Big Think Interview With Bret Easton Ellis

A conversation with the novelist.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: How do you come up with an idea for a new novel?

Bret Easton Ellis:  From pain, from an emotional place.  I mean, writing a novel isn't a practical, logical thing to do at all.  I mean, at least not in my case.  What happens with me is that something is bothering me or I'm feeling alienated, or isolated, or I have questions about things that are bothering me and those feelings begin to form an idea for a novel.  And I guess that's because that's the only way I can, or that's the way I like to express myself in an artistic way.

And so what happens, like for example with "Imperial Bedrooms," I had reread "Less than Zero" and I was thinking about where Clay was now.  And I was also going through a lot of other stuff in my life that was kind of painful and confusing.  And these two things came together—the idea of where this character was now that I'd written about 20 years ago, and what was going on in my life at that point.  And then I started to have a lot of questions about that character.

And this went on for a year, so the process begins without writing anything for about  year where I'm just walking around, asking questions about this character and what's going on in his life.  And then I start to make notes and then I start to answer some of those questions, then those notes form into an outline.  And then that outline turns into a novel.  And that has been my process for... just about every book that I've written.

Question:
When you start a new book, do you know where it's going to end?

Bret Easton Ellis:  I know the last line of the book before I actually begin the book.  Yes: I know the first line, I know the last line. And, you know, the idea—I've talked about an outline a lot throughout my career and I've talked about how the outlines are often very massive and twice as long as the texts themselves.  And I guess I should just be calling those, you know, "first drafts" in a way because a lot of the novel is in there but there's also a lot of other things in there. There are questions that are written in the margins and I answer those questions.  And then there are examples of how a paragraph should look, and then a note of all the things that this narrator wouldn't notice, that I might notice or you might notice if we were in that scene.  But for example, someone like Clay in "Imperial Bedrooms," who's this kind of entitled raging narcissist... would never notice.  He wouldn't notice that detail in the corner.  He wouldn't say that thing.  He wouldn't overhear that line of dialogue.  And so all of that the reader doesn't need to see.  What the reader needs to see more or less is this very pared down version of that outline.

And so that's kind of... a big part of the process is taking this very emotion-based outline and then I come in as the cool technician and in a very neutral way try to take this outline and shape it into the context of a novel.

Question:
Do you write every day?

Bret Easton Ellis:  It depends on my mood.  It depends on where I'm at in the novel.  It depends on how well I'm feeling that day.  It depends on a lot of things.  As the novel gets closer to completion the days get longer and I get more revved up, and I'm more excited.  But the whole process I find very intriguing and very fun and I look forward to working on a novel because it takes me out of, you know, my mundane real life.  And it takes me away from the pain of the everyday, in a way.

And I don't understand, you know, the idea of a writer sitting at his desk moaning about the fact how hard it is to write a novel.  Yeah, it can be a tricky and difficult thing to do buy it should always be interesting to you and something that you are excited about.  It shouldn't be something you complain about at all, which a lot of writers tend to do.

Question:
When you're writing a novel, how much do the characters get in your head?

Bret Easton Ellis: It's not like method acting.  It's not like you become these characters while you're writing them.  I mean, to a degree you do.  I mean, I told people for example, when I wrote American Psycho that I became Patrick Bateman while I was working on the book, but that's true to a degree because Patrick Bateman was based on me.  And Patrick Bateman was based on my frustration and my loneliness and the isolation that I was going through at that time in my life.

And that's how that character was based.  And so I did—yeah sure, I lived Patrick Bateman for the four years or so. And I mean, I guess the same goes for Clay in "Imperial Bedrooms. " Yeah, it's a situation—the plot in Imperial Bedrooms—it's a situation and a milieu that I was part of to a degree.  Of course, in the book it's heightened and the book is also a bit of a Ramond Chandler, neo-noir.  But yeah a lot of what Clay was feeling I was empathic about.  So yes I had empathy for these dark characters and they become darker because it's fiction.  It's a made-up situation.

They're made-up characters but they do come from a place of pain and they do come from a place of darkness.  That does not mean, however, that I am an extremely dark dude who was walking around while I'm working on this book, you know, with a set of fangs and a cape and a really angry face, and I'm like, you know, "I want to kill people."  So no, it's easy to slip in and out of it.

Question:
Do you show your work to anyone while you're writing?

Bret Easton Ellis: I show my work to no one.  The only person who sees my work after all the time I spend on it is my agent.  She's the first person who reads the manuscript.  I've never shown any manuscript to anybody except for "Less than Zero" which was being worked on while I was at college and my professor at the time, Joe McGinnis, read a couple drafts of that book.  But since then no. And the reason is because, again, it's a person thing .  I mean, I'm not writing a novel to be accepted and I'm not writing a novel for a consortium. You know, I'm not writing a novel for an audience and I'm not writing a novel for a reader.

So this idea that you need to show your work to people and you need to get feedback, and "Oh is this section working?  I mean, I really want you to... Paula tell me... Hey Joe what do you think about this?"  It just doesn't play a part in the process because to me it's my emotional journey in a way and it's a very personal thing.  There's... it doesn't even cross my mind to show the book to anybody.

Question:
Your characters often have a numbness or indifference.  How much of this reflects pessimism in your own worldview?

Bret Easton Ellis:  I'm completely numb and I live in a luxurious world and that's what I write about.  That's all I know.  All I know is my own numbness and my own luxury.  And the novels are a reflection of that. 

It's fiction.  You know it's... fiction in a way is... I don't know.  I guess it's a reflection of... I don't know, your fantasies in a way.  I mean, I look at the books as, sure, on a certain level they're autobiographical but  they're also, you know, they're not real.  Patrick Bateman doesn't exist.  And Victor Ward in "Glamorama." They don't exist.  They're like made-up people and made-up situations, and that gives you the freedom to explore your obsessions and your fantasies.  You know, and actually I'm not a pessimistic person.  I'm really not.

If I was a truly pessimistic person I don't think I'd be writing novels and I don't think I'd be excited by the idea of writing novels.  I mean, sure, if you're living in this world you have a certain amount of pessimistic because that's just how life is, you know, there's things that hit you and "oh that's not fair" or "oh that sucks."  But in general I'm not a pessimistic person.  I'm not an optimistic person by any means, but I'm not a super pessimistic person and I'm not, you know, that numb.  I think I have a bit of a sense of humor about things.

Question:
At what point does graphic violence in fiction become gratuitous?

Bret Easton Ellis:  Oh it's all gratuitous.  I write very gratuitous violence and it's very... it's all over the place.  I don't know.  I mean, I don't, you know, yeah there's two books where there's a lot violence in it.  There's "American Psycho" and there's "Glamorama" which are pretty violent books.  And maybe they are gratuitous.  I don't know.  I mean, of course they didn't feel gratuitous to me because I was writing them and I felt that the violence needs to be there. 

But there's an argument to be made, sure, that the violence in "American Psycho" is gratuitous and I can understand that argument.  I can totally get it.  I can get both sides.  I can get the side that "Okay look the book is in it's own way a kind of performance art piece and the violence needs to be there so it comments on everything and it's all part of a puzzle."  And I can also see the other side where it just seems gross.  You've really just stepped over a line here and it's just gross and needless.  You know what?  I think both arguments are right.  I think they're both correct. It is gratuitous violence and yet it can also be seen as being something that's meaningful within the context of that book.  So, no, I mean, I can see both sides to it. 

Look, I think if you're writing a book about a serial killer or someone who fantasizes about being a serial killer, and you have that kind of obsessive attention to detail within that narrator... I mean, I didn't realize how violent "American Psycho" was going to be until I realized what the narrators voice was going to be like.  And that he was going to be someone completely obsessed by consumerism.  Everything in the book was going to be minutely detailed... and then I realized, well look I made an aesthetic choice.  I said, "Well that's going to spill into the killings." And that's how that happened.

If you're writing a book about terrorists, you know, and it's being narrated from a terrified narrator, well why he's terrified?  Well because of the things he's seen and so, you know, it makes sense to me.  It doesn't seem that... and I know you didn't mean gratuitous in a challenging way but no, I don't feel that the book is sort of grotesquely violent... Or yes I do, I don't know.  Maybe they are not... I don't know.  It's for the audience to decide.  Let's take a vote. Gratuitous? Not gratuitous?

Question:
Why do you use recurring characters?

Bret Easton Ellis:  I have no idea why that happens.  It's not any kind of system.  It just feels right.  There are certain times when I'm in the middle of an outline and I'm building the novel and I'm thinking about okay where it's going to go.  And then feeling my way through where it should go, or trying to track the journey of the narrator and where he's going to end up.  And along the way there will be characters where I think, "Oh this guy needs to come in. Well, who is this guy? Oh."

For example, in "Lunar Park" the Bret Easton Ellis character lives on Elsinore Lane in this big mansion and I wanted to give him neighbors, you know, I wanted someone to live by him.  And i thought about this, you know, minor character from the "Rules of Attraction" called I think Mitchell Allen and I thought oh that would be really funny because Bret in the novel went to college with Mitchell, who was a character in the "Rules of Attraction" and that will be fun to riff on, you know, a paragraph or two about their college days together.

And I don't know, that's just how it happens. But, you know, I'm asked this question a lot. There is no plan, it feels right and something that I like to do.

Question:
In your last book, "Lunar Park," you named the main character Bret Easton Ellis. Why?

Bret Easton Ellis:  Well for me it made the book a lot more exiting to write because I was kind of stuck on that book.  I was scratching my head a lot while I was outlining it and it really wasn't coming together in the way that I wanted it to come together.  It was very much about a fiction writer like myself but I had named him someone else and I erased some autobiographical information. And the book just wasn't coming together for me.  And I was like pacing around, scratching my head wondering why and then, you know, I had this voice in my head that's "the writer," I call him.  And he said, "Why don't you just make it Bret Easton Ellis?  Why don't you just try that and see what happens?"

And pretty much the novel was laid out the way it has been published.  It was pretty much laid out that way. But the minute that I put myself in it everything started to change in terms of the tone, the writing style.  It became much more personal and I became completely committed and more gripped by this novel than I previously was.  Look I was writing a very auto-biographical novel.  Forget the Stephen King shenanigans that are in the last third of the book but overall I was really writing about my dad and my feelings about my father, and how difficult our relationship was.  Wa-wa-wa I know, everyone has their daddy issues, their daddy stories but mine were weighing heavily on me at this time and I needed to get rid of them. 

And writing a book for me is often an exorcism and so with "Lunar Park" I needed to go to that place where it was actually Bret Easton Ellis and not Dale Fischer or whatever the name of character was at the time.  And because of that, the book became alive to me and it started breathing and seemed much more compelling.  And by the time I finished the book, you know, a lot of things lifted off me.  I think it was important to go there and to do that, at least for me. 

Question:
Has your work as a screenwriter influenced the way you write novels?

Bret Easton Ellis: A novel is not a logical thing and it doesn't come from a logical place.  It comes from a really emotional place.  A screenplay is a plan.  You have a plan.  You have to tell a story within about 100 pages and it has to move this way and that way.  And there needs to be some sense of resolution, and it has to have this kind of narrative flow that a book doesn't.

And so in a way it's very easy to write a script compared to a book.  I think part of the reason maybe screenwriting is not as much fun as writing a book is that you have to adhere to a formula, and stylistically it doesn't matter how it's written, and ultimately it's the blueprint for medium where a director and the actors are more important than the script.  And it's collaborative.  You get notes from producers.  You get notes from people who have a lot of money who want to put their imprint on the film.  And you get notes from a director who wants three, four, five more polishes before he's ready do shoot.

And so it's a collaborative process. And a novel is not a collaborative process.  And there are, I think, pleasures to both mediums and I like working in both.  But it's a good point.  Has it affected my writing—writing, you know, so many scripts? I don't think so because I don't look at a novel as a thing that I want to turn into a movie.  I mean, the novels that I write are really just literary-based.  I think of them as books first and foremost and I don't think of them anything else.

Question:
Are contemporary book launches more or less fun than when you started?

Bret Easton Ellis:  Oh it's less fun.  It's much less fun because we're in the post-Empire world now.  I mean, book publishing flourished in the Empire and I can... look I haven't done any kind of touring or any sort of book stuff for about six years.  And even in these past six years I can see a massive difference in terms of how it works.  I mean, my Facebook and Twitter stuff are personal.  I mean, I have my.. I have a Twitter account and I have a Facebook account are solely mine and then there's like three or four or five others that are there primarily to promote this new book and to get the word out there. That I am semi hands on, semi. But a lot of other people are dealing with those sites and maintaining them. 

I'm completely for it.  I had to like fight my publisher to, you know, make sure that they were using these networks in order to, like, promote the book and they came around.  I mean literally, they... I don't think my publisher is even using Twitter five or six months ago.  And then I was having a fit about it and said you have to use Twitter for contests and information and all this stuff. And they came around and they started to do it. 

But in terms of myself getting a lot of satisfaction or enjoyment from it, I mean, sure.  I mean, I guess on a certain level but I'm also old, you know, compared to the average person who uses those sites extensively.  I have friends who are in their early- to mid-20's and the way the way they use Facebook completely different from the way I use mine.  You know, updating your status hourly and having eight different chats going on at once, and it being almost second nature. I mean, to me it's kind of amusing and a game but it's not something that I feel the need to express myself with. 

Question:
How do you feel about digital books? (- Question from GalleyCat editor Jason Boog)


Bret Easton Ellis: Everything is going to be digitized and that is just the way of the future.  And a lot of old school people in the business are complaining about it.  But I only see it... it can only be like a positive thing.  I mean, I know people already who are downloading books on the iPad and I have one myself.  I'm not downloading books on the iPad because I like holding books still because I'm old and I'm from the Empire, the old world. And I'm just used to reading books that way and I'm not yet, you know, moved into the iPad world.  But I did get an iPad because a friend of mine showed me his ipad and how he was reading books on it, and how he bought more books once he had the iPad than he had ever bought that last six month on Amazon or going to a bookstore. 

And also the idea of a book costing not $25 anymore but $10 means you're also wiping away a lot of the cost of making a book.  You know, the printing, the shipping, et cetera. And so the royalty rates for authors are shifting as well. So it's not as authors are necessarily going to lose money on their work in terms of people like buying to download them.  The royalty rate is actually going to be the same, if not more, because they're cutting out all those other costs.  So that can be a good thing as well.

But we've just got to see where it's going.  I think we're in a transitional moment in the publishing industry and a lot of people are very worried.  And they don't kind of get what's going to happen and I think they just need to like get with it a little bit more and not be so scared.

But I do think that there is a problem right now with people reading fiction.  We haven't gotten to that point where it looks so good on... though it does look really good on the iPad, though I don't think enough people know about this.  Where we... it looks so good digitally rendered that it's worth doing, you know, I think people are still a little nervous about that.

Question:
How much will digital formats change the way that books are written and conceived? (- Question via Facebook from Catherine Kustanczy)

Bret Easton Ellis:  I think people started writing differently once computers came into play.  I think people started writing differently.  I noticed a difference in books when people were writing books on computers and not composing them longhand and not doing them on typewriters.  But books seemed longer and they seemed more extravagant and decorative.  Once you can start doing footnotes in books, a la David Foster Wallace or Dave Eggers, or whoever.  I mean... or I think of a book like "House of Leaves" by Mark Danielewski in terms of how it's designed, or his follow-up "Only Revolutions."

Yes, I saw a big difference in books by people my age because of the computer.  Now in terms of books becoming digitized I don't know.  I mean, if we're going to make yet... I mean, I guess the next step is when I was looking at my friend's iPad, and I was looking through a novel, there was a way to... if you wanted to find out something about a certain historical figure or the genesis of a certain word, you could like find that out while you're reading the text or you could remove that and not have that be part of your reading experience.  But you can have that and that might be another part or how we read books then. It just might be the next step in how we experience fiction. But I don't look at it as a negative thing.  I can't... you just sort of have to like, you know, move along with the culture and see where it goes.  It could end up being someplace very cool. 

And I think that's really exciting and, actually when I look at a lot of fiction now and how dreary a lot of it is—and also not only how dreary a lot of it is but also I think our collective impatience with fiction, like just holding a book that's just full of words about a made-up situation, made-up characters. I mean, I think we now live in a society where we want more of that, what you're talking about.  More of an interactive experience.  We want to see images.  We want to see a lot more of a lights show or something.  That makes sense to me and I think that can be incredibly exciting.  So once that really does start happening I don't know, that could even possibly reenergize my faith in fiction.

Question:
How much do you think the form of the novel is affected by the increasing amount of other media people consume?

Bret Easton Ellis: The novel's affected a huge amount by that, because of all these distractions.  Look, a lot of my friends—college educated, smart people, adults who used to read a lot of fiction—have admitted to me that technology has disrupted their patience with fiction.  There's so many other things going on that once... I mean, if none of this stuff was available to them, whether it's checking their Facebook page or reading articles online and then linking to the next article and the next article that they might be sitting down with a novel instead. 

I think this is... I think all the time that we spend with technology has definitely cut into the idea of that kind of active... the active act of reading a novel where you are sitting there and you're reading the book and you're creating the world in your mind. And it's really the ultimate virtual reality show with you reading a novel because you're in complete control of how the rooms look and how the characters look.  And I think that experience of being alone with a book has been in a way degraded by technology and its been... its just something that's happened.

Recorded June 23, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman