Don't Be an Asshole

Top of the Hub Restaurant, Prudential Tower, 800 Boylston Street, Boston, Jan. 25, 1999. Bret Easton Ellis and his escort
By Shara R. Kay and Jonathan S. Paul

Top of the Hub Restaurant, Prudential Tower, 800 Boylston Street, Boston, Jan. 25, 1999. Bret Easton Ellis and his escort sit in the 52nd-story lounge looking out on a stunning panoramic view of the nighttime Boston skyline. Jonathan Paul, Shara Kay, and Crimson photographer John Coyle join them. Below is an excerpt from the conversation that followed.

fifteen minutes: You've been portrayed by the media as leading the same type of lifestyle that you criticize.

BRET EASTON ELLIS: And I think that has a lot to do with self-loathing. You can criticize the life-style you're leading and there's nothing wrong with that....I mean, I wrote American Psycho as a book that I really think is in a lot of ways very autobiographical, I mean, not in terms of slaughtering people, but there are elements of that life-style that I was leading at that time that I was not particularly happy with....I think there's something very honest about criticizing certain elements of your lifestyle and placing them within your fiction.

FM: Some of your characters have mantras, or personal mottoes. What about you--do you have one?

BEE: Yes, I do, and it was a mantra that I was thinking a lot about when I was working on Glamorama. And it's just: Don't be an asshole. That's really what I tell myself a lot . I was just thinking--don't make a lot of bad choices and don't be an asshole.

FM: I was about to talk about American Psycho and your portrayal of a person involved with Wall Street and investment banking. That "fast-track" is something that is very much at the core of many Harvard students right now. Would you say that Harvard is, in fact, psycho?

BEE: Well, Patrick Bateman went to Harvard. That is his alma mater. You know what, I really don't feel comfortable as a sociologist. You know, there's that cliche about Harvard--a cheap and easy pot-shot. I have a lot of friends who graduated from Harvard and they seemed perfectly normal. But I guess they were in the arts division. I really don't know anyone who went into banking from Harvard.

FM: You've said that you don't analyze things. But is holding a mirror up to society enough of a stance?

BEE: I'm just posing the questions. I don't really have any answers at all. There are no answers to anything I pose.

FM: Do you care about what's cool?

BEE: You know what? I think you get to a point where you don't care any more and you become kind of proud of not liking what's cool. It's kind of a relief to let that fall off you. I think when I was younger I definitely cared what's cool but I don't think I was easily swayed by conventional taste either.

FM: Is it true that you are writing a memoir called "Where I Have Been I Would Not Go Back?"

BEE You used the title! You are first to ask that question while throwing the title into it. The title is true.

FM: Is that to say that you have regrets?

BEE: Where I have been I will not go back. I have regrets about being human. I have regrets about being adolescent, I have regrets about being. There are a lot of regrets I have. I mean, on a daily basis I have them. The memoir, then, will be filled with regret. It's about college, about my adolescent years, yes. I don't even know if I'm going to publish this. This is something that I'm working on because I am really in the mood to work on it. It's basically like a psychic head-cleaning. But the novel that I've been planNing for the past year or so, is autobiographical.

FM: Political?

BEE: Yes...Well, you know, I said political but now I'm telling everyone "supernatural." It might change within the next month...I think it's more supernatural than political. I've known some people who've been involved with politics and I've followed their exploits very closely for a number of years.

FM: This isn't science fiction, is it?

BEE: No. This isn't science fiction. It's science fact. [laughter] What is that phrase from? Who said that? Is that from like some cheesy sci-fi movie?

FM: "Ghostbusters" or something?

BEE: Could be "Ghostbusters." But no. It's not science fiction. It's supernatural-ghosts, poltergeists. I'm serious.

FM: Do you believe in ghosts?

BEE: No. No.

FM: But you are ready to write about them?

BEE: I'm ready to write about them, yea. I've really been thinking about them a lot.

FM: But ghosts?!

BEE: They're not. They're, like, monsters. I'm not going to go into this. But they're monsters, monsters, big scary monsters.

FM: Do you consider yourself a sensationalist?

BEE: I'm simply attracted to sensationalist material. I'm addicted to a reported spectacle. I'm really interested in writing about violence but I'm not violent in my everyday life. But I'm very squeamish and I wince a lot when I see syringes go into arms or scenes that are too bloody. But in my fictional world I am addicted to violence. I am into it. And I'm also interested in bisexuality [there is] a lot in my fiction, but it doesn't mean that I'm bisexual or that I have some sort of bisexual tendencies right now in this period in my life.

FM: So Rules of Attraction wasn't about your college experience? The people you knew?

BEE: No, not at all. It was me generalizing about my generation. Which is what I've always been doing, and I mean just making these leaps into the air. Saying, "Yuppies are serial killers." Well, "Models are terrorists." And making these metaphors. "Young kids in L.A. are vampires." Et cetera, et cetera. And me just being playful with these metaphors, taking them to the next logical conclusion. But it doesn't necessarily reflect what I like on a daily basis. My life is really boring, really boring. But I know you must not think so.

FM: I have an extraordinarily annoying question.

BEE: Ask it.

FM: Postmodernism. Thumbs up or thumbs down?

BEE: Thumbs up. Definitely. I am total a postmodernist and I'm totally into postmodernism. So I've got to say, thumbs up. Big thumbs up.

FM: Big thumbs up?

BEE: And I'm even into post-post modernism.

FM: Are you a post-post modernist?

BEE: But edging toward naturalism at the same time.

FM: I thought it was supernaturalism?

BEE: Yes. But also....

FM: Maybe it's post-naturalism? A whole new genre!

BEE: Yes. So I think I am, that I am doing that. It is naturalistic post-modernism, post-post modernism..

FM: We have a debate going. We actually watch "Dawson's Creek." Have you ever seen the show? Do you think it's post-modern?

BEE: No. Absolutely not. Not at all. I think it's a throw-back.

FM: Thumbs up or thumbs down on Dawson?

BEE: At first it was thumbs up and now I'm thumbs in the middle. But I did go out and see "Varsity Blues." Actually, somebody took me to "Varsity Blues." It was better than I thought it was going to be.

FM: The 80's are coming back! It has been said that the 80's are coming back with all these teen movies. What is this gesturing towards?

BEE: I don't know. I think the teen movies of the 80's were probably a little better, and I'm not saying that just because I grew up at that time. But you know what? Actually, on second look, a lot of them were really lame. I am so shocked that my generation is so into "The Breakfast Club." I am really embarrassed.

FM: Thumbs down?

BEE: You know, it used to be major thumbs up when I was 20 but now I see it and I am just thinking, why's there that thing with Ally Sheedy getting made over at the end with the bow in her hair so that she can go out with Emilio Estevez? That's a triumph? I mean, that's really a triumph--for the cool artsy girl to realize that the only way to get a guy is to put make-up on, put her hair up in a bow, get rid of her black turtleneck and leggings?! That was what they were telling kids in the Reagan years during their teenage years?! That is so shocking to me.

FM: Is "Clueless" any different?

BEE: And is it different from any of the Gigit movies of the 50's? No. You're right. It's the continuous manufacture of garbage in American culture. It's going on in a loop--an endless loop--of lies and manipulation! My god!

FM: What magazines do you subscribe to?

BEE: Most of them.

FM: Do you have a favorite?

BEE: Well, I was going to say Cat Fancy but I don't subscribe to Cat Fancy. But I have a friend who subscribes to "Cat Fancy."

FM: It must have been such a struggle to get American Psycho published.

BEE: Right. But you know the struggle was really not mine. The struggle was between a group of editors and agents and feminists...I just kind of stayed in a chair while this hurricane rolled around me. It was something that was so out of control, so out of my hands that I didn't even pretend to participate in it. And I was so far removed from what I thought the book was about that to participate in it was to participate in fiction, in a movie. And why get involved with that when I know the truth was nowhere within that narrative that was happening, that was connected with that book?

FM: What about the movie? How is the screenplay going to differ from the book? Is it really censored?

BEE: I read the screenplay. They are going to start shooting it March 1. They are required to bring in an R-rated movie. I read the script--it's violent but it's not over the top. A lot of it isn't sexual violence any more.

FM: So it's pretty toned down?

BEE: I think it is pretty toned down.

FM: How could you do that?

BEE: It's very faithful to the book. About 95 percent of the script--about all the dialogue and all the scenes are from the book. They have really focused in on the black humor elements of it. Listen, I've sold the rights. I don't know if it will necessarily make a great movie. I think part of what makes it worked and why people liked it had inherently to do with it being a novel. I don't know if what they like about it can be translated to the screen. That's the only thing.

FM: The dialogue seems like dialogue for the sake of showing how inane the dialogue was. I can't imagine that as a movie.

BEE: See, that's the problem.

FM: Is there a voice-over?

BEE: They do a voice-over that I am not happy with.

FM: At least they didn't cast Leonardo di Caprio.

BEE: I wanted it to be Leonardo. I was very disappointed that it wasn't Leonardo. I liked that choice a lot. I thought it was very perverse and interesting. It would have added this weird level or cruelty to Patrick Bateman because Leonardo looks so boyish that I thought would have helped it enormously. I also think he's a great actor. So I was actually interested in having him do it. I was very disappointed when he dropped out. I actually was.

FM: How much say do you have?

BEE: I have no say.

FM: For the record, what exactly are you wearing? Your trenchcoat seems to be a trademark.

BEE: Pants are Gap Chinos, Banana Republic shirt, Polo Ralph Lauren tie, a Hugo Boss jacket and I think this is an Emporio Armani rain--coat. Socks are Calvin Klein. Underwear is Calvin Klein. And the shoes are Armani. The watch is actually Guess?.

FM: Is what's "in," out?

BEE: I don't know. That was some inane bit of reasoning that seemed very suggestive to me at one time. I don't know.

Prada, Xanex, Guess?, Dire Straits, Julian Schnabel, Moomba. Critics have graciously pardoned Bret Easton Ellis's unrelenting name-dropping, label-dropping and venue-dropping for the past 15 years. His writing is brilliant satire, they all have echoed.

But with Glamorama, Ellis' most recent product, the applause has ended. Most say the book is lousy due to a nerdy narrative (models pose as international terrorists), way too many "droppings" and an awkward "moral" at the end. Critics wish this novel were more understated like his classics American Psycho or Less Than Zero.

The assumption has been that Ellis is a dark, wry, social critic and his obsessive cataloguing of yuppiedom is just a tongue-in-cheek way of exposing our cultural depravity. This point of view gives Bret Easton Ellis far more credit than he deserves.

Really, it's not very complicated. Ellis is obsessed with models, drugs, sex, magazines and violence and that's what he writes about. If you find a message in one of his old books, good for you, but Ellis never meant it like that. And even if he tells you he did, he's lying. That's the way he is.

In person, Bret Easton Ellis has the smooth-talking polish of a Washington politico. He puts on a great show and manages to speak for several minutes without really saying anything. He rarely gives a straight answer. Recently he told Rolling Stone magazine that he is bisexual. Now, he says he was joking. And what about his next book project? At first he said it had a political orientation. Now, it's "supernatural."

A virtuoso of quotable quotes and absurd silliness, Ellis lives cocktail party chitchat. He's a master of persuasion and listeners become believers even though he says nothing. His language is littered with "you knows"--a question as rhetorical and self-serving as the motive behind many of his recent public appearances. In conversation, Ellis incessantly sells himself, his book and his "friends."

Like the novels he writes, Ellis-the-person has a fluffy, immediate appeal. He delivers cheap and intoxicating amusement but, when it's all over, leaves absolutely nothing behind.