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Bret Easton Ellis

in conversation with Emmanuel Olunkwa

Bret Easton Ellis is an author and screenwriter. BEE entered into the cultural consciousness with his breakout novel Less Than Zero (1985), at the ripe age of twenty-one; the book placed him on a literary and film journey that continues to reverberate decades later. His novels include The Rules of Attraction, (1987) American Psycho, (1991) The Informers, (1994) Glamorama, (1998) Lunar Park, (2005), Imperial Bedrooms, (2010), White, (2019), and most recently, The Shards, (2023) a novel which details and revisits the fragments of an origin story that began with Less Than Zero. He hails from Los Angeles—more specifically, the Valley—and first found success by way of a professor at Bennington College, who secretly shared BEE’s work with his own book editor in New York. Less Than Zero, in its recognizably diaristic style, has since been published in over 40 languages in 40 countries, and we’ll see a 40th anniversary special edition in early 2025. Ellis cemented his place within culture well before the term ‘autofiction’ became a referent in contemporary culture. He has long been outspoken with his observations of people, social movements, and politics. I wanted to speak intimately with Ellis because he comes from the place where I cut my teeth as a teenager in the late aughts in Los Angeles. The world he wrote isn’t so dissimilar to the one I inhabited, and reading his work, I’ve often felt a kinship with his story. While Los Angeles has not been my home for over a decade, it remains a place very dear to my heart. I had the immense pleasure of talking to BEE about the importance of persona, style, his time in the film industry, writing through his pain, and a few other of his favorite things. This conversation took place in Los Angeles in January 2024.

EO

I want to start with this question “on beauty” because you talked about it on Charlie Rose in the January 1999 Glamorama press run. You said you started writing it when you were 22 or 23, while you still had faith and belief in the adult world, and that you were the youngest person in publishing of the crowd that you were running around with, and you felt protected by them at that point. But when the American Psycho drama materialized and was trashed, “your belief in the safety of adults was eroded.” And that it was very frightening because, in the end, “you realized that the world of adults and adulthood, as someone heading towards it, proved that it wasn’t that safe. That adults can get things wrong and they’re not always right. And you thought that they were for a long time before then.” I was curious to start here because I’ve seen this resurgence of interest in The Catcher in the Rye lately. What beliefs were shattered? Was that a singular feeling of alienation or. . .?

BEE

There are interviews and there is real life. I try to be as authentic as I can despite the performative quality of the interview itself. It’s just an unnatural thing. And to be on Charlie Rose promoting a book in 1999, it’s an unusual experience. Back then, it wasn’t like now where it’s just a matter of driving over to an acquaintance’s house, doing a podcast, and shooting the breeze. Being on television was a big deal. And being on Charlie Rose was a big deal. So there were quotation marks around everything. Things that were explained to you in advance. I’d already done Charlie Rose in 1994 for The Informers tour, so I knew what to expect. I was never a huge Charlie Rose fan at all, but my publishers really wanted me to do the show. Then you’re on TV in that black box of a room with him asking you questions, and you start talking about the book, and he’s asking about American Psycho.

There was a moment in 1990 when American Psycho was canceled by my publisher. Whispers about it had gotten louder and louder throughout 1990. I had sent in the manuscript in January of 1990, so by the time it was canceled in November of that year, it wasn’t really a shock. I’d been prepped. But I thought, “Jesus, this fucking business…” This fucking business is so ridiculous. Corporations were buying book companies and editors were not calling the shots. Simon & Schuster did not cancel American Psycho. It was Gulf and Western who owned Paramount and Simon & Schuster: the call came from them. I just had my editor on my podcast, who I hadn’t seen for decades, and he gave me the full inside story about the cancellation of American Psycho. I learned things that I didn’t know. On Charlie Rose, at that point, I said that my belief in the adult world was jettisoned. It crumbled because of the way this whole thing was handled. I was not only dropped by one publisher, I was dropped by 30 publishers around the world, so there was a domino effect.

EO

Tell me more.

BEE

I lost all of my publishers after American Psycho. I had about 32 publishers. One kept me. No one wanted to deal with the controversy, so one kept me, and that was Picador in the U.K. So the year of 1991, my agencies had to start again. There were plenty of smaller independent houses, say, in Italy, Germany, wherever I was being published, that were eager to buy the book. I wasn’t just flailing in space completely. There were people who wanted to either make a name for their publishing house, or whatever, and they wanted the book. These were very prestigious houses with a lot of built-in support for a book. These weren’t indie houses, so I had to start all over again. I just thought adults were smarter or more sophisticated than they really were. But to be quite honest, I lost my belief in adults when I was a child. My father eroded that belief at around seven. So I was being disingenuous on Charlie Rose in many ways because of what I had lost. I wrote Less than Zero. [Laughs.] I mean, anyone reading that book knows that someone has lost the plot of the world of adults or was left behind by them. So, yes, boomer narcissistic parents. That was my case. And while I said that on Charlie Rose, believe me, I had experienced it 20 years earlier.

EO

How did this reality manifest socially? What was happening on the ground when you lost publishers?

BEE

Well, I think what I first noticed was a lot of schadenfreude among other friends who were my age in the publishing world or trying to get their books published. They would deny it, but I could sort of smell it wafting. Often, there was a kind of low-key glee in seeing this happen to me. And there was this notion, “Oh yeah, you’ll get published by the paperback division of Vintage for American Psycho, but no one’s ever gonna publish you again because this is just too loud. You offended too many people. You’re never gonna be asked to write an article for magazines. Hollywood is not gonna touch you.” I didn’t really care. It was just this thing that was happening, and I had to deal with it, and then it happened. But among certain friends, wannabe writers or about-to-be-published writers, they secretly resented whatever success I might’ve had at a young age and were glad I was being taken down. Maybe if I was in their shoes, I would’ve felt the same way. I don’t know. I didn’t really lose any friends or anything. There was nothing like that. I actually got invited to a lot more parties. [Laughs.] It was just the way of business in the U.S. and I saw it as this very corporate thing.

Luckily, I moved from Simon & Schuster, who canceled me, to Random House because I had worked with people before who were now running Random House, so they had a lot of say. Sonny Mehta had just taken over there. He was the first one who had published me when he was the head of Picador in England. And Random House wasn’t completely owned by Bertelsmann yet. So it was teetering. All of the famous publishers were all started by family-owned businesses, and they called all the shots. But when the corporations came in, then it changed in terms of what the dictum was, in terms of what to publish and what not to publish. That’s when we got to Random House. Also, the head of Knopf at Random House was a friend of mine, Gary Fisketjon. So Gary and Sonny, who I had known for years socially, they kind of overrode everyone because there were plenty of people at Random House who did not wanna publish American Psycho. But I wasn’t asked to write for a magazine for a year. I didn’t care. I started Glamorama when I was 26, and I was lost in the process, and then published it when I was 34 or 35. And that was most of the ’90s, since I worked on Glamorama for eight years.

EO

In preparation for this interview, I was really taken with how you’ve framed context as crucial, especially in the wake of Trump’s presidency. But people seem to miss the point and want to primarily engage you in varying ideas of wokeness or anti-wokeness.

BEE

Well, getting back to my point earlier: the performative quality of the interview itself is part of a problem that I noticed very, very early on for my first interviews in 1985. I realized, “Oh, there is the journalist who has an idea of how she or he wants to express the story and showcase this person, sometimes to my advantage and sometimes to my disadvantage.”

EO

[Laughs.] Who is Janet Malcolm?

BEE

I also believe critics, whenever they write about something, are writing about themselves. I’m a critic. I write about myself when I’m writing about something, whether I’m dissing it or extolling its virtues, I’m writing about me. It’s impossible not to. You are the thing. The thing you’re reviewing is just a trigger to write about yourself. Whether it’s Viva Las Vegas or The Zone of Interest, you are writing about yourself when you’re talking about those movies, what you love about them, what you don’t like about them. And interviews are the same thing, context. It’s all about the context of what the journalist or the critic is feeling or how he wants to place it. When I really started using the word ‘context’, it came up in the wave of social media because I’m old enough to have one foot in the analogue age and one foot in the digital age. I did notice a giant difference about context in the digital age and especially on things like X, formerly known as Twitter, where it was very easy to make comments on topics without context. I also noticed that when I was writing long-form articles, 4,000 to 5,000 words, one for Out magazine, In the Reign of the Gay Magical Elves caused a lot of controversy. Because people on message boards had only read the pull quotes in the first two paragraphs.

EO

Yes, I deeply wish more people would be curious enough to read more, if at all.

BEE

That’s how they gleaned their opinion from it. Or if I wrote about 'Generation Wuss' millennials, they did not get to the three paragraphs where I said I completely understand the plight, and I live with one, and I get it. So that’s one of the reasons why I started to do a podcast–I was shocked to find that people preferred to listen to two hours of someone on a podcast unedited. I’m free of context when I do podcasts. Yes, it’s lightly edited for pacing, but we never cut, shape it into something other than what that person really is.

EO

I want to talk about what it took to get Less Than Zero published…What were you responding to? What was the prompt? Who were you imitating?

BEE

I started in high school, and I’d written two previous novels, one at 14 and another at 15. Not things I would ever, ever want to show anyone. One was just really me inserting myself into Joan Didion essays.

EO

You say Slouching Towards Bethlehem was your induction into Didion-hood. That was the book of hers that I read in high school. What specifically about that book did you find compelling?

BEE

First of all, the milieu. I’d spent a lot of time in San Francisco, so that central essay resonated. My big influence had been Hemingway, but then Joan Didion owned that influence. When I found out that Hemingway had been her favorite writer and her mentor in a way, it made sense that these two writers fused together and changed my way of writing. My first book wasn’t influenced by Hemingway or Joan Didion. It was just a comic riff on getting a job at a young age. My sisters found some pot in my room. They showed my parents. I was supposed to go to summer school. Instead, they made me get a job as a busboy. It’s a ridiculous story, but it was funny enough that I wrote a novel about it, a short novel.

It was at my grandfather’s hotel. My grandfather had a hotel in Elko, Nevada, and I worked as a busboy in the kitchen in the summer of 1978. That’s when I discovered Hemingway, discovered Joan Didion, and I was also always writing, ever since I was five or six. There were books all over the house. My parents were huge readers. That’s one of the reasons why I became a huge reader, I believe. There was just something about the form. A solitary boy, up late at night, sometimes with a flashlight in his bedroom, reading adult novels. That was who I was at eight, nine, ten. I started writing them, and Less Than Zero was the continuation of this process. I found out, with that first book and with the Joan Didion pastiche novel that I wrote, that I was really writing about my pain. It felt good to write about pain because it lessened the pain. Less Than Zero was the same way. I started making notes and writing about going out with my friends and going to a pub.

EO

Were you that brooding person who would whip out their notebook at the party?

BEE

Never publicly, but I would write once I was home. That’s where the writing happened. I wanted to have a good time while I was out doing things.

EO

Of course.

BEE

I like going to the movies. I like going to nightclubs. I like going to the beach. I like taking advantage of how lucky we were to be growing up in 1980s L.A. But I was an outsider, so I was alienated from the group in a way. No one was out then. You weren’t out in high school in 1980 or 1981. It just wasn’t really a possibility. And you didn’t want to be out either because of the stigma of it all. So, you wore a mask, you played a game. It seemed normal, actually. It seemed fine then. I came out in college, which is ultimately what you did at the time. So I was fooling around with the idea for this book, and it came from this numbness. Numbness is a feeling, just as much as joy or happiness or unhappiness or rage. It is a feeling. And I was so interested in this moment of the minimal, new wave style of things and how ‘cool’ had become a kind of cachet. I was seeing it in music, film, and advertising, and I was experiencing it myself. I wanted to write a novel conveying that. Who was the narrator? Well, the narrator wasn’t me because I don’t really think like this narrator, but he’s an example of something I’m feeling. That’s how Less Than Zero came together. It was just connections. My teacher at Bennington saw chapters of it and said, “I think this is really good.” The novel hadn’t fully formed yet. It just had a lot of sections. But it didn’t get fully put together until January or February of 1983. I had been working on it since 1980. It was less than a journal.

EO

What was the perception of publishing at the time amongst your cohort?

BEE

It certainly was not a big deal to my friends Bruce or John or my girlfriend Julie or the boy I was hooking up with, Matt. It was just to me. It wasn’t as if this was a thing everyone was feeling.

EO

Was publishing sexy at this point?

BEE

Oh, yeah–no, I had no inkling at all of publishing Less Than Zero. I wanted to be a filmmaker, and I was in a band. I thought I was going to be a musician, or I was going to get out of Bennington and go back to L.A., start making films. That’s what most of my friends ended up doing. So I wasn’t thinking about really getting published until my professor started seeing these pieces and sent them off to his editor. That editor called me from New York when I was 18 and said, “We love these pieces that your professor Joe McGinniss sent to us. Do you think you have a novel here? I think you have a novel here.” And I said, “Yeah, I guess I have a novel here.” That’s when I wrote the book. Then about a year later, in 1984, they bought it for about $5,000.

EO

Okay, pause. I almost went to Bennington. I’m curious why you were drawn to Bennington.

BEE

I went to Bennington because my grades in high school were really bad. My G.P.A. was, like, 2.0, if you believe that.

EO

[Laughs.] Say less. I was of the same world.

BEE

And my S.A.T. scores were very mediocre. I think they were 1100, 1175, or whatever. Bennington didn’t ask for your G.P.A. or for S.A.T. scores. You got into Bennington based on what you sent them. You’d create the, “Why do you wanna come to Bennington?” essay, which I knocked out of the fucking park. And then I sent them my novels, and I sent them the parts of Less Than Zero I was working on. You have to understand, my dad absolutely did not want me to go to Bennington at all, refused to pay for it, so I had to go to my grandfather and ask him to pay the admission fee. And he did, he paid for all of his grandkids' college tuitions. I was the first one. My father just said, “It’s a fucking waste of time. You are flushing money down the toilet. I want you to go to business school at U.S.C., regardless of your grades, I can get you in." Because he was so connected to whatever. The idea of going to U.S.C. and going to business school was just not ever, ever fucking gonna happen.

I have to tell you, the other thing that sold me on Bennington is when I went and visited it, it was gorgeous. It was a paradise. Friends of mine in L.A. said, “How can you go to a college with 600 kids? That’s hell. Everyone will know everything.” I said, “I've been at the smallest private school in L.A. for most of my life. I don’t mind this. Bennington looks huge by comparison.” They had a great writing program back in ’82. They had Joe McGinniss, they had Bernard Malamud, they had Nicholas Delbanco; John Gardner, who was on the writing staff, died in a motorcycle accident the week I got there. But John Gardner, for those who don’t know, was a pretty big novelist in the ’70s and the early ’80s. I certainly wanted to study with him. Bennington was one of the only places in 1982 where you could major in creative writing.

EO

There was no other alternative?

BEE

No, there were five or six other options. I went and visited these campuses. There was Hampshire, there was Sarah Lawrence, Boston College, N.Y.U.—even though I think that was dicey in terms of my G.P.A. and my S.A.T. scores. Sarah Lawrence was also a ‘yes’.

EO

Let’s talk about music. While thrifting in L.A. when I was growing up, I bought this vintage Rolling Stone poster of Elvis Costello that lived in my room for years. What does Less Than Zero mean to you as someone who named it after Costello’s song? That context is now gone and people use it as a shorthand for cultural or social currency. Why did you name it Less Than Zero and what about that song resonated with you?

BEE

I just really liked the title. To me, it was simply communicating this feeling I was having about numbness. I thought it had a sweeping, ominous simplicity to it that I really liked. I know my teacher begged me to change the title, he thought it was a terrible title for a novel. He wanted me to call it ‘Winter Vacation’ or ‘Minus Numbers,’ I just was not going to do that. In The Village Voice, the first review that I got from Elliot Fremont-Smith in May of 1985, which was otherwise a positive review, said, “Less Than Zero,” then parentheses, “what a dumb title.” [Laughs.] But no one in my publishing house told me to change it, so it was fine. And it was a neat little title.

EO

Intuition?

BEE

Intuition, I suppose. It just felt right. I didn’t overthink it. That’s been the same with every single title. Everyone said, “How did you get the title for American Psycho? Where did that come from?” I said, honestly, while I was writing it, I went to a multiplex, and I saw the marquee. There was a double feature. They couldn’t fit both movie titles on. One of them was American Anthem with Mitch Gaylord, who had been a big Olympian, a very hot guy. This is in the mid-’80s. American Anthem was playing and so was Psycho 3 with Anthony Perkins. They couldn’t fit the full title, so it just said ‘American Psycho’ playing. That’s where I got the title. When I saw that, I said, “Boom!” That’s the title of what I'm working on now. The Shards, for example, was a title that I had since 1982, when I wanted to write the book, and it seemed very Stephen King and kind of creepy and dangerous. Then when I was writing the book at 57, it felt very sad to me. It felt nostalgic. Imperial Bedrooms was another Elvis Costello title. It was how I was feeling about Hollywood and how I was feeling about the casting couch situation that I found myself mired in, even though the album isn’t really about that.

EO

Were you a really big fan of Elvis Costello?

BEE

I was a huge fan of Elvis Costello, but not necessarily the first record. I didn't discover him until Armed Forces in 1979. My huge crush on him was the albums after that: Trust and then Imperial Bedrooms. Those records, really, were the soundtrack to my high school life.

EO

In the same interview you were talking about the structure of Glamorama and what characters from earlier novels would do “in a world where image is true, where surface is true, which is what the fashion industry and modeling is all about to me. Which is an image-driven society now.” I was thinking about how all of our lives have narratives, we all live these narratives and relive these fictions daily. But you were thinking about the connections between beauty, culture, and terrorism, and I feel like that’s the sum of America’s parts, capitalizing on insecurity.

BEE

Yes, I cared about that then. [Laughs.] I cared about that then when I was part of that, and I don’t care now. When you get older and you’ve aged out of that, you just don’t care about beauty and ‘the self’ as you did when you’re in your 30s, and you have a very active sex life, and you are having relationships, and you want to look a certain way, and you are displaying yourself like a peacock so you can get fucked. It’s all so different than being near 60 now, where my life is completely different and my concerns are very different.

EO

What were your concerns then?

BEE

My concerns then were that I did feel a shocking amount of insecurity about a world and a lifestyle that was being sold to me. When I moved to New York, I had a very naïve idea about what it was going to be. Maybe it was looming before I got there. But when I arrived, it was in full yuppie Wall Street, late ’80s rich-person-mode. It was a shock to my system. I’d been visiting ever since I was at Bennington, and maybe it registered a little. But living there, in my own rented apartment on 13th Street and 4th, you wouldn’t recognize it now. [Laughs.] My parents were horrified that I lived in the East Village. Taxi drivers often wouldn’t go below 14th Street, so they dropped me off on 14th and 3rd, or wherever. Anyways, I loved it. I was young. It didn’t matter. But it was really kind of shitty. It was not a gentrified neighborhood. It is now, today, unrecognizable. I had this naïve notion that New York was going to be like these 1950s cocktail parties with Jack Kerouac. I don’t know what I was expecting. It was so dumb. Then I got there and realized corporate culture was moving in. Wealth, beauty, fashion hadn’t even blown up yet. That was in the ’90s. It was just this odd thing that all the guys were wearing suits. Everyone was very meticulous about the way they looked. Gym culture had become a complete heterosexual thing. What I noticed and what American Psycho really was about is seeing young straight male culture adopt so many of the tropes of young gay male culture.

EO

[Laughs.] Name them all.

BEE

In terms of working out, body image, haircut, styling, being very self-conscious about what they wore. That wasn’t really around in straight culture. That was the gay culture that I kind of knew from either pornography or from certain gay men that I knew in Hollywood when I was a teenager, which I write about in The Shards. Calvin Klein advertising in 1981, ’82 was fucking gay, and they were selling it to straight men. They were showing these Adonises in white underwear, completely built and tanned. Those were the images. The Bruce Weber images were all from gay porn pin-up magazines, and they were being used by fashion companies to sell stuff. The big photographers used gay iconography in straight culture to sell things.

I thought, “Oh my God, this is really interesting.” So when I got to New York, my attitude was, well, this is a disappointment. I’m now in a living nightmare [Laughs.] I’m putting on suits and going to parties where people are talking about how much their house in the Hamptons cost. And my writing is blowing up. Publishing is very glamorous now, but glamorous for all the wrong reasons. "The Brat Pack" being an example of it. It’s not about dealing with the writer. How can we sell this? How can we promote this? Look, I had a good time. I was young and American Psycho is about my adjustment to, not only a certain kind of world that was blooming out of control, but also my unhappiness with it and feeling trapped in it. But to return to your question about a book like Glamorama: I wouldn't write that book now. I felt insecure about so many things that I think it got folded into the plot of what I was hoping was going to be a very straightforward conspiracy novel, but I just couldn’t do it then. It had to be Lynchian, and my desire to fuck it up and play with it and mess it up was too great. I was an experimentalist as well. I’m shocked they published that book in 1990.

EO

Who’s that woman who moved to L.A. and wrote all those novels about society and culture? [Laughs.] Jackie Collins.

BEE

What about Jackie Collins? I met her once. I had a lovely dinner with her. I wish I got to know her better.

EO

I was thinking about how Jackie was this reporter of culture in L.A. She wrote really prolifically about sex and the empowerment of women in Hollywood. I was just thinking, what circles were you invited into? Did people invite you in with the hopes that you would observe them?

BEE

You know what, maybe I was too narcissistic to notice. I don’t really remember it being that way. I certainly don’t remember my life following that kind of path. I just kind of went where I wanted to go. When I was young, I wanted to go to parties. I wanted to go to nightclubs. I wanted to get laid. I wanted to meet people. Getting laid, though, was difficult. You might want to get laid, but we were under the horrifying umbrella of AIDS when we all got out of college then. So, the entire generation of gay men, we lost out on that freedom of having a ton of sex in the ’80s. A boyfriend was what you wanted to find and what you ultimately got and settled down with, which is what I did. It felt like a death sentence if you were hooking up, and moving through what every other generation moved through post-college, which was a very, very active sexual life. My generation of gay men did not have that. So I don't know. I never really thought, “Oh, I’m being invited here to observe something that I might write about.” Jackie Collins also never wrote non-fiction. She was completely a novelist. She wrote novels that were all about L.A. once she moved from England. And her breakout novel was Hollywood Wives, that sold over 15 million copies, and that’s the book that made her famous. But I didn’t experience my life that way; I certainly had my friends and I always had a partner, a boyfriend, but I really wasn’t thinking about my life as a writer unless I was at my desk, writing. When I went out, I went out to have fun and hear people talk to me. I wasn’t really collecting notes. I already knew what my book was. It was an extension of my pain. I finally found the right narrator to be the voice of it. But ultimately I’m alone in my office, writing my book, and that’s it.

EO

I want to talk about growing up in L.A. You talk about the Harvard School in your introduction of The Shards. And I was like, "The Harvard School?” and I was like, “Oh my God, Harvard Westlake.” I learned that there was the Harvard School of Boys and the Westlake School of Girls, and they merged in 1989 and finally solidified in the early ’90s. But I was just curious, in high school, did you only hang out with Buckley kids, or were you hanging out with kids from other schools? Was there a social scene beyond your school at that time?

BEE

Only Buckley kids. It was a very small school. They were your only point of reference, really, your friends there. I did not have any friends outside of Buckley until my senior year. Then my world opened up a little bit because, of course, you had a car, and so you could go to nightclubs or parties and meet new people. Even though the drinking age in L.A. was 21, I kept thinking it was 18 because I never got carded during the early ’80s and into the mid ’80s before I turned 21. Never.

EO

I don't know if these schools even existed, but Brentwood and Oakwood?

BEE

Oakwood, sure. But it was mostly a Buckley crew. Also, I was somewhat solitary, so I really liked to spend a lot of time reading, going to movies by myself. I could listen to albums with my headphones on for hours. I didn’t play sports, so that was not part of my extracurricular activity. I went and saw art-house movies in the afternoon. I would drive to the music hall or the New Beverly Cinema. That’s how I spent my time. And then there were parties, of course, but I really didn’t need more than two or three friends, and I had two or three very close friends in high school, and that was our group. When I had a girlfriend in my senior year, she was much more popular. She had a much larger group and her father was a well-known movie producer, and we were hanging out at the house a lotbecause he had a lot of parties. I had access to this kind of Hollywood world, but that didn’t really come to anything. And then, as much as I thought L.A. was cool and beautiful, I was going through my own ennui and my own issues, whether they were caused by my dad, my gayness, I don’t know what. I wanted out. I wanted to escape. I wanted to go back east. And so, enter Bennington. And then from Bennington, I’m going to go live in New York and see what it’s like, and become a filmmaker, or go back to L.A. and become a filmmaker. But film was always kind of in my plan. Even though I was a writer, I didn’t really have my eyes on publishing.

EO

What was the culture of Buckley? Because schools typically have these movements of people, like there’s usually the school where all the actors, artists, and entertainment people send their kids or the place where more business-oriented people tend to send their kids.

BEE

The culture of the school was kind of exactly how I described it in The Shards. Looking back, Buckley really encouraged the best of us. It really did. I mean, at the time, I knew what I wanted to do. I found myself. It restricted me in so many ways, I felt, because I knew I wanted to be a writer or a filmmaker. I didn’t want to take math or science. I failed both of them all the time. Had to go to summer school to make up for it. So I kind of resented Buckley. But on a certain level, there was something about it that I thought was very well-designed, it really was sophisticated in terms of the novels they taught, in terms of what they thought you could rise up to. I liked all of that about it. It just really wasn’t for me at the time. I already knew what I wanted. It was also just a beautiful campus, and driving to that campus every day was great. They’ve redone it. It doesn’t look quite as cool as it did. It’s gone through the whole globalization thing that everything’s gone through.

EO

Doesn’t it look like a stable or farm? I just remember seeing red. One of my best friends growing up, her sister went to Buckley and we’d pick her up.

BEE

It’s at the end of a cul-de-sac in the San Fernando Valley in Sherman Oaks. And then it goes up into the Hills a little bit. The sports fields were on the hill. In the 1970s, it was split into two sides. There’s a big parking lot and then one side was nursery school through sixth grade, and then you crossed the parking lot and the other campus was 7th through 12th. It was really beautiful. All stucco buildings and red-tiled roofs, and it was all outside. There were no hallways. It was all very SoCal.

EO

In terms of context, you were writing about such a specific experience.

BEE

Yes.

EO

Your experience has resonated with people across the world, but the realm of private school culture–and California wealth and status–is very specific. Your world wasn’t that big. [Laughs.]

BEE

No, you’re right. Less Than Zero was published in 40 countries. It is still in print in most of them. Random House is putting out the 40th anniversary edition of it in early 2025. They want me to write a foreword to it. It has sold millions and millions and millions of copies around the world. Why? Why was I getting fan letters from young people in India? Why was I getting fan letters from a guy in Wales in 1986? I don’t know what I did. I don’t know what I spoke to. I wrote personally. I wrote very specifically about my feelings, and that’s all I did. I was not conscious of sending a message out. There was just something about the voice and something about the universality of it that I did not know was out there that connected with people. Now, if I knew that it was going to be read by that many people, I would’ve written it a lot better. They published 2,000 copies of it out of the first printing. So I thought, “Oh, great, I’m getting published. That’s enough. It’s cool. Look at the book. I have an actual book that I wrote that’s published.” I didn’t expect anything more than that.

What is the voice and what is it about the book that connects? I can’t bottle that. I don’t know what it is. There’s just something about the alienation of youth, the ennui of being young, not figuring out your life yet. I was fairly upfront about drugs and sex in a way that a teen novel hadn’t shown before. There was no making the parents look evil and making all the kids victims. I think people found that to be a really interesting angle, that the kids were as bad as their parents in this hellish world. There’s something about that world that is not reality necessarily, but metaphorically, it feels right to a lot of people. Maybe it was the style. David Foster Wallace, who ended up not being a fan of mine, said that, stylistically, he loved Less Than Zero, and that he just thought the style of it carried him throughout the entire book. Great. That’s maybe what happened. It was the luck and the time. When I had my editor on, it was like, when you came into the offices, because I looked a lot different then, they thought, “Oh, he’s so good-looking. We can really market this young guy. He’s written a sexy book.” It was kind of a no-brainer. And I was just innocently walking through this, thinking, “Okay, so you like my work,” meanwhile half the editors of the house voted against the book. They didn’t want to publish it. There was a lot of controversy about the book when it was published in editorials saying, if American publishing has sunk so low that they’re publishing the journals of some bisexual drug addict, then publishing is over. So I got a lot of that flack from the get-go. I do not know why Less Than Zero has stuck around. It actually has outstayed its welcome.

EO

Boom. Maybe this quote is from American Psycho: “I had all the characteristics of a human being: Flesh, blood, skin, hair, but my depersonalization was so intense, I’d gone so deep that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated; the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was of a human being with only a dim corner of my mind functioning. Something horrible was happening, and yet I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t put my finger on it.”

BEE

I wrote that. Yes, I did. I wrote that in 1990 or 1989.

EO

By the way, your writing is so visual, it is. You write things the way people experience them. Reading your book, it feels like I’m living in a consciousness, not even necessarily that I’m reading.

BEE

I'm writing in a consciousness. . .writing in the consciousness. As much as I outline a book–I’ve said many times that I did huge outlines of American Psycho that were often as long as the book, just hundreds of outlines and notes–when I finally find out who’s narrating the book (all my books have that kind of narration), then I get into their mindset using my pain as a motivator for them to express themselves. I mean, I felt like Patrick Bateman when I wrote that.

EO

When you’re in a book, you’re very much searching for the narrator, right?

BEE

I’m searching for the narrator before I write the book because I need to get his voice, and then I need to do an outline of him. From American Psycho, where there is no plot and it’s narrative-less, I needed to figure out the movement of each chunk of the book, and where it was going to go.

EO

What do you mean by movement?

BEE

Well, before the first murder happens, what’s going on? Why are we following this man in his daily life and his boring days? And everyone is mistaking each other. He is going to the office. He’s got this girlfriend. Why is it called American Psycho? What’s going on? And then, boom, the first murder hits, and we are now moving into another movement of the book where it gets slightly crazier. That’s the second movement. The third movement is psychosis, a total psychosis. Then we gradually shift into the last movement of the book. So, when I look at that book, I see it as a series of movements, just like I did with The Shards. There is this opening, and then there’s the lifestyle of the kids. Even something as short as Imperial Bedrooms, which is 165 pages, contains movements for me.

EO

Why did it take so long for you to inhabit the world of Hollywood as a writer?

BEE

I grew up out here in a lucky era, which was the New Hollywood of the 1970s, where it seemed possible to make grand personal statements with studio money. That’s what the New Hollywood directors did. They broke in, they changed the rules, and then they really led the revolution for about 10 years before these auteur movies that were so wildly expensive were losing money, whether it was The Shining or Raging Bull or Heaven’s Gate. The lawyers and agents had to come in to get everything back to normal, back to where we were. That’s why many people think the ’80s is the worst period for cinema. Quentin Tarantino constantly talks about the ’80s being so fucking terrible, but I grew up out there, and I knew the pitfalls, and I knew that I didn’t want to be a screenwriter because I saw how screenwriters were treated as a kid. My best friend’s father was an A-list screenwriter, made a ton of money, but never got any of his movies made anyway. I didn’t want to do that. So I didn’t really go out to Hollywood and do anything until television became great.

EO

So you think the ’90s were dominated by movies and the 2010s were by television. I agree. Movies resonate on a different level now.

BEE

But The Sopranos changed the rules for TV, and that had not happened before. No one wanted to go out and write TV. Television was a shitty job that you could make a lot of money out of because they were doing 24 episodes a season and there were writers’ rooms and you were working all year long. And you were making crap like Nash Bridges. It was just not a place where you could become artistic. But then The Sopranos hit, and everything kind of changed, and that really made people think, “Oh my God, television can be art.” And for about 10 or 12 years, there were these groundbreaking shows all over the place. That’s why I came out to Hollywood to create the novel as a TV series because it seemed like it was being done all the time. I was selling ideas and working on ideas for a wide array of studios, from HBO to Legendary to Hulu to Showtime. I was all over the place. But 98% of stuff written does not get made. And that was my problem, realizing that getting a TV show on the air, no matter how well paid you are, is near impossible. I got to the point where it was like, I can’t do this anymore. So I left in 2019.

EO

Why did you stay so long?

BEE

Because I was in the casino and I couldn’t step away from the blackjack table. I’d had too much to drink. I don’t know, I was being well-paid. Everyone’s so enthusiastic. “Bret, this is a sure thing.” I was in the casino for too long until I finally realized I couldn’t do it anymore, and this was a waste of time. And I also wanted to make a movie. And the money came in to make the movie in Europe. That’s what the plan was, and then COVID-19 hit.

EO

I was thinking about Mork & Mindy recently.

BEE

Oh, I’ve watched all of Mork & Mindy. That was a Tuesday night lineup on ABC.

EO

I was thinking specifically about Robin Williams in L.A. and his whole trajectory, the burgeoning comedy scene. But, also, that was how the third camera was introduced.

What was the context of that show and how were you consuming it? What did that symbolize? In the intro to The Shards, you were talking about Ordinary People with Mary Tyler Moore. I’ve been thinking a lot about Jim Brooks, who created it. The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Mork & Mindy, they’re of different times. But what did that kind of television symbolize at that point if it wasn't art?

BEE

Social movements. Mary Tyler Moore was important. It was a three-camera sitcom that was made by CBS to sell products to advertisers. And what shows like Mary Tyler Moore or All in the Family did was move a social ideology forward, a progressivism. Whether it was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, whether it was Maude, whether it was All in the Family, whether it was The Jeffersons, that is what TV did. But TV came in half-hour bundles that were 22 minutes long and sold eight minutes of advertising. That’s what TV was then. It was not art. Mary Tyler Moore, there were some funny jokes, and there were some knockout episodes, but it wasn’t art.

EO

Great fashion, though.

BEE

Great fashion, of course. And one of the best credit songs ever.

EO

Oh my God. [Laughs.] “I’m going to make it after all!”

BEE

Maybe the best. These shows then were flirting with things like abortion or cancer or women’s rights or homosexuality, which were so controversial to include back then. Often, the channels, the cable writers, wouldn’t let them do it. They would say, you gotta take this out of the script. So it wasn’t art. They were selling notions of progressivism and that’s what made the shows exciting. But mostly it was like The Carol Burnett Show, and Three’s Company, and then it got back to a conservative kind of TV like Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley.

It really wasn’t a medium of art. Even the dramas were stock dramas with commercials selling stuff. When cable came around, and they started making these shows, there wasn’t anything to sell. There were no advertisers. And TV became like the New Hollywood of the ’70s. It had a run that is now over. It is gone. It’s never coming back. There were maybe 15 years of great television. Now that has died. I was in the middle of that, trying to get these shows made and positive I was going to get them made. Also, there were some movies I wanted to direct. The kind of movie I wanted to direct was nearly impossible, so I wasted about 14 years of my life in Los Angeles chasing that, and it never really happened, but I was well-compensated for it so I could live.

EO

I know you mention being “well-compensated,” but was it worth it?

BEE

First of all, by the way, I didn’t have a jet and I didn’t live in a mansion. I live in a 1,400-square-foot condo in West Hollywood. It’s nice. But I did not have fuck-you money. I wasn’t traveling to Europe all the time. I had enough money to live in L.A. on a nice level and go to a couple of nice restaurants. That was it. Otherwise, you’re making 35 cents on the dollar in Hollywood because 50% goes to taxes, 15% goes to your agent, and 5% goes to your lawyer. If you have a manager, that’s another 10%. So everyone’s joking that you’re making 35 cents on the dollar in Hollywood anyway, but beyond that, how did it feel? It felt like I was on a journey to get something made. I loved all the projects I was working on. What hurt the most was that you’d spend a year or two or even three years in development, getting the script right, and then it not happening was becoming unbearable to me. I just couldn’t do it anymore, so I left in 2019. I told my agent, “These two projects that everyone said, ‘Oh, they're gonna happen. They're gonna happen,’ are not happening. Mickey, are you listening to me, Mickey?” Mickey, I’m sure on his desk, with the wireless thing, in his office at UTA. I said, “Mickey, don’t send me out for anything. I have no ideas. I'm quitting the business. Bye-bye.”

EO

[Laughs.] “I’m quitting the business.”

BEE

“I'm quitting the business. Don’t send me the things. . .” because your agent’s always finding you shit. And then you go, “Oh, that’s a really good idea. I’ll meet with Paramount about this.” Or, you have an idea and they know the right person to...

EO

What about strategy? Because at a certain point you did have enough influence–why not go straight to the directors or studios who had first-look deals?

BEE

We did, all the time. We met with everybody. There were so many directors attached to the scripts that I wrote. I also wanted to direct them. But if Gus Van Sant wanted to direct that script, or Gaspar Noé, or whoever else wanted to direct that script, great, we could do it. But then the deals fell apart. Most movies would fall apart. I used Todd Field as an example. Between the time he made Little Children and the time he made Tár was a period of about 18 years. He was working on stuff all the time. All the time. He had movies with Leo DiCaprio. He was working with Joan Didion, he was working with Scorsese, he was working with HBO. Things completely fall apart out here. And I did.

EO

Why do things fall apart? What is the disconnect?

BEE

The disconnect is that it’s a very expensive art and it is very hard to get the money to make the art you want to make. Now, if you wanna make crap, that’s a lot easier. I remember when I was first out here, I met a British guy who had been out here for many years. He was younger than me and he would run my scripts and say, “You know what your problem is? You’ve gotta make them a bit shittier. You’ve gotta have shittier ideas. You think this movie about these two artists in love who commit suicide is going to be easy to finance?” He was absolutely right. But a lot of people were interested. Ryan Gosling wanted to play that part. Naomi Watts, Joaquin Phoenix. Whatever that period was, I was meeting with a lot of these people. Just doesn’t happen.

EO

But do you think that Hollywood is trying to safeguard or gatekeep?

BEE

As William Goldman famously said about Hollywood, “No one knows anything.” If they did, it would make more sense. No one knows anything anymore, or they never really did. Why does one movie get made and another doesn’t? Luck, timing, the right actor. I know that the movie that I thought was dead–that I’m hoping to make this year–suddenly the actor who agreed to star in it got cast in a Marvel film. He’s a somewhat unknown British actor who was in Stranger Things and he suddenly got cast in a Marvel movie that he is going to be shooting from June to December, but he’s attached to my movie. We were $2 or $3 million short, and when he got cast, we suddenly had $5 million extra for our special effects because Joe Quinn was in it. So that’s how it works. And if you had told me five years ago that, okay, we’re going to have Joe Quinn play this role and we’re going to get the money because he was going to be in a Marvel movie and that’s why the movie’s now getting greenlit–ugh.

EO

Is this the one that you’re directing?

BEE

Yeah, it’s the one I'm directing, and we’ll see if it happens. There’s always something on the rise and they can fuck it up. I’m just waiting for it.

EO

Luca Guadagnino is doing The Shards?

BEE

That was fake news that got out there. He wanted to do it, and he was attached, but he never signed a contract. He was asking for too much money. I met with him many times. I just met with him this fall in October in Italy. I was on my book tour. We had dinner, and he was very honest with me. He said, “They're not meeting what I want contractually, and until they do, I’m not doing this, but I’d love to do it.” He was our number one choice. He was HBO’s number one choice, my number one choice, and the producer’s number one choice. He was connected to it about four months before the book was even published, but he’s not doing it now.

EO

I'm curious about all of these things because we're no strangers to writers, magazine or otherwise, flirting with Hollywood. One of my favorite novelists is Don DeLillo, specifically his novel Point Omega, but it’s also funny because Ottessa [Moshfegh] is also now in the hot seat with her books being made, and writing scripts with her husband. And there’s always Joan Didion, but that film that she and John wrote, The Panic in Needle Park, wasn’t really all that great. You once said that Don DeLillo is the greatest novelist of all time.

BEE

He was one of the greatest novelists of that moment, and certainly was a huge influence on Glamorama. I was going back and rediscovering Don DeLillo after I read White Noise, which was the first of his books I read when it was published in 1985, and then I started going back and reading everything else, and by that time, I was starting Glamorama. There’s a real DeLillo vibe that I wanted to capture because I read everything then.

EO

His writing is so fantastic and exacting. Because while Point Omega is 112 pages, it reads and feels like a 500-page book. Your book is the opposite, like there’s a lightness to it. It’s equally as pensive, visceral and sensorial. It’s really airy, like encountering a breeze.

BEE

It’s not a conscious thing. It’s just sort of, “Oh, this feels right. This is where I am right now. This is what I want to express,” and I’m not expressing it to anyone but myself in my room, and I’m relieving myself of pain.

EO

This is the go-to. Your new line is, “I’m relieving myself of pain.”

BEE

It’s not even a go-to. There’s no other way to describe it.

EO

Is this a recent realization or is this something that you’ve known from the jump?

BEE

I’ve known from the beginning. I know it more and more and more and more because I wasn’t feeling a book for 13 years.

EO

I’m really curious about your leaving New York. In Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” she talks about staying too late at the fair. You left New York when you were 41. You moved from New York in 2005. What drove you to leave New York?

BEE

My boyfriend of seven years had died very suddenly, and that was a big catalyst. I couldn’t really bear it. It was time to go back to Los Angeles. Seth’s stuff was still in my apartment, his clothes. I had his sister come over and take things away. I had a great time, a great run. The ’90s were really fun, but I couldn’t live in New York anymore. The party, for me, was over. I really related to “Goodbye to All That.” That is true for a lot of people. I don’t know where they go. Maybe they go to Boston, maybe they go to Connecticut, Europe. But, for me, it was L.A.

EO

Why Los Angeles and not somewhere in Europe?

BEE

Well, because I was going to get into TV writing and directing films. You kind of have to be in L.A. to write and direct. If you’re an actor, you can live in New York and then fly in or do an audition for people. But in-the-room meetings with writers were required then. Now, it’s all Zoom, but then it was the afternoon of driving to Sony to meet with the producers to pitch the idea. Writers had to live here. Writers’ rooms were here, production was here. Also, my mom lives here, my step-father, and my two sisters lived here. I had friends here. It was the obvious place to go.

EO

I was thinking about the movie American Psycho because I learned that Christina Bale was paid next to nothing because he wasn’t the first choice for the film. He took a pay cut because that studio didn’t want him, but the director did.

BEE

Christian Bale was the first choice for the film. It’s true that Lionsgate did not want him, but Mary Harron did. And then Leonardo DiCaprio expressed interest in it while the movie was being developed, and he had just become a huge star in Titanic. And he said, “I want to do American Psycho.” Lionsgate said, “We’ll pay you $20 million to star in it, and we’ll get whatever director you want.” And he wanted Kubrick or Scorsese, and they didn’t want to do it, but Oliver Stone did. So they fired Christian Bale, they fired Mary Harron, and they hired Leo and Oliver Stone, and that did not work out. And they went back to Christian and to Mary and said, “Okay, make this movie, but you gotta make it with 4 million bucks, and you can’t shoot in New York, because that’s going to be too expensive. So shoot most of it in Toronto and then we’ll do exteriors in New York, and that’s it.” I don’t know how long they had to shoot it, something like 24 days or something. Very tight schedule. But it ended up, I think, making a lot of money for people, because it did so well on DVDs, and also it was constantly referenced.

EO

And is that not good for anything?

BEE

It does get me into rooms. The notoriety of American Psycho has completely helped get me into rooms and get projects jump-started.

EO

I avoided Fight Club until two months ago. I finally watched it and I was like, Holy shit, this is insane. It has that similar effect of that time, where so many films that came out in theaters weren’t initially commercially successful films, but then once they went to DVD they became cult classics. People just need to be able to spend time with these things to better understand them.

BEE

Oh, Fight Club bombed. Yeah, no, certainly, and I’m sure with Chuck Palahniuk, as the writer of Fight Club, that opens a lot of doors, too. Even though the people who ran that studio were fired because Fight Club failed to make a lot of money when it came out. But how much does it really help? Not enough for me to get movies made. But as the author of it, sure, yes, “Let’s meet with Bret Easton Ellis, let's have Bret Easton Ellis do this.” It certainly is not a hindrance to anything.

EO

What do you feel like you were exposing when you’re writing?

BEE

I’m exposing what I’m feeling. That’s simply it. My publisher would probably want me to publish a book every two years and be on that kind of track, I can’t do it. I don’t always have the feeling to push out a book. I can’t write a book I don’t want to write, in other words. It really is what I’m dealing with at certain points in my life, I’ve felt a certain way, and I expressed myself through writing and that helped save me. And every book is told from the point of view of someone my age. So I’ve been chronicling my pain for almost 40 years now, and that’s how I do it. I was even doing it in Hollywood. The projects that I was working on and that interested me were also projects that were reflecting where I was emotionally and what I was feeling, and what I was going through. That’s how it's always worked.

EO

You said having a persona–going back to the ‘Charlie Rose’ thing–is the most important thing for a writer to have. It reminds me of what Toni Morrison famously says, that “Chloe wrote the books and Toni gave the interviews.”

BEE

She’s right. I agree with that. There was this notion that Norman Mailer made very clear: unless a writer has a persona, a brand, they don’t matter. No one really cares. This was an empire. I don’t know if anyone cares anymore. This was at a time when writers were stars and on television, and their picture taken on the red carpet and the mainstream media helped convey a persona for the viewer. I think I went along with this persona or didn’t reject it as this slick bad boy of American letters, which I really didn’t feel I was at all anyway. I was the guy who was young and going out, and it was controversial to be seen going to nightclubs and coming out of them at 3 o’clock in the morning or whenever it was. But having a persona doesn’t necessarily mean wearing a cape or a headband or something. It meant you had a distinctive idiosyncratic voice and style, and the way you presented yourself in interviews and in the media gave you a kind of brand.

EO

You’ve said that the novel at the time was essentially “A way of getting the message out as a medium.” What do you think that that medium is now?

BEE

I was just thinking about this. I just read something about this culture that I had no idea about and it was fascinating to witness. Every now and then that happens. I come across something, whether it’s a book, non-fiction, fiction, or a movie or it’s a television thing that I’ve never experienced before. I didn’t know about this and that’s a message from the front. As I’m entering into my elder stage, I am interested in craft, aesthetic. Message is in this style, message is in the aesthetic. I’m reaching back to older writers. I think Edith Wharton might be the greatest novelist of the 20th century at this point in my life. I’m going back to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. The next book I’m reading is Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. 20th-century still, but a hundred years old. Reading Demon Copperhead, about Appalachia in the 1990s, was an experience that I was very surprised and very gratified by. But the power of that book comes from the voice–the voice of that boy and what Barbara Kingsolver does with it.

EO

How rigorous of a reader are you? How much does reading take up your time and how do you live in the things that you read?

BEE

I’m reading constantly. I always have four or five books going on at once. I read all day because I’m writing, and I’m rereading what I’m writing, and so I’m constantly reading. I’m going to be checking out whatever is in The New York Times and The L.A. Times, when I get off the phone with you before I have another Zoom meeting at 2:00 pm, and then I’m going to be just working on my podcast all day, which means writing all day long. I have to go to the bank, the store. But I’m in until tonight, I’m not going out. I’m just going to be writing and reading, rereading what I’m writing; writing and reading. And that will be my day. So, a lot. I do it all day long, pretty much; it’s my job.

EO

You wrote that “Scripts are about structure and books are about consciousness and style, and they are two completely different things. One is very mechanical and can be satisfying at times, and the other is more deeply gratifying.”

BEE

Yes, this is true. I’m writing the pilot for The Shards. What we have been realizing in draft after draft is that the set up is the most crucial. So the structure is vital to making it work. It’s not about the consciousness of the screenplay, it’s not about the consciousness of the characters. I mean, they’re chess pieces that we need to move around in order to get the totality of the vibe, of the message, of the narrative. We’re rearranging things constantly. A script is about structure; it is not about consciousness, and it is not about style. There are people who are pretty good at writing a script, but that means that the less writing, the better; the shorter the script is, the better it is. A descriptive script is a terrible script. It’s boom, information, boom, dialogue, boom, whatever. A novel isn’t like that. A novel is about interiority, it’s about consciousness. It is about... Even something like, The Great Gatsby, which reads like a movie, is about style. It’s about consciousness.

EO

You say you revisit The Great Gatsby every 10 years. What was the most recent takeaway for you?

BEE

I see something new in it all the time. It changes with me as I age. I’ve had an even deeper appreciation for it being the key American novel of the 20th-century in terms of what it is about; the idea that you can reinvent yourself in America, and that reinvention is about capitalism. It is about the carelessness of the wealthy at the expense of the poor. One reading, I think I was in my 30s, it was like, oh my God, this is just an amazingly well-written page turner, 126 pages, a super high body count, all these parties. It’s fun. And then I had a much deeper reading and it was very sorrowful. It might not be the best American novel ever written, but it is the quintessential American novel of the 20th-century, in terms of its themes, what Jay Gatsby represents, and the way it’s told in this direct American idiom way that has never been more powerfully displayed.