Novelist Bret Easton Ellis

Best-selling novelist discusses his controversial novel Less Than Zero and how he updates it, 25 years later, with his newest, Imperial Bedrooms.

Bret Easton Ellis was 21 years old and a Bennington College student when his first novel, Less Than Zero, was published. The best seller not only brought him fame, but was also praised by critics, translated into 20 languages and the first of four of his books to be released as feature films. Considered one of America's most important Generation X writers, Ellis has also published a collection of connected stories. The L.A. native's latest book, Imperial Bedrooms, is a 25th-anniversary sequel to his debut novel, set in present day.


Tavis: Bret Easton Ellis is an accomplished novelist whose many notable books include “Less Than Zero” and “American Psycho.” His latest is the long-awaited follow-up to “Less Than Zero.” It’s called, “Imperial Bedrooms.” The books draws its title from the Elvis Costello album by the same name. Bret, nice to have you on the program.
Bret Easton Ellis: Thanks for having me, Tavis.
Tavis: You’ve got a thing with great artists. I love it. But “Imperial Bedrooms,” Elvis Costello, “Less Than Zero,” Elvis Costello.
Ellis: Yes.
Tavis: What gives?
Ellis: I loved Elvis Costello as a young man and when I was working on “Less Than Zero” he was my favorite artists. I wanted to name this book about youth culture and everything that I was experiencing at the time after one of my artist’s favorite songs.
Then again when I did the sequel, “Imperial Bedrooms,” I guess I got a little nostalgic and I wanted to go back to Elvis again.
Tavis: But the titles have nothing to do with what’s inside.
Ellis: Well, no, they do to a degree. (Laughter) Well, “Less Than Zero” certainly has a lot to do with what’s going on inside or what’s not going on inside in that first book.
Tavis: That’s fair, that’s fair.
Ellis: And since “Imperial Bedrooms” is more of a Hollywood novel about the casting couch and about exploitation it seemed — it wasn’t random. It was a title that once I realized I was going to write this book, and I like to have a title before I begin a book, that just seemed the most logical title out of all of Elvis Costello’s songs.
Tavis: As naïve as this question might seem, to your point now, Bret, why for you does Hollywood equal exploitation?
Ellis: I just think it’s the currency in the town. You can paint it black or you can paint it pink or whatever. Maybe exploitation’s not the right word. Maybe favors, currying favors. That’s how a lot of things get done in Hollywood. I do something for you, you do something for me. You want to make this movie, then I’ll make this other movie for you.
You want me to produce this? Okay, but if I’m going to produce this then I’m going to also want to do a much bigger movie. The same thing applies to a lot of people who come to Hollywood every day who want to be actors or actresses and they do get caught up in this “favors” routine in order to move their career along.
Exploitation is a harsh word, I know that, but on a certain level, to me that is the central Hollywood story.
Tavis: Is that dramatically different for you or dramatically different to your mind from how so many Americans live their lives in today’s culture, currying favor for everything?
Ellis: Oh, listen, completely. This book, even though it’s set in Hollywood, could have been set anywhere. It could have been set in the corporate world, it could have been set in any number of places. It’s just because of the characters of the first book, where they ultimately landed, seemed to most likely to me to be Hollywood.
But you’re right, the idea of exploitation anywhere seems to be just a very current thing in our society.
Tavis: Did you have any idea when you were writing “Less Than Zero” that it would become the cult book of Gen X?
Ellis: I didn’t think anyone outside of my friends was going to read the book. (Laughter) I wrote the book not to have it published. This was a project of mine that I began in high school and that I completed in college, and I thought oh, cool, I wrote my first book.
Now I’m going to write many more and hopefully, those will get published. I had no idea that “Less Than Zero” was going to be read by anyone outside of Los Angeles, and it’s — believe me, as the writer of the book I’m somewhat amused and intrigued by the idea that 25 years later it’s still out and people are still reading it.
Tavis: The book is obviously “Less Than Zero.” We’ll come back to “Imperial Bedrooms” in a second, because both books are covering our generation. You and I happened to be born the same year, in 1964, and again, that’s what the subject matter is about, but how, for you — I have my own answer to this question, but how for you does being born in ’64, given what’s happening in the country, in the world, how does being born in that time, in that era, impact the way you see the world, do you think? Is that a fair question?
Ellis: It’s a very fair question and a very complicated — there’s a very complicated answer and I really don’t know if I’m adept at answering it. But I think — well, first of all I want to lay out the fact that I’m not a sociologist and I am primarily a fiction writer, and I tend to write books that are fairly personal. I know people think, “American Psycho? How personal could that book possibly be?” (Laughter)
Well, it was pretty personal. Everyone thinks it was — the first thing I wanted to do with that book was to indict Wall Street. Now, that might have been part of it but I was also writing about my own loneliness, my own alienation, what I felt like being caught up in the yuppie culture of New York in the 1980s.
So the books start from a very personal place and from not a sociological place, though if I want to consider that question I would say that being born in that year there might be a bit of, I don’t know, introspection, wanting to answer questions about myself and doing so through my work. Self-expression through the art I create. I think that’s true with a lot of musicians, I think it’s true with a lot of filmmakers. I think it’s true with certainly a lot of novelists. So I think that might be the central common ground that might have.
Tavis: Before I come back to “Imperial Bedrooms,” for those who have not read “Less Than Zero,” you have to read the first one before you pick up with this one.
Ellis: Absolutely not.
Tavis: You don’t think so?
Ellis: I think it’s a total standalone book.
Tavis: Okay.
Ellis: In fact, I just ran into a couple of people outside who had read this book and hadn’t read “Less Than Zero,” and they said they got right through this book. But you know what? Look, on a certain level it does make this book more interesting. Or on another level it might seem something of a betrayal, a little bit of a disappointment, like oh, the kids from “Less Than Zero,” this is where they ended up? This is kind of brutal.
Tavis: So to your point now, for those persons you ran into outside the studio —
Ellis: Yes. Yes, I did.
Tavis: (Laughs) Who did not read the first one — hope they were not my interns.
Ellis: No, they weren’t, they weren’t.
Tavis: Okay, thank you.
Ellis: They weren’t.
Tavis: Hope they didn’t work for me.
Ellis: No, no, no, no, no.
Tavis: (Laughs) Okay. Those persons you ran into outside the building who did not read the first book, give me the crib notes on what they should know or would have known had the read “Less Than Zero” before we come to this.
Ellis: Well, “Less Than Zero” is a book about a young man named Clay who comes back to Los Angeles after being away at college for about four months, it’s his freshman year, and pretty much as any 19-year-old he tells us this story of his kind of aimless drifting through Beverly Hills and the parties he goes to and the nightclubs he goes to, and it’s kind of a bleak, loveless landscape that he finds himself in, and it gets increasingly harrowing as the book moves forward.
He has a friend who’s prostituting himself for drug money, he has friends who are involved in the making of snuff movies. It becomes a much darker look at a certain kind of youth culture lifestyle here in L.A., predominately — I don’t want to say Beverly Hills specifically, but I guess the rich kid set in L.A.
And “Imperial Bedrooms” is revisiting Clay 25 years later, where he’s now a successful screenwriter and it details what’s going on in his life at this particular moment.
Tavis: Without getting into the storyline, because I don’t want to give too much of that away, but why for you, since it’s fiction, why did Bret choose to make him successful 25 years later? You could have gone another route.
Ellis: Yeah, but I don’t think that route was available for Clay. Clay is a very careful young man. He wasn’t a bad student. I think he was ambitious to a certain degree, and I think he grew up in a milieu where look, if your parents have some money and you have a little bit of ambition, a lot of doors open up.
I think Clay made a very easy entrance into filmmaking and becoming a screenwriter. I don’t want to say nepotism might have played a big part of it, but that’s not —
Tavis: But it did.
Ellis: That’s not necessarily not a narrative that happens in Hollywood. But I never saw him as being an unsuccessful guy. I always saw him as being someone who was smart, was watchful, was maybe passive to the extreme in “Less Than Zero” in terms of letting some terrible crimes happen that he could have maybe stopped if he’d been a little less passive.
That seemed to me to be what the book was about, the dangers of passivity. Are you as much of a criminal if you don’t act when there’s a crime taking place in front of you as you are one of the participants? That was something that I was thinking about a lot because there are many moments in “Less Than Zero” where horrific things happen and Clay could do something about them, but his passivity stops him.
Tavis: Is there a lesson or lessons for the reader about the danger of passivity beyond the example of a crime taking place? Just about being passive in our own lives?
Ellis: Well, yeah. Of course I think there is, but I also don’t want to be the kind of writer that dispenses lessons. I’d rather let the fiction speak for itself and I don’t want to write fiction that tells people how to feel, and I don’t want to be judgmental in the fiction.
You can do that in journalism, you can do that in op-ed pieces, you can do that in editorials, but in terms of fiction I really believe that you just tell a story and you present these characters and the reader can take from it what they want without the author sticking their finger in there and going, “Well, you must pay attention to this. This is what you’ve got to — this is what you must take from this book.”
So I’m a little uncomfortable in that position as an author, as a writer of fiction.
Tavis: The first book, to your earlier point, Bret, while this was not your intention, as I suggested, the first book, “Less Than Zero,” ends up being a cult book for the generation. I say that positively.
Ellis: I know, I know.
Tavis: Is it your expectation that this should do the same thing for that same generation 25 years later, or something wholly different?
Ellis: Absolutely not, it’s something wholly different. There’s no way you can compete with “Less Than Zero,” there really isn’t. The way that book came about and the way it was accepted and the way audiences responded to it was kind of a perfect storm of things happening that made that book as successful as it was.
When I was writing this book I wasn’t even thinking about competing with that first book. I was just thinking about writing the book that I wanted to write in this moment.
Tavis: Finally, since you mentioned “American Psycho,” in case you’ve forgotten, there was a huge controversy. (Laughter)
Ellis: Yes, there was.
Tavis: In case you’ve forgotten.
Ellis: It was quite big, in fact, yes.
Tavis: There was a big controversy when it came out about the fact that it was so riddled with violence and all kinds of folk, from Gloria Steinem on down had comments to make about the text. It eventually, of course, got published, it became a very successful movie.
I ask you now, years later, in retrospect, have you rethought that controversy — more specifically, the violence in the text?
Ellis: Well, when I re-read it about a couple of years ago — and I hadn’t looked at it since the book was published — I was actually bothered by the violence in the text. But at the same time, it reflected the kind of novel that I wanted to write at the time that I wrote it, and I don’t want to go back and have to edit it or tell myself, “Oh, you did this wrong,” or “You should have done it this way.”
I always believed that the book was what it was, and it wasn’t a manifesto about violence. I thought it was about a lot of things. In fact, I think it’s about a lot of things that are happening today. When you see what’s going on in finance, I think “Less Than Zero” is a portrait of where those men were when they were very young and just starting out.
Tavis: As a general rule, though, you’re not one given to second-guessing yourself.
Ellis: Well, you really can’t. If you want to write a book, you can’t, because if you start second-guessing yourself you are not only undermining yourself but you’re undermining the novel.
Tavis: For our generation, “Less Than Zero” is now a classic and 25 years later he’s back with this one — “Imperial Bedrooms,” by Bret Easton Ellis. Bret, good to have you on the program. Congratulations.
Ellis: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: It’s my pleasure.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm