Journalist Jon Ronson is no stranger to the seedy underbelly of Wisconsin.
He interviewed the makeup-wearing evangelical Christians behind
Insane Clown Posse before a concert in Milwaukee. He accompanied a woman on a covert kidney-transplant trip to a Madison hospital. But what really has the Wales native worried is his reception at the Wisconsin Book Festival on Friday.
The author of “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” “The Psychopath Test” and, most recently, “Lost at Sea,” is a pretty big deal in Britain. But when reached by phone at his part-time home in New York, Ronson expressed some bewilderment at the dearth of offers he’s received to read to American audiences.
Q: Are you excited about the book festival?
A: Yeah. I don’t do much of this. I do an awful lot of it in Britain. Whenever I go back to Britain I go round the country giving talks. I don’t do much of it in America. There doesn’t seem to be the sort of people telephoning me and asking me to do it in America as there is in Britain.
Q: But you’re known here, you’ve been on “This American Life”...
A: I’ve been on “The Daily Show,” I’ve given TED talks. I’m with you on this. In Britain I can turn up pretty much anywhere and talk to 300 or 400 people, maybe a thousand people. But in the United States, people just haven’t asked me to. This is sort of like an experiment. I have no idea how many people in Madison want to see me. It could be like 10 years ago, when I’d turn up at bookstores and I’d talk to about 25 people, when “The Men Who Stare at Goats” first came out. It was so depressing and dispiriting. It might be like that. It might be the me of 10 years ago. Or, conversely, I might turn up and the place is jam-packed. I have no idea.
Q: Do you know (British author) JoJo Moyes?
A: Not only do I know her, I’ve been on some walks with her. We did a marathon together.
Q: She was here for the opening of the new library in Madison, and there were 200 people at her event. I think you shouldn’t worry too much.
A: I know that Madison is a very cultured place. My books do sell lots of copies in America. Logically, I should have lots of people coming. The only reason I’m sounding anxious about it is A: That’s my disposition anyway, and B: I’ve not done this before. It’s not tried and tested.
Q: Do you ever look out at your audience and wonder how many of them are psychopaths?
A: No, I kind of assume that none of them are. My first couple of books, “Them” and “Men Who Stare at Goats,” were sort of conspiracy books. My audiences were paranoid men. Then I started writing about my domestic life, and all the paranoid men went away and instead my audiences were kind of open, smiling women, which was much better. And then I stopped writing about my domestic life and “The Psychopath Test” came out, and now it’s a mix of all sorts of people.
I make a joke sometimes in my talk that one in 100 regular people is a psychopath, so if there’s 300 people in the crowd, three of them are psychopaths. But I never actually think any of them are. I can’t imagine psychopaths want to come to my talk. Of course, one of the items on the Psychopathy Checklist is “grandiose sense of self worth,” so I guess it stands to reason that psychopaths would want to go to talks about psychopaths. Maybe there’ll be loads. Maybe all of Madison’s psychopaths will be coming out — there’ll be carnage.
Q: “Lost at Sea” started out in Milwaukee, and you didn’t paint a great picture of the city.
A: There’s a Madison moment in “Lost at Sea,” too. One of the adventures in the book was about a religious group who had given all their spare kidneys to strangers. It’s one of the most painful stories in the book, because me and the guy, the leader of this group, had a massive falling out and it became a sort of war between us. We just hated each other. He was trying to mind-control me. Anyway, one of his people who was giving her kidney to a stranger was doing it at a hospital in Madison, so I went with her to Madison for the covert transplant.
Q: Which story is it?
A: It’s called “Blood Sacrifice.” Actually, I’m not sure whether I put that part into it ... (rifles through pages). Oh, I just say Susan donates the kidney to Larry from Aspen. But that was in Madison. That’s my one Madison experience. But I really like it a lot. I remember it was voted nicest place to live in America.
Q: What were your thoughts on Milwaukee?
A: I remember I got slightly attacked when I mentioned Jeffrey Dahmer (in “Have You Ever Stood Next to an Elephant, My Friend,” about the Insane Clown Posse). It is Jeffrey Dahmer, right?
Q: Yes. There was a correction to your Guardian story that said you originally wrote that he “ate 17 people” and you corrected it to say he “murdered 17 people.”
A: You’re absolutely right. The only reason I mentioned Jeffrey Dahmer was because someone at the venue said, “You do realize this is Jeffrey Dahmer country, it was that house over there where he did it all.” I printed it, and when it came out, people were saying, “Typical journalist, first thing he says in the story about Milwaukee is that Jeffrey Dahmer came from there.” I didn’t realize it was a thing to mention Jeffrey Dahmer in conjunction with Milwaukee. When I think about Milwaukee, I think of the Fonz and the Violent Femmes. I didn’t even know that journalists tainted all of Milwaukee with mentions of Jeffrey Dahmer.
Q: Wisconsin has a long, gruesome history of serial killers. There’s also Ed Gein, who was the inspiration for “Psycho.”
A: By the way, there’s a “Psychopath Test” section in Milwaukee as well. The day after my Insane Clown Posse interview, I met this guy in Milwaukee, Gary Maier. He’s one of the main psychiatrists in “The Psychopath Test.” He was one of the guys who was encouraging psychopaths to have naked LSD-fueled psychotherapy sessions in the 1970s. He’s a Wisconsin man.
Q: How do you find these people?
A: That one, about that incredible, unknown endeavor to try to cure psychopaths by giving them naked psychotherapy LSD sessions? It was Robert Hare who mentioned in passing that there was a crazy scheme to cure psychopaths by having them sit on bean bags. I sent him emails for a couple of months, asking him to tell me more.
He was ignoring all my emails, and finally he just gave me a word, which was “Penetanguishene.” It was the hospital where they were trying these experiments. Once you get a name, you just dig and dig and dig. That was a great day, actually. First Insane Clown Posse, and then Gary Maier.
Q: Are you working on another book?
A: I’m doing a bunch of things. I just finished a BBC2 thing with Malcolm Gladwell. I finished a “This American Life” yesterday. “This American Life” is such a nice place to hang out. Same with “The Daily Show.” It’s a very chilled-out vibe.
Q: A place where everyone is like-minded ...
A: Totally. So those things are out of the way. The three big things that are happening for me at the moment are:
1. I’ve written a movie called “Frank,” which is hopefully coming out next year. It’s about a man who wears a big fake head that he never takes off, based on a real person. Michael Fassbender plays Frank.
2. I’m directing a comedy, my first-ever fiction direction. It’s a silent comedy.
3. For the last couple of years I’ve been working on a book about public shamings. I’m looking at public shamings as a phenomenon, from all perspectives, from the people who are shamed to the people who are doing the shaming, to the ripples that it has.
Q: What can your audience expect at the Book Festival?
A: My instinct is to talk quite a bit about “The Psychopath Test” and maybe a bit of “Lost at Sea.” I’ve got a couple of family stories that I sometimes tell from the days when I used to write about my domestic life, and I’m thinking about telling one or two of those.
I don’t know if I’ll have the courage to read anything completely new that I’ve never read before. I might.