Jon Ronson: ‘I still see myself as marginal’

The writer often focuses on people who live in irrational bubbles, such as Frank Sidebottom – but then, it’s a state of mind he has personal experience of

In the 1990s, the writer and television presenter Jon Ronson felt a furious rivalry with fellow bespectacled documentarian of the strange, Louis Theroux.

“It was a terrible feeling,” he says. “I felt like I was struggling to make it and this guy comes along to effortlessly zoom ahead of me doing something very similar. In terms of television, he’s better than me. It ate me up. I once mentioned our rivalry in a magazine interview and he was obviously getting pissed off and sent a message through a friend saying, ‘Tell Jon, thanks for the mention. I’d mention him too, but journalists never ask me about him.’ ”

He and Theroux are now friends; they had dinner together the other day. The reason he still brings up their rivalry, he says, is to show people that he’s as guilty of irrational thought as anyone he writes about. “I’ve got no right to harshly judge people being wrapped up in irrational bubbles when I have been in irrational bubbles too.”

Ronson, who spoke at Banter in Dublin's Twisted Pepper the night before we meet, has encountered many people with irrational thoughts – conspiracy theorists ( Them: Adventures with Extremists ); experimental military men ( The Men Who Stare at Goats ); people at the fringes of psychiatry ( The Psychopath Test ); and individuals such as David McKay, leader of the cult Jesus Christians; disgraced DJ Jonathan King; and alleged psychic Sylvia Browne. This evening, for reasons he can't go into, he may be meeting some loyalists in Belfast. He gives all the benefit of the doubt. In print, on radio and on television, he is funny, empathic and prone to self-doubt. In person he is the same, and also carries a huge overpacked backpack with headphones hanging out of them.


The Frank Sidebottom years
In the late 1980s, Ronson began playing keyboards for an underachieving, cult musician called Frank Sidebottom, a man with a funny voice and large papier-mache head. Frank was the alter ego of Chris Sievey. Ronson's experiences with him are documented very warmly in a short memoir called Frank , and fictionalised in Lenny Abrahamson's soon-to-be-released film of the same name.

“Nothing makes a young man feel more alive than sitting in a transit van at 2am next to a man wearing a big head,” he says. “My expectations were exceedingly low. I see these very awkward 18-year-old boys and girls at my talks, standing there feeling uncomfortable in their own skin and not knowing what they want to be, and they’re going to these places in the hope it will give them some sort of idea about what sort of human being to be. That’s exactly what I was like.”

In those days he was fascinated by Frank. Nowadays he thinks he’d wonder more about Chris, the man under the head. “Why has this chaotic man created this innocent character and why does he keep the head on for such long periods? Chris [who died in 2010] was a sort of weird mix of people. In real life, Chris would be up all night working assiduously on little Frank models and this incredibly detailed Frank world, and he would wear the nose peg under the head to change his voice and it would dig into his nose, causing him real pain, but he wouldn’t want you to know any of that about him. He wanted you to think it was all just a laugh: that disaster and failure were funny.”

Ronson's next notable job was as a presenter on The Ronson Mission . In Frank , he writes about this as going from actually being on the margins to caricaturing people who didn't conform. He recalls the selective editing of one interviewee, and a producer saying: "One interviewee suffers but millions are entertained."

Was that a betrayal of his former life? "It was a betrayal," he says. "But I don't think I saw that at the time. I remember people saying, 'Jon Ronson is a master at giving people enough rope to hang themselves'. And I remember thinking, that makes me sound like a hangman and I'm not. But people said it so often maybe it was true. With the Ronson Mission we were sort of the pioneers. A lot of people came after us. Some did it better than me, like Louis Theroux; others were, I think, kind of sleazy about it. They would do the kind of thing we did, but about the world's fattest woman. There's a strain of factual programming on Channel 4 now that is just impossible to justify – the freak-show stuff. It's terrible to think you're a forerunner of that, because what I want to do is the opposite of that."

Emotional investment
Nowadays he tries to break down the hierarchy between interviewer and interviewees. He thinks that in his best books he becomes emotionally involved. "You know that you've got something when it consumes your life, and you've gone from one way of being to another," he says.

When researching conspiracy theories in Them , he "became very paranoid". And he discovered he had some reasons to be. "I gave a talk once to a Skeptic Society, and one of them said, 'You were figuratively chased by the Bilderberg Group'. He did the quotation marks thing with his hand, and I said, 'I was not figuratively chased, I was f***ing chased.' "

With The P sychopath Test , he says, he "became a sort of power-crazed psychopath spotter. I really felt it and believed it."

He’s currently writing a book about the idea of public shame and public shaming, “and because I’d spent so much time with people who had been publicly shamed, I became terrified that I would be publicly shamed. Not funny terrified, properly terrified.”

He's worried about how the internet affects the strange and eccentric. He recently interviewed the musician Amanda Palmer. "She wasn't happy with the interview. She thought I was being passive-aggressive, but she said something really interesting about being marginal on the internet. She said the problem is that it's not just your own people looking in on you. Now everyone can look in on you. And that can scare people into conformity. When I started on Twitter it was a place where people could be completely unself-conscious and I loved it. As soon as everybody started to become self-conscious it did feel like Adam and Eve putting on their clothes."

Marginal figure
In Frank he writes about how difficult Chris Sievey found it when friends connected to his band – such as Caroline Aherne (her Mrs Merton character first appeared in Frank's show) and Chris Evans (their van driver) – left the margins to go on to great success. But he does not write about what Sievey thought of Ronson's success. Does he still see himself as part of the margins? Can he be part of the margins as a successful writer?

"You're not the first person to say that to me," he says, looking a little uncomfortable. "I saw [comedian] Adam Buxton in New York a few weeks ago, and he said, 'You don't have the right to call yourself marginal any more.' But I still see myself that way. I did this talk at the RSA a couple of days ago and [interviewer Matthew Taylor] said the same thing. He said, 'You don't have the right to call yourself marginal. You're a success and yet you schlub on to the stage in your scruffy clothes.' He compared me to Boris Johnson and referred to that 'self-deprecating thing you obviously deploy'. It was quite an attack. I said: 'I don't pretend to be scruffy and self-deprecating. It's true. It may not be true of Boris Johnson but it is true of me.' "

We talk about his love of independently produced podcasts such as Arseblog and WTF with Marc Maron ("I'm thinking of starting one"); a short film he's directed for Sky called the Dog Thrower , featuring Matthew Perry; and the fact that the Frank film isn't actually a biopic. There's a bit of confusion about this among Frank fans; on hearing Michael Fassbender's American accent in the trailer, they think the producers have Americanised Frank . The Frank in the film is a different character, Ronson says, more influenced by other outsider musicians such as Daniel Johnston.

He's a little preoccupied by whether he can be marginal and successful, so we come back to that a few times. "Ninety per cent of my life is sitting in a room on my own really anxiously trying to make sentences work and feeling that my best years are behind me and . . . beating myself up. It's really not that happy a life. Can I really call myself marginal now? All I can say is I'm quite miserable." He looks at me hopefully. "Does that make it all right?"

Frank is out on May 2. Frank: The True Story that Inspired the Movie is published by Picador