Tuesday, 28 May 2024

Bret Easton Ellis

The notorious author lives a life as sensational as his unbelievably believable books

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The legendary Bret Easton Ellis is still challenging himself to depict the brutal ways of the world. Author of six startling, honest and funny books, including American Psycho and Glamorama, Mr. Ellis is currently finishing his seventh, a follow-up to his still-shocking debut Less Than Zero, due to be published next year. Ellis has lived most of his adult life in New York, a city whose style he helped define by what his characters wore. Now relocated to Los Angeles, Ellis lives on the 11th floor of an apartment block in West Hollywood, overlooking the city where his long-awaited new book is set…

From Fantastic Man n° 9 — 2009
Text by PAUL FLYNN
Photography by JEFF BURTON

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Before the tape is switched on, Bret Easton Ellis wonders about the parameters of the conversation. “But I am not promoting anything,” he says, as if that might somehow derail what is to come. It is apparent that Bret Easton Ellis in full promotional swing is a startlingly different character from Bret Easton Ellis in full work mode. It is almost as if they are two separate people.

He sits on the near edge of a putty-coloured corner sofa in his pristine Los Angeles apartment, knees splayed and ankles crossed. I take the implication of his statement to be: “And if I am not promoting anything, then why would anyone be interested in me?” To which the answer, in my head at least, is: “Why would anyone not?”

Right now, Bret Easton Ellis’s life mostly consists of finishing a new novel, his seventh. It has the working title Imperial Bedrooms and is a follow-up to his debut, Less Than Zero, the book that nailed his reputation at the precociously young age of 19 and which he read over and over again before writing his last one, Lunar Park. “And a weird thing happened. I wanted to know what was going on with the narrator and what he was doing now. Where were the other people?” Another thing happened to light the initial touch-paper of his intense creative process. “I became really obsessed in the last decade or so with Raymond Chandler. I wanted to write a Raymond Chandler type of novel. I put the two together and who knows? It could be a disaster. It could be terrible. But it is the thing that I really want to write. Now as the book is moving forward and I’m further along in it, that’s when the writing tends to pick up. It’s always harder at the beginning. It’s all kind of boring. The process is boring.”

Whenever he talks of his work, Ellis looks locked into his own brain. If it is an incredible space to delve into for the subsequent reader, it is also a difficult space to occupy for the writer.

Interrupting Ellis’s mind-set at this juncture is fascinating, if a little uneasy. He is precipitously close to finishing the work and anticipates doing so in May. He says he has little to no interference from his editor. “Every time I am at this stage of a book,” he says, “I tell myself that I will never write another one.”

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Mr. Ellis lives in a block that stands between West Sunset Blvd and Santa Monica Blvd, in an apartment that is relatively unfurnished. He considers his view south across a great swathe of Los Angeles as decoration enough.

There is a flurry of Bret Easton Ellis activity about to happen, delighting the army of fanatics that swarm to his work. He has adapted a screenplay for his book on “the death of the soul”, The Informers, which was recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. A film treatment for Lunar Park, written by someone else, should go into production this year. “The last I heard, Benicio Del Toro was attached,” he confides, looking pleased at the potential coup. He talks vaguely of some screen work for TV he has in development, though doesn’t jinx anything by going into detail.

Immediately there is a sense that the author lives in a world that is devoted to his work: that little to nothing else exists in this moment. He says he procrastinates over everything, right down to naming the characters. “I procrastinate all the time. That is part of the process. I don’t think it’s a negative thing. It is what it is. If you’re writing novels, usually you know how to do it before you write the book. You get used to it. And you’re not so surprised by the rhythms it takes. You’re not so surprised by the long periods where nothing really happens. Then there are the bursts of intense writing where there are things that you never thought would be put in the novel. There’s also, I notice, compared to screenwriting, an immense amount of relief in working on something that is all your own.”

A particularly intriguing detail emerges throughout my three-and-a-half hour conversation with Ellis. The author appears to be the only man on earth right now who is absolutely ambivalent on the subject of Barack Obama becoming The President of the United States of America.

“I have no feelings on that subject. None either way,” he says. It sounds just as complete in its emotional brutalism aloud as it looks written down, as if he has purposefully anaesthetised himself to the central world event of the last twelve months. When I suggest that Obama is of both the age and the disposition to perhaps have read a Bret Easton Ellis novel, he points out that George W. Bush told him that he had read and loved Less Than Zero when Bret met him in 1986, cannily reminding me of his extraordinary life whilst making his oblique point.

“It will be interesting to see how long this collective national and international fantasia of Obama-ism lasts,” he says, as if it is a foregone conclusion that any moment now his apathy towards it will be richly rewarded. And perhaps it will. On the subject of the non-event of the American election alone, he appears convinced. Elsewhere, when he is dissecting the minutiae of his own life, notes of abject uncertainty prick most sentences that drop gently from his mouth. It is possible that the two are related.

Ellis sits far enough away from me to warrant gravity between inquisitor and subject and close enough to study the recesses of his doleful eyes. There is nothing to suggest any dishonesty about them. Quite the opposite. He prevaricates in answering everything, though, from the brand of coffee he favours (Peet’s) to the intimacies shared between the author and his shrink. He says that, yes, sometimes he has a crisis of confidence about what the music he chooses to play in his car says about him, even if he is alone. He drives a BMW 5 Series and often has trouble locating it in car lots, such is the model’s ubiquity in LA. “They are everywhere. Everyone has one. Men of a certain age…” It is black. “Ubiquitous car, ubiquitous colour.”

His tone is deeply considered, and despite being locked in the serious pursuit of his work, there is a sense in which he still wants the myth of Bret Easton Ellis—the whirlwind author, the cultural trouble-shooter, the agent provocateur—to be upheld. At the end of the conversation, as I make to leave his apartment, he taps the side of my shirtsleeve and says, “Just make me sound good, okay?” attempting a half-smile that looks kinder than the question sounds. The only way you can honour the invitation is to say what you see.

With as yet no finished work to promote, Bret Easton Ellis seems inclined to negotiate the outer reaches of his own alienation. Part of this you could put down to his move back to his childhood home of LA. “It really is an incredibly isolating place,” he says, “worse than any place I’ve ever lived.” To cement the isolation, the breadth of the city stretches out of a floor-to-ceiling view that extends for the length of the 11th floor apartment, from The Getty Center at one corner to downtown at the other. At the jollier ends of the conversation, the view looks breathtaking; at the more disorienting moments it is as if we are hovering above the city. But part of this alienation you must put down to the condition of being Bret Easton Ellis. Anyone who has read the contents of his unique brain spilling onto the page knows that Ellis is singular. Yet at this stage of his writing process, it comes as some surprise to find him quite so separate.

He says that part of the appeal of the apartment block was its similarity to his living conditions in New York: the security guard at reception, the very idea of shared living.

The flat itself is stark but not minimal. Any colour shading seeps into the whole. The paraphernalia of a man living alone is nowhere to be seen. You would have to search to find the TV remote control. When I ask if he still has manuscripts from his early works he says yes, they are stored away somewhere, and it’s clear that he means not in this apartment. The entirety of the place feels like a new start, in which nothing will crowd his head; no art on the wall, nothing extraneous. A woman would never live like this.

The space between Bret Easton Ellis and his work has long been a concern for the author. He tells me that someone recently asked him about writing a memoir. “I told him to look back at the six books I’ve written. That’s it! You can trace where I am, any aspect and part of my life through reading those books. Those are my journals.” He is a writer of absolute confidence and conviction, which heightens the problem of distinguishing the author from the work.

The written universes he provokes you into are the poisoned apples in the Garden of Eden of contemporary fiction—perhaps even of contemporary morality. They are never quite what they seem. On his six-book journey he has conjured worlds that are hard, fast, glamorous and amoral. From the classroom (Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction) to the industries of high fashion and international terrorism (Glamorama) to the story of authorship itself (Lunar Park) and the anatomy of serial killing (American Psycho), his books are dotted with a cast list of the beautiful and the damned; characters with a “so it goes” attitude to battling their way through the modern condition. They support loveless sex by ingesting sexless drugs. Their dress codes are manacled to their moment. They ooze so much modernity that they cannot help but hate it.

When he tells you that for Imperial Bedrooms he has had to fight hard to rediscover the voice of the Less Than Zero protagonist, last recalled when he finished the novel at 19, the first questions that flash across your mind are: “What cell-phone does he use?”, “What underwear does he sport?” and “Does he hate himself for watching American Idol?” A Bret Easton Ellis character is someone who implicitly understands that at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries, the exterior life is part of the key to unlocking the interior, for better and for worse.

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The accusation of superficiality has boringly followed him around for over two decades now. But no writer of his age understands the depths behind shallow feeling and dialogue any clearer. Because he writes in a moment of time, he is excused from the constant search for gravitas of his literary peers, most of whom he dislikes.

“There is a certain kind of writer that I cannot stand that is very popular with academics and with critics. Carefully written, streamlined, generic lyricism. It’s very, very smooth and almost polite and very conscious of its metaphors and very conscious of its punctuation. Very careful. Often you’re reading a book narrated by someone that would never use this language in a million years. There is also a kind of craving for respect from the critical community. That’s a limitation. Because you are writing for a reaction. You cannot do that. You have to write because you are obsessed by this material and because it says something about yourself. Good manners can work for you for a while as an artist. I suppose as much as bad manners can.”

The proximity between Ellis and his work is an enduring fascination for his fans. You can call Bret Easton Ellis fans “fans” in a way that you cannot with other authors but that you might with a rock star or a film director. Bret himself tells of a fan that runs a blog under the name London Preppy who has “Bret Easton Ellis” tattooed inside his biceps. “My mother has something locked in on Google where if there is something about me posted she gets it. She sends me all these links. So that’s really how I keep up.”

Bret Easton Ellis takes the hero worship that follows his work politely. “I guess ultimately it’s nice to have people respond to your books that way.”

Pause.

“It’s a good thing.”

Pause.

“I can’t even begin to think about what would be particularly negative about it.”

Pause.

“And there is nothing I can do about it and realistically it is something that I have no control over, so… You certainly do not decide your own reputation.”

How does it feel to know that there is a stranger wandering about with your name tattooed on him?

“It’s strange, you know?”

This time there is a longer pause than usual.

“It makes you feel like that’s the other Bret. There is the Bret that is dealing with all of this stuff in his life right now and it’s all very mundane and typical and work-related and relationship-related and family-related and all these very simple things that everyone deals with. And it’s a very simple life, too. So it’s very weird to see that. But you get to a point where you’re used to it and you realise that they’re referencing something different from the mundane reality of that life. They are referencing Bret Easton Ellis, not Bret Ellis, which is the name on all my cheque stubs. It’s Bret Easton Ellis. They are referencing this thing that has been sometimes, over the years, great. And it suggests a whole litany of associations and references.”

The more time you spend in his company, the more evident the delineation between Bret Ellis and Bret Easton Ellis appears. As he is 45, you cannot help but think it must come as some relief to him. The showboating stuff of spectacular legend has been left behind at a New York party, just in the nick of time, before it descended into cliché; the human being allowed to prosper creatively in close proximity to his family at a computer screen in West Hollywood.

The mundane details of the life of Bret Ellis turn out to be gratifyingly less dull than he implies. He can smoke his own salmon and makes gravadlax too, which he sometimes takes to his mother’s house in Sherman Oaks, where he dines every Sunday evening with his family, just like an episode of the TV show Brother & Sisters. “Someone else said that to me, also,” he says, momentarily alarmed enough to raise an eyebrow that the life of Bret Ellis also sounds semi-fictitious.

The moment passes.

“I should check that out.”

He works in silence, though he confesses to switching on the TV at least once a day (“Oh, at least”) and usually sets it to CNN, which he hates. “I’ve been going through a lot of work, I’ve had a lot to do and I’ve been quite stressed about it. Having CNN on doesn’t help the cause at all. It’s just so dramatic. They have the most dramatic music. The CNN theme is so menacing. And you find yourself in some relentless adventure movie. And then what shouldn’t even be news is news. A private plane with no one remotely known crashes some place and you see the coverage of it for an hour. And then people are dead in the plane and there’s all this smoke and people are upset and it sometimes lasts forever, you know? Literally, you can look up from your desk and watch that for forty minutes. It is like watching a film to see how it ends.”

If he has trouble finding the inspiration to write, which he does sometimes, he will go to the gym, see a movie or go to a museum. For breakfast this morning he ate a seeded waffle. “And an Asian apple-pear, which sounds fancy, but isn’t here in LA.” He says he finds it difficult to bring in the grocery shopping under $70 or $80, and does it twice a week. A trip to the grocery store can incur the feelings of isolation implicit to his new life in LA. “You have to make a list of things you have to get. And then you have to find your car, get in your car, drive some place, get your stuff and come back to your place. It’s how this city is built, geographically. It’s not people friendly. You’re not walking the streets and meeting people or bumping into a friend in Union Square. You are alone a lot. You are not confronted with people and with humanity every time that you step out of the house. This is a very quiet town.”

Do you sleep well at night?

“Yes. Well, sometimes better. Well, not. Are you asking me ‘Do I have problems sleeping?’”

No, I’m asking you if you generally get a good night’s sleep.

“No. Not. Generally I do not sleep well. Generally I tend to fall asleep all right but I don’t stay asleep. And if I wake up I have to take something. So, um, no. But last night was okay.”

He seems a little agitated by this talk of sleep.

“Do I get up early? Well, if someone has stayed over then I’m up early. Do I like mornings? If someone has stayed over then I like mornings. But I don’t know. It’s very strange being a writer and working from your place. Increasingly, since a lot of the business is done by phone or e-mail or whatever, it is a very solitary existence. Even if you’re in a relationship, it still is a very solitary thing to do and to do well. It’s just the nature of it.”

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His favoured method of communication is text messaging and he doesn’t worry if the phone doesn’t ring. If isolation is a feature of his life, then he doesn’t necessarily seem unhappy about it. He doesn’t know whether he prefers to be in or out of relationships. “It’s a case-by-case scenario.” He makes no allusion whatsoever to being in one during our conversation and, besides, as he says, “We’re all ultimately alone, aren’t we?”—an emotional rallying cry known mostly to the childless and one possibly magnified by LA.

Bret Ellis says he moved to LA because “it just seemed like the party was over” in New York, the city he had lived in for most of his professional and adult life. There was not a specific moment that the party ended. “No, no, it wasn’t like that at all.” But it finished, nevertheless. “I was very tired of the lit world. Of book parties. Of literary gossip. I’d been visiting LA a lot. It wasn’t dramatic. Just that the more time I spent here the more it seemed like I should be here. It was more a general feeling of: ‘Let’s try this out.’ That is all. The party ends for everybody after a while. You just don’t want to go to parties. You’re tired of the place you live in. It’s kind of a vague malaise, I guess.”

Bret Ellis is not a fan of social-networking sites. He has been “caught out” by someone on a dating site, though understandably doesn’t care to flesh out that story. He won’t try it again. He is, however—and on this subject he is highly animated—a huge fan of MTV’s scripted reality series of the young and the monied in LA, The Hills. “I think The Hills is the greatest show that I have ever seen in my life,” he says, sincerely. “It is a modern masterpiece. I think that Adam DeVillo is a mad genius. He creates it and controls it perfectly.” Ellis is very specific about the way he watches The Hills. “I’m holding off on Season 4 right now. I started watching a bit of it, but I’m waiting until the DVD comes out because I want to see it all so beautifully mastered. Even if you download the show there is that irritating MTV logo in the corner. It doesn’t work for me that way. It has to be on a big screen with the sound right up. It blows me away.”

Bret Ellis likes reality as a genre. “I do not consider myself above that medium.” Bret Easton Ellis presciently foresaw its rage across the mainstream in Glamorama, when the protagonist imagined himself to be followed around by a film crew, all day and all night. Like many master fictionalists, he understands that at its best, reality can function as a new way of telling a story and can alight upon truths that fiction can only dream of, because it is a composite of design and accident, pre-meditated thought and physical impulse. He likes the alpha-male British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay, though sometimes gets annoyed by hearing the scriptwriter’s voice in Ramsay’s televised narrative. “But The Hills is the first one that really does something new. It’s scripted reality, unapologetically presenting itself, then breaking the fourth wall by having these characters interacting with the real world in a way that’s completely created. Whenever Heidi and Spencer are looking at a house with a realtor in Malibu that costs $17 million, the people telling them to do that know that it is going to be all over the place for a 48-hour cycle. People will obsess about that thing. Heidi and Spencer go to Disneyland? They’re dressed for it. He’s wearing his NRA T-shirt so you know he votes Republican. I’m sorry, but whoever invented Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt are just…nothing matches it. I’ve never seen LA look more beautiful in a work of art. There are no movies that are as beautiful as that and there are certainly none that understand the beauty and the isolation of this city better.”

The line between the myth and the reality comes up time and again with Bret Ellis. He talks of reading other authors’ memoirs and his mixed feelings on them. “The best things that John Cheever ever wrote were not the short stories or the fiction. His published journals were breathtakingly well written. Their quality is so much stronger than the fiction. To a lesser degree you get someone like Christopher Isherwood, who was famous for his journals, but those make you think: ‘Hmmm, I don’t know whether this is a good idea?’ That really does alter your perception of the man and I’m not sure that that’s really the perception that I want.”

Because he’s so much rougher in them?

“Yes.” He thinks about this for a moment. “I don’t know that this is about pleasantness or anything like that. There is a mystery to writers and to novels. And there is a part of me, which I guess is very old fashioned, that likes that. I like to look at the art and not at the artist. I guess everyone likes to look at the artists and everyone wants to know about their love lives and if they were nice or if they were mean, but what that also threatens to do is to alter your perception of their work. It can take away some of the mystery that was the power of their work.”

Perhaps this is where Bret Easton Ellis comes in. Bret Ellis would not describe himself as a happy man.

“Is that the goal, to be happy?”

Well, is it?

“What is happy? I mean, what is it? I think that aiming for not going crazy…that’s the aim. In a world that’s really quite brutal and chaotic and that’s so difficult to navigate just as a person, happiness is just an added pressure.”

Is there an alternative way of thinking about this, that everyone is basically crazy and just getting on with life under those circumstances?

“Well, that’s what I’m thinking. Purpose of life? That makes me think: ‘What?’ Once you make peace with the what-the-hell-are-we-doing-here thing, it can go either way. You can either go ‘Okay, I’m at peace with it,’ or it can drive you even more crazy. So, yeah. It’s just not something that I can be concerned with.”

It’s all too grand to condense?

“Yes.”

Is life controlling your own craziness? That’s a very modern way of thinking about it.

“Controlling it? Or displaying it? Our society is such an exhibitionistic culture in which people display so eagerly their insanity. Just as long as people are interested in us, life is not about what we do. That’s what is so coarsening about celebrity culture. And I can’t believe that I am complaining about this still.”

I tell Bret Ellis that I met Bret Easton Ellis once before. I interviewed him for a British newspaper ten years ago, during his whirlwind book tour for Glamorama, a part of his life that would end up fictionalised as the first episode of Lunar Park. I was deeply impressed by the force of nature seated opposite me in a London hotel. The interview was not so much a case of question-and-answer as it was wind-him-up-and-watch-him-go. He cascaded monologue after monologue, brimmed with overt self-confidence. He was flirtatious, cheeky and louche. He was nicely plump then and prone to extravagant gesture. He was wearing a suit and tie and had two fixed expressions: delirious happiness and total fear.

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The reason I remember the encounter so vividly was not only my fondness at meeting for the first time an erudite and brilliant man of words talking about his own purpose, but also because a question came to me out of nowhere that I normally wouldn’t ask a relative stranger in the interview process. I said: “Have you ever thought about suicide?” and he tossed his hair back, laughed aloud and replied on the upstroke, “Have I ever not?” before ordering another drink. At the time, the distinction between the life and work of Bret Easton Ellis and the significance of his middle name was alien to me.

In the intervening decade, Bret Ellis has had a lot of therapy. His most intense work was with a strict Freudian, female shrink in New York. He is not currently in therapy. He finished in April, 2008.

With his New York therapist, he kept a diary of his dreams and realised that his dream life followed a continuum similar to his actual life and bore a startling similarity to his fiction writing. “I had a lot of anxiety and a lot of stress and we knew exactly what those things were but not why they would drive me so crazy. She was trying to remove me from those anxieties and fears and so part of my therapy was to keep a dream journal. I was very diligent about it. So the moment I woke up I scrawled them all down and later on I would type it all up. I realised after about thirty entries that I was writing a novel. Why did I keep on going back to Nevada? Why was I in an auditorium full of black people? And what was that leopard doing? It came back three nights later and I was a different person. But the same different person. The stuff that would’ve faded from memory maybe half an hour after waking up was now committed to paper. We finally did figure a couple of things out. Ultimately it was sort of therapeutic. But it was very interesting on a creative level because it made me understand that you are dreaming another life.”

Ellis says that he prefers therapy to medication. “Therapy is more interesting than medication, definitely.” And then later: “America is overmedicated. Whatever I feel about that, I dealt with in Lunar Park. I don’t know about the Western world and our need for a quick fix. Maybe this is just how we are?” In his last two novels, Ellis’s work has become more audacious and unhinged, his storytelling has swung into magic-realism, fantasy and horror to accompany the hard documentary realism that was once his signature. Just as he judges his life to be more mundane, his fiction has entered the realm of limitless possibility.

I ask if anything has changed in the last ten years, since he quipped about suicide in a fun interview to promote a book. He pauses generously when confronted by the semi-fictional character that he becomes to play out his public life. “It’s funny that I said that. God.”

There is another long pause.

“Okay. Honestly? No. Do I think about death a lot? The release of death? That takes you out of all the pressures of…whatever? Yes. But I don’t think about self-annihilation. No.”

When it comes to the hard thinking, there is a sense with Bret Ellis that perhaps having a near alter ego to bridge the gulf between his fantasy and his reality is not so much blight as blessing. For a second he becomes Bret Easton Ellis: “And you know what? You’re always thinking about suicide on a book tour.” He laughs at the proclamation. It sounds just the same as the laugh he let out a decade ago only, somehow, more soulful.

CONTRIBUTIONS

Assistance by Ray Lopez. Photographic assistance by Jake Michaels. Styling by Brian Malloy at Tim Howard Management. Styling assistance by Ronit Nabi. Grooming by Chering Keating at The Wall Group. Grooming assistance by Rebecca Plymate. Production in LA by Nima Chendami. Coordination by Paris Valentine Avron at Vincent Simonet. Retouching by Studio P Inc.