The great Bret Easton Ellis on sex, drugs, being gay, clothes, skin disease, the casting couch, American Psycho and Imperial Bedrooms.
Bret Easton Ellis is sitting behind his desk in the living room of his two room suite at London’s Claridges hotel. He is looking at his iphone which he is holding sideways and pointing at his laptop. He is dressed in a grey James Perse hoody, blue nylon Nike tracksuit bottoms and some running shoes, when he walks about the top of his black underwear is on show.
The cocaine remnants from the night before have been cleaned from the glass tables and the two people who ended the night fucking in front of him on his small settee have long gone.
In his bathroom his grooming products and vitamins are arranged like a tool kit. In the hall are two copies of his new novel ‘Imperial Bedrooms.’ The sleeve is the silhouette of a horned figure with the two words of the title for eyes.
We sit down and have a conversation which was planned for half an hour but stretches to nearly two. We talk about books, sex, writing, therapy, glamour, the casting couch, New York, LA, skin disease, clothes, children, happiness, editing, fucking, pornography, being gay and more.
He seems very happy, upbeat, he moves his legs about a lot whilst we’re talking. This is pretty much the full conversation.
But first something about Bret Easton Ellis and his books. His work has inspired millions of column inches and provoked masses of debate. Some people hate him, more people love him. His career has felt more like that of a popular musician than a novelist. His work is both disposable yet lasting. Like no other contemporary novelist he is of his time – he characterises the influence brands, fame and crime have on modern society. He writes about distasteful subjects that people will joke and confer about in mutters and asides and he does it in the mainstream. He does not do it under the guise of art or cutting edge literature. He does right out there in the glare of the retail world.
He made his name with the two slim volumes about the disposable decadence of the people he grew up with in Los Angeles. Less Than Zero and Rules of Attraction captured the self-importance, the drama, the drugs and pointlessness of the young Hollywood elite in a way that later become a staple for television. In particular MTV, which he was believed to have reflected – ‘the MTV generation’ the critics called his subjects and his readers, have steadily eroded the idea of Music as their core programming and replaced it with the sort of docudrama that is a more clean living but equally vacuous descendent of the characters in Less Than Zero.
Having made his name as a sort of Scot Fitzgerald in Raybans he then destroyed it by giving the world Patrick Bateman in the super-vilified American Psycho. Bateman is a bland brand-loving banker who places great importance on the quality of business cards and the musical output of soft rockers, a Wall Street wonder boy who also happens to be a sadistic serial killer. The passages in which Bateman brings rats, hookers, chainsaws into sex play shocked the literary world, newspaper critics, decent folk and feminists across the western world. The book caused a genuine scandal and gave Easton Ellis an infamy that it had become almost impossible to attain with the printed word. Whilst his contemporaries were competing with each other Easton Ellis appeared to be duelling with Caravaggio. A pretentious claim I know but there’s a doc on about him as I write so excuse the comparison.
Unfortunately for his detractors just as the nihilistic outlook of Hollywood brats had struck a chord with a generation, so American Psycho provided sexual titillation for a generation made increasingly depraved by access to pornography. To others it appeared like a sharp satire of a world where appearance and alpha male bullshit are king.
The common mistake in reacting to his work seems to have been in presuming that because Easton Ellis can represent the worlds he portrays so accurately he somehow approves of them. The opposite is in fact the case.
His fifth novel (there had been a third Glamorama between Rules of Attraction and Psycho but it was difficult to finish – third album syndrome – he tells me it took him eight years to write) Lunar Park lacked the easy outrage of its predecessors but to my mind is his best book. Whereas his previous novels had turned a spotlight on the validity of his life, Lunar Park used the genre of horror for the author to go back over his literary life so far and examine it. The central character is a writer called Bret Easton Ellis. Characters from the real Bret Easton Ellis’ novels appear as ghosts. Most significantly though the book carried Bret’s own interpretation of what and who American Psycho is about, specifically he claimed the loveless view of life of the sociopath Bateman was actually modelled on the personality of his own father. Whilst the first half of the book carried some genuinely terrifying passages, the second half of the book was like a love letter to a man he couldn’t love.
If you have read American Psycho but not Lunar Park it’s a little like watching the first Mesrine film without seeing the second. It is a better book and Bret Easton Ellis delivers a different level of writing. There is less artifice, more honesty, more personal horror.
And now he has returned with another slim volume about the life of some of the characters of his first two books, Imperial Bedrooms. Twenty five years on where are they? They are Still in Hollywood, still self-obsessed and still trapped by sex and identity. And doused in he co-dependent despair that comes with the belief that too much of the first is what will give them the second. The book has splashes of fear, horror, banality, sex, violence all carried out beneath the bright LA sun.
As we begin to talk Bret’s reflecting on his night before.
Bret Easton Ellis: People are doing so much blow here.
James Brown: When was that?
B: The book launch? I dunno some kind of private event last night…
J: Were people offering you coke?
B:Yeah. I said no at first, and then as the night progresses, you stop saying no.
J: What, start saying yes?
B: Right. You stop saying no, start saying yes. It’s ok it would have been fine if I didn’t have to do like a two and a half hour signing at Waterstones. What is it with so much blow and the drinking?
J: It’s because we’re an island, there’s nowhere to go other than inside. In the US you can move from the West Coast to the East or the East to the West, here you can’t. We’re surrounded by water and that affects our expectations of what we’ve got and it gives us limitations, so everyone gets fucked up. There’s a smaller version of it in Iceland and Ireland and places like that. I noticed on your Twitter feed that an American magazine has graded all your books.
B: Yeah, Entertainment Weekly. At the end of their reviews they give a grade, it’s what that magazine is known for. They do it for movies, records, books, video games, whatever.
J: And how would you grade your books?
B: I wouldn’t. I don’t grade my books. The books are the best thing I’d written at a particular time of my life, it’s really interesting. I don’t rate them, I don’t stack them up against each other, I don’t compete with them, I don’t feel I have to outdo them, I just write the book I feel like writing at the time that I write the book.
J: How does your emotional state affect the book?
J: Do you ever write a book happy? Can you write a book if you’re happy?
B: Ok, I am happy when I’m writing the book, but that’s not an all day thing, that’s two hours sometimes, three hours, where you’re transported by the work and you’re into it, and the weight of the world is gone – your sorrows, your pains, they kinda disappear because you’re concentrating on the work. I suppose it’s how work is for a lot of people, you just work, you just lose yourself in your work, and kinda everything goes away. But definitely, the novels come from a place of pain and stress, they don’t come from a place of joy and happiness.
J: To me your latest book is set in a world where the parents of that world are Tom Ford and Charles Manson. That’s the moral parentage.
B: That’s frightening.
J: This is what you’ve repeatedly identified in your writing, that we live in an era where fame, crime and brands are king. And that’s where these people exist. You have said that you don’t like your characters…
B: I’m changing my mind the older I get.
J: You do like them?
B: Hmmm, I’m more empathic to them than I… look, when I was younger and talking about my work, I tried to talk about it in very literary terms, and I tried to make very defiant statements about my purpose and my intent as a novelist. (whispers) ‘As a novelist. As a young and important American novelist. Often, I believed what I said.‘ I did. There were times when I had no idea or inkling of the bullshit that was coming out of my mouth, and the kind of answers I thought people wanted from me – I gave them, even if I didn’t find them to be particularly authentic. All of this is a preamble in a way, I suppose, of saying for example now I talk about… Patrick Bateman was me. I was Patrick Bateman…
J: You say that now…?
B: Yeah I admit it now. I never admitted it the first 10, 15 years after publication of that book, I was very defensive about it, but I was writing about myself.
J… not your father, as you suggested in your last book Lunar Park?
B: My father a little bit but I was living that lifestyle, my father wasn’t in New York the same age as Patrick Bateman, living in the same building, going to the same places that Patrick Bateman was going to – I was, I was doing all of that stuff. Now of course you want to write a novel, you’re a novelist and I’m not going to publish my journals, and writing about myself was not going to be particularly interesting. But the impetus to write that book came out of my lifestyle and how unhappy it made me, and how the idea of becoming an adult seemed frustrating, absurd, disgusting, and I was kind of enraged, and that’s how American Psycho started, that was the genesis of it.
So if you’re going to ask me if I’m ever going to write about someone I like… I kind of like Patrick Bateman and I kind of like Victor Ward, and I kind of like the Bret Easton Ellis character. I like some of the kids in Rules of Attraction and Clay I have empathy for. I don’t know. Actually you might look at this depraved cast of characters and go ‘my God, what are you talking about?’ but out of the narrators, I have to like the narrators in order to write them. I finally have discovered this – I have to like them.
J: What was it about your dad that prompted you to say in Lunar Park that he was the model for Bateman? Why did you do that? Because I thought that was the best thing you’ve ever written – the revelation.
B: Yes. Definitely. Patrick Bateman was based on my father as well and based on men that I had met and a certain type of man and I wanted him to embody also, which I didn’t particularly embody, this new thing that was emerging in society – metrosexuality, that nobody seemed to be dealing with in fiction in ’91. And I saw this thing happening and I thought it was interesting, and it was – I don’t want to say the dandification of men – but definitely men seeing themselves in this way they hadn’t seen themselves before, almost like girls used to. So yeah, he was a bunch of different things, but primarily it started with me and then of course yes, he becomes emblematic of something that was gnawing at me, but it was also… I mean, writing that book was also a way of transporting myself out of that life I was living, you know, I bought into a lot of that shit. You know, I write American Psycho and I say ‘it’s a very hard take on those times’, and yeah maybe it is, but I primarily saw it as something…
J: It seems real to me. I think it was a hard take on it, but that’s what it was like.
B: Yeah, you’re right, it was pretty hard. But then in Lunar Park, the Bret Easton Ellis in Lunar Park is not me, it’s really not me. And the people who don’t like Lunar Park because they think part of it is an apology for American Psycho, and there are people who don’t like it – there are fans of American Psycho who don’t like it because they think it’s an apology for American Psycho – I’ve gotten that a lot.
J: It’s a different type of book I think.
B: Totally, I completely agree.
J: I think you become a different writer in that book.
B: I agree. You’re right.
J: That’s a book about being an adult and having some reflection. I thought it was brilliant, I thought it was better than American Psycho.
B: You might be right, I think you are.
J: In your new book Clay is in the gripped by severe co-dependence. That passage at the end when you write about the need to be rejected, is any of that real to you, personal?
B: Go on a little more about this, what do you mean?
J: I mean you could have been transcribing conversations with a therapist for some of the personal examination that the narrator [Bret laughs], it’s really intense, and for you to have plucked that out from somewhere other than yourself, and then projecting it onto that character or giving that character that outlook – that’s quite a big lift. So what I’m saying is how much of that is you?
B: This is the difficult question, this is the hard one.
J: But it’s so savage, it’s so savage that he falls into that co-dependency – to him that relationship is lasting forever, but I think at one point she says ‘I’ve only been going out with you for five days!’
B: (laughs, long pause)…erm… what do you wanna know?
J: Just how much of that is you?
B: A lot of it. All of it. All of it is.
J: It’s such a savage, honest outlook, especially the last line of the book.
B: Look, that may be how I can feel at times, but overall I’m not like that. And personally I find the casting couch in LA funny, it’s funny, it’s the best part about LA.
J: I’m not talking about what he does, I’m talking about the self-examination.
B: The self-examination (laughs) yeah that’s bigt ime and it is me, but a lot of it is, I have issues with myself, ok?
J: Do you have a therapist?
J: Have you ever had one?
J: Just one?
J: Any concurrently?
B: At the same time?
J: I met a girl in LA when I was 25, she had three on the go, three different therapists!
B: I had a therapist in LA, because the first three years when I moved back – in ‘06 – were pretty fucking horrible. They were fucking horrible. Personal, professional, everything collided. It was a perfect storm of personal stuff and professional stuff exploding into a massive storm.
J: And how many of those lines in Imperial bedrooms have come from those sessions?
B:With the shrink that I had briefly? None, I don’t.
J: So where did all the co-dependence stuff come from around Clay?
B: Probably from something within me. You’re talking about the co-dependency he has with these actresses, he shacks up with briefly and then has this explosion.
J: Yeah this need for them. He needs those women like Patrick Bateman needs that pen, or whatever he was fetishising, doesn’t he? The suit, or the pen, or the album…
B: Yes he does. He does need those girls, those actresses.
I had a therapist in LA, because the first three years when I moved back – in ‘06 – were pretty fucking horrible. They were fucking horrible. Personal, professional, everything collided. It was a perfect storm of personal stuff and professional stuff exploding into a massive storm.
J: Is that a James Perse hoody you have on?
J: And what brands do you have that make you feel better?
B: Izod. I like the ones with the little alligator on them, you know those right? I like those a lot. But I love James Perse, and I love his tshirts and these hoodies, and they make me feel good. Though I have not bought clothes in the longest time. I don’t remember the last time I wore a… the last time I wore a suit in LA was to go to the premier of The Informers (laughs).
J: So you don’t wear suits any more?
B: I don’t wear suits any more, and in fact for this GQ thing that was… whatever this thing was sponsored by last night, book launch, at this place called Marks or something I don’t know. They sent over a suit, so I would wear a suit to this thing. But I am so not interested in clothes at the moment, I wear sweats. I prefer sweatpants and Lacostes and I walk around in sandals in LA… I’m barefoot most of the time.
J: what do you like doing when you’re not writing?
B: I like going to the movies, I like having sex, I like going to museums now, galleries, I like reading… I like to hike.
J: What do you wish you did less of?
B: Drink. I think I probably drink too much. At least something that I worry about sometimes, not really enough to do anything about it, but drugs are gone, not interested in drugs at all any more.
J: I haven’t had any drugs for 12 years, since I was the editor of GQ, and when I was reading the passage in Imperial Bedrooms when Clay goes to the parties, it weirdly made me want to have sex and take drugs…
B: Because you’re an addict, like me. You’re an addict!
J: Yeah but I don’t often get that, because I have a very clear memory of what it ended up like, for quite a long time…
B: Sex addiction. You were a sex addict?
J: And drugs. Everything.
B: How does sex addiction surface… I’ve read books about it but, what happens, what is it about?
J: Well the first time I realised I might have a problem was when I just… you realise you always want to go somewhere where there’s a possibility of having sex.
B: That sounds like a very distracting way to live a life.
J: Not if you like doing it. But what I realised was, I had sex with a lot of people that I didn’t like having sex with, and it was the point of doing it, rather than enjoying it. It was wanting it, and wanting to get it.
B: Because why? Because it felt good?
J: Made me feel better. Gave me some affirmation.
B: Well, that’s what sex does in a way.
J: Now I find I can get that from just doing it with one person.
B: I’m very good at just doing it with one person, I’m totally fine with that. In fact that’s what I’m looking for while I’m having sex with other people, is to find that person that I want to have sex with. It’s hard enough to find that person who you actually like having sex with. And I think when you find that person, just lock it down.
J: How did we get onto this?
B: Because we were talking about you reading passages from the book, and you were…
J: Ah yeah, it was giving me… but I don’t often get that at all. I don’t have any hankering… sometimes heroin, because I didn’t do that a lot and I liked doing that, snorting it with coke…
B: (sighs) So did I…
J: It made my nose twitch like the rabbit in Bewitched. But you write about it in a way that it makes it sound attractive. Having said I also identified with the scenes like when he goes to the club, he goes ‘what am I doing here? I’m like 15 years too old to be in this club’. Clay not wanting to be there, and not knowing why he was there.
J: Anyway, what’s your favourite passage that you’ve written? Do you have one?
J: Yeah… or device. I liked the French page in Rules of Attraction, I thought that was brilliant, do you remember that?
B: I do.
J: The French kid mentioned in passing suddenly gets his own page.
B: (pause) It’s over.
J: What’s over?
B: The novel.
B: I listen to you and I get sad.
J: What, it’s over?
B: Yes I listen to you and I get sad.
J: You get sad by me talking?
B: No I get sad for… no it’s not sadness, it’s sort of a yearning feeling I guess, but I don’t know, you seem real, and enthusiastic about these books of mine.
J: Yeah well they’re brilliant.
B: And it’s… I don’t know. It makes me feel…
J: Yeah but you know what you’ve done? There’s no need to feel sad about it, I think you write in a pop way. Your books are like pop music. I don’t mean that in a negative way…
B: I’d agree with you.
J: When I read your book this week, I was just engrossed. All night, next morning, finished, done. And it felt like being in a great club dancing to a great record. Now in years to come you might not remember dancing to that record but you know it’s a good record.
B: Right, I get it.
J: And that’s what I think you’ve got in your books. Some people you read their books and you know they’re trying to compete with history. You know they’re trying to write against a book that somebody wrote 30 years ago, and it weighs them down.
B: Not interested, not interested.
J: And your books are of a time, and it’s not just a little snapshot of time it’s how we are now. do you think you write about people, a time or America?
B: I think I write about myself. People – I don’t know what that means. America – well I’m American so automatically that comes into play, and what was it, people America and…
B: Yeah I guess because I set the books in the time that I’m around, yeah so I automatically all those things are true, but I think I’m writing basically about myself. I think every narrator I’ve ever created is a version of me or a fantasy I have about myself, whether it’s a good fantasy or a bad fantasy, whether my self esteem is low or high or whatever. But that’s where the books come from. But I want to get back to that question you had, now how do you do this on your site? Do you do Q&A or do you write…
J: This is the first interview I’ve done for it.
B: So, this is all on the record by the way, you can transcribe this… I was gonna talk about, I’ve had… every few years I have a bout of psoriasis, do you know what psoriasis is?
J: Yeah it’s when your skin goes all weird.
B: Yeah, there’s nothing to do about it, but my dermatologist said there was a great new cream on the market, I said ‘are you kidding me?’, she says ‘it’s about 600 bucks a tube, I can get you some…’ so I said you know, I’ve had it all my life and nothing has really ever worked, I get a flare up once every three years or so, and it’s caused by stress… we have enough time to talk about this stuff don’t we? She’s gonna come by in about 45 minutes, and I do just wanna talk about this because it’s on my mind right now. And I said ‘but nothing works, nothing has worked for 20 years – 30 years nothing’s worked’, and she said ‘I know, I know, but this cream really works.’ And so, she’s right, and it has worked. But I got it because of stress, I’d just began the US tour…
J: So this was over the last month or so?
B: The last month. And it was about three days into the US tour, extremely stressful in terms of huge crowds, a lot of pressure, a lot of flying around, a lot of just dealing with shit. And I woke up one morning after a very intense night and yeah. Right, so I wanna go back to that thing about favourite passages, I wanna think about it and I wanna talk about it.
There are a couple of passages, I like a story in The Informers a lot, it’s about four or five pages long, and if you had to ask me what is the thing I like the most – I think this maybe is the best thing. I like this story it’s called On the Beach and it’s near the end of the book it’s about five pages long, it’s about a guy who’s talking about his girlfriend who’s dying, and he’s you know, she just lays on the beach all day and she’s dying, and there’s like hanger-onners in the house in Malibu and he’s talking about how because she’s dying he’s gonna leave her. I like that story, I don’t know why. And it’s the last story I’ve ever written also, er…
[Bret’s PR walks in]
B: Hey. Emma, what time is it?
E: ‘Quarter past four.’
B: We’re going to talk a little bit longer.
B: What time do I have to go?
E: ‘Six, the event starts at six thirty.’
B: What a nightmare this is going to be.
E: (laughs) ‘No, it will be ok, it’ll be good.’
B: So are you going to ring me up when you get here? I’ll come down in my little suit, my little suit…
E: ‘Your little suit… and shoes.’
B: Alright, I’ll see you later. Bye.
Bret: I like er, I don’t know, sometimes I think American Psycho is earnest. Sometimes, but not all the time, sometimes I think it’s earnest, and there are passages in it that I like a lot, but I think they’re a little bit too artist. I love much of Glamorama, for some reason, many people don’t yeah. I like a lot of little…I like that opening chapter of Lunar Park a lot, it was fun to write. Took a lot of time to write, but was fun to write.
J: In Lunar Park the monster is called Terby, which you reveal to be ‘why Bret’ backwards, why did you deliberately reverse that?
B: Well, yeah. I wanted to do a little thing on ‘redrum’, from The Shining, I wanted to write a Stephen King book. I remember how that happens, like at the end of part one or part two of The Shining, about 150 pages in – ‘redrum, redrum, redrum’, and then you realise at the end of part two it’s murder – and it’s just this moment when I was a child reading that book and it was just like ‘THAT’S COOL!’ – and I wanted to do the same thing in that, (laughs) I mean I don’t know, I don’t know.
J: You said you’ve never compared your books to other books you’ve written, have you read any books that you’ve thought ‘oh, that’s almost as good as me’ or ‘I better watch myself there’?
B: I read books all the time that I think are better than mine. I don’t have a lot of confidence in myself as a writer by the way.
B: I don’t. And I’ve got self esteem issues about my work and about… I dunno. And I try not to think about it too much, I only really talk about it when I’m doing tour, like in situations like this. During the five years that I’m either working on a book or I’m just hanging out, I never have conversations like this with my friends, I really don’t. And especially since I’ve stopped doing drugs I don’t have these conversations. I think right now, David Mitchell – Ghostwritten, the first book, regardless of what you think, it’s really well written, he’s a really good writer. He knows how to write, it grips you. I have got to a point in my life now where I toss books away after two pages. I get it, the writer can’t write, I’m not interested in his line of bullshit, I don’t want to sit with 400 pages of his fucking made up characters and his fucking stupid story and I toss it away. But if I open a page and the writing is really good, I don’t give a shit what the story can beabout – it can be about a 20 year old college girl in Wisconsin, but if the writing’s good – I’m there. But I used to read ok books all the time, I used to read four ok books a week, I can’t do it any more – I just have to read good books.
J: I noticed that you said you like the Red Riding trilogy on TV…
B: I did. I cried at the end when they find the girl. I was sobbing, really good. They find her and you think she’s probably dead, but she’s not – she’s alive.
J: Did you read the books?
B: I did not. By David Pearce?
B: You know it’s interesting, I was at my book launch party in LA, Andrew Garfield was there, the journalist [from the film], I went up to him…he’s also the new Spiderman, who also looks about 12 in person… he looked a bit of a man in Red Riding Trilogy, odd. I’ve got a little thing for him, thought he was attractive. Anyway I’m digressing, or maybe I’m not. But I told someone the next day, ‘oh yeah, I met Andrew Garfield and told him how much I loved the Red Riding Trilogy’, and this person who knows Andrew says ‘oh, why did you say that, he hated working on that movie, that movie was a nightmare for him, he really had an awful time and he doesn’t like it’. But I haven’t figured out why.
You know what, it’s very telling that where I am now at this point in my life that, that was your question and instead I talked about the star of the movie at a party at the Chateau, and how maybe I found him attractive. I think there was a time when I would have engaged, or forced myself to engage, in a way like ‘oh yes, the books, there were four of them right? And they only made three of them into a movie…’ I’m not worried about it, but I’m always aware of… yes, you’re always aware of it. I don’t know. I’ve found myself in a strange place where… no, not a strange place but a place where I… I don’t know. I’m not, I can’t effect the literary pretentions any more that I kind of used to drift towards.
J: Do you hang out with writers?
B: Screen writers, but no novelists. I’m out in Hollywood now, I’m out in Hollywood. I like it. I like it. I prefer it to New York.
J: What’s the quickest you’ve written a novel?
B: (pauses) Rules of Attraction. Oddly enough, oddly enough, on Amazon in the States, by far the most popular of my books.
J: Really? On comments or sales?
B: Comments. It’s got a ton of comments. Sales are still pretty good…
J: Why do you think that is?
B: But it’s the only book of mine that rates four stars, no other book is rated that high.
J: Do you think that’s because more people can identify with that theme?
B: Yes. I do. Even if it is my probably, I mean I went out on this… I began it when I was at college, finished it the year that I graduated. You know I wanted to do stream of consciousness shit and I found these people maybe more interesting and I don’t know, anyway, it’s not like… I can talk about my books and I don’t really rate them against each other but I kind of look at Rules of Attraction as yeah, ok, that was the gap between Less Than Zero and American Psycho, and I understand I had to write it at the time as it meant a lot to me, and I’m still glad I did.I think the reason it has four stars is because it is the one book that most people can identify with.
J: When you boil everything down and you edit all your research and your outlines down, do you mourn any thing that you chuck out?
B: Oh totally. I do mourn, and it was happening a lot in Imperial Bedrooms because I realised he was not going to notice a lot of this shit, and there was a scene in a restaurant where, and it’s a restaurant that I frequent, and it’s got this beautiful silver wall at the back of the restaurant, shimmering as the light changes during the day, the wall becomes candescent. I thought oh great, the scene – the actress is going to be sitting in that restaurant, and good, I’m going to do a little bit here and then I’m going to go to description of that wall. And then I wrote it and I thought it was great, I thought those four lines were fucking poetry. Read it… fuck! Clay would never notice this, he would not spend four lines talking about that fucking wall, that is you jerking off, that is you stroking yourself, that is you not paying attention to this character and this narrator and what he would notice and what he would not notice – remove it immediately! It happened a lot in American Psycho too, that I thought was like, I don’t know, very beautiful and lyrical and ‘oh what a cool metaphor that would be’, and then I’ll put it in and go ‘what? This is not going to go there. He’s not going to notice that.’ And I’ve been taken to task for this before. I’ve been taken to task by Mailer on this, he said my problem as a writer, and he was talking about American Psycho, and I don’t agree with it but, ‘Bret Easton Ellis’ problem as a writer is that he stays so true to his narrator that he doesn’t let the novelist in’. Now I don’t agree with that I think it’s old school thinking, but he said like, I give the novel to Patrick Bateman – it’s his book. Clay get’s his book, Clay, if he’s a narrator, he has to feel authentic to me and if that feel that it means cutting out shit that I think is really good writing then I don’t know. I tried like hell to get that silver wall back into that scene, but it never never worked.
J:Are you being disingenuous saying you have question marks over your ability?
B: Why do you think I’m being disingenuous?
J: Well you’ve written about five really good books. You’re quite good at what you do.
B: Right. I have self esteem issues, I have problems. I’ve resolved a lot of them, but ‘Dad’ still looms about every now and then. He used to loom about all the time, but I got rid of him.
J: The first time we met, although you won’t remember, was my first night in New York in 1988.
B: How do you know I wouldn’t remember?
J: ‘Cos you wouldn’t know the bloke who came up and started talking to you is the bloke who’s sitting here. We met in Carmelita’s, in the light lounge (Bret laughs loudly), and it was my first night in New York, I was 22 and I went to interview Sonic Youth for the NME.
B: You’re telling me about that dive… but it was a cool dive. Up the stairs. Christmas lights all over the place.You had to know people to get in I think. My house was around the corner, it still is, I still have that apartment.
J: I knew these five cool girls that took me there.
B: Am I willing myself to actually remember this perhaps?
J: No they took a picture of us, but that’s long gone.
B: But you were drinking then of course?
J: Mainly at The Hat. El Sombrero, did you ever go there? It’s still there. On the corner of Lowell and Stanton.
B: I can’t live in New York any more. It’s personal, it’s boredom. Not interested in the literary world. Can’t believe people are still pushy, well, the illusion of it I guess. Everyone I know moved out of New York. All the people I know, I have three friends who live in New York and they’re all rich. Everyone else I knew who lived in New York moved to Brooklyn, and even Brooklyn’s getting expensive. And also New York was a trigger, it was a trigger for drugs… LA isn’t.
J: In Imperial Bedrooms Clay mentions the AA meetings.
B: Yeah, the AA meeting of Robertson and Melrose. But I went to a couple of AA meetings because I wanted to fuck somebody, and I was told that ‘in order for us to keep fucking, you’ve got to get clean’. And so I went under the pretence, and it ended up being like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm… or Seinfeld. Look, this person is so fucking hot, I’ve got to… the sex is really good, but they said I can’t do anything unless I stop drinking, I have to go to AA, we have to be on the same level. So I did, but I was drinking on the side, away from him. And then I just… I don’t know.
J: How has that affected your writing and your life, talking about your sex life?
B: I don’t know, how has it? What do you think? That’s an interesting question that you bring that up, because what is the association? What are you thinking of when you ask that?
J: I remember reading interviews with you a long time ago, and people started to question your sexual orientation…
J: And that became like a thing in an interview. There was one I read once and they were alluding to the fact that there was someone in your bed, and they said it was a dog. But now you talk openly about your life.
B: Yeah. Well to a degree, but it depends who I’m talking to. I was being interviewed by Details, and the interviewer, a really nice guy, asked me ‘so what’s going on, do you have a girlfriend? A boyfriend?’ and I thought ‘doesn’t he know?’, and I said ‘who do you think I’m seeing, that’s an interesting question, do I have a girlfriend or a boyfriend, what does that mean?’. He said ‘well that means that you’re bi’, and I said ‘oh, yeah sure, I’m bi, put it in there.’ And that’s what happens. I think the last time I slept with a woman was five or six years ago, so the bi thing can only be played out so long. But I still use it, I still say it.
J: Has any of this got to do with your dad dying?
J: That you’d talk openly about your sexuality?
B: No it had nothing to do with my dad.
J: I suppose you were under attack a lot then then? The furore over American Psycho was pretty big then.
B: Yes. It was very big.
J: So you were more naturally guarded?
B: Yes, much more naturally guarded, but at the same time the problem is, I have no interest at all in gay culture, gay people, gay lifestyle, books about alienated gays, and I know nothing about it. So people don’t often put me in the gay camp. Some people do, and then the gay advertising – the gay papers – never, I’m not mentioned, maybe once in a big one if I know an editor, but never. So, you know what, I just take it as it comes. And I really don’t want to be identified as gay, I really don’t. I don’t even really understand… I have no interest.
J: Have people ever wanted to have sex with you because of the way you write about sex in the books, have you found that?
B: I have found that. I have found that, especially with women. I’m hit on by a lot of women because of that.
J: And they talk about scenes?
B: Yeah they do. But I have not been out on the road in, I don’t know, on a tour like this in, I don’t know… six years? The women will come because I’d now say it’s about fifty-fifty women-men. A lot of young women. One of the first signings of this book was in New York at Barnes and Noble, and there were like a thousand fucking people, it was huge, and the signing went on for hours and hours and hours. Girls, many girls, would come up to me with copies of American Psycho, they’re in their twenties, and they’ll say (whispers) ‘this is my favourite book’, and I’ll say ‘what are you talking about?’ and they’ll say ‘it taught me how to masturbate’.
J: I think something’s changed for women.
B: Oh totally.
J: The internet has changed their access to porn. They had their erotic fiction before, now women have the facility to consume porn online in the same way that men did before.
B: So do 11 year-olds. The people I have sex with who are in their early twenties, fuck like pornstars and are completely uninhibited in a way that when I was that age with my peers, we were not that professional. I feel very jealous about that, and I feel that, that kind of liberation is not a bad thing.
J: It’s still so unspoken a lot though isn’t it? Like the penultimate chapter of your Imperial Bedrooms would shock a lot of people – when he goes to Palm Springs with the girl and the guy he’s hired, but it’s like once you float around online, a lot of that stuff is just a click away.
B: Yeah it is, so it’s about context.
J: Why do you put that in? To me it felt like a big guitar lick in the middle of a song.
B: That’s what my editor thought. My editor had problems with that passage a lot, we talked about it a lot. He said ‘you’re phoning it in here’, and I said ‘you’re absolutely wrong’. I said ‘this is a sequence that made me want to write the book’, and he said ‘you’re fucking kidding me?’ I said ‘you’re fucking kidding me.’ And he said ‘ok we’re going to have to deal with this’, because that was one sequence we fought on the most.
J: He wanted to take it out?
B: Well when it became apparent that it was never going to happen in a fucking million years, we started to talk about how to re-jigger it, and we didn’t. All I did was I made some cuts I now regret.
J: I assumed it had two purposes for the plot. One – you suddenly seeing Clay in a light that other people in the book see him, but we don’t see that because we’re hearing his voice, so we don’t get other peoples’ perspective, apart from when the other guy goes ‘that girl you beat up, she was pregnant’ – that’s the only other glimpse that you see. And it also put a question mark in your mind over whether he’d been more involved in those murders.
B: Yeah I guess so. It felt totally normal and natural to me, and when I was making the outline for the book… yeah. But I get it, I get it yeah.
J: But had you written that before you wrote the book?
J: But you thought, ‘just before the end I’m gonna have something that could’ve come out of American Psycho’.
B: No I wasn’t even thinking about American Psycho. I don’t think about American Psycho like that, but for some reason that’s… I dunno, I love that sequence, I think it’s really beautiful. I think it has some of my best writing in it I really do. And it has to be there. When I realise ‘oh my God, this is where it’s going’, it was thrilling.
I had a book launch last night, I ended up following people, I didn’t really know what was going on, I was just talking to people who were on the streets, I found myself in the Groucho Club. I was just talking to people, following them upstairs, and I was just talking to people, I found myself in a bathroom stall talking to people, and I was flirting with someone from the publishing house at the Groucho Club, and then suddenly people said ‘we’re leaving, we’re leaving, we’re leaving’ and I’m talking to people and I’m smoking, and I’m walking the streets and then I realise we’re back here at Claridge’s, and then I realise there’s like 20 people in this suite, and everyone is ordering up tons of booze and people start smoking in the room which you’re not allowed to do, and then suddenly there’s coke being laid out all over the place. And then I think ‘fuck, I have not done this in many, many, many years, it’s kind of fun.’ And then I notice a lot of people gone and then I realise it’s just me and I was watching a couple fuck on that couch.
J: What, who had come with you? People who had come with you?
B: (laughs) They were part of the group, part of this group of people.
J: Were they from the literary world?
B: The girl was not. The boy was. It’s a bit Clay-like, I realised too.
J: Did they know you were watching?
B: Yeah, they did. Put on a bit of a show for me.
J: That’s coke for you.
B: They were both very attractive… I don’t want to end the interview on that (laughs).
J: We’ve entered the book.
B: I don’t know what’s going on in terms of, I just do not have the filters that I had any more, in terms of giving interviews. Like, none of that was off the record, none of it is off the record, and I just don’t care, it’s fine. What is that about?
J: So tonight you read to a roomful of women?
B: End of interview.
J: They’re interviewing you?
B: No no. Long pause, and then James: ‘tonight you read to a roomful of women, and…no.’ I guess I am, I’m just doing whatever they ask me to do?
J: Where did you get the character of Rain in Imperial Bedrooms from? Just off the casting couch stories?
B: Yeah. I was really shocked when I was writing and producing The Informers and it was being cast, and as a writer this is what became available to me, I was shocked, and it was true. I had never received more offers for sex from women and men, boys and girls, than I’ve ever had in my life during that six month, pre-production casting.
J: But what about those scenes where Clay goes for dinner with his mates, and they say ‘how long you gonna keep doing this? Pretending you can deliver and then you can’t.’ Was that a little bit like what you thought, ‘I haven’t really got any power’?
B: No I don’t feel that, because Clay has a lot more power than I’ve ever had. He writes big studio movies, and I’ve only had one movie made, and it was a big expensive independent, and it had a very big cast, and there were a lot of attractive women, boys and girls, needed for the movie. But look, whatever, I helped a lot of people. I didn’t necessarily fuck all of those people but I helped them. I became friends with a lot of actors and actresses who I’d met via the casting who were very young, and there were a lot of people who needed a new manager or weren’t very happy with their agent and I would help out, or try and help out. I like actors, a lot, I do. And it’s just, I don’t know. And whenever there’s things I’ve done involving the casting couch it’s really not so bad, it’s kinda funny. It’s not the darkest part of Hollywood, it’s one of the funny parts of Hollywood…It’s ten after five. I better go and get ready. What will you be doing tonight?
J: I’m going to get my son I think.
B: That’s so great that you have a son, that’s really great. I’m never having a child.
J: Why’s that, because you’re not going to have sex with women again?
B: No, er… yeah. I just don’t wanna like, I just don’t want to have to raise a child. But I also feel like I know how much joy it has brought friends of mine and it is what it is, but I’m not gonna… it’s not on the cards for me.
J:Is that because of your relationship with your dad?
B: Ahh, it’s just… too selfish. Basically, too selfish.
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