Exclusive: Jonathan Ames Talks About Double Life, Old Diaries, and His New HBO Series

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You’ve gotten the official Flavorpill recommendation; now meet the man behind The Double Life Is Twice As Good, a collection of fiction and nonfiction that covers territory ranging from corduroy appreciation to female ejaculation and everything in between. We are referring, of course, to Jonathan Ames, a New York writer, performance artist and occasional amateur boxer whose fierce and hilarious writing has made him a cult superstar over the past decade. Now, with two of his novels adapted for the big screen and an upcoming HBO series based on his short story “Bored to Death,” Ames seems poised to make the leap to more mainstream superstardom.

Flavorpill: First, let’s talk about the title of the book. Does “double life” refer to the fact that you write both fiction and nonfiction and have included both here?

Jonathan Ames: Well, the title came first in a way. And then it sort of fit the book — the fact that there are these two ways of telling stories and that oftentimes the characters in the fiction and the even in the nonfiction have double lives or secrets or a lot of confusion and struggles and torment. (Sounds like I’m talking about myself.) But a few years ago I came home late at night after very bad behavior, and I was trying to realize that you can put a positive spin on anything. It’s the whole idea of controlling one’s illusion. And I wrote down on a yellow piece of paper, “The double life is twice as good, so I don’t have to feel bad.” I just have another life. This way I don’t have to hurt anybody.

FP: The diary entries from your trip to Europe after freshman year of college made me laugh and cringe at the same time. Why did you want to include these in the book?

JA: I thought that for people who have read my books, they might get a kick out of seeing the immature — the earlier immature — version of myself. I also thought there was a good little story there, about how possessive we are when we were younger.

FP: Was it at all embarrassing for you to offer these up for public consumption?

JA: For me, that was 26 years ago, so it’s kind of the grandfather clause: Whatever happened back then is not embarrassing anymore. There’ve been these books published where people put out their old diary entries, and I started the project but only got through the first diary. I would like to type them all up because I think they would make some strange book.

FP: Do you still keep a diary?

JA: I write in it every few months now, mostly when I’m on airplanes. It’s something about being suspended, and possibly more mortal than usual.

FP: You’re very open and honest in your writing. Do you ever hesitate about publishing something because it might hurt someone?

JA: I worry very much about hurting other people, and I try to change identities if I can. It’s always a concern. I may seem like I reveal a lot of secrets, but it just makes it easier to keep other secrets.

FP: You’ve written essays, journalism, short stories, novels, screenplays, graphic novels… Do you have a favorite form?

JA: I don’t know. I’m sort of mediocre at everything. But I like scribbling late at night on pieces of paper that get lost. That’s where I’m at my best.

FP: Let’s talk about “Bored to Death.” How did you approach adapting a short story into an entire series?

JA: First I had to adapt it into a pitch and create some characters around the main character. Then I had to write the first script. And scripts are in some ways like formal poems — they’re a specific length, there are certain things that need to be achieved. It’s not an easy process, but it wasn’t like going straight from short story into series. It was steps along the way.

FP: Are you happy with the way it turned out?

JA: I think it’s good. I’m a little too close to it now. It’s like looking at your own face; you only see the flaws. But I think we made eight interesting, short little films.

FP: You also wrote the screenplay for your novel The Extra Man. What was that process like?

JA: I wrote the script … but I wasn’t as involved as I was with the TV show. With that I was involved in every costume, I was on the set for every scene, and I worked closely with the directors. For the movie I wrote the script and the directors reworked it … and then I was just sort of a detached participant. But it was thrilling to go on the set and see Kevin Kline being magnificent.

FP: Is it difficult to see changes to your original work?

JA: The book will always have its life, and movies are totally different — it’s a retelling or a different story. So I’m accepting.