An Interview with Jon Ronson
From the criminally-insane inmates of Broadmoor Hospital to the high flying politicians that rule our world, psychopaths are everywhere claims Jon Ronson’s latest book. No stranger to the absurd and the dangerous, Ronson’s career has frequently lead him to those on the fringes of society, whether it be Islamic fundamentalists, neo-Nazi extremists or simply men adamant the world is secretly controlled by 12-foot lizards. Now, in The Psychopath Test, Ronson delves deep into the world of insanity, which is not as we would like to believe confined to the psychiatric hospitals and prisons.
‘Superficial charm, lack of remorse and grandiose sense of self worth’ are all traits of a potential psychopath, according to the Bob Hare 20 point checklist. Worryingly, it seems it is these very qualities that also allow psychopaths to thrive in the world of business and politics. This suggests a sinister question: is society shaped by those furthest from sanity? Armed with this checklist and his new-found psychopath spotting abilities, Ronson ventures across the globe with the aim of distinguishing the ‘psychos’ from the sane. His first encounter with a possible psychopath is ‘Tony’, a Broadmoor inmate claiming to have faked madness in order to receive a lighter sentence who ironically, ten years on, is still trying to convince the hospital of his sanity. Throughout the novel, Ronson meets an array of equally bizarre and sinister potential psychopaths- ruthless CEO Al Dunlap, notorious for the redundancies of thousands of workers for his own personal gain, former Haitian death squad leader Toto Constant, responsible for countless crimes of murder and violence and even David Shayler, an ex MI5 officer turned transvestite messiah.
Backstage at the Durham Book Festival, I spoke to Jon Ronson about both his journey through the world of madness and his own journey as a writer.
Jon, you’ve said in the past that you’re quite an anxious person, so did you feel daunted by the prospect of working with psychopaths?
JR: It does seem like a really stupid thing to do. I’ve been working with psychopaths for two years but even before that I’ve investigated the US army and met neo-Nazis for previous books, so for the past fifteen years I’ve constantly put myself in dangerous situations. It’s really stupid because you spend the whole time feeling incredibly anxious but that’s what makes me write well. If I could write well in a different way I would, but I’ve tried writing about ordinary everyday life stuff and it doesn’t have the same effect.
Does having the ability to spot a potential psychopath change your perspective of other people?
JR: It definitely did for a long time. I became convinced that psychopaths were everywhere, to the extent that one of my friends was getting a quite worried about me. But at the time I was glad this was happening to me because when you read a book I think you want the main character to go through some sort of life changing experience, if they didn’t the reader would feel disappointed. A lot of people who write non-fiction are only really concerned about the information but I’m interested in telling a story as well, just as a novelist would be. So I think it’s good that I really changed when I was writing the book because it makes the story better.
Psychopaths can obviously be very cruel and manipulative, but was there ever a time when you felt sympathy for them?
JR: Yes, in a way. I think it’s quite a profound question, because if someone is really cruel but that’s just the way they’re born should we feel sorry for them? I suppose the answer to that then says something about what kind of person you are, because if you can feel sorry for a psychopath then you can probably feel sorry for just about anyone, because psychopaths are pretty much as bad as people can get. I think being able to feel sorry for people like psychopaths is a good quality to have and it definitely proves you’re not psychopathic.
In The Psychopath Test you’ve spoken to a lot of sinister characters, whom did you find most shocking?
JR: I think it was the Haitian death squad leader Toto Constant who said ‘if you can get people to like you, then you can manipulate them into doing anything’. I found that really chilling because it seemed as if he didn’t care at all about other people, he was almost like another type of human being. And Toto was definitely responsible for a lot of deaths in Haiti. Although I don’t think Toto is the worst person I’ve ever met; he was perfectly nice to me and there’s people I dislike much more than him who I’ve talked about in previous books.
As a writer you often put yourself in dangerous situations and work with a lot of dangerous people, how does your family react to this?
There were times when writing this book that my wife told me to be careful. But luckily she’s usually quite calm and relaxed about it all. I remember one time when I was in real danger, I was being chased in Portugal by men in dark glasses when I was writing my first book Them and it was really terrifying. I rang up my wife to tell her what was happening and she just said ‘oh you’re loving it’. I don’t think she was worried at all. But in this book I was really careful, I didn’t give anyone my home address so no one could find me. This time I was sensible.
As a child have you always aspired to become writer or were there other careers you wanted to pursue?
At first I didn’t want to be a writer because I thought it would be a quite boring and solitary career. I just imagined myself alone in a room, chain smoking for the rest of my life, which is exactly what I did do for the first fifteen years. It just turned out that writing was the only thing I was really any good at. Before I became a writer I was working with pop groups in Manchester and writing for a local magazine for some extra money. I realised that I was much better as a writer than I was as a manager because every band I worked with never made it, no matter how talented they were. But the writing was always really good. At the beginning writing was something I felt I should do rather than something I wanted to do. But after a while I realised that writing was a blessing because I could meet lots of interesting people and have real adventures. Now I love it and there’s nothing else.
What setbacks have you faced throughout your career?
A couple of years ago I tried to write a book about credit cards but I just couldn’t make it work. I spent three months trying to write it and it was the most miserable three months of my life. It got to the point where I was just trying to get through the day until there was something good on TV at the end of the night, it’s no way to live your life. So I took a break from the book and did two other stories: one was going backstage for a week on the set of Deal Or No Dea’ which was really fun and for the other I travelled to a town in Alaska where all the children had to dress up as Christmas elves for the tourists. That’s when I decided that I wasn’t going to go back to the credit card book. Obviously my publisher was really annoyed, two years later when the credit crunch happened and all the banks collapsed, he said the book could’ve been a bestseller. Maybe it could’ve been but I just couldn’t make it work.
What advice would you give to any aspiring young writers reading this magazine?
When I was about seventeen I started writing for my college newspaper and even though anyone could write for it I think it’s really important to get your writing printed, because it’s something concrete that other people can read. My advice is to keep writing and publishing it on the internet so other people can read it. These days it’s much easier to get work published because you can set up blogs and online magazines. Writing is all about practice: the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. I also think reading is really important when you’re first starting out because it shows you how other people write and helps you develop a voice.
Now you’ve finished writing The Psychopath Test do you have any future projects or novels planned?
At the minute I’m in the middle of writing three or four stories for The Guardian and I’m trying to write a book but it’s too early talk about it. I’ve also written a film script with Peter Straughan called Frank which is about being in a band. That’s getting made next year.