Having A Beer With A Psychopath Hunter: Our Interview With Jon Ronson

It’s a partly cloudy and unseasonable 50 degrees around 5:30PM on an early November Friday night.  I am sprinting. I arrive just in time to the small but cozy Llama Tooth restaurant on Spring Garden to interview Jon Ronson, a self-proclaimed mystery-seeking journalist, and most recently the author of The Psychopath Test and The Men Who Stare At Goats, which was made into a movie starring Jeff Bridges and George Clooney! I’m hoping to make the most of two.one.five’s half-hour interview slot. I realize as I search the joint that he’s standing behind me, his son Joel in tow.

So there I was, staring at the man who stared at the manuscript written about men who stare at goats.

We sat down inside the restaurant and out of the cold for our interview (and to get a beer).  Lost at Sea, Ronson’s most recent book, along with some musing about the benefits (and challenges) of being a certified psychopath hunter, would be some of the topics of our conversation.

Joel: What magazine is this? I’m going to look you up.

two.one.five: It’s 215Mag.com

Joel:  Right. Oh Yeah. I want to look it up.

Jon Ronson: I really want a beer.
[to waitress]Have you really got all of these beers?

Waitress: We’re out of the Yuengling and the Fleur de Lehigh.

JR: But you really have these 180 beers?
Can I have, um, Fleur de Lehigh?

Waitress: That’s one of the ones we’re out of. The Yuengling and the Fleur de Lehigh.

JR: Oh, ok. It’s all the weaker ones you’re out of. [He proceeds to inquire about one or two more beers – explicitly requesting a weaker one –  She offers him a few that are explicitly NOT weak  and finally offers the Philadelphia Brewing co.’s Walk Wit.]

JR: Bril, can I have that?

And with that selection we begin our interview.

JR: So.  Hi. [He trails with a smile]

Jon and Joel

two.one.five: Hi. [Smiling in return]
We are going to keep you inside, nice and warm until you absolutely have to run out the door.

JR: Ok.  Obviously it’s all gonna be fine. But, basically what I said to [them] before I left New York, I will come if it’s INDOORS.  And he said, it’s definitely indoors. His last words, “it’s DEFINITELY indoors.”  [smiles]

two.one.five: How often would you say that happens, that you have a conversation on the phone and it goes one way…

JR: [Chuckles] I know.  I know.

two.one.five: … and by the time you get there, you get some different information?

JR: Yep. That’s definitely what it is. The thing is, I don’t mind sitting outside for half an hour. I used to do it all the time when I smoked.  But, I just know no one is gonna wanna hear what I have to say if they’re all freezing cold.

two.one.five: Oh, I disagree. I think a lot of people will be really interested especially we saw the Daily Show the other day, that interview we were really excited so now we get to  follow Jon Stewart and the Daily Show.

JR: Yeah. OK. Well, that’s good. Maybe people will come because they saw that and everyone can huddle together, and it can be like, um, some sort of intense weather experience.

It would be the second “intense weather experience” of the week as just days ago our region was rocked by superstorm Sandy. In fact, Jon was lucky to make it out of New York for our interview and the 215 Festival.

two.one.five: Maybe, hopefully. Hopefully it won’t be that bad.  Um, you know, I got the book, Liz (his publicist) sent us the book and it’s great, I really enjoyed it. I laughed out loud in a lot of places and embarrassed myself doing so…

JR:  Do you think it’s kinda weird that I spent the whole time on the Daily Show talking about the story that wasn’t in the book [referring to comments made about his previous book, The Psychopath Test]?

two.one.five: No! I don’t because I think The Psychopath Test a lot of people are still really, really interested in. But the thing that’s nice about this book, well at least when I started reading it, is it’s a bunch of stories that don’t build in the same way. So I wanted to ask about that, just to start off by asking, when you’re researching these really unbelievable stories – in a lot of cases – how does that does that process work?

JR: I suppose I’m always sorta looking for connections and there is always that sort of moment where it sort of feels like this [story] is a whole book. There is sort of that sort of moment. And with The Psychopath Test it was um ‘OK, all these psychiatrist believe that psychopaths rule the world but none of them have ever actually gone out and tried to actually try and like prove it. So can I become a professional psychopath hunter and prove it?’ And I thought, whatever happens after that is gonna be sort of funny and interesting. So you’re looking for a moment like that. With The Men Who Stare At Goats actually was different because, OK they [subjects of the book] kinda know each other. All these people know each other and for some weird reason that made it enough to be a book.

Um, and – I’m conscious of the fact that Joel has heard me blather on– this is good because at home I’m sorta not allowed to talk about it [in unison].

Joel: No. [Briefly pauses] No!

JR: It’s always just like, when I’m being interviewed there is this illicit thrill that I’m allowed to talk about myself and no one is going to tell me off.

two.one.five: I wanted to ask you about that. People are curious about the interviews that you do, so [it seems] they’re anxious to interview you, so you have this sort of meta experience with interview.

JR: I know, which is kinda weird. It is weird.

two.one.five: But with this book though, you found stories and it’s almost like interesting articles, in a sense.

JR: Yeah, this book more than the other ones. There is a coherence to them and there are sort of connections but no, unlike Them, Men Who Stare at Goats, and The Psychopath Test this is more disparate. But the next one will be more like the others. The next one is gonna be more coherent, whole. People should see this book as something they can dip in and out of, like a book of short stories.

two.one.five: Yeah. It’s great.

JR: Thank you!

two.one.five: The title story [Lost At Sea] is the one I wanted to ask about, Lost At Sea, so…

JR: Joel came with me to that!

two.one.five: You were on the Disney cruise? [Turning to Joel]

JR: He was my cover! [Slyly]
[Laughing] Well I thought, I thought two things. Firstly if I went on my own on a Disney cruise to start sidling up to people no ONE would want to talk to me and secondly, I thought I’d just be really miserable….

two.one.five: Which is the opposite of what Disney envisions for you.

JR: Well no one wants to see a single man on a Disney cruise. No one wants that. So poor Joel came with me. And it turns out Joel was like amazing because at the beginning we went up to this guy behind the bar and I said, ‘so what do you know about this girl who went overboard?’ and he says ‘it didn’t happen.’ And as we walked off Joel said ‘wow, I’m buzzing. We gotta ask more people!’ and I’m like ‘let’s calm down or we’ll be thrown overboard.’ I was nervous about going up to people, it’s a nerve-racking thing and Joel was like, ‘do it! You got to, now. NOW!’ So actually Joel saved that story.

Joel: You’re making me out to be some sort of snappy bastard.

JR: You are a snappy bastard! You are.

Joel: It wasn’t like that. But if you’re going to go on a ship to find out a story at one point you’re going to need to have to ask people.

two.one.five: [laughing] No, he’s right. Logistically this guy is right.

JR: No, no it’s true. I’m very grateful actually on that particular ship because normally everybody knows why I’m there and I’ve had permission and it’s fine. But with this one I was completely undercover. That’s a whole different level of anxiety so I really did need a kind of kick in the butt.

two.one.five: It sounds like you’ve got a great budding manager. . . 

JR: . . . or investigative journalist [proudly]

two.one.five: I just want to ask as a follow-up to that. You know it seemed like a story that could have been like an expose but it maintained that mystery story feel in the end. What dictated how you wrote it?

JR: I always think that I tell mystery stories. I’m a writer and I tell mystery stories and sort of funny stories about people. So I didn’t want – you’re right, that story could have been written in a completely different way, it’s almost like a news story. But then I thought, ‘I’m getting away from what I love about writing.’ So I did feel like I wanted to write it in my way, which is the sort of mystery, adventure, story about people, with ambiguities, nuances – so it was deliberate. I deliberately wrote it in a NONE sort of splashy, expose type way.

two.one.five: I think I appreciated that. I think if I’d heard it in a different way I might have had a different reaction to it.

JR: I still don’t know. People still don’t totally know what happened to Rebecca. I mean, I think… I’m sure that – the weird thing is, Disney seems to believe that she went off a particular part of the ship and yet they said they have no idea what happened to her.  So if they do know she went off the ship then um why didn’t they see it, if it was right in front of where they steer the ship? I mean, it looks bad for them either way.  If they didn’t see it, it means they weren’t paying attention? And if they did see it, why are they saying they didn’t see it?  So either way it’s bad for them.  But there is no question . . .

Jon avoids giving away anything more.

JR:  I was trying to explain the Philly sounds to Joel.  So what is the Philly sound? How does it differ from other types of disco music?

 

two.one.five: [Pleased and surprised!] It’s considered soul music, 70’s soul music. The O’Jays are like the classic. It sort of grew up here, with concerts and clubs, it [the Philly sound] was very local. It’s a general genre of music at the time. 

So, you know, I want to go back to one thing you said. You said that you are a mystery writer and I really love your style of story telling. It’s almost like you tell the story as if you, yourself don’t know what’s about to happen, but you definitely know.

JR: Yeah, it’s living in that moment and I learned that slightly from screen writing, as well. And it is, it’s exactly what I try and do is stay inside the moment so people are along with me for the journey and always moving forward always trying to solve mysteries and never –  yes. That.

two.one.five: I just wonder then, how do you develop that sort of writing and not reveal that which you already know?

JR: I love it. I love that I’ve been able to develop that kind of writing for myself. Um it is, it’s sort of doing it as an unfolding narrative.  It’s like that old Woody Allen line about ‘relationships are like sharks, they have to keep moving forward or else they die and what we have here is a dead shark.’   I think that’s the same for writing. I think writing should be like sharks constantly move forward and I am always, when I’m writing, trying to imagine what sort of bits of information the reader will want at that particular moment. I’m always thinking that.  You don’t want to give away too much. You don’t want to give way too little.  If you got exactly the right amount and I think it’s very much a skill that screenwriters have. Um. What do people need to know at this moment? Especially if it’s kinda unfolding as story. You never want to give away the twist  you never want to give too much information, you don’t want to confuse people with too little information. So that’s like totally on my mind with every sentence that I write.

two.one.five : Well done.

JR: Thank you.

two.one.five : That brings me to a question, I know a lot of people know you as a regular contributor to This American Life [the NPR program].  And we went to see Ira [Glass, host of This American LifeTAL] talk about the same idea of story telling [unfolding narrative]– for TAL it works really well, because people are having this experience [with story telling] with the radio versus TV and you were mentioning that this [form of story telling] comes from screen writing where it’s a really visual medium…

JR: Well it just goes to show you that story telling is story telling, in whatever form it takes. The main difference, and I’ve heard Ira talk about this, is the radio is better with anecdotes. That is to say, this happens, then this happens, then this happens. That doesn’t work so well with movies. But it does work in radio.  People think of anecdotes as sort of low form of story telling but Ira’s kinda proved that it can be a really high form.

It just goes to show. When I first hooked up with them we were like peas in a pod. It was like they felt like the perfect place for me to be. They just sort of accepted me as  …way. We have similar ideas about story telling.

two.one.five: I noticed the book was dedicated to another TAL contributor, Sarah Vowell.

JR: Well, that’s because when I brought the book out in Briton, I didn’t dedicate it to anyone, because I couldn’t think of anyone. I basically dedicate all the books to Joel and Elaine. The Psychopath Test I dedicated to an old girlfriend who died. But with Lost at Sea, I couldn’t think of anyone to dedicate it to, in Briton. So when they said to me in America, who do you want to dedicate it to and I thought, ‘well OK, who’s been the most important person for me in America?’ And it’s Sarah Vowell because she was the one who first got me on to This American Life and she got me on The Daily Show.

The first time I was on The Daily Show, you know in the pre-interview they said, ‘look we don’t know much about you, Sarah Vowell vouches for you so don’t fuck it up.’ [laughes] You know, I’m paraphrasing. So Sarah Vowell has been like this amazing kind of angel for me, not wanting anything in return…until now.  I saw her at this Cabinet of Wonders event in New York [A variety show with celebrated musicians, writers and comedians.], and she said, ‘will you drive me to a battlefield?’ So I have a terrible feeling that it’s time for payback.

two.one.five: I wonder about that, you know your publicist told me, and I know from reading on the internet, that you lived in the UK ONLY, and  now you moved to the United States. I wonder about your experience.

JR: We like it [turning to Joel] we like it, right!

Joel: Yeah! I love it.

JR: He [Joel] loves sort of vanishing in Manhattan. It’s safe.

But, I don’t know why we moved. What happened, we were on holiday in America,
and I was like, ‘why don’t we move here, we should just move here, why don’t we move here?!’ And my wife said, ‘Ok. We’ll move here.’ And I said, ‘we’re not going to move here, what are you crazy?’ And the next thing I know we’ve moved here.  It hasn’t changed my life so much because I spend most of my time writing and I could do that anywhere, but Joel loves it and the wife loves it. She’s in central park with the dogs all the time. Well, when she can go back…

two.one.five: Oh yeah, with the Hurricane Sandy and the weather. You guys didn’t have any problems did you?

JR & Joel: We’re in a protected area.

After hearing so many awful stories, I’m relieved that his life is not under water, like so many New Yorkers, after only a few months in the US.

two.one.five: Yeah, so I’m curious about your observations and how they may be influenced living on this side of the pond?

JR: Well little things have happened. I mean lots of my stories have taken place in American over the years anyway. But with this book I’m trying to write now, there are a bunch of people in America who I would love to pay a visit to who don’t even know I’d be turning up. I couldn’t do that in Britain, it’s just too expensive and now I’m here and I can just get on a plane to Virginia and Mississippi and just try for the best. I don’t know yet. Until I’m sort of  way in to my next book [I don’t know] how living in New York will sort of change the narrative, but I think it will. But a good thing happened this week. Because of the Hurricane a bunch of people who were supposed to do The Daily Show couldn’t do it. Daniel Craig was gonna do it this week and John Goodman was supposed to do it but he couldn’t travel. So, had I not been in New York anyway I wouldn’t  have been able to do it so I guess , so that’s a good thing. So I was only on The Daily Show this week because no one else could do it.

two.one.five: That’s not true.

I want to follow up for my last question. The Psychopath Test and The Men Who Stare At Goats were hugely successful and I feel like a lot people really recognize those books, so when you go out now, and you want to set up an  interview or you want to follow a story, are people thinking, ‘ oh no, that’s that guy who interviews psychopaths?’ How do people sort of react now?

JR: Well I definitely get some doors closing but I think I’m getting an equal amount of doors that would have been closing opening. So for instance, in The Psychopath Test, Al Dunlap [former corporate executive], he, I THINK, only agreed to meet me because George Clooney made a movie out of my book.

two.one.five: [laughing] he wrote that… Did Clooney know him or was he just a fan.

JR: No, he was just a fan of Clooney. He liked success, you know. He saw this as success. So that was a door that I don’t think would have open had The Men Who Stare At Goats not done well.

two.one.five: And has he reacted to that interview at all?

JR: No. And I’m quite glad actually. I’m sure he quite hated it. I don’t know. Yeah but I never heard from him again.

two.one.five: Have you reached out to him at all?

JR: No. I don’t want him to yell at me. No. I don’t know how he’d feel. What I do do in the book is make very, very sure to point out all the times that he didn’t act in the least bit psychopathically. So I sort of think if he read on he’d have ended up being kind of ticked.

two.one.five: I remember you talking about that [lack of contact with psycho Al Dunlap] in a TEDTalk. It went out, I think, in March.

JR: No, it went out in August.  I was like the last person from that TED to go online.

two.one.five: Well, in that TEDTalk you talk [in depth] about The Psychopath Test and this sort of gray area of psychopathy that sort of exists for all of us.  I wonder then, as you’re talking about how people would react to reading the book, especially [to] this guy [Al Dunlap]?

JR: I was concerned, I mean, I was totally fair and accurate with him, but I was still concerned that he would yell at me and he didn’t.

[Interrupted by Llama Tooth manager.  At this point, Ronson is whisked away to begin his reading for fans waiting for him outside in the cold, sitting bundled beneath furnace stands, huddled with friends and beers, but stops to ask us a question, for a change.]

JR: I was going to do the psychopath talk, do you think everyone sort of knows it?

two.one.five: No, do it. The new book just came out. But I think people definitely know it [The Psychopath Test] and want to hear it.

Jon Ronson’s new book, Lost at Sea, is out in hardback. It is a delightful collection of humorous, often called satirical, mysteries! For more info, visit Jon Ronson’s website.

The post Having A Beer With A Psychopath Hunter: Our Interview With Jon Ronson appeared first on two.one.five magazine.