American psyche: Bret Easton Ellis

His debut, Less Than Zero, upturned the literary world. Now Bret Easton Ellis has written a sequel. In conversation with Jesse Pearson, the master of the macabre talks about ego, exploitation and Twitter


Jesse Pearson: So what were you doing today before we started talking?

Bret Easton Ellis: I was at Runyon Canyon. It's this canyon in Hollywood that people walk. It's a couple of blocks up from Sunset Boulevard, then it goes all the way up to Mulholland. It's kind of like a hike, I guess.

Oh, I've been there.

You want to go when there are not a lot of people. On a weekday, at like 2:30pm or 3pm, 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.

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 makes LA feel so creepy?

There's 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. It's a strange city to live in.

My current conception of LA started in some ways with your novel Less Than Zero. Part of what makes LA so weird is the palpable sense of desperation in the air. A lot of young people who want to make it.

Oh, totally. You come here and the odds are overwhelmingly against you, but you do it anyway. And you know what? I 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 an isolating city. You're alone a lot. It doesn't allow you to hide.

In Imperial Bedrooms, Rain, the young actress character, propositions Clay, who's now a successful screenwriter. Is it really like that sometimes, with a wannabe actor propositioning a writer or a producer?

Listen, I'm sure it can be. 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. I'd been exploited myself, and I think 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.

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.

OK.

Because I wanted to. I was rereading my previous books. 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. 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.

One of the hurdles that I had to get over was I had to convince myself that it wasn't a terrible idea. The more I thought about it, the less terrible it seemed. Then I thought, hey, regardless of whether it's a terrible or a good idea, I want to do it.

Was Imperial Bedrooms easy to plot once you started to outline it?

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?

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 organise it in a way that is pleasing to you in novel form. Usually I know the last line of the book before I begin that technical process of going through the outline.

That's interesting.

Yeah, I usually know the first line and the last line of the book before I begin it.

Do you belabour 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 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 realised, 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.

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. And if I rewrote any of my books in the third person, they'd be a lot different.

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 different thing.

When Less Than Zero came out, people thought that Clay was you – because 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. All my friends lived in Beverly Hills or Bel Air. 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.

So... Clay is pretty vacant and passive in Less Than Zero. In the new book, he's also vacant and passive, but then toward the end it changes. There's this mini- American Psycho sequence where he tortures two teenage prostitutes at a house out in the desert. What was it like to take that character there?

Exciting. It was so exciting.

Was it?

Realising that this was where it was going to go was really exciting. That's cool. 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]

But you're serious? It was exciting when you realised that Clay was getting dark?

Yeah. 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 [Ellis's American publisher]. They've been cool about letting me publish what I want to publish, more or less. But we fought over that scene. There were some details in it that Gary [Fisketjon, Ellis's editor] 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? 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 six years prior to inheriting American Psycho. We knew each other really well socially. We would hang out a lot. But I don't think Gary was a fan of that book.

American Psycho?

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. He's a great editor. 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.

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."

I saw that 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.

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 removed from the literary world.

Totally. I never felt like I was a part of it. I have friends who are writers, but the 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 twenties, 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 [feed], 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.

Now, speaking of Twitter, what's going on there?

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 favourite tweet that anybody's ever written. On the day Salinger 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 sentimentalising 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.

Do you worry or laugh about what the critics might say about Imperial Bedrooms?

No.

You really don't?

Or maybe I do both of those things. I don't know.

You do read your reviews.

I do. I definitely read reviews. I always assume that I'm going to be kicked around, I guess. I'm always really down on my work, you know, when it's about to be brought out. I feel like I know it too well, and I feel like all the mysteries have been solved. I've read it, like, 5,000 times. I can't feel anything now except a little bit of low self-esteem.

This is an edited version of an interview published in 'Vice' magazine. 'Imperial Bedrooms' is published by Picador on 2 July.

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