interview and portraits by ALEX ISRAEL
I pulled off of Sunset Strip heading for BRET EASTON ELLIS‘s home. I’d finished reading his much-anticipated new novel, Imperial Bedrooms, just moments before. His place seemed uncannily familiar — it felt just like the home of Clay, the novel’s narrator, a character the legendary writer introduced to readers in 1985’s Less Than Zero. Now Clay has become an adult, and is back for more with his cohorts Julian and Blair. Bret Easton Ellis is back, too — back to his home town of Los Angeles. This time around The Tower Bar may have replaced Spago, but some things never change — like the dark magnetic pull of the palm tree shadows; the spider’s web of fame, fortune, and sex; and the lingering paranoia: the uncanny sensibility of LA Noir.
ALEX ISRAEL — You grew up in Southern California. What was the best thing about it?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Getting a car when I was 16 and being able to traverse the city at my leisure. That kind of mobility is…
ALEX ISRAEL — Liberating?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Yeah. There was also the mall culture, the beaches, and going to the clubs to hear bands when I was young.
ALEX ISRAEL — How young?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — The drinking age was 18. But when I was 16 I looked older and with my fake ID I could buy drinks in the clubs. So I had fun.
ALEX ISRAEL — Which clubs?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — The Whiskey, The Imperial Gardens, The Odyssey. The most interesting one was The Lhasa Club, way down on Melrose.
ALEX ISRAEL — LA forms the backdrop for your new novel, Imperial Bedrooms. Is the city the same as you remember it? Or is it fresh for you?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — “Fresh” is an interesting word. But the new book offers a jaundiced view of LA rather than a fresh one. Then again, Less Than Zero also offered a jaundiced view of LA. I hesitate saying “view of LA,” because I set the novels in LA because I resided here when I was writing them. Maybe if I’d grown up in Chicago…
ALEX ISRAEL — You might have been another John Hughes.
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Well, I wasn’t as optimistic as John Hughes was about a lot of things. And I certainly wasn’t optimistic about my generation, which I think is clear to anyone who has read Less Than Zero. That book isn’t a celebration of my peers. It’s as if a grouchy old person wrote it. Not that I was a grouch at 18 and 19, when I was working on it.
ALEX ISRAEL — Are you that same person now, writing from the same point of view?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — In a lot of ways, I do feel like I am that same person. That said, Imperial Bedrooms was written during a much darker period of my life. When I was outlining the book — and there are parts of the book that have nothing to do with whatever problems or issues I might have had when I was writing it — I knew that it was going to be a Hollywood novel, about Clay’s life as a screenwriter. I was always going to add a femme fatale, à la Raymond Chandler, into the mix. But the book ended up teetering towards a darker place than I’d expected, just because of where I was in my life. The tone of it became more menacing and fear-based.
ALEX ISRAEL — Did you always know how Imperial Bedrooms was going to end?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — The ending was always there. But the tone of the book shifted. When I started working on the outline, I didn’t realize how intense Clay’s appetites would become once I started the technical process of working from the outline. I always begin a project with a very long outline — usually one longer than the book itself turns out to be. It’s filled with ideas for scenes and bits of dialogue and lengthy background descriptions that I may not ever use. It has questions like, If Blair was married to Trent, then what did she do after the original book ended? Did she become an actress? And if she did become an actress, then what? Or, Would Clay notice that? No, Clay wouldn’t notice that. OK, note to self: Remember, Clay would never make this connection.
ALEX ISRAEL — In the new novel Clay is more of a participant than he was in Less Than Zero.
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Much more so. And he’s entitled to be one. The passive kid drifting through the landscape of Less Than Zero has become an adult, a man. He has appetites. He’s a narcissist. He’s very successful.
ALEX ISRAEL — Have you noticed any marked changes in the LA landscape, in terms of violence, fear, and sexuality, since you moved back here from New York?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — No, I haven’t. But I’ve changed. I’m older, I’ve seen more, and I’m less, dare I say, innocent. The only change I’ve noticed is the traffic! The culture has changed a lot, but has LA really changed that much? I think it’s still a city of the future. New York is a city of the past, part of The Empire. LA is in many ways more forward-looking. At this point in my life it seems to me to be a much more global city than New York.
ALEX ISRAEL — Everyone still comes here to make it. LA exudes opportunity. It’s reality TV’s Ellis Island.
BRET EASTON ELLIS — This is true. I don’t think New York functions that way anymore, because of economics. Everyone I know lives in Brooklyn. Only rich people can live in Manhattan.
ALEX ISRAEL — Less Than Zero reads like an inventory of the places and things that fueled an affluent West LA generation. I’ve thought about the book as a readymade — its text seems plucked right out of life. Did you ever think about it like that?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — No. But while I wasn’t thinking of it as being on that scale, I completely understand how someone could read it and think that I was.
ALEX ISRAEL — Imperial Bedrooms is also realistic. The story is believable — there are no vampires or confetti falling from the sky. The novels that followed Less Than Zero were increasingly experimental, more surrealistic, and they began addressing issues concerning reality, questions about where fiction begins and nonfiction ends. What caused you to ask those questions?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Well, it was probably because of how surreal my life became after the success of Less Than Zero. Having the book published while I was still in college and then having it turn out to be such a big success caused my life to become fairly surreal. I had a lot of questions about what was real and what wasn’t. The press and my readership created a persona of Bret Easton Ellis. It’s what happened and the un-reality of the Bret Easton Ellis persona was a natural by-product of the response to the book. To see that happen and be aware of the reality of my situation was very disturbing. I grappled with it for a couple of years before letting it go. On a certain level, it’s the reason why early on in my career there arose the conflict between our old friends, Mr. Reality and Mr. — ah, what’s Mr. Reality’s opposite?
ALEX ISRAEL — Mr. Persona? Mr. Performative Self?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Yes — that’s why this conflict figured so prominently. At a certain point I was looking at life as a performance. We’re one actor with our friends, another with our lovers…
ALEX ISRAEL — And while you were still in college the platform for your performance suddenly became immense.
BRET EASTON ELLIS — There was nothing I could do about that. People make of you what they want to. An entire audience builds up a notion of who you are — whether it’s true or not — and there’s nothing you can do about it. This became very interesting to me as a theme. It’s part of the reason why I was interested in dealing with these issues in fiction. In real life I couldn’t always control these things, but in fiction I could.
ALEX ISRAEL — The questions that surround reality, fiction, and performance seem to have become ubiquitous in contemporary life. Such questions are played out everyday on YouTube and on reality-TV shows.
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Yes, and that’s why it’s no longer interesting for me to explore this theme in novels.
ALEX ISRAEL — Is that why Imperial Bedrooms takes a more documentary approach to fiction?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — It’s part of the reason. At the same time I’m dealing with a character, Clay, who isn’t engaged with any of these issues. The book has a very small scope — it’s obsessed with one thing only. I don’t know if any of the other things that we’re talking about have affected, or ever would affect, Clay — at least they don’t within the book’s pages. But I do think you’re right. Everyone today has 20 avatars, everyone’s playing different roles. But the whole idea of this just isn’t as suggestive as it once was.
ALEX ISRAEL — We’ve spoken about your interest in Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo. Tell me about your relationship to the film.
BRET EASTON ELLIS — I was 16 when it came out and back then it seemed very shocking. It was Paramount’s big spring movie of 1980 and it reverberated through our culture and started to change things. What was shocking was that there had never been a movie that looked at male beauty in the way American Gigolo did. We’d seen women lit, addressed, and undressed in that fashion, but we’d never seen a movie essentially about male beauty. It was the first metrosexual movie. I think it anticipated a change in culture that would be seen with more clarity later on in Calvin Klein ads and in the photographs of Herb Ritts.
ALEX ISRAEL — So it offered a new way of thinking about male sexuality’s role in mass culture?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — A lot of movies have dealt with male sexuality. But does American Gigolo really deal with male sexuality? Richard Gere plays a prostitute in it. It’s a film noir. Regardless of what Paul Schrader was going for at the time, it has a heavy homoerotic element. But it wasn’t a gay film. It was saying, look, this is where we’re headed as a culture: male beauty in straight culture is going to be embraced in this way — not as it is in gay culture, but in this other way. I remember seeing the movie a number of times, knowing that it wasn’t a great film, but that it was very suggestive. Now, 30 years later, it’s a key LA movie.
ALEX ISRAEL — An especially key movie for you, right?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Completely, right down to the fact that I named Julian in Less Than Zero after Gere’s character in American Gigolo. For better or worse, in 1980 I began working on Less Than Zero. There wasn’t really a Julian character in the first draft of that book. When that character began to announce itself in subsequent drafts he was named Julian — in homage to American Gigolo.
ALEX ISRAEL — You started writing Less Than Zero when you were, what, 16?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Yes. I’d written a novel before that, about what I thought was a very interesting summer I had when I was 14. After reading the book it turned out that it was not in fact a very interesting summer.
ALEX ISRAEL — What was the book called?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — I’m not telling anybody.
ALEX ISRAEL — Did you like the ending of American Gigolo? It was stolen from Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket.
BRET EASTON ELLIS — American Gigolo haunts me to this day. I referenced it in the ending of Imperial Bedrooms.
ALEX ISRAEL — Less Than Zero has a markedly un-Hollywood ending. At the end of American Gigolo Julian dies. He’s punished for his sins. At the end of Imperial Bedrooms your main character’s survival offers a more disturbing, and perhaps more tragic or apathetic, scenario.
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Oh, definitely.
ALEX ISRAEL — You pointed this difference out in the opening pages of Imperial Bedrooms. Why did you leave things so open-ended in Less Than Zero?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — The novel isn’t a Hollywood novel, because it hasn’t got much of a plot or story. There isn’t anybody particularly likeable in it. It has a very passive protagonist who doesn’t do much of anything. I actually didn’t leave it as open-ended as I could have. When you’re 19 or 20, you still have a rooting optimism for any character you create.
ALEX ISRAEL — Do you see yourself as being in the tradition of popular shows like Beverly Hills 90210 and The Hills, shows that look at jaded affluent LA youth?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — How could I not see myself as part of that tradition? It goes back to Less Than Zero.
ALEX ISRAEL — Were you thinking about specific predecessors when you wrote it? Like The Great Gatsby, perhaps, which is certainly preoccupied with aspiration and materialism?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — You know, I didn’t understand The Great Gatsby when I was 19 or 20. I read it just because it had a very gripping story. And out of all the books you’re told to read in high school, it’s the shortest and easiest to read. But its meaning gets much bigger as you get older. I read it again recently and I was surprised at not only how great it is — it might be the great American novel — but also by its almost tabloid immediacy.
It’s sexy, violent, and pulpy, in a way. But I didn’t see this when I first read it, because you don’t expect such things in a book that’s taught in high school. You’re looking for themes for essay questions.
ALEX ISRAEL — What influenced you when you were writing Less Than Zero, other than American Gigolo?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — I was a Southern California kid who wanted to write about youth culture and about the people I knew. The language of it came from movies and punk rock and from Joan Didion. I don’t know if there was a specific cultural influence that inspired Less Than Zero. I don’t know what it would have been. I knew that I wanted to write a novel, and that I was
very much influenced by Joan Didion and Ernest Hemingway, but not that much by Fitzgerald.
ALEX ISRAEL — What about the LA noir writers, like Raymond Chandler and Nathaniel West?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — I thought a lot about Chandler later on, but not at that time.
ALEX ISRAEL — You lived through some very dark chapters of Hollywood’s story, like the Manson murders and the Patty Hearst scandal.
BRET EASTON ELLIS — I was five years old when the Manson murders happened. The idea that someone could break into your house at night and get you like the Manson family reverberated throughout my entire adolescence. It added to the low-level menace that’s always been a part of my work.
ALEX ISRAEL — And Patty Hearst, a wealthy heiress, robbing a bank…
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Yes, California stories…
ALEX ISRAEL — What about movies like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Were they influences?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — They probably influenced Less Than Zero in some way. I loved The Long Goodbye when I was a teenager. Both are very ’70s.
ALEX ISRAEL — Imperial Bedrooms opens with two quotes — one is from an Elvis Costello lyric about history repeating itself and the other is taken from Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. The novel plays with elements of LA’s literary history and it indulges a number of classic noir tropes: Clay becomes the hard- boiled detective, out on his own and following his own moral code. And Rain Turner is the Spiderwoman femme fatale, or maybe it’s Blair who really plays this role. Why the decision to experiment with noir?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — I experienced a sort of collision. I became very interested in Chandler’s writing when I moved back to LA. Knopf’s Everyman’s Library compiled all seven of his novels into two beautiful volumes and I read them all. This coincided with my wanting to find out who Clay was. The two things came together.
ALEX ISRAEL — But it doesn’t come together in a neat ending. Questions are left unanswered. While I was reading Imperial Bedrooms I kept thinking about Brian De Palma’s Body Double.
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Oh yeah. I referenced that film in American Psycho. It’s Patrick Bateman’s favorite movie. I was finished with Less Than Zero by the time Body Double came out in 1984. I think it’s a beautiful, very LA movie.
ALEX ISRAEL — People often say that your writing is cool and detached. Do you agree?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Yes, I think it is, on a surface level. The writing is fairly neutral and very clean.
ALEX ISRAEL— Is this a conscious strategy — a way of manipulating the reader?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Completely. I’m always thinking of the book I want to read, that I most want to experience, that I want to manipulate me, to transport me out of all of this. And my favorite books, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, Anna Karenina, and a lot of Hemingway’s books all function in this way. My favorite novel of all time is Gustave Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education. It completely functions in this way. There’s something about cool, neutral writing that I find very truthful. It’s not decorative. It doesn’t pass judgment on anything. It lets a reader decide how to react to the material. It doesn’t grab the reader by the lapels and scream, “You must understand it in this way! It has to be read this way!” Additionally, I deal with a lot of unreliable narrators. In Imperial Bedrooms Clay is obviously a very unreliable narrator because he says at the start of the book that the writer of Less Than Zero portrayed him as a creep, although he really isn’t one. It’s a part of the book’s style to investigate how an unreliable narrator functions. Of course, the reader can decide if the writer got it right,
or if he went as far as he could go.
ALEX ISRAEL — In Less Than Zero Clay is more of a voyeur than a creep — well, maybe he’s a creepy voyeur.
BRET EASTON ELLIS — He’s this passive dude. But does his passivity stem from his trying to protect himself? Or does he just really not care? He doesn’t really actively do anything to help anybody in situations that demand it.
ALEX ISRAEL — I remember the scene in American Psycho in which Patrick Bateman is at a dinner on the Upper West Side and someone asks him something along the lines of, “Well, what’s wrong with the world?” And he goes off on a rant, listing every problem one could ever imagine. I recently reread the scene and realized that not one of those problems has been resolved, except for maybe apartheid. Do you see your writing as a tool for social or political critique? Is this kind of criticism embedded in the work?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — The narrator becomes the novel. I follow his voice. First of all, the narrator tells a story — his story, what’s going on in his life, which of course reflects what’s going on in mine, but heightened, because it’s a novel. I find myself going to places with the narrator’s voice that I might go to if I were writing the novel in the third-person or if I were writing it more autobiographically. I have said that my novels are critiques. I used to think that there was social and political criticism embedded in them but I don’t know if I can maintain that position. I don’t know if I can honestly say that American Psycho is a grand, sweeping indictment of yuppie culture or of Wall Street greed in the ’80s. In reality, it’s a book about the alienation and loneliness I suffered throughout the years I wrote it. Slipping into the materialistic yuppie lifestyle didn’t give me any satisfaction whatsoever. The book was my way of fighting against, and escaping from, that lifestyle.
ALEX ISRAEL — When you began Imperial Bedrooms, did you have a plan in mind in terms of this kind of critique?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Imperial Bedrooms is about Clay as a screenwriter. It takes place in Hollywood. What is the central Hollywood theme? Exploitation. So there’s going to be exploitation and Clay’s going to be a narcissist. Imperial Bedrooms goes back to Less Than Zero, in a way, but there was no planned critique.
ALEX ISRAEL — Do you ever think of yourself as an observer, an anthropologist, or a New Journalist?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Joan Didion was a big influence on me so, yes, obviously I do. It was in her journalism that I found the most impact. One of the most influential classes I ever took in college was Creative Techniques in Writing and Journalism. We read the New Journalists of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Some of the first things I wrote in college were influenced by their techniques. And certainly Less Than Zero was very influenced by their techniques.
ALEX ISRAEL — Did you ever write nonfiction?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — I wrote nonfiction pieces for a writing course.
ALEX ISRAEL — Was Andy Warhol a model for your practice?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — I don’t know if I think about him as a model, but he was so ubiquitous that it was impossible for me not to have been influenced by him to some extent. Maybe some people weren’t, but I was.
ALEX ISRAEL — Warhol was a kind of mirror: he democratically represented pretty much anything and everything that crossed his path. Is that a position you take in your writing? Or do you feel like the desire to present a critique is stronger than any urge you might have to democratically reflect life?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Well, I write novels, so the need to be an author tends to dominate. A novel is very different from…
ALEX ISRAEL — A painting, say?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Yes, I think you can be both more explicit and more elusive in a book. A painting is a pretty naked thing. I don’t know if a book can be as naked as a painting can be. Conversely, a book can be much more mysterious.
ALEX ISRAEL — Did you know Warhol?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — No, I only met him once. He came to my graduation party when I graduated from Bennington.
ALEX ISRAEL — Did you invite him?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — No, I invited Keith Haring, and he brought Warhol. Warhol wrote about my graduation party in his diaries.
ALEX ISRAEL — Did he know who you were?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Yeah, he knew who I was but I don’t think he’d read Less Than Zero. He’d just heard about it.
ALEX ISRAEL — He loved celebrities.
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Well, I was a celebrity and there were other celebrities there. There were also a lot of very cute young people there.
ALEX ISRAEL — What about the star culture here in LA? When you go to an event, do you think of yourself as one of the stars or rather as an observer?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — I think of myself as a writer. In LA, I don’t stand a chance against the cast of Glee.
ALEX ISRAEL — Is that partly why you like it so much here?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — I like the anonymity. I didn’t necessarily have it to the same degree in New York.
ALEX ISRAEL — What’s on your radar?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — I’m interested in Mad Men.
ALEX ISRAEL — Do you still watch The Hills?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Yes, I do.
ALEX ISRAEL — It’s less interesting now that Lauren Conrad is gone.
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Yeah, the soul of the show was removed. The show doesn’t operate at the same level as before. There are two ways the show would’ve worked: if they had ended it at Heidi and Spencer’s wedding with Lauren walking away and getting into a car. Going where? We don’t know. She gets into this strange black car and drives away as Kristin takes her place — very Mulholland Drive. They could’ve just ended it on that note. Or they could’ve gone all out by breaking the fourth wall during the season — having everyone talking to the tabloids and dealing with their agents. Heidi and Spencer and Kristin Cavallari and Brody Jenner could have been cast members telling Adam Divello, “I don’t want to do this. I’m not going to shoot a scene with her. I hate her.”
ALEX ISRAEL — That kind of happened on High Society. Did you ever watch that show?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — No, but didn’t you recommend it to me?
ALEX ISRAEL — I did. They only made a handful of episodes. What else do you find interesting at the moment?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — American movies aren’t interesting. Roberto Bolaño, the Chilean writer, is interesting. And certain British movies interest me.
ALEX ISRAEL — What about fashion?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — I only wear Izod shirts and jeans. It’s my uniform. This is the one time I’m not wearing an Izod polo shirt. I have them in 20 different colors.
ALEX ISRAEL — What do you think about the art world here in LA?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — I probably go to more art events out here than I did in New York.
ALEX ISRAEL — How’s your screenplay about the deaths of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan coming along? What has your interaction with the art world been like?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — There’s been very little of it, but even that has dissuaded me from pursuing it any further.
ALEX ISRAEL — I can imagine! You told me that it’s more of a constructed and fictitious representation than a research-driven work.
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Completely. Every time I get into the minutiae of their lives — someone seeing them at a dinner party or saying that they knew them really well in Venice — it makes the movie so much smaller than it is in our minds. By “our,” I mean myself and the producers and Gus Van Sant — regardless of whether he directs it or not. There was something symbiotic going on between Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan, something very powerful, regardless of the specifics of their mania. The hold two people can have on each other is interesting.
ALEX ISRAEL — Why not use that premise as a starting point for a fictional story?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Because it’s more interesting when it’s based on real people.
ALEX ISRAEL — Why is that?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — It’s just more powerful as a true story than as a fictional story. I want to use Jeremy’s art in it. Everything about it just works for me. Moving it into a fictional realm doesn’t.
ALEX ISRAEL — Why? Because you like Jeremy’s art?
BRET EASTON ELLIS — I like his art and I like the specifics of what happened to them. I was here in LA. A movie I was making was falling apart. My paranoia about the industry increased. I couldn’t trust anybody. I’d fallen in love with someone who was completely unstable and I felt like I was losing my mind. Then boom! I read The Golden Suicides in Vanity Fair. I related to it on so many levels. I kept thinking that I could’ve been Jeremy — that it could’ve happened to me. I reacted to the story on a very personal level and I also found it haunting and fascinating. It’s not that I wanted to make a movie about the art world or about people losing their minds. It reflected what was going on in my life at the time.
ALEX ISRAEL — Are you attracted to paranoia? It’s a big theme in your books — oftentimes someone is following the narrator or the narrator is convinced that someone is watching him.
BRET EASTON ELLIS — No, I’m not attracted to paranoia. If I was, I wouldn’t be able to talk to people. I’d never leave my house. In any case, I think you do develop a level of paranoia if you become well known. People you don’t even know read about you and look at you.
ALEX ISRAEL — Well, you’re about to meet a whole lot of people — on your upcoming book tour.
BRET EASTON ELLIS — Yes, that’s what happens on book tours.
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