Book Talk: Bret Easton Ellis on the lottery of success

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Born and raised in a wealthy California neighborhood, Bret Easton Ellis always thought he would join a band rather than write a decade-defining psychological thriller.

The novel -- “American Psycho” -- gives a chilling first-person account of yuppie-turned serial killer Patrick Bateman’s crimes. It generated a wave of controversy and outrage when it was published in 1991, triggering many prospective publishers to distance themselves from the grisly novel.

Almost 20 years later, the 46-year-old was one of the stars of this month’s Frankfurt Book Fair where he promoted his seventh novel, “Imperial Bedrooms” -- a bleak, post-modern sequel to his 1985-bestseller “Less Than Zero.”

Ellis spoke to Reuters about his life, career and American Psycho.

Q: You have published seven books, many of which have been made into films. American Psycho has become one of the century’s literary classics. What’s the secret to literary success?

A: There is no secret to literary success. It’s all down to faith and luck. When I was 18 or 20, all of my friends were writers. All the writers hung out in groups and cliques. This guy called Erik was the best writer. He was always destined to be a famous best-seller. Now you might ask who Erik is now. He never made it. My book Less Than Zero on the other hand, which was originally a project I had been doing for class, was plucked out by my teacher and got published.

Less Than Zero became really successful and Erik was really angry. My writing broke up a lot of my friendships, not just my friendship with Erik. I never saw my writing as a career though, only a hobby, and that’s why I don’t regret the fact that it ruined a lot of friendships.

If I could go back, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I always used writing as a means of relieving pain and that’s why I was always drawn to writing. Although I always thought I would be in a band, I always wrote books on the side. I never expected anyone to read them though, and then they obviously did.

On top of that, it’s important to know that publishers are starved of good books. Editors are always looking for a good book. I don’t think there are many good books out there that are not published. So as long as you’re good, you have a good chance of making it.

Q: The title of your first novel, Less Than Zero, and the title of your latest book, Imperial Bedrooms, are taken from a song and album by Elvis Costello. Why?

A: When I was a white, upper middle-class, educated young man, I felt that Elvis Costello spoke to me. The word-play, the cleverness, the intellectual height seemed really cool to me. I liked the song Less than Zero and what it meant in regard to the book I was writing. Both play with the idea of emotional fascism. I like Costello’s song ‘All This Useless Beauty’ too, but Less Than Zero seemed the most relevant at the time.

Q: Less Than Zero became a successful film, not to mention American Psycho which was released in 2000 starring Christian Bale. Will your latest book be made into a film?

A: The people who bought the rights to Less Than Zero have the rights to Imperial Bedrooms too. I would be very surprised if this was made into a film though: I don’t think it’s the right thing. I would be very much in favor of it, though, but I just don’t think it has what it takes to be made into a movie.

Q: A recurring theme in Imperial Bedrooms is new technology and how it shapes society. What is your opinion of new social media like Facebook and twitter?

A: I actually tweeted the first line of this book (Imperial Bedrooms). I’m what I would call a mid-level fan of new technology and new virtual media. I’m not a huge fan of Twitter but I do Google myself for example. I think it’s surprising that people are shocked when I admit to Googling myself.

Q: Is the book autobiographical?

A: The book is autobiographical. I didn’t always admit that because it was simply too painful. Then the book tour broke me down and I asked myself why I was not admitting to the fact that its autobiographical. I broke down during the “French interrogation” - that’s what I call the days I spent in France. It was very intense and I found myself unable to keep up my protective wall.

Q: How does it feel to know that American Psycho -- which you wrote very early on in your career -- for many readers eclipses all your other works?

A: American Psycho does indeed eclipse everything. It’s undeniable. Whenever I put my credit card down people say: “Oh, American Psycho.” I am not super-concerned about my career and I really don’t mind that people know me for that one book. And even if I did mind, there would be nothing I could do about it. To have one American Psycho in my career makes me lucky as hell. Despite this though, I would never write any of the books again and I never read them, either. If I did it would drive me crazy because I would want to change certain things. But all in all, I wouldn’t change a thing if I could live my career over again.

Editing by Steve Addison