Interview with Bret Easton Ellis

Posted by Goodreads on June 6, 2010
The nihilistic, drugged-out characters of Less Than Zero pushed teen angst to a whole new level of depravity. Published before Bret Easton Ellis was even out of college, the book (and later its loosely adapted film) was an instant success. He has since continued to populate his bleak literary landscape with dissatisfied and often violent characters in The Rules of Attraction and American Psycho, and has playfully examined his own morals in a mock-autobiographical horror novel, Lunar Park. Now, 25 years after Less Than Zero, Ellis returns to Los Angeles to pick up the story in Imperial Bedrooms, where he imagines what his malcontent teens would be like in middle age. He chatted with Goodreads about why there's a piece of himself in every one of his characters.

Goodreads: Given the '80s zeitgeist-touching status of Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms is heavily anticipated by both fans of your work and detractors of sequels. Are you feeling more pressure than usual with this book release?

Bret Easton Ellis: Feeling pressure suggests that the person I'm writing the book for is an audience. I'm actually obsessed with the material, and I'm writing the book for myself. I emotionally become involved in an idea. It took me three years to write the shortest book of my career because I was interested in the story. Now it's going out into the world. It is what it is, and what will happen, will happen. I do think, however, that some readers will definitely feel betrayed because Less Than Zero, as an artifact, is beloved in a way. People have a lot of strong associations with it. It is one of the first novels they read, or it is one of the first novels they read as a teenager. I think a lot of people are expecting Less Than Zero 2: The Party Continues. And that's just not what I felt it would be. I hate to think of Imperial Bedrooms as a sequel. I wasn't thinking "sequel" as I wrote it. I was really just thinking about Clay and where he'd be if he came back to L.A.

GR: What inspired you to return to Clay, Blair, Julian, and Rip 25 years later?

BEE: When I was rereading all of my books while outlining Lunar Park, I reread Less Than Zero for the first time in what must have been 17 or 18 years. I became obsessed with this idea: "Where is Clay now?" I had to find out where he was—emotionally. And that's shaded a little bit by where you are in your life, too. If you're super-happy, then maybe Imperial Bedrooms would have been a different book. I don't know, but obviously it was a bit of a dark period, and I think that's reflected in Imperial Bedrooms.

GR: Heralded by some as "the voice of a generation" and compared to The Catcher in the Rye, Less Than Zero brought you success before you even graduated college. That level of praise could warp or at least paralyze a young writer, but you went on to write six more books. How do you reflect on that experience now as an adult?

BEE: I'd always been writing. Ever since I was a kid I was writing. I think part of what saved me those first couple of years when the book came out is that I was still in college. I had classes to go to, I had papers to do, I wasn't being feted in clubs in Manhattan, and I wasn't doing the whole media tour. So I escaped. The only sense I would get would be when a reporter would come up to Bennington to interview me in my dorm room, or I would read something in a magazine.

Also, I was already well into The Rules of Attraction when Less Than Zero was published. That book was outlined and was being written. I didn't feel paralyzed because I wanted to write The Rules of Attraction. I was excited by it, and I was going to finish it, but I wasn't awaiting a reception for it. I don't look at writing a novel as something like that. A novel is something I can't help but write because I'm feeling something at that moment. It is hard for me to find an idea for a novel that I want to spend three years with, that I think will be fun, that I think will be a good novel. And that's why I have so few books in my list of published works.

GR: Clay returns to L.A., the place that so disillusioned him as a teenager, in Imperial Bedrooms. How has middle age changed Clay?

BEE: It seems that he's become a little unhappier. More entitled. He's become successful. He's a bit of a raging narcissist because he thinks everything revolves around him. He wants what he wants. His appetites are much greater than they were in the first book. And all of this has to do with him moving into middle age. Perhaps the seeds of this persona were sown when he was a younger man. When I was thinking about him, this character took shape. Not for pragmatic reasons, but emotionally this felt right to me.

GR: How do you tap into Clay's narcissistic voice?

BEE: When I'm outlining the book, I take a lot of notes on what the narrator is going to sound like. This happens with every novel I've written so far because there's been a narrator. They dictate where the story goes and how the book will be written stylistically. I made notes about Clay: "OK, he's in his early 40s, he's a successful screenwriter, he's coming back to L.A. I want the novel to be about that central Hollywood narrative, which is basically exploitation." And then I realized that if he's a screenwriter, it's probably going to be like a movie. It will be written in very sparse language, and it will read like a movie, and because he's a narcissist he'll be the star of this movie. And then everything started falling into place. Once I figure these things out, Clay starts telling [the story]. I'm a technician, of course, but emotionally he starts telling it. I followed his cues. That's the truth for every book I've written. It's the way I work.

GR: Would you say you're drawn toward unreliable narrators?

BEE: I am. Clay leaves a lot out, but I don't know if it's that he leaves so much out as that there are a lot of things he's doesn't want to know. Also, if something doesn't revolve around him. Scene after scene in Imperial Bedrooms, people tell him, "This isn't about you," and he thinks it is all the time. That leads to him not answering certain questions that could save people. He only cares about himself. Once you understand that you have a narrator like this, then a lot of things are automatically answered for me. It's not hard to tap into it. It's harder to tap into when I'm outlining the character and I'm asking questions of myself. "Would he describe it that way? Would he use this kind of language? Would he notice that detail? Would he do this with her? Would he ask that question? No, he would not ask that question. OK, cut that." Once you have the template down for who Clay is, then the writing starts flowing.

GR: In an early review, Goodreads member Kristin says of Imperial Bedrooms: "Again, a disturbing, painful look at the lengths some people will go to get what they want and once again, indicative of the times." Do you agree? If so, how do you think Imperial Bedrooms is indicative of today's culture, just as Less Than Zero encapsulated the excesses of the 1980s?

BEE: If you have a novel that takes place today, you're going to do it anyway. It's not something I'm overly conscious of. I was not overly conscious of writing a novel about the '80s in Less Than Zero. It happened to take place during the '80s, and then because of that everyone now writes about it as an indictment of the 1980s. Well, guys, that wasn't my plan. There were other things on my mind I wanted to do with that book—stylistically, and there were autobiographical elements, etc., etc.

But look, we're in a self-obsessed world now. Everyone has their own Web site. Everyone is pushing themselves out there, displaying themselves. We live in a pretty exhibitionistic culture. People are able to get things that they want faster and faster. I'm not judging this at all. I'm not painting it pink or black. It's just how it is. I do tend to think this can build the ego up; it can build your narcissism up. But I think any book that I would be working on now would probably tap into that. Not specifically just Imperial Bedrooms. It is part of the wallpaper that surrounds us now.

GR: Despite the characters in common, Imperial Bedrooms is a big departure in style from Less Than Zero. You are known for playing with genre in some of your books. What prompted you to pick noir?

BEE: I had been reading a lot of Raymond Chandler. I wanted to merge this idea of where Clay was with my take on a Raymond Chandler novel. And that's just something that I have been interested in for the last 15 or 20 years. I make attempts at genre books, whether it was a Robert Ludlum book with Glamorama or whether it was a Stephen King book with Lunar Park. Raymond Chandler is something I wanted to fool around with. He's the best and most universal [among crime writers]. His books are more like poems than they are crime novels. The mysteries are sometimes solved, but they're sometimes not. The mystery is beside the point. I thought a lot about The Road, the Cormac McCarthy book. I thought of Philip Marlowe [one of Chandler's well-known detective characters] wandering through this morally blasted landscape, where people are doing the most outrageous things, and he's just trying to keep it together. Sometimes he really acts like a detective, and other times he's more interested in the girl, or in what's right, rather than figuring out "Mrs. Cocker did it in the library." There's something more metaphysical, more universal and grander about Chandler's vision. Even though the trappings are of a crime novel, the experience of it is very different than your average crime book. Almost existentialist. The journey is what matters, not where you end up.

GR: Goodreads member Adam Scovell asks, "What character in any of your books best represents you or your worldview?"

BEE: That's a dangerous question. I have something in common with all of my narrators, to one degree or another. I've said this before: What is the point in writing a memoir? I can look at my published novels, and each one can tell you exactly where I was at that point in my life, what I was fantasizing about, what I was thinking about, how I was doing emotionally. At different parts of my life, yes, I was feeling like the kids in The Rules of Attraction. I was feeling like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, or Victor Ward in Glamorama, and then certainly the Bret Ellis character in Lunar Park. If someone held a gun up to my head and I had to say which character best describes my worldview, it would probably be Bret Ellis.

But certainly while I was working on American Psycho, I identified with Patrick Bateman. Not in terms of myself as a murderous clotheshorse, but his loneliness and alienation were certainly [what] I was feeling at that time. I was living a bit of yuppie nightmare when I was in my mid-twenties in Manhattan. That's certainly affected the book. Also, the conformist attitude that was so big in the moment. Which actually still is big: You've got to wear the right suit, you've got to have the right apartment, you've got to have the right body in order to get the right girl. The numbing lists of things you were supposed to have as an American to make you happy, which ultimately, of course, don't. Those aren't the things that make you happy. Which can lead someone to fantasize the most outrageous things in order to feel something. In a way, Patrick Bateman may commit those crimes in order to feel something, or he may have fantasized them in order to feel something. The same way that I think I wrote American Psycho in order to feel something during those years when I was extremely adrift, not feeling connected with the culture and kind of repulsed by what was going on in America at the time. So the answer really is all of them.

GR: Goodreads member Natalie says, "I've had my feminist credentials called into question for defending American Psycho as vehemently as I have. I maintain, among other things, that hypermasculine culture is being satirized. Is this something with which you'd agree?"

BEE: Totally. Of course. I satirize male behavior in everything. Victor Ward is a total girl in Glamorama. All his metrosexual obsessions and his vanity are totally silly. Certainly, the Bret Easton Ellis of Lunar Park is no hero. His wife is a lot saner than he is. If anything, all of my books have added up to a very critical portrait of what it means to be male and American in our society. I'm not really thinking of hating women or being a misogynist. Though, if I was, so what? Would that lessen the appeal of the book? I guess for a certain type of reader, that would. Do I not like certain poets or writers from the '30s because they were anti-Semitic? How does that come into play when you're evaluating art? If you look at the artist or the musician or the painter or the playwright, God only knows how many things you might find about them that you might personally disagree with. So what? You're not evaluating the artist. You're evaluating what they've created. Also, you bring a lot of stuff to the table when you read a novel. Novels mean different things to different people. Half the people who read Less Than Zero took it to be a very seductive, glamorous look at L.A. I've met people in L.A., young people, who say, "Oh man, you wrote Less Than Zero? Yeah, that book made me want to move to L.A." Basically, Natalie is right. The book is that, definitely to a degree. But even if it was written by a misogynist, what does that mean? Does that change the meaning of the book? I don't know. I'm not sure it matters.

GR: Goodreads member Bradley asks, "If you had to assign a musical genre to your writing style, what would it be and why? Do you listen to music while you draft or edit?"

BEE: I don't listen to music anymore [when writing]. I never really did. I think I like to say that I was listening to a lot of music when I was writing Less Than Zero, but you know what, in order to really write, you need quiet. You need to be able to concentrate, and you don't need Tom Petty blasting while you're trying to figure out if a sentence works or not. There is a lot of music in the books. I know that my publisher wanted me to put on iTunes a playlist from every novel, which are available now. I was very surprised when I was going through the books how much music does play a part in them.

As for what kind of music, that's for [the reader] to figure out. For some people, I'm probably hardcore rock or punk. For other people who don't like me, I'm probably elevator music. I'm probably adult contemporary! I love adult contemporary. Rob Thomas? Bring it on!

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

BEE: I have no unusual writing habits, except I like to write in a clean environment. I like to make my bed. I like to make sure the kitchen is clean. I like everything organized. I don't like any clutter. I don't like to have a lot of obligations hanging over my head. I don't like to be worried about things. This comes from the old quote from Flaubert: "In order to write like a revolutionary, you need to live like a bourgeois." Which basically means in order to fully concentrate on the novel you're working on, you need to have all your debts settled more or less. To create under stress, it'll get the job done faster, but it doesn't mean it'll get it done better. I try to keep office hours. I work best during the day.

I write better when I'm happy. I know that sounds strange. Not happy, but where I don't have major drama going on. In fact, I've seen it before in my career, where there was major drama going on I wasn't working so well. Part of the reason Glamorama took so long to finish is that there was a lot of drama going on while I was writing that book. That stopped me from completing that book in the amount of time that I wanted to. I would even say the same holds true for Imperial Bedrooms. While I was working on Imperial Bedrooms they were making the movie version of The Informers, which I'd written and I was producing, and it turned out to be a very difficult, stressful movie to make for a number of reasons. I think that did slow down the writing of Imperial Bedrooms a little. So I need things to be fairly calm in order to move ahead.

GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

BEE: Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion, Gustave Flaubert. You really don't need a lot, actually. You only need one or two when you're young to really do the job. But it changes as you get older. Certainly when I was in my twenties, I started reading a lot of Don DeLillo, and he affected the way I was writing. Later on, Philip Roth. Stephen King, because I wanted to write Lunar Park. And now, Raymond Chandler. That's pretty representative.

GR: Do you have any favorite books?

BEE: Lolita, Sentimental Education by Flaubert, The Great Gatsby, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Middlemarch. A lot of Philip Roth, a lot of Don DeLillo. Play It As It Lays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and The White Album by Joan Didion.

GR: What are you reading now?

BEE: I'm reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, which I had picked up when it first came out and I just didn't get it. It wasn't speaking to me. But over the years enough people have told me that it's worth a second shot, and they were right. I liked Lorrie Moore's book, A Gate at the Stairs, a lot. And I liked Jhumpa Lahiri's last collection of stories, Unaccustomed Earth, very much. And I'm a huge fan of Roberto Bolaño. It took me a year to read, but I really loved 2666.

GR: What's next?

BEE: I'm actually working on various scripts and a TV idea. I have not really planned a novel yet. I have a couple of very vague ideas, but nothing has come together. I've been thinking a lot about Sean Bateman, who is Patrick Bateman's younger brother and the main character in The Rules of Attraction. But he's not haunting me in the way that Clay did. The answer is, I don't know. I really don't have anything that I'm working on now in terms of a novel.

GR: Finally, the movie question: Is it true that you'd like to see the original Less Than Zero cast return for a movie adaptation of Imperial Bedrooms?

BEE: Of course, I'd like the cast back, but there's been no movement on that as a movie. That's really in the very early stages, if it will happen at all. I think it would be a wonderful idea. I just don't know how it would happen. They don't make movies like Imperial Bedrooms for wide release anymore. They used to. If made today, Less Than Zero would be an art house movie, not a big 20th Century Fox film. The times are very different now, and I don't know if Imperial Bedrooms really fits into the movie culture today. But who knows? Stranger things have happened.

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