic, but I will say, "God be with me." Like even before sitting down with you, just to help me be present and not be anxious or be elsewhere.
RB: A way of flagging the moment. You have a recognition of this being different than the moment before.
JA: Yeah, I want to be present, and I don't want to be going off the top of my head, like when a knee is struck with a little hammer. It might be a little bit—not ambitious, but, well, maybe it's to do well in the moment. That could be perceived as an ambitious "do well in the moment" or a Buddhist "do well" which is to be present. I interviewed the football quarterback, Donovan McNabb, for an article I ended up not writing—which I was glad because I really can't do these kinds of pieces.
JA: And I said, "What is with this striving to be the best? Like, what is the point?" I was in the locker room with him. Because all these athletes [say], "I want to be the best. I want to be the best. I want to win a..." I don't necessarily want to be the best writer. And what's this thing about winning? Why is it so important?
RB: I like what Will Self said about literary prizes, "How do you win at fiction?"
JA: Um hum. So Donovan McNabb says, "I try to be best at everything all the time. I want to give you the best interview you've ever had and give you the best answers." So like this guy is deeply competitive. I really liked him though. He was a dynamic, fascinating, physically heroic person.
RB: That professional sports culture is an odd one.
JA: Right. Just utter striving. He said, "My mother—like many athletes, he's from a single mother—told me to try to be the best at all times." So my thing is not necessarily to be the best in quite that same way but to hope that I would be most alive and that something will come out of me that's authentic.
RB: In a way that is ambitious [chuckles]. In this cultural moment, that's ambitious. But you have to recognize it first.
JA: I perform a lot, and I think I do it so that maybe I'll give something.
RB: Under what circumstance would an editor want you to write a feature on a professional football player?
JA: A couple times a year, magazines approach me because they want my voice for a piece. The voice that they used to read in the NY Press. A lot of these editors are reaching a certain age in New York, late 30s or so, and they read me five years ago when they were assistants or just starting out: "Aw, I love this guy. He's so outrageous." So now they are higher up and like, "Let's get him to..." There was supposed to be a piece on Terrell Owens [late of the San Francisco 49ers, now of the Philadelphia Eagles] "Let's get him to do a profile. It'll make it more interesting." Now a lot of times what happens is that I then try to write these pieces and they don't want the voice. Or you end up getting neutered. I was worried that this would happen. As it turned out, I wasn't able to write the piece due to a family crisis—my father had a heart attack, and I didn't write the piece. I'm a huge sports fan, and this particular editor happens to live in my neighborhood and somehow found out I was a sports fan. I once wrote a piece on the Tyson–Lewis fight. But again I always like to do it more where I am involved in the moment. Rather than having to do a lot of the—
JA: The research and like laying out the boring facts of the case. But I liked being in a professional football locker room and watching the practices. That was cool. It's a glimpse into a world I'll never see again.
RB: Wouldn't a good editor present the idea and ask you how you want to approach it?
JA: Maybe I don't have enough of a track record where it's like, "Ames, go write about pro football and we'll print it." It's more like, "How can we make a Terrell Owens story interesting? Oh, what about Jonathan Ames?" So I think it's a matter of where I'm at. Actually I am going to say no to these kinds of pieces because they always end up—I can't do them, or I fail, or they don't get run, and so I think I just want to stick to fiction or just writing essays about life or something. I don't know, maybe I'll change.
RB: That's too bad. Maybe a bestseller will sway editorial assignments and allow you greater freedom.
JA: Perhaps. Also part of it me—and the research—I think I am going through a period where I can't seem to do journalism. And in the past I went to a place, would describe it, again, usually with myself in the center of it, not in a egotistical way but just to give an eye to it, or maybe it is egotistical.
RB: Of course it is.
JA: [laughs] Of course it's egotistical.
RB: Nothing wrong with that.
JA: Recently someone was doing a profile on me, and I saw how I came out in the profile. It was a bit of a caricature of myself, and I was really glad in a way that couldn't write that Terrell Owens piece. He would feel the same way. Like, "The guy barely captured my soul at all." I had this huge failing, while we are on the topic of journalism—while I was finishing this book, I was about two or three weeks away from finishing it. Harper's asked me to go on a boat in Alaska, a Greenpeace boat. And I am not sure what they wanted. Maybe they wanted a jaundiced view of Greenpeace, which might have been a misreading of my writing. Because I never make fun of others. I might make fun of myself, but I don't make fun of others. And I am secretly a brokenhearted environmentalist, you know.
RB: Your secret is out.
JA: And I always put it in my books, little things about the environment, little traces of it. So I went on the assignment, which probably I shouldn't have. Because I was finishing the book. It was very much coitus interruptus or novel interruptus. And I so loved these Greenpeace people and was so overwhelmed by the experience of being on this boat with them. Yet the issue is so complex. It's the Tsongas National Forest, and I've never been good at math or science or philosophy, and somehow I was going to have to digest all this bureaucratic information, having to do with logging and the native land and Bush and timber and road less rules and Congress and felt like I was with the French Resistance—that they were this little boat up against the world, and yet they had hope. And it was so inspiring. But then I came back, and I thought I could write it in five days. I used to write my NY Press pieces like that [snaps his fingers] And I couldn't write it because I was still in the voice of the novel. I had to go back to finishing the novel; it ended up being another six weeks. Then I had to do this TV thing that suddenly there was a deadline, and then I tried to write the Greenpeace piece—and it was almost too important for me. And there was all this kind of homework stuff I had to get out there, too, to try to explain the issue. I ended up not being able to write the piece, and I let the Greenpeace people down. I, of course, wanted to get the message out there. I missed the chance to be in Harper's. I'll probably never be given another chance. I offered to pay them back for the airplane ticket. They didn't take it. They just called it a wash. I did produce ten thousand words. I wrote about the boots I had bought. They were so beautiful and waterproofed and I felt heroic in them. And then I got on the boat in the piece, but I don't know—so I'm very low on myself in terms of journalistic pieces. And I am going to stay away from them for a while.
RB: You said that you didn't know what Harper's wanted. Isn't incumbent in them to make that clear to you? Perhaps we are belaboring the issue, but my own view is that there are not many interesting pieces being published in magazines. Certainly assigning Barbara Ehrenreich to write about working at minimum-wage jobs [became the book Nickel And Dimed] or Hitchens on Kissinger is a rarity [The Trial of Henry Kissinger]. Or Michael Lewis's New York Times Magazine cover story on his high school baseball coach. Other than that, it's about celebrity, eating and shopping.
JA: Yeah, well, the other thing about me is that I am not a magazine reader. I don't really read magazines. I glance at the New Yorker and get half way through articles in there and, you know, read the front political section to feel less alone in the world. But I am not a big magazine reader. I really only like to read novels. I don't fault—Harper's like [said], "Go be a fly on the wall and come back and tell a story about the time with the people." And I just couldn't do it, so felt so brokenhearted that I had failed myself, failed Greenpeace, failed Harper's and then GQ presented this football story. I thought, "Oh God, I'll be able to write a profile on a football player and I couldn't write about the destruction of beautiful forests." But I ended up writing neither piece, so—tabula rasa. Also, I was deep in to writing this book, and then I didn't really finish the final edits until late January of this year.
RB: That would be hard to do—to break up the flow of completing a novel.
JA: Yeah, I wrote most of it from July to November of 2003 and then December and January copyedited the manuscript, final changes here and there—sometimes big changes. It may have also been that I burned out. I also wrote a TV script during that time I haven't really been writing anything for several months. So —
RB: What have you been doing?
JA: What have I been doing? The most writing I have done are these little Q&A things. I do these email Q&As and put some effort in to those. Not effort—I have fun with those. I have probably written 40 pages of Q&As.
RB: For your website?
JA: No, other people's websites. They will interview me. I haven't done a lot. I was very involved with my family for about six weeks. Being in hospitals. My usual thing of giving readings and performing. And trying to set up this little book tour.
RB: Tell me about going from the solitude of sitting and writing and then performing?
JA: Well, okay, I thought the question would be like, "What's the interface between when you are actually writing and then spending the rest of the time hustling so that your writing can get out in the world?"
RB: As an aside, it's a sad thing that invariably these conversations turn to the question do the book business. It's quite crushing and urgent. Sometimes I feel like being relieved of it. I know it's staring you in the face. That you have spent all this time working on something and now you have to fight to get noticed.
JA: Yeah, it hasn't been too much of a fight. I don't feel compelled to talk about that at all. I guess I was more feeling embarrassed when you said [adopts a stentorian announcer's voice], "What have you been doing?"
JA: So some how setting up these things, "Do you want to read in Seattle on June 22nd? Can you find a place to stay there?" Somehow that's distracting and all these mail and phone calls. So that's kind of also what I have been doing, is being distracted. But writing and performing, well it's—the long answer is that after my first book which came out in 1989, I struggled for several years to write. Suddenly I had consciousness, "Oh, you put a book out in the world." And I literally had difficulty writing a sentence—without feeling the weight of that "people will read this."
RB: Like the character Allen Blair?
JA: Yeah, again he is the funhouse mirror of my own autobiography. So at some point I found that, not in this moment because I am being a little bit dull and something, but that when I talked in front of an audience people laughed. And so I began to do these monologue shows. Mostly starting in '92 and then really began heavily in '93 and until now. For years doing monologues and then also when I read from my books I try to do it in a very performative and entertaining way. It's been like two separate paths—almost night and day, literally. During the day, I write or I teach or however I try to make money or I distract myself. And at night, once or twice a week or two or three times a month, I would perform somewhere as part of something, either my own shows or lumped in with comedians or lumped in storytelling groups. So it's been like these two currents of my life.
RB: Is it possible that you have an overview that it's really all out of the same pool, the novel, the performance, television and maybe the occasional journalism—that it's all really storytelling, which is more fundamental than whatever the genre or form is?
JA: I guess I don't have an overview. But I used to call myself a stand-up storyteller. And I didn't call myself a comedian. Other people called me a monologist. I think, yeah, essentially it's storytelling. The oral is a little bit more physical, a little bit more athletic, involves people, it's very ephemeral. I would do all these shows, and I always improv them. It's not memorized. I would know the basic stories—so I'd say things that I would never say again. And sometimes that saddened me because I would think, "Oh that was good," but the exact timing of it or responding to someone in the audience who twitched and that somehow entered in. So it was never going to be the same so there was something—so I liked that the writing was more grounded. That the books would be out there for a while, and so ultimately it felt more satisfying and that my core was as a writer. But maybe not be being able to socialize well, performing was my way to be out there in the world. And then the two worked hand in hand. Then the stories I told on stage for years while I learned how to write again—eventually when I had this column in the NY Press I would take those stories and turn them into columns. And I had to change them and make them work in prose, but the structure was usually the same.
RB: When you wrote this book, which I wrote to someone recently that my serious complaint about it was that it was hard to read when one was laughing hysterically—
JA: That's a good complaint. I was going, "Oh no, am I going to get a kick in the shins?"
RB: Given what you just said, I wonder if you are consciously trying to be funny? You are not trying to write jokes, trying to write funny things are you? Tell me how you do it?
JA: Well, I guess sometimes I would amuse myself—I set up the scene and then Alan would say these very funny things, like a thing I am going to read tonight. Now I did not think of this before hand but [adopts a different voice], "You know, Jeeves, you know what's good is if you have drunk driving accident what's hopeful is if you look up AA or Triple A —I'm botching my own line—you kill two birds at once." Now when I wrote that I went, "God that is pretty funny. AA and Triple A and you are all set." I must have set up the scene to talk about the drinking to keep the plot moving, to address the fact, when is he going to quit drinking. But then that very funny line pops out. I mean, I do want to entertain. I have always had the thing as a writer of a tremendous fear of boring the reader. When I was younger, with my first book, my method was to shock. Whether it be through sex or language—because I had read Last Exit To Brooklyn and so didn't want to bore the reader—just through like what seemed like searing honesty or something graphic. And then later it's not wanting to bore the reader through the prose moving quickly and there being humor. I do want to amuse and I do want to be funny, but I am not premeditated in the funny. Like when I get on stage, I didn't know that at first that I was going to be funny. It just started to work out that way. I mean, I was lead to the stage by the fact that when I told stories at these dinners at an artist colony in 1990, people laughed. And they just kept laughing, and it was not just me being on. There is something going on in my delivery and also to, to be honest, I won't go into specific details, but I was actually, for my own drinking (I was 22 or something) and I would go to these support groups and I would talk about my problems [chuckles]. People would laugh, and I thought I was talking about my problems and people would laugh. And I had performed off and on in college, but I hadn't made the connection until I was in these meetings and people would be in hysterics about my tragedies.
RB: Wake Up, Sir! is very funny, but when you step back it's about a non-productive alcoholic writer.
JA: And he has a lot of sadness. He is always talking about being alone, being confused.
RB: He says somewhere in the story that the saddest word in the English language is "I" and the title of his book is—
JA: I Pity I. Which was the title of my first book which I changed to I Pass Like Night. Yeah, he is pretty sad and lonely, and he isn't sure he can handle life and he feels there is a lot of loss, and then he quickly presses on. But in there is a passage I read which was drawn from life—a friend of mine was dying of a brain tumor. I kind of took it directly. One day—he had about six months to live—he said as we were finishing up the conversation, he said, "Okay, I'll talk to you later." And then he said, "I love you." And then we hung up, and I was just like [pauses], so he touches on moments like that aren't just AA and Triple A or having crabs or something like that. There is other stuff in there. There is heartbreak in there.
JA: The agony and the ecstasy. Someone once told me to say whenever asked what your book is about, you just say, "The agony and the ecstasy." I used to say that for years.
RB: And the response was, "Oh yeah."
JA: That was enough that sort of stopped them in their tracks.
RB: Are you asked what you are? What does it say at the top of your C.V.? You are a…? A stand up storyteller?
JA: Writer, first of all. And then—I don't like the term "performance artist." A lot of time people want to label me as a performance artist but for lack of a better word I say performer. Writer and performer.
JA: Uh, declaimer? Exclaimer. I think just writer—storyteller sounds like Children's Hour. Performance artist sounds like, something non- narrative and abstract. That's not me either. Monologist does sound a little self-absorbed—
RB: I sometimes play with the word "dialogist" to describe what I do. But it doesn't trip off the tongue.
JA: That's pretty good though. So I guess, writer and performer if there has to be two things.
RB: I had a pang of something that the stature and weight of storytelling is somehow not of great value and to me it is the ultimate human activity. What could be more essential and fundamental?
JA: Well, I would agree but somehow the term "storyteller" is almost like "folksinger." The actual label sounds local library [adopts a voice], "And the smoke went up in to the sky and look how yellow it is, he said." I don't know, so "Writer and Storyteller" seems queer somehow. I'm happy with just "writer." If the word gets out that I perform also and do monologues then that's fine, too.
RB: Is it possible given the marginal weight of literary fiction that more people will know you as some kind of performer?
JA: The balance could tip that way. Certainly not a lot of people know me as a writer. People in the lit world. And then probably a smaller group of people, knows me as a performer, very much New York only because I primarily perform there. But I have written this TV show, and I am going to act in it. So these two things might come together. I don't know yet if it's the ideal medium for me because maybe the ideal medium for me is at least performing with having a live audience and improving, so I hope to be able to work that in to shooting this pilot.
RB: Who is the show for?
JA: For Showtime. And that came about because some guy heard me read in L.A. and I did my usual trying to be exuberant while reading, and then he read the book What's Not to Love, which is my first collection of essays, which I shaped as memoir, and he started emailing me, "You know I think there could be a TV show in this." And I kind of kept going along, not thinking anything would happen, not necessarily thinking I ever wanted to do TV. But I kind of see it as an interesting adventure, if it happens, and of course the lure of money, but also it could be fun creatively and it wouldn't last forever if it happens. Maybe a season or two.
RB: Amongst the interesting shows on the cable networks and especially HBO is the Ali G show. Do you know the show?
JA: I haven't seen it, no.
RB: Hysterical. Doing something wonderful—using three characters— have you read about him?
JA: Yeah, one thing I don't understand is that when Pat Buchanan goes on that show, don't his people explain to him—
RB: Apparently they are sold on the show with Ali G's hipness and appeal to the youth, and a younger audience.
JA: Well then after they tape it they must learn that they have been duped, or he certainly won't be able to dupe anyone anymore because now the story is out that this is just a young Jewish comedian.
RB: It would seem.
JA: So that's what I don't get.
RB: It's now his second season.
JA: It can't go on anymore
RB: One of the show's participants was outraged and said this was perfect case of why TV and the media should be more closely regulated.
JA: But even if the word gets out that there is a real person behind Ali G I guess it could still work because they will still say that Ali G is still reaching to the young people and it's a character, he's in character and guess he won't be able to ambush people the way he has.
RB: I am not sure he was counting on ambushing people. Which is why it continues to work. But I mentioned it because it appears to be groundbreaking TV and outrageous in a vital sense. Or Deadwood, which is a startling but more accurate revision of the American West's mythology. That's encouraging and suggests why your voice and point of view might work on TV, someone who is not entrenched in the business.
JA: I had lunch with someone from Showtime and who said that very thing. "We are looking for someone unusual like you, and we are going to take a risk and see if it translates."
RB: It looks like the TV audience is now very diverse and fractured, no longer these demographic monoliths.
JA: And he said we know you do well with the hundred people that show up at your readings, but let's see if you do well if we expand it. And for me it's kind of fun or it's a challenge because I have given hundreds of readings and it's, "Okay, now what can I do?"
RB: What do you want to do?
JA: Um, what do I want to do? Well, I want to write another novel. So I want to get back into writing and—
RB: Because it gives you the best feeling?
JA: I think so. And create something and there are stories I want to tell and or something I need to express about something I learned a few years ago and so I want to get that in a book. I'd like to do this show and have it be good and make people laugh. And pull it off because it's so improbable. It's like could I really pull it off? Have a show on TV? That'd be absurd. So I guess I want both. I want to keep trying to write novels and make books—the pleasure of making something and having that. And then because I have gone this far with this TV thing just try to have fun with that.
RB: Anything else that you think about that you feel like you should try?
JA: Right now I am in a good phase because I am not getting in my own way as much as I used to in life. So, getting this chance to—to write another book is what I'd like to do. Do this TV show if that opened up other doors in that whole medium of movies and somehow I could make good projects, I think that would be fun.
RB: I'm relieved that you didn't say that you wanted to be in or have a band.
JA: Oh no I never—and even like right now I think, "Do I want to be married?" I am not even thinking about that. I have friend in Brazil and I have always wanted to visit him and he is an anthropologist and he is in touch with a few of the indigenous tribes left, and I would like to go down the Amazon with him. And just disappear and maybe take huasca and [chuckles].
RB: Really disappear. Do you know Peter Matthiessen's novel, At Play in the Fields of the Lord?
JA: I know of it, and I know the movie, but I haven't read it. I'd like to do that in my life go down to Brazil. I'd like to help out. I would have liked to help out with the Greenpeace. To use my writing to help, especially in this election year, but—
RB: It was interesting to see a Bruce Springsteen Op-Ed published in the New York Times today.
JA: Yeah I saw that. I was wondering about the impact, but I was glad to see that they will l be doing all these concerts.
RB: I'm wondering about the impact also. I keep thinking that various things are the tipping point such as when gasoline went over $2 a gallon, I thought, Americans aren't going to stand for this. On the other hand there is the power of the incumbency and the power of the war chest.
JA: And the power of the way they can manipulate things and the power of the skullduggery. Skull daggery? What happened the last election? Gore won by 500,000 votes but he lost. So that scares me with these electronic voting machines. What I am sort of hoping with these polls, I don't know if they are getting 18-year-old kids on the phone? A lot of these 18-year-old kids, maybe they are going to vote this time around and they are the ones that the Bruce Springsteens of the world might reach.
RB: The polls are based on so-called likely voters, which this year may be an unpredictable variable. You may be right in that Springsteen and Pearl Jam and others are appealing to people heretofore not politically involved. Or involved enough to actually vote.
JA: Certainly Clinton when he ran in '96 didn't face—the anti-Bush sentiment is so huge but then again was I unaware of Christian groups sending out millions of emails like MoveOn.org does, and I wouldn't be on that list. So I don't know how rallied they were. But it does seem like every Democratic-leaning liberal person is just totally up in arms and if somehow we are not heard this election there will be a huge collective depression. I don't know what's going to happen. People will try to rally again four years from now, but just in the environmental issues alone it's so scary to think of what four more years of Bush will do.
RB: There is a genuine disillusionment and fear that seems strong enough to move people to actually vote. The most telling thing to me is how little people cherish their vote. Less than 50 percent exercise?
JA: After the last election people would be thinking, "Does my vote even count?"
RB: We probably should talk about your book, at least a little. Why Jeeves? Is there a rising tide of interest in P.G. Wodehouse that explains why Overlook is reissuing his novels and why Robert McCrum has a new biography, of which you are the leading edge. Or is there a constant ongoing interest?
JA: And Anthony Lane wrote that big piece in the New Yorker. I am not an expert on these things or a huge cultural maven in that sense, but I think he is one of those writers that has enduring popularity, like Bukowski, in a way. Word of mouth about certain writers does not end. Word of mouth about certain writers does end like—writers that may have been super popular in the '50s and '60s or maybe even—Steinbeck, has his word of mouth petered out? I don't know. Some people like Raymond Chandler or PG Wodehouse or Bukowski, who only died a few years ago. These are the people that, in my library that I think the word of mouth keeps going for decades. It might be a little spike, one of those cultural zeitgeist moments that Anthony Lane comes out with an article. When I saw it I went, "Oh my God, my book's about to come out. It's a whole Wodehouse craziness." And this biography and so for some reason there is a blip upward for moment and then it will go back to him selling a 100,000 copies a year or whatever he sells. But for me, "Why Wodehouse?" It was just timing. I rediscovered him and was loving them, and I was going through a depression of some sort. Any year I could be going through a depression. This particular one I happened to pickup a Wodehouse book again. And just had so much fun. I couldn't get out of bed so if I couldn't get out if bed I might as well be in bed laughing. And enjoying the incredible prose and the voice of Bertie Wooster. So I think that sparked the idea of, "I want to write a book like this." It's mimicry, and it's responding to the books you love and trying to write a similar book. And then with whole Jeeves thing literally having my own Jeeves, maybe because I was reading so much of it, l was writing dialogue with a Jeeves. I had the idea of "What if you were talking to Jeeves about sex? Or nutty things?" And then I had this thing which I mentioned that late at night I have been prone to outrageous behavior. Inside myself I would say, "Home Jeeves." as if there was a Jeeves inside me who would take me home. This was the original title for the piece—Home Jeeves—this call for help inside yourself. So somehow that coalesced into a book for me.
RB: I know there have been a number of reviews which I haven't read and may [or may not] read. Was it an issue for reviewers whether Jeeves is real? Does it matter for you?
JA: It was something that I was playing with all along. I don't want to wreck the book for anyone. I guess in my mind he is imaginary. But at the same time, though, he would feel very real. When I would write the scenes, I would see Jeeves standing there. The way that Alan sees him. And I would see him helping with his coat.
RB: You choose such odd verbs to transition him.
JA: This is where the Times reviewer was very smart—because you don't remember why you do something. Why did I decide to have an imaginary Jeeves? And the Times reviewer pointed this out, that lovers of Jeeves and Wooster stories love the descriptions of the way Jeeves moves. It's one of those things that you love. You read 15 of the books and you wait for that description of "Jeeves moves like a healing Zephyr," "Jeeves metamorphosed," "Jeeves astrally projected," and you come to love and how's he going to do it this time? What crazy assemblage of verb and adjective is he going to use to describe, and the Times reviewer said, "It's no wonder that a Wodehouse fan might wonder if Jeeves is really imaginary or supernatural in a way?" And it was wanting to write those kind of descriptions, and I had to be careful legally not to use similar descriptions or I was tending to use water descriptions—congealing and moisture. Or flickering like beams of light. So it was just wanting to have fun. Some people might have read Hemingway and wanted to write action hunting scenes. I read Wodehouse, and I wanted to write these ludicrous small descriptions of the way a valet might move.
RB: You broke format once (that I noticed) and wrote something like "Twinkle issued into the room." I had thought you had reserved those oblique kinds of verbs only for Jeeves.
JA: Huh. That might have been about liking the word 'issue' and trying to get that in somewhere. But in terms of whether Jeeves exists, I debated whether to reveal that he doesn't exist, and I have an idea for the movie ending, if this became a movie. Where because cinema is a little bit different that you play with the fact that. I'll describe the ending in a moment. But do I, at some point, do I have somebody say, "Look, there is no Jeeves?" Like the Ava character, "What are you talking about?" I decided I never wanted to say it, one way or another with the reader. Let Jeeves exist the way he does throughout the book, and never indicate whether he is real or not. I have a friend who has a Ph.D. in Chinese history. He was shocked when I asked him if he thought Jeeves was real. He assumed he was real. He never questioned for a moment. But then if you look through the book, Jeeves is conveniently in the car when Alan comes out of the office, when he first comes to the Rose colony. He stays in the car when Alan goes to find the rooms. You never actually see him—
RB: Interact with anyone else.
JA: When he mentions Jeeves to the aunt and uncle all the uncle says is, "Jeeves! What are you nuts, bringing up this Jeeves again?" Or when he says, "I want a valet," to the aunt and uncle, all you hear is the uncle say is, "You're insane." There are many clues along the way. But at the same time he is also felt real to me. When I would picture him in the car with Alan, he was in the car. It was almost like I would have the same delusion as Alan had. And then also for me it was like, and I am not a huge literary game player—I'm not very smart or clever the way for some of these guys, fiction is like physics, but I was like, "What character in fiction is real? Why is this guy any less real than anybody else in this book?" I mean they are all totally make-believe. And just because he said she said or Jeeves said, or Jeeves walked across the room.
RB: That was my reaction. I got a sense that it might be an issue— but it was not for me.
JA: So that was my little—I don't think of myself as post modern. I don't even think this is postmodern but this was my one little, "This is an interesting literary question. What makes this character less real?" Especially since it is never said whether this is a delusion. And he is given all the attributes of a real fictional character. He speaks [laughs] But the cinematic ending—again stealing and mimicking, I loved the ending of A Confederacy of Dunces. When finally Myran Minkoff has arrived and Ignatius is huddled in the back of her car and there are ambulances and police around, maybe only one ambulance, and his mother is called to have him taken off to the loony bin. And he escapes out of danger and he bites her braid. And I just loved that ending because it was like, "No, no don't end. I gotta go off with the two of you." Then of course coupled with the fact that John Kennedy O'Toole committed suicide. And I was never going to get to continue with the two of them. But I love—there is a great quote from the Paris Review Book of Quotes from Interviews and I think Sam Shepard talks about endings as fugues. Sort of fleeing. A non-ending ending. And that's how I ended my second novel, The Extra Man. So I wanted to mimic or write the same kind of pleasure I got out of the ending of A Confederacy of Dunces. So I thought I might have Ava saving Alan at the end of Wake Up, Sir! and that she is the one person who gets in his world enough to confront him about Jeeves. And so I had in my mind this ending where, to insure that she helps him escape, he's like, "Yes, there is no Jeeves. Go, put your foot on the gas," because maybe he set the mansion on fire so you have fire trucks and police cars, an ambulance, you have the uncle—this way I could have brought the uncle back.
RB: Didn't Ava have to get back to New York to deliver the sculpture?
JA: Yeah, so it would have been much more this bells and whistles chaotic ending. And off with the girl and then revealing at the end, him saying, "There is no Jeeves." But love the idea. So if it became a movie and I got to write the screenplay…
RB: There are a few ifs.
JA: He looks out the back window and just told her there is no Jeeves and is ducking down the way Ignatius is, again, it's all about wanting to recreate those moments you love but somehow different. At least that's what I do or want to do. And so he looks out the back window and sees Jeeves amidst all the tumult waving good-bye. So Jeeves is still real for him. Or he would say, "No, Jeeves went off to the woods. I dropped my wallet in the woods, there really is a Jeeves." Or "C'mon there is no Jeeves." Just to get her to put her foot on the gas pedal, knowing that Jeeves could fare for himself. Or in his mind he thinks all this—that Jeeves went for the dropped wallet.
RB: In the movie version, he is at least a body if not a real person?
JA: He is a body. Yes you would see a body. Not to reference cinema but like A Beautiful Mind or Fight Club. I just love this ending with Jeeves as some beautiful older actor standing there amidst all this tumult and then sees him and still loves. And he knows that Jeeves can go. And he leaves with the girl but he really still has Jeeves. So that was the alternative ending where I was going to play with—but this way no one confronts him about whether Jeeves is real or not. And it's not an issue, so it maintains its consistency.
RB: Can there be more to this story?
JA: I don't think I could do a sequel, because, again not being a game player, it was enough to use this great character from someone else's work, even though he is supposedly a different Jeeves. That to do it again would be weird. Then it would be too much. It was enough to do this one deluded book—a character who read too much Wodehouse the way Don Quixote read too many books of chivalry. Somebody wrote to me and this was implied in various reviews: "We hope he keeps writing about these two." Or maybe just writing these kinds of books, with this level of humor. Even though I want to write some of that dialogue between Jeeves and Alan. I think there was a line I didn't get to put in where Alan says something like, "You know, Jeeves, I always used to say, 'Good night, cruel world.' Because I used to say that to myself. But it's a lot nicer to say that to you." And I didn't put that line in there, and I'm like "Oh still, l like that whole absurd dialogue where someone who is quite lonely takes solace in this person they can talk to and loves him."
RB: So it seems plausible that you glean from your readings the interest in writing a book that was like another book that you read and admired? So what have you been reading lately?
JA: When I teach creative writing—it's certainly nothing new—it wasn't so much the Hemingway thing, "Write what you know," but write the kind of stories you enjoy reading. That's been my m.o. Sort of like a chef: "I ate something really good at a restaurant, let me try to recreate that." So again it's trying to recreate that feeling at the end of A Confederacy of Dunces in my own setting. I briefly saw that Ken Burns documentary on jazz a couple of years ago. I watched quite a lot of it, it seemed. I think I was teaching at Indiana University. I was going through a marijuana smoking phase and I'd hang out with this young grad student and watch this thing and every night of that jazz thing whoever was being interviewed, they were talking about some guy they had heard, "Aw, I heard Charlie Parker." "Aw I heard Miles Davis and it made me want to do this." Or, "I wanted to make that sound." It was all because they heard somebody. It was like this continual DNA passing along. So it is the same thing with me and books. My first book was a mixture of Hemingway, Jerzy Kosinski, Raymond Carver and little bit of Kerouac. The people I was reading at age 22. The Extra Man was like Don Quixote, The Magic Mountain all different things that I loved at the time. Right now I am stuck. I am in a dry spell.
RB: No books that really move you?
JA: Yeah. I am not reading anything at the moment. I picked up a Phillip Roth, My Life as Man. I read some Philip K. Dick. I read some Charles Portis. But I am needing a writer to sink my teeth into. I am kind of at a loss at the moment. I usually like people in the past who have ten to twenty books so I can really—
RB: Richard Condon. Do you know his work?
JA: I don't.
RB: Famous for The Manchurian Candidate. He's hilarious. I talked to a writer who referred to him as the American Balzac. Are you a New York person? A lifer?
JA: I don't know about lifer. It feels like I have been there my whole life. I was born there and raised 40 miles outside the city. We could see the city and the news channels were NY and the newspapers were NY. And now I live there. But sometimes I think I'd like to change my life. Be near the ocean and nature. Who knows?
© 2004 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing