Interview: Jon Ronson

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Filmmaker, author and humorist Jon Ronson just released a fascinating new ebook about ordinary individuals who are trying to live extraordinary secret double lives: they are donning extreme costumes and taking to the streets to fight crime as real-life superheroes. The book, The Amazing Adventures of Phoenix Jones: And the Less Amazing Adventures of Some Other Real-Life Superheroes is available for download from Amazon and other ebook retailers. It is a quick-paced and engaging read that I know you folks will enjoy.

Jon was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about the book and the superheroes he encountered during its creation.

Rebecca O’Malley (RO): How did you first become aware of the real-life superhero movement?

Jon Ronson (JR): It was Twitter. There was a flurry of tweets about Phoenix Jones. Someone from Seattle tweeted about how proud they were of their city that it could create something as fabulously insane as Phoenix.

So I watched a short CNN segment about him, and kind of knew that I was destined to go on patrol with him. He just felt like someone waiting to be written about by me. He was a mix of genuinely inspiring, mysterious, awesome, but also kind of absurd. I really liked that combination.

RO: How difficult is it to track down and gain the trust of someone who is trying to keep his identity a secret?

JR: It was tough. I had to go through an emissary, Peter Tangen, whose own origin story is amazing. Peter is a Hollywood studio photographer. He shot the movie poster for Spiderman. When he learnt that there were people doing in real life what Tobey Maguire was only pretending to do on a film set, it unlocked something profound in him. He became compelled to become their official photographer and media advisor. So whenever I wanted to talk to Phoenix, I had to approach Peter Tangen.

RO: You’ve written about psychology before, so I’m sure some of your expertise in that area must have influenced how you viewed the real-life superheroes. What do you think motivates these individuals to create these identities and seek out danger? Boredom? Altruism? Swagger? Or just a need for excitement and attention?

JR: All four of those things!

RO: Do you have a personal opinion as to whether it is appropriate for these individuals to attempt to intervene in situations that are normally kept solely in the realm of the police?

JR: Well, I'm a liberal, so I'm instinctively against the idea of what's basically a form of libertarian vigilanteism. But you can't help falling for Phoenix when you hang out with him. He's so goofily charming and inspiring and charismatic, your sagacity goes out of the window a little. You kind of fall in love with him.

RO: Do you believe that they are actually making the streets safer?

JR: I think they perform acts of derring-do that improve people's lives, yes. But I also think they're so addicted to doing good, they'll sometimes leap into a situation that they oughtn't. One time Phoenix tried to give a taco to a drunk driver to sober him up. The drunk driver refused it. Phoenix insisted. The drunk driver got violent. Phoenix pulled out his taser... So sometimes things will inadvertently escalate.

RO: There were a few times in the story when the would-be superheroes seem very disappointed that their evening patrol did not result in the discovery of any ongoing crime. What did you make of that? Does it expose something about their desire for either excitement or notoriety?

JR: Yes. It's a bit of a worrying character trait. One time they started hassling some wizened old addicts at a bus stop at 3am in Seattle. I was thinking, "Leave them alone. They'll be gone by the time the daytime people arrive."

In the middle of my adventures with Phoenix I had dinner one night in New York with Ira Glass. I was telling him all this stuff, how I thought they should leave the crack addicts alone, but I was probably mainly thinking that because I'm scared of confrontation, and Ira said, "Your position obviates the need for superheroes."

I don’t want to obviate the need for superheroes! But I do think they should be careful out there.