A Tale of Two Brets

A Conversation with Bret Easton Ellis

In his novel Lunar Park, Bret Easton Ellis takes first-person narrative to an extreme, inserting himself (and a host of real characters from the publishing world) into the haunting story of a drugged-out famous writer living in the suburbs trying to reconnect with his wife and son and reconcile his damaged past. Ellis is at the top of his game in Lunar Park , his first novel since 1999's Glamorama, delivering a disturbing and delirious novel about celebrity, writers, and fathers and sons (not to mention a cameo from notorious Ellis creation, Patrick Bateman). Amazon.com senior editor Brad Thomas Parsons spoke with Ellis in a Seattle to Los Angeles phone call to talk about the fact and fiction behind Lunar Park , New York versus L.A., '80s music, and the whole "American Psycho thing."

Amazon.com: Your writing has often had a perceived autobiographical element to it, and with your new book you've blurred the line even more, making yourself an actual character. You, or the character, writes: "I could never be as honest about myself in a piece of nonfiction as I could in any of my novels." Did you ever really consider writing an actual memoir? What was the genesis of your metafictional take on your career?

Bret Easton Ellis: I had planned on writing this book for a long time. And the character wasn't me. It was a writer. It was a guy living in a house and he was married and he had kids, etcetera, etcetera. But over the years a lot of things that happened to me I started to incorporate into this very voluminous outline that kept building from 1989 to roughly 2000. And things like the American Psycho incident happened. And then adding the idea of a fictional character or someone who would be replicating these crimes. That started to appeal to me. The death of my father also became something I was interested in writing about. It didn't really click for me until I realized this narrator had a lot of resemblances to my life. So I thought, well, why not? See what happens. Make him you. And then the book really started taking off for me and it became a much more riveting, meaningful thing to write. That's really how it came about. And I never really planned a memoir. I know I talked about it at one point. [laughing] I don't know what I was talking about when I actually had that idea in my head.

Amazon.com: You've said a lot of things in interviews.

Ellis: Exactly. I've said a lot of things in interviews. Yeah. That came from the idea that there was someone who was trying to do a biography on me. And of course no one was interested because really not enough had happened to me. I was kind of shocked that someone was going around to publishing houses peddling this bio on me. That's why I kind of thought, well, I'll just write a quickie little memoir that leads up to my childhood, my adolescence, my years in college. Even when it came out of my mouth, my first thought was, this is never going to happen. [laughs] I think everyone should be relieved that didn't happen.

Amazon.com: In the book, Bret is confronted by someone who says, "I want you to reflect on your life. I want you to be aware of all the terrible things you've done. I want you to face the disaster that is Bret Easton Ellis." Was this a draining book for you to write?

Ellis: Put it this way, a lot of demons were exorcized. I felt a huge wave of relief when I finished this book that was different from any other times I completed a novel. Mostly that had to do with exorcizing my feelings about my dad. Part of writing this book was me working through a lot of things that were never resolved because he died so suddenly. I think writing this book helped that. It was a fun book to write. And every book should be a fun book to write. You should be entertaining yourself while you're working on it, and you should be having a good time. It's a lot of work, but you should be engaged and inspired, and it should not be this limping to your desk bemoaning yourself for having to write a novel. That's not how I work.

Amazon.com: You play fast and loose with the facts of your own life in the book. Is this your way of making your persona even murkier or were you just playing games?

Ellis: It was just fun. I was already going to set up this writer who had fallen on rough times and a woman he had been involved with and had a child with 11 years earlier was going to come into his life and sort him out in a way. That was always part of the plan of the novel. It was always part of the story. I wasn't, however. When I became aware this was the direction the book was taking and the whole setup chapter was going to be about this writer's life, I started riffing on my own. Yeah, it is fast and loose. Some of it's true. A lot of it's not. I thought it was funny to spoof myself. I thought it was funny to spoof how other people saw me. It was sort of a lark.

Amazon.com: All of your books have had an eerie undercurrent to them, with Patrick Bateman the closest you've come to actually manifesting pure evil. With Lunar Park you've more than dipped your feet into the horror genre. There's a haunted house, demons, ghosts--is this you moving into Stephen King territory, or did the book call for the genre?

Ellis: It is in some ways an homage to Stephen King and the comics I loved as a kid. Especially the EC Comics, like Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt . And the Warren Comics of the '70s that I was a huge fan of. They had titles like Creepy and Eerie and Vamperilla . These were all influences on Lunar Park . That was the impetus to write the book. To write a book that was similar to the books that gave me pleasure as a boy and as an adolescent. I was really into the horror genre and the supernatural genre when I was a teenager and certainly I came of age, along with a lot of men of my generation, with the first book that Stephen King published and onward. But as I got older the book became less an homage and more personal.

Bret Easton Ellis on rereading American Psycho : "It was good. It was fun. It was not nearly as pretentious as I remember I wanted it to be when I was writing it. I found it really fast-moving. I found it really funny. And I liked it a lot. The violence was... it made my toes curl. I really freaked out. I couldn't believe how violent it was. It was truly upsetting. I had to steel myself to reread those passages."

Amazon.com: Starting with The Rules of Attraction I've loved how you've let your characters wander into one anothers' books--they all live in the same universe.

Ellis: It's certainly not part of a plan. I don't really know how it happens. It just feels right. I wish I could give a more interesting answer but I can't. There's not this overall grand scheme to connect each book with minor characters... it just sort of happens.

Amazon.com: You've even borrowed characters from other writers– Jill Eisenstadt, Donna Tartt, Jay McInerney. Is this a literary wink?

Ellis: It's my mood. Why not? I was thinking about that person, I've just read that guy's book, and yeah, maybe that character would be around the same time Patrick Bateman's around? Well, yeah, maybe they can meet. It's not like it means anything. I wish it did. It's just fun.

Amazon.com: On that note, Jay McInerney makes a rather unflattering cameo in Lunar Park

Ellis: I think it's a flattering cameo! I just got an e-mail from Jay yesterday saying, "OK, I finally did it. I read the book and I loved it. But I've got say, of all the nasty, horrible things that have been written about my entire career, being compared to Jerry Lewis was the low point. Thank you very much."

Amazon.com: So it wasn't him doing the Bolivian Marching Powder but being compared to Jerry Lewis that did it?

Ellis: I think Jay comes off really well. I think he comes off fine. Yeah, maybe he snorts a little coke. Please. Please. [laughing] What's wrong with this picture? I don't know. It was meant to be funny and it was also meant to satirize the idea of what people thought our relationship was like. Again, it was having a goof. I hope it's not read as an attack on Jay at all because we're really close.

Amazon.com: I wanted to run through your body of work with you and get your knee-jerk reaction to each title--what it meant to you then and what it means to you now.

Less Than Zero. Your debut novel, published while you were a junior at Bennington.

Ellis: I read it for the first time in about 20 years this year--recently. It wasn't so bad. I get it. I get fan mail now from people who weren't really born yet when the book came out [groans]. I don't think it's a perfect book by any means, but it's valid. I get where it comes from. I get what it is. I know that sounds so ambiguous. It's sort of out of my hands and it has its reputation [laughs] so what can you do about it? There's a lot of it that I wish was slightly more elegantly written. Overall, I was pretty shocked. It was pretty good writing for someone who was 19. I was pretty surprised by the level of writing.

Amazon.com: How about The Rules of Attraction ?

Ellis: It might be my favorite book of mine. It was a very exciting time in my life. I was writing that book while I was at college. Sort of like the best of times, the worst of times. There was a lot of elation, there was a lot of despair. It was just a really fun book to write. I loved mimicking all the different voices. The stream of conscious does get a little out of hand. I kind of like that about the book. It's kind of all over the place. It's casual. It's scruffy. That's the one book of mine that I have a very, very soft spot for.

Amazon.com: And American Psycho ?

Ellis: I had a similar experience as I did with Less Than Zero . I reread that book in the summer of '03. I was working on Lunar Park and had to figure out the similarities of how it hooked up to American Psycho . And I hadn't looked at that book either since '91. And I was dreading it. I thought it was going to be a really terrible novel. Everything everyone had ever said about it was going to be true. I was then a 39-year-old guy. I started writing the book when I was 23--this is going to be a huge "ouch" moment. I remember this very clearly. I was staying up at Candace Bushnell's country house in Connecticut. After breakfast I went down to my room and picked it up. And I started reading it... and I was surprised. It was good. It was fun. It was not nearly as pretentious as I remember I wanted it to be when I was writing it. Not nearly as weighted down with the importance that I thought I was investing it with. I found it really fast-moving. I found it really funny. And I liked it a lot. The violence was... it made my toes curl. I really freaked out. I couldn't believe how violent it was. It was truly upsetting. I had to steel myself to reread those passages.

Amazon.com: That freaked you out writing it, too, right?

Ellis: It did, but I also felt that it fit in with my whole aesthetic at that moment. Sort of very nihilistic, I had been influenced by punk and I thought this is basically conceptual fiction and it has to be there because the rest of the book doesn't make any sense. I need to make these juxtapositions between consumer culture and real pain and violence, etcetera, etcetera. All these fancy ideas I had from, I don't know, college--[laughs] college did me in!--that I had to incorporate into this book. When I reread it at 39 I thought, this is going to be so embarrassing. They're not there! Patrick Bateman's voice takes over everything. I was surprised.

Amazon.com: The Informers came out in 1994 but the stories were written earlier, right?

Ellis: Those were written while I was at Bennington. I wrote a lot of short stories between 1981 or 1982 or so... I think that the last one I wrote was in 1986. The Informers more or less kind of represented probably the best of those stories. I wrote a lot of really bad ones, but those are the ones that worked the best together.

Amazon.com: And your last book, 1999's Glamorama. I'm curious how you react to this book now, in the current climate of terrorism.

Ellis: You know, I haven't been asked that yet. Terrorism has always interested me. It's been around for hundreds of years. So it's not like it's a brand-new subject just because it happened on a massive scale here one terrible morning. How do I react that book now in hindsight? Not differently. Because the book wasn't necessarily about terrorism to me. It was about a whole bunch of other stuff. It's definitely the book that I can tell--I don't know if other people can tell but I can tell as a writer--is probably the most divisive that I've written. It has an equal number of detractors as it does fans. It doesn't really hold true with the other books. It was the one that took the longest to write, and the one that seemed the most important at the time. It's an unwieldy book... I like it.

Bret Easton Ellis on New York: "New York no longer inspires me. I don't want to live in New York anymore. In fact, I'm actively looking to get out of New York. Yeah, I'm over it. I did it. It was fun. It was done in high style."

Amazon.com: In hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently around the American Psycho controversy--how you handled yourself?

Ellis: I would have talked. I think now--it's so shocking how different our media culture is now from '91 to today. I would be on every single talk show. And the outrage would have lasted a week. It would not have played out in the slow-motion avalanche the way it did in pre-Internet '91 when the controversy started. I just don't think this kind of book could cause the kind of scandal. It's all so strange. Because I do meet a lot of younger readers who have no idea about that. They were five when this controversy happened and they just know the book, or have seen the movie. That's a good thing.

Amazon.com: Perhaps you want to leave it up to the reader, but do you care to set the record straight on the "was it all just a dream" interpretation of the book.

Ellis: Right, right, the "was it all a dream thing." [laughs] Our old friends Mr. Loose and Mr. Reality. I don't know. When I was writing the book I kind of thought I knew but I really didn't. I liked leaving it open. Because it is left open purposely in the book. And depending on who you are as a writer and what you desire from the book, you're going to go either way. And the movie doesn't answer that question. It's fine. Why answer it? Is the book more meaningful? Does it make it more interesting? It's probably a much more interesting book when you're left hanging and you decide on your own.

Amazon.com: I know you've had very little to do with them but what's your take on the film adaptations of your work?

Ellis: I'm much more sympathetic to Less Than Zero now than I was when it came out. I caught it recently. One of those weird, cliché moments you don't believe really happen--the writer has insomnia, he's up at three in the morning, oh, look, it's on Showtime, I'm going to check this out. I don't know any other movies that caught that period in LA so well. I mean, the script's not great and I had issues with some of the casting, but overall it's a beautiful-looking film. I've really warmed up to it now. I've accepted it.

And of course American Psycho ... It's a very hard book to adapt and I admire the path they took, and the path that Christian Bale took. It's by no means an embarrassment. It's by no means a bad movie. I think it's a hard thing to adapt.

[laughing] Here we go... this is what is going to totally minimize my popularity, people will question my sanity, but I flat-out loved The Rules of Attraction. I thought it was a knockout movie. I think half of it is genius. I think some of it is a little weak. But overall Roger Avery did a f--king great job and he can shoot whatever he wants of mine. He already owns the rights to Glamorama . I really think that film captured my sensibility in that medium better than anything else has done. I'm a big fan of it, but I know I am in a very small minority. I'm very aware of it.

Amazon.com: I think Less Than Zero is calling out for a remake sometime soon.

Ellis: If independent cinema had been around that movie would have definitely have been that kind of movie. It should not have been a big glossy studio film. It was definitely diluted because it was made by a big studio.

Amazon.com: Does it freak you out a little bit seeing Patrick Bateman suiting up as Batman?

Ellis: Yeah, it did actually [laughs], now that you say that. Because I felt he was still playing Patrick Bateman. It was really strange. I think he's a really good actor and I loved Batman Begins. Look, I'm a huge fan of Michael Keaton and I really loved the first two, Tim Burton's take on the whole thing. And as much as I enjoyed this I kind of missed the absurdist whimsy of the first two. I always compare the Batman s to those first two. This is a little bit more mechanical and remote. I felt that he was channeling Patrick Bateman a lot.

Bret Easton Ellis on writing: "You can't just sit down and force yourself. The book is going to be bad, the writing is going to bad. I have very few days when I'm puttering about waiting for the mail to come. I want to write because I know I want to write this. I can't imagine people just sitting there going, OK, how's it going to start? Let's see where this goes."

Amazon.com: You split your time between New York and L.A. What is it about each environment that inspires you?

Ellis: New York no longer inspires me. I don't want to live in New York anymore. In fact, I'm actively looking to get out of New York. There's no answer to that.

Amazon.com: You're over it?

Ellis: Yeah, I'm over it. I did it. It was fun. It was done in high style. [laughs] I made a lot of friends. Had some good times. It's terrible to admit to you, in a way, but I'm not interested in the publishing industry. All of my friends are connected to it and it's like, let's do something else. I don't want to go to another book party. I don't want to go to another dinner with an author. That's partly it.

Amazon.com: What about L.A. then?

Ellis: I like the anonymity of L.A. Everyone in New York says, Oh, you can disappear in the city. Absolutely not. New York is a really small town. You have no anonymity there. In L.A. you have a lot of it I think. It's quiet, it's spread out. It's a process of getting older. New York, I think, is really a young person's town. Having the energy to battle your way through the expense of it all. Physically it's a much harder city to live in than L.A., where you can really just drive from place to place and get out at your own leisure. The pulse is slower here, and at this point in my life I like that.

Amazon.com: What is your writing routine like? Any rituals?

Ellis: There are no rituals. The writing routine when I'm working on a novel is that I like to stay on a schedule. I like to get up and start work along the same time my friends are going to work, then quit and go out to dinner. If you're going to write that day you really need to be inspired and engaged by the material. You can't just sit down and force yourself. The book is going to be bad, the writing is going to bad. What saves me, I think, is I do a vast outline and am really positive that I want to write this book. I have very few days when I'm puttering about waiting for the mail to come. I want to write because I know I want to write this. I can't imagine people just sitting there going, OK, how's it going to start? Let's see where this goes. I think too many novelists do this and then they get to page 150 and go, What the f-ck am I doing? I'm pretty psyched by the time my outline is done.

Amazon.com: What is the outline like?

Ellis: The outline is huge. The outline is longer than the book. The outline has notes on the scenes, how the scenes should play out, the tone of the scenes, tons of extra dialogue, tons of extra descriptions. Basically, it's all in shorthand. It's not written in prose, really. It's notes. This happens, this happens, it should look like this, they're going to say this, I want this block of dialogue here, this is going to connect to what happens 20 pages later. It's a very vast, voluminous outline. It's a mess. But I can read it. I can refer to it and know exactly what's going on with it.

Amazon.com: How do you like to occupy your time when you're not writing?

Ellis: It's not that I'm never not writing. When I'm out here there's a lot of screenwriting work that's hovering around and that interests me a lot. I am taking time off from another novel for about a year or so. I have this very long tour coming up. I can work on an outline, for example, while I'm traveling, but to work on a novel I need a lot of free time. You can't have things interrupting the flow of that writing. It can't happen or else it'll take me as long as it took to write Glamorama , which should have taken me half the time to write.

Amazon.com: So we'll see the next book much sooner?

Ellis: Well I hope so. I have very few ideas for a novel. I don't have like 20 of them sitting around. This is it. There are no other ones floating around in my head. Now there is. There's something formulating itself in my head. Something's got to come to me. I'm not going to waste my time writing something what I don't want to write just to get a book out, and I don't have a lot of ideas for novels. What's been published is it.

Amazon.com: Switching gears a bit, do you have an opinion on the recent revival in '80s music and contemporary bands with an '80s sound?

Ellis: You meant The Killers...

Amazon.com: Interpol. Bloc Party.

Ellis: You know, when I listen to them I don't experience them that way. I listen to the Killers and I don't experience them as an '80s band. I don't see it that way.

Amazon.com: Who were some of your favorite bands from back in the day?

Ellis: Actually bands that weren't so '80s in a way. Bands that seemed a little bit more timeless. I mean, the Clash I loved. I loved Elvis Costello. I loved Bruce Springsteen. Do I necessarily think of the '80s when I think of those bands? Probably not.

I have a vast, vast collection--thousands of records from that period. I like listening to new stuff. I don't really look at that way like, Oh yeah, I came of age in the '80s so I have to listen to '80s music and when I listen to the Killers think Duran Duran. They sound very new to me. I don't really think they sound like '80s bands. They sound modern to me. They sound new.

Amazon.com: Have you been transferring all your records and CDs over to digital?

Ellis: You know, I haven't. I can't imagine ever doing that. Maybe songs, yeah. But I can't imagine transferring these half-good records onto my iPod.

Amazon.com: What are a few songs that might pop into rotation when you hit "shuffle"?

Ellis: Right now? Well, I'll tell you. Liz Phair. "Red Light Fever," which is the second track off the '03 CD she put out. The Go! Team, "Everyone's a VIP to Someone"; and Bottle Rocket, track 8.

Amazon.com: What are you reading these days? What's on your night table?

Ellis: Right now I'm reading Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, which I had never read before. And I'm reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. And I'm reading a biography about Orson Welles.

Amazon.com: Have you read the new Joan Didion yet?

Ellis: It's spectacular.

Amazon.com: It's incredible, isn't it?

Ellis: I read it riveted in one afternoon. I think it's her most accessible book. I think it was thrilling to read. I feel terrible in a way because it's so filled with pain and grief, and it isn't really resolved. Her fans are going to be flipping out. I hate to see the reason that this book came about, but it's a really overpowering book.

Amazon.com: Finally, is it true that you're going to revisit the characters from Less Than Zero in your next book?

Ellis: It depends on how many people shoot down this idea. Since I've been living out here in L.A. for the last year and a half, I've wanted to write a book that's set here. I want to come back to L.A. Yeah, I've been thinking a lot about where those people are now and it is what is formulating. But I haven't fully figured it out.

Amazon.com: It's a dangerous game.

Ellis: It's a really dangerous thing to do. You've got to be super careful on how you're going to approach this. If I want to write it I'm going to have to write it. If it's going to mess up people's memories of the first one then so be it, there's really nothing I can do about that.