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For The Love Of Odd

20 February 2017

Jon Ronson has made a career out of peeking into life’s dark corners. This month you can see him at the Emirates Airline Festival Of Literature, so here’s what to expect from the last of the great gonzo journalists.

“A lot of journeys I do are quite frightening, and I’m not somebody who enjoys being frightened.”

This is a surprising thing to hear from Jon Ronson, an author who’s built an entire career wandering into scary situations, and then writing funny things about them. Back in 2001, he went looking for shadowy cabals in Them: Adventures With Extremists and ended up hanging out with assorted oddballs including David Icke (who believes the world’s controlled by giant lizards) and conspiracy investigator Big Jim Tucker (who believes the world’s controlled by the secretive Bilderberg Group).

He blagged his way around the world in Clubbed Class, hunted psychopaths in The Psychopath Test and investigated psychic warfare in The Men Who Stare At Goats, which was made into a film starring George Clooney and Ewan McGregor – the latter of whom plays a journalist inspired by Ronson, which must be a nice icebreaker at dinner parties. More recently, he put himself in Twitter’s crosshairs by tackling the thorny subject of online witch hunts in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. For a man who claims to not enjoy fear, he certainly ends up prodding a lot of bears.

“My starting point is always that I’m trying to solve a mystery,” says Ronson. “I can only do a story where it’s a world I don’t understand, but I want to try and understand it. It could be a mystery as simple as, ‘Why did that person behave in a way I would never behave?’ or it could be something much bigger like, ‘Is it true that psychopaths rule the world?’ or ‘Is it true there’s a shadowy cabal that secretly rules the world, and can I get in?’”

Not to ruin the book, but solving this last one results in Ronson making a panicked phone call to the British embassy after discovering his car is being tailed. Trying to explain his predicament, he ends up blurting out, “I’m a humorous journalist out of my depth” – which is not only a fantastic line, but effectively a mission statement for his entire career. “That’s the difference between me and the other non-fiction writers,” he says. “I want to be out of my depth, with all that entails – being lost in a world and not understanding how it works, and maybe I’m going to screw everything up, or maybe I’ll be wrong. In The Psychopath Test I become this crazed psychopath spotter because I’m out of my depth.”

This idea of an investigator becoming lost in the thing they’re investigating isn’t unique to Ronson, but he does it extraordinarily well, injecting humour, pathos and a breakneck pace into his books that’s more often associated with the fiction side of publishing. Perhaps his most endearing quality though is the empathy he has for the people he writes about, whether they’re paranoid conspiracy theorists, or those who’ve fallen foul of Twitter’s permanently outraged insult army.

“One of my challenges is always, ‘How can I write about this in a way nobody else is, and in a more timeless way?’” he says. “I don’t want to write a polemic about how everything is bad, I want to write an interesting adventure story. I had a sort of epiphany when I first started writing Them, which was that people expect a certain amount out of a fiction novel. You expect your protagonist in a novel to go through some sort of life-changing experience, you want something profound to happen. If you’re spending money on a novel you want a lot to happen. Why not have the same high standards for non-fiction? In Them I wanted to put myself through the same significant life changes that a fictional person would go through in a novel, and I’ve always tried to keep that up.”

The problem with this technique is that life-changing experiences don’t end when the books do, as Ronson found out when he released So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In sympathetically recounting the story of Justine Sacco, a PR woman who made an offensive joke on Twitter and found her life ruined 12 hours later, he inadvertently placed himself in front of the boulder of ill will that is social media. Writing in The Guardian, Ronson recalled how the first few pebbles of criticism swiftly became a landslide, with one commentator writing, “After reading that excerpt from his book. I think it’s safe to say @jonronson is a f****** racist.”

As the hatred grew Ronson quit Twitter, joining again sometime later when things had calmed down. And yet, as horrible as the experience was, it served to reinforce the case being made in the book that social media had mutated into something toxic, propelling it even further into the public consciousness. Malevolence had become marketing. “When So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed came out I travelled with that book for a year and a half non-stop, promoting it,” says Ronson.

“With my other books, I have this rule: you take ages to write the book so in terms of promotion I’ll talk about it for as long as people want to talk to me about it. What I didn’t realise about Shamed was that people would want to talk to me about that book for the rest of my life. Particularly the Justine Sacco story, people want to hear that story over and over again. So, I was travelling forever with that book. I was becoming old. I remember at one point – and I recognise this all comes from a place of privilege – but nonetheless, I remember being in Amsterdam, and I was traipsing down a hotel corridor towards people who wanted to interview me, having been to a million countries beforehand, and actually feeling like it had turned me old.”

Ronson’s laughing as he tells me this story, and yet it’s not hard to imagine the weariness of being on the road for 16 months, telling the same stories in different ways. So arduous did it become, he actually called a moratorium on travelling for a little while.

“I have a real love/hate relationship with travel,” he says. “I tend to love it in retrospect and hate it at the time. My greatest memories are being in some Hampton Inn [cheap chain hotel in the US] in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere in America, on a story, having breakfast with servicemen on the next table, or travelling salesmen, before going off into the middle of nowhere to solve a mystery. Those are by far my best memories, but at the time I hate it. I get exhausted, but then I honestly think we do most things for some form of retrospective happiness.”

For the moment, Ronson’s busy researching new projects and writing screenplays. He most recently completed Okja with acclaimed Korean director Bong Joon-ho, which is due out on Netflix in 2017, starring Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhal. He’s also making an appearance at the Emirates Airline Festival Of Literature, where he’ll be talking about his travels, and some of his adventures along the way. They better have given him a nice long slot, because Ronson’s not short of a story or two. That’s the beauty of being a humorous journalist out of your depth.

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