So it’s quite hard to put a label on who Jon Ronson is… how would you describe yourself?
Well I suppose the first word that comes into my mind is a bit contentious. But I guess, because I write movie scripts, make podcasts and write books, what connects all of those things is that I tell stories, so I suppose I’m a storyteller. When you think about storytelling you think of some old hippy banging a drum and I’m not that. I tend to tell stories about life on the fringes of society, that are humanistic and empathetic. Often my stories are about psychology; taking people who others despise for one reason or another, and portraying them as humans, just like you or me. And that’s me – I’m not about excusing people’s bad behaviour but what I am about is trying to understand why people behave the way that they do. I attempt to figure out why humans behave in baffling ways sometimes.
Do you think we should encourage curiosity, or does curiosity always kill the cat?
Without sounding like an old idiot, I do think curiosity has kind of fallen out of vogue a little bit because what people prefer is an ideology and a judgement. It’s kind of always been that way, but it feels even more so now. Well, I’m a dog person personally. I think we’re living in a very incurious age where judging people is more popular than being curious about people and, increasingly so as I get older, I want to do my bit to buck that trend.
How do you manage to remain impartial or non-judgemental when working on really emotive subjects?
To be completely honest (and a little self-critical), I think somebody has to do something really bad for me to lose my curiosity about them. It has happened a few times – I was doing a story about somebody and it turned out that they’d done some terrible things, so we eventually become real enemies during the making of the documentary. But I always hate it when things like that happen, because I think, "What have I contributed here?” I’m just saying, “Look at this terrible person, isn’t he terrible.”
Do you think some people are simply incomprehensible?
Yeah, I wrote a book about psychopaths who are just malevolent and have no empathy – there’s no human connection there at all. But thankfully most people aren’t like that! Most people are a complicated mixture of positive and negative.
We’re so excited to see the Last Days of August tour coming to the Tyne Theatre on 21st May. How are you going to transform your podcast about the porn industry into a live show?
It’s going to be an hour and a half show about the last three years of my life – it’s all brand new material. There’s going to be lots of twists and turns and video and audio clips that no-one has ever heard before. The show's basically a summation of where I am now and what I’ve learnt – not only about the porn industry, but also about our fellow humans. It’ll be a plea for empathy and understanding, and I’m also going to talk a bit about how making The Last Days of August made me have a mental collapse, which I spoke a bit about on the Russell Brand podcast earlier this year. There’ll also be lots of video clips of weird bespoke porn, but it’ll all be PG-rated so nobody needs to worry. The show will start off really funny and sweet, and then grow increasingly dark and sad… I think I need to find a way to bring it back round at the end! There’s going to be lots of twists and turns. I was chatting with the team behind the My Dad Wrote a Porno podcast the other day, and they told me that they play this weird game with the audience when they do live shows on stage, and I’ve got an idea for a game I might do with my audience too.
Have you spent much time in the North East before?
Over the last couple of years I’ve been in the region twice – I did a live show at Sage Gateshead, and then at the Tyne Theatre, where I’ll be in May. They were both shows about my book The Psychopath Test, and I invited special guests onto the stage – I’m always trying to think of new ways to do live events. For people who came and saw those shows, this The Last Days of August tour is going to be an entirely different show. I’ve been through a lot of weird stuff over the last three years whilst making The Butterfly Effect and The Last Days of August, and I think it could be a really good opportunity to talk about the effect it’s had on me.
Having written So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed about online shaming, particularly on social media, do you ever worry that people might take something you say the wrong way?
Oh god, I worry about that all the time. I’ve sort of metaphorically touched the stove writing So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which made me acutely aware how terrible the world of social media can be. Earlier this year I did two interviews, one with Russell Brand and one with Rebecca Aitkenhead from The Times, and I was really stressing about whether I’d said anything that could be taken out of context.
What do you think of campaigns like #MeToo, and #BlackLivesMatter?
I think the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo campaigns have tangibly affected positive change. You only have to look at something like the Oscars to see the difference. Compare this year’s show with the shows three or four years ago when almost everybody nominated for an Oscar were white. This year it was much more diverse and that was very much to do with a Twitter campaign #OscarsWhite, which kind of went hand-in-hand with #BlackLivesMatter, so I definitely think theses campaigns have done inordinate good and it feels like a really exciting time for change. I’m just so pleased that society looks to be finally moving in the right direction. But social media can also be really cruel. I feel very uncomfortable when I see a person plucked from the crowd and attacked. I used to get criticised for saying that there’s no difference between that kind of online abuse and somebody being put in the stocks, but there really is no difference, it’s the same gleeful cruelty. I think what’s really important is that people figure out the difference between a real campaign effecting real change and just bullying somebody as a kind of cathartic alternative to social justice.
Jon Ronson will be bringing his live tour, Jon Ronson: Tales From The Last Days of August & The Butterfly Effect, to the Tyne Theatre & Opera House in Newcastle on 21st May 2019. To find out more or book tickets, visit www.tynetheatreandoperahouse.uk