Lost At Sea author Jon Ronson loves a good mystery, and there's hardly a place the Welsh-born journalist won't travel for a good story, as Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries, a collection of Ronson’s articles, attests. When Kirkus recently spoke with him, comfortably back home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, he could barely contain his enthusiasm at having just met "a great, eccentric crazy person" while driving through Nashville on assignment for The Guardian newspaper. "A feeling overwhelmed me of just being so happy to be there," Ronson says. Here, the writer who also brought us The Men Who Stare At Goats and The Psychopath Test talks about having the best job in the world and how the gig often transforms his very being.
What's the best thing about the kind of writing that you do?
There's something weird that happens to me when I'm in one of these mysterious, shadowy places. I just have this sense of real excitement, that I'm privileged that I've gotten to go somewhere people don't normally get to go. And then I can write about it for other people to experience and enjoy. I just feel kind of skittishly excited. But I'm not so addicted that I have to do that every day. I'm happy sort of doing that once a month, and then I'm happy the rest of the month sitting at home structuring it into a story that people will enjoy reading. I'm very lucky to be able to do this job. Sometimes people ask me, “How do you handle the stress of being in all of these dangerous places?” But I just feel very lucky being able to do this.
Are there certain conditions that must exist in order to get the most out of your subjects?
I've got to be really interested in the person I'm interviewing; I've got to care. There also has to be some sort of mystery I want to solve. To me, if there's no mystery, I've got a real problem. If I feel like I know the answers before I've asked the questions, that's no good for me. So, I guess I need to be surprised. I can never go back to the same areas once I feel like I've solved the mystery.
How often do you finish up an interview still scratching your head?
Oh, quite often. And then it all becomes part of the tapestry of a bigger project. If I'm desperate to find out something about somebody, I'll go see them. And they'll take me somewhere else. They'll give me a lead to another part of the story. Kind of like Hansel and Gretel. I love that. Often, I don't know what the book's going to be until I'm in the middle of it, because, to me, not knowing is letting myself into an unfolding story which can twist and turn and end up being completely different from what I first imagined. The more curve balls there are, the better.
Did you have that experience with Lost at Sea?
Yeah, it happens in almost every story that I do. You never know where it's going to go. The best stories in Lost at Sea, like the best stories in all my books, are the ones where I completely changed my mind midway. In my previous book, The Psychopath Test, I became a kind of power-crazed psychopath spotter. I started seeing psychopaths everywhere, and I become drunk with my psychopath-spotting powers. And then I realized becoming a psychopathic spotter turned me a little psychopathic, desperate to label everybody a psychopath. And I didn't anticipate any of that journey happening. I didn't anticipate that I would become this fantastically adept, but power-crazed, psychopath-spotter, and I didn't anticipate that it would lead me astray.
Are you often changed in the process of trying to unravel a mystery?
When I am changed, that's when I'm happiest. When you buy a novel, you want characters that go through some kind of change. And I've always felt that should be the case with nonfiction, too. Why not have as high an ambition for nonfiction as you have for fiction? So, when I do go through some kind of big change, even if by the end I've changed back again to how I've been before, that always feels exciting to me. It feels justified being in a book. But you mustn't force it. It's really important that you mustn't go through some kind of fake change because readers will know that you're faking. So, the change always has to be for real.
Coming from Europe, is there anything Americans do that still surprises you?
There's one thing that surprises me and kind of annoys me—and that's this strange attitude you guys have towards alcohol, especially when it comes to alcohol and children. If I could change one thing about the way you treat kids in America, that's what I would change. I would just allow kids to go into any bar, because that happens in Europe and it's fine. Nothing bad happens. Kids go to bars, 16-year-olds will have a beer. And it's fine. And I'm not saying this as a drinker. I hardly drink at all. I'll have about one beer a day and that's it. So, it's not like I want everybody to become an alcoholic because I'm not in the least bit in favor of drinking. I guess the main difference between American and Europe is that kids are much more reliant on cars here. But also, there's this thing about rules, and I don't get it. Alcohol is treated in America like it's nitroglycerine—if you handle it wrong, it's going to explode.