“I did not want to write a sequel to Less Than Zero, but I was interested in, well, where is Clay now and what is he doing?” says Ellis. “And it just sort of haunts you. The question doesn’t go away. You can tell yourself, Look, forget about it, concentrate on something else, but it just doesn’t happen. So then you start making notes, you start going, Well, I guess he’s a screenwriter. What does that mean? I guess he’s back in Los Angeles, right? And then you want to follow it through, regardless if it is for a reader or for an audience. Regardless of whether this is a betrayal of the text of the first book or not. It’s something that you as a writer really don’t have a whole lot of control over.” Besides, “I think Less Than Zero is something that really can’t be fucked with, in a way. It has its reputation. I don’t think the sequel is going to mess it up.”
Haunted is a good word for Ellis, who has a penchant for prelapsarian longing, not unlike his friend and literary inspiration Joan Didion (“I would rewrite paragraphs of hers just to see how she would do it”). Some notion of looking back was even in Less Than Zero—its italicized portions recalled Clay’s family and childhood—and that was published while Ellis was still a junior at Bennington. Of course, a great deal has happened to him since then. His bloody, and brand-dropping, third book, American Psycho—a novel that “came out of this kind of anger I had about … ‘Oh, this is the world of adults’ ”—turned into an object of widespread opprobrium. His first publisher, Simon & Schuster, killed the book after Spy and Time magazines trashed it; Vintage then picked it up. But to hear Ellis talk about the novel’s creation, it was all pretty innocent. He’d been hanging out with Wall Streeters, hoping to be inspired for his next book, “and it wasn’t interesting at all. Then there was one dinner with these guys that I had met through friends, and I realized, wait a minute, one of them is a serial killer, and then the book took off from there. And I thought, Okay, it’s going to be funny too, and maybe a little scary.” Of course, the scandal helped its sales, and, like Less Than Zero, it not only turned into a stylish movie, it came to define another era of extremes.
These days, Ellis makes much of his living writing for Hollywood—script polishing, for the most part, but he also has shows cooking for HBO and Starz, and a film with Gus van Sant, based on the lives and suicides of the artists Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake. Imperial Bedrooms was, in a way, a side project. But it’s also part of the processing of his past, and of his return to L.A., where his friends are “directors, actors, producers, people I’m involved with in various projects,” he says. Ellis has always been seduced by money and fame, and that hasn’t changed. “Maybe it’s a weird strain of anti-intellectualism,” he says, but if given a choice he’d rather “hang out with Rob Pattinson than Richard Ford.” Or maybe it’s simple insecurity. He leans over and opens a drawer and asks if I mind if he smokes. One of the things he likes about L.A. is that “it’s easier to drift around out here … if you don’t feel that you’re that smart.”
“Maybe it’s a weird strain of anti-intellectualism,” but “I’d rather hang out with Rob Pattinson than Richard Ford.”
Unlike Clay, “I’m not a ‘successful screenwriter,’ ” says Ellis. “I’m not being asked to write the reboot of Predator or whatever. Clay has the big studio gigs, he has all the right kinds of connections, and the right movies with titles like Adrenaline.” There’s a droll whiff of envy in Ellis’s voice. Right now, he and Van Sant are having a hard time getting their movie made. “You can imagine what trying to sell a movie about two people killing themselves was like. It was a highly comic movie in its own right. And everyone said, ‘Oh, we’d love to see this movie, we just don’t want to pay any money to see it through.’ ” (It’s in development.) Van Sant, meanwhile, was trying to get the gig to direct Twilight. “You can make a lot of money doing that,” Ellis whispers, so lightly that it doesn’t get picked up by my tape recorder.
When he was outlining Imperial Bedrooms, Ellis was reading Raymond Chandler. “I was thinking about the Hollywood novel, and the Hollywood myth of exploitation. People using each other.” As he sees it, the issue with Clay “has to do with narcissism. I was very interested in the question of what happens when a narcissist hits the wall? And what happens when all the tricks he’d been using, or all the things that were fulfilling, were feeding his narcissism, weren’t working?”