Bret Easton Ellis' first book, Less Than Zero, was published when the author was only 21 and still a student at Bennington College in Vermont. The novel, which tackled sex and drugs among rich whites in Los Angeles, became a best-seller, as did its follow-up, The Rules Of Attraction, which tackled sex and drugs among rich white collegians in New York. However, despite all the early attention, it was Ellis' third novel, American Psycho, that drew the strongest response. Due to pressure from various political groups, Simon & Schuster refused to publish his graphic satire of a yuppie serial killer loose in New York, and when the book finally hit shelves, it was derided by Ellis' increasingly virulent critics and subjected to censorship efforts by its many outspoken foes. The outcry was significant enough to derail the author's writing process: In the 10 years between American Psycho and the recent Glamorama, Ellis' only release was a collection of retooled short stories, The Informers. The Onion recently met up with the writer to discuss the seemingly belated introduction of plot to his writing, the upcoming American Psycho movie, and his reputation as the bad boy of literature.
The Onion: I was surprised to learn that you don't use your middle name in your daily business.
Bret Easton Ellis: Well, you know, I don't. It's not on any of my checks; it's not on my tax forms or anything like that. It was something that, when I was very young and very pretentious and just starting out as a writer, I thought I needed. My mentor, my professor at Bennington, when I gave him my final draft of Less Than Zero, noticed that the manuscript had "Bret Easton Ellis" on it. And he said, "What is this? Why do you have your middle name on this? That is so pretentious. Take the Easton out." I didn't listen to him, but he also thought Less Than Zero was a terrible title. He wanted me to change it to A Winter Vacation, or Minus Numbers was his other name. So I thought, if he thinks that should be the title, and he thinks I should lose the Easton, I'm going to keep the title and I'm going to keep the Easton.
O: You yourself have pointed out that the biggest difference between Glamorama and your previous books is that Glamorama has a plot.
BEE: [Laughs.] Yes, this is true. It has a plot, it has a narrative. How did this happen?
O: Well, more of a narrative.
BEE: More of a narrative. Well, you know, I swear to God I'm asked that a lot, and I'm only now coming up with an answer. I haven't finalized it yet, but I really do think that, because I wanted to write about a conspiracy, the plot just flowed from that. If you're going to write about a conspiracy, you can't help having to set up the conspiracy. And that demands a narrative. It wasn't conscious. I didn't sit down and say, "I'm going to write a book that has a narrative and a plot this time," instead of doing more of a journalistic approach to a novel, where the power really comes from the accumulation of details, the accumulation of scenes, or being in this character's head for so long that the reader starts making certain connections. It just flowed out of the conspiracy.
O: You're always branded an "'80s writer," but isn't that just because you happened to be writing during the '80s?
BEE: Exactly. You basically answered the question for me. I tend to write about contemporary times, the time I'm living in, and I just happened to be writing during the '80s. I never thought that I was making some grand sweeping comment about the '80s because I published three novels and a collection of short stories that took place during the '80s. That's it. I guess if they say something about that decade in some way, well, that's a by-product of what my intentions were, which were basically just to write stories and novels about the things that interested me, whether it was youth culture in L.A., or my college experience, or moving to New York in the '80s and seeing a city warped by yuppie values. So I guess in a way, yeah, they're about the '80s, but that was accidental.
O: Are there really any radical differences between the '70s, '80s, and '90s?
BEE: You know, the older I get, I don't see it. You know you are younger when you are so immersed, I think, in the minutiae of pop culture and what's going on. Trends change so fast, and when you're younger, you're much more influenced by trends and trying to define yourself, so I think you see the decade as affecting you so much more. But when you're older, you look back and realize, "Well, I kind of feel the same now as I did in the '70s, '80s, and '90s." The trends change, and the music changes a little bit, but that really doesn't define what it means to be human, and it really doesn't alter your circuitry that much. I really don't look at life that way any more, as the decade defining me. I just can't do it. Your life is your life. I'd be hard-pressed to find someone to say, "Yes, the '90s made me this way, and the '80s made me this way." I think in life, there are certain choices you make that are timeless and universal, and don't necessarily have anything to do with the particulars of a certain decade. Though, maybe you can argue… Look back at the '80s. I think the time was right for someone like me to come along and have the publishing industry or an audience connect with me in that way. Though I don't know if that would necessarily be true now. I think the '80s created me, in a way, when I look back on that time, but I don't necessarily think that a lot of my choices, and a lot of things that I did, and a lot of things that happened to me—or I let happen to me—were about that decade.
O: In some ways, your writing prepared people for the '90s. Do you think something like Less Than Zero or American Psycho would leave much of a mark these days?
BEE: Probably not, because I think the culture has changed so much. If American Psycho came out today, I really don't think anyone would complain as hysterically as they did in 1991. I just think the times are different. I think the reputation of that book is very different now than it was in 1991, because the culture has changed so much. There's more of an acceptance of that kind of… art, I suppose. Less Than Zero... I don't know if I can answer that question. I valiantly tried, and stumbled a few times.
O: Why do you get picked on for things that are deemed shocking in American Psycho, while other writers seem to get away with it? I mean, it's been decades since Naked Lunch was released, and that book is far more "shocking" than anything in American Psycho.
BEE: I think there's other stuff. I can name five or six writers whose work I think is incredibly more violent than mine, and much more… The body count is much higher. I can think of Poppy Z. Brite, who is ironically published by Simon & Schuster. I mean, who would have thought? I think her stuff is so much more gory and horrific than American Psycho. Dennis Cooper writes really graphic novels. But you know what? I mentioned Dennis Cooper, and I mentioned Poppy Z. Brite. Poppy Z. Brite is writing horror fiction; Dennis Cooper is gay and writes about homosexual men doing things to homosexual men, so it's kind of ghettoized in that way. A.M. Homes writes The End Of Alice, which is a really horrific, gory book, but because she's a woman and there's an obvious feminist underpinning to it, she gets away with it. James Ellroy writes incredibly gory novels, but it's written in the confines of genre fiction, so he gets away with it. I think the problem with American Psycho for many people is that it's not genre fiction. It's "literary" fiction, and it enters into a realm that literary fiction generally doesn't. There are aspects to it that are pulpier and more in the confines of horror fiction, comic books, slasher movies—elements that were brought into literary fiction that I think a lot of the higher echelon of the literary/critical establishment have just refused to accept as being suitable for that kind of book. And also, they just don't like the way I write, so it's not only that.
O: In many ways, people may be more likely to confuse you with one of the characters in your books.
BEE: Yes, this is true. I've never written an autobiographical novel in my life. I've never touched upon my life. I've never written a single scene that I can say took place. I've never written a line of dialogue that I've heard someone say or that I have said. But, if people know anything about my personal history, they know that, yeah, I grew up in L.A., so automatically Less Than Zero seems like an autobiographical novel. People know I went to an Eastern college. Well, Rules Of Attraction must be exactly what I went through in college, and [that book is] a completely fictionalized portrait of a group of people, all summations of friends I knew. It had nothing to do with my life, basically. With American Psycho, people know that I moved to New York and lived there for three years, and I think in many ways did live a sort of yuppie lifestyle. I do think that influenced American Psycho in a way: the self-loathing, the bitterness, the hatred, the rage…
O: Sounds terrible, but you're smiling about it now.
BEE: I can smile about it now, but I wasn't really happy when I wrote the book. You can read it and realize that I was not a happy person at the time. With Glamorama, people assume that I've become a more visible celebrity after American Psycho, and must have become much more paranoid because of the death threats and everything. And that is the plot of Glamorama—celebrity paranoia—so, yes, there is a case to be made that if you look over my personal life and connect it to the worlds of the books that I've written about, then, yeah, you can say, "Oh, he's just writing about himself, and that's disgusting, because the people in his book are utterly hateful and moronic. He must be a hateful moron, as well." At times it's true; I do tend to look at my books in many ways as conceptual fiction, even to the point where I think the author's photograph is part of the package. And I have gone out of my way to select the photograph to connect to the subject matter of each book. With American Psycho, I had seen the cover of the book and thought, "Well, let's just freak people out and have my face be the same as the cover, lighted the same way." With Glamorama, I wanted a very glitzy, fashiony type of photograph on the back of the book. But at the same time, regardless of that, I really believe that readers are smart and sophisticated enough to realize that the author is not the narrator of his novels. Writing fiction is an act of imagination and fantasizing, and it's not relating in prose what you've been doing for the last two or three years. So I'm really shocked when critics get morally outraged at my fiction because they think I'm condoning what's going on. I never come in as the author and say, "Hey, okay. I'm interrupting the narrator here. I'm Bret Easton Ellis, and I'm the author. I'm not Victor Ward, and I want to tell you that he's a real moron and an airhead, and that he's made a lot of bad choices, and I don't really agree with where he's going with his life. Okay? Now we'll go back to the book." And the same is true with American Psycho. Because I never step in anywhere and say, "Hey, this is all wrong," people get upset. That's outrageous to me! Who's going to say that serial killing is wrong?! Isn't that a given? There's no need to say that. I already think that I tread the line on being too obvious a satirist at times. It's something that I really wish I could reign in a little bit more, but my impulses are to go the opposite way. I often wish that I was less obvious in my satire, yet still people miss the point in a lot of ways. I think that I'm actually writing from a very heartfelt position about these poor souls. It's not, "You've gotta understand Patrick Bateman. You know he's a serial killer, but just because I write about him, you must sympathize or empathize with him somehow." It's not true. My impulses as a writer stem from being a satirist, and they stem from looking around and seeing what disgusts me in culture and creating a novel out of that, or creating a character out of that. I don't mean to glorify anything, and I'm definitely not celebrating the yuppie lifestyle or the lives of serial killers. It's so… thunderingly obvious. I know I'm talking to the wrong person about this, but when I see the spate of reviews that Glamorama has gotten, I wonder if I'm not saying it loud enough.
O: Didn't The New York Times pan the book twice?
BEE: Yes! Two huge reviews, tons of space, and panned it twice. [Laughs.] Why did they do that? I don't know. Where did that stem from? I was very surprised by that. Friends of mine say, "Yeah, they really panned you twice, but just be glad they took you seriously." But that doesn't really mollify me. That doesn't really calm me down.
O: It must be tough, because if your writing is morally ambiguous, people will complain that it's morally ambiguous, and if you make it clear, they'll claim that you're moralizing.
BEE: That's true. The other thing is that, first of all, you don't listen to anybody any more these days. You really write the books you want to write. You can't take into consideration anything that anybody has said about you in the past, or what they'll say about you in the future. You're really alone in your apartment, composing this novel, because you are interested in it. You haven't taken a poll, saying, "Would you like this to happen, or that to happen? Do you think in the third part of the book I should stress my authorial voice and make it quite clear that I disagree with terrorists blowing down buildings, and soft-pedal the violence a little bit?" You don't market-research a novel; you really are writing it for yourself. It's a hobby, in many ways. The problem becomes what you do when you're confronted by criticism like that. You just don't listen to it.
O: Going back to the question of what effect American Psycho would have if it were released today, you kind of saw that with all the controversy surrounding the film version. Don't you think that's a book that just shouldn't be made into a movie? Of course, you get money for it.
BEE: Yeah, I get money for it, but I also think it may be a book that works as a… I don't want to say a piece of entertainment, but it works as a book, and will not necessarily work as a concept album, or a movie, or an opera, or a play. I think what makes it interesting for people, why people may connect to it or respond to it, is that it is a book. The things they like about it are inherent to books; what they like about it can't be transferred to another medium. That's why I think they really have their work cut out for them in adapting it. I've read the script, and they start shooting it really soon. It's very faithful to the book. I'd say 95% of the dialogue is from the book, and the scenes are from the book. I trust everyone involved with it, but I just don't know how viable a movie it is. You know, people, producers, directors, and writers fall in love with books for different reasons, and because they are filmmakers, they think they can take that book that they love so much—because they have some sort of prowess with the medium of film—and turn it into a movie. Often, they're defeated by the book. There are lots of examples of directors who are obsessed with books and try to make them into movies. Look at Bertolucci with The Sheltering Sky, Scorsese with The Last Temptation Of Christ. I mean, countless, countless directors have fallen in love with novels and tried to adapt them. And what makes those novels great, and what makes those directors obsessed with them in the first place, doesn't necessarily mean you can make good movies out of them. And I always thought bad books or genre books usually make good movies, and literary novels are more suspect. It's harder to pull off, so we'll have to see.
O: No less than David Cronenberg, who did make a movie out of Naked Lunch, has called American Psycho unfilmable.
BEE: I haven't talked with him in a long time. When he was going to do it in '91… I wrote the script for him, and Brad Pitt was going to be in it, and the three of us met. David Cronenberg had very odd requests about what he wanted from the screenplay, and I couldn't deliver it. So I wrote a script very much unlike what he wanted and he was dissatisfied. The producers loved the script and wanted to make it, but David was at the helm of this project and what he said went. So he hired his own writer and wrote a terrible draft, and then they both left the project. It went through a myriad of directors and writers. David said, "I want a screenplay that has no violence, so sex, no restaurant scenes, no club scenes, and I want it to be 60 pages long because it takes me two minutes to shoot a page." I didn't know what he was talking about.
O: I don't think there are any David Cronenberg films without any sex or violence.
BEE: I think that was the perverse conceit about making American Psycho. He really wanted to fixate on the decor, labels, status symbols. It was really going to be a movie about period, sort of like The Age Of Innocence, the Scorsese movie. I think that's what he was envisioning. That was made later, but what Scorsese did with that was concentrate on the decor having much to do with the characters' inner lives. Surrounded by products and furniture and clothing and all these things; that's what [Cronenberg] was aiming for. I just didn't think it would make a very viable movie. It's a very interesting idea for a movie, but I think the violence is part of it. And I wrote a very gory script, and I veered away from the book too much in a way that I think would not please an audience.
O: I guess you can have a lot of leeway with genre pieces. Look what they did with L.A. Confidential.
BEE: Or Jaws, or The Godfather.
O: Yeah, those two books are really average, but they made great movies. Yet whenever they adapt a more literary book like Lolita, The Last Temptation Of Christ, or Naked Lunch, the results are always branded ambitious failures.
BEE: It's best to leave them alone. They'll always have an audience in terms of readers, but making a movie doesn't strike me as a good idea. But maybe [American Psycho] will turn out to be great.
O: How strange is it to have something you put so much work into appropriated by someone else? In essence, your art becomes their art and you have little say over it.
BEE: No say, really. You sell the rights. I don't have any approval over casting or whatever. You know, I guess it is strange in a way, but it's a totally different thing: the film of something and the book of something. What the film becomes is an interpretation of the material and, hopefully, if it's really well-done enough, it sort of stands apart from the book. Maybe it will have its own identity, its own place in the world. What happens is basically that you sell the rights to your book thinking a movie will never be made, because only one to two percent of books that are optioned ever get turned into movies. The odds are that it will never happen, but you can sell the rights to anyone. But, of course, what happens is then they do get made and you have, you know, Less Than Zero.
O: Do you think a movie can overshadow the book behind it?
BEE: Less Than Zero was bad and should not have been made the way it was made. But I think the book got an even bigger life because the movie came out, and so many people bought the book whether they liked the movie or not. When a movie of your book comes out, sales go up no matter what the movie is like. Less Than Zero has been in print for 14 years now, and people still seem to read it. In a way I'm glad the movie came and went, and was such a big bomb. Not that many people remember it. It wasn't such a big movie that a lot of people go, "Oh, yeah, I remember what that was about." I don't think the movie overshadowed the book.
O: Maybe not overshadowed, then, but perhaps just shadowed.
BEE: That, I think, is true. Now, for people, it's hard to read that book without seeing Andrew McCarthy or, God forbid, Jami Gertz, in those roles. Of course, I envisioned everybody in the book as blonde, and everybody in the movie is a brunette.
O: Do you think it's unfortunate that you have to write a book like American Psycho, something very excessive, to get attention these days?
BEE: But that's something that can't be planned. If everybody could do that, every book would get tons of attention; everyone would be screaming bloody murder over every book that got published. When I wrote American Psycho, I was writing from a very personal place. It was going to reflect what I'm going through, what I'm doing at the time, and I think my publisher expected a more conventional serial-killer book. But I'm going to write what I think is appropriate, and what I want to do. There really was no grand plan besides a literary novel, and I figured when I turned it in that it was what the editors expected. They said, "Well, we're not going to be doing much with this; it will be a very low first run," and the book really didn't do anything for about seven or eight months after I turned it in. Then this controversy started. That wasn't planned. I think there are writers who try to do something like that, but I don't know if it works. People respond to something because it says something to them. I guess there are writers who try to shock people to get notoriety, but I don't know if it works. I mean, I don't think Salman Rushdie did it with The Satanic Verses. A writer like Dennis Cooper, who I know, writes from a very pure place within himself, and he's fascinated by violence and sex. Susanna Moore wrote a novel, In The Cut, which veered differently from her earlier books. It was very violent, and about a serial murderer and a young woman in danger. Still, there was so much of it that was really about Susanna Moore and her style, which was transplanted to this grittier thriller novel. I really don't know if you could say, "I want to outrage the public, and I'm going to do it in this book." If you can't do it and it's not in you, it's going to seem gimmicky and cheap. You really have to connect with the subject matter and have a passion for it. Then maybe you'll get some attention.