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More than a `Zero' sum game

Bret Easton Ellis didn't exactly plan it that way, but he's not who he used to be.

September 21, 2006|Alex Chun | Special to The Times

AS he sits back in his minimalist furnished West Hollywood condo, Bret Easton Ellis appears surprisingly comfortable in his new guise as a middle-aged and essentially drug-free author. "Yeah, to a degree I have grown up -- it's an almost involuntary process," he says matter-of-factly. "Lots of things happen that sort of put you in the position where you can't be l'enfant terrible forever."

Strange words from a man who is as well known for his after-hours escapades as he is his first novel, "Less Than Zero," written when he was just 20 years old and an undergraduate at Vermont's Bennington College.

But much has happened since his seminal portrayal of wealthy, disaffected Los Angeles youths turned him into a cause celebre -- a status reinforced by four subsequent novels including his controversial 1991 serial killer epic, "American Psycho," and his latest effort, "Lunar Park," which was published last year to his usual chorus of mixed reviews.

Preparing for a national book tour, which kicks off this Sunday evening with a reading at Los Angeles' Hammer Museum, Ellis, who turned 42 in March, waxes philosophically about his past drug use, which was often glamorized in the media via its obsession with Ellis and his fellow Generation X literary brat packers Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz.

"The romance of [drugs] definitely existed," Ellis says of his years partying in New York. "It was fun and glamorous, but then you started to see the casualties."

One of those casualties was Ellis' best friend and sometimes lover Michael Kaplan, who died in 2004 at the age of 30. According to Ellis, drugs were involved in Kaplan's death, though he never saw a coroner's report.

And while writing "Lunar Park," which he began back in 1989, Ellis also endured the fallout when it was revealed that one of his immediate family members was a drug addict. Those two events "really made me rethink drugs," Ellis says. "They became redefined for me."

As if on cue, a friend knocks on his front door and then enters bearing a small wooden crate full of wine. "Before I'd have a dealer come over and drop off a couple of grams, now they drop off a case of wine," he deadpans. "I've gotten to a place in my life where I've replaced one drug with another."

In "Lunar Park," drugs, along with money, greed and celebrity -- themes that infected his prior works -- have been replaced with a story focusing on a writer named Bret Easton Ellis, who burst onto the literary stage while still in college. Now facing middle age, he escapes to the sobriety of the suburbs with his movie star wife, Jayne Dennis, and their two children.

"Jayne who?" you might ask. For the uninitiated, "Lunar Park" is at its core a full-blown haunted house story a la Stephen King. As a setup, however, Ellis has written a 30-some-odd page faux memoir that blurs the line between fact and faction by folding in more truths than he's willing to admit. (To complete the illusion, Ellis' publisher has even created a website for his fictional wife, www.jaynedennis.com, complete with red-carpet photos and a filmography.)

In "Lunar Park," "there are a lot of details about my life that are accurate and true," Ellis says. But when asked just how much is true, he responds, "Look, let me put it this way, and I'm not trying to get out of this, but it's a novel, so of course everything is true.

"That's not even me being clever," he adds. "When I open a book, I read everything as true -- even if it's some metaphysical Philip Roth novel. I want the experience of going through a novel to feel as authentic as possible."

It's been two full years since Ellis finished "Lunar Park," and in addition to book touring, he's spent much of that time living in Los Angeles (he's contemplating selling his East Village apartment) and working on screenplays for his 1994 collection of short stories, "The Informers," and for Adam Davies' 2002 debut novel, "The Frog King."

In between his writing and touring gigs, Ellis also found time to fulfill a promise he made to himself by rereading his own debut novel in honor of its 20th anniversary. "Over the last 22 years, I've read more than my fair share of first novels, and standing back, I thought it was pretty good for someone so young," he relates. "I was bothered by some of the writing -- there are parts that are a little too earnest" he says. "At the same time, if you took those parts away, it would dilute the power of the book."

Prior to and even during the reread, Ellis never thought he'd do anything more with his unsympathetic protagonist, much less write a sequel. But shortly after finishing the book, he found himself driving around and wondering, "What's Clay doing now? Is he married? Does he have children the same age as he was in 'Less Than Zero'? Is he still in contact with Julian and Blair?"

"Then it started growing on me, and I knew I was in trouble," he says.

The book is currently in the notes stage, and barring anything unforeseen, Ellis plans to start writing the sequel when his current book tour ends later this year. Though he says the book is stylistically similar to its predecessor, Ellis refuses to set a deadline, noting the seven-year gap between the publication dates of his two most recent novels.

While it's fun, writing novels is "incredibly draining -- the editing process, the promotion process, all of that," he says. "I always vow I'll never do another book again, but then something happens where you can't help it. It's in you somehow and you just need to express yourself."

weekend@latimes.com

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Bret Easton Ellis

What: The author reads from his new work, "Lunar Park"

Where: Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 6 p.m. Sunday

Price: Free (seating is first-come, first-served, with priority given to museum members)

Info: (310) 443-7000; www.hammer.ucla.edu

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