Author of Less Than Zero and American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis spoke with Toby Rogers for the August, 1999 issue of High Times. On the occasion of his birthday March 7, we’re republishing it below.
In 1985, at age 21. Bret Easton Ellis published his first novel, Less Than Zero. The novel, about rich, decadent teenagers from Beverly Hills, became a national bestseller, a Hollywood movie and was translated into 20 languages. Ellis followed with The Rules of Attraction in 1987, again about rich, decadent students enrolled at notorious Bennington College in Vermont. But it was 1990’s American Psycho, about a Wall Street tycoon who lived a secret life of smoking crack and setting women’s eyeballs on fire, that canonized Ellis into literary history. The controversial book is currently being made into a film. His latest work, Glamorama, is about Victor Ward, a supermodel who is being chased by international terrorists. This interview was conducted in Manhattan, where Ellis lives.
High Times: When did you start what you would call serious writing?
Bret Easton Ellis: Serious writing? I would say when I wrote my first book, which was in 1978 when I was fourteen. It was about a boy who had to get a job for the summer, instead of going to summer school because his grades were so bad. I had to go to summer school all the time because my grades were really bad. In the summer of ’78, I had to go to summer school, but my sisters went into my room and they found some pot. And they took the pot to my parents. They were much younger than me, and they were saying, ‘‘Mom, what’s this? Dad, what’s this?” My parents saw it, came to me and said, “You are not going to summer school, you’re a lazy spoiled brat. You’re going to get a job someplace and you’re going to stop smoking pot.” So they sent me to my grandfather, who ran some kind of shady hotels in Nevada. I went to work as a busboy in the coffeeshop at one of the hotels. It didn’t really stop my pot-smoking, but it probably did make me a better person in some ways. That was the first novel I wrote. It was about that summer.
How would you describe your life before Less Than Zero?
Odd. I worked on Less Than Zero when I was in college. My life in L.A. actually did not resemble at all the life that’s displayed in the novel. I came from a pretty middle-class family. I lived in the San Fernando Valley, didn’t live in Beverly Hills, didn’t grow up in Bel Air. I did go to private school, where most of those kids I based Less Than Zero on lived over the hill, and they did live in big houses and their fathers were in the movie industry. But Less Than Zero was not an autobiographical novel—there was not a single scene in that book or a single line of dialogue or even a character I can point to in that book where I could say, “Yeah, that’s me, that was my life.”
I had written three novels prior to Less Than Zero. None of them were published. Less Than Zero was really about my feelings about my generation in general and about America in general, the Reagan years and what kind of person was this producing and all that passivity. That’s what I was really interested in. I wasn’t interested in writing an autobiographical novel about my life in L.A. It was a simple California boyhood. It was fine.
You left the warmth of Southern California for the cold of Vermont’s Bennington College. What was that change like for you?
It was such a relief to get out of L.A. and to actually meet people my age who were reading books and wanted to be painters or artists or musicians. Most of the people I knew in high school automatically just wanted to slip into the film industry. My life really changed in terms of meeting people who I felt some kinship for. Bennington was really exciting. It was before AIDS, before “Just Say No.” It was really a very liberal time and also a very innocent time compared to the ’90s. I always thought that it was ominous and decadent, but in reality it wasn’t. It was the last of the carefree days.
A lot of people compare the Bennington scene in the ’80s to Woodstock—people running around naked, smoking pot and having orgies. Was that real or exaggerated?
No, that’s not exaggerated. But you have to understand the drinking age hadn’t been raised—it was still 18—and there were no security guards at parties. The “dressed to get laid” parties shocked me when I first went to one, and I couldn’t believe the nudity and public sex that seemed to be going on. From ’82-’85, I don’t think I saw a single condom on campus. It was a different time.
What was the drug scene like?
It’s always been pot for Bennington, but there was speed and cocaine, especially the term I got there. The entire campus was enthralled by some guy who was making speed in one of the dorms. That entire term everyone was on it. But it was almost always a sophisticated group of kids and not like a bunch of kids going crazy. I don’t want to call someone a smart drug addict and sound like an oxymoron. But, it’s true. I mean, there were a lot of smart drug addicts at Bennington. It never really got out of hand. It never interfered in their lives. They never had to go to rehab or get thrown off campus. I think people were a little scared to fathom how sophisticated these kids were.
Is it true you wrote Less Than Zero in eight weeks on a crystal-meth binge?
Yes, that’s true.
Can you describe it?
People fail to realize that I did write Less Than Zero on an eight-week crystal-meth binge, but that draft was one thousand pages long, completely unreadable and a piece of shit. So the crystal meth made me write a single-space, one-thousand page novel that really only needed to be the length that it was when it was published, which was two hundred pages, large type. It took me two and a half to three years of writing soberly in order to complete that book. I’ve never been a big user of drugs while writing. The last time I tried it I was in Miami, five or six years ago, and I’d been up too late with people and we had been partying. I went back to my hotel room and I started to write for two hours and then I went to sleep and I looked at the writing the next morning and it was horrible. It really always is. It’s so difficult to write well, even concentrating and sober, that on drugs it seems like an impossibility.
Parts of American Psycho, especially some of the violent scenes, seem so drug-induced.
Just because I was writing sober doesn’t necessarily mean that that period was a sober one or I wasn’t using drugs. It was pretty compartmentalized. I could wake up, work on the book and spend the night really sloshed. My body was able to process it better, because I wrote that book between the ages of 23 and 26 and I was able to get fucked up all night and be able to work the next morning, whereas now that is no longer really a possibility for me. But during the time I wrote it, there was definitely a lot of coke use.
Is that why the main character is so self-centered?
[Laughs] Cocaine is a really selfish drug. It makes you paranoid and it tends to alienate you. But I’m always surprised when someone ends up in rehab, when people don’t know their limits or can’t set boundaries with drugs. It’s like eating or drinking—you sort of know when you’ve had enough, and you have some kind of self-control to say, “OK, I’m not going to do enough drugs so I get to never do them again in my life.”
There is a point where you can say no and wait a week or whatever. It doesn’t seem that difficult to me to incorporate it into the fabric of your life.
What do think caused the vicious backlash surrounding the publication of American Psycho? Was it just the violence?
It was definitely the violence. That started the whole thing. But people tend to forget that the American critical establishment or the press or the cultural gatekeepers really never liked my work. Everyone seems to think Less Than Zero was loved by the critics and the press when it came out, but I remember it very differently. About half of the reviews were very negative and harsh, with a lot of suspicion about where this Bret Easton Ellis guy was coming from. They criticized the flatness of the tone, my minimalist prose. And it really went on to the next book too, The Rules of Attraction, which was heavily trashed. Then you have American Psycho, which is a four-hundred-page continuation of this stylistic theory and you have about five or six pages in it that are incredibly graphic. Now I look back and think I should have known better. But I really didn’t think that was what people were going to notice. I thought people would notice the humor, the satire, all the other elements of the book. And in some ways I think the violence was too distracting to people. Maybe if I had toned it down none of this would have happened, the book wouldn’t have gotten the reputation it had. I can’t go back and do anything about that now, but a part of me thinks maybe I went too far.
Let’s talk about Glamorama. What made you decide on this subject matter?
Often a subject chooses you. I have no interest in the fashion world. I had no interest in models, really. I had an interest in writing about a conspiracy theory. I was really interested in conspiracies and I wanted to write about that. And what took off from there was the idea that terrorists would be involved in that conspiracy. And then who would the conspiracy involve? Well, Victor Ward, a character from The Rules of Attraction, jumped to mind, and I thought, what would he be doing now? And I thought, he would be living in New York, probably dating supermodels and being into that whole club scene. And that’s when the whole fashion thing started to take shape. Then I got the idea of the terrorists using a world that is all about surface and image as a smokescreen for their acts, and it all came together.
For the characters in Glamorama, it’s all about the pressures of looking good and being glamorous.
What as a society and culture we find important and of value are often things we do not have. It is all about unattainability. That is really what fashion and the whole celebrity culture is about. And I do think in a way it does put enormous burdens on people, causes them to despair a lot, and I do think in some ways drugs are a gateway into feeling something different from that, into feeling good. Maybe if our society was more utopian and it invested our needs with some meaning, maybe things would be different. But our society is constantly working against us and our needs as physical animals. That’s what I was thinking about in terms of characters using drugs.
When you talk about drugs, do you differentiate between pot and harder drugs?
Since so many people I know, including myself, casually smoke pot, I really don’t notice it. You can go to a lot of places in Manhattan where it’s OK to light up a joint in a lounge or a bar and no one says anything. You smell it on the street constantly. There seems to be this attitude that it’s not really considered a hard-core drug because it is in such wide use. It’s such a part of the fabric of the culture. Pot being lumped with the other drugs has ended in a way.
And I don’t think people really make the association with the recreational use of pot that they do with other drugs, especially not now with everybody talking about the medicinal value of marijuana. I don’t understand the con. What are people against it for? I guess the con argument in a nutshell is that everybody will get stoned all the time on pot and cause societal problems.
Well, there is the gateway theory, which a government study just said is not true.
I don’t believe that either. Not only is alcohol a gateway drug, I believe it is the gateway drug.
Would you say you are a casual or daily smoker?
If it’s around, it’s around. Put it this way: I don’t have a dealer. I don’t buy large amounts of it, but I have friends who do. If you live in any big city and you’re of a certain age, you have friends who smoke pot. And it’s not necessarily something that everyone is so horrified about. There is a casual quality about it a lot of people don’t necessarily notice. It’s not something italicized in their lives. I would say mine is pretty average, as with a lot of people in the city involved in publishing. There is still a degree of fear surrounding drugs and people who take drugs that I think is ridiculous.
What about hard drugs?
A couple of years ago I experimented with heroin. Heroin, for my generation, had been so demonized that when I first saw it put out at a party I got scared as hell. People weren’t even shooting it; they were snorting it. But I was interested in trying it. I always felt as a writer you should really try everything, just experience as much as you can. That could be just an excuse to sleep with anybody and do as many drugs as you want, but still there is a part of me that believes in that. So I did it with someone who was very careful about it, the environment was right. But I’ll tell you something: In the end, heroin fucks up eighty to ninety percent of its users. It bites back at you, and it’s something you can’t quite control the way you can with pot or pills or hallucinogens.
What about hallucinogens?
My experience with hallucinogens is quite minor, but also significant. The first time I did acid was with my college roommate, who was a hippie. I was not. I was this embarrassingly new-wave asshole from L.A. My part of the room was totally the American Gigolo, minimal sleek look. He had Dead posters and wore a wreath on his head. I don’t know how they put us together. We fought constantly and bitterly. It was sort of like an episode of I Love Lucy. We put tape across the room; neither of us could cross it. His friends would come over and act like a bunch of hippies. They’d play Dead bootlegs, smoke pot, whatever, and my friends were all, you know, putting on Duran Duran, I mean it was a really horrible mix.
Finally, one night he said we’ve got to become friends, and I agreed. He said, “Why don’t you drop some acid with me?” I said, “I’d love to drop acid with you, but I’ve got to go to dinner and a movie, so just give it to me now and I’ll take it.” It was called Blue Dragon. He gave me a hit and nothing happened. I said to him, “I’m a big guy—give me another one.”
At the time, I thought acid was a myth. And, of course, forty-five minutes later, six guys dragged me out of the movie theater laughing hysterically. Then I started tripping really, really heavily. And it was a really bad trip. The visuals, the sounds, I thought I saw the devil, blah, blah, blah.
I remember running away from my friends who knew what was happening and were trying to talk me through it. And I broke away from them and ran to my best friend’s room. I opened the door of his room and jumped on the bed and screamed, “HELP ME, HELP ME—I’M TRIPPING!” There was nothing but silence in the room. So I looked up and he said, “Bret, this is my mom and dad, they’re visiting for the weekend. Can we talk about this later?”