ASK ME ANYTHING
Bret Easton Ellis Has All the Answers
Ready or not, here he comes. In The Shards, his first novel in 13 years, the great American bomb thrower, Bret Easton Ellis, plunges us back into the world of Wayfarers and BMWs in early-’80s Los Angeles, where a character named “Bret” attends an elite prep school and a deranged serial killer is on the loose. (The book is appropriately dedicated, “To no one.”) In the opening lines of The Shards, the narrator equates a novel to a “dangerous game,” and surely Ellis has been playing dangerously with readers ever since he released his first glamorous nightmare masterpiece Less Than Zero in 1985, at age 21. Novels like The Rules of Attraction, American Psycho, and Glamorama followed, as well as Ellis’s no-holds-barred cultural criticism in the forms of essays and his very own podcast. In case you were worried, Ellis hasn’t sweetened or softened with age. Here, he takes questions from friends and luminaries about video games, sincerity, and the death of art.
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH: How would your work be different if you were straight?
BRET EASTON ELLIS: I’d like to say not a lot—that as a stylist I was drawn to aesthetics rather than identity and that my main concern was the writing itself, and not any kind of ideology. But sex is a big part of life and it’s unavoidable as a fiction writer to ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist. For a “gay” writer, I don’t think I’ve explored gay relationships at all in my work until a little bit in The Shards—doesn’t really interest me, I guess. I think your question is connected to: Why were my influences Hemingway, Didion, DeLillo, Roth, and even Stephen King? What was it about those writers that attracted me? Again, you bump up against aesthetics, and I was attracted to those writers solely because of their style and not who they were or if they were gay or straight. Conversely, I was attracted to Kerouac as a teenager because I found his younger self so hot—and yet he didn’t influence me at all. Very few out gay writers who wrote about homosexuality influenced me. So the answer to your question is a hesitant: It wouldn’t.
DARRYL PINCKNEY: What are your favorite Philip Roth novels?
ELLIS: I just finished Blake Bailey’s monumental book on Roth and thought it was the best bio of a writer I’ve ever read, and it reminded me of how prevalent Roth had been in my life. Sabbath’s Theater is probably my favorite. Early books: Goodbye, Columbus and Letting Go; the Zuckerman novels: American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain (what a run!). I thought his last book Nemesis, which I reread during the pandemic, was a haunting masterpiece, devastating. Least favorite: The Plot Against America and The Great American Novel.
SEAN THOR CONROE: It must’ve been so wild for you when Less Than Zero dropped. I can’t even imagine the hate you must’ve gotten. How did you handle the haters at such a young age? How do you think literary hate differs today from how it was in the ’80s?
ELLIS: It really wasn’t that wild because it took so long, months and months, before it became a bestseller and was nationally known. Compared to how information and books are distributed now, it seems like years passed during the spring and summer of 1985 as the reviews trickled in and then started piling up—half pro, half con. My armor against criticism was pretty thick—and it might have been built while dealing with my dad, who was a problematic parent. Certainly dealing with criticism in writing workshops helped build it up even more. Once published, the haters seemed so distant to me (as did the fans), it was all so abstract. Unlike now, the reactions in 1985–86 only came from book reviews, and half the reviews for Less Than Zero were bad or mixed, and it was very easy for me to digest them. I had at one point wanted to be a critic and I completely understood that what one person likes, another doesn’t. That’s life. Not everybody’s going to love you. In fact most people will not. That’s fairly easy to deal with, I think. Much easier than today when the hate is so much more prevalent and intimate and immediate and personal and in your face. When I was criticized it was in a newspaper or magazine and it seemed dream-like, ephemeral, and it had an aesthetic context.
LARRY CLARK: How do the movie adaptations of your books compare to how you imagine them coming to life?
ELLIS: Well, I don’t imagine them coming to life because I’ve written them as novels and not as scripts. I’ve written many scripts and those are movies. The books are not movies and I approach scripts and novels in completely separate ways. Scripts are about structure and novels are about consciousness. I often imagine a script of mine coming to life because I wrote it to be (duh) a movie. I am always in conversations about actors and cinematographers even if the movie doesn’t get made—it’s collaborative, you need a lot of money to make it, you need a producer, you need a group of people who share your vision. With novels you’re on your own and you don’t have to engage with those things—it’s all about language and style. I can never picture what my narrators look like. It’s not what I’m focusing on. I don’t imagine them in movies—unless, however, I adapt one of the books. And on The Informers script, for instance, I kept picturing Josh Hartnett as the lead, and I pictured no one when I wrote the book.
CANDACE BUSHNELL: How will porn and video games continue to affect heterosexual men in the future? Will it eventually turn them into zombies, or has it already?
ELLIS: Well, I like porn and I like video games. But you’re asking about heterosexual men. I think other factors in society are purposefully trying to turn straight men into zombies and it has nothing to do with porn or video games. It’s this new fear of natural masculinity that people on one side of the aisle seemingly want to erase and are trying to do so using derogatory terminology to describe normal biological male behavior—in fact zombifying men. Porn and video games turning men into zombies? Please. Peak misandry? Yes.
ELLIS: It was just odd to hear your life presented as a kind of oral history lesson and even odder to realize that this era at Bennington has somehow become a compelling story for a lot of people. If only we knew back then, I think we might have behaved a bit differently. I think there was an overemphasis on drugs (maybe not) that surprised me, and some publishing stuff surrounding Less Than Zero that I don’t quite remember in the same way a few editors do. I also learned a lot about Donna Tartt, which I hadn’t expected.
KUSHNER: I’m reading The Shards now, and while I’m only halfway in, I’m really struck by this return to youth, and to new versions of characters who might or might not be the same people I already know from Less than Zero. This novel feels like not just a return but almost a new framing of your whole literary project, in the way it slips between reality and dream, or what feels like reality and what feels like dream. The character “Bret” is movie-obsessed, a writer, and he’s gay—which honestly feels like new terrain. Was it a different experience for you to let the character’s erotic life be explicit and integral? Also, the character Bret in The Shards says he isn’t as impressed by Kubrick’s The Shining as he is by Stephen King’s. Come on! Is that you or is that fiction?
ELLIS: Yes, it was a different experience writing about my teenage sex life and fantasies in The Shards, but every book is different, they change as you change. No book has ever felt the same, so I wasn’t overly aware of being more explicit—it just felt natural, like the whole book did, like they always do for me. And yes, sorry Rachel, I wasn’t that impressed by The Shining when I saw it in 1980 and I preferred King’s novel. Now I feel differently. I think Kubrick’s movie is an improvement over the novel but I think the movie is overrated—there’s greatness in it at times and more often it just thinks it’s great. And though on some level it’s impressive and elegant, I never found it scary. Sometimes I watch it as a black comedy about a bad marriage and the frustration of a bad writer.
NAOMI FRY: Which character that you’ve written is your favorite and why?
ELLIS: I have a soft spot for Victor Ward from Glamorama—perhaps because I lived with him the longest (eight years! The ’90s!) and I found him hopelessly intriguing, funny, foolishly ambitious, sexy, and because of what I put him through, ultimately very sympathetic. He was just trying to move upward through a society that he thought he understood and yet in the end he didn’t have a clue: a true innocent in so many respects. His cluelessness was the reason the entire book existed—it all flowed out of this character I’d created. The narrative was the natural extension of Victor, who came to me before the actual story did, a character seduced by celebrity and surfaces. It happens to all of us and can be just as disorienting as it was for Victor.
TAMA JANOWITZ: What do you miss about life in N.Y.C.?
ELLIS: I might occasionally miss my youth and living in the Manhattan of the ’90s, but now, I miss nothing at all about life in N.Y.C. I left 20 years ago and have never looked back. Though I still keep an apartment on 13th Street in the East Village and rent it out for a price that now shocks me. My only smart investment.
JANOWITZ: What gets you enraged?
ELLIS: I try to actively avoid getting enraged. I’m far too mellow and old—but media and politics probably, even though I’m not political and I barely pay attention to the media anymore, though that admittedly is hard to do. Food Network (and video games and porn) is on all the screens in my house.
DONOVAN LEITCH: Bret, Glamorama is a favorite of mine (and I was honored to have my face featured on the cover!). Is this a book that you’d ever see coming to the big screen? Miss ya! ELLIS: Well, Roger Avary, who wrote and directed The Rules of Attraction, owns the rights so you’d have to ask him. I would assume that if anyone does it now, it would be for the small screen. Miss you, too.
MEL OTTENBERG: Okay Bret, let’s say it’s winter 2022, we’re living in a perfect world, and Glamorama the movie is in pre-production. Who is being cast in the roles of Victor Ward, Jamie Fields, F. Fred Palakon, and Chloe Byrnes? You can have anyone you want.
ELLIS: Um, Tom Holland (yes, really, at this very moment, yeah), Florence Pugh, Paul Dano, Ana de Armas, Jacob Elordi as Bobby Hughes, though maybe too young. But that’s just today. Tomorrow is a different cast completely.
OTTENBERG: When and where was the coke the best? And why?
ELLIS: Best cocaine? Manhattan in the ’90s, no contest. Unusually smooth and easy to come by.
ELI ROTH: I loved your idea of scaling back the Oscars to make it a niche show by presenting all the awards for the people who care about the show, instead of trying to broaden it with embarrassing skits and pop culture stunts that have nothing to do with the art of cinema. Has anyone from the Academy responded to you about that?
ELLIS: I’m not a member so I can’t lodge a complaint about the disastrous turn of events that has led the Academy to the terrible place they’ve brought themselves to—just a disaster. A once great brand that is now so tarnished it’s unrecognizable and no one really cares. All their dumb fretting over whether they’re progressive or inclusive enough—it’s like a comedy skit SNL would never have the guts to run. It’s about talent, it’s about artistic achievement, it’s about glamour—it’s not about identity. AMPAS [Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] is just a microcosm of what’s happening to the arts. It’s over, it’s so over.
BRONTEZ PURNELL: What makes a bigger impact on a person’s general personality? Their star sign, or their birth order (oldest vs. middle child vs. youngest vs. only child).
ELLIS: I run hot and cold on astrology, so I’d have to say birth order. In my experience that seems to have the biggest impact with the eldest having the most advantages.
PAUL SCHRADER: Have depictions of sexual diversity in media under-reflected, outpaced, or kept pace with awareness of sexual diversity in society at large?
ELLIS: Media now over-reflects and overrepresents notions of sexual diversity—the actual reality and scope of it—and that’s often not an accurate reflection of the totality of sexual normativity that exists in society. I think this is somewhat risky in terms of a broader acceptance of sexual diversity. The push of it all by the media tends to create a backlash against marginalized groups, and it doesn’t do us any favors. You can force the agenda only so far.
JAY McINERNEY: Why the hell was I Peter Lawford in Lunar Park while you got to be Frank Sinatra? I mean come on, I could have been Dean Martin at least.
ELLIS: Well, it was a joke. But I still think Peter Lawford is pretty damn flattering.
ANDREW McCARTHY: Do you know the end before you start?
ELLIS: More or less yes. The ending is usually something I work backward from, and it stems from who I’ve figured out the narrator is (all the books have narrators) and where I think they’d end up, and this is decided in the outline, which I have often spent up to a year working on so that when I’m ready to move to the actual writing of the novel everything is already in place, which makes the technical process of composing the prose so much easier. Sometimes the endings change slightly but it’s pretty fixed once I start the book—that’s been true of every book, including the last line, which sometimes I know before I write the first.
DENNIS COOPER: A nerdy but sincere question: Please describe, if you can, what makes a sentence you write in your fiction acceptable to you? And same question about your paragraphs if you’re feeling ambitious. Thanks!
ELLIS: That word-by-word it stays true to the narrator’s voice and the overall style is a reflection of that voice as well. I prefer a clean direct sentence, preferably unadorned, and that applies to the long run-on sentence I lean toward, if the book at a certain point calls for it. As for paragraphs, it’s a feeling, nothing technical or intellectualized. If it looks good and sounds good and works for me: That’s it.
TAO LIN: What’s one of your favorite activities for improving your mental and/or physical health?
ELLIS: Reading fiction probably comes in as number one. Watching films is a close second—the relaxing trance one goes into while focusing on a movie, even a bad one, can clear my head for the rest of the day. And in more conventional ways: exercise, which was suggested by a shrink, decades ago, to combat anxiety and which has proven to work better than all the Klonopin and Xanax in the world.
BRUCE BENDERSON: Shortly after American Psycho became so successful, I saw you in the Sixth Avenue restaurant Da Silvano when I was dining with the critic Richard Milazzo. You were sitting opposite a very bourgeois-looking young blonde woman of the type that could have walked right out of your novel, and I remember thinking, “Oh, he not only writes about that world, he lives in it!” Then I looked more closely and thought I could see you were struggling with great anxiety to make small talk with the woman. My question is, how comfortable are you with that aspect of society that you’ve written about more than once. And is it yours?
ELLIS: Ah, Da Silvano, the ’90s. Never a favorite restaurant of mine, but I always found myself there because others liked the scene, I guess. (I preferred Il Cantinori.) I have no memory of most of the dinners I had there so I have no idea who that young woman would have been. I very well might have been struggling with anxiety, though it’s more likely I was hungover and a little bored. I’ve always been somewhat comfortable (on the surface, at least) inhabiting the society I was both a member of and writing about even though there were aspects that troubled me and that I worked out in my fiction: The pain of existing within it— feeling like an outsider, someone who didn’t belong— was always a motivating factor to write even though I might have looked like an insider.
COURTNEY LOVE: I almost went to Bennington in ’92, allegedly, through the good works of a do-gooding Oregon Youth Authority probation officer—she was an alum. I said “trust fund” and it was like I’d said “abracadabra.” Same year as you. Before I got expelled, do you think the band we would have formed would have been any good? Who else would be in it? Playing what? Are you the front man? Or am I?
ELLIS: I was in two bands at Bennington—one was baroque-pop, early-’80s influenced and very precise, led by a guitarist/lead singer who was fanatical about rehearsal and hitting every note (he wrote great songs) and insisted we play sober. The other had a rowdier, sloppier, harder edge—everyone was doing drugs and we were modeling ourselves on The Replacements. Since I think Celebrity Skin is one of the greatest pop records ever made and I liked hook-laden four-minute pop songs, I think you and I would have stood a chance. I didn’t write the songs in the first band, though I did supply synth hooks on the Juno-60 I played. We all wrote songs for The Parents, and it was the drummer and me who came up with our big “hit,” “Kiss Away the Tears,” which I think you would have responded to. You would be lead singer, I’d play keyboards (remember, it was the ’80s), and I would try and recruit John Shanks, who played guitar in the first and only L.A. band I was in during high school. I think he almost went to Bennington and he’s exactly our age. And he was gorgeous at 20, which always helps.
BRUCE LaBRUCE: What is your favorite, spectacularly bad review that you’ve ever received for one of your books, and would you like to take this opportunity to respond?
ELLIS: Probably Roger Rosenblatt’s infamous takedown of American Psycho months before it was published in the New York Times Book Review, titled “Snuff This Book: Will Bret Easton Ellis Get Away With Murder?”—which essentially called for censoring the novel. The piousness and hysteria was amusing. I still remember lines from it and smile. I’ve never responded to a bad review—I just don’t really care and I’ve been the worst-reviewed writer of my generation.
JAMES HANNAHAM: Several of your books focus on college life, which has changed a lot in the last 30 years. What is better about college life now? What’s worse?
ELLIS: Nothing is better. Absolutely nothing. Everything is worse, much worse. I think we were so lucky and free and encouraged in ways that students today are not.
HARI KUNZRU: In the great irony-sincerity wars of the ’90s, you and David Foster Wallace came to represent opposite poles, and in literary terms the struggle between the two modes paid off in all sorts of interesting and not so interesting ways. Irony used to feel like a defense against getting played, a way for a writer to ward off received ideas and lazy thinking. It also made us feel nihilistic and defeated. More recently we’ve seen how it can be a screen for reactionary politics. Beige-hued Instagram sincerity is intolerable for all the obvious reasons, but writers are also supposed to be interested in truth. I’ve always thought of you as a closet moralist—that is to say, someone who refuses sentiment because the stakes are too high—and I wonder where you stand on all this now.
ELLIS: Honestly, Hari, I never paid much attention to the struggle even though I know David did (as did another Dave: Eggers). I always thought I was sincere—I still think American Psycho is a very sincere book, perhaps too much. So I never really grasped what it was all about or why it even was an issue. Writing isn’t a contest and it mattered very little to me. I was in my lane, David was in his. I also don’t think writers are supposed to “be” anything—and I think the truth, whatever that is, differs for every writer. And if it’s really only a truth that a writer is after then it’s a version of “the truth,” especially if you’re writing fiction. I don’t even think of myself as a closet anything— the morality is either there for a reader or it isn’t, which I think is what you meant—you can’t force it, or if you do then you’re a bit doomed as an artist. The refusal of sentiment is simply an aesthetic preference. Where do I stand now? Well, I was never a role model, I didn’t want to represent anything, I was interested in the novel as a form of communicating my pain and confusion, and writing helped me work that out. It’s always been as simple as that.