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Thursday 28 August 2014

Back to Ground Zero

WHEN Catcher in the Rye author JD Salinger died last January, many US literary figures were quick to publicly lament his passing. Not Bret Easton Ellis, who tweeted the following: "Yeah!! Thank God he’s finally dead. I’ve been waiting for this day for-f**king-ever. Party tonight!!!"

Rapidly re-tweeted around the planet, those 17 words caused almost as much controversy as some of Ellis's novels (which is really saying something when you consider he wrote American Psycho). Sitting comfortably in the lounge of the Meyrick Hotel on the day of his Galway Arts Festival reading, the boyish-looking, 46-year-old author wrinkles his forehead when I bring it up.

"I feel odd having to explain a tweet," he shrugs. "All I know is that half the people who read it, got it. And half the people who didn't get it wanted to kill me. I don't know. I didn't think the tweet was about Salinger. I thought it was about something else."

Perhaps Ellis was paying homage by mimicking the style of Catcher's disaffected teenage narrator Holden Caulfield? He refuses to comment further. Later, though, talking about technology, he observes: "There are some tweets out there that say what needs to be said in about 140 characters, while certain writers who literally masturbate for 400 pages fail to say [it] as succinctly."

He's in the early stages of a major promo tour for his noir-ish sixth novel, Imperial Bedrooms. Short, stoned and shocking, it's a sequel to his 1985 debut, Less Than Zero, which rocketed him to fame at the tender age of 21.

"And after reading Zero, I was kind of haunted by the notion of where Clay, the narrator of that book, was now. Where was he as a man in his forties? Where was the 19-year-old boy now?"

Things have gotten predictably worse. Clay is now a shallow and sleazy Hollywood screenwriter, more disconnected and amoral than ever, who uses his status to bed budding actors and actresses.

Bedrooms ends messily, but begins with the line: "They had made a movie about us." There was a hit movie version of Zero in 1987. Ellis still laments that Andrew McCarthy got the role of Clay. "It should've gone to Keanu Reeves. He had Clay's vacant stare."

He's quite fond of the movie today. He was less enthusiastic at the time. "It was an odd experience seeing your book adapted for the screen. There wasn't a single line of dialogue or a single scene from the book in the movie. Great soundtrack, though."

A return to his native LA a couple of years ago, after a long spell in New York, was another contributing factor in his decision to revisit old literary ground. "This book announced itself. That's what novels do. They announce themselves to the writer and say, 'You have to write me now'. Regardless of whether you think it's a good idea or not, they kind of take over and you do what they say."

Not particularly prolific, he's produced six novels and one collection of short stories in 25 years. "I wish I wrote more quickly. I regret that I'm not a faster writer. And I like to fuss with a book for a long time. This is my shortest novel -- it's only about 170 pages -- and it took about three years of working on it. But I was working on other projects at the same time, television things and scripts."

Bedrooms isn't Ellis's magnum opus. That remains 1991's satirical American Psycho. Although hugely controversial -- even the better reviews accused him of misogyny, racism, perversion and mental illness -- many initially missed its humour. While it seemed that serial-killing narrator Patrick Bateman really loved his designer labels, Ellis was actually deliberately committing literary crimes against fashion.

Of his inspiration to write fiction, he says: "Every novel I've written has come out of hurt, stress, pain and confusion -- and the writing process takes me out of that. It's catharsis."

He has had his fair share of public and personal ups and downs over his quarter century of literary celebrity -- addiction problems, nervous breakdowns, deaths of friends and lovers, lousy reviews, etc. So what's his guiding life philosophy?

"Let go. That's my guiding philosophy. Let it go. And make friends with death. Make it your friend." He holds an imaginary phone to his ear: "Say to death: 'Hey baby, I know we're gonna meet up pretty soon, I just wanna check up with you. What's goin' on? You wanna have a drink tonight? Okay, yeah, I know, it's gonna happen . . . it's gonna be pretty bad . . . I'm gonna die alone . . . I get it, yeah. Okay, I'll check back with you in a couple of weeks.'"

Ellis disconnects. "You gotta make friends with death," he repeats, earnestly. "And you just have to let things go. Because if you don't, then your life really is sh*t."

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