Bret Easton Ellis: interview outtakes
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Bret Easton Ellis wrote “Less Than Zero” while still a college student at Bennington; the book was published 25 years ago. In Sunday’s book pages, we look at Ellis, his career as a writer and his new novel, “Imperial Bedrooms,” which features Clay, the narrator of “Less Than Zero,” now in his 40s.
I interviewed Ellis at his home in late May; these are some parts of that interview that won’t be in Sunday’s paper.
Carolyn Kellogg: In this book, you revisit characters that you invented 25 years ago. And you beat them up.Bret Easton Ellis: I really only wanted to revisit one. I wanted to revisit Clay. And that was the thing that happened, in terms of why the book was written. When I was writing “Lunar Park,” to kind of like square away some of the stuff about the Bret Easton Ellis character, I wanted to familiarize myself with his work again. And I hadn’t read any of the books, I really don’t read any of the books after they’re published. And I hadn’t looked at “Less Than Zero” then in like 18 years. And so I reread it. And I thought,”Oh, interesting. Well, what’s he doing now?” And then I put it aside. But that question kept coming back.... The idea keeps -- it overwhelms you. And you start making notes, and you start to become very intrigued by this idea.I don’t know if I thought about wanting to beat anybody up, wanting to beat the characters up. Though, OK, I’ll admit, as they moved into middle age, my sensibility is such when I’m writing fiction that I tend to turn towards that -- room. The dark room, I guess.CK: To put pressure on the characters?BEE: I guess put a little pressure on the characters. A book is also, I think, if I look back on my career, an emotional map of where I was at any given point. When I look back at all the books that I’ve written, I can say OK, yeah, that book exists because I was there at that point. That was who I was. That’s what I was feeling. That’s what I was fantasizing about. That’s what hurt me. I was very lonely. Oh! Or, whatever.
One of the great things about getting to spend time with someone like Ellis -- he spoke to me for nearly two hours -- is that there is room for the discussion to wander. While we talked, he mused about the controversy over his comments about female directors in his Movieline interview and alluded to his glad-Salinger-is-dead Tweet (yes, that’s really Ellis on Twitter) -- but I thought some of the most interesting things he had to say were about his work.
CK: You’ve taken Clay and remade him in a really different way. He was passive before and now he’s guilty. BEE: [quietly, at first] He didn’t stop that girl from getting raped. He didn’t call the police. That always bothered me. He didn’t do anything about that 12-year-old girl in the bedroom, 25 years ago. OK, are you guilty if you maybe don’t participate but you don’t do anything else about it either? I mean, that kind of passivity was frightening to me when I was writing “Less Than Zero.” I found Clay’s passivity, I found it both a way of him protecting himself from this bleak moral landscape he was a part of -- that passivity was protecting him, was a self-protective thing. But also at the same time, I felt that he was guilty of not -- that passivity was also a flaw, it caused him not to act, in times that he could have. And to say things that he should maybe have said, or clarified. I don’t know. Clay bothered me in the first one. But that’s again -- you know, a portrait of narcissism was the big nut that I had. Of entitlement. This imperial idea.
Ellis describes “Imperial Bedrooms” as “the portrait of a narcissist.” But without prompting, he admitted to me that he’d tried that before. “‘Lunar Park,’ sure, is the portrait of a narcissist, too,” he said. “So is ‘American Psycho.’ But this time out, the narcissist reaches a dead end.”
-- Carolyn Kellogg
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