This American Life is airing its 500th episode this week. To note the occasion, we’re profiling three of the show’s most notable contributors. The third is Jon Ronson, who has told stories about people on the fringes—from conspiracy theorists who try to disparage the victims of the London subway bombing to a bumbling wannabe terrorist. His reporting is often deeply unnerving; one of his stories, which would later form the spine of his book The Psychopath Test, explores the surprising overlap between CEOs and textbook cases of psychopathy. A recent collection of his stories for The Guardian, Lost at Sea, is out in paperback.
Chris Berube: When you heard This American Life, were you surprised there was a show doing first person narratives in the US?
Jon Ronson: For me, coming from Britain, America does have a tradition for that kind of thing. Tom Wolfe… I actually don’t remember if he ever did put himself in his own stories. PJ O’Rourke certainly did, and Hunter S. Thompson. Gay Talese did a few times. There was kind of a tradition for it, but I had never heard it on the radio before. You can do first-person narrative so badly. When it’s bad, it’s really bad. I remember all of the music papers in Britain tried to make every story in first-person for a while, but it was so embarrassing. I always remember, some guy was like, “I’m in my hotel room, I’m sweating, I just did three lines of coke, and in ten minutes, I’m interviewing Iggy Pop.” Oh, fuck off. You’re not Hunter S. Thompson.
It’s so easy to do first-person narrative reporting in a way that seems wrong. I tried to do it in journalism school, and they politely told me to stop.
I think I’ve always been good at it. I’ve always known what’s right and wrong. For instance, I learned really early that if you’re telling a story where you come across well and are really funny, that’s bad. I have this rule. If the story seemed like fun at the time, it’s no good. The really funny stories are the ones that were horrific at the time. I think Ira would agree with that. Agony is funny.
The other thing, I always thought anecdotes were a poor man’s storytelling. So when I first heard Ira talking about how wonderful anecdotes are, I thought, really? But it’s about the structure of how you tell a story. Ira has that great YouTube video where he says, “You get out of bed, you walk down the stairs,” and you’re really hooked.
The show was six or seven years old when you did your first story for them. It was about terrorism, right?
The first story I did for them was in 2001, about a month after 9/11. I just had a book out called Them. The first chapter is this story about my relationship with an Islamic extremist in London named Omar Bakri, who had an association with Osama bin Laden, and how I spent about a year with him as his chauffeur, basically, getting to know him. The book came out in England, and did quite well, and then 9/11 happened. And the last thing anybody wanted was a funny, human book about a nebbish, Jewish writer having a relationship with an Islamic fundamentalist. It was just terrible timing. But Ira saw that perspective was still valid, a human story about a guy like me investigating Islamic militants.
I love that story, because Omar Bakri comes off as bumbling—he seems incompetent. But I imagine hearing that in 2001 was the worst, because nobody wanted to hear about an Islamic militant who has these human flaws.
For a lot of other media, the horror between 9/11 and the bumbling of Omar could not fit together. I was interviewed byFresh Air at the same time, and Terry Gross said that my portrayal of Omar as a comic figure was wrong, and I said, no, it was accurate. I just found it so interesting, that someone could be a clown, or a buffoon, and could still be in an organization that does stuff like 9/11. Now, Omar had nothing to do with 9/11, but he was a fellow traveler. They were in the same crowd, they attended the same conferences and things like that. But Ira saw that those two stories could exist together. You can be a clown, and bumbling, and still capable of committing atrocities. But they worked with me, and made this piece that worked really well. We just worked for so long to make sure that every little piece of it was right. I went hoarse recording it.
I heard once that editing with This American Life was like having really good sex.
If being locked in a room for hours and hours and hours is having good sex, then yes. But, it’s totally worth it.
After Omar, you started doing more personal stories for the show, like one about going back to a high school reunion to confront some bullies. Why did you think that would be interesting?
When my book The Men Who Stare At Goats came out, nobody was interested. I gave talks in bookstores and no one came. It was only five years later when George Clooney made the movie that anyone was interested.
It’s interesting how a little bit of celebrity of attention can do that.
Yeah! At the time, no one cared. And I started wondering, why is no one interested? Because it’s about craziness a long way off, in military units, overseas. But ultimately, the craziness that compels us is the stuff that we encounter every day: the craziness with our neighbours, or our kids, our parents or our girlfriends. So I did that for about four years. The personal stuff got a big audience. I was writing stuff that people were interested in. But since then, the Psychopath Test is the most popular stuff I’ve done.
TAL has changed public radio in the States and Canada in some big ways. Have you seen any of that with the BBC?
Radio 4 is very set in its ways. It’s like the Church of England. If you try and change anything, there’s rioting in the street. Many producers are massively inspired by TAL, no doubt about that. But Radio 4 is very rigid. The listeners are like the mafia. They will kill you. You what I have noticed? You know Moth-type live shows? Those are happening in Britain now. True stories. And an awful lot of that is because of TAL. It’s happening in art centres and rooms above pubs. Pretty much every music festival in Britain has a tent for readings, or spoken word or storytelling. That’s where the influence has really come to life, not in TV or radio, though I’m sure loads of producers love it.
Do you have a favourite episode?
I really like the Mike Daisey episodes. [In the first episode, Daisey visits an Apple computers factory in China to uncover appalling conditions. After his reporting is revealed to be fraudulent, TAL followed up with a show where they confront Daisey about his fabrications.] I’m sure Ira won’t like me for saying it. Both the original one and the redacted one—I think both of those were incredibly strong.
Those are so strong, especially the second one, because you hear Daisey working through what he did out loud. You hear him trying to sort it out.
I thought he was kind of brilliant. Ira did what he had to do. He had to protect the show, so he did that. But he wasn’t any crueler or harder than he had to be. He didn’t take it too far, you know? Daisey said they had different worldviews, and Ira said, “well, I have a normal worldview.” I just love that line. And the fact that Mike Daisey says he contributed to two of This American Life’s most interesting shows is really funny. I’m glad that he came out of it without his life in tatters. To me it’s kind of perfect. The show stayed clean, it didn’t hurt them, which is about how Ira played it. But also, Mike Daisey has carried on having a career. I think that’s kind of wonderful.
I think it’s only the Apple corporation that’s not happy. But otherwise…
It turned out fine for everyone!
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.