Like, embrace the pain: the Bret Easton Ellis interview (part 1)

Pictured: Carrie, Samantha, Carrie

Let’s begin at the end. After Kathy Charles and I finished our interview with the very engaging Bret Easton Ellis, we sat with his publicist over a couple of glasses of Chandon, waiting for Ellis to wrap-up with our friend Robbie Coleman.

Robbie emerged, white-faced and swearing, revealing that the interviewee had turned interviewer (see here). Ellis plopped down beside me, smiling, and leaned in toward us girls, as Robbie went for a drink. He said: ‘If you were a character on Sex & the City, who would you be? I’m Samantha.’

‘Oh… Carrie’, I said, ‘but, I’ve always felt a bit up-myself saying so – as she’s the main character.’ But she is a writer, and she has the same David Bowie shirt as me (well, in one episode). Kathy said she’d be Carrie, too. ‘Well, that makes sense’, Ellis said, ‘you’re both writers.’ And then he said: ‘Robbie is Charlotte.’ He concluded by saying, ‘it’s very telling, you know?’

I found Bret Easton Ellis fascinating. In fact, I miss him. I caught some of his sessions at Byron Bay Writers Festival (his first writers’ festival ever), including a wonderful Q&A with Simon Marnie, where Ellis spoke about the first things he wrote. He said he was never writing to be ‘meaningful’. He wrote what he ‘felt’ like writing, and was never conscious of putting in brand names, etc. I’m fascinated by Ellis as an emotional, dramatic person who also seems to act as a kind of cultural aerial. His works come from emotional states, but it doesn’t need to be said that they also tap into a zeitgeist – and they play, suitably, with surfaces. And not only in his work does Ellis play with this, or flit between masks and metaphysics – but on stage (and he only tours every five years or so). He also presents a kind of wearied, and simultaneously amused, presence. At his Melbourne Wheeler Centre event, for example, he began by asking the audience: ‘what the hell are you doing here on a Friday night?’

The purpose of his tour was, of course, his new novel Imperial Bedrooms, a dark, sad and sparse noiresque sequel to Ellis’ boy-wonder debut Less Than Zero, featuring the paranoid, haunted and controlling character Clay, a screenwriter. When I was asked to interview Ellis I knew I must invite Kathy Charles, author of Hollywood Ending (out in the US as John Belushi Is Dead), as she’s an Ellis-expert and I knew she’d be enthused about the chance to ask him about himself and his work.

In the spirit of ‘it’s very telling’, I’m leaving Ellis’ opinions about pop culture (and the general language he uses) relatively intact, as I do think it says much about his approach, his philosophy, his interests. This will be a two-part interview. Enjoy!

Kathy Charles: I’m really interested – because I’ve lived in and I’ve written about LA, and you live in LA again now – I find there’s a distinction between the real LA and the literary LA, so like the day-to-day living in LA compared to the LA we see in literature. Do you find that? Do you find your experience of living in LA, being a resident, is different to the literary world of LA that you create?

Bret Easton Ellis: Oh yeah, totally. It’s very different because the book is completely made up and it’s made-up situations with made-up characters and it’s far darker and more dramatic than my real life is where I’m, you know, just padding about my condo barefoot with jeans on and having beers with my friends, and we like to go to the movies and stuff like that, and we’re not being chased by Mexican drug cartels and we’re not like, raping young actresses or anything like that. No, the literary world that’s in Less Than Zero, or in Imperial Bedrooms, or in The Informers, the three books I’ve written placed mainly in LA, are like my other books – I mean, Lunar Park doesn’t really resemble the suburbs so much – it’s a ghost story, it’s a haunted house story, and American Psycho is about an American psycho in New York and I don’t think everyone is that psychotic – everything’s a metaphor, a novel’s ultimately a metaphor – it’s a reflection of something emotional that’s going on.

I don’t write journalistic pieces about LA, and I’m not writing essays about LA, not in the way that say that someone like Joan Didion did, or Meghan Daum, who writes a lot for the LA times, about her personal experiences, daily, in LA. I just tend not to work that way. And I also don’t lead that literary a life in LA, I mean I kind of wanted to escape the literary world of New York, which I found overwhelming, and I didn’t feel that I could really compete… I just didn’t really feel I was smart enough.

Angela Meyer: Can I just ask, along those lines, when you were talking about metaphor, I love the grotesque appearance of Rip, in Imperial Bedrooms, and that kind of plastic surgery monster – would you say that’s kind of a metaphor for a lot of things – his character and his appearance?

Bret: (whispers) He’s the villain. He’s the villain, and, as a literary device, how’s a villain going to make his entrance? I thought about it a long time and I thought – is it too obvious? Or, is this a noir – and is it okay? Is this really a screenplay being written by Clay, and would the villain announce himself in such a way, to Clay? I thought, yes, okay it’s fine. If I had done this in third person or if I had someone else narrate the book I don’t think Rip’s entrance would be as dramatic. But because of who’s narrating the book – it made sense to me.

Kathy: One of the things I love about your books that are set in LA is: there’s this sense that there’s something really primordial and primeval going on beneath the surface, and it’s like what you were saying about Lunar Park being a ghost story… I can’t help but think about the whole idea of things like Indian burial grounds and places where people lived, because there is such an energy in the place – the inhabitants kind of become cursed. I re-read Less Than Zero and there’s that fantastic image of the people who awake to see the ghost of the Indian in their room and it just really got me thinking – the characters in your books, do you think that there’s something within the landscape of Los Angeles that is actually impressing itself upon them, or do you think they’re just architects of their own undoing – or is there something more evil and…

Bret: I don’t think it has anything to do with any of that.

Kathy: No?

Bret: I think every place has that. I think every place… imprints something upon a person. I think it really depends on the person, I don’t think it depends so much on the place. At least the older I’ve gotten that’s how I see it. I think Imperial Bedrooms, for example, could take place anywhere, I think it could take place in the corporate world…

Kathy: Really?

Bret: …I think it could take place in Arizona. I think American Psycho could take place in Chicago, it could take place in Lisbon – you know?

Angela: But specifically in the Western world?

Bret: Yeah, yeah, in the Western world – and obviously because the books have (whispers) a lot of appeal around the world. I don’t know how much people are purely relating to the LA novels as ‘LA novels’. I mean, when I get letters from kids in India, who are in college, saying: ‘oh my god I just picked up Less Than Zero in a mall’ – they weren’t even born when it was published – and they say: ‘oh, it blew me away, I totally related to Clay’. So, that’s not really LA speaking to them, and I don’t see Less Than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms as being novels about LA – I see Imperial Bedrooms as a novel about a very damaged man who’s a narcissist, who happens to be in that [the movie] business; and I see Less Than Zero to be purely about my own teenage alienation. And yeah, I grew up in LA so I set it there. If I was the same kid and I grew up in, you know, Miami or Tampa, I might have written the same book with the same cast of characters in a different locale. I guess it really depends on how big a sponge you are in letting a landscape make that imprint on you as a person.

Now having said that… let’s get to a reality check here. Imperial Bedrooms is a very dark book, it’s very bleak, and it ended up becoming a lot more hopeless that I initially thought, when I was thinking about it before I moved back to LA. So I was thinking about it in a lot of ways, I wanted to know where Clay was, and I said, well, do I really want to go back to Clay? What if Blair narrates this instead and it’s about Clay but it’s about her feelings? But then I wanted noir and I wanted to do a Raymond Chandler book – all these things came together, well fine, whatever, I had an idea for this novel. Not the happiest novel in the world, but – I moved to LA. And that’s when I really began writing the novel proper, in 2006. Finished it in May 2009.

2006, 2007, 2008 were terrible. (whispers) Dark. Black. Black period. Very black. And they were black for reasons that you could pinpoint and go – that’s LA black. Involved in a film that is becoming a disaster, people are lying to you, you’re becoming super paranoid, you are drinking too much because of this, you’ve gotten involved with some pretty shady people and people in the business, the casting couch has announced itself to you, you’ve taken advantage of it and you’ve been burned by it as well, and you’re going slowly crazy, and the world is a much, much darker place for you now, than it was before you moved to LA.

‘You haven’t gotten LA yet, you’re still lost in it’ – this is what friends would tell me. ‘You’re in the wrong places, you’re looking at it from the wrong angle, and it’s infecting you.’ And I’m going: ‘yeah, are you sure? Are you sure? I don’t know.’ And because of all these things that were going on – a little bit of a switch. And I noticed that Imperial Bedrooms was heading to much darker places that I initially thought. So – bit of a contradiction I guess. Yes, I don’t really believe that, I believe it depends on the person – and I know the person who lives in LA now – I would not write Imperial Bedrooms, I wouldn’t write it, it would be a completely different book – or I wouldn’t at all be interested in writing it. I’m over it. It’s done. It’s gone. And I would probably write a funnier, lighter book, because I’m just in a different place right now. So, I have to kind of agree with you, and then halfway think that’s not always the case.

Kathy: So you don’t, with your LA novels, you don’t sort of see yourself as akin to an LA literary tradition, with people like Fante and Bukowski…

Bret: Well I do, yes, but I also wrote a New York novel I guess. But, again, I don’t see American Psycho as a New York novel – I see it as a novel about where I was at a certain point in my life, and I happened to be in New York. Just like, well, The Rules of Attraction I suppose is a campus novel, but it was also about, you know, my feelings about unrequited love and relationships and sexual stuff that was going on at the time.

Angela: So there’s personal landscapes…

Bret: It’s the personal landscape that encourages each book to be written, regardless of where I am.

Kathy: So, If you’d been living in LA at the time, American Psycho could have been about a movie producer, as opposed to a wall street banker?

Bret: Completely. Yes. Very, very true.

Angela: Just, about the darkness in Imperial Bedrooms – I heard you talk at Byron a bit about the Palm Springs sequence. I really like that sequence because it feels like Clay trying to regain control, in a way, and it’s through cruelty, and I just find that really fascinating because I think it does speak to a little part in all of us…

Bret: (nodding) Yes.

Angela: As much as it goes a lot further than the average person would go…

Bret: Because it’s a novel…

Angela: Yep, exactly, and some of my favourite novels kind of explore that, like Lolita, which I’ve heard you talk about. Just wondering if you could talk about, perhaps, Clay and control…

Bret: Clay has control issues. Well narcissists have control issues I guess…

Angela: Is that, something that interests you?

Bret: Well it interests me about everybody. It interests me who the biggest control freaks are, and – how far does that get you, being a control freak? Where does it get you? What happens when you hit the wall and you realise that you’re not in control of anything at all? What happens at that point when you just have to let it go – and realise: ‘okay, I get it, this is life. I’m not in control of it’. You know, some people never do that.

Angela: No.

Bret: I look at certain people that I know who are in their sixties and seventies – they’re not there yet. And yet I know people who are in their mid-twenties who say ‘I’m chill, this is it, I’m friends with death’, you know? ‘I’m friends with pain. It’s cool. This is what life is like’. And if you don’t do that, you’re screwed. Life is going to be this battle. You’re never going to be really in control of it… and you just have to, like, embrace the pain, embrace the fact that death occurs and this happens to us, and if you keep fighting it, you’re going to be in constant pain. Letting go is the key.

I noticed that I have been the least happiest when I have felt that I am in the most control. Odd isn’t it? You feel that you’re in control yet it’s not that satisfying in a way – it’s fear. It’s fear-based.

Angela: Because that’s just what you’re thinking about, is maintaining that?

Bret: Yeah, because you’re scared. That’s why you’re a control freak, you’re scared. Control freaks aren’t not afraid of things, they’re totally terrified and that’s why they’re control freaks. And being terrified is not fun! And to be terrified for years on end… uh uh (shakes head). Not good.

Kathy: That’s why the final line of Imperial Bedrooms is just so stunning – and it’s really the key to the whole Clay character, it’s – his fear.

Bret: Aha, yeah: ‘I never liked anyone and I’m afraid of people’.

Kathy: And then The National song on their new album…

Bret: (laughs) ‘I’m Afraid of Everyone’, yeah.

Kathy: They’re great.

Bret: I wondered if he heard that… his wife is like the editor of the New Yorker. I wondered if somehow they got a copy of the manuscript… oh I like to flatter myself thinking that that led to writing that song! But the book was around for a long time in manuscript form. I don’t know. I haven’t asked them.

Kathy: While we’re on that, have you heard the Porcupine Tree album Fear of a Blank Planet?

Bret: You know what, okay, I haven’t heard it – I know that they like me and that they’re really into, I think Glamorama’s the novel that they really like? No wait I’m thinking of another band…

Kathy: Porcupine Tree – the whole album is based on Lunar Park.

Bret: Okay, okay I know exactly what it is now, but no I haven’t heard it yet.

Kathy: It’s great!

Bret: Well listen, I’ll, go upstairs and listen to it on my computer…

Kathy: It’s really good, yeah. It’s interesting because a lot of singers have written songs about your characters but Porcupine Tree are really interested in the prose as well.

Angela: While we’re on your prose a bit, I was going to ask, do you write really fast? Because the pacing in Imperial Bedrooms is really awesome, I mean, you read it very fast. Just wondering if it comes out like that, or if it’s a slower process?

Bret: Its only 169 pages – I thought about it eight years ago, it took me three years to work it out on paper – what is that? I’m really slow. I’m a really slow writer. I wish I was faster.

Angela: But the pace is wonderful.

Bret: Well… thank you. I don’t know how that happens. How does that happen? I mean, I guess there’s a technical aspect to that. And it also depends on who you are, I mean, there are a lot of people who say ‘American Psycho is so boring, I can’t get through it – all these lists, I can’t read this kind of book’, and yet they love Matthew Reilly.

Angela: Yeah, yeah.

Bret: Matt Reilly, he’s a very nice man, we had a lot of conversations in Byron Bay. Lovely man, haven’t read his books. I’m not sure I would like his books and he’s never read one of mine, I don’t think he’d like mine. I think it’s a case-by-case thing. There are people who find my books hard-going.

Angela: Is it very innate though, the way that you write, like you don’t really think about it – once you get inside the voice of the character?

Bret: I don’t really think about it – well, look, you’re always thinking about it, but it’s very emotional, for me, in terms of how I create a novel. It all starts with the narrator and everything flows out of the narrator. I figure out who the narrator is, what his thing is, what’s going on in his mind – and it’s usually a reflection of the pain I’m in at that time about certain things in my life, a fictional reflection. When I figure out who he is, where he is, what he’s doing, what his issues are, then I go: ‘oh, well because of all these things then this is the story, right?’ So, about seventy percent of the process is doing, what I used to refer to as ‘the outline’, the outline… it’s a first draft – but it also has notes to myself in it, and you know I don’t keep any of these, I throw all this stuff away. I don’t keep any of this stuff because I don’t want…

Kathy: You should put it on eBay!

Bret: …I don’t want any of it around. No, because I destroy everything that I think is bad! I don’t want anyone to read, like, lines of dialogue that I think are terrible or descriptions that I’m never going to use. No, so I’m just like, perfectly fine with getting rid of all of that stuff.

So the first part – the main bulk of the creation of the book, – is emotional, and going through my own creative process, and going ‘okay, well, you know what, I’m really feeling this right now’. So I’ll write a scene like, I don’t know, someone walking down La Cienega and almost cracking up. But I’m not gonna use it. It’s not gonna happen, but let’s see if it could happen. And it’s like that story about the wall in the restaurant…

Angela: The silver wall…

Bret: The silver wall that I was so proud of, I thought it was my best writing, I just loved it so much. I thought, it’ll be so cool to open up with those four sentences, then I realised (sucks in breath, whispers) Clay will never see it. He’ll never see it. He’ll never notice it.

Angela: It didn’t fit in.

Bret: He’ll never notice it! I think, he won’t notice it for four lines or five lines – well can I use just one of those lines? No. No you can’t. He’s interested in the actress and that’s what he’s focused on. So then, okay, the technician comes in. After this massive draft.

Lunar Park was about twice as long as what the final book came out. Imperial Bedrooms I would say two-and-a-half times as long maybe, in terms of like questions, alternate scenes, alternate takes. And then the technician comes in, very cool, calm. I probably walked away from the book for a month or so. Came back to it, thought: ‘okay, I know what the first line is, the last line is; the first movement in the book is sorted out, so when she goes to San Diego … then he’s gonna meet Rip there … then I’ll deal with that stuff later, and then you gotta cut this … and I’ve gotta track that…’ I’m keeping track, I’ve got like a basic outline. And that is its own kind of pleasure – that’s fun, because I’m writing this book for myself and for my own pleasure. The book is the book that I wanna read. So when the technician comes in, that’s it’s own kind of pleasure and very different from the messy and emotional, crazy side of the draft.

Angela: Yeah, that’s the control.

Bret: That’s the control aspect of the book, yeah. The first part is just no control at all. Everything – throw in everything.

Part two of the interview can be found here.

Imperial Bedrooms is widely available.

3 thoughts on “Like, embrace the pain: the Bret Easton Ellis interview (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Like, embrace the pain: the Bret Easton Ellis interview (part 1) – LiteraryMinded --

  2. Pingback: BEE leaves me buzzing « kathy charles

  3. Pingback: Like, embrace the pain: the Bret Easton Ellis interview (part 2) – LiteraryMinded

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