Bookmunch Classic Interview: Bret Easton Ellis: ‘This is the first time I’ve been straight in a long time…’

IMG_26Sep2021at211435We meet in the Lowry Hotel in Manchester and it is one of those days when Manchester experiences heat of a unique (and usually unvarying) kind: it is muggy, pallid, sweatily unpleasant, generally uncomfortable. I feel like a brown viper as Pan Macmillan publicity director Camilla Ellworthy escorts me to Bret’s room. Inside the suite – which is nice, air conditioned, large – Bret (who is somehow bigger than I imagined, taller, with the kind of skin that looks like it is regularly treated to the most beneficent of skin-care products) gets me water and we sit sprawled across a pair of couches.

I start by asking if he attended the John Banville party the night before (Bret is a Pan Macmillan author in the UK, and he read in London the same night Banville took home the 2005 Booker Prize for The Sea). He said yeah, said he’d meant to take in the Zadie Smith party, which was next door (and which, given that Zadie is young and sortof hip, you would think was the kind of party everyone but everyone would want to attend) – but the Zadie party was empty because everybody wanted to be where the winner was at. Talk of parties and prizes leads us to Bret himself – a man who has never been nominated for anything. The critics (or at least American critics, one of whom famously ended a review of Glamorama with the word ‘yuk!’, a fact that is reiterated relatively early on in Lunar Park) – the critics – don’t like Bret Easton Ellis.

We kick around various reasons as to why this is the case (and sortof establish that Ellis is, as a rule, the kind of writer who tends to set the literary establishment on edge), and then focus in on tricksiness: Bret Easton Ellis is, I say, a tricksy writer, the kind of writer (at least since American Psycho) who plays games. After all, you read American Psycho, you have to make a decision as to whether you think what you’re reading is ‘real’ (quote unquote) or merely (merely! hah!) taking place in the mind of its protagonist, Patrick Bateman. And Lunar Park features a domesticated Bret Easton Ellis (a ‘Bret Easton Ellis’ that exists in quote marks) dealing with characters from former books, a haunted house, a demented child’s toy – all manner of crazy shit. ‘Playfulness is good,’ Bret said. ‘It’s really under-rated amongst modern writers. I don’t understand why everybody has to be so serious all of the time. I want to be really interested in a book when I’m reading it – I want to be transported somewhere – but I want to have some fun.’

‘I was checking out some reviews,’ Bret told me, ‘on the train up to Manchester. They make me laugh. They make me annoyed – because there are all these people who want me to write a book I have no intention of ever writing. They want me to write a straight memoir. They want me to write a much more earnest book. They don’t want me to be playful. They don’t want any of the monsters. They don’t want the Stephen King stuff. They don’t want the ghostbusters. They want really earnest suburban satire. And I wasn’t interested in that at all – I wanted to get all that out of the way so I could write about hairy little things trundling down the hallway …’

Talk of reviews inevitably wends back to Glamorama and the legendary ‘Yuk!’ review. I say to Bret that – of all of his books – Glamorama is probably my favourite. It’s certainly the book of his that I’ve reread the most. ‘But it’s the one,’ Bret said, ‘that most of my fans hate.’ I ask what it was like, getting that ‘Yuk!’ review. Bret laughs. ‘That was the biggest review. It was the review every writer wants. The Daily New York Times. Michiko Kakitani. She’s the doyen of literary critics. She’s a killer. It’s still cited as maybe the worst review she’s ever written for anybody. I’ve got to tell you – I’ll admit it – that review hurt. It was a shockingly long, horrible review. And she completely didn’t get the book either. The book wasn’t out at that point, and all my friends thought oh God, Bret’s written this terrible novel. So. It was a rough day. And my phone didn’t ring once.’

So – because I have to ask – what did The New York Times make of Lunar Park?

‘Janet Maslin wrote the review and loved the book – up to a point. And then she said all is lost from when the monsters appear.’ Bret repeats the phrase ‘All is lost’ again. I ask him if he thinks anybody has got Lunar Park. Has anybody read Lunar Park and just – enjoyed themselves? ‘Stephen King’s review was good,’ he says. ‘He hadn’t even known that I was working on a novel – and then somebody at the Borders store he shops at said, this new book came in and Bret Easton Ellis says he owes you a large debt and Stephen King went Bret Easton Ellis owes me a debt? That’s so strange. I knew he was my son’s favourite writer but I’d only read American Psycho which I didn’t like all that much. He said that American Psycho was bad fiction by a good writer. And then he ended up really liking Lunar Park and he gave it a really positive review. It was a thrill. The really good thing about – anything that happens – is when writers you admire applaud.’

So we talk about Stephen King some. I say he used to be fairly widely derided but more recently seems to be being given more credibility and more generous appreciation than he enjoyed – despite the fact that the books themselves are (if we’re being polite) not what they once were. I also mention the fact that it probably came as a surprise to Stephen King to learn that a writer like Bret Easton Ellis not only liked him but would go so far as to write a homage of sorts. ‘He was a major writer for me as a kid,’ Ellis told me, ‘and as an adolescent. I was thrilled every time a Stephen King book came out. I’d spend pocket money on hardbacks. Man, they were the first hardbacks that I demanded my parents get for me. I remember buying It and thinking it was the most epic horror novel – that it was the Ulysses of horror. I feel awkward’ –

An awkward pause ensues.

‘No,’ he changes his mind. ‘I don’t feel awkward. Stephen King didn’t like American Psycho so I can say there are some Stephen Kings I don’t like. And there was so much of it. I’m trying to think about what the last Stephen King book I read was …’

I ask if he read The Dark Half because there are obvious parallels between King’s The Dark Half and Ellis’ Lunar Park (authors creations returning to life to haunt the author). Bret says, ‘I definitely read The Dark HalfThe Dark Half was a great book. But I didn’t make the connection [between The Dark Half and Lunar Park] until way after – and then when I made the connection I thought oh yes – The Dark Half – should I do this? But. I couldn’t help myself.’

Over the last three or four years, I tell Bret, I’ve spotted two cover quotes by him – one for Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (a haunted house book, to all intents and purposes) and Sara Gran’s Come Closer (a novel that revolves around the idea of demonic possession). You can probably see where I was going with this. I said to Bret – given that the books he recommended during the writing of Lunar Park are reflected in Lunar Park – where did Lunar Park start? ‘It changed a lot. When the idea first occurred to me, I thought I’m going to write my Stephen King novel. I was at a ranch, in North Dakota, walking around. It was a week after Christmas. It was snowy. I went for a walk by myself. I’d just finished writing American Psycho, I’d just sent it off the week before, a week before Christmas. And I wanted to write something different – something fun. Writing American Psycho was fun – but it also took me into weird dark places. I didn’t want to write something that was so violent and so pornographic. During that walk I thought ‘haunted house’. Yeah, haunted house! I’d said in interviews at the time that I was thinking about a high school and vampires because I liked ‘Salem’s Lot so much. And I could’ve gone there, I suppose – but the haunted house thing kept announcing itself. That was IT! There was NOTHING! ELSE! Just a full throttle fun house ride! That was all I wanted to do. Simple.

‘This was in 1989. Just about to become 1990. But then – I was also thinking on that walk – I wanted to also write an international espionage novel. I wanted to write a Robert Ludlum type book. So what happened was – I didn’t feel I was old enough to write the haunted house book. I felt I was too young. Because I started to think about who the guy was and I thought well, there’s a family in this house. Who’s gonna narrate the book? A little boy isn’t going to narrate the book, a father is going to narrate the book – and I was 26, and not ready yet. So I put that to one side. And I thought but I can do my Robert Ludlum book about a young guy who is caught up in circumstances beyond his control and he’s sort of like Bourne – except he’s a Bret Easton Ellis character – which I thought was funny. Well. It was funny and then it was scary. But that was what I wanted to do. And the plan was to write it really quickly and not have this belaboured three years of working on a book like American Psycho – which was really a lot of work and a lot of concentration. And then’ –

Bret Easton Ellis counts on his fingers.

‘It took me seven, nearly eight years to write Glamorama. And then I toured the book for a very long time. And then I sat down in the summer of 2000 and looked at all the notes that I’d taken during those 10 years because, when I wasn’t working on Glamorama, I was making notes for Lunar Park. I had notebooks piled with stuff that I’d typed up and written over and – it was a very different novel by then. I realised – to my dismay! – that, gee, this wasn’t going to be the book that I wanted to write so badly. I mean. I knew I was going to get to the elements of it that I wanted to write ultimately – but! – I read the reviews [of Lunar Park] and those parts are the parts that critics just don’t want to take seriously.’

We digress for a while talking about the fact that Bret signed away lifetime rights to Glamorama earlier this year to Roger Avery [former buddy of your man Quentin Tarantino, director of Killing Zoe and the Bret Easton Ellis adaptation, Rules of Attraction] … I say, do you like Roger Avery? And Bret says, ‘I love Roger Avery.’

‘When I started this tour, I really didn’t quite get how many people wanted to see that movie made. Because nobody in Hollywood wants to make it. So Hollywood money is out of the question. We’re looking at foreign financing. There were no offers on the the table for Glamorama. Roger came along and said listen, what can I do? I want to own this. I want to film this. I don’t want to have to worry – what’s the price? My agent named the price. Roger thought it was fair. He wrote a cheque that day. Fine. Has it now. Forever. Unless I want to buy it back and sell it to someone else. But I don’t think Roger would sell it to me. He’s written a script. He’s reworking a script. He promises me he’s going to make it. But with each Q&A I do – every single night – someone asks me: what’s happening with the film version of Glamorama? Last time I saw Roger he was in Portland – he was involved in some horrible case with Microsoft – they were suing each other over something – and we had dinner, and he swears to God that he’s going to do it.’

‘Roger has done story boards of the action sequences. They were really fantastic. The way he visualises the bombing of The Ritz and the plane blowing up – it’s really fantastic. He’s a genius I think. I loved Rules of Attraction. Which many people despised. In the states – three weeks it was out – there were walk outs, it got rated the worst film of the year … So Roger always has trouble financing movies. [Rules of Attraction] was perceived as a failure … So unless he wants to direct a hack movie for a studio it’s hard to get money. Rules of Attraction did not give him a lot of freedom as far as making movies is concerned. I mean. Roger is a highly paid screenwriter and he does job to support himself. He just did Silent Hill to finance – his pet projects. Glamorama being one of them. He also wants to do a life of Dali, with Al Pacino. These are difficult projects.’

We talk about Mary Harron (director of American Psycho – Bret says that the movie really damaged her career and got her in all kinds of hot water with her feminist friends who just didn’t get the book), and Christian Bale (Bret didn’t think Bale played the playboy Bruce Wayne all that well in the recent Christopher Nolan movie Batman Begins), and Lion’s Gate (the production company who made the American Psycho movie and its slasher sequel – Bret had to fight to get any money from that sequel and he still doesn’t see a shekel from the Patrick Bateman dolls Lion’s Gate manufacture), amongst other things. Bret also mentions that Roger Avery is sortof interested in filming Lunar Park too …

Talk circles back in upon Lunar Park once more. I tell him that I sort of feel he’s gone as far as he can go with the line that started with American Psycho – that in many ways you could view Lunar Park as the third installment of a tricky-mind-fucky-triptych. He responds by telling me about the months since he finished writing Lunar Park. I’d said that usually – with the production process of a book normally taking about eight or nine months – a writer is usually at least flirting with a new idea by the time the promotional process kicks in. Bret told me that he’d fallen off the rails a bit, bumming around various family houses in Los Angeles getting elegantly wasted all the time. ‘This book tour is the first time I’ve been straight for a long time,’ he says. I don’t know if I believe him.

I mention Teenage Pussy (the book that the Bret Easton Ellis character is writing in Lunar Park), and Bret laughs and says, ‘A couple of American interviewers thought I was going to write that book next. I mean, can you imagine? I think all you need to know about Teenage Pussy is there in Lunar Park. Saying all of that, I did have an idea for a sex book featuring Sean Bateman ….’ I ask him what he is thinking about writing next. It seems that, having examined his relationship with his father (and the idea of fatherhood, I suppose, as well, in Lunar Park), Bret is continuing to examine his past (or at least the past). Just as Jay McInerny has returned to an earlier book (the Jayster’s new novel The Good Life catches up with the characters from Brightness Falls), so Bret Easton Ellis is looking to see what’s happened to all those Less than Zero types twenty years on … ‘It will only be a small book,’ he says, ‘and if I write it I’ll write it quick.

‘There’s a part of me,’ Bret finishes, ‘that’s like – NO! DON’T DO THIS! – but then I think, why not? I’m pretty excited. I just can’t get it out of my head …’

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