Jay McInerney and Ellis in 1990.
Bret Easton Ellis was born in 1964 in Los Angeles, grew up in the San Fernando Valley, went to a local private school called Buckley, and drove his parents’ hand-me-down Mercedes 450SL. “In retrospect, we were pretty well-off,” he told me. “But at the time, I didn’t feel that way. Most of my friends lived in bigger houses in better neighborhoods and drove nicer cars.”
At the age of twenty, while a junior at Bennington, Ellis sold his first novel, Less Than Zero, to Simon and Schuster for five thousand dollars. The book is about a group of burned-out rich kids in L.A., with names like Clay and Rip and Blair and Spin, who do almost nothing (other than have sex, do drugs, watch MTV, play video games, and drive around the city looking for one another) for two hundred pages. It’s funny, creepy, and vaguely gothic, with coyotes howling in the Hollywood Hills, lizards crawling out of glove compartments, and rumors about a werewolf preying on people in Bel Air.
Not everyone at Simon and Schuster loved the book. In the words of one editor, as Ellis was later told, “If there’s an audience for a novel about coke-snorting, cock-socking zombies, then by all means let’s publish the damn thing.” It turned out there was a audience for it. Less Than Zero would eventually sell millions of copies around the world and make Bret Easton Ellis one of the youngest literary stars in American history.
Now forty-seven, Ellis has published six novels—Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction (1987), American Psycho (1991), Glamorama (1998), Lunar Park (2005), and Imperial Bedrooms (2010)—and one short-story collection, The Informers (1995). “Every one of my books,” he told me, “is an exercise in voice and character, an exploration, through a male narrator who is always the same age I am at the time, of the pain I’m dealing with in my life.” Whether he’s writing about a serial killer who works on Wall Street (American Psycho) or a suburban dad named Bret Easton Ellis (Lunar Park), all his books deal with absent fathers, unrequited love, and the pressure to conform.
After college, Ellis moved to New York City, bought a small apartment off Union Square, and lived there for most of the next twenty years. His memory for dates is superhuman. Without consulting a diary or datebook, he would say things to me like: “The four worst summers of my life were in ’92, ’01, ’07, and ’08”; “I started working on Imperial Bedrooms in June ’06, and during that time The Informers premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of ’09 but opened theatrically in the U.S. in April of ’09, and then I finished Imperial Bedrooms in May ’09”; “I left New York for good, and with a bad coke hangover, on June 16, 2006.”
Ellis is all about Hollywood now. At any one time he might be working on a dozen different screenplays, television scripts, or pilots. Since finishing Imperial Bedrooms, which was a sequel of sorts to Less Than Zero (same characters, same setting, but twenty-five years later), he hasn’t started a new book, and it’s possible he’ll never write another one. “The form of the novel,” he says, “doesn’t interest me right now.”
Ellis lives in a nice two-bedroom apartment near Beverly Hills. One of the two bedrooms serves as his office, and this is where I interviewed him—three times in the fall of 2010, three times the following spring, and always (at his request, since he writes in the morning and takes meetings at night) in the afternoon, between one and five. The sun had a way of coming through his office window that hurt my eyes a bit and warmed the room up. After the first meeting, I kept asking him if we could maybe take some of our meetings to a different location, to a bar or restaurant or café, but he kept saying no, he’d rather not, since it made him self-conscious to be interviewed in public. At the beginning of the sixth and final interview, I confessed that the sun was hurting my eyes and making me a little hot, and he was embarrassed by this and gently scolded me: “Dude, you should have told me. I would have opened the window. I would have lowered the blinds.”
He agreed, instead, to take our final meeting in his BMW, which he drove through the Hollywood Hills, pointing out the houses where he partied in high school.
Have you ever made money from anything other than writing?
No babysitting, no bartending, no teaching gigs?
I’d be a terrible babysitter, a terrible teacher, maybe a so-so bartender. No, the only money I’ve ever made is from writing novels and short stories and screenplays and TV scripts and TV pilots and the occasional essay on pop culture.
Is there anything you’ve ever wanted to be besides a writer?
A musician. I was in a band in L.A. in high school, and then I was in another band at Bennington. I played keyboards and wrote songs. Then Less Than Zero happened. And once it became clear I could make a living from writing, I never seriously thought about making money any other way. I still played in bands here and there after college, but writing gradually took over my life.
When you say that Less Than Zero “happened,” what do you mean? You just whipped it out and sold it?
No. When I sold Less Than Zero to Simon and Schuster in April 1984, I had been working on that book, in one form or another, for five years, ever since I was a sophomore in high school. There were many different drafts along the way. The earlier drafts were more autobiographical and read like teen diaries or journal entries—lots of stuff about the bands I liked, the beach, the Galleria, clubs, driving around, doing drugs, partying. When I was eighteen, I wrote an entirely new draft, in which the narrator is back in L.A. for Christmas break after a semester spent back East at college. This was the draft I showed to Joe McGinniss, who was teaching at Bennington, and the draft that eventually became the published version.
I first met Joe in 1982, when I was a freshman at Bennington. He was teaching a course that was only open to juniors and seniors—a kind of nonfiction creative-writing course. I forget what it was called but it was basically about using fictional techniques in journalism, and reading the New Journalism of the sixties personified by Wolfe, Talese, Mailer, Didion. And he let me in because he liked the writing samples I submitted, which were sections of what became Less Than Zero. At Bennington, which encourages students to be self-motivated, you could make up your own courses, so the following year I proposed a “Novel Writing Tutorial with Joe McGinniss,” which he agreed to teach because he liked the pieces I had written for that journalism class, as well as the sections of the novel I had shown him. There were, I think, a total of three students in that writing tutorial—Donna Tartt was one of the other two.
Was Donna Tartt writing The Secret History in that seminar?
Yes. When I first met Donna, in 1982, she was already working on the book that would become The Secret History. Her roommate and my roommate were friends, and they both thought that Donna and I would like each other. So Donna and I went out—I wouldn’t call it a date exactly, we were just hanging out—and in order to have something to talk about, each of us put some work into the other’s mailbox. Hers was a chapter from what was then called The Gods of Illusion, and I gave her part of what would become Less Than Zero.
How did a junior in college manage to publish a novel?
Joe McGinniss was instrumental. When I was writing Less Than Zero, I had no serious hopes of publishing it. I was sophisticated enough to know that twenty-year-olds don’t publish novels. I was writing it because I enjoyed writing it and because it was cathartic. Some people release their pain and anxiety through, oh, I don’t know, playing sports, or a hobby, or through sex or drugs. Writing, for me, was always a great stress reliever, a way of dealing with pain. It was Joe McGinniss who thought the book had commercial potential, so he showed it to an agent, Sterling Lord, who agreed. And Joe had shown parts of it to Morgan Entrekin, who was then an editor at Simon and Schuster and working on Joe’s book Fatal Vision, who also agreed—though when Less Than Zero was published in May of 1985, Morgan had moved on to Grove, and I had switched agents to Amanda Urban at ICM. The book was not an immediate success. It wasn’t until the fall that the book blew up. And not all the initial reviews were positive. About half were negative.
Readers have always assumed that Clay, the narrator, is your alter ego.
And when American Psycho came out, people assumed I was Patrick Bateman, and when Glamorama came out, they assumed I was Victor Ward. And when Imperial Bedrooms came out, they assumed I was Clay again. I get, “Dude, are you Clay?” all the time. Well, I write novels, and though there are autobiographical elements in them, who really cares how much of me is in the book? As it happens, there is very little in Less Than Zero that’s based on my real life. Yes, like Clay I had two sisters, and my parents were divorced, and many of my friends were wealthy and did drugs and seemed promiscuous—or so I thought at the time. But I was a relatively well-adjusted kid. I mean, I wasn’t as severely alienated as Clay. I had a girlfriend. I liked to dance. I liked to joke around. I liked going to parties. I liked seeing bands. I loved movies. I enjoyed a lot of my life. It’s not clear that Clay actually loves doing anything. And I was relatively engaged, intellectually—at least relative to Clay. I was reading Joan Didion, and I was trying to write a novel, and I was the film and rock-music critic for the high school newspaper . . . until I was kicked off.
Kicked off why?
A lot of people hated my reviews. I’d write a glowing review of something like Elvis Costello’s country-music record, Almost Blue, but no one at my high school wanted to read about Elvis Costello, much less about his country album. They wanted me to write about how great the latest Journey and Foreigner records were.
In American Psycho, in chapters called “Genesis,” “Whitney Houston,” and “Huey Lewis and the News,” Patrick Bateman writes glowing reviews of every single album by those three bands. Were these reviews—of bands that your classmates in high school presumably liked—your way of making fun of the people who didn’t appreciate your music criticism?
That had nothing to do with including those reviews in the book. No, the reason Patrick Bateman loves this music, and wants to tell us all about it in excruciating detail, is because he wants to fit in. And that was the music that was popular at the time.
Plot has never been a hugely important part of your books. To the extent that there’s a plot in Less Than Zero, it’s Clay trying to get his money back from Julian.
And to the extent that there’s a plot, that’s my least favorite part of the book. In the first draft, which was much longer, the plot was less relevant. But in the course of being condensed, the plot took on more significance than I realized at the time. I look back at that book and think of the plot as having imposed itself on the material.
Incidentally, someone recently noted that if Less Than Zero were written now it would be about twenty pages long because of cell phones and texting. There’s a long stretch in the book where Clay is driving around looking for Julian, stopping off at friends’ houses to use their phones. He even stops in at a McDonald’s to use a pay phone. But people can find each other very easily now. A single text—“Dude, where the fuck are you? I want my money”—would take care of three-fourths of the action in the book.
Many critics took Less Than Zero almost literally, and were shocked by your bleak account of life in L.A. for young rich kids. And yet the most “shocking” scenes in the book, such as a bunch of surfers gang-raping a twelve-year-old girl, seem implausible. It’s hard to believe that these burned-out kids—spoiled and alienated, certainly, but hardly psychopaths—are capable of such violence.
On the cover of some editions of Less Than Zero there’s a quote from Michiko Kakutani’s review in The New York Times—“One of the most disturbing novels I’ve read in a long time. It possesses an unnerving air of documentary reality.” That’s the only nice thing she said about it. In fact, that’s the only nice thing she’s ever said about any of my books. I “disturbed” Michiko Kakutani. My novel, which was intended to be a novel and not a documentary, disturbed her.
Look, you could very easily argue that the rape of the twelve-year-old girl is an implausible scene, but for me it seemed to matter a lot at the time. The moment in that book that meant the most to me occurs after Clay says to Rip, “Oh God, Rip, come on, she’s eleven.” Rip says, “Twelve.” And then Clay pauses, mulls that over for a few seconds, and says, “Yeah, twelve.” For Clay, the girl being twelve and not eleven is relevant. The distinction makes sense to him and to the society he’s a part of. To me that’s the most important moment of the book. That’s Clay.
Did the success of Less Than Zero mess with your head when you were writing The Rules of Attraction?
When Less Than Zero was published, I had already outlined The Rules of Attraction and written half of it. And by the time Less Than Zero became a best seller six months later, The Rules of Attraction had been put to bed. It was done. The success of Less Than Zero had no effect at all on that book.
The person who wrote The Rules of Attraction didn’t seem to love Bennington very much.
Really? I loved Bennington. I remember parts of that novel being fairly lyrical about the place, but maybe not. Maybe, at times, I was just writing about a group of self-absorbed assholes, but really The Rules of Attraction was an attempt to write the kind of college novel I had always wanted to read and could never find. I related to all the characters. I was fairly bisexual in college—I had girlfriends, I had boyfriends. I identified with Victor not realizing that there was this girl who cared for him a lot, but she was just a blip on his screen. I related to Sean, where maybe a guy really liked me, but nothing was going on, and yet he was talking to other people about his feelings toward me, while I was fucking everyone else in sight. I related to Paul and Lauren, liking someone and being rebuffed by them. I was able to feel everything that everyone was going through in that book, and that’s one of the reasons why I wrote it. I had been all of them.
How do you feel, looking back at that book twenty-five years later, about the obsessive use of stream of consciousness?
Would I write that book today? No. Because I’m not reading Ulysses today, and I’m not in college. The year I wrote the bulk of The Rules of Attraction, I was taking a seminar on Ulysses, and I was fascinated by the stream-of-consciousness technique. So I ended up writing a book that takes place on a college campus very much like the one I was attending and with three main narrators who, through free-associative monologues, describe, very differently, events that all three are experiencing. You might argue that there is not a lot at stake in this book, where the worst thing that can happen to these characters is that they don’t end up at the right party or with the right girl or with the right drug. But isn’t that what college, for most kids, is all about? I was trying to write a book that captures what life is really like in college, the nonacademic side of it at least, and I think it succeeds on that level. It is also, oddly enough, the only book of mine with four stars on Amazon.
You once said that you read the comments about your books on Amazon, because, in part, they keep your ego in check. Still true?
That sounds like something I might have said, though I’m not sure if I really meant it. I used to read the comments about my books from time to time. I don’t now. A lot of them were incredibly negative, but I don’t know if they kept my ego in check so much as they entertained me. I got used to negative comments in workshops in college. Workshops are where you first start hearing people say really dumb things about your writing and where you first start developing an ability to deflect those comments, or at least not let them change what you initially wanted to do with a particular story. You need that kind of armor to survive as a writer.
What kind of editorial advice did you get on The Rules of Attraction?
Robert Asahina, who became my editor at Simon and Schuster after Morgan Entrekin went to Grove, made a number of editorial suggestions. The stream of consciousness didn’t always work for him. The syntax didn’t always work for him. The grammar didn’t always work for him. Certain characters who appeared out of nowhere and never came back didn’t work for him. Some of the scenes, which seemed impractical to his very practical Asian mind, didn’t work for him—the book beginning and ending in mid-sentence, for example, the monologue in French, the blank page after the abortion. And to all his suggestions I said, Stet, stet, stet. The book felt loose and messy, and I liked it that way.
How did Asahina respond to these many stets?
By letting me publish the book I wanted to publish. I was very obsessive, very protective about that book, perhaps overly so. The font used for the characters’ names? I insisted they change it. The amount of spacing between each character’s monologue? I insisted they make it bigger. I wanted huge space breaks, about two and a quarter inches wide. I was very uptight about that. The unflattering author photo I gave them, which they hated? I insisted they use it. “Why are you giving us this ugly black-and-white photo of you sitting on a stoop somewhere, squinting and clearly hungover? You’re young and gorgeous, Bret! You’re so marketable! Give us something gorgeous!” And I thought, No, I’m not gorgeous, and this book isn’t about that. In a lot of ways it was a pretty severe takedown of where I thought my generation was at during that time—the Empire decadence of the Reagan eighties—and I wanted a photo on the book that expressed what I thought was in the book. They were pissed, of course, but they used the photo anyway.
After Bennington, you moved to New York and wrote American Psycho. What was going on in your life, or in your mind, that explains the crazy violence in that book?
American Psycho came out of a place of severe alienation and loneliness and self-loathing. I was pursuing a life—you could call it the Gentlemen’s Quarterly way of living—that I knew was bullshit, and yet I couldn’t seem to help it. American Psycho is a book about becoming the man you feel you have to be, the man who is cool, slick, handsome, effortlessly moving through the world, modeling suits in Esquire, having babes on his arm. It’s about lifestyle being sold as life, a lifestyle that never seemed to include passion, creativity, curiosity, romance, pain. Everything meaningful wiped away in favor of surfaces, in favor of looking good, having money, having six-pack abs, dating the hottest porn star, going to the hottest clubs. On the surface, like Patrick Bateman, I had everything a young man could possibly want to be “happy” and yet I wasn’t. I think Fight Club is about this, too—this idea that men are sold a bill of goods about what they have to be in order to feel good about themselves, or feel important. No one can really live up to these ideals, so there’s an immense amount of dissatisfaction roiling through the collective male psyche. Patrick Bateman is the extreme embodiment of that dissatisfaction. Nothing fulfills him. The more he acquires, the emptier he feels. On a certain level, I was that man, too.
The violence in that book is directed against men, women, Jews, mimes, dogs, “bums,” “niggers,” “faggots,” people who smoke cigarettes, “slanty-eyed” Chinese people, et cetera, and yet the novel aroused controversy only over its treatment of women. Why?
Months before the book was published, a few pages of the manuscript were leaked to the media, and these were the pages in which Patrick Bateman kills women, or fantasizes about killing women. The critics who read these pages naturally assumed they were representative of the whole book, and so a lot of outraged reviews and editorials started appearing in The New York Times—an essay in the Book Review attacking me, an op-ed by Lorrie Moore, and on and on and on. “What has society come to when a book like this can be published by a responsible publisher like Simon and Schuster?” And keep in mind, these weren’t right-wing conservatives attacking me. These were “well-meaning” liberals, primarily feminists. I wasn’t a misogynist when I wrote the book, but the unearned feminist hysteria briefly turned me into one.
Did Simon and Schuster come to your defense?
They dropped me. The book was cancelled, either the last week of November or the first week of December, in 1990. Sonny Mehta, who had recently become the editor in chief of Knopf, picked it up, which made people even angrier because it was a more respectable publishing house than Simon and Schuster. In January I got a call from my agent. She said, and I’m paraphrasing, “You’ve been getting death threats, and we need to show them to you. Legal has talked it over. If we don’t show them to you, and you’re not aware of them, then if something happens to you, we are liable, and your parents can sue us. So we’re going to send you a packet of these death threats, and you can look through them, and verify that you have seen them.” That was a very interesting afternoon.
Some of these threats included drawings of my body, and people describing how they were going to torture me, and what they were going to do to my corpse. They were going to do the same things to me that they thought “I” had done to the women in this book they hadn’t even read yet. But when the book came out a few months later, the controversy stopped. The complaints, the protests, the screaming about what a monster Bret Easton Ellis supposedly was, it all stopped. People finally read the book, and they found out that it wasn’t four hundred pages of torture and mutilation and advocating the death of women. It’s just some boring novel.
How did you come up with the incredibly detailed descriptions of what’s happening to these bodies while Patrick Bateman is ripping them apart? Were you completely winging it, or did you hang out with a forensic pathologist for a few months?
When I wrote those scenes I was thinking about a lot of things—the EC comics of my youth, like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and various slasher movies I saw as a kid and a lot of horror fiction I’d read. Then it was turned up a notch just by being in Patrick Bateman’s mind-set for three years and by imagining how a psychotic who works on Wall Street during the day might describe these things. A lot of those details I couldn’t make up, so there was some kind of FBI textbook I got hold of that went into very graphic detail about various serial killers and how they would torture people. But ultimately I winged it, more or less. It’s fiction.
Did your new editor, Gary Fisketjon, suggest any changes?
Suggestions that I, for the most part, resisted. We almost came to blows over it. I was in L.A. at the time, and Vintage, the Random House imprint that published the book, was on a tight deadline because they wanted to capitalize on the publicity the book had received, so they flew Gary out to L.A. and put him up in a suite at the Hotel Bel-Air—yes, this is how publishers spent their money in the nineties—so that we could go over his edits in person. It was a three-day frenzy of Gary making suggestions and me resisting them. They even put me up in the hotel one night so I wouldn’t have to waste time coming and going from my mom’s house over the hill. The process left him extremely frustrated. I think his plan when he acquired that novel was to radically fix it. The problem was that I didn’t think it needed to be fixed. Gary wrote me a very impassioned letter after the editing process was over. He told me, “You’re going to be very embarrassed by a lot of this book in five or ten years.” And I said, “Well, so what?” And of course that never happened. I was never embarrassed. I saw the violence as an integral part of the novel. He saw the violence as tasteless and juvenile. I consented to some things he wanted—little cuts, little clarifications, maybe two percent of the book overall—and when I see them now, they still annoy me.
Were his objections to the violence on moral or aesthetic grounds?
He claimed aesthetic but I suspected moral, and it pissed me off. His argument was that these scenes are so shocking, so in-your-face, that they distract from the overall mood of the rest of the novel, which is pretty much 385 pages of a young man in a society he doesn’t believe in and yet wants to be a part of. That’s what the novel’s really about. And then there are these explosions of blood and viscera at certain moments that throw everything out of whack. Gary’s concern was, How are we going to be able to concentrate on the next scene of social satire after we’ve read two pages about how a woman has been nail-gunned to a floor, and raped, et cetera, et cetera? Well, I think you can. I dare you. Deal with it. And that’s one of the things that I still find powerful about that book.
Gary and I have a weird relationship. He’s my friend, and he’s my editor. But except for Lunar Park, I really don’t think he likes my books. We almost came to blows over Imperial Bedrooms, too, specifically over the sequence set out in the desert in Palm Springs with Clay and the teenage escorts. There were a couple of details in my draft that he found repellent, even more repellent than what survived. He was so adamant about those details being removed that I just gave up. I removed them, and I’m still not happy about that. In Lunar Park, I had a lot of one-sentence paragraphs that Gary really disliked. To me it just mimicked the way Stephen King, whose work I’ve loved since I was a kid, would do some of his set pieces. Gary thought the one-sentence paragraph was tacky. He thought it wasn’t literary. Who knows? Maybe he’s right. The three music reviews in American Psycho we discussed earlier? Gary tried to cut two of them. He said that three is overkill, one’s enough, pick one. I refused. The reason they work is precisely because three is overkill. One is not psychotic. Three is psychotic.
I think Gary wants to protect me. He wants me to come off better than I am. He may not like my books, but he is what every writer dreams about in terms of total focus on your book. From the moment he gets his hands on the manuscript, all the way to when it is finally published in paperback, he oversees everything. A lot of editors just read the book once and go, Cool, and then hand it off to copyediting. To be honest, Gary might just as well do that with me, because I really don’t listen to a lot of what he says, and I think he is way too much of a stickler about syntax and grammar. I like the way my narrators talk. I know it’s not proper syntax or grammar. But it’s not supposed to be. My narrators aren’t English professors, and I don’t want them to sound like they are.
Is Gary Fisketjon the first person you show your book to when you’re finished with it?
No. Binky Urban, my agent, is the first person who sees everything I write.
Has she ever suggested any changes?
You said that American Psycho didn’t “hit the mark” for you. How so?
Did I say “hit the mark”? It’s a stupid phrase. I shouldn’t have used it. There’s no mark to hit when you’re writing a book. I write books to relieve myself of pain. That’s the prime motivator to write. Period. If I were forced to judge the book aesthetically, I might concede that it could have been less obvious. It’s hard to read that book and not “get” it. There is a kind of obviousness to it, even a kind of earnestness that bothers me if I think about it too much.
Maybe you made up for it with Glamorama. I’ve read that book twice and I still don’t get it.
You aren’t alone. Many people didn’t get that book. But it’s probably the best novel I’ve written and the one that means the most to me. And when I say “best”—the wrong word, I suppose, but I’m not sure what else to replace it with—I mean that I’ll never have that energy again, that kind of focus sustained for eight years on a single project. I’ll never spend that amount of time crafting a book that means that much to me. And I think people who have read all of my work and are fans understand that about Glamorama—it’s the one book out of the seven I’ve published that matters the most. But, of course, you can argue that writers are notoriously wrong about what they think is their best work, and sometimes they’re perverse about it because the book they admire the most is the one that got trounced the most by reviewers and readers, and they get defensive. And Glamorama was equally hated and admired when it was first published, but out of all of my books I’m probably most on the side of the admirers on this one, more so than I am with any of the others. I hate admitting that, but really it was the most carefully composed and thought-out of anything I’ve ever written or probably will ever write.
Glamorama was initially built on the idea of a father’s dislike for his son and his desire to replace him with a different son. Then other things developed around that initial idea. I’d always wanted to write a Robert Ludlum novel. As a writer I couldn’t take the tropes of a Robert Ludlum novel seriously, but as a kid I loved reading international thrillers, and I always wanted to write my own. Also, I was writing Glamorama at what was arguably the height of my fame, such as it was, and I wanted to wrestle with, and satirize, that world as well—what it would feel like to become lost in celebrity, to lose your identity to the public’s conception of yourself. It was a writing experience that wiped me out in a way because it took a long time to write and dealt with so many things going on in my life—the death of my father, the aftermath of American Psycho, the realization that celebrity is an illusion and that what kind of person people think you are has been created by someone else, the media and, most frighteningly, your participation with the media. It was so damning of where I thought I was at that time, and yet it was also exhilarating to write. It’s a book that alienates a lot of readers and is considered the most pretentious thing I’ve written, but—and I’m quoting Bob Dylan here—what’s wrong with being pretentious? I think American Psycho was just the preparation for writing Glamorama, and I think Glamorama is the more complex and interesting book.
Glamorama, on some level, is also about paranoia, no?
In fact, every single one of your books, on some level, is about paranoia. Did the Manson murders, which took place when you were five, traumatize you? In Less Than Zero, we are constantly aware of ominous things going on in the hills.
More terrifying for me than the Manson murders themselves, which I wasn’t aware of at the time, was Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, an account of the Manson prosecution, which was published in ’74, when I was ten. The descriptions in that book of what actually happened during those two nights of mayhem were terrifying. They didn’t just kill Sharon Tate—they carved out her fetus. The idea that anybody could come into your house at night and kill your entire family haunted me. It was part of the scary narrative of L.A. that I grew up with. The randomness of it all based on the city’s geography, of just being in the wrong place at the wrong time, played heavily on my fears growing up. At the same time, there was a lot of scary drama in my family. My dad was a very angry and abusive man when I was a kid, verbally abusive for the most part, though on occasion physically, and, of course, he didn’t get any happier when my parents finally separated, when I was in high school. It felt so strange. There were a lot of divorces going on, and there were all of these unhappy children in the midst of this beautiful setting, and it seemed so incongruous—beautiful Southern California, unhappy kids, awful father, a scary house. I guess that fear I felt could be traced back to the idea that when a bad divorce goes down, a house that shouldn’t be scary becomes really scary.
Was anyone close to you murdered?
Not when I was a kid, but when I hit my twenties, yes, I actually knew three people who were murdered. What a strange thing to admit. I vaguely knew Dominique Dunne, who was in Poltergeist. She was killed by her boyfriend, whom I also vaguely knew—he worked at Ma Maison, a restaurant my family went to a lot. I also knew a guy named Ron Levin, whose killing was ordered by a guy named Joe Hunt. Joe Hunt was the head of what was called the Billionaire Boys Club, and he wanted to kill Levin—it was something about money—so he hired two members of this boys’ club he created to kill him. Before that killing I remember being at a dinner with Joe Hunt at La Scala in Beverly Hills—he seemed nice. One of my best friends in L.A. was a DJ named Lee Selwyn, who was murdered coming out of a club late one night. I don’t know what this all adds up to, but those are the facts. Also, I don’t know what the statistics are, but it seemed when I was growing up that there was an unusually high incidence of car accidents. You’d always hear about someone you casually knew, or a friend of a friend, who totaled on the Pacific Coast Highway or veered off Mulholland.
Was I an unusually fearful kid? Probably. I was anxious, maybe I was even paranoid. And to some extent I’m sure it has influenced my fiction, but this is not the only reason paranoia is so pervasive in my work. My personal experiences aside, paranoia serves an important technical function in my books. In a novel that isn’t exactly plot-driven, which you could argue is most of my novels, you need a sense of mystery, tension, menace, whatever it is, to keep it driving forward. What’s around the corner? What’s going on in the hills? Who’s behind the wheel of that black Mercedes with the tinted windows? You’ve got to have a tight plan for the book, with scenes of mystery and menace carefully placed, to make it work.
Glamorama and American Psycho seem less tightly structured, more improvisatory, than your other books.
They might seem that way, but they weren’t. The nonnarrative, or least plot-driven, books that I’ve written, to which I would add Less Than Zero, were actually the most carefully structured. In Less Than Zero, where very little seems to be happening for most of the book, what keeps the reader engaged? Not a riveting plot certainly, since there’s no plot until the last fifth of the novel. Not depth of character, since these characters seem to have no depth. What keeps the reader engaged is, probably, a gradually intensifying sense of dread. It may seem that you can shake the book up, dump the scenes on the table, and rearrange them any way you want and it wouldn’t matter much—but that’s not how it was created. If you took that approach, what you’d end up with is a dead book, with zero momentum and zero at stake. I was very careful about the placement of each scene, each chapter. American Psycho is the same way. The scenes had to be put in a certain order. There are subtle gradations of menace. There’s a faint hum of horror in the background at the beginning of the book, and as the book progresses the hum becomes, hopefully, deafening. If you looked at the book in diagram, you’d see that the scenes are all carefully apportioned. Both Less Than Zero and American Psycho are highly structured books. In fact, they all are. I can’t write any other way. Glamorama was outlined to death. So was Lunar Park.
So all of your books are outlined before you write them?
Well, I start with a rough outline, an experimental, very free-form first draft that’s based on everything I want to include in the novel but that I also know won’t make it into the final draft. And in that first draft there are exercises, samples of how I imagine the narrator might speak if describing something. I ask questions like, Can I use metaphors with this narrator? Will he be able to see something as something else? No, Patrick Bateman won’t be able to do that. Everything is all surface for him. There’s a scene early in Imperial Bedrooms where Clay takes an actress out to lunch. The actress has auditioned for the movie Clay has written. Clay knows she’s not going to get a part in the movie, but he wants to fuck her, so he leads her on. He’s going to lie to her, tell her she has a good shot at being in the movie, and then take her back to his place and fuck her. They have lunch at this restaurant that I like to go to on Melrose. There’s a really beautiful silver wall in this restaurant, and depending on what time of day you’re eating there, the sunlight falls on it and creates these patterns and shapes. In my draft, Clay talked about the silver wall before turning his attention to the actress at hand. I loved the language I used. I loved how cool the description of the wall was, the subtle way the light kept changing it. They were my favorite five lines in the book. But I knew, after I wrote it, that it couldn’t go in the book. It wasn’t Clay. Clay was never going to notice the silver wall, and Clay was never going to talk about the silver wall. The purpose of the scene is for him to concentrate on the actress, which is what he wants to do, and this silver wall is just the writer jerking off.
So in this first draft there is a sort of test run of what the narrator is going to sound like in the final draft. When I move into the next stage of the writing process, the emotional phase is more or less over. I’ve dealt with the reasons I wanted to write the book—pain, my issues at the time, my conflicts in that moment, what I’m confused about, what’s hurting me, what I’m fantasizing about. It’s all in that free-form first draft, which is a very, very long treatment—a diagram charting the movements of the characters, as well as a guide as to what the next phase of the writing will entail. This is when the cool technician comes in and shapes it into the book that the reader wants to read—the “reader” being me.
What are your technical considerations when shaping the book?
I shouldn’t have used the word technician. It’s a term that suggests something robotic and too analytic. It suggests that there are objective criteria everyone agrees on as to what makes a book good or bad. Well-written, dead novels are published a thousand times a year. The sentences are pretty and the dialogue is “true to life,” but the books themselves are, more often than not, lifeless. Then there are novels that sometimes aren’t so well written but have a pulse to them. You can tell the author isn’t sitting in class waiting for his A to be given to him. And then there are the rare novels that fall somewhere in between. I’ll give you an example of a book that, despite its “technical” flaws, is alive—A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore’s last book. Moore is a very good writer, maybe the best short-story writer of my generation. As a novelist, she’s a little bit hampered by the form. A Gate at the Stairs is about a twenty-something college girl who talks exactly the way Moore writes. It’s spectacularly witty, and the details are great, and the writing is almost perfectly composed and done in that very snappy Lorrie Moore way. But the voice is unconvincing. It feels like we’re hanging out with Lorrie Moore. Then, one hundred pages in, something magical happens. The girl’s voice, the writer’s voice, the idea for the novel all come together. You’re finally and completely convinced of the entire machine that has been put into play, whereas in the beginning you were only half convinced by it. I don’t know how a writer achieves this alchemy. The novelist is aware that the narrator might not speak this way in “real” life, but they reimagine it in a way that works for the novel. I have been more often than not accused of failing to achieve this myself.
Is there an impulse toward moral criticism in your novels?
I talked about that a lot when I was wearing my writer mask in my twenties, and I wanted to be taken more seriously, I suppose. When I had to go out and promote a book and American Psycho would come up, I would say something defensive about being a satirist. I would say that American Psycho is a “moral indictment” of a certain type of shallow, narcissistic, American male, which, yes, it is, but is that really the overriding motive behind American Psycho? No. I was also writing about my life and how empty it was. Maybe I was too hard on myself. Maybe I should have just relaxed, chilled out, enjoyed my good fortune. And I kind of did, I guess. It wasn’t like I was curled up in a fetal position, sucking my thumb for three years. But my own demons got in the way of taking total pleasure in just about anything. And so in a sense there is a kind of moral criticism, but for the most part it’s directed at me.
Patrick Bateman first made an appearance in your work toward the end of The Rules of Attraction, as Sean’s older brother. Does your tendency to reuse characters from your previous books, sometimes so subtly that only someone deeply familiar with your work could detect it, serve any purpose?
If it’s serving some purpose, I’m not aware of it. I really have no idea why I do it. It’s clearly serving some emotional need—one doesn’t do something continually for no reason—but I don’t know what it is. And I’m not sure I care enough to dwell on it. And this is the problem with a “literary” interview and me. This is the problem with me as a “serious” novelist. A serious novelist would care about these questions. Or, at a minimum, he would care about looking like he cared and would have a good answer for you. Why do characters recur in my work? If you forced me, at gunpoint, to give you an answer, I’d say maybe it’s playfulness on some level. Maybe I think, No one’s going to notice that Bret Easton Ellis’s neighbor in Lunar Park, Mitchell Allen, who’s now married with a kid, was Paul Denton’s bisexual boyfriend eighteen years earlier in The Rules of Attraction. But I like the fact that he is. It’s my own little joke.
Do you not consider yourself a serious novelist?
I recently got into one of those weird, terrible fights writers can find themselves in with a friend who has for a long time been writing novels he can’t get published. For twenty-five years I’ve been trying to help him. He can’t rise to the occasion. He can’t write a novel because he doesn’t have the passion to write a novel. He’s writing a novel to make the money, get the film rights, become famous, whatever—all the wrong reasons. When he asked me to read the latest one, I told him, “Look, if this novel is superpassionate, and it really is about shit you’re going through, and pain, and it means the fucking world to you, by all means send it to me.” He said, “Yeah, it’s totally all those things,” and he sent it to me, and it was absolutely like all the others. I flipped out. I went ballistic on him. I said, “You never took this seriously! From the time you were twenty-three, it was always some kind of sterile exercise, like an imitation of a novel. And you never talk passionately about writers. I never hear you talk about books you’re reading. You just saw that a young writer in the eighties could make some cash from a literary novel. It was moneymaking to you.” And my friend was shocked, or pretended to be. “You know, it’s really amazing to hear you say that, Bret, because looking at your career and reading your books, I never thought you actually took it seriously. I saw your books as trendy knockoffs. I saw you as kind of a hack. I never thought you were really serious.” I mean, he’s not representative of the kind of person anyone should take seriously in literary matters, but when my friend said that, I’ll admit it gave me pause. I thought, What does it mean to be a “serious” novelist? Regardless of how my books have turned out, or how some people might have read them, I clearly don’t think I write trendy knockoffs. My books have all been very deeply felt. You don’t spend eight years of your life working on a trendy knockoff. In that sense I’ve been serious. But I don’t do lots of things that other serious writers do. I don’t write book reviews. I don’t sit on panels about the state of the novel. I don’t go to writer conferences. I don’t teach writing seminars. I don’t hang out at Yaddo or MacDowell. I’m not concerned with my reputation as a writer or where I stand relative to other writers. I’m not competitive or professionally ambitious. I don’t think about my work and my career in an overarching or systematic way. I don’t think about myself, as I think most writers do, as progressing toward some ideal of greatness. There’s no grand plan. All I know is that I write the books I want to write. All that other stuff is meaningless to me.
But it wasn’t always meaningless to you, right? You referred earlier to the “writer’s mask” you wore in your twenties, when, as you put it, you wanted to be “taken more seriously.”
For the first few years after Less Than Zero was published, I tried my best to play the serious young writer. I sat on panels about the state of the novel. I wrote a few book reviews. Looking back, I hate the fact that I did them. In a few of those reviews, of books I really didn’t like, I was probably more harsh than I had to be, and I’ve never really forgiven myself for it. And, yeah, I made sure to wear a suit and tie in my author photos. I had a preconceived notion of how a writer should present himself.
I grew up with the Empire idea of the literary author, the post–World War II literary male author and how he presented himself to the public as a very serious man complete with a very serious demeanor—I’m thinking of Mailer, Vidal, Updike, Roth, even Capote and Kerouac. Even when you get to the sixties, with more playful postmodernists like Richard Brautigan, Coover, and Pynchon, there was still a sense that it was a very serious profession. Books mattered, you were a teacher of writing, and every major male American writer seemed to come off in a way that, in the end, when I became published, I realized I just couldn’t relate to. But believe me, I tried.
When did the mask come off?
It didn’t come off completely, I suppose, until I finally left New York for good in 2006. Although I say I wasn’t interested in all the incidental bullshit that had to do with being a “serious” novelist, I was well immersed in the publishing scene in New York—most of my friends were writers or editors—so in that sense I was just like everybody else. I’ll cop to it. But I never felt that I belonged in the literary scene of New York. I never felt smart enough. I never felt that I was a New Yorker. I was always the kid from L.A., the kid from the Valley, the kid who wrote those weird books. That whole “brat pack” thing—Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis and whoever else was supposed to be a part of it—was a myth. It never existed. I hung out with my own friends who were my age. Occasionally, Jay and I would go out, and we’d be photographed, and the photographs would appear in magazines, and people would see those photos and assume we were attached at the hip.
What compelled you to leave New York?
Most of my friends were settling down with families in Brooklyn or New Jersey. It got harder to hang out with them. Manhattan had gotten so expensive that my writer friends, many of whom live check to check, couldn’t afford it anymore because they were starting families. And honestly? Drugs—cocaine specifically, really the only drug I’ve been into—are for some reason more accessible to me in New York, and I didn’t want access to them anymore. I was never what I would call a heavy drug user. It was at most a weekend thing. But it’s hard to resist if it’s staring you in the face, and I’m not interested in doing it anymore. In New York it stares me in the face. In L.A., for some reason, it doesn’t.
Finally, the publishing scene got too claustrophobic, too cliquey, too irritating for me. I was tired of hearing people complain about the size of other people’s advances, complain about who got an excerpt of their forthcoming novel in The New Yorker and who didn’t, about who got their story published in The Paris Review and who didn’t. I was tired of all the gossip and of watching people suck up to editors and agents and writers because they felt they had to stay connected. The general snootiness about Franzen’s success that you could smell wafting off the literary scene grossed me out and became indicative of something ominous to me. The Corrections and Freedom are the two best novels that came out of my generation, so man up and deal with it, guys. It came to a point where I just couldn’t put up with the pettiness of it all anymore. Being confronted by it was making me miserable. I didn’t want to go to another pen dinner. I didn’t want to hang with these people. I didn’t want to have cocktails in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art and sit at a table and listen to writers give speeches. I didn’t want to go to another book party at Pravda or at a loft in Tribeca. I found myself thinking more often than not when I’d receive an invitation, I’d rather cut my head off with a knife.
What are you working on right now?
Well, a shark movie is taking up a lot of my time right now. I wrote the script a few years ago, and it’s now in preproduction. It’s set in Tampa, Florida, but for certain tax reasons it has to be shot in Spain. So Spain is going to be the setting for Tampa. Last week I talked to John Taylor and Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, both of whom I’ve known for a long time, about maybe writing a Duran Duran biopic. I mean, there are three or four TV and movie projects that I’m much more immersed in. But today? A shark and Duran Duran.
A Duran Duran biopic? For real?
At first I thought it sounded ridiculous. Then I thought, Why not? It might be fun. Unfortunately, there’s no tragic material to work with. They’re all very well off and very nice and they live in castles. They’re married to beautiful women. No one died of a drug overdose. I guess it would be a “rise, barely fall, and then rise again” biopic. But I grew up with their music and something about it resonated with me.
It certainly sounds like more fun to work on than a Joy Division biopic.
Yeah, and definitely more fun than writing a script about the suicides of Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake, which I just finished, or a TV series about murderous romantic obsession that I created for HBO—very intense, personal projects. But I love the shark movie and I love Duran Duran, and those projects might not seem “serious” for a novelist to engage in, but I’ve realized that as you get older you just don’t give as much of a shit as you did when you were younger and feeling your way through society and caring about what people think about you. I don’t have any need to prove myself to people now. So this is where I’ve ended up—in a BMW in West Hollywood, doing my Paris Review interview while talking about a Duran Duran biopic pitch. And even at twenty-one or twenty-two, I think I knew that this is where I would end up. This is where I landed, and that’s fine.
Susan Barbour, Insomnia
Stephen Dunn, Sea Level
Nicanor Parra, Defense of Violeta Parra
Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Heralds of Delicioso Coco Helado
John Jeremiah Sullivan, The Princes: A Reconstruction
Leanne Shapton and Ben Schott, Prose Purple