Bret Easton Ellis in Australia: "It Was Really About Me"

by Elmo Keep


The place where Bret Easton Ellis came to talk about his new novel Imperial Bedrooms could best be described as Bret Easton Ellisian. It is a rock club on Sydney’s Oxford Street, called the Oxford Art Factory, that looks and feels like it was modeled on a party from the film version of Less Than Zero. It’s split into two rooms divided by a huge floor to ceiling window of sound-proof glass. One room houses DJs and a giant wall given over to a rotation of street artists who paint it over every few months. The other room is the band room, with a stage and tiers. There’s a popcorn vending machine, and a black and white photo-booth. It’s of course where Robyn played about three years ago, and “no one knew who she even was, man.” Things inside there are either neon or white, or black, and lit with red lights or strobes. The bathrooms are notable for just how many surfaces in them are covered in mirrors.

The crowd was warmed first by a set from Models, an Australian synth band who were last of cultural note in the mid-80s, contemporaries of INXS. It was hard to tell if their somewhat rickety performance was meant to be metacommentary, in light of how in Imperial Bedrooms we find the folks of Less Than Zero, 25 years later, having “drifted into vast apathy” and otherwise vainly clutching on to the trappings of youth. Definitely the handful of people who came expressly to see the band had a great time. Everyone else was there for Ellis… especially the one who dressed as Patrick Bateman.

Ellis at last arrived, to deafening cheers.

“This is like being in a nightclub-I’m in a nightclub, this is crazy! It’s funny. You’re here to see an author. Wow,” he said.

He was introduced by local writer and satirist, Dom Knight. Some questions were his own; some were pulled from a fishbowl of questions from the audience.

Q: What does your business card look like?

A: “I don’t have a business card.”

Q: So, we’re hear to talk about Imperial Bedrooms-which you can all, and will all, buy out the front after this. Sorry, was that tacky?

A: “Look where we are, look around. No, it’s not tacky, I think it’s fine.”

Bret Easton Ellis will actually say almost nothing about Imperial Bedrooms the entire evening, but he will however, dedicate a good amount of time to American Psycho, and what it felt like, at 22, to be insulted by Elvis Costello.

“If I look back on my career and think of one of the moments that stung the most, it was the realization that Elvis Costello was making fun of me in magazines,” he said. “And I remember the first time I met Elvis Costello was in a bar in Beverly Hills, right around when Less Than Zero came out. And I was with my friend, who was drunk-and hot, by the way. And my friend is like, ‘Elvis Costello is over there!’ And I said, ‘No, no, I really can’t deal with that.’ And my friend insists, like, ‘You gotta meet him!’ So my friend shambles over and drags Elvis Costello back to our table, and he was very, very polite. And I was extremely embarrassed.”

“Then about six months later he gave an interview to Rolling Stone, and in the middle of the interview, he was asked, ‘What do you think of Bret Easton Ellis?’ And he went on a pitch perfect dismantling¹ of the prose style of Less Than Zero, like: Oh yeah, Bret comes up to me in a restaurant in Beverly Hills. His friend is drunk, he offers me a line, we go into the bathroom. Then Bret goes out and blows his friend. I watch, I’m bored. So yeah, I don’t think much of Bret Easton Ellis.’ And I’m reading that in a magazine, and I shrunk a little bit. It was a moment. I was 22 and I was insulted by my idol. And that was a moment. It makes you grow up fast. And it makes you look at the world much more differently than if you are 22 are you are not insulted-in print-by your idol.’

Q: Here’s a direct question from the audience: Are you a top or a bottom?

A: “I’m versatile.”

Bret Easton Ellis has decided recently to divulge the fact that his novels are about him. This would seem to run counter to the last 25 years that he’s dedicated to obfuscating everything about himself (culminating in the meta-fictional not-memoir, Lunar Park), or even more recently complaining to Vice, “No other authors, when I read about them, get asked this. Michael Chabon doesn’t get asked this. Jonathan Franzen doesn’t get asked this. Jonathan Lethem doesn’t get asked this. I get asked this.’”

He did not like either, he said, being “taken to task” by Norman Mailer in Vanity Fair at the release of American Psycho, for giving the novel over to the narrator. “He said that ‘I was loving American Psycho for about 200 pages, 150 pages², and then I realized that Mr. Ellis had left the room, and I was left alone with Patrick Bateman. And I resented it.’ But I think it’s interesting to have yourself drawn into a novel and have that narrator be your only point of reference for 200 odd pages.”

“I was so defensive about American Psycho when it first came out because of all its controversy,” he said. “And I would make these grand, sweeping statements, like it was about Wall Street, and it was about misogyny and it was about Yuppie culture and it was about consumerism. And it was really about me. And it was about my life. And I had moved to Manhattan when I was about 23 and I was roughly Patrick Bateman’s age when I was writing the book and I was going to all the places Patrick Bateman was going to, and I was trying to fit into the world of adults. And I think I was disgusted by what the values were of this particular world that I was moving into. Which was just basically the world of adults, you know. It wasn’t that it was such a contemptible society, it’s just that you have that movement from when you’re very young to having to accept the morals and the values of the adult world. And so I was really writing a lot about myself in the process of writing American Psycho. Patrick Bateman was in a lot of ways, me. And I only feel comfortable saying that now.”

Q: So Norman Mailer was wrong, as it turns out?

A: “Yes. He was. And now he’s dead.”

Cementing the feeling that we are somehow trapped in the late 1980s, there comes a question about if the Genesis/Whitney Houston chapters of the novel reflect Bret Easton Ellis’ own taste in pop music.

“No, the music chapters do not reflect my views,” he said. “I did not think that Patrick Bateman would have the same musical taste that I would have. And when I realized he didn’t, I realized that the most harrowing chapters were not going to be the murder chapters, the dismemberment chapters. It was going to be the month sitting listening to Genesis and making notes. I was a committed satirist, what can I tell you?”

“I like the song he wrote for Tarzan, ‘You’ll Be In My Heart,’” he said. “I really do, why are people laughing at me? I like that song! I like that song that Genesis does, ‘Take Me Home.’ I do. I’m not making apologies for it.”

Q: What are you doing immediately after this? Tonight?

A: “Tonight? I’m going to go back to my hotel and go to sleep.”

He told other stories; about how he hated the adaptation of The Informers, doesn’t mind American Psycho’s but in general can’t understand why anyone tries to adapt his novels at all, which are so intrinsically lacking in the things film needs (“like discernible plot, or characters you can empathize with,”) but “I like the money.”

About once being stuck in a lift with Tom Cruise; about how the last time he really partied was ten days ago in London doing coke in his room with about 20 people he picked up at his book launch; about how his life in incredibly uneventful, and when he see people says things like “God, I had such a Bret Easton Ellis night last night,” he thinks “What? You stayed in and watched ‘The Hills’? You ordered pizza? You have no idea how boring my real life is.”

The he signed all the books of the several hundred people who formed a line that snaked around the club’s interior. It took two hours. The Patrick Bateman guy left.

* * *

Despite the revelations that, essentially, Ellis has been misdirecting readers for 25 years, local media coverage of his first Australian book tour has been given over almost completely to a semi-weird interview exchange on ABC’s The Book Show, which revolved around a singer named Delta Goodrem.

Delta Goodrem is a thoroughly terrible Australian pop songstress who for some years turned out extremely inoffensive tunes, largely indistinguishable from one another, which each sold extremely well.

Then she (and her mother!) got cancer, which was awful, definitely (but she was okay! It was still culturally acceptable to dislike her!), recovered and got engaged to Brian McFadden, of Irish boy band Westlife fame. The “Delta Goodrem Thing” is in actuality not so much of a big thing, but Ellis took a question about it anyway.

“Out of control. This is out of control,” he said. “I’m in my hotel doing press all day. I keep my TV on Music Max in my room-whoa, dangerous livin’! It’s crazy in that suite! So this video comes on, and there’s this very attractive woman on it, and she’s stomping around, and she’s talking about how this is her life, and her persistence has made a difference. And she’s stumbled and she’s fallen and she’s back on her feet again, and I’m thinking, ‘Really? What is going on with that?’”

“And she’s throwing her hair back and waving her arms around,” he said, “and it’s very dramatic and kind of sexy and I’m thinking, ‘Who is that?’ I have never heard of this person at all. I have no idea who it was and I tweeted about it that night. I was just listing what songs I was listening to. And in the morning there was this deluge of replies to me. Things like ‘I have lost all respect for you as an author.’ There was one reply which was like ‘I’m very sorry that she has cancer, but I still think she’s a fucking sow.’ And I’m thinking, ‘What the hell is this?’ I did not know that you guys had such a complicated relationship with her, it’s very complicated! And then I played with it a little bit, and it’s gotten out of hand. I’m getting phone calls from Brian McFadden’s manager asking if I can get Delta a job in LA. And I’m like, ‘I don’t really know what she wants to do.’”

If you were to contextualize Delta Goodrem within the world of Bret Easton Ellis, she would fit perfectly into one of the turgid music criticism chapters in American Psycho. This was why it was so weird that he dedicated the opening few minutes of that interview to waxing lyrical about her.

The other thing that was weird was that it had nothing to do with the question he was asked.

The third thing that was weird was the ensuing media coverage, which culminated in him expressing desire to sleep with her.

* * *

¹ How this actually went was:

A: I met Bret once, yeah. [Breaks into a parody of Ellisian prose] I walked into a bar, Bret was standing there. He looked disinterested. I took some more cocaine. He didn’t look any better. I had another vodka. The vodka didn’t make me feel any happier, so I switched on MTV. I wanted to fuck Blaine, but Blaine didn’t want to fuck me, so I called up Judy, she came over. She gave Blaine a blow job. I fell asleep. I woke up, I felt disinterested.

Q: You have your first novel halfway written.

A: Well, I have Bret’s novel halfway written, at least [laughs].

² How this actually went was:

…the first 50 pages are nearly unendurable.

Elmo Keep is a writer living Sydney. She enjoys several of Bret Easton Ellis’ novels, only Imperial Bedrooms is not among them. Like many Internet people, she enjoys cats.

Detail of a photo by Yaffa Phillips, from Flickr.