Back to ground zero

BRET EASTON ELLIS was 19 when he wrote Less Than Zero, a coruscating account of disaffected youth in his hometown, Los Angeles.

He was 21 when the book was published, in 1985, to wide acclaim. It sold 50,000 copies in its first year, and was adapted (in an admittedly unrecognisable form) as a movie, in 1987, starring Robert Downey Jnr and featuring an unknown Brad Pitt as an extra.

Ellis was a sensation, the head boy, along with his friend, Jay McInerney, of America’s literary brat pack of the 1980s. He followed it up with The Rules of Attraction, hewn from his days studying for a music degree at Bennington, the exclusive, bohemian university in Vermont on which his college friend, Donna Tartt, based her novel, The Secret History.

In 1991, Ellis published American Psycho, which was also made into a movie, several years later, starring Christian Bale. It caused a furore, triggering a string of death threats and a venomous reaction, in particular, from feminists, for what they construed as its misogynistic temperament, embodied in the serial killings of its narrator, Patrick Bateman. It was, in the words of Sebastian Faulks, “without doubt the nastiest bit of writing I have ever encountered.” Today, it’s a staple on university courses.

Now Ellis, still only 46, has returned, for his sixth book, a short noir piece entitled Imperial Bedrooms, to the dissolute troupe of characters who featured in Less Than Zero. It is 25 years on. Clay, the main character in the first instalment, is back in LA after a short stint in New York, and is reunited with his old childhood friend, Julian, who no longer feeds his heroin addiction by pimping himself out as a gigolo; these days, he runs his own discreet escort service.

Julian has just ended a relationship with Blair, Clay’s old girlfriend, who’s married to Trent, another one of Clay’s old friends. Hovering in the wings is Rip, their despicable old dealer, ravaged by plastic surgery, who, like Clay, is obsessed with Rain, Julian’s new girlfriend, a beautiful, third-rate actress.

Clay’s a successful screenwriter, but still has an adolescent approach to relationships – unsurprising in a town, according to Ellis’ fictional depiction, where bed-hopping is rampant and bisexual – and is gripped by a fear of rejection in love, enough to send him scampering to $300-a-session life coach, Dr Woolf, on a regular basis.

“What’s big in LA, now, is not therapy or psychiatry, but life coaches,” says Ellis. “You go to a life coach’s office and you sit there and you complain about what’s hurting you. A life coach says, ‘Don’t do that anymore’. You don’t talk about your mother, your father, your terrible childhood. You just focus on what is causing you pain in the moment. Let’s get rid of it. That seems to me to be slightly more practical.”

Ellis, of course, has had his demons. He has attributed part of his gargantuan literary success to the pain afflicted on him by his abusive, alcoholic father, who died in 1992: “Something to prove to Daddy,” as he says, witheringly.

He says relocating to LA a few years ago spurred the deepest trough of depression he’s experienced, brought on by a combination of leaving the invigorating “hustle” of New York; unrequited love; and the stress of working as a writer and producer on the adaptation of The Informers, a collection of his short stories, a movie starring Mickey Rourke and Billy Bob Thornton, which was slammed by critics on its release last year.

The writing of Imperial Bedrooms, he says, helped to exorcise those troubles. He embraced Hollywood’s different kind of vitality, too, which offered a haven from the stuffy East Coast publishing world.

“Actors are really fun people,” he says. “I like hanging out with them. I like the initial team spirit on certain projects. I wanted something lighter in my life, and Hollywood offered that.

“I was bored with the literary set in New York. I never felt comfortable. I never felt smart enough. I always felt that in the New York literary scene I was always a bit of the hick. Regardless of whether I was or not, that’s how I felt,” he says.

“In terms of how I was treated by the critical community – which, by the way, I really don’t care about – I was the hick. The critical community always dismissed me, and liked a lot of my less popular friends, I guess, people who wrote very polite books that seemed to me to be dead things. Because I was getting very bored, I was doing drugs. Leaving New York, in a way, was a way to stop doing drugs.”

Clay also does his share of recreational drugs. He’s careful, though, not to “underestimate the desperation factor in this town” as he uses his position as a screenwriter and co-producer to prey on young actresses.

“Clay is a raging narcissist,” says Ellis. “He is a far more compelling character to me, at least, than my actual reality, which is not involved with hungry young actresses, crazy murderers and sinister drug cartels across the Mexican border.

“Hollywood is both light and dark. There’s a very dark part to Hollywood, but that part is not explored in Imperial Bedrooms. The dark part of Hollywood is people with a lot of money, who aren’t creative, making creative decisions. Ruining art is the dark side of Hollywood.

“The casting couch is a laugh. That’s the fun part of Hollywood. That’s one of the brighter aspects of the town. Everyone knows what they’re in for. If you think young actresses and actors are tortured by the idea of the casting couch, please, please take it easy. That’s the easy part. The hardest part in town is getting onto that casting couch – getting first in line,” he says.

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