Meet 'Imperial'-ist Bret Easton Ellis
Photo: Jeff Burton / used with permission
Los Angeles-born novelist Bret Easton Ellis is back.
His newest novel, Imperial Bedrooms, comes out tomorrow (June 15,) and he’s again living in LA.
Relocating from New York in 2006, he wrote most of Imperial Bedrooms here in Los Angeles. The novel, penned 25 years after the original, is a sequel of sorts to his star-making work Less Than Zero, and his seventh book.
Both books take place from Santa Monica to Hollywood, and while they’re both centered in Clay’s world (then: college student on break; now: successful screenwriter,) this sequel is barely that.
Imperial Bedrooms is recognizable as a Bret Easton Ellis work — wonderful prose, main character narration, drugs, booze, sexual weirdness — however, it’s no logical continuation of Less Than Zero. It’s a mystery. It’s a thriller. It’s an adventure that’ll raise your blood pressure. Blair, Julian, and Rip are back too.
On Wednesday, June 16th at 8 p.m., Bret Easton Ellis will be holding a special event at Largo. He'll be reading, signing books, and joined by guests James Van Der Beek, Joel McHale, Jerry Stahl and Joseph Mattson.
LAist recently had a phone chat with Bret Easton Ellis. The results are below:
LAist: How are you doing today?
Bret Easton Ellis: I don’t know. I think I’m entering into this strange mood, which is about doing press. I’m sorry to lay this on you -- I’m becoming bored with my answers. The whole idea of getting attention for writing a book, I don’t know, I’m just kind of swamped.
Let's start there. Would you rather not do press?
I would rather not do press, but I understand the contract between the writer and the publisher. I get it. They’re paying me for the book, and in order to, you know, make some money, they need the author of the book to go out there and make the book visible. It’s strange.
When a book of mine comes out, I do a lot of press. I don’t know how much that press correlates to sales. I’m really not sure if there is a correlation. I’m always uncertain of how that works. Does the press really help sell the book? Or would the books kind of sell what they sell without me doing it? I don’t know, I don’t know.
You get kind of worried when your agent, your publishing house is telling you: “yes, the book business is in trouble, we need all of the attention we can get for books, you will be happy to go out there and promote it.” So, you know, I feel indebted.
It’s interesting how it works. In the beginning, you’re wondering how are you going to talk about this book that you wanted to write, that is very personal to you, that means something to you that it won’t really mean maybe to an audience or to the people interviewing you even. So you start to realize, in a weird way, what the book is about on a certain level when you start talking about it to strangers, because, I know what it is to me personally. I know what it was when I was working on it, and I still to a degree do. But, actually answering questions about it, that becomes trickier.
Sometimes I’m not sure if I really believe what all my answers are. I tend to just ramble on because, I don’t know, I want to sound halfway coherent about, in terms of my answers and I’m not even sounding coherent right now. I’m just going to give up on my whole rant about press and I’ll answer any questions you want.
Why write Imperial Bedrooms now? Did you have a choice what to write and chose this over another idea?
It’s a difficult question to answer. I don’t know why. That question suggests that there’s a kind of logical pragmatism to writing a novel. Why this novel now?
The ideas for a novel begin very slowly. I was re-reading Less Than Zero when I was working on Lunar Park, and I hadn’t read it since it was published. After I finished it, this question started to appear: “where is Clay now? What’s he doing?” And I was thinking, “oh, no, I don’t want to go there.”
But the question kept persisting. I would be driving in my car, and then the question would come to me and I would start formulating answers like, “well, I guess he’s a screenwriter.” This went on for about a year and a half, just thinking about what kind of situations would he be in. “If he’s in Hollywood, what does that mean?"
After you walk around with the idea in your head, a novel begins to announce itself to you. Then you write the novel. Then you complete the novel. But, that’s why the book was written. It wasn’t like a decision I made. It was a feeling that I had.
It really wasn’t about writing a sequel. I never thought of it as writing a sequel. I just thought about it as a book about where Clay landed at this point in his life. I was thinking of other things. I was thinking about my own experiences in Hollywood. I was thinking about Raymond Chandler -- who I had been reading a lot of, and who I was very enamored of.
I had all these things kind of come together and regardless of whether you want to or not, you become obsessed with the idea. You become obsessed with these questions. “Why am I writing this novel? What does it mean to me? Why do I care where Clay is?“
What happens is that the novel becomes the answer to these questions. At least, that’s how I work.
Are you happy with the answer?
Well, “happy” is not part of doing the process. If I have found the answers, yes, then I guess I’m happy and certainly if I was unhappy, the book would never have been finished.
If I had to answer that, yeah, I guess I’m happy.
Both Imperial Bedrooms and Less Than Zero list Los Angeles streets and specific specific establishments that one could use to draw a map of the books’ LA. Similarly, could you map your LA?
I live in the same vicinity as Clay, so I think most of those streets are pretty much my own. My friends and I joke about the same places that we hit over and over again. If you live in a particular neighborhood, I don’t know, do you tend to leave it that often? I’m not sure.
As someone who’s a writer, and works out of their place, I don’t have to drive that often, so I tend to stay in one particular area. If I think about it, what I’m doing today is, I have some errands to do, so I’ll be driving on Santa Monica to Little Santa Monica and then I’ve got to go up Doheny to Sunset -- pretty much in the vicinity of my neighborhood.
In Vice magazine you recently said: “There’s an isolating quality to a life lived out here. I don’t care how many friends you have. I don’t care if you have a relationship. Whatever. It’s just an isolating city. You’re alone a lot.” Talk more about that.
I think this is true. I think about what I did last night: A friend and I drove to the Arclight to see a movie and there wasn’t any traffic on the streets. The movie theater, which was huge, was maybe half-full but pretty quiet. Afterwards, we drove to do some shopping at Pavilion’s and it was pretty much empty. That’s just how LA is. Even if you’re at The Grove and there are a lot of people there, it still seems to not have that hustle and bustle of a major city like New York or London or Paris.
Because of the geography of the city, it seems a little bit isolating. I think the way the city is spread out, and built, is isolating. Now, I’m not painting that black. You acclimate to it. You learn to like it in a way. You tend to prefer it.
How was moving back to LA?
It was a hard thing to get used to. I did have a problem adjusting to living here when I moved here in ‘06. I had lived in New York for many, many years. I had never lived here in my own place as an adult.
I was really surprised, a couple months in, at how isolating the city was. I always thought, “the intensity of the isolating, that’s probably a literary cliche or a movie cliche.” But no, it was true. It took a long time to get used to it.
Some of your sentences and passages in Imperial Bedrooms have interesting structure, especially the ones featuring with many, many clauses before a period. Is that a device or a right feeling?
It’s a feeling. It’s intuitive. No matter how much you’re being a technician, at a certain point, the completion of a novel is still something you feel more than I think that you think out. I think it’s something that is emotion-based rather than logical.
The books that I’ve written, I tend to give to my narrators, and the narrators start to demand that the book be written in a certain way. Once I figure out who the narrator is, the prose style is controlled by them to a degree.
Sure, I’m a novelist. Sure, I’m the technician of it, but on an emotional level, I thought about Clay a lot and how he would tell the story. I look back at Less Than Zero and realize that it would be a slight updating of that kind of style, but really, it would be written by the same voice.
On a technical level, yes, it was thought out, but also was something that I felt was right.
These days you’re working both on novels and screenplays. Who are some screenwriters you admire?
I don’t think films are a screenwriters medium. You don’t know how many times it was rewritten by someone else and they just got the credit. A film is really a director’s medium. I tend to go to movie’s where I like the director really more than whoever wrote it.
The things that I’ve admired a lot lately have been on television. The writing for Mad Men is extraordinary. Matthew Weiner, who oversees that show, is really good. And also, I was watching season three of 30 Rock, and I think the writers of that show are really excellent too.
I saw Get Him To The Greek last night and I thought that was a really well written comedy. Nicholas Stoller wrote and directed that movie and I was kind of amazed at how good it was, how adult it was.
I’m excited to see it myself.
I really wasn’t expecting much but I was kind of blown away by how good it was and how funny it was.
As a novelist, your final draft is pretty much the final book. As a screenwriter, your finished script is only to be part of a larger collaborative process. What’s that like for you?
You really have to let it go. That’s just your role as a writer. If you want to have more control, either produce it or direct it. If you’re just the writer you have to enjoy that process and not complain too much.
To be a screenwriter, you have to let go of control. That’s part of the process. Your writing is alone, but still writing a script is very collaborating. There are other demands coming in from the people who are paid to develop the idea, the director who has ideas, and if there are a couple of actors who want to have their say, you have to listen to them too.
Screenwriting is just a very different story from writing a novel because, you’re right, and you have quote-unquote “the final cut on it.” Screenwriting goes through so many different levels of collaboration, that by the time you see it on the screen, it doesn’t really match up to what you initially did, and you have to be okay with that. And I am.
The problem with The Informers, and the reason that I was vocal about it, was because it was based on a book of mine. It was something that was very, very personal to me. I don’t think I’d ever have been that vocal if it had been a project that I had not initiated, and I had just worked on. That was just a very special case.
The characters in Imperial Bedrooms and Less Than Zero have a pretty significant relationship to drugs and alcohol. Have you had many real-life peers fall victim to that?
Oh, of course, I think everyone has. And sometimes they make it, they get through it, and sometimes they don’t.
Could you talk about your relationship to drugs and alcohol?
I don’t really have a relation to drugs, I mean, I did. It seems that people tend to blow it out of context -- maybe they should’ve, I don’t know.
I always felt like I was functioning, like I got stuff done, and I don’t think anything except probably my health was compromised by it. That’s just the way my life was, in terms of being a writer and writing books -- I didn’t really have to go to an office, I didn’t really have to be coherent every day of the week.
There comes a time when the party ends and it’s no longer attractive, and it’s not something you really want to do. In terms of alcohol, sure, cocktail time, I look forward to it every day.
I’m 29 and recently re-read Less Than Zero. I probably first picked it up at 20 and was really able to see how my own views on drugs and alcohol had changed. It was interesting.
That book especially, I get. In terms of a work of contemporary fiction, or whatever, it has a lot of drugs in it. A lot of my books do because of people that I’m writing about. I don’t think that they’re dropped in their unnecessarily -- I mean that they’re part of the wallpaper of the novel, it’s part of the backdrop, it’s what these people do. I don’t think I’ve ever written a book about drugs or about addiction, I think the books are about much larger things than something that specific.
How many times have you been asked if you’re Clay?
Not as many times as you might think.
So, no, not as many times as you might think.
Have you seen The Dark Knight?
Yes. I think it’s an extraordinary movie.
Do you feel Christian Bale should have used the gruff Batman voice in American Psycho? [B.E.E. wrote the original novel.]
Look, I love The Dark Knight, and I really like Christian Bale, so I would really like to see him lighten up a little. I would really like to see him do a romantic comedy. But, I’m glad that he did not use The Batman voice in American Psycho.
But I didn’t have a problem with the gruff voice in The Dark Knight. People have parodied it, but I didn’t have a problem with that. He talks one way as Bruce Wayne and another as Batman.
So...The Desert Scene, near the end of Imperial Bedrooms. What can you say about it?
*Laughs* I don’t know. What can I say? I remember where I was when I realized Clay was going to go there, and I was outlining the novel, and I, as a writer, I was excited. I said: “oh my God, yes, this is where he ends up.”
And through making notes, and being kind of gratified, because, as the writer, it was incredibly interesting for me. For the reader, of course, it was probably something else.
By the time I’m done, I’ve written that 50 times, and I’ve edited another 50 times. It doesn’t really carry the same kind of shock that it must to a first time reader of it, so again, I’m really just the technician when it comes down to a sequence like that.
I’m always surprised when people are shocked by my work. I really am. I’m working on the book for so long, and I’m thinking about other things, that I’m -- sure, violence, and sexually are part of what I’m interested in when I’m writing a novel -- but “why,” again, that’s something I’m asked that I don’t have an answer for, I really don’t know why I’m drawn to that in my fiction.
I remember that sequence worse, I talked about it in the Vice interview. I got into a tussle with my editor over details that he thought were a little too extreme, and in retrospect, part of me is a little disappointed that I caved in and cleaned it up a bit. But, at the same time, I don’t know, it might have been more distracting in a way for some readers, so maybe my editor made a good call.
And, no, I’m not going to tell you what I edited out.
I really enjoyed Imperial Bedrooms. My first thought when I finished the book was that I needed to immediately read it again.
That is good. If the book transports you in that way, that’s what I’m looking for. I’m always looking for a reading experience like that.
Have you had any thoughts on an Imperial Bedrooms film?
I haven’t. I don’t write books thinking about movies. To me, this was very much a kind of interior novel that was played out in Clay’s head. Of course, he’s a screenwriter, so of course the book kind of mimics a movie or a screenplay, in terms of its structure, its language, how short it is -- but on the other hand, that seems very literary and it doesn’t seem like something that would lend itself to a movie.
You’re asking this right now, but two directors contacted me this morning -- one on Facebook, and one on email -- about what are “the rights situation,” and “can we get in contact with whoever is overseeing this project.” I don’t know if it’s going to happen.
Is there anything about the book you would want to put out there?
No. There isn’t. Part of the problem, again, with doing an interview is that sometimes the writer can reveal too much of a book’s mystery and a book should be something that a reader deciphers, and a reader figures, out and kind of grapples with.
The meaning of the book is specific to each individual reader. When the writer starts talking about the book on a certain kind of grand level, some of the mysteries become erased. There’s nothing about the novel that I really want to put out there, but only because of that. I think once I start making proclamations about the book -- what I feel about the book, or what I want people to think about the book -- it’s a slippery slope.
I've lived in Los Angeles for six years and make a point to explore it as much as possible. I've gotten a lot out of life that way. There really is a lot here.
Oh yeah, I completely agree. I think there’s more here in a way that’s interesting than say, New York, which I lived in for 17 or 18 years. Living out here is the future. New York is The Empire. New York is old school. New York is rich people and tourists, and part of the old world.
Los Angeles is looking forward and is incredibly interesting because of that. I agree with you, there are so many interesting places out here, so many different varieties that it doesn’t compare.
I’m a big fan of this place.
I am too. Of course, there are pockets of it that are troublesome, but that’s true of any place in America. Sort of America in general; it’s not specific to LA.
I like living here. I prefer living here.
And, there’s no Arclight in New York.
No, there isn’t. It’s the best theater in the world. I can’t imagine going to the movies in New York now after being spoiled by the Arclight here in LA.
It’s like going back to 1994.
*Laughs* That’s right.