Fiction That Originates in Pain

Writing a novel isn't a practical, logical thing to do. The author starts by writing an outline from an "emotional place" and then becomes a "cool technician" to shape it into the context of a novel.
  • 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Recorded June 23, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman