The writers Bret Easton Ellis (author of several books, including Less Than Zero, American Psycho, and Imperial Bedrooms) and Laurent Binet (HHhH) met recently to talk about writing, adapting your work for film, and listening too much to your editors.
Laurent Binet: My first question is about something you said in Lunar Park. Actually, your character, Bret Easton Ellis, said that he is the greatest living American writer under forty. Would you have any comment about it, now, today? Or do you want to add something?
Bret Easton Ellis: Well, it’s a joke! I was making fun of myself. The Bret Easton Ellis character actually says that out loud. But no, I never thought I was one of the better American writers of my generation. I thought there were always better writers. And that’s why I’m always shocked—
Binet: Over forty!
Ellis: No, my age! Well, I wrote Lunar Park when I was under forty, so . . . No, I always though there were better writers than me. There were better writers than me when I was in college. We talked about this: my friend Eric, the famous Eric, who actually never got published. He was the best writer of us all. But he got derailed by drugs and things. He should have been the one who had the book published. And I’ve never rated myself against my contemporaries, I’ve never felt I’m part of a literary tradition or a literary scene, and I don’t really pay that much attention to the rankings of who is considered the best writer. But I do read a lot of writers, and I do kind of keep up with people my age. Though less so than I did when I was younger.
Binet: So which writer is impressing you the most today?
Ellis: Jonathan Franzen is impressing me the most. His new novel, Freedom, is the best American novel I’ve read in maybe twenty years. Major, major novel. Not only a major piece of storytelling or piece of narrative but as a statement of purpose it’s a hugely important novel, just by the very nature of what it insists the novel can be. Franzen is, what, five years older, six years older than me? I still regard us as the same generation. I’m forty-six, he’s fifty-one. I still feel that I’m part of his generation of writers, and it’s true, most of us did get caught up in a kind of technique over feeling, technical tricks instead of emotion. He’s arguing for the social-realist novel, kind of the social realism of Tolstoy. But doing it as an American, and bringing back narrative feeling and narrative emotion to this kind of fiction that for most of the men of my generation—we were interested in other devices, other tricks, whether it was David Foster Wallace or myself and minimalism and my own aesthetic—was not particularly an emotional one. He’s bringing it back to that, and it’s very important.
Binet: In The Rules of Attraction, there is a chapter written in French.
Ellis: Bad French! Someone translated it for me when I was very busy, and she did not do a good job, I think, because many people have complained about the French in that chapter.
Binet: I mean, it’s correct, but you can feel it’s not a French guy who wrote it. So was it a friend of yours?
Ellis: Yes, it was a friend of mine who said she was much better with French than I think she actually was.
Binet: Imperial Bedrooms is a sequel to Less Than Zero, so we meet the same characters again twenty years later. But in all of your books, we encounter some characters from the previous books. Is it that you have the same ambition as Balzac, to build a comédie humaine? Do you want to build a parallel world that would challenge the real world?
Ellis: No, I’m not doing that. I don’t have that kind of ambition. I’m just writing these novels, and every now and then I like to use characters from one novel and put them in another one. I don’t know why. I wish there was a plan, because this is the question I am asked most. Sometimes I think it’s just fun to do. I think with the Mitchell Allen character from The Rules of Attraction—I put him in out of the blue—I was figuring out who Bret Easton Ellis’s neighbor would be in Lunar Park, and I thought, “What do I want to talk about with this neighbor?” I want to go into this, this, and this . . . Oh! Well, what if we have Mitchell Allen, who Bret went to college with, then I can talk about their history, and also talk about what it was like to be in college at that time, too, which I kind of wanted to do somewhere in the book, and that was the perfect way to do it. So it can happen like that sometimes. An inelegant answer, but the truth.
Binet: (In Imperial Bedrooms) Clay says to Troy, “I imagine there are several versions about what’s happening now.” Don’t you think that sentence could sum up your work? Because in all your novels, neither the reader nor the characters are ever really sure if they understand what’s happening and if they have the good version, and I believe it’s almost your main topic in your books.
Ellis: I think it’s because that’s how I feel. I think there is this question: What is reality, what is illusion? Oh yes, our old friends, Mr. Reality versus Mr. Illusion. Look, it’s just life. I mean I could give a really fancy theory as to why I’m interested in that in my novels, but right now my answer is that I look back on the façade of my upper-middle-class childhood in Los Angeles, where it all seemed very lovely, with my handsome father, my beautiful mother, my two sisters, the perfect house with the swimming pool, we were all nicely dressed, we looked like a perfect family, and then, behind the façade, there was a lot of misery, there was abuse, there was alcoholism. You know it’s an old story, it’s not a new story, but it does have an impact on you and you begin to wonder: Well, the reality we’re presenting is not the reality. The reality is sort of like a performance and that’s why I think there are so many allusions to actors, to actresses, to performing in my books. I also think there was a shift when I became well-known, when I was twenty-one, with Less Than Zero. My perception of the world became skewed and it became what’s real and what’s not real. Are these my real friends? Is this my real lover? Is this person really interested in Bret, or is he interested in Bret Easton Ellis? And look, you can deal with this without going crazy, but it still alters your perception of the world in a way that I think has probably affected my fiction. There’s no way around it.
Binet: That’s why you wrote the Rules of Attraction, which is one of your novels that explores that question the most.
Ellis: It is exploring it the most and it’s very interesting that it is the most popular of the novels, because it’s not divisive in the way that American Psycho is, which has many passionate defenders and also many people who hate it and think it’s terrible. But for some reason Rules of Attraction is the only book of mine on Amazon that has four stars. The other books get one star, five stars, one star. Rules of Attraction gets four stars, three and half stars, four, three and half, four, and people don’t seem to be so bothered by that book.
Binet: I’m always astonished by how you deal with your dialogue. Even when your characters are talking about nothing, they are very full of energy and tension. I wanted to ask if you use a special technique to write your dialogue. Do you follow some rules or do you—
Ellis: I just do it. It’s just one of those things, I can’t explain it. Look, when you’re working on a novel, everything is very emotional and you kind of have the novel in your head and you know or you feel what people would say back and forth to each other, how they would communicate with each other. It’s something that as a novelist is easy for me to access; it’s easy for me to go there and to do it. But it is true that I will write the dialogue many times and see if it works or not, see if I like it, see if it seems authentic, but I have to say that in Imperial Bedrooms the dialogue is slightly different from the dialogue that I’ve written in the past because it’s the dialogue of a screenwriter and it’s very expository, very much how movie dialogue is, which is a series of reveals. It’s a question and an answer, a question and an answer, over and over again, which is what movie dialogue is. I was very conscious of a screenwriter narrating this novel and of using the techniques of screenwriting to tell the story. But thank you for your compliment.
Binet: Your novels, most of the time, are set in Los Angeles or New York. So which do you like more, Woody Allen or 24 (the TV series)?
Ellis: I like both, you know? I like 24 and I like Woody Allen. I don’t really think of a book as being about place so much. People tend to think that I write about Los Angeles or that I’ve written about New York, but I think I’ve just written stories that take place in those cities because I’ve lived there.
Binet: What do you think when people say your atmosphere is like the atmosphere of David Lynch’s films?
Ellis: I say that I wasn’t thinking about that when I was writing. We’re talking specifically about Imperial Bedrooms? As in Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway and those movies? You know, I wasn’t thinking of those films in particular, but I understand why people make that connection. I was just reading something about David Lynch this morning, something someone was writing about Mulholland Drive, and it was a very interesting idea about what that movie is about, I think, which is that it’s a movie about people trapped in a movie and it’s a movie about how people behave when they’re in a movie and realize they’re in a movie. It’s so complicated, but anyway . . .
Binet: But it’s a connection with Imperial Bedrooms, I mean could you say that’s a bit the same?
Ellis: Well, then again, when I look back, I’m shocked at how many actresses and actors are characters in my novels. There are a lot of them, from the girls in Glamorama to the wife in Lunar Park to Rain in Imperial Bedrooms. The woman-as-actress is very prevalent in many of the books.
Binet: You didn’t grow up in that milieu?
Ellis: No, but my mother wanted to be an actress.
Binet: I read that when you write a book, you make a big sketch, and before that you make a big plan. In Imperial Bedrooms did you know from the beginning where the story was going?
Ellis: Once I’d figured out who the narrator was, which took a long time; when I realized who the narrator was, then the story stems from the narrator. Because of who the narrator is, I go: “Oh! Well then this is the story of the novel.”
If the narrator is going to be this person, then the story is going to be this, he’s going to be involved with an actress who’s going to be involved with a friend, it’s going to be about a betrayal and then this plot announces itself.
Binet: But when, at the beginning, the narrator realizes that someone got into his apartment while he was away, do you have in your mind what the explanation will be at the end?
Ellis: Yes, I will know all that. I make a much bigger outline of what is going on in the novel. The first draft of the book is two or three times longer, four times longer sometimes. And then when I become the technician and I start to shape it into a novel form, a lot of things are discarded.
In most American novels, no matter if it’s a poor girl who lives in a shack in the woods, or a working-class guy who works in an auto-repair shop, everyone sounds like a college professor, everyone waxes lyrical on the sky, on the fields.
Binet: Is it painful to cut?
Ellis: No, not at all . . . uh, one time it was. There were two cuts in Imperial Bedrooms that were very painful to make. One came about because my editor and I got into an argument over the Palm Springs sequence near the end, with the boy and the girl. And he thought I went too far and that there were some details that he found too grotesque, and he said, “You have to remove them, because they are distracting to the reader. Your point for the scene, you’ve made it, in fact you’ve made it too much, so please, for me, take a couple details away.” And I did, and I regret it, I wish I’d kept them, but it was a bad week and he’d ground me down.
And then the other one, there’s a sequence early on in the book where Clay takes an actress to lunch in a restaurant, which is based on a restaurant that I go to a lot in Los Angeles. In the back of the restaurant there’s this silver wall and I had written five sentences describing the wall, and I thought that they were fantastic writing. I was very proud of myself. I thought that they were beautiful sentences about the silver wall, and it was just like pure poetry and so cool sounding, and then I realized Clay would never notice that wall, and I kept trying to keep it in there, but the whole point of this scene is that his focus is on this actress he’s trying to fuck and it’s just like, there’s no way that wall is going to come into play, it’s just me showing off, or thinking I’m showing off, and I had to cut it. So I did cut that . . . but that happens a lot.
That happened a lot in American Psycho where in the notes on how to have the narrator narrate that book there were no metaphors because Patrick Bateman doesn’t see things as something else. He sees them only as their surface . . . whatever. It’s just that I like working within a narrator’s voice, but at times there is a limitation. To make the narrator sound authentic, there are some things you need to give up.
Not every narrator should sound like a college professor. And in most American novels, no matter if it’s a poor girl who lives in a shack in the woods, or a working-class guy who works in an auto-repair shop, everyone sounds like a college professor, everyone waxes lyrical on the sky, on the fields.
Binet: Maybe you could explain something I didn’t get, just a detail. When Clay is asking the doorman of his building if anyone came in while he was away, the doorman says nobody came, and I think that there is no explanation. It seems to me that in your books there are a lot of things that aren’t really explained. Do you do that for aesthetic reasons? Or is it just that you don’t want to bother with explaining stuff?
ELLIS (laughing): I just don’t want to bother, I just don’t care . . . Yeah, I forgot, someone was up in the apartment, but it’s not . . . No, for this particular novel, there is a lot of menace and there is a low hum of fear. Not knowing what’s going on, the paranoia, the quiet isolation of it all . . . I think there’s a logical reason as to . . . there was someone in that apartment, yes there was, Clay’s not making it up, he notices it, there was somebody in that apartment, and I know who it was.
Binet: But how did he do it? Did he pay the doorman, or—
Ellis: I don’t know. Rip says at one point that he has friends in the building. There’s a scene later when Clay comes back to the apartment and Rip’s sitting on the couch drinking tequila.
Binet: In Less Than Zero, Clay remembers that once he found an empty pack of Lucky Strikes next to his swimming pool in his Palm Springs house and nobody in his family smokes them. Do you remember that?
Ellis: Yes, I do remember that.
Binet: And there’s no explanation, Could you tell me the meaning of that scene?
Ellis: I think the meaning of that scene was that there was someone hanging around the house who didn’t belong there. I don’t know who, it could have been a burglar, someone who intended the family harm, but the empty pack of cigarettes suggested that there was an outside force somewhere that was about to come into this family.
Binet: For me, because it’s your first book, it becomes the symbol of paranoia that gets developed in your later work.
Ellis: Yes. But you have to understand that one of the first words in Less Than Zero is “afraid,” people are afraid.
Binet: Another word, another sentence in Imperial Bedrooms is “disappear here.” Why is that so important for you?
Ellis: It’s everywhere, isn’t it? It’s in Lunar Park . . . I don’t know . . . Writing a book is very emotional, it’s not very logical—logic is not good for a novel—and I think a book is a dream, a lot of it is your fantasy, a lot of it doesn’t have to make sense, it’s kind of poetry in a way.
Binet: But do you feel it as a fear, or fantasy, or something you want, or something you’re afraid of, that program, “disappear here,” is it something you want often—
Ellis: I think the meaning of those words changes in every book. Its meaning in Less Than Zero is very different than in Imperial Bedrooms. In Less Than Zero it’s more cultural, almost political in a way, because it’s on a billboard, announcing itself, looming over a city, looming over Sunset Boulevard, those words “disappear here.” And now in Imperial Bedrooms they’re written on a mirror in his bathroom, so it’s now gotten closer to . . . You know this is why I cannot explain why I do what I do, because it often sounds really dumb. But that’s what I was thinking, often I don’t answer these questions. But for you I’ll make an exception. It’s the end of the day and you get one, and I’m not going to explain anything else about the book.
Binet: What happened with The Informers movie? I read that you didn’t like it. It had Kim Basinger, Mickey Rourke . . . and you didn’t like it.
Ellis: Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger didn’t like it, either. It’s not just me, there were many people involved who didn’t . . . The problem was ultimately that there was a director and a producer who mishandled the material and I think they would admit that they mishandled it. The director signed on to something, or promised something that as filming started we began to realize he wasn’t capable of doing, and by that time it was sort of too late. We thought we could save the movie in the editing room, but we couldn’t and there were drugs involved and it was just not . . .
You know, a hundred things go wrong when you make a movie, and I realized that when I oversaw what was going on with The Informers. It is really kind of a miracle if a movie turns out good, if it turns out well. But it’s not by any means a terrible film, it’s just kind of a mess. There are some good things to it, but there was a much better movie there that everyone signed on for. This is why we got all the money, this is why we got the actors. There are so many good actors in that movie, from Winona Ryder to Billy Bob Thornton to Kim Basinger to Mickey Rourke to Chris Isaak, I mean it’s a very good cast and everyone signed on to be in this vision of what we all thought it was going to be, Things interrupted that vision, so it didn’t turn out that well, but, really, because of the cast and because it was based on a book of mine, it was slaughtered by the U.S. critics and kind of deservedly so. I can’t say they were being totally unfair. But it was a high-profile disaster.
Binet: Do you have a definition for modernity, can you define what it means to be modern?
Ellis: No, I can’t . . .
Binet: Because you are sort of symbol for being modern, for what’s modern in literature.
Ellis: I know, I know, but I didn’t make myself that symbol, you made me that symbol. I don’t think I’m that symbol. So I don’t think I’m modern.