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Interview: Jon Ronson on Robbie, Kubrick and Jonathan King

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A new book by Jon Ronson is always cause for cheer. The documentary filmmaker and author of The Psychopath Test and The Men Who Stare at Goats has a new collection of journalism - Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries. Typically funny, dark and revealing, his adventures involve making friends with robots, investigating a Disney cruise ship disappearance, and travelling to North Pole - the Alaskan town where every day is Christmas. Ronson now lives in New York City, but I spoke to him during a visit to London.

You spent time behind the scenes at Deal or No Deal. What was the fascination with the programme?

The interesting thing to me was how cult-like behaviour exists in the everyday world. Isolation, separation from reality - all the things that cult leaders do to keep people in their thrall, Endemol does to make good television (laughs). Contestants are kept together in the hotel, and little things become big things.

I remember Neil Thomas Culshaw and his really complicated system...removing numbers with the numerical value of the letters of his name and so on. I was very conscious these were people who worked in banks and betting shops, yet they were reaching for the kind of things you normally find on the fringes. At the top of the pyramid of power is Noel Edmonds with his cosmic ordering stuff...He's very negative about negativity (laughs). But to this day, I love the programme. If it comes on, I get sucked in.

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You also went UFO-hunting with a bearded Robbie Williams in Nevada during his hiatus from music. Were you conscious you might have caught him at a vulnerable time?

You're not the first person to have said that. I don't see it that way. He'd just come off this huge tour, stadiums. He was completely exhausted, completely fucked. I sort of see the interest in the paranormal and the adventures I had with him not as him being in a vulnerable state, but actually him finding some way to regain strength. It was therapeutic for him, I think. He had been the amazing thing that everybody aspires to be, and he found it wanting. So he was looking for something more amazing. What's more amazing than being Robbie Williams? Being a space alien. He was getting out of himself. He was taking a holiday from himself.

Have you kept in touch with Robbie?

Not since he got married to Ayda. We drifted apart, as it was always destined to be (laughs). I have nothing but good memories of our time together. He was an extremely nice, considerate person. I'm very fond of him.

How much do you begin each project puzzled by a subject? Do you need to find rational explanations about why people believe strange things?

I'm always mystified at first. It's the mystery element that leads me into a story. I don't think I'm judgmental at all, because I think we're all damaged people trying to get through life. It's why I called it Lost at Sea, because I think we're all kind of lost at sea, and I include myself in that. People need irrationality to see them through this kind of...troubling life we all have to live.

Is it fair to say Jon Ronson, the naive enquirer, is usually an important character in your TV and radio documentaries?

I used to be really uncomfortable with it. I was always trying to take myself out and the commissioning editor would say "put yourself back in there". I've suppose I've always been slightly awkward, but actually, now, I do feel a bit more comfortable in my own skin and I'm quite happy to put myself in there. You shouldn't force yourself in if it's not appropriate. People don't like it if there's no good reason for it.

How much of the awkwardness is part of a persona?

Well, I was a bit cheekier when I was younger. Would I sort of pretend to be sort of more naive than I was?...(thinks) I mean, not massively. I really am pretty naive. And enquiring. The opposite approach is the John Sweeney type of journalist who is all-powerful and absolutely has a sense of right and wrong, aggressive and forthright. For me that's bullshit. For me, a certain naivety, a willingness to change your mind is better. I do love the way you can go through changes, and you can go through more than one in particular story.

You seemed to get swayed by the people you're writing about as you get to know them. Are you susceptible to other people's ideas and emotions?

Absolutely. It happens all the time. Someone has to be very, very wrong for me to be sure they are wrong (laughs). I'm quite guileless when it comes to trying to understand someone's belief systems, but later I get my clarity and critical thinking back. I got some emails from Jonathan King yesterday (back in 2001 Ronson wrote about King, imprisoned for sexual assault on teenage boys). He's still saying all his victims haven't got a leg to stand on and are either fantasists or pleading for sympathy. For a split second, a part of me thought, 'Well, is he right?' And then of course I thought, 'No, of course he's not right'. So as long as you don't fall down the rabbit hole and can't get back out, you're OK.

You spent an awful lot of time looking through boxes at Stanley Kubrick's estate, discovering endless photos of London doorways. Did you become freaked out by his obsessiveness?

In the end I accepted that was his working method. His films exist because of the way that he worked. The director I'm working with now on a film I wrote called Frank - Lenny Abrahamson, is very, very exacting. He wants everything to be perfect. I think it's admirable.

Tell me about Frank - it's based on Frank Sidebottom, the strange comedy character?

It's inspired, in part, by my time in Frank Sidebottom's band when I was younger, but it's an entirely fictional story. I'd lost touch with him (Chris Sievey, the man behind the Sidebottom persona), but a couple of years before he died, he got back in touch, and that's what inspired me to start writing it. The two stars, so far, are Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleason. Domhnall plays an awkward young man uncomfortable in his own skin beautifully well.

So he plays you?

Well, yeah. Sort of (laughs). But, I hasten to add, it really is an entirely made up story.

Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries, is out now on Picador, £14.99