Bret Easton Ellis was born in 1964 in Los Angeles, grew up in the San Fernando Valley, went to a local private school called Buckley, and drove his parents’ hand-me-down Mercedes 450SL. “In retrospect, we were pretty well-off,” he told me. “But at the time, I didn’t feel that way. Most of my friends lived in bigger houses in better neighborhoods and drove nicer cars.”
At the age of twenty, while a junior at Bennington, Ellis sold his first novel, Less Than Zero, to Simon and Schuster for five thousand dollars. The book is about a group of burned-out rich kids in L.A., with names like Clay and Rip and Blair and Spin, who do almost nothing (other than have sex, do drugs, watch MTV, play video games, and drive around the city looking for one another) for two hundred pages. It’s funny, creepy, and vaguely gothic, with coyotes howling in the Hollywood Hills, lizards crawling out of glove compartments, and rumors about a werewolf preying on people in Bel Air.
Not everyone at Simon and Schuster loved the book. In the words of one editor, as Ellis was later told, “If there’s an audience for a novel about coke-snorting, cock-socking zombies, then by all means let’s publish the damn thing.” It turned out there was a audience for it. Less Than Zero would eventually sell millions of copies around the world and make Bret Easton Ellis one of the youngest literary stars in American history.
Now forty-seven, Ellis has published six novels—Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction (1987), American Psycho (1991), Glamorama (1998), Lunar Park (2005), and Imperial Bedrooms (2010)—and one short-story collection, The Informers (1995). “Every one of my books,” he told me, “is an exercise in voice and character, an exploration, through a male narrator who is always the same age I am at the time, of the pain I’m dealing with in my life.” Whether he’s writing about a serial killer who works on Wall Street (American Psycho) or a suburban dad named Bret Easton Ellis (Lunar Park), all his books deal with absent fathers, unrequited love, and the pressure to conform.
After college, Ellis moved to New York City, bought a small apartment off Union Square, and lived there for most of the next twenty years. His memory for dates is superhuman. Without consulting a diary or datebook, he would say things to me like: “The four worst summers of my life were in ’92, ’01, ’07, and ’08”; “I started working on Imperial Bedrooms in June ’06, and during that time The Informers premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January of ’09 but opened theatrically in the U.S. in April of ’09, and then I finished Imperial Bedrooms in May ’09”; “I left New York for good, and with a bad coke hangover, on June 16, 2006.”
Ellis is all about Hollywood now. At any one time he might be working on a dozen different screenplays, television scripts, or pilots. Since finishing Imperial Bedrooms, which was a sequel of sorts to Less Than Zero(same characters, same setting, but twenty-five years later), he hasn’t started a new book, and it’s possible he’ll never write another one. “The form of the novel,” he says, “doesn’t interest me right now.”
Ellis lives in a nice two-bedroom apartment near Beverly Hills. One of the two bedrooms serves as his office, and this is where I interviewed him—three times in the fall of 2010, three times the following spring, and always (at his request, since he writes in the morning and takes meetings at night) in the afternoon, between one and five. The sun had a way of coming through his office window that hurt my eyes a bit and warmed the room up. After the first meeting, I kept asking him if we could maybe take some of our meetings to a different location, to a bar or restaurant or café, but he kept saying no, he’d rather not, since it made him self-conscious to be interviewed in public. At the beginning of the sixth and final interview, I confessed that the sun was hurting my eyes and making me a little hot, and he was embarrassed by this and gently scolded me: “Dude, you should have told me. I would have opened the window. I would have lowered the blinds.”
He agreed, instead, to take our final meeting in his BMW, which he drove through the Hollywood Hills, pointing out the houses where he partied in high school.