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Bret Easton Ellis: The Interview

Bret Easton Ellis In 1985, at the ripe age of 21, Bret Easton Ellis burst onto the literary sceneIn 1985, at the ripe age of 21, Bret Easton Ellis burst onto the literary scene with his debut novel, Less Than Zero — a (satirical?) story centered around a myopic nihilist named Clay, Clay's maybe-girlfriend Blair, and Clay's best friend Julian. Less Than Zero was a critical and commercial success and was later made into a Hollywood movie that bore little resemblance to its source material.

Ellis followed up with the novel The Rules of Attraction in 1987, and in 1991 published American Psycho — the highly controversial story of Manhattan businessman/serial killer Patrick Bateman. Originally refused for publication, and banned in several countries, American Psycho went on to be called "one of the key novels of the 20th century" by the Guardian. Next came The Informers (a collection of linked short stories) and Glamorama (a tale of espionage regarding a cell of brainwashed supermodels-turned-terrorists), which found Ellis switching from the era-defining novels readers had come to expect to a focus on deconstructing specific genres.

After Glamorama, Ellis seemed to disappear completely. While the subsequent film adaptations of American Psycho (2000) and The Rules of Attraction (2002) helped to keep his name and his novels in the public's mind, it wasn't until the publication of Lunar Park in 2005 that Ellis returned to the literary world. Much like Glamorama's take on the spy genre, Lunar Park was a horror story, a psychological thriller about a character named Bret Easton Ellis and the crumbling of his own fictional reality.

And, now, with the publication of Imperial Bedrooms, Ellis brings everything full circle — returning to the characters of his debut and placing them in a Chandler-esque Hollywood noir. Clay, Blair, Julian, Trent, Rip, and all of the other wasted youth of Less Than Zero are back in the Land of No Exit, otherwise know as Los Angeles, California. Twists, turns, sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll — it's all here. It has always been here.

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Gary Lee: After American Psycho you seemed to stop writing about specific eras, the 1980s and '90s, and, starting with Glamorama, moved into more of a genre reconstruction — for example, espionage or horror. Now you've written a psychological thriller. Was that intentional or simply a coincidence?

Bret Easton Ellis: There's no logic to why you write a novel. You have a feeling about why you want to write a book, and the book comes with that feeling.There's no logic to why you write a novel. You have a feeling about why you want to write a book, and the book comes with that feeling.

I was thinking about writing something like Glamorama or Lunar Park while I was working on American Psycho, so, a long time ago, because I liked those kinds of books when I was a kid. I thought, One time, I want to try my hand at an espionage thriller. I also really love Stephen King's books, so I wanted to try that, too. But I wanted do it my own way. I didn't want to do a Xerox of them. I wanted to do something that resembles them, but had my own stamp. Then, of course, you think about it and stuff happens to you and you start to personalize them and then these books start announcing themselves. I don't know why.

I wouldn't call it coincidental, and I wouldn't call it something that's intentional. I would call it something that's an emotional response to a kind of fiction that gave me a lot of pleasure when I was younger. Because of that emotional response, I wanted to write a book like that. But, I can also look at my books post-American Psycho and say those are all very personal books. They meant a lot to me. They became something more than genre exercises for me. Certainly the craziness of Glamorama really mirrored what I was going through in my life at the time and the paranoia of it and, also, the whole notion that you can somehow be replaced by something other than your real self.

I thought about that a lot for many years. After I became the "literary prince of darkness" — or however people wanted to paint me — I saw this collective definition overtaking the real person, and it was something that I had to deal with. I think Glamorama stems from that. It was the same thing with Lunar Park, obviously: a genre exercise turned into something far more personal, much more like an exorcism for me than I ever imagined. I was thinking about writing a haunted house novel when I was 22 or 23. Certainly the noir effects in Imperial Bedrooms... Well, I wouldn't call it a noir novel, because it doesn't have the kind of resolution that noir novels have. It's more of a Hollywood novel, with stretches of noir in it. It's a reflection of a lot of things that I was going through at the time I was writing the book — and even before I was writing the book, when I was outlining the book.

That's a very long answer to a very simple question. [Laughter] I should have just said, "No, it's not. It's not coincidental. It's not intentional. I don't know where it comes from."

Gary: With Imperial Bedrooms, what made now seem like the right time to revisit the Less Than Zero characters?

Ellis: The only way I can answer that is to say that I'd reread Less Than Zero while I was working on Lunar Park, because I was rereading all of my work when I was working on Lunar Park. When I realized that Lunar Park was going to be about Bret Easton Ellis, I wanted to re-familiarize myself with all my work. So, I reread Less Than Zero, which I hadn't read since its publication. Over the next couple of weeks, I was haunted by this voice that kept asking me, Where's Clay now? What's he doing now?I was haunted by this voice that kept asking me, Where's Clay now? What's he doing now? And I thought, I don't know if I really care. But then the voice kept asking, What do you think he's doing? Is he in L.A. or New York? I guess maybe he's back in L.A. He's a screenwriter. Is he married? Probably not.

The questions keep on coming, and then you find yourself obsessed. You find yourself saying, "I have to write this book." Again, it's not a logical, pragmatic idea. The why of it is that I'd read the book, and, for some reason, because of whatever was going on in my life, I became very intrigued by Clay. I started to answer these questions, first in my head and then writing down notes about what I think Clay is. Out of that, a narrative appeared. Plus, I was reading Chandler, and that was the tone of the story that started to form. Also, it was a black period. I think that's reflected in the blackness of the book. Whatever you're going through emotionally on a certain level is ultimately reflected in your book.

I didn't really think of it as a sequel in terms of, "Okay, I'm going back to Less Than Zero." I wasn't really thinking about Less Than Zero as much as I was thinking about Clay. I guess that means Less Than Zero to other people, but, to me, Less Than Zero means something very different than it does to the audience. The writer of Less Than Zero is still rather amused, and finds it quite ironic that this project that he had as a teenager is still resonating with people. And I can't hold Less Than Zero to be the sacred text that some people do. Some people think I'm fucking with it if I write a sequel, and there's a sense of betrayal out there. That isn't what I'm thinking about at all. I'm just thinking about what my needs are as a writer, and so my needs at that moment happened to be that I needed to revisit Clay, and I needed to find out what was happening to him.

Gary: As you mentioned, Imperial Bedrooms is a kind of "Hollywood noir." I connected it with Bukowski's Hollywood; while he was working on Barfly the film, he wrote a quasi-fictional account of his experiences. In Imperial Bedrooms, you have Clay working on a movie, which may or may not be the movie of yours that was in a production hell, it seems, for a long, long time. I'm curious as to what really happened with that movie, The Informers?

Ellis: What happened was what happens to 95% of all movies: it got derailed. It was a good idea and there were good intentions. I learned a lot from the making of that film, and being the producer and writer on it. I mean, I'd written a lot of scripts before that, but I'd never had a movie come together so easily, and it was stressful. It was so stressful. [Laughter]

I mean, the script was maybe the best script that I'll ever write — and I can say that because we got a ton of money to make that movie, and we got great people fighting to be in the movie. We had this great cast, a ton of money, and it came together so quickly. Most movies take years and years to come together. From the beginning of the script to the first day of shooting was about two years. That was very quick. While most movies are really, truly stuck in development hell, The Informers wasn't at all.

But, you know, there are problems that you notice slowly, and then it's like an avalanche. There was the realization that the director and the producer and the script weren't all on the same page. I'd had the director of a different movie in mind, and he found that out once he started shooting. Now, there's nothing you can really do at that point, when the director says, "I see this movie in a different way." You have 30 days, and it's a lot of money every day — what do you do? Do you say, "No, it's not that way"? Well... Everyone was so stressed out that we just let the director hopefully find his movie. And he didn't. He didn't find the movie, and I would say he'd even admit that. But that's what happened. The director had a lot of problems of his own, and the producer who was overseeing the whole project had his own problems, too, and wasn't paying the attention that probably needed to be paid. And you have a movie that no one ended up being happy about. It was the most stressful working situation I've ever had.And you have a movie that no one ended up being happy about. It was the most stressful working situation I've ever had. I still find it difficult to talk about. I mean, come on, it's a bad movie. It's not even that it's a bad movie. It's just such a shell of what it could've been. That happens all the time, but when it happens to you, it's an unpleasant feeling.

Then, of course, because it was an ensemble cast and the director really wasn't that well known, I got a lot of blame for it because I'd written the script, and because I was a producer on it, and it was based on a book of mine. I became the focal point of all the blame in a way. I've taken my fair share of criticism in the past, and I still continue to take my fair share of criticism with my books. And it's not that this particularly stung, but it bothered me in a way that I'm never really bothered by in the attacks on my books. I mean, I can argue in favor of the books. I can get that abuse and go, "Eh, I don't get it." But with this, there was really not a lot of argument about it. I had to agree with a lot of the critics. Though I don't think it was nearly as bad as some said it was, it was a miss.

Gary: Would you mind talking about your other Hollywood projects? I know you were attached to Downers Grove, The Frog King, and there's supposedly a Lunar Park adaptation, as well.

Ellis: Yes, there's a lot of stuff going on. But I'm not involved with the Lunar Park adaptation. A lot of people think I am because they read IMDB, and they automatically assume that all of those projects on IMDB first of all even exist, when a lot of them don't. Lunar Park is not something I'm involved in. Downers Grove is something that seems to be in pre-production right now. It's a novel by Michael Hornburg, which I read when it first came out. I've been friends with Michael for many years, and I was asked to adapt it. I thought, Great, I want to. That seems to be moving forward.

The Frog King isn't moving forward. That's another example of the logic, or the lack of logic, in Hollywood. It was a script that Joseph Gordon-Levitt attached himself to, and it was going to be Darren Star's first feature debut film. There were a lot of producers behind it, and they were all ready to go. The big problem was that no one could find an actress. It's a romantic comedy. Well, it's not really a romantic comedy. It's a character study that could be sold as a romantic comedy. And the derailment on that project began because no one could find an actress to play the lead. No one was around to satisfy Joe, who had casting approval over the girl, or Darren, who had casting approval over the girl. They couldn't find an actress, even though I'd written it specifically for Shannyn Sossamon. But she was not thankful enough to play that part.

Movies just don't happen. Everything looks like it's moving forward. You're going to make this great movie, and everyone's excited. And then it just doesn't happen.You're going to make this great movie, and everyone's excited. And then it just doesn't happen. There's a learning process of letting go and accepting it and being okay with it. If you really let it drive you crazy, then you have to move into another realm. I did get fairly stressed out about it during The Informers, but you have to learn to let things go and understand the way the business works. Ultimately, in the end, it's just a movie. It is just a movie.

There is this strange idea about any screenwriter in Hollywood, and I don't see myself that way at all. I see myself as someone who is interested in a couple of personal projects. The Frog King was very personal. Even Downers Grove became personal. It's not a big-budget film. I mean, these are small movies that aren't being made by big studios. They're all independent. Most of them are passion projects of some kind, especially the thing that I want to do with Gus Van Sant, which is the Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan movie. It's not like I'm doing a dialogue polish on Shrek 4 or anything like that. I'm not in that echelon of writers. I do projects that I'm interested in, for not a lot of money. It's not about that.

I've always been interested in movies. I find them viable in a way that I think a lot of novelists don't — or they don't even want to go there because they don't want to deal with the stress and the lack of logic and the collaboration that the business requires of you. It demands that of you. I understand that. I get it.

But, for example, right now, there's a TV series I've been developing — that I was first developing on HBO and now I'm developing at Starz — that is the next "novel." Regardless of whether it gets made or not, I'm concentrating on this thing. I'm pushing it forward, and I want it to happen. That's where I'm at right now. It's not that I'm thinking I have to get into television. It's just that I've been really moved and swept away and amazed by what you can do, how novelistic you can be in a series now. That's very exciting. It's very exciting that you're allowed to do a lot of things in a TV show that you weren't allowed to do before. You see it in shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under, or some of the HBO series that broke ground. You see it all over. You see it in Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or whatever. There is an opportunity to do something very novelistic in a season of television that's just undeniably exciting.There is an opportunity to do something very novelistic in a season of television that's just undeniably exciting.

Gary: One more Hollywood question. Are the Glamorama and Glitterati films ever going to come to light or get a public view?

Ellis: Of course, I hope that my Glamorama film gets made. I mean, it was bought in a very different film culture, six years ago, seven years ago, when it seemed like there was a possibility of a studio making a movie like Glamorama. I don't think that's really available right now, in terms of studio thinking. It's too expensive to make as an independent movie. It's too nihilistic to justify the cost of it. That's a fact. Someone's got to figure out a way to do it, and Roger [Avery] is the person to do that, since he owns the rights to the book. So, I don't know what's going to go on with Glamorama. I know Roger insists that it's a book he's obsessed with and a movie he's obsessed with. I've read many drafts, many different scripts, and I've seen story boards, and I've seen a lot of related stuff, but I don't know how it's going to come together.

I really have nothing to do with Glitterati. That's purely a movie of Roger's. I have nothing at all to do with that. I've seen it, and there's nothing I need to say about it. I really can't talk about it until Roger decides to show it publicly to someone, and I don't know if that's ever going to be possible. And if it is, that's great. I think there'll be a time. I don't know if it's now.

Gary: What are your thoughts on the recent uprising of authors, like Joe McGinniss, Jr., or Chad Kultgen or the women who wrote Stalking Bret Easton Ellis, who are very much inspired by you and your contemporaries? How does it make you feel that this next generation has been so inspired by you?

Ellis: It makes me feel old. [Laughter] I feel really old. A week ago or two weeks ago, I was in Atlanta and was asked to talk to the senior writing class at a university there. I walk into this clinic, and there are a bunch of writing students. I'm supposed to talk to them for, like, 45 minutes and give them advice. There's no advice to give a writer. But, anyway, I sat down, and I felt almost as if I was back at Bennington and I was that age, and John Updike had come in, or one the writers of that moment. They would come up to Bennington, and they were only slightly older than I am now. Some of them are dead. It was like, Whoa. What's going on here? What am I doing here?

It makes me feel old, but, also, how can you not be flattered by it? How can you not like it? It's nice. I mean, that question is a trap, in a way, no matter what. [Laughter] I can say, "God, it sucks. Why can't they get their act together?" Or I can just say, "Oh, it's really nice." Some of them come to my readings. I was in Brooklyn, and the writer Tao Lin showed up and gave me the galley for his new book. Oh yeah, I've heard of you before. I've read some of your stories, and you're here. You came to a reading. It's nice.

Gary: The beginning of Lunar Park has a memoir-ish start to it, and with the autobiography of the Bret Easton Ellis character, it was really difficult to filter out the fact from the fiction, as far as what was the character and what was the actual person. Is there a possibility for an actual Bret Easton Ellis memoir in the future?

Ellis: There was a book party for Imperial Bedrooms at the Chateau Marmont. A friend I went to college with was standing with a drink on the balcony, overlooking L. A. He had this really bright smile on his face. I said, "What are you smiling about?" And he said, "You know what? I had a book party here about 15 years ago. And I remember we were talking about stuff and I remember that you said, 'If I ever write a sequel to Less Than Zero, I want you to shoot me in the head.'I remember that you said, 'If I ever write a sequel to Less Than Zero, I want you to shoot me in the head.' And this was 15 years ago. And now we're standing here, and I've got a gun in my car." I started to crack up because I suddenly remembered having that conversation with him. He had said, "You know what? Just don't turn into that writer that's going to end up writing the sequel to Less Than Zero somewhere down the road." And I remember saying, "Oh, no, of course not. Shoot me in the head if I'm gonna do that."

Of course, you have no control over it. Or, if you have control over it, you're fighting your own instincts. And you can't do that. So, this is an answer that says, "Never say never." You never know what's going to happen. Right now I like to think that, when I look back at the books, they do form a kind of autobiography anyway, an emotional autobiography. To me, they do. Maybe not to an audience or to a particular reader, but to me, it's almost enough. In Lunar Park, I wrote a paragraph about how I was supposed to write a memoir. And I wrote in Lunar Park that there was no way that I could ever be as honest in my fiction as I could be in my nonfiction. And I still feel that way. That is true.

If I thought about it right now, and I thought about writing about the tour I'm on, for example... I've been confronted by the past on this tour. For me, some heavy things have happened. I've seen people I haven't seen in a long time. I've seen people where there had been thorny situations, but they're resolved. Had I really written about them, I would feel kind of mortified. If I wanted to write about it authentically, I'd have to go places that I don't really want to. But if I wrote it as fiction, then I'd feel much more comfortable with it, and it's something that I could do. But that's just me.

Gary: In your novels, especially your earlier novels, music played an integral part in the characters' lives and in the overall story, whether it be in the titles or what was going on inside. Currently, what are some of your favorite bands or albums?

Ellis: I only listened to The National for the last year and a half. I was playing them during a really bad period in my life. I was listening to Boxer, which is a record I can't even hear now. It was the soundtrack of a terrible seven months in my life, where I was in incredible, emotional pain. It was all that I was playing, all the time. It was both exhilarating and truly wrenching because I was just connecting with the album so much. I was applying it, and I was personalizing it. If I heard tracks from that album now, I'd go turn it off. I can't listen to it, even though it's a great record.

Overall, I have pretty much a middle-aged-white-guy's taste in music. It's The National. It's The Hold Steady. It's Grizzly Bear and Animal, though they aren't really... no, they're still middle-aged-white-people's bands. You know what? I take it back. Compared to a lot of guys my age, I listen to a lot of stuff. But it all does seem to fall into that category of bands. I like The New Pornographers. It's that kind of thing.

But, for instance, what was I listening to yesterday coming here? I was on a really long plane trip and my iPhone died, so I was listening to music on the plane, the music that Delta was offering. And I listened to a country station. It's true, I do like country music. One of my favorite records last year was Brad Paisley's. I was also listening to a terrible station Delta had called "Alternative!" with an exclamation point. It was all bad. [Laughter] Then there was a Broadway musical station that I listened to. Some of those selections were good. But, right now, while I'm on tour, the soundtrack has been High Violet by The National.

Bret Easton Ellis was interviewed on Monday, June 28, 2010, at Powell's City of Books on Burnside.

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Gary Lee can often be found amidst the aisles of the Blue Room at Powell's City of Books. He reads as much as possible, which isn't nearly enough. He updates his blog occasionally.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Imperial Bedrooms
    Used Hardcover $8.95
  2. Lunar Park (Vintage Contemporaries) Used Trade Paper $10.50
  3. Glamorama (Vintage Contemporaries) Used Trade Paper $7.50
  4. The Informers (Vintage Contemporaries)
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  5. American Psycho
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  6. The Rules of Attraction Used Trade Paper $3.50
  7. Less Than Zero
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  8. Hollywood Used Trade Paper $8.50

One Response to "Bret Easton Ellis: The Interview"

    Rob July 14th, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    On the subject of musical influences, it's odd that Ellis forgets to mention that his new book almost lifts its title from "Imperial Bedroom", Elvis Costello's rather terrific 1982 record, wherein are found these lyrics: "The imperial bedroom, the regal boudoir / This casual acquaintance led to an intimate bonsoir / Life turns out like a TV serial / A head full of daydreams...".

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