Books·My Life in Books

The books and writers that inspired You Were Never Really Here author Jonathan Ames

The Bored to Death creator's latest thriller You Were Never Really Here is now a feature film starring Joaquin Phoenix.
Jonathan Ames at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. (Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP/Vintage)

Jonathan Ames' latest thriller You Were Never Really Here follows a depressed veteran named Joe, who copes with the traumatic events of his past by rescuing young girls trapped in the sex trade. This harrowing, gritty and often tragic story is now a film by Lynne Ramsay, starring Joaquin Phoenix.

Ames is also the author of books like I Pass Like the Night and What's Not to Love? and created the television shows Bored to Death and Blunt Talk. Below, he shares some of the books and writers that have shaped his life.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, trans. by Samuel Putnam

Miguel de Cervantes' classic novel Don Quixote follows the nobleman's bumbling attempts at chivalry and glory. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images/Penguin Random House)

"I spent about a year reading Don Quixote. This would be 20 years ago now. I just remember loving it and being so enraptured by it for nearly a year. It was rather long and the version I read — the translation by Samuel Putnam — had lots of interesting footnotes and was just incredibly funny. That was influential for me for quite some time, [particularly] for my novels The Extra Man and Wake Up, Sir! and then, later, my television shows. The idea of a deluded questing knight who has a companion was very formative for me."

J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien was an English writer and university professor best known for his contributions to modern fantasy literature. (Penguin Random House)

"I was an avid reader from an early age. My enjoyment for reading went to the next level in the seventh grade, when a teacher took an interest in me. He first had me read the Tarzan books, which I loved, and then he had me read The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.

"It was the sense of adventure, nobility and purpose of Tolkien's writing [that I loved]. Also, I recall the way things were described — the food, how delicious things were. It made me appreciate my food. It made me appreciate weather. It made the world a more romantic place."

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of Dunces was published 11 years after its author John Kennedy Toole's death and won the Pulitzer Prize. (Grove Press)

"I was reading it in Paris, France, in 1990. An English book person — someone who worked at Granta — thrust the book into my hands and said, 'You should read this.' I started reading it at a café and then I stayed up all night reading it. Usually it's a thriller or a page turner that will keep me reading, but in this case, it was comedy."

Pema Chödrön 

Pema Chödrön teaches meditation and Tibetan Buddhism at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. (Shambhala)

"I currently read the books of Pema Chödrön all the time. She's a Buddhist nun and I get so much from her books — to learn from my pain, to not be scared of my pain, to want to have an open heart for others, to try to be of service to others."

Carson McCullers & Flannery O'Connor

Carson McCullers (1917-1967) and Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) are considered icons of American literature. (Library of America/Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

"The portraits of the people they drew were so vivid. You felt like you were living in those stories. Both of them are just beautiful writers, with incredible sentences."


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