In the American version of celebrity culture—as one variation of the old saw says, “Those whom the gods favor, they first grant celebrity”—Bret Easton may have been doubly cursed. Coming upon fame as an undergraduate at Bennington College in the mid-’80s with the publication of his first novel Less Than Zero, he was further burdened with the marketing rubric of being a member of the Brat Pack (a nickname first assigned to a group of young actors but in his case attached to a number of writers). His infamy was firmly established by the controversy surrounding his third novel, American Psycho; the book’s original publisher voided his contract because of concerns about the content of this scrupulously detailed narrative about a serial killer.
Ellis’s latest effort, Lunar Park, details the efforts of a writer named Bret Easton Ellis to access a normal life (marriage, house in the suburbs, children adopted and conceived) after participating in the depredations and substance abuses endemic to fast-lane urban life at the end of the 20th century. The Ellis character, looking back on the time of the rise of his own career, is not short on cynicism:
It was the beginning of a time when it was almost as if the novel itself didn’t matter anymore—publishing a shiny book-like object was simply an excuse for parties and glamour and good-looking authors reading finely honed minimalism to students who would listen rapt with slack-mouthed admiration, thinking, I could do that, I could be them. But of course if you weren’t photogenic enough the sad truth was you couldn’t.
Anyway, this is my third conversation with Bret Ellis since the mid-’90s. My talk with this honest and witty writer was a pleasant encounter in which we reviewed his career trajectory (so to speak), his new novel, his reading habits, and his next project.
Robert Birnbaum: It’s been nagging at me since I tried to find out from you via email and you wouldn’t tell me. What is Italian concrete?
Bret Easton Ellis: I have no idea.
RB: You are describing the counters in someone’s kitchen in the book.
BEE: This is [in] my new book?
BEE: Hmm. Did you google “Italian concrete?”
RB: No, of course not.
BEE: I don’t remember the Italian concrete. Where was it, in a kitchen?
RB: I think so—but I really thought it was a joke.
BEE: It might have been a joke. I wrote the book so long ago. I don’t know. [laughs]
RB: Not that I know you well, but this might be the third or fourth time we’ve met. I wonder if my name will ever make it into one of your books—apparently everyone else in the known world is in them. You even made up to [Jay] McInerney by including him, since you didn’t in Glamorama.
BEE: Yeah, I thought I’d give him a shot.
RB: Nice of you.
BEE: He wasn’t happy.
RB: When? Which time?
BEE: Either time.
RB: [laughs] Are you still friends with him?
BEE: We had a make-up dinner. He did not like the way he was portrayed in Lunar Park because he shows up at a Halloween party and I offer him—“I” being the Bret Ellis character, the, the narrator of Lunar Park—offer “Jay,” the character in Lunar Park, a line of coke—
RB: The devil’s dandruff.
BEE: And he does it.
RB: The two authors who ought to know that the characters in a book are not—may or may not—be real, [and] one of them is offended by what his namesake character in a book does?
BEE: I think Jay was so drug-addled that he probably thought it really did happen.
RB: [laughs] I’m publishing this!
BEE: I know you are. And that probably did happen.
RB: You may have to have another make-up dinner.
BEE: If it’s anything like the last make-up dinner we just had, I retract everything I just said. There were a lot of tears, a lot of hugs, a lot of “I love you, mans.” He has kids now and says, “Oh, what happens if my kids read this book and they see their dad snorting coke off a Porsche? They are just not going to—” And I’m thinking, Jay, my God, the stuff you’ve written and what people know about your reputation…please. This is the least of your problems. Plus, you really are the moral compass of that scene. You are berating the Bret Ellis character. You are questioning him about this peculiar motives for moving into the suburbs. He also particularly did not like it when I went into this flashback about the Brat Pack of the ’80s. I assigned everyone their equivalent from the [original] ’50s Rat Pack and I, of course, gave myself Frank Sinatra and my editor Gary Fisketjon, Peter Lawford. I did give Jay Jerry Lewis. He thought that was the worst thing that anyone had ever written.
RB: Aww. Did Fisketjon like being Peter Lawford?
BEE: Yes, he did. He loved it. It’s better than Joey Bishop. I think Morgan Entrekin got Joey Bishop.
RB: Besides Jay, does anyone take these things seriously? Chip Kidd? You didn’t mention him, did you?
BEE: I didn’t, and I also didn’t mention Joe McGinniss. He was my professor at Bennington who really started my career, who was the one who pushed Less Than Zero through to Morgan Entrekin, when Entrekin was his editor at Simon & Schuster, when Joe was working on Fatal Vision. And also Joe hooked me up with Amanda “Binky” Urban, and so I owe a lot to Joe. Actually, I had dinner with his son last night in Washington, D.C. Since I am in the middle of this book tour, I’m flying city to city and seeing friends. I didn’t mention Joe and I felt bad about that. But also I thought, This is a novel and I have to do what I have to do. I wasn’t there to give people props.
RB: For the last book, somebody, maybe it was Paul Bogaards, put out a list of everyone mentioned in that book. [laughs]
BEE: Yeah, someone did do that. It was a totally different beast. This was minor by comparison, in terms of the cameos.
RB: Is it fun doing that?
BEE: It’s no more fun than writing the rest of the novel.
RB: OK, how’s writing the rest of the novel?
RB: You’re still having fun?
BEE: Oh, yeah. You have to have fun. I don’t want to write a novel if I am not having fun. And if I’m not inspired by the material, I can’t imagine going into my office and sitting in front of a computer and, well, just sitting there, staring at it and bemoaning the fact that writing is so difficult and nothing is coming to me, and putting my head in my hands, and weeping how difficult it is to be an artist. When I am writing a book, I am pretty much inspired and I want to write that book. So I am looking forward to it. It’s not un-fun. It’s pretty exciting to be interested in a book and to look forward to getting to it every day.
RB: In your life story, are you pressured to produce? Are you doing well enough so that you don’t have to write and hand something in before it works for you?
BEE: Put it this way: I am a very slow writer, and I know—well, that’s a good question. Put it this way, again: I have to watch my finances because I am such a slow writer. If I was Douglas Coupland or Chuck Palahniuk, or whomever puts out a book a year, and they do the hardcover, paperback, hardcover thing, there seems to be a constant cash-flow thing—
BEE: He’s the same way. My friend Candace Bushnell. It’s different for me. I publish a book every five or six years, so some kind of financial planning has to be put into place. I have to know how much money I have that can support me until I am pretty sure the book is done. I am not a flush-enough writer who has a lot of “fuck-you” money there, to do whatever I want. I can support myself, however, which is rare as a writer, without having to do journalism or teach. Or write scripts. And that’s amazingly rare and very lucky. On the other hand, I have to do book tours. I do have to promote myself. I don’t sell [so] many copies where I can sit back and let royalties pour in. It really is, the financial aspect of my life is in one way, it’s pretty good. I’m able to make a living off the books I write, but on another level, yeah, I am moderately stressed about money. Not to the point where it distracts me from writing. There is always a worry—Maybe I don’t need another nine months on this book. Maybe I can just get it done. So yeah, I am always thinking about that.
RB: When you say you don’t do any of the other stuff that writers frequently resort to, meaning you don’t like to do other stuff, you prefer writing fiction?
I thought, “Oh, God, no. This is not only not a good book, but the writer is a fan of mine and what, I’m going to write a review just so it can be in the Sunday New York Times and I’m trashing somebody who likes my work and, no, it’s not going to happen.”
BEE: Yeah, I’m not good at anything else.
RB: That doesn’t seem to stop people from trying.
BEE: Well, OK.
RB: And venues asking for it.
BEE: I’m asked a lot, and I have done it before, and I’m bad at it. I’m not good at it. I know a lot of people who are actually good at it. And why waste the space? Why put myself out there and deliver something that I am really not capable of delivering? And I’m not bothered by that. Well, maybe I am bothered by that because I wish I could do it. I wish I could do a lot of things, but that’s just one thing that I don’t know how to do. Therefore, I guess, I have convinced myself I am not interested in doing it. And the same with criticism: I am asked to review books a lot but I don’t because, again, I don’t feel like I’m particularly good at that, either.
RB: Something else that is not affected by the talents of the people who attempt it. [laughs]
BEE: No, that’s true. I’m a lot more sensitive now. I did review books when I was younger and often gave bad reviews to books and didn’t care. Now I would think twice—in fact, quite honestly, I was offered to review a book by the New York Times, and I read the book and I thought, Oh, God, no. This is not only not a good book, but the writer is a fan of mine and what, I’m going to write a review just so it can be in the Sunday New York Times and I’m trashing somebody who likes my work and, no, it’s not going to happen.
RB: Do you think you were asked because you are a great critic?
BEE: I don’t know. I think I was chosen by the editors to consider reviewing this book because I guess they thought the writer, who will go unnamed, that we were in the same class. They felt he was being a bit of a provocateur, and I guess that’s how they like to look at me as well. The irony is the person they finally got to write that review of the book [that] I decided not to write trashed me in that review.
BEE: Two losses, you know.
RB: I don’t know if you read your reviews—
BEE: Yes, I do.
RB: Whatever the range of opinion, many writers would kill to have that much review attention. Almost all the major outlets have reviewed your book.
BEE: Yeah, that’s true, I guess.
RB: Does it matter to you whether they are good or bad reviews?
BEE: It depends on who is reviewing me. I used to really not care at all, and now if it’s someone I respect and if it’s a writer that I like, I find myself disappointed if they don’t like my book. I didn’t feel that way before. Maybe it’s because I really didn’t respect anyone before. I hadn’t read enough and I didn’t know enough about certain writers and I didn’t understand at 21 or 23, 26, [that] “Oh, well, you don’t understand she’s very important cultural critic. And she trashed your book.” I never really cared about the New York Times reviewing my books because they were so hysterically wrong about whatever I was doing. Those reviews never bothered me.
RB: Even though they catapulted you into the fame dimension?
BEE: Yeah, but they tried not to. It backfired on them, ultimately. I have to say that I was disappointed by the A.O. Scott Sunday Times book review of Lunar Park because I really like A.O. Scott’s work and I’m in sync with his taste. And so when that review came out, it was terrible. It was a mixed review, mixed to kind of negative. And he obviously took me seriously enough to spend that much time on it. I have to tell you—and this rarely, if ever, happens—a little bit of me felt I was rejected by someone I liked.
RB: What about Maslin’s positive review?
BEE: She’s also a critic I have always liked and admired.
RB: I thought her review was positive.
BEE: It was much more positive, but again, it was another writer who I respect. I wish she liked it a little bit more, but still, it ended up being an OK review. And listen, in terms of the Times spending as much space on me as they did—they wrote three articles. If you had asked me, after Roger Rosenblatt published his infamous essay on American Psycho, which is not [Lunar Park], “Will Bret Easton Ellis Get Away With Murder?” and proceeded for two entire pages to completely try to derail my career. If you had asked me then would this be the case with my latest book, I would have said, “Absolutely no way.” I guess it proves if you are around long enough, people tend to take you seriously. I also think I am about the same age as most of the editors and most of the people who are making these decision in terms of review space and writers who are writing about me who grew up with me, and I think they are interested on that level.
RB: Is appropriate to talk about your career arc? You’ve published what, seven books?
BEE: No it’s—in 20 years, five books. And there was a collection of short stories.
RB: Six books.
BEE: Not a lot of books, not a lot of novels.
RB: 20 years and you’re still at it.
BEE: Yeah. I’m still doing it—uh, yeah, I’m still doing it.
RB: Is there some kind of hangover from your meteoric ascent, from your wunderkind status? Are you still susceptible to people trying to take you down from that?
BEE: I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t care. Maybe they are.
RB: By the way, I think Roger Rosenblatt is insufferable, a windbag.
BEE: Oh, yeah, totally. But see, I didn’t know enough about Rosenblatt at the time when that review came out, so he was just another idiot who was putting his two cents in on a book that he obviously completely misread. But, um, I don’t know. I have to tell you I had an instructive meal with some very old friends of mine. We were all writers at Bennington and this was a couple of years ago. And we were all talking about Less Than Zero, that junior year that Less Than Zero hit the bestseller list and journalists were trekking up to Bennington to interview me in my dorm room. I thought everybody loved me. I thought, All you guys love me. All my writing buddies and all my workshops love me. No. They hated me.
The people who read most are the people in the movies. They have to read. They want to read the books and see what they can option and ruin.
BEE: And I didn’t know that for the longest time. We had a drunken dinner about two years ago in L.A. when this came out and I laughed but was shocked and it was the hardest thing to deal with—
RB: How about now? I guess they must like you now?
BEE: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. But they were just saying that was a really tough thing. And I guess I have to look at that and carry it over into the public and their reaction and their feelings toward me. Maybe that had something to do with it. But I do not sit around thinking about it, about why there is a critical mass of people who don’t like my work at all.
RB: There is a way that ambient things of your life as a writer would seem to have had to have an effect. When you were out talking about Glamorama, you were living in Richmond, Va.
BEE: I spent a year and half in Richmond.
RB: I gathered because you couldn’t be in New York anymore because it was intrusive and all that.
BEE: That was true. My father had died. I was stuck in Glamorama. I needed to get out of town. I had a friend who had a big house in Richmond. He was working on a gubernatorial campaign down there. He was never going to be in the house. He also needed someone take care of his dog. I thought, Great, I’ll be alone in this big house working on Glamorama and there is this lovely dog and there’ll be a lot of downtime. It didn’t work out that way.
RB: Meaning you needed to be in a big city?
BEE: I realized that it didn’t matter where I was: I was just kind of stuck on a lot of things going [on] in my life at the time that were impeding me finishing that book. So, I can pretty much write anywhere but I thought Richmond was going to solve something and it didn’t.
RB: You start as a West Coast kid, which has to mean something, and then you go to school in the East and spend a fair amount of time in the East. Your career takes off in the East, now you are back in L.A. Why are you in L.A? Is that home for you?
BEE: I am beginning to realize that it is, in fact, home. I always went back to L.A. I always spent winters there, sometimes summers, and I have friends there I am very close to, my family that is there, and this time around when I went out to L.A., I did not plan on spending 19 months there. I planned on spending two. But when I got out there, in January of ’04, I decided—I sat down in the room I grew up in—that was going to become my office during the final draft of Lunar Park.
BEE: I just had this feeling about it. So, yeah, how old was I then? I was 39 then. I move into my mother and her boyfriend’s house. A 39-year-old man traipsing up and down the stairs every morning to the room that he grew up in as a child, working on that novel. That went on for about nine months, a lot longer than I expected. And then I got involved in some screenwriting and stuff. The whole boring novelist-in-Hollywood stuff was going on—
BEE: And I thought I was going to make a million dollars and I didn’t. I barely made enough money to pay my mortgage that month. But it was instructive. But, mainly, I liked L.A. again. I liked it.
RB: Is it different from when you were growing up?
BEE: Much different, a much different place.
RB: How so?
BEE: Because I’m different. That’s the whole thing.
RB: One of the things that is chanted as a mantra, [or] maybe is an urban legend, whatever that is, is that L.A., being so-called La-La land, is an illiterate community.
BEE: That’s one of the big fallacies. I think that’s just because of the nature of how L.A. is portrayed. The way L.A. is presented in the culture is as sexy. As a sexy thing and it sells stuff. Totally fabricated, and people bought in to the myth. And ironically, one of the most shocking things I learned living there in those 19 months [is] that the people who read most are the people in the movies [business]. They have to read. They want to read the books and see what they can option and ruin.
RB: In the mid-’70s, Esquire did a feature on the New Hollywood and the piece pointed out that the new, young hot-shot producers were all readers.
BEE: Yes. [Rosie walks in] Hey, come here. What a baby.
RB: How is so much crap turned out with such a large pool of great stuff available?
BEE: Because what I learned [is that] they are paid to do that. Development people aren’t creative people, but they have those jobs that they’re paid to do, and often scripts come in that are great but the development types need to do their jobs. One of the instructive things that happened, and why I eventually left Los Angeles, was that DreamWorks asked me to develop a monster movie that they wanted to make. I was at a point where I was going, and am still to a degree going, through a mid-life crisis. I was living out of hotels and eyeing the Porsches and dating people half my age and really living like the sleazy bachelor I always knew was inside of me.
BEE: As well as taking in assignments writing monster movies for DreamWorks. I’m sitting in DreamWorks one afternoon. I was so infuriated by these young development guys who wanted this one twist in the monster movie where a brother turns on another brother, and there is this big “reveal” at the end that one brother is really evil. And that is what causes the good brother to act. And I became infuriated and I asked the development exec, “Listen, do you have a brother?” “Yeah I do.” “Where is he living now?” “He’s at my house. I’m taking care of him.” This story is going to go nowhere but basically what it came down to, he had a brother that he was taking care of and he felt very tenderly toward his brother and did not want [him to] see this happen in a movie. He didn’t want to see a brother turn on another brother. It was that simple, and I exploded and it was that week I decided to leave L.A. It was the one thing that got me out of there. But I might go back; I don’t know where to live. I can’t live in New York anymore. I don’t want to live in New York. I am not that interested in the book business and the publishing industry. All of my friends who are writers are growing up and doing very sophisticated things. That, I am not interested in.
RB: Your friend McInerney lives in Tennessee?
BEE: No, he lives three blocks from me, up Fifth Avenue at 11th Street.
RB: He grew up in Tennessee?
BEE: No. His ex-wife and his kids live there.
RB: Gary Fisketjon lives in Tennessee?
BEE: Increasingly he does. But he spends most—
RB: He can smoke there. [laughs]
BEE: I think he smokes in his office.
RB: It was a news item when the new Random House headquarters building opened as a non-smoking building: What were Sonny Mehta and Fisketjon going to do about smoking?
BEE: I think they are not. Gary is living in Tennessee half the year and he’d like to live there all year long.
RB: Makes sense.
BEE: It goes back to not wanting to live in New York anymore. When I went back to New York and looked at the apartment I had purchased in the late ’80s and couldn’t believe how much it was worth now, and it’s essentially a dorm room. A dorm room and I’m a 41-year-old man living in a dorm room. And the city just seemed like far more youthful place and a place for young people in many degrees. You have to have that energy and that kind of what-the-hell attitude.
I have no archives. The books I have had ideas for are the books I have published. That’s it. I don’t have 30 ideas sitting around a drawer somewhere. I don’t have 30 other books waiting to be written—what you’ve seen is what I’ve got.
RB: One of those places that Jim Harrison calls “centers of ambition.”
BEE: It is. That’s true.
RB: Have you considered living in the Middle West?
BEE: No, I haven’t besides most of my friends are either in L.A. or New York. So I really don’t know where I am going to live.
RB: Do you drive?
BEE: I do. I have driven since I was 15.
RB: So, get in your car and drive around the country and see what’s what. Do one of those old-fashioned American road-trip things.
BEE: I did that before and I didn’t like it. Two of my friends and I, we were going to do this whole Kerouacian thing.
RB: Except now you are looking for a place to live. A place to be. That’s one reason for getting in a car and seeing the U.S.A.
BEE: But I am either going to live in L.A. or New York. Look, as much as I might have problems in either city, there are a lot of friends I love in both places and I want to be near them. I don’t want to be some hermit, some recluse, in, I don’t know where. Santa Fe or…I don’t know.
BEE: Montana is getting pretty busy.
RB: You said earlier, something to the effect referring to your youthful persona then, you didn’t know a lot and hadn’t read a lot. In the intervening years, have you caught up?
BEE: Pretty much. I would say I have caught up. I have.
RB: Is that the picture of your life: writing and reading, occasionally hanging with friends?
BEE: Yes, all of those.
RB: The degenerate bachelor comes out once in a while?
BEE: Yes. That is it. That’s pretty much it. You just described my life—it doesn’t sound half-bad. It sounds pretty good; why am I so miserable? That sounds great.
BEE: But it’s not working for me.
RB: Do you have a dog?
BEE: I don’t have a dog.
RB: A girlfriend?
BEE: No, I don’t have a girlfriend.
RB: Have a hobby?
RB: You need those kinds of things.
BEE: What am I doing instead?
RB: You’re asking me? Do you watch television?
BEE: I watch television. I go to the movies.
RB: I’m looking forward to the new Robert Redford movie, An Unfinished Life.
BEE: Do you really want to see that?
RB: I liked the book a lot.
BEE: By Mark Spragg. I never read that book. But I bet they ruined it. It sounds awful.
RB: I hope Lasse Hallstrom did with it what Robert Benton did with Nobody’s Fool.
BEE: I thought it was kind of boring.
BEE: Yeah, I thought it was kind of a dull movie. It didn’t really do it for me. And I liked the book.
RB: I must be a soft-touch sentimentalist.
BEE: I’m worse than you, I bet. Any day, I can guarantee you.
RB: I haven’t seen Empire Falls yet. Have you?
BEE: I was watching it and I, uh, I had problems with the book. I’m in the minority. I couldn’t get through the book.
RB: I remember we talked about—I used to feel compelled to finish every book I started with the intention of reading. And now I don’t. I give them 25—30 pages.
BEE: Exactly. I learned way too often that you ultimately do know where that train is going. And you can guess and, especially being a writer, I can get it in 15 or 20 pages. So I feel no guilt about that. I would be surprised if I finished, actually finished 10 percent of the books I started—contemporary fiction.
RB: I’m still ambivalent. Though I found it amusing when Will Self was on a radio program and some conservative author was berating him for not reading the whole book. To which Self responded, “Did it become War and Peace after page 200?” That’s one take. I think books can surprise you further on into them.
BEE: I’m going through that now and I’m not happy about it.
RB: I look at it as cracking a code. Was it worth it? I think so.
BEE: I had a major, major problem—a very good friend comes out with a book, Jonathan Lethem, The Fortress of Solitude. I get in galleys. I couldn’t get past the first 25 pages. I gave it to a friend. The friend read it and said, “This is really great. You have to read it.” “Oh, God, I guess I do.” So I give it another shot. I’m 40 pages into it and I couldn’t get into it. I remember telling Jonathan when I saw him at a party, the book had just been released and we hugged each other, “Oh you’re going to win the Pulitzer, you’re going to win the Pulitzer.”
RB: Your way of avoiding the issue.
BEE: Not having to say anything, he actually answered, “I don’t think so, they’ve given it to too many white guys recently. I don’t think they are going to give it to me.” So then I read the reviews, the reviews were glowing.
RB: Except for James Wolcott in the Wall Street Journal, who trashed it.
BEE: It’s hard for me to take James Wolcott seriously after The Catsitters [his novel]. That ruined his reputation. And I used to find him a really imposing serious critic. Even when he trashed me, I thought, God, maybe he’s right. After he published that novel, it completely diluted whatever power his criticism had. A really shocking thing, and I really enjoyed reading him, too.
RB: James Wood published a novel that received warm notices, but I don’t think his reputation was adversely affected.
BEE: I felt the same thing about James—I also felt he was a very boring critic. And I found that novel equally boring. So that didn’t bother me. James Wolcott seemed to be a very vital, exciting critic, and I suppose if you hadn’t read his book, he still might be. He just wrote an interesting review of the Jim Atlas book [My Life in the Middle Ages], and it was very cruel, very funny, and very intense review, but I kept thinking of The Catsitters the whole time. And I kept saying, “How dare you have the right to go out and criticize these people when you have written a terrible novel?” On the other hand, you don’t have to be a chef to know when a meal tastes bad or not.
RB: Writing reviews is so arbitrary. Most books are not clearly great or clearly terrible.
BEE: Oh, I think there are a lot of clearly terrible books.
RB: I mean of the books I read. I don’t read terrible books.
BEE: I don’t either, but I am sent them all the time for quotes. Let me finish my Jonathan Lethem story—it’s not that interesting anyway, but I just want to complete it. So I finally did sit down and how I did it was this way: I decided to allot myself one chapter every morning when I got up. That’s when I most love to read, right when I get up in the morning. And so first chapter, rough going. OK, Tuesday, second chapter. Better, but still I don’t think I am going to make it through this. Third chapter, I like it. I like this book a lot. Fourth chapter, I’m completely into this book. Maybe it was just giving myself five or 10 pages and then—and then I was just sweeping through it. And now I think it is one of the three great books of my generation. I really think it was an amazingly powerful achievement. Maybe that’s the way to do it sometimes. It’s the same problem I’m having with Gilead, the Marilynne Robinson book. I have been carrying it around now for four or five months. And every time I think, This is so boring, I’m not going to read any more of it. But I have to pick it up again because it’s so beautifully written, the prose gives me the chills when I read it. But [it] also doesn’t have that kind of propulsive energy going that I require from a novel. And it’s very meditative and very—a very different experience from most contemporary novels. And you have to get on its level.
RB: That makes it our problem that we require a uniformity from our reading experiences. I read a passage in Philip Roth novel, American Pastoral, that was so satisfying that at the time I didn’t have to read more and so I put the book down. I started Gilead and found it really wonderful and I may or may not go back to it, but both were very wonderful reading experiences.
BEE: I am different that way. I have read all of Roth and there was Roth I have not liked and not finished and Roth [books] that I have been so amazed by that I have canceled appointments so I can finish reading them. I don’t know. It’s a case-by-case thing, I guess. You’re right. But Gilead is a very strange case for me. I usually make a decision within a week or so of reading a book, and I have now carried this book around from L.A., to NY, back to L.A. It’s on with me on tour. I read about six or seven pages a day and I find the prose breathtaking, yet I am bored often by it. It’s very strange.
RB: So we’ve talked about other books—do you rank your books?
RB: Do you think about your body of work?
BEE: Yeah, I think about it a lot, because there is so little of it. It’s easy to—there are not a lot of books to think about. Some of the books are very short. Overall, not a lot of pages over 20 years.
RB: Do you have unpublished work?
RB: [laughs] Correspondence?
BEE: No. I have no archives. The books I have had ideas for are the books I have published. That’s it. I don’t have 30 ideas sitting around a drawer somewhere. I don’t have 30 other books waiting to be written—what you’ve seen is what I’ve got. Also, I don’t want to hop into a book and start writing something spontaneously without being totally sure that I can commit two years to something that I am inspired by. I know too many writers who just start writing, “Frank walked across the street and got hit by the bus when he looked at Helen walking the dog through the park.” And they’re just going to go from there. And by page 150, they’re ga-ga: “What’s going on here?”
RB: So you have to have the whole book figured out before you write?
BEE: The entire thing figured out. The outline is usually three times as long as the book.
RB: Why is that an outline?
BEE: It’s basically the book in shorthand with tons of notes and back-story that will never be used. It just helps me when I am the technician. The outline is really the emotional part of the writing for me. The actual writing of the novel itself is me being a technician.
RB: Hmm, can we backtrack? You said Jonathan Lethem’s book was one of the three great books of your generation. What are the other two?
RB: Did Chabon win a Pulitzer Prize for—
BEE: Yeah and Franzen should have. Awards—I don’t know. Most often it’s just—we know that, we don’t need to go into that.
RB: I had mentioned [that] in one of your more jocular reiterations of the book culture, around the time the character Bret Ellis is floating onto the scene, strikes me as what is happening now, not so much the way it was then.
BEE: You’re right. And I know what you are referring to—a sequence in Lunar Park where the Bret Ellis character looks back at the boom of youth writing in ’80s fiction and how it seemed as if the book itself didn’t matter but a good-looking author—
RB: And a portrait by Miriam Ettlinger.
BEE: And a really cool neon glowing cover could move product and—well, is that true now?
RB: Fred Busch observed that first-time novelists are having an easier time being published than established writers. And they get larger advances.
Confusion is interesting. It’s not such a bad thing. And I don’t care. I know that sounds awfully cocky and brutal and snotty. I don’t care if someone is confused, and why should I care?
BEE: Yeah, that’s true.
RB: Of course they come and go. If they don’t hit, good-bye to them.
BEE: Scary. It’s a tough business, a very tough business. And it gets tougher the older you get and you are more aware of how tough it is.
RB: You are lucky. You are at a good publishing house. You are with your long-standing if not original editor.
BEE: I was at Simon & Schuster for my first two books.
RB: I thought Fisketjon and Entrekin had worked together.
BEE: Morgan acquired me and then left to go to Atlantic Grove with Gary and then Bob Asahina took over, oversaw the publication of Less Than Zero and was amply rewarded for its success by being promoted to vice president of the company, whereas Morgan really oversaw that book—so there is some irony there. And with Rules of Attraction, I was still with Simon & and Schuster, and American Psycho, Bob edited and when Simon & Schuster canceled American Psycho, that’s when Gary became my editor. He oversaw another edit on American Psycho.
RB: For Vintage Contemporaries?
BEE: Exactly, and then my last three books. But you are right, in terms of where I’m at, same agent, same editor, same publisher. I’m really glad to be where I’m. I feel safe.
RB: A nice cocoon.
BEE: If I didn’t sell any books I wouldn’t feel safe at all. I know people who have the same triumvirate and—uh, I don’t know, [hesitates] I don’t know.
RB: So you have this novel with a character, which has your name which, of course, incites—
BEE: [laughs] It’s so crazy. It excites people. [raises voice] It gets people so riled up.
RB: I said “incites” but it also excites people, I guess. To make all the talk about the novel strikingly irrelevant way.
BEE: Completely. That’s why it’s been a frustrating experience to go out and promote the book.
RB: What was your expectation? Did you think it would be read on its own?
BEE: I always give people way too much credit. I have throughout my entire career. The situation is this: Look, the book was going to be this book no matter who the narrator was. And the narrator wasn’t Bret Easton Ellis, it was someone very much like him and had a lot of similarities to him and had the same career trajectory and had written a novel about a serial killer. Everything, all 31 chapters of Lunar Park were laid out and ready to go, and I had a bunch of different names for this narrator—one was going to be Dale Fisher. And that was what I was going to stick with. I don’t know why. And then I was stuck in the summer of 2000. I don’t know why I was stuck and the little writer I have in my head, who is very reckless and impulsive says, “Make him Bret Easton Ellis. Make him Bret Easton Ellis. You are basically dealing with so much personal stuff in this book, go ahead and do it. See what happens.” And then I changed it and realized there were some technical things that needed to be done. I was reinspired and it ended up being great fun. But I also didn’t think that it would end up being something that would, I don’t know, incite and excite so many people by doing that. People have done this a lot.
BEE: It’s not new. It’s nothing new at all.
RB: But still, I was looking to see if the words “a novel” appear on the dust jacket or title page—
BEE: Interesting. Very interesting
RB: It makes sense to put that on the book.
BEE: It’s not on there. Can I see this [copy of Lunar Park] for a minute? Go ahead, we can still talk.
RB: Had the response to the book been more thoughtful—I guess one can’t speculate on that what would have been had—
RB: This was a novel which has no necessary relationship to reality, but what is the most tiresome question that you field? “Is this character you?”
BEE: Uh, you know what? [laughs] The most tiresome question being asked, quite honestly in reference to this, Lunar Park, not in terms of anything else? OK, the most tiresome question—and I have now figured out how to answer it—is, “How much of it is true and how much of it did you make up?”
BEE: And I just say that every word is true. It’s totally true.
RB: You wrote that in the book.
BEE: I did.
RB: And this is satisfying to the people who ask?
BEE: What am I going to say?
RB: I’m fine with it. I am wondering if someone, who asks, perhaps not heeding that you said it in the book, what would be a satisfactory answer for them?
BEE: I guess considering where we are at in the culture right now in terms of reality TV and memoirs and all this stuff, yeah, the question should have been expected. But it’s so irritating to be asked it, and ultimately, I swallow and say, “What specifically do you want to know is true?” And I’ll answer that. I was going to do this entire tour in the character of the Bret Easton Ellis of the novel, and after about two interviews and a half, it was so exhausting, so embarrassing, that I couldn’t do it any more.
RB: You could have gotten, for product-placement purposes, some designer outfit and you could have gotten American Express or some big brand to support the tour—
BEE: Not only that, but I was going to pretend that I was still talking to—Jayne, my “ex-wife.”
RB: And there is a website.
BEE: There is, devoted to Jayne Dennis and all of her movies and stills from her films, and I am in pictures with her, as well as Keanu Reeves and other actors she dated and, yeah, a fan site is devoted to her. The wonderful kids at Knopf, and they really are wonderful and smart, did a great job.
RB: That’s what is confusing—the spiraling into this meta-world of irony and distance from the—
BEE: That’s all something I have nothing to do with. I sat alone for four years by myself, writing this book, and it’s a book. It’s not anything else. It’s not something to be found on the internet. Not something you have to cobble together, piece together. It is a really simple book. It’s a simple ghost story and with some added autobiographical elements of mine that were going to be there and be fictionalized anyway. So I decided to go the extra step and name names and name names of my books, and in a way I regret doing that, at certain points, because satirizing this other writer was a lot of fun, as well in the opening pages of the book when I quote my previous novels, spoofing my own writing in those books, I regret that page is not in there anymore. It was always going to be a novel and a simple ghost story and always have this structure and this outline and these characters and always be very small-scale. And however the publishers go about promoting it, if this is what they feel they need to do at this juncture, then they have to do [it]. The response has been amazing. Because there have been many hits on those websites, all these Lunar Park websites, and this seems to work.
RB: I guess there is some fun attached, but you did anticipate some of this. Have you had any good conversations with readers about it?
BEE: Yeah. There’s not a lot of questions about what I’m doing. It’s a pretty simple book.
RB: The self-referential [element] can be confusing, which is why I thought putting “novel” on it might reinforce the fictional aspect. When you, Bret Ellis, come around to talk about a book in which there is a “Bret Ellis,” that may be confusing.
BEE: You’re right, that may be confusing. But you know what, I’m not smart enough to make it confusing.
BEE: I really am not. It was simply a stumbling block. I had to get over it. That was the answer, to start writing the book, was to do it. I didn’t want to write a meta-fictional novel, which I guess in some ways it ended up being, when I made that choice. I thought the story itself was simple enough so that term couldn’t be applied to it.
RB: Maybe it’s this—there is something at war within you, the joking guy, who wants to tell jokes and amuse himself and others.
BEE: Yeah. I’m there. That guy’s there.
RB: And the guy who wants to tell a story, a basic simple story.
BEE: That guy’s there, too.
RB: And you tell the jokes because you can—not in a forced way but also not thinking that it may be a distraction from the core of the story.
BEE: I’m not thinking that. That’s not how I think.
RB: So you will always take a risk by indulging your jokester?
BEE: A risk—I don’t even know what that is.
RB: That you may confuse some readers.
BEE: So what. So what? Confusion is interesting. It’s not such a bad thing. And I don’t care. I know that sounds awfully cocky and brutal and snotty. I don’t care if someone is confused, and why should I care?
It’s a terrible, terrible thing to be into this sort of mid-life crisis thing going on in the middle of what is a pretty successful moment in my life. This disconnect is terrible. I should be enjoying myself and I’m not.
RB: Assuming that you have engaged them.
BEE: Plenty of readers have been confused by my books and find they don’t like them because they’re confusing. This has been my whole career.
BEE: This is nothing new. This is the least confusing of my books. Really, if you look at it, it is by far the simplest, the most genre-based kind of book that I have written. All the tricks are on the page. None of them are anywhere else.
RB: So it took a while to write this. You wrote it a while ago and now you are out on the hustings talking. Any thoughts of your next step?
BEE: Um, yeah, and every time I start to talk about it, I—
RB: It doesn’t work for you.
BEE: When I was in L.A. I reread Less Than Zero on its 20th anniversary, which was this last May, and this [was] a very sentimental thing. I don’t know why I am telling you. I would not tell an audience of readers this—oh, whatever, I don’t care. I knew the publishing date. I knew it was in May 1985, so I picked up the book that night and opened a bottle of wine, I was in L.A. and I decided to reread it. I hadn’t read it in 19 years and so I read the book and, you know, a 41-year-old writer has issues. Some problems. But I also realized if the 41-year-old writer had written that book or rewrote that book it would be much worse. It would not be a good book. The reason that it works—it’s that the guy wrote it at that age and it obviously still resonates to people that age. Something was caught there that I wasn’t aware of. The book is valid and I get why it is what it is. That’s not the problem. But I was—I started to wonder where those characters were now. They would be my age, approaching early middle age. They would probably be married, have kids, the ages that they were in Less Than Zero, and I really started thinking about doing a follow-up to that book. I also think it’s a terrible idea and it could really backfire and it could undermine everyone’s fondness for that book. But that doesn’t matter. I don’t care. If this is what is announcing itself to me, well then I am going to ultimately involuntarily pursue it and I am not going to be able to help myself.
RB: Didn’t Lunar Park cover that ground?
BEE: No, because I have been thinking about a love story and about two people from long ago hooking up again, remembering the past and just also—and also thinking about noir. I was reading a lot of Raymond Chandler when I was in L.A. and wondering, How can I bring all that stuff together? And have a sequel to that book stand on its own? I don’t know. It’s tricky. I really, for a little while, wished something terrible would happen to me so I wouldn’t have to write this book. Like, I would get hit by a bus or something.
RB: Which book?
BEE: The follow-up to Less Than Zero. Because every time I bring it up, there are people who get excited and there are people who groan and think, Please don’t do that. Don’t write that book.
RB: What does your editor say?
BEE: He was very cryptic about it.
BEE: He said, “When someone asked what you were working on next, and you said, ‘I have been thinking about Less Than Zero,’ I liked that answer.” That’s all he said.
BEE: So I don’t know. I do know that the other day, it happened—maybe I won’t do this, but I wrote down a couple of notes and that’s the beginning of—
RB: That s the way you do it?
BEE: That’s the only thing that really has been pressuring me. But I don’t think I’m going to make it through this tour, so I won’t have to worry about it.
RB: [laughs] Meaning?
BEE: I’m going to have a stroke…
RB: Why are you wearing a Yankees cap? Are you a baseball fan?
BEE: I got into a big argument with the person who picked me up from the airport, I totally forgot not to wear this hat in Boston. I am not wearing this for—I just forget.
RB: I wasn’t asking about your allegiance but whether you liked baseball at all.
BEE: No it’s just a cap I like, my hair is—
RB: It’s a great invention, the baseball cap.
BEE: It is.
RB: I wear a Baltimore Orioles hat. I like the colors and the bird logo. I also like the Cleveland Indians hat with the silly Indian caricature [Chief Wahoo].
BEE: Those look good.
RB: Anyway, I hope you make it through the tour.
BEE: Thank you. I do, too.
RB: Of course it [your demise] would sell the book.
BEE: Yeah, a good career move.
RB: That’s a shame.
RB: It’s too early to tell isn’t it? He just died.
BEE: No, I don’t think its going to happen.
RB: Who else?
BEE: The famous one: John Kennedy Toole.
RB: That book has done well. Isn’t the movie coming out?
BEE: It keeps looking like it’s going to get made—it always seems like it’s being filmed and then you find out it wasn’t being filmed. I think something happened, it got derailed.
RB: How about a movie of Lunar Park?
BEE: It takes a long time for people to option my books. Offers, but nothing my agency has been interested in, I have nothing to do with it. Binky handles it. I don’t care. Whatever they want to do. Binky handles that with the L.A. team.
RB: That’s right, there are specialists for this kind of stuff.
BEE: Yes, they’re dealing with it and I am not.
RB: Less Than Zero was a movie with—
BEE: James Spader and Andrew McCarthy and Robert Downey Jr.
RB: Rules of Attraction?
BEE: It was made into a terrific movie.
BEE: A seriously good movie by Roger Avary that came and went very quickly.
RB: Available on disc?
BEE: On disc, yeah.
RB: The Informers was a story cycle.
BEE: And that has a script and looks like it’s going to go, yeah.
RB: Wait a minute, so you are sitting in top of the world?
BEE: I know, and you know what, it’s a terrible, terrible thing to be into this sort of mid-life crisis thing going on in the middle of what is a pretty successful moment in my life. This disconnect is terrible. I should be enjoying myself and I’m not.
RB: What do your friends say?
BEE: They say it gets worse. [both laugh] So get over it now, because it gets worse, so just enjoy it.
RB: That’s so New York.
BEE: I know. That’s why I have to get out of New York.