Bret Easton Ellis
May 1 2010
Over the course of six novels and one book of short stories, Bret Easton Ellis has put together one of the most entertaining, fascinating, and fucked-up bodies of work in contemporary literature.
The release of Less Than Zero (1985) saw Ellis painted by the media—with varying degrees of admiration and disgust—as both an enfant terrible and the voice of his generation. Written in a stark, minimalist style that calmly and blandly relays a story of disaffection and degradation in Los Angeles, the book seems to me to be the ultimate statement on privileged 80s teenhood.
The Rules of Attraction (1987) abandoned Less Than Zero’s spare writing, replacing it with dense, stream-of-consciousness prose in a novel of shifting narration. The disaffectedness was still fully intact, but here it was richer and headier. This book is also the perfect lampoon of the pretension and partying and ridiculousness that happens at liberal-arts colleges.
Then came American Psycho (1991). This hyperdetailed and occasionally incredibly violent and pornographic novel of amped-up yuppie masculinity was maybe the most controversial piece of fiction of the later 20th century. But as satire, it’s up there with Jonathan Swift. And while it’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing American Psycho as an offensive, gleeful misogynistic fantasy, it’s really not that at all. It’s an indictment of the attitudes of its main character, and the fact that Ellis chose to write it in the first person, free of omniscient editorializing, was a brave and rewarding risk.
Glamorama (1998) is Ellis’s longest and most complex novel. It’s about, in part, supermodels becoming terrorists. It’s enough about that, in fact, that Ellis settled out of court for an undisclosed sum with the makers of the models-as-terrorists Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander.
Lunar Park (2005) is Ellis’s strangest novel and also one of his best. The main character is named Bret Easton Ellis. This character has written books with titles like Less Than Zero and American Psycho. But rather than a roman à clef, which the first little bit of the book leads a reader to expect, Lunar Park is really a horror novel that’s on par with anything by Stephen King. The book features mysterious emails from dead people, fictional characters (American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman and, perhaps, Less Than Zero’s Clay) come to life, ghosts, and a possessed, bloodthirsty children’s toy. Did I mention it’s great?
Next month, Ellis’s new novel, Imperial Bedrooms, will be released. It is, as you may have heard, a sequel of sorts to Less Than Zero. Its narrator is Clay, and most of the main characters from the original book (Julian, Blair, Rip, Trent) reappear. But Imperial Bedrooms is no mere sequel. It’s more a culmination of all of Ellis’s work up to now. Does it continue the story of the passive, clueless Clay in scary, shimmery Los Angeles? Yes. But it also detours into the scatological violence of American Psycho and the otherworldly terror of Lunar Park. As a follow-up to Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms is more of a nauseated reaction than a loving continuation. And boy, does Ellis deliver here. Imperial Bedrooms is darker than Less Than Zero and more full of dread and horror. I’ve read it three times through now, and though I know I love it, I still can’t figure out exactly what I think of it. But I’m certain that it’s important and I’m certain that you should read it.
Vice recently spoke with Ellis via telephone. Here’s most of that conversation. There’s an Imperial Bedrooms spoiler in here, but seriously, the thing we spoil happens on like page 9 of the book so it’s really not that big of a deal. Relax.
Vice: So what were you doing today before we started talking?
Bret Easton Ellis: I was at Runyon Canyon.
I don’t really know what that means since I’m so unfamiliar with LA.
Runyon Canyon is this canyon in Hollywood that people walk. It’s a couple of blocks up from Sunset Boulevard, and then it goes all the way up to Mulholland, and it’s kind of like a hike, I guess.
Oh, I’ve been taken there. I know what you’re talking about now.
You want to go when there are not a lot of people. On a weekday at like 2:30 or 3:00 is really good.
I suppose it’s the place to go for some nature in Los Angeles, but I had the feeling there that I have in most of LA—this kind of menace and impending-murder thing. I kept waiting for the monster from behind the dumpster in Mulholland Drive to jump out at me.
Completely. You totally get that here. And the trail was kind of empty today and it was, you know, the wind and the palm trees... Menacing.
What is it about LA? I imagine from your work that you feel this same sense of dread and madness in that city that I feel?
Well, hey, I feel it everywhere.
It’s not just LA. And you know, there’s a lot of stuff that I like about LA. I mean, I live here. I didn’t move here because I disliked the city. I’m kind of allergic to New York right now, so this seems like the best place to be.
Yeah, New York is weird too.
All my friends moved to Brooklyn. The only people I know in Manhattan are rich, and it just seems like, you know, the party was fun, but it’s kind of over for me. LA seemed to be the place to land.
But still, do you have any thoughts on what makes LA feel so creepy?
There is a really easy answer to that question. The geography. It’s a beautiful city, but it’s very isolating.
There’s a lot of space for something to lurk, I guess. It’s also a weird city because it doesn’t change. There are no seasons. There’s not a fall. There’s not a winter. It’s a strange city to live in.
My current conception of LA started in some ways with your novel Less Than Zero and then also from seeing old movies like Sunset Boulevard. I think that maybe part of what makes LA so weird is that there’s a palpable sense of desperation in the air. A lot of young people who want to make it.
That showed up a lot in your new novel, Imperial Bedrooms.
There’s the character of Rain, obviously, who is willing to do anything to get a role in a film, but also there’s a part where Clay watches a video of the young actor who lived in his apartment before him, and he sees “the fake smile, the pleading eyes, the mirage of it all.” Do you encounter that kind of person in real life?
All the time.
And do they ask you for things?
Yeah. It’s Vegas here. It’s a gambler’s town. You come here and the odds are overwhelmingly against you, but you do it anyway. And you know what? I really think that—and I’ve said this before—but I think that LA forces you to become the person you really are. I don’t think LA is a place where you’re allowed to reinvent yourself. It absolutely isn’t. There’s an isolating quality to a life lived out here. I don’t care how many friends you have. I don’t care if you have a relationship. Whatever. It’s just an isolating city. You’re alone a lot. And I think it forces you to become the person you really are. It doesn’t allow you to hide. I think New York is a much easier place to kind of reinvent yourself. In LA, over time, the real person you are ultimately comes out, or else people can’t deal with that and they flee before it happens. But we were talking about meeting people who come out here to make it…
Certainly, if you’re writing for television or the movies, you run into people who want to be a part of it.
And is there a transaction that’s presented to you in the clear-cut but unspoken way that Rain does it with Clay? Is it really like that sometimes, with a wannabe actor propositioning a writer or a producer?
Listen, I’m sure it can be. I mean, yeah, all the time. What I was thinking about when I was working on the novel was: What is the central narrative myth of Hollywood? And it revolves around exploitation. People exploiting each other.
That’s basically what it comes down to, and I was very interested in that idea because I guess I’d seen a lot of it. I’d been exploited myself and I think that people thought that I might have exploited them or whatever, so as the novel was coming together in my head and then in outline, that became the thing that was interesting to me. And at some varying levels, yeah, I’ve experienced it. But I have to reiterate what I said when the first book came out: I’m really not Clay.
Oh no, of course not. Yet it seems like people will never get tired of probing you about how much of your fiction is autobiographical.
I wonder why? No other authors, when I read about them, get asked this. Michael Chabon doesn’t get asked this. Jonathan Franzen doesn’t get asked this. Jonathan Lethem doesn’t get asked this. I get asked this. Maybe because I’m just not as good a writer as they are.
No. You’re as good or better than all of them. But I don’t know, I don’t want to get off topic too much. Never mind.
I want you to just briefly get off topic. You can say anything you want to me. I really don’t know any of them. I mean, I know them kind of, but I’m not friends with any of them.
I like Chabon, but I get this weird sense that I wouldn’t like him as a person. Not that that matters, of course.
No, it doesn’t matter. Always look at the art, not the artist.
But it’s difficult for me sometimes. I think there’s something kind of too cute about Lethem, or at least something too cute about his last novel, Chronic City.
I really like The Fortress of Solitude. That’s the only book of his I’ve liked. And the only book of Michael Chabon’s that I really liked was Kavalier & Clay.
That was great.
And I really don’t like anything by Jonathan Franzen but The Corrections, which I think is a great American novel.
Those are kind of their inarguable books I guess, those three.
Yeah, but everything else by those three is just, you know, I go, “Grrrrrr.” You know, I went to school with Jonathan Lethem.
We were in the same class at Bennington.
I didn’t know that. What was he like in school?
Nice. He was a nice guy. I had no idea that he wanted to be a writer. He wasn’t in any of the main workshops. Like Donna Tartt would be in there, and Jill Eisenstadt. You know, the people who really wanted to write were the people who always managed to get into the major workshop that term. And Jonathan never got into any of them. And then I got a galley in the mail a long time after we graduated, and it was for a novel by Jonathan Lethem about talking animals or something. And I was like, “What the hell is this?”
Let’s get back on track here. I guess that people probe you about the autobiographical stuff so much because, when Less Than Zero came out, you were not just seen as a novelist. It was this voice-of-a-generation thing, and people lazily thought, “Well, he must be just like the people in the book because he’s their age and he shares some background details with them.” So you were marketed as a novelist but also as something more than a novelist. In a way, it was a book marketer’s dream. Is that what you meant when you talked earlier about being exploited?
Well, you know, it was fun at first. It was very fun. It seemed like a good idea to be interviewed for magazines and have your picture taken and be on television and stuff. But then it stops. After about a year, it’s not a good idea anymore. Because what you realize has happened is that your identity—your real identity—is being consumed by this new narrative, this collective narrative, that’s taking place with the public as well as the press. The real you is dying and this thing that’s created is now going to be representative of you. And every time you meet someone, you know that they’re going to have this entire set of associations, mostly fake, about who you are, and that is a difficult thing to process. I’ve got to tell you, it’s a very difficult thing to kind of dismantle and work with.
You’ve got to become friends with it. That’s the only way you can make it work. You can’t fight it. But it makes things difficult. It makes relationships difficult. It makes forming friendships difficult. It’s an added layer of alienation that, you know, is a bummer.
It’s mostly been a series of hassles. But you kind of just deal with it. You write books, and you’re writing books for a publishing house—this entity that is paying the bills, in a way. And you’re going to help with processes like making them their money back. But did I ever feel exploited by all of that? No. I felt like I was totally going along with everything, and I felt that it was a good idea. I think I handled it pretty well, but after the initial year, year and a half, then it got kind of scary. I thought, “Oh, this is not good.”
I could see it being difficult not to play into it a little bit when you’ve been handed a role and it’s working so well.
Hey, when you’re 21 years old... But it’s weird because I grew up around famous people. And me and my “cooler friends” thought it was kind of a joke. It was like we were above it. We’d be at people’s parents’ parties and there’d be very famous actors hanging out by the pool or whatever, and we always thought: “Lame. Really lame.” And so the idea of becoming a sort of celebrity… it was this weird thing that just kind of happened. Like I watched it unfold and didn’t really participate in the building of it.
Did you lose friends when you got famous?
No, I made so many friends! Hundreds, thousands of them.
And some of them lasted for more than 24 hours, too.
In a way it does open some doors, and you do meet a lot of people that you might not normally have met. And that’s both good and bad. But did I lose some friends? Yeah, I totally lost friends because of it. My close friendships with male writers became more like rivalries. Suddenly, I became a problem. The book getting published in the first place freaked some of my peers out, and then when it became successful, all bets were off. I sensed a shift, but then it was confirmed eight or nine years later when we were all drunk and we were talking about it. I said, “I thought you guys were so excited for my success. You all thought I was so great and you loved me so much.” And they were like, “Bret Easton What? We hated you! We fucking hated you! We totally resented that whole situation. We thought it was completely unfair, that you were not more talented than us.” I got that talk and I was like, “Whoa.”
Were these people who had ended up having any degree of success for themselves?
Success in different ways. Everyone’s life landed in a different way than they expected. But no, certainly not in terms of literary success. But you know, people got married, had families. They were fairly content.
OK, so I don’t have a fancy way to ask this next question…
Oh, ask it. Ask it.
Well, why write a sequel?
Yeah, why. Why write a sequel?
It’s a big one and a small one.
And it’s so easy to answer. It’s such an easy answer.
Because I wanted to.
I mean, basically it was just rereading my previous books when I was outlining Lunar Park. And the only thing that I really took out of that experience of sitting down with my books and reading them was, “Oh, where’s Clay? What’s he doing now?” And it began to haunt me. I was thinking, “Do I go there? Do I really want to go there?” But ultimately, you don’t make the decision. Emotionally, you become invested in this idea, and you start to make notes, and then you’re questioning whether this is going to work or if it’s going to be something you want to spend a couple of years with. Then it makes its decision for you. And I never thought of this as a sequel. I thought of it as exploring where this character is 20 years later. That was the one driving point. I didn’t want to write a sequel and I don’t think it is. Well, I mean, it is and it isn’t. It’s narrated by him, sure. But I guess I could maybe have switched the names around and it could stand alone.
But I love the idea of a novel like Less Than Zero having a sequel. When I heard awhile back that your next book was a follow-up to Less Than Zero I thought it was really perverse and hilarious. I thought it was great.
One of the hurdles that I had to get over was I had to convince myself that it really wasn’t a terrible idea. The more I thought about it, the less terrible it seemed. And then I thought, hey, regardless of whether it’s a terrible or a good idea, I want to do it.
Once the little guy inside your head says you’re doing it, there’s no going back. Right?
There really isn’t. Once that question popped into my head—“Where is Clay now?”—the decision was pretty much made. But then I just had to go through the process where I made sure that I’d want to spend so much time on it and that it was going to be fun, and it was going to be worth it, and I was going to like doing it.
Yeah, I’ve read elsewhere that if it’s not fun for you, you’re not going to be doing it.
Why would you?
Have you ever abandoned a work because it ended up not being fun?
That’s great. So you really make sure before you get down to the meat of it.
Totally. Completely. I don’t understand how you can do it any other way.
A lot of writers talk about their process like it’s akin to being waterboarded.
Ridiculous, huh? I don’t understand how writers complain about writing. Aren’t they pretentious?
Yeah, I think so. It leads to negative stereotypes about writers!
Maybe writing some long, nonfiction thing where a lot of research is involved could be difficult, I guess. But even that should be fun.
There’s no reason to do it if it’s not fun. Was Imperial Bedrooms easy to plot once you started to outline it?
I’d been reading a lot of Raymond Chandler, and that was my big influence.
I was going to ask you about pulp novels, actually.
Yeah, I was very influenced by Raymond Chandler and that kind of pulpy noir fiction. I think it really summed up where Clay had landed. That style just worked for me. I thought it was right for this narrator’s voice.
And what did this pulp stuff have to do with plotting out Imperial Bedrooms?
Well, so I’d been reading a lot of Raymond Chandler, and you know what? The plots really don’t matter. The solutions to mysteries don’t matter. Sometimes they’re not solved at all. It’s just the mood that’s so enthralling. And it’s kind of universal, this idea of a man searching for something or moving through this moral landscape and trying to protect himself from it, and yet he’s still forced to investigate it. The plot comes into play during the outline stage, where the story tells itself. That was especially true with a novel like this one, which is narrated by a screenwriter and which has a movie-ish feel to it. And I was thinking about Hollywood novels, too, and how do you write a Hollywood novel without satire. That was the other thing. Every Hollywood novel seems to be like a satirical take on something.
Did you have The Day of the Locust in mind?
Yeah, or Bruce Wagner’s novels. I’m a fan of some of them, but after working here, I just don’t feel like there’s anything to make fun of. Like, Entourage drives me crazy.
Oh, my God. Entourage makes me want to puke.
I remember liking Entourage five, six years ago. But after actually being around those sorts of people? It’s disgusting. It’s disgusting what’s being celebrated.
But I don’t know. How did I get onto a rant about Entourage? I guess it connects. I guess it makes sense.
Sure, it makes sense. But you were talking about Clay, and about Raymond Chandler being an inspiration for that character in the new book. That’s interesting because Clay is so full of fear, but then he turns into such a monster toward the end.
I know. Because maybe the fear turned him into a monster. It’s hard to talk about that, but let’s try.
Well, sometimes when you pull back the curtain, it ruins things.
There’s not really much behind the curtain, so… [laughs]
I guess what I’m thinking about now is that your work often reads, in part, like horror fiction. Do you think that Imperial Bedrooms is a horrific thing? Because I felt tension and horror when I was reading it.
Yeah. I guess I do.
And Lunar Park was so great. Once I realized that you were going for a full-blown horror thing, I was excited to see what you would do with it.
A lot of people didn’t like that part of the book.
They don’t like the Stephen King part. They like the Philip Roth part in the first half.
It’s too bad that they weren’t willing to take the ride because I think it totally made sense. This horror thing goes back to something you were saying earlier, when I said that I feel dread and menace in Los Angeles, and you told me that you feel it everywhere.
Yeah, pretty much so. But I’m a worried person. I worry a lot.
What worries you?
Just about everything. It’s from being raised in a fear-based household. So I’m fearful of things.
Do you worry about things like getting murdered or being the victim of a home invasion?
Oh, yeah. Sure. Pretty much everything. But it’s not debilitating. It’s just my outlook on things. But also, these are books we’re talking about, and they demand a certain level of tension, and if you’ve plotted it out and you’re creating this world, that’s part of what that world should be like. I mean, within the covers of the book.
But you must be able to access the horror inside yourself to be able to do it so effectively, don’t you think?
Yeah. I guess it’s worth it.
I mean, I’m basically Psychology 101’ing you right now so maybe I should back off.
You’re totally fine.
I just really like the sense of fear and where the fear comes from in this book. Like these mysterious text messages that Clay keeps getting. They reminded me of the weird emails in Lunar Park. You just mentioned that some people didn’t like the horror aspects of that book. Do you think about the possible reception of a novel when you’re working on it?
No. I don’t really think that you’re writing for an audience. I think you’re writing the book for yourself. You’re writing a book that you want to read, like, “I want to read that book. I don’t just want to write it.” So I can’t be conscious of an audience. I am the audience. “What about me?” [laughs] And that’s the other thing that I thought Imperial Bedrooms was about. I think Clay is an outrageous narcissist, and that was a big note when I was working on the book. There’s a lot of “me, me, me” stuff going on. He thinks it’s all about him.
He thinks everybody’s stalking him, and he thinks everybody’s got ulterior motives, and he thinks everybody’s out to get him. And being afraid of everything is definitely a weird form of narcissism.
Yeah, it is. I mean, so I’ve been told by people.
By shrinks and friends?
By my life coach.
|Bret Easton Ellis with two attractive young friends of photographer Jerry Hsu.|
Part of the reason that I asked about reception is because we were talking earlier about how when your books come out, they’re sometimes treated by critics with an extra level where they talk about you as a person as much as they talk about the book. Right?
Hostile, very hostile. Yeah, why is that?
I could imagine it being difficult for you to not think at some point, even for a second, “Well, this one’s going to make this critic think this.” Not like it’s going to make you write differently or change what you’re doing, but I wonder if the thought even crosses your mind.
Well, like, which critic?
Janet Maslin, let’s say.
I like Janet Maslin.
And she likes you, as I recall. Right?
Yeah. Well, she did. She hated the horror part of Lunar Park.
Oh, so she’s one of them?
Yeah. But she was nice up to a point. I like reading her reviews.
What do you think of Michiko Kakutani?
A little too rigid. Her taste is very confined and very conventional.
It seems like she’s more conscious of the power she might wield than other critics are.
Which makes her interesting to read.
Yeah, because there’s ego behind it.
Yeah, and she’s very declarative. She’s always disliked me. She thinks I’m horrible.
There’s a positive blurb from her on my copy of Less Than Zero.
That’s the only one of my books she thought was OK. It disturbed her. I disturbed Michiko Kakutani.
Not a lot of people can say that. Did you read the recent New Yorker review of this new biography of Muriel Spark?
No. I haven’t read that.
They were talking about how she had a real sense of playing God when she wrote—this disdainful feeling for her characters. It made me wonder how you feel about your characters.
That’s interesting. I don’t really look at it that way. I look at it as a book, and the character’s a part of the book, and you have a plan, and you want to execute the plan. I’m not dismayed by my characters’ fates because they’re not real.
It’s a made-up situation and they’re made-up people.
But is there an emotional satisfaction sometimes? Do you ever feel excitement when you’re writing or is it all very technical?
No, it’s both. It’s technical and it’s emotional. I would say it’s much more emotional during the outline days of the process. The outline, in my case, is usually longer than the finished book. Tons of notes, a lot of ideas, a lot of them discarded. And then once that outline is pretty much completed, then it does become a technical process where you’re following the outline and you’re trying to organize it in a way that is pleasing to you in novel form. And so yeah, it is emotionally satisfying.
It must be. The final passages in both Imperial Bedrooms and Lunar Park pack a lot of emotional impact. They’re moving. Especially the end of Imperial Bedrooms, where Clay is talking about how he never liked anyone and how he’s afraid of people. And then there are these things that are embedded, like he talks about “moving the game as you play,” which is a callback to the quote from the band X that opens Less Than Zero, so there’s this full-circle thing happening too.
Right. It’s planned, you know. I mean, you kind of know the ending before you begin actually writing the book. Usually I know the last line of the book before I begin that technical process of going through the outline.
Yeah, I usually know the first line and the last line of the book before I begin it.
Do you really belabor what to lose and what to keep as you’re going from the outline to the novel?
Well, some people would say I throw in everything. [laughs] Some people complain, “Why is Glamorama 700 pages long?” But one of the things that I’m really interested in is the narrator. I’m interested in the function of the narrator, the person telling the story. I’ve never written a novel in the third person. My work is just a series of narrators, and I kind of give the books over to them.
They decide how long or short the book will be.
They decide how the book is going to be written, essentially, and what kind of language is going to be used.
How does that process work, though? How do you let a character speak to you?
The Bret Easton Ellis character in Lunar Park is going to talk very differently from Clay in Less Than Zero, or the college students in The Rules of Attraction, or Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, or Victor Ward in Glamorama. I went back and forth initially in terms of how I thought the narration of Imperial Bedrooms was going to be. And then I realized, well, Clay is a screenwriter now. And he’s a narcissist. It’s almost as if he’s writing a movie that he’s starring in. Then everything started falling into place in terms of how the novel sounds and moves. The narrator dictates the style.
I like that you’re so into the narrator because if there’s ever been an unreliable narrator in fiction, it’s almost every one of yours.
Pretty much. Yeah.
But I almost feel like every narrator is going to be unreliable in some way.
I don’t know that a lot of writers agree with that. I’m always amazed when I read fiction narrated by characters who sound like, you know, college professors—but who are not. I’m reading the Lorrie Moore novel A Gate at the Stairs right now. It’s very clever. I mean, she’s a very clever writer, and there are really great details, and she’s super-smart about how to construct a sentence and pull off a paragraph with a punch. But there’s no way you’re going to tell me that this 20-year-old girl character is really this narrator. I mean, there’s such a disconnect there that the book becomes distracting. I see this in a lot of Updike books too, for example.
Some of them, yeah. But not the Rabbit books.
And that’s why the Rabbit books work so well, because there’s a simple American realism to them that lends itself really well to that character and to his life. I think that an immersive experience and an honest one requires that the writer make sure that the narrator has a voice that he or she probably would have.
And if I rewrote any of my books in the third person, they’d be a lot different.
The closest I’ve come to my actual voice was probably in Lunar Park, where I was really freely writing how I probably do write in terms of emails and how I talk to friends.
Imperial Bedrooms is a return to a more stripped-down prose style for you.
I liked the idea of going back to minimalism, which I haven’t done in a long time. Trying to achieve that kind of tension with so few words was enjoyable to do. You know, Less Than Zero was not initially created as a minimalist novel. The first draft of it was really long and overly emotional. It was a disaster.
Was it your editor who helped you pare it down?
It was my teacher at Bennington. He just said, “I get it. I get what you’re trying to do. But this isn’t working at all.” And I said, “What do I do?” He said, “I want you to do a trick. I want you to do an experiment.” I’d written it in the third-person past tense. And he said, “Put it in the first person and see what happens.” I said, “Really? First person?” Because Less Than Zero was my first real attempt at a novel. I’d written three novels previously to it.
And each of those early novels were very much roman à clef, right?
Yeah, they were basically journals. Less Than Zero was my first attempt at a real novel. And so I thought, “Well, I’m going to do it in the classic way. I’m going to do it in past tense, third person.” But on my professor’s advice, I started to move it to first person. And then as I was going through it, all of the fat started dropping away, and it became this completely different thing. It needed to be rewritten. Now, I wrote that terrible first draft in eight weeks and people think that’s what was published. But I worked on that book for like two years to get it to the place where I wanted it to be.
There are two traps that seem easy to fall into when you’re writing in the third person. One of them is overexplaining and overdescribing, because you’re this omniscient God guy. And then also—especially when some of the topics are extreme situations like what you’ve written about—the third person might feel like it’s taking a moral stand one way or another.
Judgments. You want to avoid explicit judgment. It’s a tricky, tricky thing.
And all of this goes back to why people thought that Clay was you when Less Than Zero came out. It was first-person present tense.
Yeah, and also they thought that I came from that background, which I really didn’t. My family wasn’t rich. All of my classmates were. I keep repeating the story like, “Oh, poor me. We lived in the Valley.” All my friends lived in Beverly Hills or Bel Air.
It’s like the Dust Bowl down in the Valley in comparison.
My friends really were the influence for Less Than Zero. After being folded into that world when I was in fifth or sixth grade, when my parents moved me from a public school into a private school, I began to see this world that I really hadn’t seen before. I’d had a pretty middle-to-upper-class upbringing in the San Fernando Valley, until my father started to make more money. But he never made money on the level of my classmates. Their parents were mostly in the film industry, and that really became an influence for Less Than Zero too.
When you were writing the first few pages of Imperial Bedrooms, and it’s Clay talking about this guy that he’d known who had written this book about him and his friends, and it was made into a movie about them, were you thinking of him as describing you in some way? I know that this is dangerously close to an annoying autobiography question.
It’s all just a book of fiction, so I wasn’t thinking about that. I could make up an answer, but it would be fake.
I like the simple answer. Now, I’m going to get into a spoiler here. I really like how, so early in the book, you tell us about how the character Julian Wells dies.
That threw me until I realized it was a foretelling, because on the next page, you know, Clay’s having a drink with him or something.
Julian’s corpse, and late in the book his actual murder, are described in really grisly detail. When you do something like an intense flash-forward like that, do you know why you chose to do it, or is it just an instinct?
It’s all instinct. Or, I mean, I don’t know what else it is. Emotionally, it feels right. And it feels rhythmically right. It plays for me. And I just think, “Oh, yeah, that’s the way to do it, and I like it that way, goddamn it.”
I read, on some level, a kind of glee in killing off this character so early and in such a nasty fashion. This is a character of yours that is well known, and a character that was, in my opinion, bastardized in the movie. And you kind of just have him destroyed and bashed to pieces right away as this sequel is beginning.
What happens to the writer looking back on his work? Does he become a destroying artist at a certain point in his career? You know? I think there was another impetus behind Imperial Bedrooms and it was one that I was surprised to see emerge and that I kind of wrestled with. And that’s the idea of… I don’t know how to put this. There’s a sentimental view of Less Than Zero. It’s something that has taken shape around that book. It’s kind of “beloved.” And I think it’s also heavily misread by about half of its readers. I’ve met many people in the last three or four years since I’ve moved back to LA who tell me, “Oh man, I moved to LA after reading Less Than Zero.”
And it definitely seems to be almost like an artifact of the rah-rah 80s. It is up there with John Hughes movies and Ray-Bans and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. As dark as I felt the book was when I was writing it, as serious as I was about it when I was a student working on it, it was very surprising to see it be read in a certain way and to take on this reputation. So I think there was a feeling of wanting to fuck with it a little bit when I was working on Imperial Bedrooms. Now, I don’t like that, really, but if I had to be totally honest with myself, it was there. It was floating around.
If it’s an instinct that you had, why like it or not like it?
Because it’s kind of a negative one, in a way. I mean, it is sort of acknowledging the audience’s reaction toward a book of yours. That seemed unlike me. Though I guess I was also exploring that in Lunar Park. I think it began there. And it’s interesting to me that that’s where you can end up—almost rewriting the books.
Anyway, there’s no way that Imperial Bedrooms can have the kind of impact that Less Than Zero had.
But that was a perfect-storm situation. It was like the whole culture was primed for it.
You can’t repeat that, and there’s no sense in wringing your hands, pacing around feeling worried about it. You just have to do what you want to do.
Like kill off Julian.
But even so, it was still an instinct. Just an instinct. It wasn’t a plan. Like, “Oh, I have to kill off Julian.” It just felt right.
Do you have a problem with me saying that Julian’s death is foretold on page 9 of my review copy of Imperial Bedrooms? Because I won’t if you don’t want me to.
No, you can do whatever you want.
Cool. And, I mean, you’re going to get to it within a few minutes of reading the book anyway. So… Clay is pretty vacant and passive in Less Than Zero.
Yeah. Totally. It’s about that.
Right. But in this book, you know, he’s kind of fearful and he’s kind of vacant and passive, but then toward the end it changes. I mean there’s this mini-American Psycho sequence with him late in the book, where he’s got those two little hookers at a house out in the desert. That felt very unlike the Clay that I’ve known before. What was it like to take that character there?
Exciting. It was so exciting.
Realizing that this was where it was going to go was really exciting.
I liked it.
I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic or not.
I’m serious. God, if I had a nickel for every time someone said that to me. [laughs]
Have you ever watched The Kids in the Hall? You’re like that character that Dave Foley played, the sarcastic-sounding guy who wasn’t really sarcastic. But you’re serious? It was exciting when you realized that Clay was getting dark?
Yeah. I remember the moment when I was working on the outline and I saw that this was where it was going. I remember where I was sitting. I remember doing an outline of that sequence—and it ended up being a sequence that my editor had a lot of problems with. I really have a hands-off thing going on at Knopf. They’ve been cool about letting me publish what I want to publish, more or less. But we fought over that scene.
Is Gary Fisketjon still your editor?
Yeah. He’s very much a trees editor with me, and not a forest editor. He’s a real stickler for grammar. We kind of tussle over grammar and syntax.
And that scene with Clay and the prostitutes in the desert…
It was more gruesome in my final draft. There were some details in it that Gary wanted completely omitted, and I’d think, “Really?” Before, we’d never had any problems, but over this sequence we really did.
Did he also edit American Psycho?
Well, what happened with American Psycho is that, you know—
Its first publishing house rejected it, and then it came to the house where Gary Fisketjon works.
That’s when Gary became my editor. He’d been my friend for like six years prior to inheriting American Psycho. We knew each other really well socially. We would hang out a lot. So you know, having that relationship, and also having a social relationship with Sonny Mehta who was then head of Knopf, kind of made going there a no-brainer. But I don’t think Gary was a fan of that book.
Yeah. I don’t think he was a really a fan of mine at all, but he was a good friend, and that’s totally fine. That happens all the time. I don’t think he’s liked any of my books except for Lunar Park. But he’s a great editor. He’s amazing from the moment the manuscript gets to him until it’s out in paperback. He really follows everything and is so hands-on. But I was kind of disappointed in Gary’s reaction about this scene in Imperial Bedrooms. I was disappointed in the fact that we had to haggle over two or three sentences.
Can you give me an idea of what was cut from the scene?
It was basically me saying: “You let me keep this, and I will change the grammar on page 47.” And he said, “That’s not enough. You’ve got to change the grammar on pages 58 and 87.” And I said, “If I do that, can I keep a couple more of these details?” And it finally got down to: “OK.”
It’s not like he was unprepared for this stuff, having edited American Psycho.
Well, he did a second pass on American Psycho. I thought that book was finished when I turned it in to Simon & Schuster, before they rejected it. Done. I didn’t want it touched. But it got to Gary, and he touched it a little bit. I was kind of in a daze, and the editing was really hurried. He flew to LA and we sat in a hotel room, and basically he would edit and turn the pages over and I was just like, “Stet, stet, stet.” And it grew heated. I don’t think he understood the book, or he did but he didn’t like it, and the editing process was really dismaying. There’s still stuff in there that he did that I can’t read. Like little clarifications. I don’t know. Why am I going on about Gary Fisketjon?
It all started when I asked about the scene where Clay tortures the two teen prostitutes in the desert. I love that there’s a copy of Less Than Zero in the house where that scene takes place, too. And then it’s also interesting that this is the scene over which you’ve had your most serious battle with your editor. I think it’s pretty much essential at that point in the book.
It was exciting to go there, and it was scary to go there, and it was kind of liberating to go there. All of these things just felt really good about it.
Before we finish talking about characters, I want to ask about Rip. I don’t really have a question here, but I just love him in both Less Than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms. He’s kind of comic relief, but he’s also terrifying at the same time. Is there a real-life inspiration for Rip? If there is, I’m sure he’s amplified in fiction.
Or maybe taken down a little bit. Maybe there’s someone even scarier out there.
And I’m afraid of him and so I make him less scary, but it’s still really scary. [laughs] But no, there really wasn’t a real-life inspiration.
He’s like the supervillain of these two books.
Yeah. And Clay just doesn’t get it, and we don’t really know the specifics about Rip because the narrator, Clay, doesn’t really want to know, which makes it kind of scarier. Like, what is going on? What really is happening?
Totally true. There are a lot of moments in both books where Clay is on the cusp, where he could just clarify things, and he’s too passive or afraid to do it. Now, I want to talk about screenwriting a little bit since you’ve been doing a lot more of that in the last few years. I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but it’s like a dream of mine to see Less Than Zero remade as a film that’s far more true to the book.
Every week there seems to be someone trying to do that. I’ve heard that everyone from Quentin Tarantino to Gregg Araki has been trying to get through to Fox to let them remake it. But of course now it wouldn’t be Fox. It would be Fox Searchlight because it wouldn’t be a big studio film. But I wouldn’t be interested enough to participate in it, so I just keep hearing constant rumors about how so-and-so is trying to get the rights to Less Than Zero.
And I don’t know if it could ever be really made the way that it is in the book. The book gets very, very dark.
There was a time when it could have. Initially I think it was Barry Diller and Scott Rudin who bought the rights, and Scott Rudin certainly had a vision that was very close to the book. The first script was kind of hardcore. But then there was a regime change at the studio, and I think it was Leonard Goldberg who became head of production and, you know, he had kids.
He had kids, and this thing was… whatever. It got watered down.
I’m not trying to dismiss the movie.
It was a milestone in a lot of ways.
But maybe there was this regime change and these people with kids took over, and they weren’t going to look kindly upon, say, a scene where a 12-year-old is getting raped.
And, also, it was simply the era of teen movies. You know what I mean? And it had a great marketing angle whether it followed the book to the letter or not. It’s like, “This is the dark 80s teen movie.”
Right. And I don’t know how dark it was. It was kind of like an afterschool special in a lot of ways. It was lightly R rated. It’s so weird how movies change over time. I’ll catch part of Less Than Zero whenever I come across it, and you know, it’s just shocking that that was a big studio release.
You know, in November or whatever. Like a big Friday opening. It’s just unfathomable now.
Yeah, it feels more like an art-house kind of thing now.
A total art-house movie. But it’s really beautiful. It just really is beautiful with Ed Lachman’s cinematography.
And now Imperial Bedrooms already has an IMDb page.
Yeah, I don’t know why.
Did the film rights sell at the same time as the book deal?
No. The film rights revert to Twentieth Century Fox because I’m using characters that they own.
It’s like, if I write a sequel to American Psycho, Lion’s Gate owns Patrick Bateman. That’s kind of the deal with the devil that you make if you sell film rights to your books.
Was it seeing your films turned into movies that led you to screenwriting?
No. I remember writing scripts in high school with my friends. My close friends in high school all wanted to be screenwriters, and they all are now. I always thought that screenwriting was probably going to be down the road for me somewhere, but I was also interested in novels, which none of my friends really were. I never really took screenwriting seriously until a couple of scripts of mine got me some work, and it was like, “Oh, yeah, I get it. I can do this as well.” So I’ve always kind of been writing screenplays, but not as full-time as I am now. And what a mistake. What a total tragic mistake… No, no. I’m kidding.
But the majority of the film industry does seem to me like kind of the most disgusting pit of snakes in the world.
[makes a long, slow, guttural sound]
Man, how do I transcribe that sound?
“A low moan of agreement escaped Ellis’s mouth.”
There you go. A low moan of agreement.
But you know what? Yes and no. There are also a lot of really talented and interesting people in the film industry, and a lot of fun people, too.
I guess I’m thinking mostly of the business side, not the creative side.
The business side of it has no logic and is very difficult to navigate. That can be horrific. But if you’re asking me would I rather be hanging out with hot actors and actresses and fun directors and producers who give me some money to, like, write a shark movie; or having dinner with Richard Ford and Toni Morrison... Look, I’m at a different point in my life now.
You’re kind of removed from the literary world.
Totally. I never felt like I was a part of it. I have friends who are writers and things like that, but the whole business of dealing with the publishing industry and going to publishing functions, and everything being about, you know, the PEN dinner...
It’s kind of sad.
And I always got trashed by people because I liked to go to nightclubs. When I was in my 20s, it always was so weird to me that everyone was being so mean because I liked to go to clubs. Should I have been sitting in a garret with a plume pen and a candle? You’re 23, you want to have fun. And I feel the same way now. I can’t put up that pose of pretending to care about “literature” and publishing and awards and reviews.
But you still care about books. I mean, just based on a very simple source, your Twitter, where you write about reading the new books that come out and get talked about.
I enjoy reading books. I still do. I do find that my patience for them has, in the last five years, somehow been altered, and I wonder why…
Altered for the better or the worse?
For the worse. It just seems so much more difficult to focus now on fiction than it once was. Though that’s not totally true. What was I reading that blew me away? Oh, it was Jhumpa Lahiri’s last collection, Unaccustomed Earth. I was reading the stories in increments. They are fairly long—they run to 40 pages. I found myself reading the first couple, like, six pages here, six pages there. Then I’d get to one that was so engulfing and so sweeping that I put everything aside and raced through it in an hour, and it was so satisfying. You cannot get that kind of experience from any other medium.
Oh, for sure.
It’s the ultimate virtual-reality thing.
Now, speaking of Twitter, what’s going on there? It repulses and fascinates me. It’s like the distillation of everything I hate about the internet, but I’m still drawn to reading people’s Twitters.
It is what it is. I use it as something else. I don’t know what I do, but I’m not into updating like, “Oh, just had a good coffee at Starbucks,” or, “Uh-oh, it’s Friday the 13th, I’m scared!” with a scary emoticon face.
It’s either a place for thinking out loud or for doing stand-up for an audience that’s not there.
I do it every week or so, every two weeks. I don’t even think about it.
Well, you’ve written my favorite Twitter that anybody’s ever written.
The Salinger one. On the day he died, you posted: “Yeah!! Thank God he’s finally dead. I’ve been waiting for this day for-fucking-ever. Party tonight!!!”
Some people didn’t get it.
I thought it was the greatest thing I’d read in a long time.
Good. That’s good. That’s what I was hoping for.
Did you get grief from friends over that?
[laughs] I did. But it was how I felt. I can’t help it. I felt that way. I was dreading the onslaught of the sentimentalizing of Salinger—who hated all of us, by the way. Cranky old bastard. It was a much more complicated tweet than it might appear. There was much more thought behind it than what you might think.
So did you deliberate it much before you posted it?
Actually, you know what? I posted it and then I thought: “Too soon, too soon, too soon!” And I deleted it. But a couple of people had seen it and someone was outraged and then someone else was writing “LMAO, LMAO.” And I thought, “Oh, interesting. OK. Put it back.” The whole thing happened in a space of about 90 seconds. And then within like an hour I had 10,000—
Responses, retweets, the whole range I’m sure.
I also liked your tweet about how The Last House on the Left remake is a better movie than Precious.
Oh, it is.
I didn’t even see Precious because I get it. You know? I saw the commercial and I don’t need to see the movie.
To me, it looked kind of like a PC or a guilt-free way to have a freak show.
The trailer was really effective. I found myself choking up whenever the trailer was being shown at the theater. I thought, “That movie’s going to be devastating.” And then of course, you see it and it’s not really… whatever. I don’t want to trash it.
I just think your comment was refreshing, because I can’t think of many other public figures that didn’t get on board with fucking Precious. You know?
Anthony Lane didn’t get on board in his New Yorker review.
Oh yeah, that’s right. I was shocked that Roger Ebert got on board.
Well, you know, Precious is not all bad. There’s something about it, though, that is kind of endemic to our current society’s fixation on, oh, I don’t know what…
[laughs] Yeah. “The end.” It surprised me because it’s so artlessly done. It’s really not so painful. I was preparing myself to be emotionally crushed. But I was not. It’s not there.
I was gutted by the end of Marley & Me, but I don’t think I would cry at Precious.
Why did I miss Marley & Me? Why didn’t I go see it?
Well, that’s an interesting movie because it’s supposed to be a heartwarming dramedy with a life lesson at the end, but it’s really just a snuff film where you’re watching this dog get built up only so it can die. Anyway, I’m curious about the fact that you’re writing a script called The Golden Suicides, which is about the lives and deaths of the artists Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan.
Gus Van Sant is making it, right?
He’s been circling. He’s definitely producing it. He’s not formally attached to direct it.
How did you end up writing this movie?
I read the New York magazine piece about them, and I was going through something at the time that made it really resonate with me. I had moved to LA and I was having some really bad relationship problems. I was involved with someone crazy, and I was also very frustrated by the disaster that was The Informers.
The film version of your book of short stories.
Yeah, it had a great script and they got all these actors on board because of the script, and we got a ton of money to make the movie because of the script, and then it was the most horrible work thing that I’ve ever been involved with. I was just a mess about how it turned out.
And so I read the David Amsden article about Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan and their suicides, and it resonated with me in terms of what happens when you’re hooked up with someone who’s losing their mind, but you love them and their world becomes yours. I thought back on all this stupid shit that I did when I was with this person. Usually you realize you’re with someone who’s crazy and you eventually back away. You go, “Oh, I get it! I get it now.” But what happens if you don’t? What happens if you just follow them? So I talked to a producer who I’ve worked with before on a couple of other scripts that weren’t made. I said, “Take a look at this. I want to do this as a movie.” And he read it and he said, “I think that’s totally cool. Let me option the article.” Now, I had problems with the New York piece. There was a lot of it that I don’t like. But I was incredibly sympathetic to the story itself.
It’s such dark and sad material.
But it’s not a dark and sad movie.
I mean, it’s a sad movie, but it’s not dark. There’s a doomed romantic quality to it. There’s something very enigmatic about this thing, and it’s based on delusions and the mazes you find yourself trapped in. The movie is really Jeremy Blake’s journey. We meet him before he even knows Theresa Duncan. I really related to Jeremy, and I love his work, and I kind of fell in love with him. The movie is from his point of view. It’s not from her point of view. It is an incredibly sympathetic portrait of him, and I think of her, too. Part of the problem with the original magazine piece is that it’s kind of gossipy and a little salacious at times, and it concentrates on things that I’m not that interested in. But this is a heartfelt script. If anyone is thinking that I’m doing some kind of, like, “Bret Easton Ellis” take on it, like it’s a satire or stand-up, they are completely wrong. It’s a very heartfelt love story.
I never had that negative instinct about the thought of you doing it. I’m just curious to see it.
It’s really just tragic. What would have happened if he’d never met her? I mean, so many things would have happened for him, but I think she brought something out in him. What do you think?
Having not known them, I could only guess. Maybe there was a mutual feeding of each other’s paranoia?
There was the paranoia. And I mean, I think
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