In 1985, twenty-one-year-old Bret Easton Ellis published Less than Zero. Written while he was still at college, the searing debut earned rapturous praise, including head-turning comparisons to Salinger, Fitzgerald, and Fellini.
Six years, two books, and countless tabloid appearances later, Ellis served up American Psycho. The shocking story of fictional serial killer Patrick Bateman firmly divided literary camps in two: Simon and Schuster refused to publish the novel, forfeiting a six-figure advance; Fay Weldon, meanwhile, writing in the Washington Post, called it "a beautifully controlled, careful, important novel...a seminal book."
Now Ellis's first novel in seven years takes aim at no less a target than the author's own public persona. Lunar Park grafts the black humor of his nineties work onto an intoxicating, pseudo-autobiographical plot that will send readers scurrying hungrily from its pages in search of source material to divine fact from fiction.
Lunar Park is "remarkable in scope and plot," Georgie Lewis applauds, "an almost masochistic metafiction in which the author plays himself as a suburban dad paying gruesome penance for being Bret Easton Ellis. Always controversial, as much loved as despised, Ellis has matured here and the result is gothic and sublime."
Dave: I think your press kit was the first I've received that included negative reviews. There were plenty of good reviews and admiring profiles, too, but the mix played well in relation to the content of Lunar Park, which is to say that readers and critics have very strong reactions to your work.
Bret Easton Ellis: I haven't seen the press kit, but it's cool that they put some negative reviews in there to give people an idea of just how divisive I am for audiences. I really couldn't tell you why that is. It's nice when the reviews are good, but when they're negative it doesn't negate the fun that I had writing the book, or the reasons that I had for writing it. I'm not often bothered by negative reviews.
I guess I've had to come up with theories as to why people react so strongly. I see so many books that are much more poorly written than mine, and no one seems to get too upset about them. It has to do with the material, I think. And some of it might have to do with a resentment about my career, though it really shouldn't; I don't sell as many books as a lot of my contemporaries.
Dave: You're certainly not afraid to push buttons.
Ellis: Involuntarily, I guess.
Dave: But in terms of the subjects you write about.
Ellis: But that suggests a calculation on getting a response, and that's not generally why I'm writing a book. If I wanted to do that I would go into even more hardcore areas. I don't think I'm anywhere near the stuff Chuck Palahniuk writes, for instance. He writes some of the most upsetting things I've ever come across, and yet he's not nearly as reviled.
Maybe it has something to do with the persona of Bret Easton Ellis that was put out there; that was bothersome to some people. Maybe it was having success so early that annoyed and bothered people, and made critics and other writers much more sensitive about my work.
Dave: Did putting yourself at the center of Lunar Park ratchet up the stakes for you?
Ellis: It completely did, but it wasn't part of the game plan until really late in the day.
I was going to write about a man who moves into a house that he realizes is haunted. It was going to be a haunted house book. I wanted to write something fun. I'd been with Patrick Bateman for three years. Not that American Psycho wasn't fun to write, but it went into a lot of dark places, and I was really angry when I wrote that book. That's probably why it works.
At the time, I didn't think I was old enough to write Lunar Park—I knew that the narrator was married with kids, and they were all living in this house together—but I wanted to write a book that took me back to the enjoyment I got as a kid reading genre fiction, Stephen King and Robert Ludlum, so I thought, Wait a little while. I know Victor Ward better. I know that scene better. And I was really at the height of my disgust with celebrity culture, or so I thought at the time. International espionage fiction, I went with that one first; and Glamorama took a long time to write.
I wanted to write this book, but the narrator wasn't me in '89 or '95 or '98 or '99. There were a lot of autobiographical elements—he had written a book like American Psycho; a character from that book had escaped, quote-unquote, and was wreaking havoc —but it was another guy.
In the summer of 2000, I was stuck, and I didn't understand why. I had about a thousand pages of outlines when I decided, Okay, it's Bret Easton Ellis. Don't call him a fictional writer. Name the titles of your books.
In some ways, it's too bad because in the opening pages I had done some funny parodies of my own work. Those aren't now in the book. I had a lot of fun making fun of myself through a fictional character, but it felt dishonest, like I was hiding behind something. The minute I decided to go full-out and make myself the narrator, I got inspired.
I also thought it was going to help ground some of the more outlandish or supernatural aspects of the book, make them vaguely more realistic and give them more of a documentary feel. That would be a big technical plus.
Dave: Much of American Psycho put me in the mind of Money by Martin Amis. Both novels are propelled by what feels more like a flow than a plot; the hooks aren't as clear as they might be in another novel. Also, in both cases we're dealing with a narrator we probably can't trust, and someone the reader will have a hard time liking.
You take that on in pretty much all your work: your narrators are rarely likable.
Ellis: That's true, but I'm not really thinking about the likeability of a character. I'm thinking, Is he interesting to me? Does he sum up all my feelings about the themes of the book and what I'm trying to do?
The impetus to write the first four books came from a satirical place; the characters, from Clay [in Less than Zero] on to Victor Ward [in Glamorama], the kids in The Rules of Attraction and even Patrick Bateman, were summations of everything I didn't like about whatever I was satirizing at the time, whether it was youth culture, the college experience, the eighties, the nineties...
Those books came from a place of anger and frustration. I was disgusted with society and I was going to share my disgust. That was not the case with Lunar Park. It's not a satirical novel. There's some light satire in there about living in the suburbs and about modern parenting, but basically it was going to be a ghost story. And it was about dealing with my father's death.
That doesn't absolve the narrator of Lunar Park from being a mess. He's someone it takes a long time to warm up to, if readers warm up to him at all. Who wrote this in a review?—someone called the Bret Easton Ellis character in Lunar Park "an endearing dufus."
But there's a part of everyone I've written about that I like, even Patrick Bateman—and more when I reread the book in '03. I thought his anger was justified; I thought his misery was justified; I thought the implied criticism of the society he was around was valid; and I was amazed on my second reading of the book since its publication to find him at times a sympathetic guy that I could connect with. But I've always thought that as long as narrators are interesting, likeability is not an issue.
Dave: When Glamorama was published, Rolling Stone said, "The real bleakness in [your] books doesn't so much derive from the terrible things that sometimes happen as from the way nothing seems to matter more than anything else."
That's incisive, and it speaks to the fact that some readers don't make a distinction between the characters or events and the authorial perspective. Parts of American Psycho are hilarious. The other day I was giving a play-by-play of the scene in the Chinese laundry.
Ellis: But a lot of people don't read books that way, I found out, and there's really nothing you can do about it. You can't stand over every reader, saying, "See this part here? That's supposed to be funny. You're not supposed to be so grossed out or so offended by it..."
I always thought the tonal qualities were humorous in nature, even though horrible things happen. And ultimately the horror does overwhelm in every instance, but I do think most of the books start out funny.
Dave: How can you not laugh at Victor? He's so over the top.
Ellis: Completely. It is so over the top. But, actually, if you've hung out with people like that...
Victor is probably the least like me of any of my characters, but I fell for him also. I sympathized with him, even though he could be a raging moron and an asshole. Ultimately, I thought he became a sympathetic character. Everyone else moved on or died. I thought he learned something about himself at the end of that book.
Dave: Are there other books about cocaine culture that you would recommend?
Ellis: Those really aren't the books that I like to read. Drug books usually don't interest me because they tend to get lost in their own drugginess. Everyone always referred to Less than Zero as a drug book; I didn't ever see it that way. The characters did a lot of drugs, but personally I've never been interested in exploring drugs and what drugs mean.
Dave: Which distinguishes your novels and the culture you inhabited from some that came before, the counterculture of the sixties, for instance. Drugs for you weren't about expanding consciousness. They were about having fun.
Ellis: It was purely social. I wasn't making a statement. I wasn't learning anything, which was fine with me. I made a lot of friends and had a lot of good times, but there's a moment when the party stops. It's different for everybody, but eventually it's not so fun anymore. There have been a couple casualties along the way. You get older, and it takes longer to recover. It's not a big loss.
Dave: A lot of authors say that they write what they like to read.
Ellis: I definitely write the book that I want to read, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I like writers who write like me or write about the same subject or have the same stylistic approach. I like all kinds of books. I can name dozens of writers and dozens of books that I've read recently and loved, but none of them have anything to do with my work.
I can see the connections between the first half of this book and Philip Roth. I was reading a lot of his work, and I began channeling him, especially in those long, self-lacerating paragraphs. And there are all the Stephen King references in the second half of the book. Those were two writers I liked that influenced this particular novel.
Probably my two greatest reading experiences of last year were Middlemarch, for the first time, and The Great Gatsby, finally understanding why it's the best American novel. It took me until forty to understand the horror of that book.
Dave: Why do you think that is?
Ellis: You have to have lost a lot, I think, to tap into that book emotionally. And you have to firmly grasp how money shapes everything— that's really at the heart of it. When they pass that book out to fourteen-year-olds in high school, I don't know what they're thinking. Because I wanted to be a writer, I admired the book, and there were passages that were very beautiful. I thought it was a good story. And I thought, I'm kind of rooting for Nick, and Tom's an asshole, and Daisy is such a sweet woman.
My God, they're all murderers! At forty, they're all murderers. There's a pile of bodies at the end of that book a mile high. It's a horror story. It's so bleak, so dark. I didn't grasp it even at thirty-two when I reread it, definitely not in my twenties when I reread it a couple times, and certainly not in high school.
Dave: Going to Bennington turned out to be such an important decision for you. Where else did you apply? Did you have a notion in mind of the college experience you were seeking?
Ellis: I was not a good student in high school. I was only interested in reading books and writing, and I liked to play music. I was in bands. That was my life. I ignored everything else, which is why I ended up with one of the lowest GPAs in my high school.
Dad, with some connections, could have gotten me into USC. That's about it. But I wanted to go to a liberal arts school, someplace where you didn't need a GPA and they really didn't care so much about your SAT scores, where they only cared about what you were interested in doing and exploring and how they could help you fulfill those needs. So it was the usual route a lot of kids go through: Hampshire, Sarah Lawrence...
But I knew right away that Bennington was the right place. It had a really strong writing program, as well as a strong music program—I wasn't sure if I was going to be a writing major or a music major. The campus was beautiful, and I liked the kids I met when I went there to look at the school. Bennington's motto was Learn by doing. You set up your own curriculum; they leave you alone. You have to have a lot of faith in your work, which is why I think Bennington has the highest attrition rate in the country; something like fifty percent of the freshman class leaves by the end of sophomore year. The kids who stay want to paint or become musicians or dancers or poets. They have a passion. It might not work out—it didn't work out for a lot of people —but the choice was not hard to make. I don't see any luck or fate in the decision. I looked around, I saw that place, and I wanted to go.
I definitely didn't plan to publish a novel at twenty-one. That was not in the cards. I thought the band I was in might go on tour after I graduated, but I hadn't thought about publishing a book. The luck-out was finally getting the nerve to give a certain professor there some of my writing samples, even though he was only teaching seniors and juniors, and I was a freshman. That took more guts than I normally had. From there, everything started playing itself out, and then a lot of luck and a lot of fate started to play a role in what happened to me.
Dave: What is Gary Fisketjon's most useful talent as an editor?
Ellis: Honesty. And, when it comes to the book itself, a bad bedside manner, which is really useful. A lot of editors are too afraid of the writer and let the writer get off track sometimes.
I published three books without Gary, and I've published three books now with him. Ultimately, I'm not one of those writers who'll turn in a manuscript and say, "The last hundred pages are a mess. Can you help me?" You'd be surprised; there are a lot of those out there.
I present what I think is the publishable manuscript. I want some grammar help and some line-editing here and there. If the book is fine, an editor's main job is to be a big supporter of the book in pushing it through all the different levels in a house and even beyond that, once it's on the street. Gary is very good at that. Very good. I hear horror stories from writers all the time who feel that their books were just tossed out there, and they had no one checking everything out, sending them emails, telling them about this or that. Gary loves his job. He's not going to go anywhere else. That's vital. But he's a tree editor; he's not a forest editor.
Dave: What's your favorite restaurant of the moment?
Ellis: I've got two. One is called Sona, and the other is a place called Lucques. Those are the two places I like best when I'm in L.A.
Ellis: Research. I don't like clothes. I wrote two novels, one around the fashion industry and one around clothes whores, and it was all research. It was looking through GQ and seeing what the guys on Wall Street were wearing, since every other pictorial during those two years had guys hanging out in front of various office buildings downtown.
Also, what a lot of people don't realize, and what I had a lot of fun with, is that if you really saw the outfits Patrick Bateman describes, they'd look totally ridiculous. He would describe a certain kind of vest with a pair of pants and certain kind of shirt, and you think, He really must know so much, but if you actually saw people dressed like this, they would look like clowns. It was a subtle joke. If you read it on a surface level and know nothing about clothes, you read American Psycho and think, My God, we're in some sort of princely kingdom where everyone just walked out of GQ. No. They look like fools. They look like court jesters, most of them.
Bret Easton Ellis visited Powell's City of Books on September 7, 2005. Though well dressed, he was not wearing especially fancy clothes.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State