Fiction That Originates in Pain

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

\r\nBret\r\n Easton Ellis:  From pain, from an emotional place.  I mean, writing\r\n a novel isn't a practical, logical thing to do at all.  I mean, at \r\nleast not in my case.  What happens with me is that something is \r\nbothering me or I'm feeling alienated, or isolated, or I have questions \r\nabout things that are bothering me and those feelings begin to form an \r\nidea for a novel.  And I guess that's because that's the only way I can,\r\n or that's the way I like to express myself in an artistic way.
\r\nAnd\r\n so what happens, like for example with "Imperial Bedrooms," I had \r\nreread "Less than Zero" and I was thinking about where Clay was now.  \r\nAnd I was also going through a lot of other stuff in my life that was \r\nkind of painful and confusing.  And these two things came together—the \r\nidea of where this character was now that I'd written about 20 years \r\nago, and what was going on in my life at that point.  And then I started\r\n to have a lot of questions about that character.
\r\nAnd this went \r\non for a year, so the process begins without writing anything for about \r\n year where I'm just walking around, asking questions about this \r\ncharacter and what's going on in his life.  And then I start to make \r\nnotes and then I start to answer some of those questions, then those \r\nnotes form into an outline.  And then that outline turns into a novel.  \r\nAnd that has been my process for... just about every book that I've \r\nwritten.
When you start a new book, do\r\n you know where it's going to end?

\r\nBret Easton Ellis: \r\n I know the last line of the book before I actually begin the book.  \r\nYes: I know the first line, I know the last line. And, you know, the \r\nidea—I've talked about an outline a lot throughout my career and I've \r\ntalked about how the outlines are often very massive and twice as long \r\nas the texts themselves.  And I guess I should just be calling those, \r\nyou know, "first drafts" in a way because a lot of the novel is in there\r\n but there's also a lot of other things in there. There are questions \r\nthat are written in the margins and I answer those questions.  And then \r\nthere are examples of how a paragraph should look, and then a note of \r\nall the things that this narrator wouldn't notice, that I might notice \r\nor you might notice if we were in that scene.  But for example, someone \r\nlike Clay in "Imperial Bedrooms," who's this kind of entitled raging \r\nnarcissist... would never notice.  He wouldn't notice that detail in the\r\n corner.  He wouldn't say that thing.  He wouldn't overhear that line of\r\n dialogue.  And so all of that the reader doesn't need to see.  What the\r\n reader needs to see more or less is this very pared down version of \r\nthat outline.
\r\nAnd so that's kind of... a big part of the process \r\nis taking this very emotion-based outline and then I come in as the cool\r\n technician and in a very neutral way try to take this outline and shape\r\n it into the context of a novel.
Do you write\r\n every day?

\r\nBret Easton Ellis:  It depends on my \r\nmood.  It depends on where I'm at in the novel.  It depends on how well \r\nI'm feeling that day.  It depends on a lot of things.  As the novel gets\r\n closer to completion the days get longer and I get more revved up, and \r\nI'm more excited.  But the whole process I find very intriguing and very\r\n fun and I look forward to working on a novel because it takes me out \r\nof, you know, my mundane real life.  And it takes me away from the pain \r\nof the everyday, in a way.
\r\nAnd I don't understand, you know, the \r\nidea of a writer sitting at his desk moaning about the fact how hard it \r\nis to write a novel.  Yeah, it can be a tricky and difficult thing to do\r\n buy it should always be interesting to you and something that you are \r\nexcited about.  It shouldn't be something you complain about at all, \r\nwhich a lot of writers tend to do.
When \r\nyou're writing a novel, how much do the characters get in your head?

\r\nBret\r\n Easton Ellis: It's not like method acting.  It's not like you \r\nbecome these characters while you're writing them.  I mean, to a degree \r\nyou do.  I mean, I told people for example, when I wrote American Psycho\r\n that I became Patrick Bateman while I was working on the book, but \r\nthat's true to a degree because Patrick Bateman was based on me.  And \r\nPatrick Bateman was based on my frustration and my loneliness and the \r\nisolation that I was going through at that time in my life.
\r\nAnd \r\nthat's how that character was based.  And so I did—yeah sure, I lived \r\nPatrick Bateman for the four years or so. And I mean, I guess the same \r\ngoes for Clay in "Imperial Bedrooms. " Yeah, it's a situation—the plot \r\nin Imperial Bedrooms—it's a situation and a milieu that I was part of to\r\n a degree.  Of course, in the book it's heightened and the book is also a\r\n bit of a Ramond Chandler, neo-noir.  But yeah a lot of what Clay was \r\nfeeling I was empathic about.  So yes I had empathy for these dark \r\ncharacters and they become darker because it's fiction.  It's a made-up \r\nsituation.
\r\nThey're made-up characters but they do come from a \r\nplace of pain and they do come from a place of darkness.  That does not \r\nmean, however, that I am an extremely dark dude who was walking around \r\nwhile I'm working on this book, you know, with a set of fangs and a cape\r\n and a really angry face, and I'm like, you know, "I want to kill \r\npeople."  So no, it's easy to slip in and out of it.
\r\n Do you show your work to anyone while you're writing?

\r\nBret\r\n Easton Ellis: I show my work to no one.  The only person who sees \r\nmy work after all the time I spend on it is my agent.  She's the first \r\nperson who reads the manuscript.  I've never shown any manuscript to \r\nanybody except for "Less than Zero" which was being worked on while I \r\nwas at college and my professor at the time, Joe McGinnis, read a couple\r\n drafts of that book.  But since then no. And the reason is because, \r\nagain, it's a person thing .  I mean, I'm not writing a novel to be \r\naccepted and I'm not writing a novel for a consortium. You know, I'm not\r\n writing a novel for an audience and I'm not writing a novel for a \r\nreader.
\r\n\r\nSo this idea that you need to show your work to people and you need to \r\nget feedback, and "Oh is this section working?  I mean, I really want \r\nyou to... Paula tell me... Hey Joe what do you think about this?"  It \r\njust doesn't play a part in the process because to me it's my emotional \r\njourney in a way and it's a very personal thing.  There's... it doesn't \r\neven cross my mind to show the book to anybody.
\r\nRecorded June 23, 2010
\r\nInterviewed by David Hirschman


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.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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