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Can He Leave the Psychos and Zeros Behind Him? : Authors: At 30, Bret Easton Ellis has published his fourth book. He's endured a skewering for the violence of 'American Psycho' and the scrutiny of his own 'Less Than Zero' life.

October 06, 1994|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When we last left Bret Easton Ellis, he was being publicly skewered for writing about a yuppie Wall Street serial killer with a penchant for Armani suits and torturing, mutilating and raping his victims.

Four years after "American Psycho," the author is on a book tour that is bringing him face to face with his audience for the first time. He surfaces on a recent warm night at Book Soup Bistro in West Hollywood, where a crowd has gathered to hear him read from his latest work, "The Informers" (Alfred A. Knopf).

Standing awkwardly throughout the restaurant are burly guys with tattoos and unruly hair, techie-nerd types in T-shirts stretched over love handles, young women with bright lipstick and backpacks thrown over their shoulders.

"Did you like Bennington?" one dark-haired woman asks while he signs her copy.

"Um, yes," Ellis replies. "Are you thinking of going there?"

A young man thumps down a stack of books.

"Do your characters, like, stay with you after you finish a book?" he asks. "Do you, like, think about them?"

"No," Ellis says, "not really."

That it has taken almost a decade for Ellis to meet his readers may seem odd to anyone who has followed him through his four books, beginning with "Less Than Zero," then "The Rules of Attraction," "American Psycho" and now "The Informers." But pressing the flesh isn't exactly his forte.

"It was a strange experience," he says the day after his Book Soup appearance. "But it was good."

Ellis is sitting in an overstuffed chair in the Sherman Oaks home where he lived from age 3 until going off to Bennington College in Vermont. It's a hot day but he wears a dark suit, no tie, on his lanky 6-foot-plus frame. He is on the last leg of an exhaustive promotional tour for his collection of loosely woven vignettes about vampires, a rock star, a TV news reporter and some trademark zoned-out zombies, nearly all with an L.A. backdrop. The fatigue from this coming-out party is starting to show.

"It's part of the job," he says. "I would rather stay in bed, I would rather be working alone, I would rather . . . just not be a part of the whole process. But who knows, it might not happen again."

Meeting fans has been "scary," Ellis admits.

"I was shocked to see faces (at Book Soup) from the past, people I knew from high school, from New York--it was weird," he says. "(This guy) showed up who was about five years older than me and when I was in junior high and he was in high school, he was with a group of guys who always used to torture seventh- and eighth-graders, and I was one of them. And seeing him come with his wife and child and remembering, 'Jesus, you were really a jerk.' I didn't say it, I was thinking it. It made me think, lives aren't set when you're a senior in high school."

Throughout the tour, he has discovered that people aren't expecting to meet Bret Easton Ellis, warm-fuzzy nice guy.

"When I come in, everyone hushes and looks at me like they're really afraid, really scared. Even before I make it up to the place where I'm supposed to read, everyone's like, 'Uhhhhh ! My God, is he going to pull out a knife, is he going to scream at us?' . . . And by the end, I get a lot of like, 'I thought you were, like, this sort of jerk' . . . 'and I almost didn't come because I didn't want to put myself through you being rude to me or something.' "

Any fear of being stabbed immediately evaporates upon meeting Ellis, who seems rather shy and vulnerable and often makes fun of himself. At 30, his face still has vestiges of baby fat.

In the late '80s, though, Ellis' fast-lane life generated copy for the New York gossip columns, which detailed his all-nighter Manhattan club rounds with a party-minded literary Brat Pack that included such pals as Jay McInerney.

"I thought I was living like most of my friends," Ellis recalls, "but for some reason the media thought I was just being like a brat, or that I should have been in my apartment writing more."

To his chroniclers' delight, he was acting just like one of his "Less Than Zero" characters.

"I think maybe people who don't write novels assume that the writer is a huge part of what's going on in the books. I don't know, it was very strange to find myself going places and having my picture taken and reading about myself in the paper the next day. . . . But (the gossip) was also tinged with an intense negativity."

*

At the time, Ellis was also in the throes of writing "American Psycho"--and doing a fair amount of drinking and drugging, he says.

"I do not think," he explains, "that the drugs or drinking were in any way, shape or form a means of escaping writing 'American Psycho.' It was in a lot of ways incredibly stimulating to write and when it was going well, I was fairly, I don't want to say happy, but I was OK. . . ."

But to compress those years into a sound bite would make it too "dramatic," too "heightened," he protests. It was simply New York City in the last years of the Reagan Era.

Was he merely partaking because everyone else was?

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