Interview with Bret Easton Ellis, Feb 25th 1999, University Observer.

This was I suppose the high water mark of my student journalism career. How it happened was this. Ken Early, now of Second Captains and the Irish Times, was editing TCD Miscellany at the time and came across some of my writing for the UCD University Observer. He asked could he use some of the articles for Miscellany. Essentially a deal was done whereby the Observer allowed that to happen and I got to interview Bret Easton Ellis on his visit to TCD for the Philosophical Society Inaugural… for a UCD newspaper. Personally I had never particularly been bothered about the supposedly intense TCD/UCD divide. The academic year after, I was involved in a joint UCD/TCD production of “Miscellany” which didn’t quite “take”, but did lead to the production of two high quality magazines. I also got to hang around House 6 and the GMB and other TCD locales fairly heavily for a while.

Anyhow here is the interview – now over 17 years old. This was before Christian Bale was a really big star, evidently. And Leonardo di Caprio was most famous for Titanic, very much pre-Scorcese. Generally I am happy with the just-the-quotes-ma’am style of this, except the “cocaine heart” bit and other would-be flourishes at the end.

I also had read a lot of Douglas Coupland at the time – I am not sure if I have read anything by him since (the last book of his I am aware of without resorting to Google/Wikipedia is “Girlfriend in a Coma” which I haven’t read) – strange how some writers are an intense part of our lives for a while and then fade away a little.

It was originally published in 2 parts, which I have merged together:

 

 

Interview with Bret Easton Ellis

“Ask him to roll up his sleeves,” said an acquaintance when told I was to interview Bret Easton Ellis. “He has his name written in trackmarks on his arm.” This is typical of the myths surrounding Bret Easton Ellis. Since Less Than Zero, written while still a twenty-year-old freshman in Bennington College, Ellis has been a consistently controversial figure. 1991’s American Psycho was dropped by Simon & Schuster, boycotted by the National Organisation of Women and Ellis received death threats far more graphic than anything in the book. The Satanic Verses is the only other novel of the last decade which has caused comparable outrage. His new novel Glamorama deals with the fashion industry and our infatuation with beauty, as he has been quoted: “the fact that so little of our infatuation has to do with genuine accomplishment – but with what’s basically known as ‘cuteness’ – is ugly”
Bret Easton Ellis is bigger and healthier-looking than expected, laidback and with a languid Southern Californian drawl, and in conversation has the same slightly rambling, slightly unfocused way of expressing himself of many of his characters. The interval between American Psycho and Glamorama has been filled with the whole Psycho controversy, the death of his father, the breakup of a seven-year relationship, a short story collection, and as he put it himself “a small problem with drink and drugs.” Despite all this and the rigours of a book tour, Ellis is relaxed and friendly, although he confesses to be nervous at the prospect of speaking in Trinity College’s Edmund Burke Theatre: “it seems uptight to me; I just went into the hall and it has a very severe, academic aspect and all the dons are going to be there and I’m gonna be reading about supermodels and doing dope by this pool and breast implants and group sex… “ He trails off, waves a hand in the air, and emits a very So-Cal “HELLO?”
He is also slightly anxious about his plans for the evening: “I’m supposed to have dinner with Irvine Welsh. About half an hour ago I was supposed to do a photoshoot with him but he disappeared into a pub. I’m kind of thinking, ‘This cannot be an Irvine Welsh night, I cannot have what I think Irvine Welsh probably does on an average Thursday night. I have to get up very early, do some more interviews and catch a plane.” He is also slightly amused about one of our own cults of celebrity; “Everyone keeps telling me I’m staying in the ‘Bono’ Hotel.[presumably the Clarence] I don’t get to see any of Dublin but at least I’m staying in the ‘Bono’ Hotel.”
The last time he was in Dublin he didn’t even get to stay the night. Do the rigours of book tours take their toll? “I find them incredibly stressful. And I noticed that when I took a bath earlier that so much hair had fallen out of my head that the bath was ringed with it, forgive the disgusting imagery. I get nervous rashes on my hands. The only time when stress really isn’t there is when you meet the people who come to see you read and are interested.”
The words “cult reputation” and “voice of a generation” are among the great media clichés of our time and have been applied to Ellis since his debut. I wonder did he ever feel like emulating that other “cult voice of a generation” JD Salinger and becoming a media-averse recluse? “I suppose if I had that inclination I would do it. It’s not a part of who I am and maybe later on I’ll feel that way. I guess I have a little bit of guilt when a publisher pays me for a book that I owe them to go out and promote the book and communicate my ideas about it. I tend to it for the publisher in many ways. In the best of all worlds I would love to be a John Grisham and stay at home in my room and let the book sell itself”
Ellis has been quoted as saying that Joyce’s Ulysses, which he read in college, was ‘the most exciting thing I ever read.’ I ask him how it affected his ideas about literature. “I can’t say it was an influence,” then he qualifies this, “Although in some ways I think everything you read does become an influence, an unconscious influence. What was so exciting about reading Ulysses was that there seemed to be no boundaries to what a writer could do. In so many other novels there seems to be a list of rules that you must follow in order to make a coherent novel. Breaking apart those rules is really thrilling for a young writer. People often find it funny when I say that Ulysses was the pivotal reading experience of my life because they can’t directly locate it in the work. I don’t think you can, but the inspiration that that book supplied was,” he pauses, for the right word “limitless.” Don deLillo (who he regards as “the greatest American Writer”, Joan Didion, and Hemingway are among his more direct influences.
Ellis did not intend to take eight years to write Glamorama, indeed he confesses to being “slightly embarrassed about taking that long to write a book about supermodels.” Asked if the novel would be radically different if he had finished it in 1992 or 1994, before the OJ Simpson case and the Internet’s magnification of the cult of media celebrity he replies “Well maybe there wouldn’t be this level of intense paranoia. The question really is would it have been a different book if American Psycho had been just another novel that came out without all the hysteria. There’s a definite paranoia that began to enter into the book after that whole debacle. But would it have been different? I don’t think so, it was very carefully structured from the start.”
The lingering impression left by Ellis’ fiction is the sheer superficiality, emptiness and spiritual desolation of American life; the title of Douglas Coupland’s “Life After God” seems apposite. I ask if he feels that America is a post-religious society. “Underlying all the wildness in America is an incredible puritanical streak. It is a very religious country with over half of the population attending one or another religious services. I think people now are more separating their religious life, finding peace in a higher being, but still understanding that all the constraints don’t need to have to apply in order to have a belief in religion. Finding a way to adapt religion so it’s not so strict. I don’t know is that’s ever going to happen, this post-religious mood. I guess the post religious mood is that people are now adapting religion to their own personal feelings and personal lives.”
Are you in any way religious yourself? “I was raised an agnostic and growing up in Los Angeles doesn’t help with religion. There’s very little religion going on in LA. I have many Jewish friends in New York and there is something interesting to me in Judaism, although I wouldn’t convert. But I’m not religious myself.”
The controversy that surrounded American Psycho was certainly similar in magnitude to that which surrounded The Satanic Verses, and was just as shocking since it took place among the liberal Western intelligentsia in this very decade. Patrick Bateman, the psycho of the title, lives in a world of awesome superficiality, where detailed descriptions of Armani suits and Whitney Houston albums are given equal weight to detailed descriptions of horrific murders. Few other novels so divide their readership. The comment board at http://www.amazon.com ranges from “. It justifies what (sic) the Nazis’ burning of books. The one high point in the book is a scene in which the protagonist goes to a U2 concert. This book is just really bad” to the perhaps equally disturbing ” this is my favorite book ever. anyone giving this a bad review should beware bateman….. american psycho rules….period! ”
Unsurprisingly enough, next in my notes is “The Inevitable American Psycho Question” – do you look back in anger?: “The longer I read about the book and think about the book perhaps there’s a bit of me that thinks maybe I should have toned down some of the gore a little bit because it was so gory and upsetting for some people that it distracted them from what my intentions were. You can’t go back. The book is very representative of where I was in my life at that point. That was me and my feelings about my life and the world and I stand by it.”
Do you think that American Psycho will always be the first thing people associate with you? “I can’t imagine twice in a career a book having that kind of impact. I assume that book will be talked about more than anything else I have written. In a way, there’s nothing I can do about that. That’s fine. If people want to associate with me that book, at least there is a book they associate with me.” Have you heard the Manic Street Preachers song “Patrick Bateman”? “I heard it very late. It was recorded a long time ago but someone just slipped me a tape during the American tour. I put it on in the car driving from Milwaukee to Chicago and I was thinking, “My God, my life has turned out very strange” He is also curious about “some band called The Divine Comedy who mentioned my name in a song.”
Finally I ask him about the forthcoming film version of American Psycho, and specifically the prospect which had existed of Leonardo di Caprio jeopardising his matinee idol status by playing Patrick Bateman: “I was happy with it, I think he’s quite a good actor, I’m sorry, call me an idiot but I thought he was quite good in Titanic. His character was such a goody goody kind of guy, and I know he wanted to play it darker. I was quite happy, then quite disappointed when he pulled out.” But he pronounces himself happy with English actor Christian Bale (Jim in “Empire of the Sun” and more recently in Velvet Goldmine and Portrait of a Lady) …”he’s very big, very physical”… and with the direction the film is following under the direction of Mary Harron (“I Shot Andy Warhol”) Interesting that a woman is directing the adaptation of a book of which the National Organisation of Women urged boycott.
Are you worried about people seeing American Psycho as a film rather than as a novel? “Not worried at all. The version of script I read is so faithful to the book; all the dialogue is from the book, 95% of the film is from the book. In a way, I’m not worried about how people choose to see the work.” Ellis seems quite indifferent to how people perceive his work. Perhaps American Psycho and its attendant media hoopla have bred a sort of fatalism. He says that he “grew up” while writing Glamorama, going from the precocious author of Less Than Zero to a thirtysomething writer.
One of the characters in Ellis’ short story collection “The Informers” talks about “a boredom so monumental it humbles.” Ellis’ American lives are extraordinarily empty and vacuous. Satirical and despairing, Ellis’ insight into the cocaine heart of America and the Heart of Darkness in all of us makes him a writer worthy of attention.

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