Lifestyle

“Bored to Death” creator Jonathan Ames Turns to Brutal Detective Fiction

16 total views
Once a chronicler of his own risqué adventures, the New York writer has turned to brutal detective noir.

Image may contain Jonathan Ames Clothing Apparel Shoe Footwear Fashion Human Person and Coat

Jonathan Ames at the 2019 Tribeca Film FestivalMichael Loccisano/Getty Images

The author Jonathan Ames can feel from a different era, when a particular cocktail of virility and intellect seemed worth its weight in literary gold. Throughout the 1990s, after publishing his first novel, Ames wrote deeply candid and comedic columns in the New York Press about his sexuality and its surrounding neuroses. By the late aughts, he had moved into Hollywood, creating the cult-favorite HBO series Bored to Death and Patrick Stewart’s Blunt Talk, and he saw his books adapted into movies starring Joaquin Phoenix (You Were Never Really Here) and Paul Dano (The Extra Man).

Now, in his late-50s, the fiercely loved writer has settled into somewhat of a proper third act (or fourth or fifth, depending on who’s counting): The once-quintessential Brooklyn writer has been living in Los Angeles and writing crime novels about a peculiar man named Happy Doll. From deft and kinky essays to heady Manhattanite fiction to wry TV to brutalist, teeth-clenching noir—Ames has seemingly written it all.

The Doll series both honors and subverts the classic private detective novel. Ames has always entertained and sometimes shocked—it turns out that crime fiction is a superb vehicle for such. He mixes the hard-boiled thrill of Raymond Chandler with P. G. Wodehouse’s offbeat antics, blending them into a smooth, enthralling read that feels like a new genre. In some ways, Doll is a very Ames-ian character: a pot-smoking eccentric who stops to smell the bougainvilleas and waxes poetic about Freudian slips. But with the turn of a page, Doll shows himself as savage as he is soulful, unblinking when the time comes to crack someone’s skull with his retractable baton. Ames has written a rough renaissance man with a few screws loose, if you will—which makes for one hell of a flagship character.

The second book in his series, The Wheel of Doll, hit shelves earlier last month. Ames spoke with GQ about his path from literary showman to detective novelist, the similarities between psychoanalysis and Buddhism, and his long-standing love of sports coats.

Throughout your life and career, it seems like you’ve been driven by both instinct and impulse. As you’ve gotten older, has your relationship with those things changed?

Do you mean creative impulses?

Across the board.

Well, two things. One, for personal growth, you eventually hopefully become less impulsive and less compulsive. I think as we try to develop as human beings, our pain can lead to a lot of impulsive actions and compulsive actions. As you get older, you realize it’s better to go slowly in life. Compulsions can seem like we’re chasing something to numb our pain, or we think it’s going to make our pain go away, but actually, it always makes our pain worse.

I read this Buddhist thing that the way to go through life is a little bit like you’re moving through a forest in the dark and very gently pushing the branches aside, not blustering through. Now, earlier in life, I think we all do a lot of blustering, and I certainly made a lot of mistakes, as we all do. That’s how we learn, but mistakes can cause one to suffer and cause others to suffer. Over time, I’ve tried to become a more mindful, thoughtful, and quiet person. That’s been a real journey and a very good one.

And then the creative impulses. I have had an odd career, and it’s lasted a pretty long time, thankfully. It began in 1989 with my first book [I Pass Like Night], which was very much an homage to Hubert Selby and all sorts of different influences. I would often make things based on what I was absorbing at the time to make a living and pay the rent in New York. Writing novels never really paid the rent, of course. So I would teach at night, but then I would also perform, which would bring in some money. Or I would do journalism, and that would bring in some money. That was even how I ended up in TV, just sort of seeking to pay the rent and at the same time wanting to make things.

Writing books is what gives me great pleasure. I’m writing different books than what I wrote 30 years ago. But I think this will be the vein that I’m in for a while, trying to write these private detective novels about this character, Happy. That’s at least what I want to do for the foreseeable future, and I’m lucky that I get to do it.

Did you ever think you’d be writing books like these Happy Doll novels?

I had been reading detective stuff since the 1980s. It first began to rear its head with a short story, “Bored to Death,” which I originally wrote for Esquire. It was supposed to be 5,000 words, but I really got inspired, and the story went to 11,000 words. I thought it was really good. I sent it to the editor, and I don’t think he liked it well enough. So I wrote another piece and they also rejected it. I got the kill fee, and then I had this short story I was very happy with because I finally had written my own detective story.

I didn’t necessarily have ambitions for Hollywood, but I still needed to pay the rent. It was hard to make a living as a writer. Anyway, I met with this very nice woman, [TV producer] Sarah Condon, and she asked, “What do you have in your desk drawer?” I emailed her my detective story that night, and three months later, we sold it to HBO. I wrote the script, which was a nice check, much more than triple what I would get for a book that would take me years to write. I wrote it in a week, and then everything came together suddenly. And miraculously, I had a TV show and had to adapt and learn how to do that. Obviously, I had never done that before.

Having to learn how to run a HBO TV show as an author sounds daunting.

I remember once my dog, an earlier dog in my life, was maybe eight or nine months old, and he’d never swam before. I wanted to see if he could swim. He wouldn’t get into a lake so I swam out and pretended to drown and the dog jumped in and came swimming out to me. He’d been scared to go in the water, but he was a big dog, and big dogs are often good swimmers. He swam out to me and began biting me to pull me in, so that was almost like me doing Bored to Death. I had to jump into a lake and learn how to swim.

I’ve always thought of you as a pretty fearless writer. Where do you think you got that from? Was that always there, or was that something you had to learn?

It’s a good question. One doesn’t necessarily analyze oneself the way you can’t hear your own voice, so I’ve never thought of myself as being a fearless writer. I do remember at a certain point early on in my writing life, that when something I was writing scared me, whether it was being raw or a moment of vulnerability, even if it’s a fictional character, but something from my own heart, that these were the things that ended up being what people responded to. Back then, I think I also liked writing that was very raw and talked about the things that maybe we were scared to talk about in life, or that people don’t talk about.

Would you write as you did in those old New York Press essays today?

I would not write like that today. One evolves as a person and, hopefully, as a writer, and I would almost describe those essays as youthful indiscretions. I know that some of the essays gave people pleasure and made them laugh, maybe made them feel less alone. When that stuff was written, which was primarily in the 1990s, it was a very different time. I was writing for a throwaway newspaper that people would pick up on a Tuesday, and then it would disappear. It was pre-internet. There was a greater sense of ephemerality. Then I collected them in books because this was the work I was doing, and at the time, I very much admired Bukowski and loved those kinds of essay books.

I was in my early thirties, and it was a different time, and I feel like much of that stuff falls under TMI. I also made myself a character. These were distortions. These were entertainments. It’s followed me, that work, but it is my own fault. I wrote that stuff because it was raw and it would draw attention, but now, I want to be somewhat free of that. I think there was a fearless quality, but also reckless, which is very youthful. You don’t necessarily realize the ripple effects of everything you’ve put into the world.

I have really tried my best to work on myself over the years, and what motivates one to work on oneself is pain. Eventually, you stop wanting to be in so much pain all the time, so you seek out help in different forms. For me, somewhat reflected in the Doll books, is my throwing myself into reading books about Eastern philosophy.

Happy Doll seems to be on his own journey of self. It sounds like writing that into the character came from a very real place for you.

I’ve done my own study for years now, and so much of what I’ve learned helps me. I had always been interested in Eastern philosophy, but maybe felt daunted about how to gain access to it. Pain is always the great motivator. In Buddhism, in some ways, pain is called Samsara. Cyclical suffering. We all have these patterns that we repeat that are painful, and even our thinking can be looping, and this is what causes pain. Years ago, pain drove me to find the most, I guess, old-fashioned therapy there is, which is psychoanalysis. I was in psychoanalysis, and perhaps because I was in it, some things happened, and I really crashed inside. All the ways that I’d been living for years had stopped working. And I knew they weren’t working, but I didn’t know necessarily how to change. As I was hitting an emotional bottom, a friend of mine sent me a book by Pema Chödrön called When Things Fall Apart. I read that book, and it was so amazing and so beautiful. There’s a great DNA helix with psychoanalysis and Buddhism.

My girlfriend says Buddhism is a technology. These philosophies or technologies in trying to conduct your lives where you can make the most of this time on the planet and not be constantly in pain. Psychoanalysis and Buddhism have, for me, very much blended. It’s learning how to manage our fears so we don’t destroy our lives.

You were known as such a New York writer. Did you ever feel a sense of identity crisis when you moved to Los Angeles?

Not really. I’m aware how we’re all in some ways disconnected from ourselves or our outer presentation to a certain degree, or our outer presentations are molded for society or polite society or impolite society. And I very much was associated in my whole DNA with New York. I was born in Manhattan, raised outside the city. We could see New York on a clear day like this emerald city. And then I was in New York off and on from age 20 to when I moved when I was 50. I came out here for a job, and suddenly I was living in a house with a little pool, and I have never gone back.

One of the things about Los Angeles, which I didn’t realize until I started living here, is that there is so much beauty. All the different kinds of flowers and trees. At night, it often smells like a floral shop. You have these wonderful flowers and nature, but then you also have a lot of this ugliness because it’s so spread out. There are strip malls and architecture that maybe didn’t last or was cheap. But there’s all this odd beauty. Strange houses tucked in the hills, flowers, trees. LA is this really interesting mix. Maybe it’s like that French term jolie laide: ugly, beautiful, beautiful, ugly.

I imagine you don’t need to wear wool sports coats often out there. I know you and many of the characters you’ve written loved a good sports coat. What was the allure?

All my New York years, I loved having sports coats because we don’t carry purses. I always loved, for many years, to be able to bring a pulp novel in my pocket. You had your wallet; you had your keys. Later, of course, your cell phone. I always used to carry a little writing pad for ideas. I was loaded down. And so I saw the sports coat as a purse.

Most of my woolen coats from my New York years died, and you can’t wear them here in LA very often. I have found these really nice jackets through this clothing store in Tennessee called Imogene and Willie. That’s what I wear now. Because again, I need a jacket, I need pockets. So I’ve morphed into those sorts of work jackets now, from the sports coat.

I wrote a lot about this in my novel, The Extra Man, but when I was really into sports coats and dressing this way, it created a fantasy life for me. That I was someone out of a Somerset Maugham or Fitzgerald story. I wanted to live in the past, and dressing like that was a way to live in the past.

I’d regret not asking if you had any updates on the Bored to Death front. Is there still a chance of the movie happening?

Well, there’s no update. Years ago, I wrote two drafts, and I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t work, maybe they did. You need a Swiss clock of luck to get anything made. It all has to come together, and that didn’t come together. At this point, I don’t think it ever will.

What was going to happen in the fourth season, or the movie, which I think would’ve been fun visually, is that Jonathan [played by Jason Schwartzman] wanted to finally become a licensed detective. To become a licensed detective, you had to have been in law enforcement. So he was going to join the police academy, so we would’ve seen him wearing this blue outfit, training to be a cop. I don’t know where I was going exactly with the Ted Danson and Zach Galifianakis characters. But I think I was going to have them become roommates because the George character [played by Danson] had lost all his money. They moved in together, and I was maybe going to have them living in Staten Island. Maybe George was going to have a podcast that was going to be called a “potcast.” But this was what I was thinking however many years ago. Who knows where those characters would be now?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Share this Post

About Us

Celebrating our best lives at fifty and beyond! 50ismorefun brings you motivational news and stories centered around life, fitness, fashion, money, travel and health for active folks enjoying the second half of lives.