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the butterfly effect

'I'm especially excited about being able to play people bespoke porn': Jon Ronson gets ready to visit Ireland

The writer and podcaster will be talking about his latest podcast series, The Last Days of August.

WHEN AUTHOR AND podcaster Jon Ronson visits Ireland this May for two live shows, he’ll be bringing something a bit unusual with him: a very large library of bespoke porn clips. 

No, the affable writer hasn’t gone rogue. As fans will know, he has been detailing the inner world of porn on his two recent podcasts, Butterfly Effect and The Last Days of August. While the former aimed to show how one small action (the creation of Pornhub, the free porn streaming site) went on to affect people’s lives in quite radical ways, the latter went darker and deeper into the adult film industry.

It examined the death by suicide of the porn performer August Ames, who died after getting heavily criticised on Twitter. Ronson is somewhat of an expert on online shaming – he literally wrote the book on it (So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed).

For the book he talked to people like Justine Sacco, who sent a tongue-in-cheek bad taste tweet before a trip to Africa, which she intended would poke fun at ignorant white Americans. Instead, it looked as though she was belittling people in African countries. By the time she exited the plane, she had lost her job and reputation, and all of the furore had played out on Twitter while she was none the wiser. 

‘I think I may be genuinely naive’

Ronson, a New York-based Welshman who has a long career as a journalist, writer and latterly a screenwriter (he co-wrote the film Okja), is an excellent storyteller. His approach is a tonic in a time of black and white binaries. He’s as far from a shock jock or deliberately feather-ruffling writer and broadcaster as you can get.

Before you listen to a Ronson podcast or read one of his books, you can be convinced of the right and wrongs of a situation. But in comes Ronson to gently place something before you that makes you realise things are actually quite gray indeed. 

He’s often compared to fellow Brit Louis Theroux, who like Ronson has interviewed a heap of unusual people. For Ronson’s book, Them: Adventures in Extremists (2001) he hung out with people like Thomas Robb, a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Ian Paisley and Omar Bakri Muhammad, who was described as Osama bin Laden’s man in Britain. 

Like Theroux, Ronson specialises in unveiling the absurdity of those he interviews. They reveal all of themselves to him, and in this revealing we see the bizarre. When I tell Ronson that his work always helps me see the grey in a situation, he thanks me. “I take it as a big compliment,” he says sincerely.

“Maybe it’s just what naturally comes out. Maybe where it comes from – and I’m not saying this as a compliment to myself actually – people used to call me in the old days “faux naive”. They’d call me and Louis Theroux that.

“I always used to think I may be genuinely naive. I think that’s genuinely it.”

Why does he think he’s naive? “When I walk into a room with somebody, if anything about them is sending me warning signs my natural inclination is to just like them,” he says. As an introvert, Ronson isn’t a fan of dinner parties. But left one-on-one to interview someone, he’s in a happier place. Even if that person is the kind of individual who harbours disturbing viewpoints.

“My natural inclination is to like people and then when they do something bad to me, which happens relevantly frequently because they are psychopaths and Nazis, I am unpleasantly surprised,” he laughs. The laugh isn’t because what he’s saying is a joke, as this anecdote proves:

[Once, a] religious cult member from Australia was treating me really badly and I said to my next door neighbour, ‘I can’t believe this religious cult leader is being so mean to me’. And my neighbour said, why are you are always surprised?

‘We don’t live in a world of heroes and villains’

In making The Last Days of August, Ronson was very conscious about how he depicted Ames’s husband. “It was incredibly important to me I didn’t demonise him,” he says. “It was on my mind the whole time.”

“I feel it’s really important we know that most people are living in the grey area between good and bad,” he says. “Also I’m really worried about demonsing people – I never want to demonise people unless they really deserve it.”

When Ronson would start analysing something Kevin said, he would always remember: “Kevin is a human.”

“It’s just so important to remember that,” he says.

And I just know that by and large, other than Nazis and psychopaths, we don’t really live in a world of magnificent heroes and sickening villains.

Speaking of heroes and villains, nowhere do we see this binary played out more than on Twitter. Ronson uses Twitter regularly, and admits it can be easy to slip into outrage-via-280-characters mode.

“I think it’s really good to wait a couple of days,” he says of tweeting when angry about something. “This is definitely one practical thing [I learned] since I wrote a book about public shaming: it’s really good not to weigh into something until after two days. By then some proper research has been done. The initial impression you have of somebody is made more nuanced when you find out something about the situation.”

On the night of the Justine Sacco incident, a person tweeted: “Somebody HIV+ should rape this bitch.”

“Nobody went after that person,” notes Ronson.

‘Brexit is bewildering’

Ronson lives in New York, so he’s been watching Brexit tear apart his home country from abroad. What does he make of it all? “It’s bewildering,” he says. “Because I’m not living it every day and I’m dropping into it once a week or something, it’s just bewildering.”

I just can’t believe there will be a no deal. I can’t believe it would be so shit as to have that outcome. For all of the horror I am still feeling optimistic.

“The chaos is just shocking. If I was still living in London I would be so worried and upset,” he adds. “They are playing for our lives. Even though I’m living in New York at the moment the result of Brexit is going to really impact my life.”

Where there’s no Brexit, there’s Trump. You’d think Ronson would want to write realms about the Donald, but he didn’t want to just wade in. “I thought, I am only going to tell stories if I can bring something new to this,” he says.

That means that, aside from a book about Trump that he wrote pre-election, the only other piece of POTUS-related work he’s done has been a stunning look at Alex Jones’s teenage years, which he recorded for This American Life. 

New York is a democratic heaven, “pretty much the same as it ever was”, says Ronson. “I just said to somebody else today that not long ago I was in a public toilet in Central Park and a little boy next to me, six or seven years old, was wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat. I really wanted to say to this kid, ‘we don’t wear these hats in New York’. [I realised] I can’t just sidle up to this boy in a public toilet in New York.”

The modest porn world

When recording The Butterfly Effect, Ronson reminded himself what his prejudices were about the porn industry. He found it “more humble than I thought it was going to be”, after meeting legendary porn directors who lived in modest apartments rather than mansions. 

He has “very happy, sweet-natured memories of hanging around on porn sets”. A lot of that he puts down to embedding himself and team with Mike Quasar, a director who “would never allow exploitation”.

“My first surprise was how modest the porn world was in comparison to what I imagined. Also just how sweet it was,” he says.

When we did The Last Days of August that changed a little bit. We saw a much darker side.

For his Irish shows, Ronson will try to tread the line between content for those who know the work and those who don’t.

“I am still writing it and most of April I’ll be spending it writing the show. I’ve shelved everything else,” he says. “There’s lots of digressions away from things people will know. Also there’s things I cut out of the show that will work very well on stage. I’m especially excited about being able to play people bespoke porn.”

There’s the joy in Ronson’s work – rather than sensationalising or moralising the adult film world, he brings a new, fresh viewpoint to it. It’s not one that is necessarily to everyone’s taste – though if you’re into bespoke porn then his show will be a hit – but it brings a new way of looking at a much-discussed subject.

Without someone like Ronson to examine the parts of society that are easy to judge and make assumptions about, we would be missing a crucial sense of humanity about a situation. He brings us even closer to the truth about those who skirt the edges of society – and shows us exactly what we need to be worried about.

Jon Ronson will present Tales from The Last Days of August and The Butterfly Effect at Vicar St on 29 May and Cork Opera House on 30 May. Tickets are €31.

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