16 of February 2009

Rebecca Strong shares a bookshop experience.

When you’re out with good friends you’ve known for more than thirteen years, you think you know them pretty well. Such is the feeling I had last weekend when I wandered around central London with two very good, female friends, the aspirations, thoughts and emotions of whom I felt I knew and understood. That is, until we found ourselves in Waterstone’s.

We entered Waterstone’s, near Charing Cross station, in hushed tones. It was Sunday afternoon and most of the shops had shut, echoing the spirit of London, which was winding down in anticipation of the working week to come. In the book shop, bored assistants sat reading at the till, patiently awaiting the end of their day, and a few lone shoppers buzzed around corners like bees reluctant to leave an abandoned hive.

‘Recommend me a book!’ suggested one friend, who we’ll call ‘Sim’. ‘I need a good book to read. Something you’ve read that you really liked.’

I looked at her, excited by the prospect of sharing a really good book with a friend. ‘Okay,’ I said, perusing the shelves by the door, ‘how about this one? It’s brilliant.’ I picked up a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and dangled it under her nose. She duly plucked it from my hands and studied the cover.

My other friend, ‘Cat’, peered over her shoulder and looked at the book.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘what’s it about? Is it like that play about the women who all get together and deprive their husbands of sex?’

Confused by what seemed to be a reference to the Aristophanes play, Lysistrata, I began to attest that it was not like that at all, but my explanation of the setting of The Handmaid’s Tale was cut short by Cat informing us that ‘Mrs G (an English teacher at school) always used to go on about this book.’ That was enough for Sim - she put the book down straight away.

I tried again. ‘Well then, how about this one - I couldn’t put it down when I read it’ I assured them. I was pointing at Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, my eyes wide and my mind hopeful. Sadly, my hopes were dashed - we’d hit another impasse.

‘It looks a bit boring,’ said Sim, quickly placing it back on the shelf. ‘I’m not sure.’ Cat nodded in agreement, so I decided I’d give up.

The difficulty in recommending a book is that a) taste in literature, as with everything else, is so subjective, b) as with films, a person is likely to have higher expectations if a book’s been recommended, and is therefore more likely to be disappointed, and c) you’re held accountable if the person you’ve made the recommendation to subsequently doesn’t like the book. These were two friends who were intelligent, well-read and with whom I had plenty in common, yet when it came to literary ‘common sense’, we couldn’t seem to converge.

Fortunately, the recommended stalemates were soon overshadowed by our discovery of the ‘3-for-2′ tables. We had a common brainwave: what better way to seal the bonds of friendship than to jointly partake in the book-buying ceremony whilst simultaneously reaping the fruits of the offer. However, we then became slightly stuck again. We rejected the crime novels, the romance books, the novel about an Arab woman’s sexual awakening, the study by a dwarf and his obese lover who swapped places (he wore a skirt; she, a moustache) documenting how society reacted to them, the novels that had been over-hyped and the novels we’d all already read. And I discovered that not only did we have different taste in literature, we also had different strategies for choosing it. Sim, a lover of art and its aesthetics, picked up all the books whose covers she admired and imbibed their packaging. We had to drag her away from the book entitled Panic (she has recently developed a fear of flying and paranoia of natural disasters among other things) and a few other perturbing choices with pleasing covers. Finally, she pounced with delight on the bright green cover of The Secret Life of Trees: How They Live and Why They Matter by Colin Tudge - no, not a work of fiction, but a genuine revelation into what some would class as man’s best friend. ‘Trees?’ Cat and I asked quizzically. ‘Yes,’ she responded to our surprise, ‘I love trees!’

Cat, on the other hand, was searching for a book to suit her lifestyle - she wanted something entertaining and easy to read, given the long hours she works and the little spare time she has. We dissuaded her from choosing some truly poorly-written chick-lit and instead steered her onto The Devil Wears Prada - we had been discussing the film adaptation earlier in the day, and in this case, the re-vamped, high-heeled edition prevailed. Satisfied, and excited by their choices, that only left me before the deal could be sealed.

I have to confess I do love ‘3-for-2′ offers, and not just the thought of getting one book free (because, let’s face it, most of the time you either end up buying several books you don’t really want, or you ended up buying two expensive ones and get a cheap third one free, so you haven’t really saved money). I like the way that once you have found one book you like, you feel compelled to buy two more to take advantage of the offer (yes, I fall for the shop’s ploy), which often forces you out of your comfort zone and into the arms of books you would never otherwise discover. And I like the way the selection on offer usually includes a good variety of both books you’ve been meaning to read for ages, and those little oddities you now have the perfect excuse to purchase.

After failing with my own recommendations, I ended up following those of prize judges, the media and many book fanatics by choosing Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. And as we left the shop - a tree-hugger, a chick-lit lover and a literary shepherd-turned-sheep - we each realised that you can never really know your friends until you’ve got under their literary skin.

© Rebecca Strong 2006

First published in the Society of Young Publishers’ magazine, InPrint, Autumn 2006


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

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