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American Psychoanalysis: Profile of Bret Easton Ellis


Photo: Jeff Burton
In the dying days of his book tour promoting his latest Imperial Bedrooms, cult author Bret Easton Ellis is so over answering questions about his novels. “I have a completely different relationship with the novel than the reader does,” he sighs. “Which is why it’s very hard to sit here and answer questions about the book, because it’s such a disconnect.” Imperial Bedrooms uses the characters of his 1985 debut, Less Than Zero, 25 years later and looks at how time has scarred both the characters and the once enfant terrible himself.

On this tour he’s survived that interview at Byron Bay Writer’s Festival where he repelled questions from Ramona Koval about his role as a satirist by joshing about his newfound crush on Delta Goodrem. Koval in turn scolded him for treating the interview as “a stand-up routine”.

But in person Ellis is entertaining yet open – his powerful chin is blunted by a navy Nike cap and his playboy image muted by glasses and an overcoat over a woollen hoody. Sure, he bats away the odd issue by laughing “That’s like a dating site question”, but he shares a swinish charm with his books – initially you’re repelled but you keep reading or listening.

His name dominates the covers of seven books, including cult hit American Psycho, but he’s recently realised that with “every book I’m working through my issues.” Less Than Zero was written when he was just 19 and coping with his LA’s peculiar isolation amid partying plenty. “I had the mind of a writer and that makes you a bit of voyeur… but I always did feel alienated from everything. That alienation made me sad and a lot of Less Than Zero was me working that out.” He rolls through his canon connecting them to his own experience – “Unrequited love – that sucks. So then Boom! Rules of Attraction starts building itself.”

His most complex book remains American Psycho and in the past he’s talked about its protagonist Patrick Bateman as based on his own father. “That was when I was blaming my father for everything – I’ve let it go now,” he rolls his eyes to let you know he’s using Californian psychobabble both meaningfully and ironically. But he confesses to a troubled relationship with American Psycho. “I was very defensive about that book because of the heaps of criticism poured on it. I wanted it to seem more important than what it actually was.”

On the surface American Psycho was criticized as sex and slash, but at its core Easton Ellis maintains it’s a satire of a lifestyle he couldn’t adopt when he moved to New York. “It was making me angry, I hated that life, I hated what was expected of me as a man in this society, the things that I’m supposed to have that make me successful and cool.” Unsurprisingly he left New York four years ago to return to LA.

This return also meant a return to Less Than Zero as he re-read his own book like a guidebook to the LA of his youth. It was an uneasy read. Many fans tell him it’s the book that made them move to LA. “And I go “Really? That’s the book that made me want to leave LA for 20 years.”

During his re-reading something didn’t sit right. His main character Clay had a “passivity that was protecting him from this blasted moral landscape that he found himself in.” He began a dialogue with the character and his own past wondering where Clay would have ended up. Ellis reckons “The Clay character in Imperial Bedrooms, I guess has something against me.” Perhaps it’s because Clay sees so much of himself in Easton Ellis. “I drifted around at 19. I went wherever people told me, to parties… I have things to do now. I’m much more active at 45 than I was at 19.”

The 25 years since Less Than Zero have rollercoastered by for Ellis – the height of American Psycho being made into a successful film plummeted when a studio churned out a horrific sequel, American Psycho II: All American Girl. The deepest low was the loss of his long-term partner Michael Wade Kaplan in 2004. Humour has long been a coping mechanism. “You find yourself going ‘Oh this is the way world works. God it plays a lot of fucking jokes on you. Jesus, it’s a tricky place to navigate.’ And you either paint it pink or you paint it black.”

Ellis’ shade of pink is both fleshily real and satirically lurid. Clay’s screenwriter has no real power in Hollywood, more punchline than player. He’s drawn from Ellis experience of having his scripts mangled by the studio machine but it’s all part of his “letting it go” ethos. He’s in pre-production a new film project The Golden Suicides with Gus Van Sant and wants Angelina Jolie for the lead. “Writers and actors are the two people treated the shittiest in Hollywood, because there’s so many of them,” he says mater-of-factly. He follows it with what might have be his Hollywood coping mantra: “The writer has no control.”

An edited version of this article appeared in The Big Issue, No. 363.

Comments

  1. This book is one good read. There is so much complexity in the character after 25 years and I can relate to Bret why he would say it was a bit uncanny to sit on his book tours to answer disconnected questions.

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