By Annette Hinkle
As a writer, you could say that Jonathan Ames has certainly explored the boundaries of what’s possible through a myriad of mediums and life experiences. He’s written novels, memoirs and comics, worked as a newspaper columnist, an on-stage storyteller and was the creator, writer and producer of “Bored to Death” the TV series which ran for three seasons on HBO. He’s also been an occasional actor (he was a “porn-extra” in one film) and had a brief career as an amateur boxer known as “The Herring Wonder.”
Often confessional, frequently provocative and largely experiential, Ames built a reputation for putting it all out there in his writing — whether he was sharing stories of his childhood traumas or sexual misadventures. On Wednesday, October 3 Ames will be the first guest in the fall Writers Speak Wednesdays series at Stony Brook Southampton.
Given all his successes, Ames is now in a well-earned position to offer aspiring young writers a bit of guidance in pursuing their own careers. But Ames will tell you, it was another talented (and extremely confessional) writer who inspired him when he was just starting out — Spalding Gray, the renowned monologist and Sag Harbor resident who took his own life in 2004 following a car accident that left him with debilitating injuries.
“I first saw him in ‘86 at Lincoln Center,” recalls Ames. “A woman I was dating took me to the show, and I remember loving it. Even though it was Lincoln Center there was something Beat Generation about it. For me anyway.”
“I was 22 years old and here’s someone going up there being so vulnerable and honest and real while performing,” adds Ames. “A few years later, I don’t know if I forgot about it, but I began to tell stories.”
By that point, though Ames had published his first novel, “I Pass Like the Night,” he was struggling with his new writing projects. So he went to MacDowell Colony, an artists and writers retreat in New Hampshire, where he had received a residency. Coincidentally, Spalding Gray had also once had a MacDowell residency (he shared details of the writer’s block he experienced there in his monologue “Monster in a Box”). And like Gray, Ames found he was also having trouble getting his words down on paper during his time at MacDowell.
“But when I was talking at the dinner table they’d all laugh,” recalls Ames of the other artists and writers at MacDowell. “Same thing at the support groups, I’d tell my stories and they laughed.”
“One night I ended up telling stories at the library in the colony,” he adds. “I don’t know if I had Spalding in my mind, but he was in my conscience.”
That was 1990, and in the years that followed, Ames began to go on stage to tell very personal stories from his life. But these were not like stand-up comedy routines or theatrical one-person shows that involve a lot of movement on stage.
“I kind of did what Spalding did with the desk and the glass of water — stripped down and talking at a mic,” explains Ames. “Then in ‘99, I met him socially at a party and was very shy, a little like a baseball fan seeing Joe DiMaggio or Derek Jeter. I asked if his technique was like mine, where he knew the basic outline, but used improv so he told it fresh every time. He said he did.”
In 1999, Ames received a Guggenheim fellowship and brought his original (and some would say shocking) one-man show “Oedipussy” to an off-off-Broadway theater. And by the time of Gray’s death, Ames had become known as a downtown Manhattan performer and he knew a lot of the same people as Gray. So when Gray’s widow, Kathie Russo, and Lucy Sexton put together the theatrical piece “Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell,” which consisted of excerpts from Gray’s monologues and writings, they tapped Ames as one of the initial five performers to share Gray’s words on stage.
“After a few experimental performances in small theaters I was in the PS 122 run,” says Ames. “We did five nights in a row, then I went on the road with them to a couple different cities and theaters.”
While Ames would not say his own method of baring his soul on stage was directly because of Gray, he does call him “a kindred spirit.” And though he performed his on stage pieces while still working on his books, Ames did not find that one form of writing segued into the other.
“It was a dual track – I’d write during the day, perform at night,” he says. “The performance was more ephemeral, more of the moment. Later I had a column in an alternative paper for three years. A lot of the stories I told on stage I turned into prose for my column. My column was my adventures.”
“For me, performing grew out of struggle to write a second book – but I found I could just talk,” he says. “That led me back to writing. It was this bifurcated life. I was better known as a writer than a performer. In the downtown world I was known as both.”
Now that he’s older (Ames is 48), finds his focus has changed and he admits he is less eager to share the nitty gritty details of his personal life with his public. In the HBO series “Bored to Death,” actor Jason Schwartzman may have played a struggling novelist named Jonathan Ames who moonlights as an unlicensed private detective, but the show, which ran from 2009 to 2011, was wholly fictional — not confessional.
“I’ve written four novels and four collections,” he says. “I haven’t really been doing the confessional work for quite some time. As I get older it becomes more difficult because I think I want to be more private and don’t want people reading into things as much.”
“It’s an issue I’m struggling more with now than when I was young and more courageous on some level,” says Ames. “When you’re trying to make your way, you do that by being brave. Maybe I’ve gotten less brave.”
It’s not just true of the writing. Ames, a.k.a. “The Herring Wonder” who once enjoyed going a few rounds in the ring, whether in the school yard, as performance art spectacle or a serious amateur bout, has also hung up the boxing gloves. His nose has been broken more times than he cares to remember.
“I haven’t had a fight since 2007. I don’t think I’ll box again,” he says. “I enjoyed the romance of getting into the ring, but not getting hit or hurting someone else. I was more into putting on the costume.”
Jonathan Ames speaks as part of Writers Speak Wednesdays at Stony Brook Southampton at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, October 3, 2012. Sponsored by the in Creative Writing and Literature program, the talk will be held in the Radio Lounge on the second floor of Chancellors Hall. For information, call 632-5287 or visit www.stonybrook.edu/mfa. Admission is free and open to the public.