Thursday, September 10th, 2009
“There were quite a few situations ranging from awkward to humiliating. Certainly the month I spent practicing Radical Honesty was particularly difficult. This is the movement that instructs you to say whatever’s on your mind. No filter between your brain and mouth. Like Jim Carrey’s Liar, Liar, but the real-life version. Every day was filled with hundreds of little confrontations.”
Unlike many people who make a living writing about their lives, Esquire Editor-at-Large A.J. Jacobs hasn’t been cast into unusual circumstances by fate. Instead, he creates unusual circumstances and willingly throws himself into them. His latest book, The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment, is a follow-up to the enormously successful The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World and The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. In The Guinea Pig Diaries, Jacobs continues to experiment on himself in a collection of hilarious and thoughtful essays.
I recently chatted with A.J. Jacobs where, among other things, we discussed inordinately extravagant recliners, nude photo shoots, and his relentless enthusiasm.
Chris Teja: Should we go ahead and get started?
A.J. Jacobs: Sure thing! Oh, and sorry for the exclamation points. I’m a fan of them. I think they get a bad rap.
Chris: Not a problem. I’ll take enthusiasm over indifference any day of the week.
Chris: So it was really tough for me to put your book down. It’s just absurdly funny and interesting. Was your plan always to eventually publish a collection of your experiments?
A.J.: Thanks Chris! (there’s the exclamation points again). I wish I could say I had a grand plan. But honestly, I had about four previously published experiments from Esquire. And then I had a bunch of other topics I was really interested in exploring. And it seemed the theme of experimentation ran through them all, so it seemed a good way to link them all together. Plus, it’s my favorite kind of writing—just immersing myself in a topic and seeing what happens.
Chris: So when you did your first experiment (where you test drove a ridiculously plush La-Z-Boy recliner for an Entertainment Weekly piece), did you have any idea that you’d be spending the next 15 years doing this sort of thing?
A.J.: Ha! No, I didn’t see that coming. But I feel very lucky that I’ve gotten to do this for a living. (Though sadly, I didn’t get to keep the La-Z-Boy).
Chris: It just seems wrong to give somebody what sounds like the Cadillac of chairs only to take it away.
A.J.: Exactly. But I guess that’s journalism. I wouldn’t want to be in the pocket of La-Z-Boy.
Chris: Has your writing process changed much since that first experiment?
A.J.: Some of it’s the same—I like to take a topic and really experience the most extreme version of it. Whether that’s sitting in a La-Z-Boy or following George Washington. But over the years, I’ve tried to incorporate a lot more independent research into the writing. I dive into the literature of the topic as well. So when I spent a month trying to be the Ideal Husband, I read tons about the history of marriage. (And learned that being a ‘hen-pecked’ husband actually used to be a crime in centuries past).
Chris: That bit was surprising. I definitely didn’t expect to be that interested in the life of George Washington, but the information you include about him really brings everything weird and interesting about him to light.
A.J.: Glad you liked reading about George Washington. I always thought of him as the blandest Founding Father, but I was completely wrong.
Chris: Some of the experiments in the book placed you in some pretty difficult situations. Was there one that was particularly trying for you?
A.J.: There were quite a few situations ranging from awkward to humiliating. Certainly the month I spent practicing Radical Honesty was particularly difficult. This is the movement that instructs you to say whatever’s on your mind. No filter between your brain and mouth. Like Jim Carrey’s Liar, Liar, but the real-life version. Every day was filled with hundreds of little confrontations.
Chris: I’d never thought of myself as a liar, but when I was reading that chapter I kept thinking, “There is absolutely no way I could ever do this.”
A.J.: It really did make me realize how much of our lives are based on deceit. I’m actually not totally against deceit. I don’t believe in full Radical Honesty. I try to practice Sustainable Radical Honesty…
Chris: That seems like a solid policy. The experiment where you posed nude for Esquire also seemed like it was a little traumatizing. Are nude photographs really ruined for you forever?
A.J.: It was a bit traumatizing, that’s true. First, there was the problem of being naked in public. Then there was the double insult—that all the young, attractive photo assistants at the shoot had no interest in my naked form. It changed my view of nude photos for sure. I now think much more about what the situation must have been like—what did the photographer say, what was served at the buffet, did they liquor them up? (they did me)
Chris: At least you got a few drinks out of it.
A.J.: True. There were some upsides.
Chris: I really enjoyed two of your experiments in particular: The one where you impersonated your young, attractive nanny on a dating website and the one where you disguised yourself as Noah Taylor and crashed the Oscars. What was it like for you to be met with so much praise during an experiment instead as opposed to doing something that just made your life more difficult?
A.J.: It really was strange, because in both of those experiments, people were heaping praise on me like I’d never experienced before. With the dating, I was told how hot I was 50 times a day. And with the Oscars, it was five hours of ass-kissing. I knew deep down that these compliments weren’t technically for me, but when you’re given that much positive feedback, it just feels good, no matter what.
Chris: I can imagine. I really liked that Noah Taylor sent you a thank you note. It’s such an unexpected reaction to finding out that someone impersonated you at a major media event.
A.J.: Yes! I was delighted. If he has any other award ceremonies that he’d like me to attend in his stead, I’m available.
Chris: In the book you talk about how as a writer you like to insert yourself into interesting situations because you had a very typical, no at all weird upbringing. Do you think you would have ended up in this very specific line of work had that not been the case?
A.J.: Good question. It’s hard to know. I will say that despite my relatively uneventful childhood, I did develop a mildly obsessive personality from very early on. And I think you need an obsessive personality to dive into these topics.
Chris: That makes sense. Does a small part of you ever wish that maybe you had a slightly more difficult childhood so that you could have been, let’s say a screenwriter, and avoided all these awkward situations?
A.J.: Ha! I will say there’s something exciting about awkward situations. The founder of Radical Honesty talks about the thrill of saying what you want. And it certainly gets you out of a rut. I do think it’s important to force yourself to try new things, even if those things are awkward at first. And even if it’s something small, like trying a new toothpaste or a weird entree at a restaurant.
Chris: I think your book might give people some ideas for trying new things. I know I was sort of half-experimenting with Radical Honesty for a few days after I read that chapter.
A.J.: Excellent! I hope it didn’t cause any friendships to end.
Chris: Luckily, I managed to return to my old lying ways just in time. There’s a lot of attention on you right now from all this experimenting. I read that a movie version of The Year of Living Biblically is currently in production. How do you feel about seeing a fictional version of yourself on the big screen?
A.J.: I think it’ll be wild. Though who knows if it’ll happen. That’s up to Paramount Pictures and God (not necessarily in that order). If it does, I’m hoping they’ll put a tiny Moses on top of the mountain in the Paramount logo at the start of the movie.
Chris: And I know you’ve also become a regular fixture on NPR. How are you enjoying doing radio?
A.J.: I love it, and love working with “Weekend Edition Saturday.” Though last time I was on, I spilled my iced coffee all over the desk, and they didn’t edit it out, so everyone got to hear that I was a klutz.
Chris: And finally, it’s been a while since your first six-word memoir. Would you mind giving us an updated version?
A.J.: Torture self. Write book about it.
Chris: Well that sums it up pretty perfectly. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.
A.J.: Thanks to you, Chris. It was fun, and I’m being radically honest.
READ an excerpt from The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment
BUY a copy of the book
VISIT A.J. Jacobs’s website