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Nottingham Castle

Interview: Jon Ronson

2 October 12 interview: James Walker
illustrations: Adam Poole

People who believe twelve foot-tall lizards run everything. Robots with souls. Real life superheroes. Conspiracists, fundamentalists, and extremists. He's hung out with them all...

Are you genetically descended from an extraterrestrial race of 12' tall reptiles who came to earth some time ago in the form of humans?

Do you have an electronic doppelganger that loves Wasabi dumplings?
Yes! I turned on Twitter to discover some academics had created a spambot that sent out automated tweets in my name, but all it kept harping on about was food. I asked them to take it down but they wouldn’t. One thing I did admire about the spambot people is that they were as annoying in real life as they were online.

You met them as part of your Guardian documentary series ‘who controls the internet’. Talking of free speech, one criticism that kept occurring in the comments thread was that your work lacks methodology…

There was a huge amount of methodology (laughing), what are they talking about? The truth is, I do tend to allow my stories to sort of go where the wind blows and the reason for that is if you sit in a room and work it all out in advance you close yourself off to all sorts of unexpected avenues. So actually I think that criticism is valid…but I don’t see it as a criticism! I want to be a twig in the tidal wave of whatever story is evolving because then it will take you to places that you just wouldn’t expect. 

Does online anonymity turn us into bad people?
There is something about the solitariness of the internet that  sometimes, brings out the worst in people. I don’t know about you, but I think that is changing. Things like Twitter, for all its problems, are becoming more civil. That’s all I’ve ever wanted - people to be civil to one another.
The internet appears to offer a greater democratisation of thought…  
This is why I hate those ‘who’s your favourite tweeter articles’ because that’s about creating some kind of hierarchy on Twitter and I love that it’s a level playing field. I love it that someone with, say, one hundred followers can be funnier and wittier than someone with a million. To me the greatest thing about the internet is its completely egalitarian nature.
So it’s more than just ‘electronic gossip’?
Someone once said that Facebook is where you lie to your friends and Twitter is where you tell the truth to strangers. My Twitter timeline is a bit like a Robert Altman ensemble film where all of these lives have come together and form connections that aren’t really there but are there, if you see what I mean. I love the way people talk about the things that they would never normally admit to in public, things that would normally feel shameful and humiliating, and the people talking about such things de-demonises them. I think they help with the development of society.
You’ve given up on email as a form of instantaneous communication?     
I gave it up because when The Psychopath Test became successful I started to get loads of emails from readers and they all wanted responses. What I was doing, inevitably, was not responding and disappointing people. 
The Psychopath Test highlighted the flaws of constructing a checklist to determine this mental condition but as a society we have to do something to protect us from them. What did you learn?   
It’s impossible to come up with a simple answer but I think psychopaths exist. There’s no doubt about that; whether they’re born or made I don’t know. But they definitely exist. It’s a real condition and they’re dangerous because they’ve got no empathy, so there’s no talking sense to them. Yet, when this psychopath checklist is out in the world, if it’s misused, and I certainly have been a misuser of it (laughs), it can be a really dangerous thing. You can reduce a person to a checklist and obviously that’s no good. So there’s no definitive conclusion to draw, which is a good thing. But when it comes to mental health both extremes cause terrible, terrible trouble and when I say both extremes I mean the anti-psychiatry movement who think that mental illnesses don’t even bloody exist and the psychiatry mainstream. In a way they’re both as flawed as each other and you have to try and find a sensible grey area in the middle.       
And by definition journalism is a psychopathic profession in the way that we construct narratives...
Exactly. We travel across the world with our notepads and we wait for the gems which inevitably are the outermost aspects of our interviewee’s personality and we stitch them together like medieval monks, leaving all the banal stuff on the floor.  
You’ve just moved to New York. Is this because it offers greater access to your subject matter? 
(Laughs) I’ve always loved New York but there’s not any cogent, logical reason for the move. We just did it to shake things up a little. 
What does your son Joel make of what you do?  
We get to do things you wouldn’t necessarily get to do and I think he’ll end up doing a similar thing as well, actually. Though I’m not a great advertisement for writing because when he comes into my room when I’m in the middle of a sentence I’m like Jack Nicholson in The Shining – ‘When you hear the sound of the typing, that means STAY THE FUCK AWAY AWAY!’ (Laughs) 
How does your wife cope when you bugger off for months to hang about with UFO enthusiasts in the desert?
I see travel as a tiring, stressful necessary evil I suppose. What I like is having done the adventure and then sitting in a room writing it up. I’m very lucky that Elaine isn’t highly strung and neurotic like I am. If she was we would be a completely nightmarish family. Thankfully, she doesn’t seem to have as many anxiety issues as I do.  
Talking of anxiety issues, you looked like a nervous wreck before appearing at the No Direction Home festival but were a natural the minute you got on stage.
I think it’s because as an introvert, erm, it’s a lot easier to stand on stage and talk to a whole bunch of people than it is to talk to one person at a party. I think a lot of introverts are like that. I don’t know why but I think it’s quite common.
But journalism, like now, is about person to person conversation….  
Yeah…that’s the part of it I don’t find easy. Sometimes I get really panicky. I remember one time being on this train in Sweden going to meet this guy who had been arrested for trying to split the atom in his kitchen and I was in a state of blind panic, not because I was about to meet the man who had tried to split the atom in his kitchen but because I was going to meet a complete stranger. The other reason I do it is because it’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at.
You’ve met many interesting characters over the years. Does any one individual stand out?
I think the time I sort of felt this is a ‘perfect moment’ was when I was hanging out with the Texan conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for Them: Adventures with Extremists. We went to Bohemian Grove together, the secret enclave in California where all of the rulers of the world, the global elite, dress up in robes and hoods and burn effigies at the foot of a giant owl. Hanging out with Alex Jones was kind of crazy and fun because he was the first one.
How about eccentric characters from Nottingham?
There’s a Nottingham man in The Psychopath Test, Paul Britton. One time Britain’s most credible criminal profiler who was disgraced for his part in getting Colin Stagg falsely arrested for the murder of Rachel Nickell. And my new book features Ray Gosling, who I like and admire very much because he opened the door for people like me in the media. But he ended up getting really drunk and screaming at me in a bedsit in Manchester and was quite horrible.
By ‘people like me’, you mean that peculiar, odd accent. What’s going on with your vocal chords?          
(laughs) I was raised in Cardiff, Wales to English parents. My dad was from London and my mum was born in Southport. Then I spent two years in London and seven or eight in Manchester and that’s when my accent got a bit odd. It became a strange mix of the three and it’s just remained that way ever since. 
You’re the exact opposite of a straight-talking, direct investigative journalist.
Well I’ve always been non-threatening. I remember my first big story was with Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, the Tottenham Ayatollah - the first person to call for a Holy War in Britain. And I was dressed like some geeky indie kid. But I think it’s also that I would hardly ever go and see someone that I don’t like, even if their beliefs are utterly opposed to mine. I still feel slightly honoured and grateful that I’m getting to meet someone in a genuinely enquiring way and I think that kind of rubs off on people.   
It also helps that you don’t turn people into oddities…
For someone to do that they’d have to have a very sure sense of their own greatness and I don’t have that. We’re all a mess, you know. The very best thing we can do is accept that and sort of cherish it. If you do that then you’re never going to patronise your subjects because you know you’re just as big a mess as anyone.
Have you ever been in any physical danger?
A couple of times. I got into terrible trouble with a real life superhero called Phoenix Jones which is the last story in my latest collection. He’s got a superhero outfit of his own design and he goes off to fight crime in Seattle. So I went on patrol with him last year and he ended up taking me at three o’clock in the morning to Belltown, which is like a big crack street in Seattle, so that he could confront a group of armed crack dealers. I didn’t quite realise the severity of this until I was in the middle of it. It was really fucking dangerous. It was properphysical danger. So much so that when I made it out alive and got back to my hotel, my legs buckled and I practically fell over.
Given the characters you meet and the situations you get yourself into, do you crave normality when you get home?
God yes. I crave routine and comfort massively. I’m not an adrenaline junkie at all. I only go and do these things because I have to so that I can write about them.
Jon Ronson will be speaking at the Broadway Cinema on Thursday 4 October.  Lost at Sea is published by Picador.

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