Bret Easton Ellis
The Man Who Sees Patrick BatemanInterview by Dennis Widmyer
Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, American Pscyho, The Informers and Glamorama... do these titles sound familiar? Of course they do. You're on a Chuck Palahniuk website, so you know who the hell Bret Easton Ellis is. His novel American Psycho made the term "transgression" a literary household item a full five years before Fight Club was even published. Now he returns, after six years, with his latest novel Lunar Park, a pseudo memoir about fatherhood, a failed marriage and the attempted redemption that comes after a career of drugs, booze, women and men.
In Lunar Park, Ellis tackles these topics... and somehow, also includes everything from creepy stuffed animals, a haunted house, and an obsessed fan who poses as Patrick Bateman and recreates the murders from American Psycho.
After reading an advanced reader's copy of Lunar Park last month, I had the awesome opportunity to conduct an email interview with Bret. I fired 11 questions his way and he fielded every one.
Dennis Widmyer: Lunar Park is a deeply personal book in which you wrestle out demons about your celebrity, drug & alcohol habits, and the ghost of your father. Because of this, was it a tough book to write, or a deeply liberating one?
Bret Easton Ellis: Well I don't think any book should be tough to write. You should be inspired enough by the material to find the experience exciting. I don't understand writers who mope about how tough it is to write a book. When I'm not feeling it that day then I simply take a break. I don't sit at my desk with my head in my hands groaning. You can't will creativity. It comes when it comes. Sure, the book is your focal point while you're writing it and you're often driven by it much to the detriment of other things going on in your life--other things can get left behind. But writing a novel is not method acting and I find it easy to step out of it at cocktail hour. I also do a fairly long outline so that by the time I'm ready to write the actual prose I'm pretty convinced by what I'm about to commit to. Saying that: I suppose there were moments during the writing of Lunar Park that made me sad because I was writing about unresolved feelings I had about my father and I was drawing on a lot of negative stuff that had happened between the two of us. On the other hand by the time I finished the book I felt liberated. I did feel I had worked something out between the two of us--even though my main intention was to write a fun genre novel. When his ashes are spread at the end of the book I felt something lift off me. The celebrity and drug stuff was just funny by comparison, though in their own way liberating as well. Spoofing myself and delivering a character that even my staunchest defenders would have problems with was very entertaining.
Dennis: Throughout the novel, many friends and fellow employees of yours are mentioned. Everyone from novelist Jay McInerney to David Duchovny to your publicist and agent. What was the reaction you got from some of these people when they read the novel?
Ellis: The only one who took it personally was Jay--who, I think, misread his cameo. I thought he was the moral compass and the voice of reason in the scene he's in. But what he really objected to was the comparison to Jerry Lewis, which he said was probably the worst thing written about him in his 20 year career. I disagree. There have been worse things written about Jay. Plus it was just another example of the Bret character belittling a rival and putting him at a safer, less serious, distance.
Dennis: On the subject of real people in Lunar Park have you spoken at all with your ex-wife Jayne Dennis about the novel since its completion, and if so, what was her reaction to it?
Ellis: We haven't spoken. All I know is that she read a draft of the manuscript when it was vetted by the legal team at Knopf and she had her objections, but when asked what they were she was vague (I think the book just reminded her of Robby and made her sad) and I think most of Jayne's complaints had to do with privacy issues (in particular the scene in which I wrote about the meltdown in our couples counseling session). But she didn't stop publication because everything I wrote about us was true. I also think she comes off very sympathetically. Regardless of how I ended up with Jayne during those months, I did love her and I wish her the best.
Dennis: On one level Lunar Park is a novel about fatherhood and attempts at reconciliation with ones past. On another it's a great ghost story about a haunted house and monsters in dark hallways. Did you set out to make it so scary? And if so, where did a lot of these influences come from?
Ellis: The impetus to write the novel came from wanting to mimic the books I loved as a boy and a teenager--specifically the Stephen King novels I devoured as well as both the Warren Comics of the 70's (Creepy, Eerie, Vampirilla) and the slightly less edgy EC Comics (Vault of Horror, Tales From the Crypt). I guess I basically wanted to re-experience the pleasure I got from reading something like The Shining or The Dark Half. (This also holds true for Glamorama--I wanted to update the international espionage novels--the Robert Ludlum books--I read as a kid. Another experiment in writing genre fiction that got a little out of control.) Lunar Park was initially going to have a fairly basic story but a couple of things happened to me that ultimately made it a more deeper and more meaningful book to write. I worked on the outline on and off for about ten years (while I was writing Glamorama) and during that time the American Psycho controversy occurred, my father died, and I became more interested in the actual process of writing fiction and what it means to devote your life to writing fiction. All of these extra elements became weaved throughout the basic haunted house concept and changed the book inordinately--though the structure pretty much stayed the same. I guess I thought it was scary while I was writing it and since a lot of the stuff in the book actually happened to me, the process of finishing the novel was kind of like an exorcism. I laid a lot of demons to rest.
Dennis: I want to talk about American Psycho. I read recently that in researching Lunar Park you went back and read it for the first time in over a decade. What was the experience like and how did it help you with the new novel?
Ellis: Well, it helped with the new novel because there were certain facts within American Psycho that corresponded with the events in Lunar Park. That was the only reason I picked up the book in the summer of 03. I wasn't looking forward to it. I hadn't read it since its publication in 1991. I was worried that its detractrors were going to be proven right, and that I was going to be reminded of the punky kid who was interested in conceptual fiction and transgression and experimental tropes and list making, etc. I thought all of that stuff was going to stick out like a sore and withered thumb. But I was surprised. I liked the book and all the things I was worried about encountering weren't there, or at least were overshadowed by how fast the thing moved and how funny the book was. The voice--that I thought was going to seem labored to me now at 40--was much more compelling and I forgot how much I agreed with Patrick Bateman about society and the implied criticism of the world he inhabited. His misery seemed justified and I found him oddly sympathetic. However, I became squeamish during the violent sequences which I thought were so horrific I had to steel myself while reading them. They were upsetting to the point of being distracting. I wouldn't change anything about the novel and I was relieved when I finished rereading it that it wasn't as pretentious as I thought it was going to be, but the violence bothered me and I was surprised by that.
Dennis: How do you feel about the adaptations that have been made of your novels and are there any directors that you would love to see tackle your work? Being a fan of The Rules of Attraction I was happy to read that you really enjoyed Roger Avary's treatment of the material. And now I see that he's also attached to do Glamorama. Any movie plans for Lunar Park and would you ever consider playing the lead role?
Ellis: There are no movie plans for Lunar Park--it's a wait-and-see situation. There's a lot of interest but no firm offers. As for me playing the lead role? You have to be joking. I think--given the difficulty of that role--that you need a really good actor and I'm not an actor. So--no--that is not even within the realm of possibility. I'm okay with the adaptations. I caught Less Than Zero the other night (when I had insomnia) on Showtime and I couldn't believe how much I had underrated it all these years. Ed Lachman's photography was stunning and I can't think of another movie that captured that period in LA with more pictorial beauty or accuracy of detail. It's now a period piece and there's something lovely and sad about its visual sumptiousness. I have issues with the script and certain casting choices but I don't think Robert Downey has ever been more powerful. Maybe I'm just feeling momentarily nostalgic but that movie has really grown on me. American Psycho is very good--a better movie than Less Than Zero in many ways--and Christian Bale amazes. It's a hard book to adapt and Mary Harron did probably the best possible job. However, I loved The Rules of Attraction and it's my favorite of the three movies because it retains my sensibility more adroitly than the other movies. It's more a Bret Easton Ellis movie than the other two. Avary veers from the material a little but it's remarkably faithful to the book--in tone and style. It's the most unapologetically grown-up movie about college kids that American movies have come up with as well as being so visually (and structurally) inventive, that I become effortlessly hypnotized each time I watch it (which I'm not embarrassed to say is a lot). The casting is great and the movie is cruelly funny. Maybe it needed a warmer heart to have succeeded with audiences (and I know dozens of people who actively loathe it), but Avary's chilly Kubrickian vision was the smarter way to go. And because of what a tour de force it is, I let Avary buy the rights to Glamorama outright. (He also wrote a spellbinding script.) But it's an expensive movie to make and given it's subject matter (terrorism committed by Americans) probably not the most popular movie in development out there at this moment. As for directors hooking up with my work: it's a case by case thing. Someone today mentioned to me that Gus Van Sant was interested in Lunar Park and I would have never thought of him. But now I think that's an interesting--and plausible--idea. As for The Informers, I wrote a script with Nicholas Jarecki (who directed a terrific documentary about James Toback called The Outsider) who plans to direct it next spring with Ed Pressman producing.
Dennis: What happens to you when a new novel comes out and the book is finished product. Do you groan at the amount of exposure you're going to receive because of it all--or do you thrive off it and enjoy the ride?
Ellis: Touring is a weird combination of misery and boredom and excitement. And it's the only time that I don't regret not publishing more--the fact that I've only published four novels in 20 years doesn't bother me as much when I'm on the road. Talking about yourself nonstop to journalists is a particular kind of hell that I'm not sure you can convey to someone who hasn't been through the grind of an international book tour. Yes, it sounds exciting and glamorous but it's also grueling. There's a lot of exhaustion and despair and self-loathing and very quickly you realize the only way to get through it is to go on auto-pilot (you also need to be in pretty good shape physically). If you think too much about what you're doing--selling yourself--you'd probably become paralyzed. The hours are terrible and you're traveling nonstop and it just seems more unseemly the older you get--enthusiastically selling a product your publisher is pushing out into the marketplace. You're the pitchman. The mechanics of publishing is very old-fashioned--almost akin to a door-to-door salesman. It's about going to bookstores and shaking hands and convincing people to buy your product. Also: if you're a private person--forget it. That doesn't translate well in this marketplace. You have to be open and vulnerable and be willing--especially in this culture now--to talk about things that you might not be normally comfortable talking about. That said, what makes it worthwhile is that you get to meet the people who are reading your work and who are genuinely interested in what you're doing as a writer and there is, admittedly, a certain satisfaction in that. And ultimately you have to consider yourself lucky: thousands of books are published--only a handful of writers are put on the road.
Dennis: I'm happy to say that you don't rush your novels. And it shows. How much time do you spend researching and outlining before you finally type the opening words of Chapter 1?
Ellis: Well, I wish I'd published more books. But honestly--I don't have thirty ideas for novels sitting around in some desk waiting to be written. The books I've wanted to write are the books that have been published--and that's all there is. I regret that I'm not more prolific but it takes me a long time to be sure I want to work on a particular project--to invest that kind of energy and make the kind of committment it takes to see a novel through. It's not a little thing. It's a big chunk of my life--years--and I don't want to be in the middle of something and realize I'm not interested in this anymore. So--intensive outlines are made once the basic concept crystallizes itself and if that proves to be exciting and I'm genuinely inspired then that process can continue for a year or two. That outline is a much longer version of the novel: loaded with notes, ideas about certain scenes, dozens of scenes and hundreds of paragraphs written and discarded, endless pages of dialogue toyed with, thousands of choices made, etc. The outline can be twice as long as the book and when I sit down to write the first chapter of real prose--because that's not what the outline is--I'm using the outline as a compass. It guides me through the novel. As for research--whenever I start researching something I stop because I'm writing fiction and the reality never adds up to what I want to do in a novel. Research is basically paying attention to the world and if you're a writer you can pretty much pull stuff from your relationship to the world and what you've witnessed and use it in your fiction no matter what the subject matter is.
Dennis: Do you believe in excessive re-drafting? At what phase in the novel does your editor see a "first draft"?
Ellis: I believe in excessive re-drafting. The editor sees the novel once I feel it's finished and publishable. The editor never sees a first draft. No one does.
Dennis: When you're deep into the writing process, how much time each day do you spend at it? Do you have rituals you follow such as music, food or a certain room or environment you like to stick with during the haul?
Ellis: I tend to write during the day. I like to keep the same hours as my friends who have "real" jobs do, usually--whatever--10 to 7. I don't write at night. But that's on days where everything is clicking. There are no rituals: but I like to be comfortable. I like everything clean and orderly. No music. Sometimes the TV in my office is on with the sound muted and I'll turn around every so often to see what's on CNN or VH1. Things need to be calm. I believe Flaubert when he said: In order to write like a reveloutionary you must live like the bourgeioisie.
Dennis: What's your take on the current state of the book industry? Let me be more specific: are you seeing a change in the amount of 'transgressive' fiction that's come out since 9/11 and the sudden re-emergence of terrorist scares in our society? And did any of that dictate the tone you laid out in 'Lunar Park?
Ellis: I haven't noticed that. No.
Bret Easton Ellis' new novel Lunar Park is in stores on August 16th. You can order it through our site by clicking here!