On Tuesday I had the unique pleasure of meeting one of my favorite authors, Bret Easton Ellis (author of Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, American Psycho, Glamorama, and the recently published Lunar Park).
I first read Less Than Zero during my freshman year of college. For my Argument and Debate class, my group chose our final debate/project to be about whether “90210 harms youth’s self esteem” (no, I am not joking — we really debated this and it was quite awesome…). I argued the negative — that 90210 was actually beneficial television viewing.
During my research, I came across paper by a woman named Crystal Kile, a graduate student at Bowling Green University in Ohio (I can’t find anything more recent on her… not sure what happened…), titled “Recombinant Realism/Caliutopian Re-Dreaming: Beverly Hills 90210 as Nostalgia Television.” In the paper, she noted that unlike Less Than Zero, the idea of California youth presented in 90210 was fairly traditional and not necessarily setting a bad example. Kile’s brief description of Less Than Zero intrigued me:
The milieu of Less Than Zero, like that of 90210, is upper-upper middle class Los Angeles youth culture. But that is where the resemblance ends. The world that Ellis’ so numbly and plotlessly conjures is one of cocaine, anonymous bisexual promiscuity, the best brand name goods, ritual murder, absent families, and young men prostituting themselves to pay off drug debts. In the best tradition of the ‘L.A. literature’ from Nathaniel West to Joan Didion to Black Flag, it is apocalyptic. As a cult youthcult text, it elicited alarm among certain literary critics. In what was perhaps the most extreme panic response to the novel/this genre, University of Georgia professor Sanford Pinsker’s wondered in a 1986 Georgia Review article, ‘The Catcher in the Rye and All That: Is the Age of Formative Books Over?’
I’m sure Kile’s intention wasn’t to get readers to go out and read Less Than Zero, but that was the effect she had on me. My freshman year was the only year of college when I actually had time for leisure reading, and I breezed through Ellis’s debut novel. I loved it, and I read American Psycho during winter break. I was hooked.
Of all his books, Glamorama remains my favorite — I’ve read it twice now, and am considering turning it into one of those novels that I read every year (which I have none of, yet, so Glamorama would be my first). I love the way the book morphs from an US Weekly-type exposÃ© into a self-reflexive “metafictional” novel about models who are terrorists. It amazes me every time I read it, and I honestly think that the superficial superficiality that probably turns most people off or causes them to write it off as nothing extraordinary is what makes it such a deep and complex book.
As for the Tuesday event, it was a book reading, Q&A session, followed by book signing (see the pic above for BEE signing my book). He read from the first chapter of Lunar Park (which explained what the book Lunar Park was going to be about and how it all came about).
Here are my notes from the Q&A:
The Less Than Zero Film
BEE recently re-watched the film about 4 months ago. He originally did not like it and felt it was despondent. He noted, “There was not a single scene from the book… which was a problem.” But after re-watching it, he changed his mind and felt the film was beautifully photographed and “captured the LA youth culture lovingly.” He especially liked Robert Downey Jr.‘s performance. Overall — he has changed his mind and doesn’t hate it anymore.
American Psycho — Lots of Research Or Is the Author “Screwed Up”?
The person asking the question wanted to know if BEE did lots of research to write American Psycho or whether he was just “screwed up.” BEE responded, “Both.”
BEE was afraid to re-read American Psycho after it was published because he worried that all the criticism of the book (excessively violent, misogynist, etc.) would turn out to be true. He decided, however, to re-read it in the summer of 2003, however.
Upon re-reading, he was really impressed with “the compelling voice of Bateman.” He hadn’t understood the book’s initial popularity, but now thinks that the voice of the narrator (i.e. Pat Bateman) probably added to the book’s appeal.
He also noted that the violent scenes disturbed him more and that he was no longer the “punky, nihilistic kid” who wrote it. When he wrote American Psycho he was “freaked out about finishing college” and realizing that “this is society” (i.e. “the real world”). He also explained, that is really obvious after reading Lunar Park, that Pat Bateman was based on his father.
Surprisingly (to him), BEE also mentioned that he sympathized with Bateman more than he expected. He agreed with Bateman’s disgust for the world and felt that Bateman’s misery was somewhat justified.
BEE’s “Apology” for American Psycho
BEE does not feel the same way that the “Bret Easton Ellis” of Lunar Park does about American Psycho. In the novel, the author is worried that a fictional character he created escaped from his story. He has anxiety about this fact and anxiety about the book, in general. BEE does not feel the need to apologize for it, unlike the character of the book who gives a little apologia to the detective.
BEE does, however, like the “BEE” in Lunar Park, feel some resentment toward the book. BEE admits that more than any of his other work, American Psycho “defines” him among critics and readers. Because it is his most popular book, the other works are somewhat forgotten or brushed aside. This resentment of success, BEE says, is played out in Lunar Park as a metaphor.
Also, American Psycho didn’t “write itself” the way described in Lunar Park.
A Movie Adaptation of Glamorama?
Roger Avary is in the process of looking for funding for the film. He has written a screenplay, so the first step is down. Finding money, however, is proving difficult because the film is about “young Americans committing terrorism in Europe” (imagine why that’s a tough film to finance…).
Furthermore, Avary has about 70 minutes of footage that was filmed for the 5-or-so minute Victor Ward interlude of Rules of Attraction (which Avary also write the screenplay for and directed). Apparently it’s just Kip Pardue going around Europe doing drugs, fucking, and hanging out with famous people. BEE made it sound like “reality” footage (i.e. Kip was really doing that stuff), so who knows.
I must interlude here: BEE mentioned that he really liked the movie adaptation of Rules of Attraction, despite the fact that few people saw the film and those that did tended to think it was awful. I gotta admit that I love it to. In my opinion, it’s one of the best book-to-film transformations ever. It totally captures the style of the film (including backward narration, stream-of-consciousness narration, and overlapping/alternative explanations for the same event). I really hope that Avary and Pardue can get the funding for a movie version of Glamorama. According to the IMDB entry for Glamorama the film is in production and has people beside Pardue cast. Let’s hope something comes of it!
Introduction of Patrick Bateman Character in Rules of Attraction
When BEE included the scene when Sean Bateman (one of the main characters of Rules) meets his brother Patrick, he had no intention of using him as the main character for his next book.
Mitchell Allen is the only “real” character in Lunar Park that has appeared in previous BEE novels. (Most of BEE’s novels include characters from previous or future works — thus creating an entire alternate universe that spans multiple stories.)
BEE pondered the question for a bit, but joked, “I’m not going to make up an answer” as to why Mitchell Allen is the familiar character to make his way into Lunar Park. It just happened.
Is Lunar Park an Apology for American Psycho?
(In case you cannot tell, this issue came up a lot…)
Lunar Park was outlined by 1993/1994. American Psycho was finished in 1989. Lunar Park was intended to be BEE’s “fun book.” He wanted to write a genre story in the style of Stephen King.
Initially, Lunar Park was going to be a haunted house book. But then between the time he outlined it and when he started the draft (in the meantime his disgust of celebrity culture forced him to write Glamorama), his father died and he realized that there were lots of unresolved surrounding him and his father.
As he was working on more outlines/drafts, he got writers block when trying to figure out who the fictional character would be and trying to develop the history of the writer. Then in 2000 he decided to make himself the main character and use Patrick Bateman as the “Frankenstein-like” fictional character.
The book was always going to be about a writer and a house, but it wasn’t until later in the development of the story that it turned into a pseudo-autobiography.
… and that is how he answered the question about whether Lunar Park was an apology for American Psycho. (No, it is not.)
Does BEE Consider Himself To Be a Writer of “Metafiction” Like His Contemporaries?
He does read and know (and is friends with) a lot of his contemporaries. He doesn’t, however, feel that he fits into any group. While some compare him to David Foster Wallace and Chuck Palahniuk, he doesn’t really see the connection. Plus, BEE publishes much less frequently than most authors.
Surprisingly (to me, at least), BEE is really into writing drafts. I guess I have this romantic notion that my favorite authors are just imbued with some gift of writing that allows them to write perfect prose on the first try, but apparently that isn’t true.
For each book, BEE estimates that it goes through four or five major drafts followed by a really heavy polish at the end. He also outlines his stories before writing them and is a very slow writer.
This really impressed me and, not that I didn’t take him seriously as an author before, really shows that he takes his work seriously and considers himself to be a working author rather than a pretentious artist.
How College Students Can Get Published
Less Than Zero was published and had become a best-seller before BEE even graduated from college — a pretty impressive accomplishment. Apparently one of his college professors really liked his work and this particular professor already had an agent and editor and submitted BEE’s work on his behalf.
The person asking the question wanted to know if BEE had any advice on how other young writers can get published.
BEE’s main point of advice was to use/find connections. Submitting unsolicited work just doesn’t work well — you need a connection to really have a chance. BEE recommended going to summer writing workshops and meeting people there.
“In What Spirit” Was The Informers Written?
(The Informers is a collection of short stories published after American Psycho and before Glamorama.)
All of the stories in The Informers were written during college between the years 1982-1986. Since Glamorama was behind schedule and he owed some work to the publisher, a collection of short stories seemed to make sense.
BEE said that the “spirit” of their writing was: “dejected.”
Overall, BEE is personally very glad about the project and considers it one of his best works. They are the only short stories he has ever written.
He had about 23-24 short stories to consider and ended up going with only 13 of them. (Maybe there is another collection waiting to be published someday???)
BEE cited two main influences: 1. Ernest Hemingway and Joan Didion. When he set out to write Less Than Zero he thought only two major influences were enough.
He explained that when writing the following works he could see the influences by the following authors:
Less Than Zero — Hemingway and Didion
Rules of Attraction — Ulysses by James Joyce
Glamorama — Don Delillo
Lunar Park — Philip Roth and Stephen King
How Did BEE Develop His Unique Style?
BEE: “I don’t know how.”
He further elaborated that he started copying other authors’ style, which got boring, so then the copying starting morphing into a new sensibility that eventually becomes an authorâ€™s style.
What Was Exciting About Writing Lunar Park?
BEE strongly feels that writing should be fun — not a painful, laborious, traumatic thing. He thinks an author should be wanting to write no matter what. That is why he has written so few books.
As for Lunar Park, it was a rewarding experience because he realized that he would be able to resolve his feelings toward his dad by writing the book. The act of writing was more therapeutic and therapy or long talks with his sisters about their father. As a writer, he worked out his issues through his writing.
Once he finished Lunar Park, he felt “something definitely lifted off me” and considered it to be “an exorcism of sorts.”
… My Impressions
Overall, it was a great event. I totally expected BEE to be cold and pretentious and somewhat of an asshole — but he was totally the opposite. He was extremely friendly and made lots of jokes during the Q&A section.
During the book signing I asked him briefly if he was familiar with the Gregg Araki movie Nowhere (one of my favorites!) because some of the dialogue and situations were totally ripped off from Less Than Zero. (I’ve always considered Nowhere to be a loose adaptation — unofficially — of Less Than Zero so I can forget that the “real” Less Than Zero movie exists…) BEE said that he had seen the film and that lots of people had recommended it since it kinda did rip-off Less Than Zero. I thought that was cool.