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Author Jon Ronson goes searching for answers on ‘The Last Days of August’: “I’m not afraid of making stuff complicated”

Author Jon Ronson has spent the last two decades peeking behind the door of society’s stranger quarters, embarking on what he still-enthusiastically describes as “adventures” and trying to understand exactly why some of the world’s more baffling specimens do what they do. From following extremists in debut novel ‘Them’ to digging deep into the psychology of psychopathy in ‘The Psychopath Test’ to a more recent investigation into the culture of unjust social media shaming and its real-life fallouts, his profiles are intrinsic page-turners full of warmth, compassion and humour that try to genuinely understand and humanise those often on morality’s margins.

2017 podcast ‘The Butterfly Effect’ looked into the modern porn industry and the personal stories of those within it. One of them was porn star August Ames, who later went on to commit suicide under questionable circumstances, and it’s these questions that Ronson attempts to answer in current podcast ‘The Last Days of August’.

He’ll be taking it on tour around the UK in May, so before then, we spoke to Jon in his New York apartment to discuss August, #metoo and why Heat Magazine’s new true crime venture is probably not the best idea…

When you’re exploring such often unusual subjects, how do you know if a story has legs?

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Often if I’m doing two stories or two adventures and they both are intrinsically good and they connect, then that’s when I know there’s a book. ‘Them’ is the perfect way of describing it. There was one story I did with Omar Bakri who was an Islamic militant who wouldn’t rest until he saw the flag of Islam flying over Downing Street, and then he outed me as a Jew at his Jihad training camp in Crawley. Then later that year, I did a story about a politically-correct faction of the Ku Klux Klan who were doing an image makeover and trying to make the Klan more palatable by banning cross burnings and instead making the Klansmen fill out multiple choice questionnaires about their strengths and weaknesses. I always remember one of them was ‘mixes easily’, which of course anywhere else would be a strength, but with the Klan, it’s a weakness… So both of them worked well and they both connected because both groups were conspiracy theorists, and then that connection led me to other adventures.

Your other projects have never really been searching for a definitive conclusion – was there more pressure to find that when there’s a death involved?

Yes, there was definitely a period where we had a million questions and no answers and I was starting to really stress out. But what we had [in the end], I think, was a really stark psychological profile of a kind of #metoo bystander. In all of the #metoo writing, there hasn’t been much about the psychology of the men, and I thought that’s a contribution I could make.

And in the end, rather than a murder investigation, it became a story about mental health…

It’s about mental health and messed up people not listening to each other, people trapped in their own little bubbles, shouting at each other. There’s a bit of Trump and Brexit in that story; it’s a story about people retreating to their corners and just gossiping and making up rumours. I suppose the moral of it is that people should try and listen to each other more, and mental health is obviously a very big part of it.

There have been a lot of musicians exposed and essentially ‘cancelled’ in the last year – why do you think some, like Ryan Adams, felt the effect immediately, where others like R Kelly have been able to carry on until very recently, despite terrible allegations?

I know what some people would say about R Kelly, they’d say it’s because the victims were black and people are generally less interested in defending them because they’re black. And I think there’s probably some truth to that. It’s amazing, watching the Michael Jackson documentary, just how recently our views were entirely different. People thought either the kids were making it up, or if they weren’t then it was still kind of a fun story – and that’s only how many years ago? 20, 25 years ago? That’s nothing. You have to put it down to both #metoo and Black Lives Matter genuinely changing the world and changing people’s minds. There’s been a genuine move towards listening to the victims, so I think it’s proof we’re living through a time of real and vast social change.

From ‘Making A Murderer’ to, now, a Hollywood film about Ted Bundy starring Zac Efron, there’s been a huge rise in media about killers and true crime. Is it good or just glamorising terrible people?

I used to have an ambition to do true crime stuff, but making ‘The Last Days of August’ totally stopped me feeling that because then you’re really confronted with the ethical reality of the situation – you’re turning somebody’s tragedy into entertainment for people, which is why it was so important for me not to do that. Heat Magazine is about to bring out a true crime magazine and, as much as I don’t want to attack my colleagues, I don’t have a good feeling about it… A picture of Milly Dowler on the cover…

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It’s positive to look into the psychology of people like Ted Bundy; it’s positive to try and work out what’s in someone’s head when they do something like that. But I know from making ‘…August’ how easy it would be for people to exploit the situation. They’re putting money before people’s feelings, they’re putting cliffhangers before people’s feelings, and I understand because cliffhangers are GREAT but it’s wrong and they know it’s wrong. In Making A Murderer, there was a bunch of stuff they left out to make their story neater and that’s surely a manipulative tactic? I watched and loved that programme, and after I finished it I read a bunch of stuff they left out of the show which made Steven Avery seem much guiltier than the show made it seem and I felt really let down. People get upset when journalists lie but there’s another form of lie which doesn’t seem to upset people so much, which is omitting certain things. The one thing I can promise is that I’m not afraid of making stuff complicated

Jon Ronson’s Tales from The Last Days of August and The Butterfly Effect tour commences at the Corn Exchange, Cambridge on the 6th May, and culminates at the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms on the 27thMay.
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