Monday, 13 October 2008

Meeting Bret Easton Ellis


I will now try to describe the typically bizarre events of yesterday.

I go into Manchester in the afternoon. I’m meeting legendary writer Bret Easton Ellis at 7PM and want a few hours spare to read the latest Chuck Palahniuk book. Unfortunately I decide to spend hours wandering around Manchester aimlessly, not getting a great deal done. The library will be closing, as will the food court, which is too noisy anyway. It’s raining, so a spot of outdoor reading is off the cards. But if you are going to walk around a city checking out women and window shopping wishing you had a decent wage coming in, there’s no city better. You need a decent wage to make either of those pastimes worthwhile. Then, with 15 minutes to spare, I wander into Waterstones bookstore.

No one is around. Bemused, I tell the Clerk I’m there to see Bret Easton Ellis. He tells me he’s at the theatre on Oxford road.

I knew this. It’s written on the ticket that I bought earlier in the week. Yet because of my lack of control over myself this fact slipped from my mind, as I knew it would. This is a big deal. The man wrote American Psycho, for Christ’s sake. It carved my entire personality from the age of nineteen upwards. Patrick Bateman’s numbness and indifference to the world, and his overwhelming pride in himself, is what I’d tried to replicate. Until I read that book I’d cried nearly every night for a year. Getting people to see things from my perspective was just too much of a challenge. Then I read American Psycho. I felt like I had been shown that it is possible to present my differences and yes, people will think I’m weird but crucially- it’s okay if that means I might be dangerous.

The theatre is a good half-hour walk, but thankfully I have developed one timesaving device…

Seconds later, I’m legging it down Oxford Rd. I’m asking people if they know this particular building- it is part of one of the universities- but no-one’s heard of it. It’s a university building, for fuck’s sake, and I’m surrounded by students who live and study on this road. It’s no wonder so many people hate them.

I take someone’s advice to flag down a taxi. I babble instructions to the driver and sit leaning forward impatiently as we crawl through the traffic almost an hour after “rush hour” was supposed to end.

Eventually we get to the building and I’m so pained by my lack of organisation that when the fare reaches around £3 I throw a fiver through the glass letterbox and snap “keep the change”, not even feeling ripped off. Then I’m charging through the glass doors of this building waving my ticket around like I’m in a lap dancing club, and a random lady from Waterstones tells me I’m on time and rips my ticket in half.

Relief washes over me so strongly that everything goes grey for a second, like an un-tuned television, and there’s a chance for me to buy Mr. Ellis’s new novel, Lunar Park, which I pay for in cash as I don’t trust these people with my card if they’re not going to use chip and pin.

I’m using my New-York photo-print shirt to dab the sweat from my face, neck and arms and I realise I’ve not had anything to drink in hours. And this is going on for another four, according to my ticket- or what remains of it.

In the hall where Mr. Ellis is due to speak, an old man from Waterstones emerges from behind the stage curtain. He gives an introductory talk, discussing Mr. Ellis’ work- that most people in the room already know, I guess. He ends with, “Please welcome Mr. Bret Easton Ellis.”

Mr. Ellis Walks onstage, looking familiar although a lot older than in his pictures from the inside of some of his book covers. I notice that my body temperature has dropped to a reasonable level. He gives an introduction to his work then reads the first chapter of Lunar Park, which had been reproduced in a broadsheet that I’d read a few weeks previously. I also noticed that, although an excellent writer, he’s not as comfortable reading as perhaps a Radio 4 presenter might be.

After reading, the guy from Waterstones (actually I think it might have been a girl) asks him a few questions about his work. Then she opens he forum to the floor.

I’d already planned a few questions on a piece of paper a few hours before, leaning on an NTL advert in the Arndale Shopping centre. I have picked the best one and I am poised.

Most of the people asking questions are smart-arsed English students from Manchester Uni, revelling in the opportunity to grill a best-selling novelist on taxing issues-

STUDENT: How have schools of thought like post modernism affected your work and what are your opinions on it?

MR. ELLIS: Uh, I dunno. Um… It’s not really something I know a great deal about. Sorry.

(Murmurs and giggles from the audience)

STUDENT: After American Psycho, did you get any endorsements from Habitrail?

(More laughs. The novel American Psycho includes a scene where a woman is tortured to death by having a starved rat fed down a Habitrail tube into her vagina, causing an extremely prolonged death for said girl, not to mention a backlash of disgust from women’s rights groups worldwide.)

Mr. Ellis sighs.

MR. ELLIS: I think I got given a couple of Armani suits, and I think some hardware store gave me an axe, and maybe a few power tools.

One girl’s query is so convoluted and pretentious that Mr. Ellis’ response is nothing more than a confused pause, then “Am I just not understanding the question?”

As this embarrassing tirade from Manchester’s student population continues, I raise my hand each time. I’m right on the front row, but the lady from Waterstones is picking every other random person. Mr. Ellis glances at me every time there is a new question, but the Waterstones lady hasn’t even noticed.

“I think we’ve got time for one more question,” she says. Then Mr. Ellis interjects.

“This guy’s been so patient. He’s had his hand up every time.”

The overhead microphone swings my way and I think: this guy’s a legend. He’ll remember me now.

“My question is: I noticed with Glamorama that the book had a much more cinematic structure and feel to it than your previous novels. How did the fact that you’ve had movie deals with American Psycho and Rules of Attraction- how did that affect the way you wrote Glamorama?”

Mr. Ellis sighs again, but he’s smiling this time. There’s a pause. “At last,” he says. “A question I can answer.”

His answer is a little difficult to understand, but after talking it through with a girl sat next to me the mist clears. Mr. Ellis has written film scripts as well as novels, and if Glamorama was supposed to be a film that’s how he would have written it. The novel is a satire on celebrity- on films, music and fashion- so the style was set to remind us of those mediums. Not to mention, the outline of Glamorama’s plot was written before American Psycho was made as a film. (I think we can discount the 1987 movie, Less Than Zero, as very few people know it exists- possibly because it’s terrible- although interestingly, it stars Robert Downey Jr. as an affluent drug addict. And if you look carefully, you can actually see the irony leaking out of the TV screen.)

So perhaps not a total answer, but a good one.

After this we clap to say goodbye as Mr. Ellis takes a photograph of his audience and walks off. We exit the theatre into the foyer. As I’d already bought Lunar Park, I don’t have to join that queue. Instead I join the even bigger queue to get my novel signed, and it’s at that point that I realise that I haven’t had anything to drink since breakfast and my breathing’s getting heavy. I’d almost dried off in the theatre, but now I’m sweating again and the theatre feels like an oven.

I notice that the queue to buy a book and the queue to get them signed have merged somewhat, and everyone’s gradually crawling forward in the same mass. I’m trying to strike up conversations with people around me but they’re all typically ignorant students with no interpersonal skills. I’m too tired anyway.

When a member of staff from the university opens the remote-controlled windows, there’s a communal mumble that almost passes as a cheer.

After about an hour, I get to the front of the queue and it seems he remembers me.

“Thank you for your patience, Matt,” he says, scrawling in the first page. He knows my name because the Waterstones staff stuck a sticky note in the book so I could get a dedication.

I shake his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” I say.

“You too”, he replies.

I walk out into the glorious, dark, pissing, warm rain. While Mr. Ellis is no doubt ferried back to a luxury city centre hotel, I’m quite happy to have a half- hour stroll through Manchester, then dry off on the bus while immersing myself in chapter one…

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