Bret Easton Ellis — a look back

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Bret Easton Ellis

I’m doing a public interview with the US author Bret Easton Ellis in Dublin on April 25th, so — as well as being in the middle of reading his new memoir White, which is due out in Ireland in May — I decided this evening to have a look back over previous occasions when I met and interviewed him. He’s been a controversial figure in publishing from the get-go — and in 2019, he’s arguably even more of a polarising figure than he was when in his twenties. First up, here’s my first interview with him from 2005, published in the Sunday Business Post in Ireland, followed, after the jump, by my second interview with him, published also in the Business Post, in 2010.

Bret Easton Ellis Interview
By Nadine O’Regan

It’s a Tuesday night at the Edmund Burke theatre in Trinity College Dublin.

Bret Easton Ellis, the renowned author of American Psycho, the novel
in which narrator Patrick Bateman dismembered victims and dressed in
Armani, is midway through a question-and-answer session, when he
reveals that he is currently reading and enjoying the Robbie Williams
autobiography Feel.

His audience, a large motley crew of coat-swaddled students, grinning
older fans clutching tattered copies of American Psycho and Glamorama,
lecturers, journos and the odd bewildered foreigner, erupt into
laughter. But no, Ellis insists, it’s true.

“I love it!” he says, as the chuckles build. “I totally identify with Robbie!”

Ellis‘s tongue might be planted firmly in his cheek, but that doesn’t
mean he’s lying. Robbie and Bret have plenty in common besides a wry
sense of humour.

Massive success early in their careers (Williams for Take That, Ellis
for Less than Zero and American Psycho)? Check. Egocentrism? Check.
History of drug use? Check. Ambiguous sexuality? Check. Willingness to
shock? Check. Loneliness even – perhaps especially – while surrounded
by opulence? Check.

In January 2004, Ellis‘s best friend and partner of six years, the
sculptor Michael Wade Kaplan, died of heart failure after what Ellis
describes as a rare “blow-out” night to celebrate his birthday. Kaplan
was just 30 years old.

In our interview earlier that day, I ask Ellis, 41, if he has come
through the grieving process. The author locks his hands together
behind his head. Eyes damp, he stares up at the ceiling.

“I was in London giving a reading. A thousand people in the audience.
I should have been really excited. And all I’m thinking is, ‘Where’s
Mike? Why did Mike have to die? I would give up any of this just to
hang out with Mike again.’

“It’s so corny, it’s mental in a way. But he’s always around.” Ellis
sighs. “It’s very bad news. I don’t know what to do about it. The only
thing you can do is move on. There’s nothing else I can do.”

Ellis left his New York residence after Kaplan’s death and relocated
to Los Angeles for 19 months. Happiest when writing fiction,
completing his new novel Lunar Park became a refuge for him – but
never a hiding place. Ellis writes not to escape from his life, but
rather to emotionally represent it – and perhaps to explain it.

The book was conceived as far back as 1989 and, although Ellis has
said otherwise, he asserts now that Kaplan’s death did not greatly
influence the material in the finished book. The truth is, he had
other ghosts with which to contend.

Ellis has never quite stepped out of the long shadow cast by his dead
father, an abusive, image-obsessed alcoholic who terrified the young
Bret. Nor has he outdone the success of his third novel American
Psycho, a work so horrifying that his original publisher dropped it,
but that subsequently became a cornerstone – albeit a grim,
blood-spattered one – in American fiction. “It will be the first line
in my obituary,” Ellis says, resigned.

These two hauntings have become intertwined in Lunar Park, a
pseudo-memoir of a man called Bret Easton Ellis who is struggling to
cope with a tsunami of problems: someone is carrying out the crimes
contained in his third novel American Psycho, Ellis has a drink
problem, a wife and child he’s not sure he wants, and – oh dear – his
father appears to have returned from the dead.

Lunar Park feels flawed. It also – crucially – feels true: ditsy and
deeply unconvincing supernatural stuff aside, this book comes on like
a report from the frontline of society. This book is not just about
Bret Easton Ellis. It’s also about our coke-snorting,
emotion-deficient, ruptured family, medicated, celebrity-obsessed,
anomie-filled times. Lunar Park is thought-provoking, gnomic, funny,
original and frequently very sad.

Ellis says he has forgiven his father. But any writer capable of
delineating his parent’s “botched penile implant” still seems to
possess at least a modicum of rage.

But then, of course, as with everything in Lunar Park, you have no
idea whether Ellis is telling the truth. Did Ellis really find blood
on the inseams of his father’s trousers? For that matter, did Ellis,
who is on record as bissexual, although he has never had a wife and
child, actually date both Christy Turlington and George Michael? And
was an “angry drug dealer found choking writer due to ‘lack of
payment’ in alley behind Barnes & Noble”?

Ellis has told the New York Times that he does not intend to
“demystify the text” for readers. True, false, you’ll never know. A
shame, I tell him. I had a list of questions prepared around it. “You
know what?” Ellis says. “I’ve given up. It’s impossible to not talk
about it. I’m answering everything now.”

Righto. So would the level of drug-taking by Bret Easton Ellis in the
book be an accurate representation of the real Bret Easton Ellis‘s
past?

“Now I remember why I didn’t want to answer these questions,” Ellis
says. “Um. Yes. And no. I was really never into heroin. I took it for
like three weeks.

“Which is a lot, but when I see people popping Vicodin, which is, I
think, stronger than heroin…snorting heroin for three weeks? Big
fucking deal. Yeah, during that phase of my life, there were a lot of
drugs. Yes. You got a yes out of me.”

It wasn’t hard to do. Clad in a dark tracksuit, his face a little
bloated (Ellis worries about his drinking), the author seems like he’s
far too busy plumbing the depths in search of himself to be remotely
bothered by what any journalist thinks of him.

Which could be a reason why Ellis is such interesting and frequently
funny company. The crime novelist Stephen King wrote a positive review
of Lunar Park in Entertainment Weekly. “That made me cry,” Ellis says.

Because King was your childhood hero?

“Yeah.” A beat. “I was also a little bit drunk.”

We talk about how his Bennington College peers hated Ellis because he
was successful so young – his novel Less than Zero was published to
widespread acclaim when he was still in university. It’s easier for
people to be generous when they’re successful themselves, I say.

“Oh, I know,” Ellis says. “Jonathan Franzen [former literary dwarf,
now world-renowned literary giant as the author of The Corrections]
used to be such a prick– so red-faced and furious all the time. Now
he’s really nice.”

Being a friend of Ellis‘s, you’d imagine, isn’t easy. The author Jay
McInerney features in some of the funniest scenes in Lunar Park.
McInerney was none too happy about his guest starring role, however.

“He was so hurt and angry,” Ellis says. “And it made me so upset
because I thought Jay had a better sense of humour. Jay’s at a point
in his life where he wants to be very respected. He has issues about
his dignity. He wants to be taken seriously. So when a book like this
is published, yeah, he got pissed. He’s like ‘What are my kids going
to think when they read this and they see me snorting coke off a
Porsche?’

“I just said, ‘Jay, what are your kids going to think when they read
Bright Lights, Big City for Christ’s sake?'”

Asked where Ellis fits into contemporary literature, he indicates with
his arms to show contemporary writers on one planet, him off into
space on the left.

It’s true that Ellis doesn’t exist in any particular coterie. Which
doesn’t change the fact that everyone is watching him nonetheless. His
new novel has received huge coverage in just about every important
publication. The suite in which we sit, paid for by his publishers, is
gargantuan and gorgeous. At the reading, the Trinity theatre is packed
with people listening rapt to Ellis‘s thoughts. Ellis, you think,
should be thrilled.

But then, the one person Ellis would like to be there – Michael Wade
Kaplan – isn’t there. The irony is, Ellis says, Kaplan would never
have come to one of his readings. Kaplan wasn’t a big fan of his
books; they would just have met up at the party afterwards. Stupid to
think of him being there, Ellis says. Stupid. He looks away for a
moment.

Ellis ends the question-and-answer session with a quotation, not from
one of his favourite authors, but from the Robbie Williams song
Strong. “I love that song,” he says. “‘You think I’m strong. But
you’re wrong. You’re wrong.'”

Gales of laughter eddy through the auditorium.

Ellis smiles. “Thank you very much!”

Bret Easton Ellis, the controversial author of Less Than Zero and American Psycho, has just published his sixth novel – but it may be his last, as he believes the age of the book is over, writes Nadine O’Regan

In the salubrious garden of the Merrion Hotel in Dublin city centre, Bret Easton Ellis is laughingly revealing that he has no plans to kill anyone.

‘‘I’m not in yachts, hanging out with vampires, and plotting how to kill the next person,” Ellis says. ‘‘People are always kind of shocked when they meet me. They expect the dark prince of American letters to be greeting them. They have a notion of who Bret Easton Ellis is.”

Frankly, I don’t blame them: Ellis has been notorious for years as the creator of Patrick Bateman, the terrifying New York businessman in Ellis’s third novel, American Psycho, who revels in detailing his sadistic crimes.

A book so horrifying that its original publisher dropped it, American Psycho has become a blood-spattered cornerstone of modern fiction.

Violence, wealth and a sometimes hilariously inappropriate appreciation of music connect all of Ellis’s novels: from his preternaturally powerful debut Less Than Zero, published in 1985 when he was 21, to his new book, Imperial Bedrooms, which returns to the story of Clay, Blair and Daniel.

In his novels, Ellis anaesthetises you with his endless, soporific details of the superficialities of wealthy society — before then shocking you with his scenes of violence, rape and abuse, detailed in the most graphic terms.

The effect on the reader is akin to being hit over the head with an axe, just while you were taking a nap. But if Ellis is here to protest that the author of such horrors is really a fluffy teddy-bear type, then he’s doing quite a good job.

‘‘If you look at the art, I don’t know if you’re going to see the artist,” he says, reasonably. ‘‘Eli Roth is an incredibly sweet guy. So is David Cronenberg. And David Lynch.

“All these guys have had massively dark visions of the world. I think art allows you to go to those places that you don’t necessarily have a desire to go to in your real life.”

Certainly, Ellis looks like anything but a dark prince at the moment – more like a bear with a sore paw.

We meet at 9am on Tuesday, the interview having been arranged early enough so that I can make my deadline.

Clad in sweats, a hoodie and baseball cap, Ellis, sipping on strong coffee, is sleep wrinkled and grouchy. It turns out he battled insomnia for half the night last night – before passing out with a sleeping tablet.

‘‘I hate doing interviews before 11am,” he says. ‘‘I’m on autopilot.” Er, thanks very much for doing this interview, I say.

He smiles, waves a hand. Ellis is a businessman and actually quite a gentleman, albeit of the mischief-making sort.

Sleep issues aside, Ellis looks a million times better than the last time we met, in 2005,when he was doing a book tour to promote the wonderful, slightly autobiographical Lunar Park, a book so initially bizarre and so ultimately sad that it had this reader in tears by the end of it.

The book was finished in the months after Ellis’s best friend and partner, Michael Wade Kaplan, died of heart failure after what Ellis described as a rare ‘‘blow-out’’ night to celebrate his birthday.

Kaplan was just 30 years old. In our interview, Ellis was puffy-cheeked and pale, clearly still grieving. Now, he looks boyish and healthy, much more like the handsome face and ‘writerly’ suit-clad body staring from the inside back cover of Less Than Zero in the 25th-anniversary edition that has just been published.

‘‘If you notice that I’m lighter in my demeanour, spiritually and physically, yeah, you’re right,” Ellis says. ‘‘When Michael died in January 2004, I didn’t think the grieving process was going to end. I thought, ‘This pain will be here forever’.

It went on for about four years. When you saw me, it was barely the second year. It wasn’t until the last two years or so that I’ve kind of recovered from it. You never fully do. But life goes on. You have to move on.”

Moving on for Ellis has meant a literal, as well as psychological, relocation.

After subletting his New York apartment four years ago, he bought an apartment on the edge of West Hollywood in Los Angeles.

A British journalist who visited him recently in Los Angeles expressed shock at the life he was now living.

‘‘We were at the Chateau Marmont,” Ellis says. ‘‘I knew a lot of people there – young actors, executives. And he said: ‘I can’t believe this is your life.

The last time I saw you, you were in New York, and you were part of the literary scene, and you were going to dinner with Toni Morrison and Richard Ford.’ And I said: ‘Yeah, and I was really unhappy.’ I’m tired of the pose of the ‘literary writer’. Age has allowed me to relax. I want to have fun!”

Something of a ham no matter his age, Ellis fairly delights in shocking the highbrow establishment.

He has tweeted about his love of Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé , and said Sex And The City 2 was ‘‘the most underrated movie of the year’’.

Adding fuel to the fire, he has said that he would much prefer to meet Robert Pattinson, star of the Twilight films, than Richard Ford. As for the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll element, Ellis says he took heroin ‘‘for, like, three weeks’’ but is drug-free now.

Oh, wait.

‘‘I say that,” smiles Ellis, ‘‘and I was at a party in London for my book launch, where things got out of hand.”

He also clearly takes a kind of subversive pleasure in mortifying his friends and family.

His long-suffering friend, writer Jay McInerney, was chronicled in Lunar Park as ‘‘the Jayster’’, a dude who likes hanging out at parties, skinny-dipping, and rolling $20 bills into tight green straws and snorting coke off the hoods of Porsches.

Ellis also got his revenge on his father, an abusive alcoholic who terrified the young Bret, by writing about the ‘‘botched penile implant’’ he apparently had.

Ellis will reveal the truth behind any other statement in Lunar Park besides that one. ‘‘I’ve been asked by my sisters and my mother not to comment on that scene.

They’re like: ‘Please, you’ve tarnished Dad’s memory enough, do you really need to go there?’ But let’s be honest, it must have come from somewhere.”

Silence falls. Ellis smiles. ‘‘Where did that come from? Did it happen? I don’t know. If it did, I certainly embellished it.”

Life in LA for Ellis these days follows a pleasant routine of writing, watching movies, hanging out with his new partner and spending time in the gym. He also spends a good portion of his time polishing film scripts for studios and writing screenplays of his own.

The truth is, he’s not necessarily all that interested in writing fiction any more. ‘‘I’m very interested in film as away of expressing myself at this point in my career.

“Much more so than the novel. I just don’t know where to take the novel. I’ve written six novels. Do I need to write six more? The novel was a way for me to express myself emotionally and I’ve done that.

‘‘It might be different in Ireland, but the cultural relevancy of the novel in the United States is pretty much nil. It’s kind of gone. I think that does affect how the writer perceives fiction and works and thinks about books.

“That might be the reason I’ve drifted over into writing scripts, because movies and television seem to me a more vital form of expressing yourself.”

That’s sad to hear, I say, particularly from a writer of his calibre.

‘‘No, it’s not sad!” Ellis explodes. ‘‘We evolve. Why should the old-fashioned, postwar novel be the way we want to experience the world anymore? It was great for its time, but we have other modes of expressing ourselves.

‘‘The big novel used to be a news alert, offering us information from the frontlines of a writer saying: ‘This is how it is’. You would have serious novelists on the cover of Time magazine. The novel does not function on that level anymore.We have too many outlets to get that kind of information.”

Ellis began to feel dispirited, he says, somewhere towards the end of writing his new novel, Imperial Bedrooms, a sequel to Less Than Zero.

To some extent, that may explain while the work – though interesting as a curio and with strong sections — has a less focused and more undercooked feel to it. It is also less of a terrifying indictment of modern society than Less Than Zero was – partly because it lacks the element of surprise that Less Than Zero had, and partly because it picks such an easy target to attack, the Hollywood movie industry.

Ellis wrote the follow-up to Less Than Zero, he says, simply because it demanded to be written: ‘‘It starts tapping you on the back. The tapping turns into a pounding. The pounding turns into a clawing. I was like: ‘I’ve got to do it.”‘

Imperial Bedrooms returns to the story of Clay, now a 40-something screenwriter who has developed from an overly passive kid trapped in a society that is dulling his senses into an alcohol-soaked writer grasping at everything in an attempt to fill the void in himself.

The traces of conscience tellingly present in Less Than Zero are almost absent in Imperial Bedrooms.

When Clay starts up a relationship with a wannabe starlet, who wants him only for a part in the film he’s writing, he actively prefers it when he has to force her into sex.

‘‘When I first touch her she says let’s wait and then I make another threat and the panic is cooled, only by breaking the seal of a bottle of Patrón. . . even though I thought she was numb from the tequila she keeps crying and that makes me harder.”

The first line of Less Than Zero has become iconic: ‘‘People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” The last line of Imperial Bedrooms echoes that line – and perhaps develops it: ‘‘I never liked anyone and I’m afraid of people.”

From being a passive character who refuses to act when he should, Clay has lost any sense of empathy, leading him into evil acts.

Although Clay and his acquaintances cause shocking things to happen, Ellis retains his sympathy for his characters. ‘‘They want to care, but they’re in landscapes or worlds that don’t allow them to. They have been damaged, and that has caused them to react in this way.

“But, you know, even Patrick Bateman [from American Psycho], I find empathy for. I find all my characters trying hopelessly to connect in a world that isn’t interested in connection.”

If Ellis makes good on his threat (or promise, depending on how you see it), he will be writing film scripts from now on rather than books – which possibly leaves him with something of a problem, considering Hollywood rather loves a happy ending, and Ellis conspicuously doesn’t: ‘‘I never liked anyone and I’m afraid of people’’?

As the publicist intercedes to tap his watch and the interview draws to a conclusion, I ask if Ellis believes in a happy-ever-after, for himself or anyone else.

‘‘I don’t,” he says. ‘‘A happy ending. Happiness. It’s such a strange idea. It’s forced upon us. What about just being okay? How about just not being unhappy?”

Bret Easton Ellis smiles, shakes my hand and exits the garden, looking neither happy nor unhappy – but just playing the pre designated role of the dark prince of American letters, moving on ceaselessly to his next media appointment.

Ends..

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