Monday night, I went to Powell's City of Books to attend a lecture and booksigning by writer Bret Easton Ellis. Since he is a well known author, I expected the turn out to be large, but even then, I did not expect it to be perhaps the most packed audience I have seen to date at the iconic bookstore. It seems that anytime Powell's books an author with Hollywood connections, the turn out is HUGE!
Its actually surprising that I went, because I have not read a single book of his, nor do most of his subject matter really attract me into wanting to read them. However, when I was in the Navy, I did try to read his American Psycho novel, since it was quite controversial in the early 1990s and was a "must read" among sailors on my ship. I really tried to read the book but was so disgusted by the graphic descriptions of violence that I simply could not read another word. Whoever called it a "how to manual on committing murder" really hit close to the truth. This was the kind of novel that would give step-by-step details to someone interested in doing such a thing. Is there ever a point to write or read such a novel?
However, despite my not reading the book, I did actually see the movie version on opening day when I was in D.C. in 2000 and I actually liked it. I was able to pick up on the irony of the story and the underlying message: people in the corporate world are so phony and fake that it would never occur to them that a handsome, well dressed, and materialistic colleague could be a psychotic serial killer. Actor Christian Bale said that to prepare for the role of Patrick Bateman, he "studied" Tom Cruise and basically acted as though he were the world's most successful actor. While it may seem true that there is something dangerously psychotic about Tom Cruise and his fanatical devotion to his cult (that would be Scientology, for those people who are living under rocks), Bale has been known to flip out at co-workers and physically assault family members, so maybe he was actually channeling his shadow persona for this role.
On Tuesday night, Ellis was on the Tavis Smiley Show, which I watched. He said pretty much the same things as he told the audience at Powell's. Tavis told him that they were both born the same year (1964), though he mistakenly called himself and the author as "Generation X". Actually, the official breakdown is 1965 (through 1980) for Generation X, so that means that they were born in the last year of the Baby Boomer generation. However, despite the timeline, they probably relate more to Generation X and certainly paved the way. Ellis' debut novel, Less Than Zero is considered a "cult classic" of our generation and perhaps might even be considered our generation's The Sun Also Rises or On the Road.
I really appreciated some things Ellis said about writing and how he comes up with stories. In fact, he said the same things that I feel about writing. For example, in answer to one audience member's question about any advice to would-be writers, Ellis said that he had no advice to give people who aspire to be writers, because he feels that true writers are born, not made. He used the example of a true writer being the ones who prefer to write rather than take creative writing classes and workshop their stories to death. He also said that a true writer would likely not go up to a writing instructor to ask for ideas on what to write about. A born writer just writes what he or she feels and writes for self. In fact, he wrote Less Than Zero in high school and through college without the intention of ever seeking a publisher for it. He had planned to write other stories to submit for publication, but Less Than Zero was mainly for himself and to entertain his friends.
His new novel, Imperial Bedrooms, is a sequel to Less Than Zero, taking place twenty-five years later. However, its also about more than just where those young characters ended up in life. He wanted to write a critique of Hollywood's "favour system" (you do something for me and I'll do something for you), which he admitted is probably prevalent in many areas of society (it was certainly the case in the Navy and I hated it). Both novels owe their titles to Elvis Costello songs or albums. When asked a question about why Elvis Costello, Ellis said that he was a typical white guy in the 1980s, finding coolness in Elvis Costello's music. He's dating himself. Elvis Costello was popular on college radio in the 1980s (along with REM before they found mainstream success in 1989). He's a Boomer, not a Generation X'er!
I was impressed with Ellis' honesty in regards to certain questions people asked him. One person asked if he read his book reviews and how that affected him if he did. He admitted to reading all of the reviews and only received one (for The Informers). He actually expects bad reviews from the literati, so it appears that their opinions about his novels don't affect him very much. I guess if you can sell books and make a career doing what you love, a snooty book critic who lives in academia-inspired cultural snobbery wouldn't matter to a well-adjusted writer with healthy self-esteem. Good for him!
Another question was regarding accusations by feminists that he is misogynistic. He actually admitted that his answer to a question posed by a reporter, in which he claimed that there are no good female directors, was probably not expressed as best as he could explain it. He kind of backtracked a little bit, while still holding to his opinion and admitted that he could still be convinced to change his mind on that subject. When he spoke about the controversy surrounding American Psycho, he admitted that he has not been comfortable talking about the book until recently. He was essentially skewered in the media for this graphically violent novel, particularly by well known feminists.
As someone who has faced the wrath of feminists for some of my opinions, I feel a special affinity for any guy brave enough to face down "politically correct viewpoints" in which you're called every bad name in the book. If the movie was loyal to the novel, then the point he was conveying was that women who are superficial and fake, falling for men based on looks and personal fortune without taking the time to really get to know the guy, well, they might find themselves in a dangerous situation. Serial killer Ted Bundy was considered attractive by women. If all psycho killers looked as hideous as Willem Dafoe, women would have little to worry about!
The brilliance of American Psycho is that when Patrick Bateman confesses to being a serial killer, he is actually laughed at by everyone, who think he's such the kidder, because there is simply no way someone like him would be a psychotic killer! That's the mentality of a superficial person.
After the lecture, I actually wanted to read his books. I didn't buy any, yet, though. I still have plenty of books I want to read. Besides, I want to read Less Than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms back-to-back, so I'll have to wait until his new novel is released in paperback. I did hear about him when I was a teenager, because he was connected to "the Brat Pack." The Bangles even remade a The Mamas and the Papas song ("Hazy Shade of Winter") for the movie version of Less Than Zero, which starred Brat Pack-actor Robert Downey, Jr. I never saw the movie, though. I never can get into the travails of spoiled rich kids who are given every opportunity in the world but choose it on the empty partying and indulgence in drugs. Plus with a writer using three names, it gave me the impression of "pretension" that I found unappealing. However, because I am interested in writers and how they approach their craft, I am willing to hear them speak about their creative ventures. I still aspire to be a PUBLISHED novelist and have been feeling a strong desire to start writing novel number two, even though it would take away from my job search. Life would be so easy for me if I landed a new job so I can end my 43 month long job search and focus on other things in my life.
Attending this lecture proved one thing to me: I am a "born writer." Like Ellis said, I was never comfortable in a college creative writing class having my work workshopped by non-serious writers who couldn't sense the irony in my work. What made me even more cynical was that the professor told the class that I had written the most original story of anyone that semester, but I got a "B" grade while a guy who wrote a translation of a Japanese short story received an "A"! Why would a professor award a plagiarist an "A" and give the most original writer a "B"? Besides that, the most famous novels ever written were not products of MFA programs from colleges. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, J. D. Salinger, Harper Lee, Tom Wolfe didn't pursue an MFA program at some university. They wrote what they experienced or had a passion for and found success. That's the kind of writer I am. Glad that Bret Easton Ellis is also that kind of writer. He made me a fan with his lecture. Thank you, Powell's City of Books for yet another excellent book signing / lecture!