Before he’s even taken his seat in the Merrion Hotel lounge in Dublin, Bret Easton Ellis is demanding to know what we could possibly ask that he hasn’t already been asked a thousand times before. He’s certainly changed from our last encounter five years ago, when he was still recovering from the deaths of his father and sometime lover Michael Wade Kaplan.
If 2005′s Lunar Park suggested the writer was adopting a more compassionate tone in his work, the new book Imperial Bedrooms signals a return to numbed brutalism. It’s also a sequel to his celebrated debut Less Than Zero (“It’s aged pretty well, I think,” he says of that first book, “the neutrality, the flatness of tone helped.”). 25 years down the line, glazed party boy Clay is now in his early 40s, a successful screenwriter with a production credit that he uses to bed desperate actresses. Years in Hollywood hell have reduced him to a wretched, dehumanised, semi-alcoholic shell. The Satanic shadow of Chip Kidd’s stunning cover design is only slightly overstating the case.
Is it any good? Yes and no. The first half, in which Clay is stalked by cellphone and falls for a very 21st century kind of LA femme fatale (beautiful but vacuous, devious but dim) is a modern day Mulholland Drive/The Big Sleep/Sunset Boulevard noir that updates the blank generationism of its predecessor to an age when people have more intimate relationships with their cellphones than their fellow human beings. Once past the halfway mark the book loses focus, lapsing into convoluted plot manouevres, long passages of clumsy he said/she said dialogue and some skin-crawling ultraviolence. The snuff movie of Less Than Zero has been supplanted by online digital nasties that make Salo look like Sesame Street. In other words, Imperial Bedrooms is something of a regression.
But Ellis remains one of the few literary stars left, one who can still generate headlines before breakfast (recent comments about why he believes men are innately more suited to making films than women had the bloggers up in arms). Every one of his books has been filmed or is in production, and he’s lately been writing for television. His most notorious work American Psycho remains one of the few books to be sold in shrink-wrap and stamped with an over-18s sticker. The controversy that attended that book’s publication (a corporate hand-washing fiasco that echoed the release of Never Mind The Bollocks), may have receded, and Mary Harron’s film adaption, starring Christian Bale as the sociopathic, cannibalistic Huey Lewis-loving yuppie Patrick Bateman, has both disseminated and diluted the shockwaves throughout the culture, but a re-reading confirms it as one of the all-time great bad novels, indulgent snuff porn in parts (and there are a lot of parts), but frequently hilarious. Ellis’s stock is still high despite the recession: here’s one of the few authors who can justify a big budget transatlantic junket and a room at the Merrion.
Peter Murphy: At the conclusion of our last meeting, I asked a question about where you might go next in your work. Your response, delivered with mock horror, was, “Back to Less Than Zero?!!” And here we are.
Bret Easton Ellis: I was talking about it even then? That was 2005.
Were there any devil’s advocate voices saying, “Don’t go back there”?
If there were it was for about five seconds. Once I figured out the story I was quite excited, and that dread I so theatrically displayed evaporated. I don’t have that filter of the devil’s advocate, which a lot of critics say I should have. Norman Mailer definitely thought I should have. He didn’t like being left alone with Patrick Bateman for 400 pages. He had a good time for 150 pages, but when he got to 155 he said, “Bret Easton Ellis has left the room. I’m stuck alone here with Patrick Bateman. Bret Ellis has given the novel completely over to him, and he has not done the novelist’s job, which is to stay in the room with the characters and help guide them in a novelistic manner. Mr Ellis has completely foregone plot and logic and all he’s done is left us with this person.” Exactly Norman! Exactly!
Well, it was no joke being left in the room with Gary Gilmore either.
That’s a very old school way of thinking about the novel, and I had already moved past that I guess with Less Than Zero. Do we need more of the well-crafted novel of manners that is about the awakening of one character’s moral mind within a cast of characters set among a series of places? Y’know, the kind of novel where the author has one idea that he could probably tell you in a sentence, but instead of Tweeting it he decides to blow it into a 400 page novel filled with declarations and elaborate rooms and conversations. I think that sensibility creating that kind of novel is no longer central to the culture. It’s just not. It’s over.
Some of the graphically violent sections of the new book were the subject of contention between you and your editor. I certainly didn’t feel too good after reading them. I can’t decide whether they detract from the work or brand it onto the reader’s mind. I get a similarly queasy feeling from Dennis Cooper’s writing. How do you feel about them?
I think they’re part of a whole. They don’t leap out at me in the same way as I guess they leap out to a reader. I’m really not thinking about the reader’s reaction, I’m thinking about the book that I want to write. I’ve been thinking about and working on this book for probably too long and those subjects are just part of the book. And I still regret that I did cower down to my editor, who had a lot of issues about it and thought about it a lot, and I just didn’t trust him on it. We made a compromise and I did make some edits that I regret now.
But actually hearing your response, which is not unusual, I feel like maybe my editor was doing the right thing. He kept saying, “Look, you’re pushing this as far as I want it to be pushed, and with these other details it just becomes a distraction. The reader is already going to be a bit freaked out.” And of course I’m not thinking about them, I don’t really care, I put those details in there because I want them there, and his argument is, ‘Well, I’m the editor and I want the book to be a certain way, and I’m trying to protect you as as well, and I’ve known you for 20 years, it’s not like I’m just being a puritan.” But when I write those scenes it’s like anything else I discover – I’m having fun. And my relationship to this book is completely different than a reader’s relationship to it. And it’s interesting that you respond this way.
Well, I love Jim Thompson, but he makes me want to take a bath after I read him.
Nicholas Sparks makes me want to take a bath after reading him! I get dark thrills from where Dennis Cooper would go with his fiction, and how transgressive it was, and I was at times elated and other times it bummed me out: “This is just overly extravagant.” I don’t know, my attraction or repulsion to a work is not dependent on its high violence quotient. It’s like a musical number.
Whatever about the writing, I have a far bigger problem with the interactive promo game The Devil In You featured on your website. (The ‘game’ a rather crass and not very sophisticated Q&A casting couch scenario, takes the POV of a director auditioning an actress, offering a variety of ways in which to humiliate or exploit her.)
You wouldn’t if they’d done what I asked and put another girl and a couple of guys in it. They forgot to put a guy in there, and that is the problem. It reinforces a certain kind of misogyny. And the original plan was to do a series of them, so you had boys and girls doing it. And just because you have one girl and it becomes this interactive game, I understand the… quite honestly very ‘vaggy’ complaints. And you have daughters, so I think you might have a different reaction to this kind of thing, it just feels skeezy.
I don’t think it’s got anything to do with having daughters. I’ve no problem with murder ballads in which Victorian ladies get their brains dashed out. The issue is not that the game is misogynistic – which it is – but that it’s clichéd.
Look, believe me, I didn’t come up with it, I didn’t do it. It was brought to me by an advertising agency in conjunction with the publisher and they designed the thing and when I first saw it I said, “Okay, well let’s push it farther,”’ and they said, “Well, we can only go so far. We can’t show her being fucked.”
It would have been far more interesting had there been options from the actress’s point of view outlining how she might react to the director’s questions: “Do I dance for him, do I not dance for him, do I tell this guy to fuck off?”
Yeah, but that’s not how it works. She doesn’t get those choices, she doesn’t get to say anything. What they needed to do was get another girl and two guys and then I think it kind of would have kind of made sense. It’s just they didn’t have the money.
A lot of people took issue with a recent comment you made about female directors.
Yes. Which I don’t blame them for.
The irony is Mary Harron directed American Psycho. And this year Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar.
Yeah, for what I don’t think is a very interesting film, but that’s… whatever. Look, what I should’ve said is the films that I’m interested in are often not directed by women, they’re directed by men. I should’ve reworded it or just kept it to myself, but it was embedded in a very long interview with a journalist, and I didn’t really realise during our three hour conversation that that would be pulled. Look, I’m not standing back, I said it, I totally said it, and I went forward with it too, I kept going on with it, thinking, “He’s not going to use this.” We were talking about Imperial Bedrooms and whatever, and because it was for Movieline it did end up being about movies. Now, what do I do with that? I don’t know.
Well, let’s apply it to the book, which has as its central premise an actress being exploited by a writer. Many would argue the lack of women directors is down to a hierarchical power structure.
I don’t know if that’s true at all, because there are plenty of women in power – not plenty, but there are women in power – who have final cut over their films, and their films look different from men. They simply look different. Even Claire Denis films look different from other French filmmakers. I really do think – and I’m going to get in so much trouble if I keep going on about it – that films directed by men look different than films directed by women. Look, one of the only things that I found interesting about The Hurt Locker is this beautiful woman had directed this film. I thought it was really, “Been here, seen this,” but actually very well done. Believe me, I think if a man had directed The Hurt Locker it wouldn’t have gotten six Oscars. There’s just no way. It’s just that it was a very un-vaggy film. It seems like it was made by somebody who has a penis. And if you look back at all Kathryn Bigelow’s movies, they’re all like that, and it’s ironic that the one woman who wins an Oscar is the only woman who directs like a man. I think that’s quite telling. She was awarded for directing like a man, period. There’s not a single speaking part in that movie for a female. So I don’t know why everybody’s so excited about it. The most masculine female director in the world wins an Oscar.
I think it’s worth mentioning that the fight scenes in Raging Bull were edited by Thelma Schoonmaker.
And all Scorsese’s films. And that does give Scorsese’s films… I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, it is out there, but in the overall general picture of things, it just doesn’t seem to be the kind of medium… I think it’s changing, and I’ve gone on record to say that there are films I’ve seen by women that I like. But the really eerie thing – all the shit that I got for that comment, all over the internet, thousands of Tweets responding to that, and I had not a single man criticise me. A ton of women on all the comment boards called me douchebag, freakin’ misogynist, doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about. Not a single man. And a lot of my close friends said, “Y’know, you shouldn’t have said it, but you’re right.”
You’ve been writing for television lately. Ten years ago that would have been seen as hack work for a novelist. But the terrain’s changed. There are very few modern novels that can match The Wire or Deadwood in terms of depth, scale and complexity.
TV wasn’t doing this before. PBS might have been doing their mini series, but in terms of shows exploding like that in the American culture, shows that were novelistic, literary in nature, digressive – that’s a big thing. An episode of The Sopranos didn’t have A-story/B-story/A-story/B-story… You had like A-B-C-D-E-F, and then maybe back to B, and then maybe at the end we’d hit A again, and it didn’t have those clunky rhythms that old American television had. The Wire exploded that, Six Feet Under as well. The novel will never die, but I think, for example, going on a book tour, punching out these books, these copies, these book-like objects, paying an author and his agents a certain amount of money and staying in a hotel like this and talking to journalists… This is an old school empire situation, this is like from 1999. I don’t know any writers who go on a book tour any more.
I was surprised that you recently conceded the point Lionel Shriver raised in her review of Imperial Bedrooms, that your publisher will spend a lot of money on marketing you that could be used to fund other books.
Yes, she’s right about that, and that is a fact, Picador did spend a lot of money bringing me over, and the money that they spent promoting me, throwing launch parties et cetera, yes, it takes away money from other novelists. That is just a simple fact of how corporate publishing works, Lionel Shriver is correct in that regard. You can paint that black or find it interesting. The book business has become a bit of a dinosaur. But what is it transitioning into? That is interesting. I’m not pessimistic about that. We can be nostalgic for the way the book business worked because we came of age in it, and it worked for us for a while, but I don’t know any of my 23 or 24 year old friends lamenting the demise of the book industry.
If they’re writers, they’re probably posting their work online and hatching viral marketing schemes and making YouTube promo movies and so on.
Publishing chapter 1 on Facebook… Someone was Twittering a short story in the states. It is different. I have friends who know I’m on this tour who are 23, 24, 25, and they’re like, “Are you kidding me? This is what you do? Isn’t there an easier way to make money? This seems like such a nightmare!’ And I’m like, ‘Well, this is how it was done when I was your age, Sonny!’
You said something recently about human emotions becoming digitised in the age of new technologies. It suggested a generation of medicated zombies hooked up to cellphones and i-pods, addicted to the constant mindless chatter.
I think we have a hunger to evolve. Human beings want change, and we are evolving right now, rapidly. I do not think two 24 year olds would be having this conversation. They don’t think of themselves as zombies, they see themselves as completely technologically adept, they’ve been on meds since they were eight and it’s just part of their lifestyle. That’s not how we were raised. Yes, I had my brief flashes of moral outrage at my younger friends and how they were dealing with the world, and when I realised they didn’t have a clue as to what I was complaining about, it snapped me out of it and then I kind of got on board and realised, “Yes, this is cool.” Okay, fine, I don’t have eight IM chats going on at once and I’m not posting my status on Facebook every hour, but all of them are, and it’s just the fabric of their life. I know a lot of young people, for whatever reasons, and I don’t see them as zombified.
I was at a dinner party with a lot of people my age, very successful in the entertainment industry, some of them had been writers in the empire and had published successful novels and now can’t get their books published anymore, and we were at a very nice house up in LA, and all these people did was complain about the youth. And this was a huge moment for me. You can paint it black or you can look at it and go, “It’s fantastic that technology is letting people connect with the world.” Because basically people have a hunger to connect, and technology allows that. And yes, it is strange, but plenty of people have met and gotten married that way compared to the amount of people who’ve met and gotten murdered.
Have you ever hooked up with someone through the internet?
I can’t do that because I’m called out. I tried early on but it just doesn’t work. I can’t meet people on the internet, and I’m very jealous of people who can and have. But it attracts sociopaths. Even if you put on a fake screen name and put up pics. So I’m jealous.
Ever been cyber-stalked?
No. But I’ve stalked on the internet. I got on Facebook to stalk somebody. I remember the night I heard about Facebook, I was at dinner with a friend who said, “Remember GR?” This was someone I’d dated. And I said, “Yeah, what about GR?” “Don’t go on Facebook. Don’t look at the page.” And tamping down my panic in this restaurant, I said, “What’s Facebook, what are you talking about?” “Well, they have a page and there’s some stuff on it I don’t think you’d be happy with.” And of course I realised that this friend was being an asshole. And I said, “I’m not gonna go on Facebook, I don’t really care,” and got through dinner in a barely suppressed rage, just smiling and drinking more and more wine, rushed home, logged on, got my own page and then looked at what was being posted, the sexuality, all the hooking up, “Are you interested in me?” all of this stuff was on this person’s Facebook. And then I had to take a bunch of Xanax and pass out and go to bed. This was years ago, when if you logged onto Facebook there was a little tiny thing in the bottom that said, “If you do not want us to invite everyone in your contact sheet, please remove this check.” I didn’t see that, so the next morning, the minute that I logged on, there were like 500 people that had got an invite from me on Facebook, and I had like a hundred responses back from various people. And the final one was from the person that I had stalked, who had sent me an email saying, “Why are you stalking me on Facebook?”
It used to be a lot easier to get over someone. You just avoided them.
Fuck, yes! You have to do a lot of blocking. You have to let it go. But it is much harder to get over somebody because of Facebook. The pain seems to have a double life now instead of a single life. This is just where we are.
What’s your favourite line that you’ve written?
Does it have to be from a novel?
“I think the fact that I love you is a positive thing.”
Are you aware of the term erotographomania?
It’s a compulsion to write love letters.
Uh-hm. I had a period where I was doing that. (Laughs) And I kind of regret it. But it had some of the best writing that I will ever achieve. My best prose.
Written with the intention of winning someone?
It was with the intention… Something had broken up, and it was not my decision to break it off, and the pain I felt caused me to then write the letters. Not only letters but unfortunately emails. And so the email thing is forever out there. They can be displayed to whoever, whenever they want, from my account. I can’t deny them.
This may be somewhat off the point, but there’s a sadness about the first two pages of Imperial Bedrooms that reminds me of a Tom Petty song called ‘Insider’ .
That’s my favourite song off Hard Promises. It’s with Stevie Nicks. A ballad. Beautiful song. That’s a random… I’ll have to re-listen to that.
It’s something about those lines: “That’s how I became the boy who never understood how anything worked. That’s how I became the boy who wouldn’t save a friend. That’s how I became the boy who couldn’t love the girl.”
It makes me sad to hear that, because I really don’t re-read this book at all, and I just realised how sad I was when I wrote this and how black a period it was. It just informed everything. How different that book would have been if it had been written four or five years before.
You were definitely a lot more fragile the last time we met. You looked like someone that needed to be wrapped in cotton wool.
(Laughs) I know. It was rough. It was a very bad time. That tour was really really hard. I was on auto-pilot on that tour. I was fake. I mean, I was real to a degree, but I was just going through the motions and I really wasn’t engaged and I was lost in my own, whatever, misery. I had about three years where I didn’t want to get out of my bed. We all go through it. I guess you just get tired of it, and like anything else it just kind of fades away. I heard from much older men I know in their 60s and 70s that it goes away for a long time. They say your early 40s are your worst period, a terrible, terrible time for a man, from 40 to about 45, and then things get great, late 40s and 50s, it’s all fantastic, and then you hit the 60-plus one. That’s the one you never recover from! So that fills me with some sense of hope… and also a sense of dread.
Imperial Bedrooms is published by Picador.
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/pMFRuEnWZ50" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/EzRByZOk9OE" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]