undefinedJay 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 ZeroThe 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.

—Jon-Jon Goulian

 

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever made money from anything other than writing?

ELLIS

No.

INTERVIEWER

No babysitting, no bartending, no teaching gigs?

ELLIS

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.

INTERVIEWER

Is there anything you’ve ever wanted to be besides a writer?

ELLIS

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.

INTERVIEWER

When you say that Less Than Zero “happened,” what do you mean? You just whipped it out and sold it?

ELLIS

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.

INTERVIEWER

Why McGinniss?

ELLIS

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.

INTERVIEWER

Was Donna Tartt writing The Secret History in that seminar?

ELLIS

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.

INTERVIEWER

How did a junior in college manage to publish a novel?

ELLIS

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.