It's certainly a mad, mad world for investigator Jon
PUBLISHED: 15:48 08 August 2011
Jon Ronson turns his attention to psychopathy in his new book
»Jon Ronson is sat in a deckchair in his garden, cursing a wasp that just won’t leave him alone. It’s a long, lush space, an extension of the 44-year-old’s large and quite colourful home that, according to him, was paid for by George Clooney.
Ronson’s Clooney reference may seem bizarre, but it’s not so strange. The Men Who Stare At Goats, Ronson’s second book, was made into a film starring the actor in 2009. The film subsequently paid for Ronson’s home, where he now lives with his wife and son.
So far, Ronson has had two bestselling books. His new work, The Psychopath Test, is the next neat volume of his escapades on the periphery of society.
Book by book, Ronson is the journalist who brings the outsiders in – past works have seen encounters with extremists and conspiracy theorists. Now he turns his attention to psychopathy, interviewing the madness industry from the bottom up.
Drinking his beer, he makes it all sound easy. “I really like allowing one incident to lead me to another,” says Ronson. “I open up my mind, empty my mind and try to be completely organic. In The Psychopath Test, I have lunch with a Scientologist and that leads me to Broadmoor. I like that. I like the fact that you’re just a twig in the tidal wave of the story.”
He asks what I thought of the book. I tell him I enjoyed the honesty of it and that he gives a good account of how he goes about his investigation. But I do wonder how he has reacted to the mixed reviews, considering that he portrays himself in his writing as quite a nervous person. “There’s definitely a few people who think that my book is a bit meandering and picaresque and I suppose for those people that criticism is right,” he says. “I’ve always divided people,” the Welsh-born writer adds with his unexpected Mancunian twang, perhaps something he adopted during his early career in the northern city.
Ronson does think that the chapter on conspiracy theorist David Shayler is “a bit too meandering”. “What I thought was really important when I got to that part of the book was to get away from a book that is spotting psychopaths, where I’m sort of a witch-finder general. Friends of mine were counselling me to stay away from making the book that way. I wanted to look at journalists and journalism too and see if we could be psychopathic sometimes. I thought that the David Shayler story was a good way of looking at myself and my own pitfalls.”
I wonder what Ronson’s pitfalls are. Does he ever look at a blank page and think, ‘What am I doing? No-one wants to read this.’? “I say it to my wife every time: ‘No-one is going to care about this.’ When you’re writing a book, you sort of feel like you wrongly believe yourself to be a writer and, in fact, you’re just a guy sitting in a room. I felt that way totally when I wrote The Psychopath Test.”
“I just sort of feel desperate and worried all the time. Once in a while I know it’s really good but quite often the bit I’m most worried about is the one everyone likes the most.
‘‘It’s only when you start getting good reviews that it stops a little bit.”
With multiple documentary credits, a Radio 4 show and his books, Ronson is everywhere. Predictably, in his home patch of Hampstead and Highgate, people have noticed. “This time there are more whispers of, ‘It’s Jon Ronson,’ when I walk down the street,” he says. “I’ve also experienced the dark side of fame, a bit like Robbie Williams. I sat down to breakfast one morning in a hotel and this person sat down next to me and said, ‘I saw your talk last night, I hope you don’t mind if I sit here.’
‘‘I responded exactly how Robbie Williams would respond, I gave her a slightly cold grunt, you know. Afterwards, I felt really guilty and wanted to apologise.”
In spite of the whispers and the celebrity whims, Ronson insists he’s not really that famous. “I’m hardly Kate Moss,” he says. Looking at him in his shorts and T-shirt, I’m inclined to agree.
Depending on which way you look at it, Ronson could be considered more famous than Miss Moss. The Psychopath Test recently earned him an appearance on US TV show the Daily Show – although it caused him to have an anxiety attack where his tongue swelled up. “I knew that, if it went well, so many things would happen as a result, so I got so nervous. I could hardly walk. My publisher was treating me like someone who had been in a car crash going, ‘Stay with us, stay with us,Jon’ and asking me, ‘Where are you going on holiday this year, Jon?’ ”
Even though it regularly serves up untimely anxiety, Ronson’s brain has taken him all over the world and made him a double bestselling author. Perhaps inspired by his father, his only son Joel, is 12 and already has a column. “I never thought that Joel would want to be a writer,” says Ronson. “I’m not a good advertisment for writing, I’m almost like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
‘‘When he comes into my office I’m like, ‘Yes.’” He imitates a growl. “The other day we did this podcast and, when it came to editing it, he just effortlessly knew what the best bits were. I work with producers and editors who I just don’t trust to know what the best bits are. I think Joel is going to usurp me.”
Maybe one day, I suggest, Ronson might be considered as Joel Ronson’s dad. “Joel met Keith Allen the other day and asked him, ‘Are you Lily Allen’s dad?’ You can tell that he flinched a little bit,” Ronson laughs. “That’s what I’m going to be like.”
n The Psychopath Test is published by Picador at £16.99.