'Less Than Zero' Addicts Reach Middle Age

Thanks to his debut novel Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis became one of the literary brand names of the 1980s. He's just written a quarter-century-later sequel called Imperial Bedrooms. He talks with host Guy Raz about his new book and his friendship with fellow '80s icon Jay McInerney.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

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RAZ: In this part of the program, two literary icons who helped cement the image of the 1980s as the decade of decadence.

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RAZ: Both are back with new books, and perhaps new movies. In a moment, Jay McInerney joins us to talk about the possible remake of a movie based on his 1984 novel, "Bright Lights, Big City."

But first, to Bret Easton Ellis. In 1985, his debut novel "Less Than Zero" caused a stir. The New York Times called it the most disturbing novel in a long, long time. Two years later, it was made into a movie with Robert Downey Jr. and Andrew McCarthy, the story of wealthy, drug-fueled college kids in Los Angeles.

Now, Ellis is back with a sequel to "Less Than Zero." It's called "Imperial Bedrooms." Here's how it begins:

Mr. BRET EASTON ELLIS (Author, "Less Than Zero;" "Imperial Bedrooms"): (Reading) They had made a movie about us. The movie was based on a book written by someone we knew. The book was a simple thing, about four weeks in the city we grew up in, and for the most part was an accurate portrayal. It was labeled fiction but only a few details had been altered, and our names weren't changed, and there was nothing in it that hadn't happened.

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RAZ: That's Bret Easton Ellis, reading from his new novel, "Imperial Bedrooms." And Bret Easton Ellis joins us to talk about the book. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. ELLIS: Thanks for having me.

RAZ: That reading that we heard, that is the character Clay from "Less Than Zero." He's talking about the book that you wrote in 1985. He then goes on to talk about how the film made about his story - which was really a film made about "Less Than Zero" - didn't resemble the book at all. That's how you felt at the time. Is there some score-settling here, at all?

Mr. ELLIS: Look, writing the novel isn't about score-settling. At least, I don't think it is. Since this is a Hollywood novel and the narrator of this novel, "Imperial Bedrooms" - Clay - is a screenwriter, and most of the characters in the book revolve around that milieu, I just thought it was interesting that the book would start out with the critique of the movie, and that that movie was based on a book that Clay was supposedly the main character of.

I've been very public about my feelings about the movie version of "Less Than Zero" - where, you know, there basically isn't a single line of dialogue, or a single scene from my book, in that movie. But it wasn't about score- settling at all, that opening sequence in "Imperial Bedrooms."

RAZ: "Imperial Bedrooms" picks up 25 years after "Less Than Zero," the events that took place in "Less Than Zero." And the whole cast of characters is back -Clay and Blair, Julian, Trent and others. Why did you want to come back to those characters?

Mr. ELLIS: I had re-read "Less Than Zero" when I was working on my last book, "Lunar Park." And "Lunar Park" has as its narrator an author named Bret Easton Ellis, and I wanted to re-familiarize myself with his work. So, I re-read all of his work, and the one thing that I was left with was, I wanted to know where Clay was after I finished reading "Less Than Zero." I hadn't read "Less Than Zero" since it was published in 1985 - and this is about eight years ago, I think.

This question dogged me; it haunted me. Where is Clay now? What is he doing? Is he married? Does he have kids? Is he in L.A.? Is he in New York? And it went on and on and on until I finally sat down, and I started making notes about who this guy would be, and where he would be in his mid-40s.

And from this profile of who I felt this person would be, then, you know, a novel begins to announce itself, a scenario begins to announce itself. And then, that's how you write the book.

RAZ: In this book, the drugs are still there; the violence and sex are still there. I mean, some of these characters who were pretty, pretty nasty in the first go-round are even worse this time around. I mean, I'm not - that's not a commentary on the quality of the book at all. What I'm saying is, there are sort of these really venal characters, in some ways. Is it a kind of a commentary on the culture of 2010 versus 1985?

Mr. ELLIS: Well, look, every book, in a way, is a comment on the culture. If you're writing a contemporary novel, you're commenting on the culture. It's just something you can't avoid as a fiction writer. I never consciously wanted to comment on the culture as much as I wanted to explore my own pain, my own confusion, my own alienation, my own loneliness.

That really is what the genesis of a novel - that's where it comes from, those emotions - very personal reasons. Now, of course, the novels come out and they're interpreted in different ways. I mean, when you talk about "American Psycho," people call it, quote-unquote, a sweeping indictment of the 1980s Wall Street culture.

And I got to say, guys, I was writing about myself there. I was not attempting to do that. Maybe it ended up being that way, but it's the same with "Less Than Zero." I did not intend "Less Than Zero" to be the sweeping condemnation of my generation's lack of morality. It just happened to be read that way and taken that way. So you know, what can I do?

RAZ: You were just a kid when you wrote it; you were in your early 20s. Do you think that that Bret Easton Ellis is a completely different one from the one that wrote this book, "Imperial Bedrooms"?

Mr. ELLIS: No, I don't. I think...

RAZ: I mean, you've talked about what people think about Bret Easton Ellis and that sometimes you're like, who is this guy?

Mr. ELLIS: Well, who is Bret Easton Ellis - or who is the dude you're talking to now, Bret? I mean, that's the big disconnect that I had for a long time - was there's this thing called Bret Easton Ellis, and you see it on various blogs and it's referenced, you know, as this brand, in a way. I had a very Bret Easton Ellis night. Oh, that guy is like something out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel.

So there is this - kind of a list of associations that you have when you hear that name. Now, a lot of that, 90 percent of that, really has nothing to do with me. I mean, I'm just not that kind of guy. Now, I am drawn to those kind of people in my fiction. I am drawn to certain dark elements in my fiction that aren't really present in my, you know, my everyday, waking life. I mean, when I'm writing fiction, I'm in a different world. I'm not in a real world. You know, I'm working out my fantasies and my obsessions, or stuff that's going on in my own conscience. It's almost a form of therapy, in a way - writing a novel.

RAZ: There's a term that's been applied to you and to writers like Tama Janowitz, Mark Lindquist, Jay McInerney. Do you recoil when you hear that term -literary brat pack - or do you embrace it?

Mr. ELLIS: I smile. I mean, I can do a little bit of both, too. You know, I can embrace it a bit and smile with some kind of embarrassment. And I wouldn't say I recoil. No, I don't recoil at all from that. But it's that it never really existed. I mean, that's the problem. The brat pack didn't exist. I really didn't know Tama Janowitz that well.

I certainly wasn't hanging out with Jay as much as the press made it seem like. I mean, Jay's about 10 years older than me. I was just out of college. So I was hanging out with my friends who were in their early 20s, living in New York. And Jay had a much more sophisticated group of friends, and they were older and, you know, more established.

And so - but every now and then, we would find ourselves at like, a night club or at a premiere or something and, you know, we - because the press pushed us together and pictures were taken of it, this kind of myth - this narrative was created about this group of novelists and editors, and people who worked in publishing, who were all young and hanging around nightclubs. And is this really what literature has come to?

But I don't - honestly, I don't even think the brat pack existed.

RAZ: You actually used - based a character in one of your novels, "Lunar Park," on Jay McInerney.

Mr. ELLIS: The Jayster.

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RAZ: Is there any chance that he might make it into a future book?

Mr. ELLIS: No.

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RAZ: Did you ever talk...

Mr. ELLIS: Not after his reaction to the last one, no. Oh, my God. All the consoling I had to do. Oh, Jay, of course, you know you're not that person. You're not that - I know you don't snort blow off the hoods of Porsches anymore. Come on. It's okay, man. No. If it's anything like last time, I'm never going to put Jay McInerney in another book of mine.

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Mr. ELLIS: It's just not going to happen. It's not worth it.

And a note to everyone else out there: It's not worth it. Don't put Jay McInerney in a book of yours.

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Mr. ELLIS: He'll fall apart.

RAZ: Has anyone ever come up to you at a cocktail party, you know, or a random place or a museum and said, hey, man, I'm your biggest fan. I just loved "Bright Lights, Big City"?

Mr. ELLIS: Yes. Many times. Yes, that has happened.

RAZ: And what do you say?

Mr. ELLIS: Oh, completely. I say, oh, thanks. Hey, did you read "Story of My Life"? That's even better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: That's Bret Easton Ellis. His new book is called "Imperial Bedrooms." He joined me from Los Angeles.

Bret Easton Ellis, thank you so much.

Mr. ELLIS: Thank you for having me.

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