Stories Built On Emotions:
By Tom Waters
I spoke with Ellis over the phone from his home in LA in August shortly after the launch of his new book, and I found him to be charming, honest and tough on himself and his work. As a an avid fan of his novels (having read and reread them numerous times over the last ten years), I thought it would be faithful to the interview to keep all the dialogue intact. As one of the most controversial writers of the late 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st, his work is known for it's attention and care for dialogue. For minutae in everyday conversations as well as an overall visual aesthetic. In most transcripts, an interviewer has a tendency to edit out phrases and words that are used repeatedly, but there seems to be a method and a cadence to Ellis' spoken thoughts, a poetry to them. Ellis labors over his manuscripts, taking great care to see that the prose is just right, and the emphasis in his characters conversations lies not only in how they interact with each other, but equally on what they don't say to one another. It seems fair and honest to the piece to keep our dialogue completely intact as an homage to that.
BEE: Victoria (Vintage) tells me you're a big fan.
TW: I am a massive fan. I've been a fan of your work since I worked at Waldenbooks during high school in 1992
BEE: How old does that make you?
TW: 30 this October.
BEE: That's about the age of my average reader. You're right in the demographic there.
TW: I'm a monstrously huge fan. You're without a doubt my favorite living writer, period.
BEE: Oh my god. Uh, I can't believe it. That's so nice.
TW: I appreciate you taking the time out to talk to me and I'm sure it's been insane since the book came out.
BEE: You know, I have to say it has been. Yes, it has been insane. I will admit this. I did not think it was going to be, but yet it has.
TW: I hope you didn't take my review of the book too personally. Well, I know you don't take any reviews personally.
BEE: I don't take any reviews personally, and your review was lovely. You write totally fine.
TW: I tried to be impartial and not...
BEE: Which you should be.
TW: I didn't want to gush after living and breathing your life and your work for three straight months.
BEE: I totally understand that.
TW: What's your opinion on the current condition of publishing with print on demand, subsidy publishing, web zines, the rise of men's magazines and the fall of traditional monthlies?
BEE: That..(laughs). Let's... can we take it a little bit at a time?
BEE: What's the first part of that question?
TW: Your opinion on the current state of publishing.
BEE: Okay, here we go. Um, hmm. Well? Um...(laughs) I don't have an opinion about it! I don't have an opinion about the current state of publishing! I guess part of the problem is that I tend to not really look at the business side of it all, and I really tend not to deal with... I mean I don't read like Publishers Weekly and I don't read about, you know, publishing in general. What is your take? Tell me what your take is on the current state of publishing?
TW: Well you said in one interview that movies had replaced books as a form of popular culture, and I never really noticed those trends until you pointed them out.
BEE: I might have been depressed that day. I don't know if I necessarily agree with that. I think it's a case by case thing. I mean, certainly there are books that are far more popular than any movies.
TW: It just seems like the publishing industry has become more fractured and you have a... scatter effect as opposed to what it was like forty or fifty years ago.
BEE: Maybe even twenty years ago. But honestly, I really haven't paid that much attention, and I really don't... I don't know what's going on in publishing. I really don't know what's going on in publishing! I don't know what publishers are doing. I don't follow it too closely. I find that strange that no one's asked me that yet. But there's other parts to this question.
TW: I took great care to go out of my way to ask you questions that you haven't been asked a million times.
BEE: (laughs) That's why that question left me so tongue tied! I've never answered it before!
TW: There's nothing worse than a college paper or web zine that asks, you know, 'How do you get your ideas?' And you're probably sick of stuff like that.
BEE: No. You see, that's an easy one. But what I think of the current state of publishing... that's difficult. That's a really difficult question.
TW: And just with men's magazines like Maxim and FHM that cater to attention deficit disorder...
BEE: And in fact sort of replace the...
TW: GQ and Esquire and Vanity Fair and a lot of the big giants of the old days.
BEE: Right. I mean, the fact that more people are interested in reading them than books? I don't know, I guess maybe it's... look. I'm sort of... I'm kind of feeling more optimistic about books now that I have one out that actually seems to be selling copies. I guess it always helps your outlook on the industry in a way. And the readings are filled and people have all my books and things like that, so I'm in sort of a comfort zone now that I haven't been in for about six years when I hadn't published anything. So I guess I'm the wrong person to ask because I'm thinking I'm very happy with my publishers and I'm happy with the way they've gone about publishing this novel. But I definitely have heard a lot of gripes from writer friends of mine. I guess publishing is going through some sort of crisis. You keep hearing it is, but I don't know.
TW: I think it's fantastic that a lot of your negative critics are fading out and your fans are growing up while you build more of a fan base. So the tide is turning, finally.
BEE: Yeah, it's weird, but it's also... everyone is young. I really don't see people my age. I'm 41. I don't see them at my signings. I see a lot of people who weren't even born when Less Than Zero came out. You know, like 20 year old kids.
TW: Are you willing to talk about Donna Tartt, or any of the time that you two spent together at Bennington?
BEE: I'm willing to talk about anything you want. I hope I can answer anything you have.
TW: I just don't want you to think that I'm being exploitative...
BEE: There's no way. I've been so exploited that I don't know when it is happening to me. I'm not even aware of it. But what were you asking?
TW: Were you and Donna classmates or were you friends on campus?
BEE: Donna and I met, we were set up on a blind date in the fall of 1982. Her roommate knew my roommate and thought that Donna and I would get along. So, in order to have something to talk about when we went out to dinner that night I gave her, I slipped like the first 30 pages of Less Than Zero into her box and she put the first chapter of The Secret History into my box so that we could read each others' work and then talk about it over dinner. Which we did. And we remain friends. That's how we met, and our relationship was always pretty good. It was a really good relationship. I like her a lot. She's a very good writer.
TW: I read The Secret History at the same time I was reading American Psycho and just recommended it to everybody.
BEE: Yeah, it's really good. I always knew there was something in store for her ever since I read that first chapter, when I read her stories and stuff. Great.
TW: How did the Jaime Clarke interview sessions come about and how do you feel about his manuscript for Vernon Downs, a novel about a writer obsessed with Bret Easton Ellis?
BEE: Tell me, that came about, he was, he had gone to the summer program at Bennington, the MFA program?
TW: And he went through the directory on campus and found your contact information.
BEE: Okay, then asked if he could interview me for...
TW: For his thesis.
TW: Which caused all sorts of controversy when he read it on campus.
BEE: Right. Okay. And then we did two very long interview sessions that then were put together in I guess the Mississippi Review. And that probably is the best... lengthiest interview anyone has ever done.
TW: It was very comprehensive.
BEE: It was a very comprehensive interview, he did a very good job. And we've remained in touch. I know he's going to be introducing me in Boston when I'm there. I don't know how that came about. And I read his book, Vernon Downs, and I had also read his previous novel, We're So Famous. Yeah. So that's how I met Jaime Clarke.
TW: And what did you think of Vernon Downs?
BEE: I thought it was funny. It's sort of done in the style of, it reminded me a lot of that Nicholson Baker book.
TW: I love Nicholson Baker!
BEE: What was it about, Updike? U and I. It kind of reminded me of that in a way. I don't know how other people would read it, but as the main subject of the book, of course, I was probably more gripped than other people would be, but it was funny, I thought some of it was funny, and I remembered that a lot of it actually happened. That even though it was a novel and there were other things that happened to the Jaime Clarke character, I guess the Vernon Downs character, no, I'm the Vernon Downs character. Or am I the Bret Ellis character?
TW: I think you're who Vernon Downs was fashioned after, and some of the names have been changed to protect the scandalous.
BEE: Exactly. That's right. I liked it.
TW: Well he's a lucky man to have known you personally as well as JD Salinger.
BEE: Did he know JD Salinger?
TW: I guess he was a correspondant for his agency.
BEE: Ohhh... God! Whoah.
TW: Do you harbor any resentment or anxiety over Tara Baxter or any of the death threats and slurs made towards you as a result of American Psycho?
BEE: Who's Tara Baxter again? Remind me...
TW: She spearheaded the protests surrounding the publication of American Psycho.
BEE: Or are you thinking of Tammy Bruce...
TW: Both of them worked together to get the book off of store shelves.
BEE: Of course I did. I totally resented them, and they got it completely wrong. So I did. But I always thought that the book was gonna win out for some reason, I always had confidence that the book was gonna stick around. I just thought to myself, well, you're gonna have to wait patiently because it's really so obvious what this book is up to that people are, I think, sooner or later gonna get it. So I just had to wait it out, but I do resent the fact that they probably knew better, and yet they went along with the story anyway, and they went along with this tactic of smearing the book and my reputation in order to, definitely in Tammy Bruce's case, you know, push up her own career. Which it did do. It made Tammy Bruce's name. She went stomping around complaining about American Psycho. She benefited very much from saying terrible things about me. So of course on a certain level I resent that. The film was written and directed by feminists. It comes full circle, I guess.
TW: It seemed like everybody tried to hop on the bandwagon when the book came out.
BEE: They did because it was news and it was sort of a sexy story, this thing where it was too good to resist, this whole idea of this scandal emerging in the publishing world over a novel no less written by someone like me. That's why it happened, even though the whole controversy was founded on an untruth. That's what was really so shocking and kind of eye opening for me was the fact that, wait a minute, guys, there's not a truth here that we're building a story on. We're building the story on feelings and reactions to something and yet it's really not what the thing is about. It's not what the book is about. And then a story was built on someone's emotions and taken for truth.
TW: To me, American Psycho was always a salient snapshot of the '80s taken to the Nth degree. It was a representation of everything that was hollow about the '80s.
BEE: Yes, I think so, but also, when I reread it recently I did think that as a novel it was very funny and fast paced, very compelling and scary and he was an interesting character. I was surprised. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it when I read it because I remember I certainly didn't enjoy a lot of the writing of it because I was in this sort of punky, nihilistic mode of 23, 24, 25. Very angry, I thought the world was a very dark place. It was shocking to find when I reread the book two years ago that it was pleasurable to read and funny. But I do admit that I get why there was some coughing or some (throat clearing) over the violent passages. They're very violent. It shocked me. I was upset. But I wouldn't go back and change it.
TW: Where you have been you would not go back.
BEE: Where I went I would not go back. Or was it 'Where I have been'? I don't know why... that's funny. That's a funny title. It shows a writer that takes himself very, very seriously.
TW: Have you ever actually dabbled with heroin?
BEE: Uh, yeah, I did. Yeah, but very briefly, and not in any kind of addictive way. It was inhaled and it was pleasurable enough for me to realize that I really shouldn't be doing this. So I kinda like understood. Also you get sick. People forget to tell you that. You throw up. It's a very unsexy drug in that respect. But you know what? You don't mind because you're feeling so good. (laughs) That's the terrible thing about heroin. I had dabbled in it but it has been many years.
TW: You seem like you're in a good place right now.
BEE: You know what? I'm not, so it's really interesting that you would say that.
TW: I'm sorry to hear that.
BEE: Well, look, I'm in the throes of something and I don't know if it's a mid-life crisis or not going on but I'm very confused by everything. I'm in this section of my life where I'm searching for something and yet I don't know what it is. I don't know what I'm searching for, I don't know why I feel the need that I have to search for something or that something's missing from my life. Yeah, you're playing my therapist right now. It's true, I'm not at a good place in my life. I'm in a very conflicted place in my life.
TW: Lunar Park deals with a lot of those issues, too.
BEE: What's very funny is that I didn't start having these issues until I finished Lunar Park. And then it all started coming into play. I was really fine. I had a couple bad things happen to me but overall I was sort of in a good place emotionally, not so fragile or anything, this was in September when I finished in August of '04..September. Then that fall everything started to crack apart. So this last year, it's been about a year, it's been about a year exactly, I guess. Hmph. It's been rough, I must tell you, and today has not been on a scale of one to ten that much better. I'm really taking everything hour by hour, basically. That's where I am right now.
TW: I've had anxiety in the past too, so I can certainly relate to that, and writers' blocks, and just constantly re-examining yourself to the point of neuroses.
BEE: Yes, exactly, and also having this happen while you're being thrown into the midst of what's turned out to be a successful book launch and a successful book tour. To be in this space and go to readings where you see hundreds of people showing up and everyone's eager to hear you and see you and you're smiling and you're trying to be as effusive and nice as possible but inside, you're just like, 'I don't know who I am.'
TW: If you want any of this off the record...
BEE: I'm being honest! I'm not going to not tell people this.
TW: And I appreciate your honesty. That leads to one of my follow up questions. Do you feel like Truman Capote sometimes with the amount of interviews and appearances that are thrust upon you?
BEE: (eating something) Well, I don't know how Truman Capote felt about those. If that's something he truly enjoyed doing, if that's something he genuinely liked to do. He was actually I think a much better promoter of himself and of his personality, and his personality was a lot more unique than mine is. He was a much more recognizable figure I think than I am. I have a certain kind of anonymity. I really think that very few of my fans, for example, would notice me if I walked by in the street. They would recognize the name but I don't think they would notice me. Truman Capote was very noticeable and he groomed himself to be this media celebrity. I don't know? I don't know if I'm there and I definitely don't... I don't know. That's an interesting comparison, though.
TW: Well, Truman brought it on himself whereas you have a heavy slate of promotions.
BEE: That is true, but it's a case by case basis. Sure, in a way in a perfect world, would I want to have to talk about myself and have to do this in order to promote a book? No, not necessarily. I really don't enjoy talking about myself that much, and I find that increasing as I get older. That I am not as smart as I once thought I was, and I don't have the answers to everything and when people ask me questions about certain things, I always, always feel under qualified.
TW: So you're telling me I should scratch my question about the meaning of life?
BEE: If you really have it... don't not ask it if you have it. And by the way, we can go over what the allotted time was. Even if you don't want to.
TW: I would love to!
BEE: Don't feel that there's a time pressure. There's not. We can go over a little bit at... one o'clock. Anyway, so what were we talking about? What's this. What do you wanna ask me?
TW: Did you have any reservations about the filming of This Is Not An Exit?
BEE: Major. Huge reservations. I was friends with the producer, and we were just hanging out one summer. I forget where, we were on a beach somewhere, and his name is Julian, and he's South African, and we were talking and he said 'I produced a documentary about these artists in England, Gilbert and George, and how about I make a documentary about you, too, to coincide with Glamorama coming out?' I... thought... that's a horrible idea, and then, that horrible idea starts tap dancing around your vanity, and your ego, and your narcissism starts igniting it. You start thinking, 'Ooh, pretty good idea. I'm important enough for a documentary. Yeah, I think we should do it.' And then, these people start following you around for about three months and then you see the footage and you realize you've made a horrible mistake. You didn't need to do this, this didn't need to be out there, all this information is available to people in other ways and they don't need to watch these very poorly done re-enactments of your work and these stagey set ups of you talking about your work. I don't know, I don't know what was going through my mind, quite honestly, when filming that documentary except that I was insecure enough that I felt I needed to do this. That it was going to validate me somehow. That it was going to justify me. And that must have been why I agreed to do it because I'm not someone who likes to be filmed, I don't like to be on camera, so that's a tough thing to have out there and I'm not a big fan of it. I know that sounds terrible to the director and the producer who both cared about me and cared about the work and they really wanted me to love it, but I don't.
TW: Have you ever considered writing a sequel to American Psycho in the tradition of Thomas Harris?
BEE: No. I have not. I have thought about... no. No I haven't.
TW: Well, you put a lot of things to rest with Lunar Park.
BEE: I guess so, but also at the same time, I didn't, because I have been thinking a lot about Less Than Zero lately, and I have been thinking maybe it was because I was living out in LA for the last year and a half that I've been thinking about that book a lot. That certainly had something to do with it. So I don't know. I find myself thinking about those characters, where they would be now, they'd be my age, about 41. Maybe one or two of them might have children or could be the same age as these characters were in Less Than Zero. How would they be dealing with that? I'm not interested in writing satire, even though most of them would be involved with Hollywood in some way, I wouldn't want to write a satirical book about Hollywood. So I don't know. Things are laid to rest in Lunar Park. It's like a mid-career departure; a retrospective. It's either the end of something or the beginning of something.
TW: Who are your favorite poets? You've stated before that you prefer to read poetry while you're working on a novel.
BEE: I do, and I have about four books that are going at once, but I'm not really that adventurous. Basically, I'm still in the complete poems of T.S. Eliot, I'm reading John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop and those are the three books that are on my stand right now. I open them up whenever I'm feeling that I need to be inspired.
TW: No ee cummings?
BEE: I have gone through all the ee cummings and I believe I've read enough ee cummings. I've gone through his stuff. Most major poets I've gone through, their collections or whatever.
TW: In Lunar Park, you address a lot of societies current worries concerning terrorism and school-related violence. How far reaching and permanent do you feel the effects of 9/11 will be?
BEE: Well I guess pretty far reaching. I can only speak for myself, but they were far reaching for me. They made me see our country in a different way. It made me view America differently.
TW: Do you still keep in touch with Robert Downey Jr?
BEE: No, I haven't seen Robert Downey Jr. in a long time. No. Wait Wait Wait, getting back to the 9/11 thing for a moment... that's a good question, but... god, what do you think?
BEE: No really, what would be something off the top of your head?
TW: Well, I think the governments become more reactionary and taken a lot more of our personal freedoms as a result.
BEE: Because of fear.
TW: But they've sort of grasped back the balance of power and taken full advantage of the situation, I think. I'm sort of conservative in my views, but...
BEE: I'm sort of, too. So I don't wanna... .believe me, I was sort of brainwashed by, by fear, and I kind of did think that we needed to do something. I know that sounds ambiguous. I was there. I unfortunately did get swept up in the whole anxiety of the moment and felt that certain measures should have been taken. I now pretty much regret feeling that way, but it was a wake up call, of course, and it was very interesting and probably very instructive and good for people to see how the rest of the world views us. I really didn't feel that way before, I did not sense how hated America was in many pockets of the world. I didn't have a clue and it was, I guess, a terrible way to be educated.
TW: Why do you think critics are so intimately vicious with you in regard to your novels up until recently?
BEE: Oh no no, there have been some vicious critics this time out. (chewing) I don't get it. I don't know. Someone told me to go to Amazon, I went to Amazon, and I looked at these reviews... one star, five stars, one star, five stars, one star, total rating three stars. It's like... I don't know. I don't know why I inspire either a sort of intense devotion or this sort of hostile loathing. I really don't know why there's not more of the middle ground. And critics? Well, ultimately they're not part of the creative process, and neither is, neither is publishing. So everything that happened after you finish the book and after you feel you've completed it... my reaction, I'm still reacting to things as an artist, and I resent the fact that I have to be reviewed by critics who don't like me and are gonna write bad things about me and I resent the fact that I have to promote a book for my publisher in order to recoup money that they've invested in this book. So the artist in me is a little tired and a little pissed, but I understand why it has to happen and I understand why critics have to be there and I understand why one has to promote a book, but none of it plays a part in the creative process. It's easier for me to turn away from and not take so seriously, because really everything is about writing the book.
TW: I told Victoria (Knopf) that the last 5-7 pages of Lunar Park were just tremendously moving.
BEE: Oh that's great.
TW: I woke up maybe four or five in the morning and had some middle of the night insomnia and just sat out on my porch when the sun came up and read the end and it was tremendously powerful.
BEE: Oh my god! (laughs) That's so crushing! I mean, that's great! But that's an awesome, awesome image to be on a porch, and the sun's coming up, reading those pages. That's really cool.
TW: Yeah, I was grabbing a smoke and I just wanted to see it to the end.
BEE: Awesome. That's very nice.
TW: That's probably the first new book that I've read in five years. I reread a lot of things. But it was incredible.
BEE: That's great.
TW: Do you see yourself settling down and raising a family eventually? You portray suburbia and domestication as a kind of metaphor for hell in Lunar Park.
BEE: I had a moment in my early 30's where I longed for that, for children, for whatever the normalcy of family means. It was almost like a biological clock ticking away and I started noticing children, I started hanging out more often at my friends' houses for dinner who had kids, before the kids were put to bed hanging out with the kids, feeling that vibe of 'I could do this. I could be this. I could be the dad. I could have a family.' Then it left. And I don't have it. I don't have it anymore. And it's very unlikely in my life that that's going to happen. I can't rule anything out but it seems very unlikely.
TW: I see you as more of a Hemingway and fathering children all over the country who piss away your royalties after you're gone.
BEE: (long laugh) I don't know if that's... maybe that's happened.
TW: You're obviously a very avid bibliophile and mentioned in recent interviews that you grew up on Stephen King and comic books. Do you read any graphic novels today and if so, what are your favorites?
BEE: Well, I like the uh, oh, what were they? The ones that came out in the €˜80s. The Dark Knight...
TW: Frank Miller?
BEE: The Frank Miller books. Sin City. And I like the Daniel Clowes. How do you pronounce his name? C-L-O-W-E-S? He did Ghost World. And that's about it. The only person who keeps me apprised of all these graphic novels is the guy who designs my books, Chip Kidd, and he always sends me something and I tend to read it and like it. I don't read as many graphic novels as I thought I had. But I have read some.
TW: Is there any chance that an unedited version of Less Than Zero will see publication?
BEE: Never. Never. It will be seen by no one. It will be seen by absolutely no one. I'm sure there's a copy somewhere in my archives. Listen, Joe McGinnis, my teacher who helped me edit that book, I'm sure he has a copy. Or maybe he doesn't, I don't know. It would be interesting to know if there is a copy of that around, because I'm not good with keeping stuff. I don't have a lot of archival material kept around.
TW: With Lunar Park, did you grieve for your father while you were writing the novel or was it a grieving process in and of itself?
BEE: I hadn't grieved for my father until I was midway through writing the novel, and he had died ten years previous to that. I had not grieved. I didn't grieve. I grieved while... and it was unexpected, I didn't expect to grieve. I was not close with my dad, it was a regret. I was sad because of that fact and it made for, it's... his death, because it was so sudden and unexpected, add to that fact by the way that we were not speaking previous to his death, there were a lot of unresolved things floating around in the air. Therapy didn't really help it, dealing with my anger and frustration, but I should have realized that writing a book was gonna do it. But I didn't. That was not a plan as part of writing this book, but ultimately, as I wrote it, I did. I grieved for us. Not only for my dad but for both of us. For the impossibility of our relationship. And that was heavy, I didn't expect that to come. I also know that at the end of this book I felt something lift off me, I felt something was resolved, and it is true, his ashes were kept in a safe deposit box. And after I finished the book, and it was only six months after was when his ashes were finally spread. And that's thirteen years after he died. So yes, something was resolved and I worked it out through fiction writing.
TW: Have you ever considered writing a novel about the adult film industry? I know you wrote an intro for a book on the business recently, but it seems like it'd be a marriage made in heaven, in the style of Glamorama if you covered San Fernando Valley or the whole, world.
BEE: I don't know. That's interesting, and I never really thought about that. I mean, I've written pornography and I've never really thought about it. And I watch pornography and I have no problem with pornography. I think pornography is interesting, but I never thought about writing the process of making it, no.
TW: It seems like there's some large metaphor behind it that you'd be more than capable of tackling.
BEE: You see, I don't know what pornography is a metaphor for. I'm not sure what it is. I might be the wrong person to do that. What did I write? I wrote something, I gave the guy a quote, right? It was just actually a quote, I didn't write an intro to the book, it was a book called Porn Star, by Ian Gettler, who is a friend of mine. He's a photographer who took a bunch of pictures of actresses and various porn stars and hung out with them for about a year here and wrote about them. He was a friend of mine from college and when he published that book he wanted a quote from me and I liked the book a lot and I had helped him on the book and so on, and that's why the book got the quote.
TW: Did you see the bio piece that I wrote?
BEE: No, I haven't. Is that going into Acid Logic?
TW: Yes, but it's going to run in ArtVoice first along with your interview, but I sent it along to Victoria. I thought that you would have gotten it by now.
BEE: She might have. I'll have to look for it, and if I don't have it, I'll ask her for it, and read it. It's as simple as that. Tom... thank you. I hope this worked out. I know I'm a little rusty today.
TW: I'm shocked by your honesty after going through some of your old interviews and I appreciate it. You remain one of my heroes.
BEE: Well thank you for that, very much. That's not nothing, I gotta tell you. That does not mean nothing to me. That makes me, it gives the day more of a purpose. So thank you.
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