16 of February 2009

Rebecca Strong meets the man himself.

When I heard that Bret Easton Ellis was giving a rare reading and interview on 10 October at the Royal Festival Hall, I phoned up immediately for tickets. I was curious to discover what he was like in real life, given his often violent and drug-fuelled writing. The woman I spoke to on the phone promptly informed me that she would also be going, and that she couldn’t wait to see what he was like either. ‘I think he owes all women an explanation,’ she said.

On the night, the atmosphere in the Queen Elizabeth Hall is hushed and the lights are dimmed, with spotlights focusing on the two white chairs in the centre of the stage, and a microphone to one side. Bret Easton Ellis enters stage left accompanied by the critic, John Walsh, who is interviewing him, and immediately his standard publicity shot appears on a looming screen. Bret (we’re on first name terms now) is dressed in a smart suit and looks somewhat unaffected as he takes his seat. John Walsh begins with flattery, claiming that all the books up for this year’s Booker Prize are old-fashioned and that Bret’s writing is refreshing in comparison. They are primarily here, of course, in light of the impending publication of Bret’s latest novel, Lunar Park. John Walsh introduces the semi-auto-biographical work that takes the reader through his struggles as a writer, onto a fictional marriage and parenthood, and out through its main premise - a nightmarish ghost story where a Patrick Bateman doppelganger is committing copycat murders, at which point The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse comes to my mind.

Bret sits patiently through the introduction, his hand nonchalantly on his chin, sometimes staring into the distance. My first impression is that he’s bored, he’s going to be obnoxious, he’s heard it all before, and he doesn’t want to be here at all. But soon the introduction is over, and Bret slopes to the microphone to read an extract. The audience’s silence is pierced by a clear American accent, which soon picks up speed and snowballs into the idiosyncratic monologue so familiar to Bret-lovers. Ten minutes later he is still reading, and it barely seems like he has taken a breath, word after word, list after list. The extract is funny, engaging, and fairly self-depreciating (though the line between the protagonist and himself is somewhat blurred). ‘I could never be as honest about myself in a piece of non-fiction as I could in one of my novels,’ Bret later declares.

It is clear that Bret has a lot to say about modern, suburban society in America. The extract lists all the things he finds wrong with it: ‘terrorism, Starbucks, Walmart, subway bombs, dead bodies, bullet-proof vests on sale, the military everywhere … even the children are prescribed stimulants, ADHD medicine, antidepressants …’. Later on he tells us that, although much of his writing seems far-fetched, a lot of it is based on reality. In his latest novel, the children attend a ‘rehearsal’ party, where many children go to interact and be observed, and only those who interact best are invited to the ‘real’ party two weeks later; the audience is incredulous, but Bret swears that rehearsal parties do indeed exist. He also thinks that over-medication of children in the US is terrible, though ‘I’m not going to get all “Tom Cruise” about it,’ he says, maintaining his sense of humour throughout.

He resumes his seat next to the eager John Walsh, who asks him why he indulges in such elaborate fantasy. ‘Because it’s fun,’ says Bret, ‘why does it matter?’ He says that he hates it when writers complain, because he can’t imagine anyone writing unless they truly enjoyed it.

Indeed reality and fantasy are clearly blurred for Bret himself. He claims that he loves the ‘celebrity’ world (‘I got to meet Jackie Collins!’ he says, with a cheeky grin) and says that to an extent ‘the public image is the real Bret’.

Bret’s own childhood - or rather the need to escape from it - seems to be the inspiration behind Lunar Park. He briefly mentions his ‘alcoholic, abusive father’ who he says he has since forgiven, but of whom he was terrified as a child. He has exorcised those demons, he says, but he won’t elaborate. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California, in a frightening family home similar to that in his latest novel. He thought that everyone’s father was as abusive as his own, and when he realised this wasn’t the case, he suddenly had a lot more sympathy for himself and his two sisters. It becomes evident that he has a lot of sympathy with children, and whilst the protagonist in Lunar Park is the one that most resembles Bret, he himself admits that he ‘possibly has more affiliation with Robby’, the protagonist’s son. He was afraid a lot as a child and there were happy times, but he used to read a lot in order to transport himself from his fear into another world. When asked about the writers he admires, Bret says that he loved Stephen King horror stories, especially Salem’s Lot, as a child, as well as novels of international espionage, such as those by Robert Ludlum. He also thinks that every writer is influenced by film, but says that he does not think of his writing in cinematic terms, as they are novels rather than screenplays. His favourite film adaptation of his work is Roger Avery’s The Rules of Attraction, which he says is visually stunning and accurately captured his sensibility. His favourite book is Seminal Education by Gustave Flaubert, although he has recently re-read The Great Gatsby for the fifth time and finally ‘got it’.

He also started writing at a young age as an escape, and accepts that his father may be responsible for him becoming a writer. When he was old enough, he ran away to art school in Vermont - as far away from LA as possible - but his father refused to pay the tuition fees. His father was suing his grandfather at the time, so when Bret approached his grandfather for the tuition money, he gladly paid - ‘that’s how the Ellis men work,’ concedes Bret. At university he began to write about the drug-fuelled exploits of fellow students - without changing their names, in hindsight a ‘big mistake’. He wrote his first novel, Less Than Zero high on crystal meth - apparently the only book he has ever written on drugs - and it took him eight weeks to produce a 4,000-word manuscript that then took two years to re-write! He says that his sisters liked Lunar Park but not any of his other novels, and that his mother liked the latest novel too, but found the others ‘difficult’ - somewhat understandable given their content.

And then he comes to American Psycho, his most famous, and perhaps most controversial, novel that I think many people in the audience are curious about. He says that he was shocked when it wasn’t the ‘conservatives’ that protested against it, but the ‘left’ - those he describes as ‘my people’. His apt words are, ‘the New York Times went on a killing spree’ and journalists gained notoriety by criticising the book. ‘I always believed there’d be a time when people got it,’ says Bret. Clearly there must have been - despite opposition, the book was a huge success. In carrying out research for the book, he met and hung out with ‘Wall Street guys’ that never talked about their business, but instead talked constantly about status - the best restaurants, their suits and how ‘hot’ their girlfriends were. The protagonist of American Psycho was originally meant to be one of these guys, but one evening, listening to them drone on and unable to take any more, Bret had the sudden inspiration to make him a serial killer. The rage in American Psycho stemmed from leaving university, he says, and ‘discovering that society sucks and that you have to conform to its rules’. He claims to have had a realisation that society places value on all the wrong things.

By now, the audience is eating out of his hand, and clearly welcomes the reading of another extract from Lunar Park. This extract is more personal, clearly relating to his father, more descriptive. After opening up in this way, when he sits back down to take audience questions there is a shift, and he seems to close up again, becoming evasive. He cracks jokes to distract the audience: ‘why is everyone in the back row wearing blue?’ he asks, ‘is that a school uniform?’ ‘Paranoia, paranoia,’ tuts John Walsh in response, and everyone laughs. He avoids discussing why Lunar Park might end on a more positive note than his other books, and virtually humiliates the girl that asks him to explain the ‘central themes in American Psycho’.

When asked about his attitude to drugs, he says that he never wrote about drugs or addicts, but about people that take them casually, and he also writes from his own experience.

Bret is asked about his connection to Donna Tartt, and whether the classicists in The Rules of Attraction are based on the ones in her book, The Secret History, and admits that it’s true. They were once set up on a blind date and decided to exchange first chapters before meeting. They remained firm friends and she subsequently dedicated her book to him, as he was the one person who had been in on the project from the beginning.

The questions are soon wrapped up, and the majority rushes to join the queue to get a book signed. The queue is more than two hours long, but clearly worth the wait. Bret looks at his fans with curiosity, chats to those who ask him questions, and writes ‘Best Wish’ in all the books. He clearly favours the young ladies to the gentlemen, is charming but cheeky, and continues patiently to sign each copy presented. When it’s my turn, I tell him my name, and he chirps ‘I know that name!’ before proceeding to write ‘Becca’ at the top of the page. ‘No, it’s REbecca,’ I say politely, and he sheepishly corrects it; I shall treasure the inscription ‘To ReBecca, Best Wish, Bret Easton Ellis’ for a very long time.

I don’t think we did get the answers to all the questions, but I think Bret Easton Ellis provided a lot of explanations to questions we hadn’t thought to ask. He has shifted in my mind from perpetrator (as creator of Patrick Bateman) to empathiser (as victim of troubled childhood) and not the promoter of meaningless violence that I supposed him to be. It could be that he has found a great literary formula - gratuitous sex, drugs, violence and satire - but I think Lunar Park will shed new light on the real Bret Easton Ellis, even if it is just the public persona he chooses to display.

© Rebecca Strong 2005

First published in the Society of Young Publishers’ magazine, InPrint, November 2005


16 of February 2009

Rebecca Strong discusses cultural diversity in literature, and how important identification is when it comes to our choice of novel.

This year, the Guardian is boasting that the longlist for its Guardian First Book Award is the ‘most diverse yet in ethnic origin and theme’. Authors that made the grade come from Iran, Thailand, India, Malaysia, the US, Kent, Oxford, Neasden, Doncaster and Co. Tyrone and the themes of their books vary even more (transsexuality, mythical lands, tourism and the loss of an identical twin, to name but a few). But how much is this a reflection of current reading tastes?

Successful ‘ethnic’ authors such as Zadie Smith (White Teeth) and Monica Ali (Brick Lane) broke into the publishing industry in a big way, setting the trend for novels about everyday families of different cultures becoming intertwined and struggling simultaneously to integrate themselves and preserve their cultural heritage. Their novels struck the hearts of many people - those belonging to ethnic minorities, as well as those who are interested in, or curious about, other cultures and faiths. They are intelligent, young, female, authors with a dichotomous view of the world - what’s not to like?

Yet behind their writing lie two well-educated women who have grown up in England, and I can’t help feeling that there is something slightly contrived about their writing. Both authors are mixed race - Smith is half-Jamaican, half-English and Ali is half-Bangladeshi, half-English - and both are Oxbridge graduates. Smith is married to Nick Laird, a well-known Irish writer (who, incidentally, is the writer from Co. Tyrone up for the Guardian First Book Award as mentioned above) and Ali is married to Simon Torrance, a management consultant. Zadie Smith even changed her name from ‘Sadie’ when she was 14 to give herself a more ‘exotic’ feel. Smith’s second book, The Autograph Man, shifted the focus away from ethnicity slightly, but with her latest offering, On Beauty, she returns to issues of race and class. James Lasdun in the Guardian describes the Belseys, the principal family in On Beauty as ‘its own little compact multiverse of clashing cultures: the father a white English academic, the mother a black Floridian hospital administrator, one son a budding Jesus freak, the other a would-be rapper and street hustler, the daughter a specimen of US student culture at its most rampagingly overdriven.’

I cannot say I have ever been in the same circumstances as the Jamaican, English or Muslim families in White Teeth, or as the Muslim community in Brick Lane but, being of an ethnic minority, there was something I felt I could identify with - maybe the sense of being on the outside of the dominant culture. It’s a question of just how much we want to read about ‘the familiar’ in a book, how much we need to identify with the character(s) and to what extent we can empathise with them. I imagine that most of us in contemporary British society would find it strange to read an exclusively ‘white’ book, but do those from the ethnic majority find it strange to read a novel predominantly focused on ethnic minority characters?

Helen Oyeyemi recently catapulted to literary fame with her début novel, The Icarus Girl. A 20-year-old student at …wait for it…Cambridge university, she was born in Nigeria and moved to England at the age of four. She wrote the book whilst studying for her A-Levels and, after sending a sample to Bloomsbury, was promptly handed a two-book deal. The protagonist is the daughter of a Nigerian mother and English father, who travels to Nigeria on holiday and befriends a girl named ‘TillyTilly’ who turns out to be a ghost. Through the book, Oyeyemi seems to be exploring her own feelings of growing up with two cultures, and even states that ‘you can read a lot of books and the main characters are white people - especially in the classics - and after a while you forget that you’re not white, almost, because it’s this big pervasive culture’. Due to her subject matter, she may come across as a mature, perceptive young woman, but some critics have said that the book is too ‘young’ to be read by adults. Although it received a certain amount of critical acclaim, how much of her success if down to fashion, marketing, and the drive of publishers trying to produce the next ‘Zadie’? It is time other cultures and voices were given the space to flourish, but is publishing every other Oxbridge educated female with ethnic roots the way to go about it?

I don’t mean to criticise any of these authors - their writing is very popular and I have enjoyed their books myself, but it makes me question just how much of a position they are in to offer a realistic picture of society, and how much they are simply good storytellers. They may be the voice of mixed-race Britain, but where is the authentic, foreign, immigrant perspective, rather than these voices hailing from the most hallowed educational institutions in the country?

Recent events, especially in British society, have raised awareness of multiculturalism and perhaps created a real trend for ethnic writing and embracing the exotic. Recent newspaper reports have shown that cockney rhyming slang is being replaced by Bangladeshi slang in certain parts of London where there are high numbers of immigrants, and that even white youths are incorporating this language into their working class culture. It’s unfair of me to label these authors as ‘ethnic’, seeing as they have all grown up in Britain and their writing is accessible to everyone. All of them draw from their own backgrounds when expressing themselves, and it may be this that appeals to the reader the most: not the chance to read what is familiar to them, but the chance to fall into an unfamiliar world created by someone who is all too familiar with it - vicarious identification, if you will.

The majority of us are interested in other cultures, especially when they are presented to us in an enjoyable, gripping, humorous fashion. But how ready are we for a more ’street’ or ‘real’ perspective? We can only hope that publishers will continue to promote cultural diversity, both in the authors they choose to promote, as well as in content.

As for me, I’m going back to reading Small Island by Andrea Levy - another award winning novel by a Jamaican author that grew up in Britain. Set during and after the Second World War, this book is predominantly about the challenges faced by Jamaicans who move to Britain and suffer prejudice, and the English people who try to help them. I just might learn to further identify with people who are in situations as far removed from my own experiences as can possibly be - and it can only make me a more rounded person…can’t it?

© Rebecca Strong 2005

First published in the Society of Young Publishers’ magazine, InPrint, October 2005

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