I realise it’s odd that I haven’t blogged about the three sessions at which I saw Bret Easton Ellis at the Byron Bay Writers Festival, especially given that he was one of the primary reasons for me forking out the cash for a ticket and hitting the road. The truth is, I haven’t completely grasped the sessions, much less known what to write.
I went down with the very real fear that the writer to whom I’ve long looked up would not meet my pre- or potentially ill-conceived notions. I mean, he’s only human, but in my obsession with his writing genius I may have built Ellis up to writing super hero status. Certainly the media has painted him as the poster child for, well, lots of culture-slamming, disaffected-youth, violence-promoting stuff. But really, who knew what to expect from the writer who’s built his career skewering the west’s and youths’ empty and ultimately doomed fascination with consumerism?
The first session was an intimate in-conversation set-up with The Book Show’s Ramona Koval. Now, this isn’t a Koval-bashing blog, but I will say that I’m really not a fan. She’s a woman of a certain age and reading taste (and I’d argue that she’s also been doing the job for too long and is completely over it), and Blind Freddy could have seen that she was going to be a complete interviewing mismatch for Ellis.
Just how wrong, though, was pretty shocking to those of us who’d paid good money for this session in addition to our festival tickets. I won’t go into gory details here, but you can podcast or listen to an excerpt of the session on The Book Show. Long story short, Koval opened with a long and literary question and Ellis answered it with the words: ‘Delta Goodrem’.
It seems he’d seen a Goodrem music video here and, knowing nothing else of her history, tweeted that she was hot. He didn’t expect the passionate, mixed response he got to that and waxed lyrical about how Australians have a really warped, love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with Goodrem.
It wasn’t the answer Koval was after and the interview took a kind of train wreck turn for the worse, with Koval getting all school teacher meets grandmother trying to pull Ellis into line and Ellis allowing himself to be anything but.
I came away disliking Koval more than ever before, but also a little less keen on Ellis. Sure, as the author of such titles as American Psycho, he couldn’t have been a completely compliant interviewee—the man’s got an authority-bucking reputation to uphold, after all. But I wanted to like him and I genuinely wanted to hear what he had to say—unfortunately the Delta Goodrem joke was funny in the first instance, but less so as he repeatedly returned to it.
What I came to understand as the festival progressed, however, and what a few weeks of musings have helped me cement, is that despite appearing a seasoned (potentially hardened) industry professional, Ellis is a very humble, quite fallible human at heart. Quite incredibly, in spite of 25-odd years in the business, Byron was his first ever writers’ festival appearance.
And he was nervous.
It’s hard enough speaking about your work to a room full of people when you’re starting out, but potentially doubly so when you’ve already made it and are expected to be all over this stuff. Ellis had 25 years’ weight of expectation on his shoulders when he sat in front of a microphone on a stage in packed tents. Everyone expected him to both know what he was doing and to have something intelligent and articulate and incredibly insightful to say about his writing.
The issue was that he isn’t that type of writer. He’s a guy who is compelled to write and who can’t explain the—as Koval kept asking him—‘whys’ of his work. He doesn’t—and can’t—analyse it academically, and any attempt to do so makes him uncomfortable. Which is why Koval got him offside and ‘off message’ with her eight-questions-in-one literary-focused questions.
But here’s the thing. Ellis did have extraordinarily intelligent and insightful things to say about his work or the industry as a whole—he just needed to be asked straight-up, straightforward, not-too-serious questions. And when he was asked those, he answered with great aplomb and humour.
I laughed out loud when he talked of how the media constructed this mythical writing ‘Brat Pack’, as if they all got in a car and travelled together in a group at all times. I laughed even harder when he said that rather than being upset about the fact that American Psycho is sold in shrink wrap in Australia (as his publishers thought he would be), he thinks it’s ‘cute’.
It was those candid comments, his laughter in the face of trite cling-wrapped censorship, and his real-life anecdotes about the industry and about what it’s like to be a writer (padding about home alone working and occasionally catching up with friends for beers) that I found the most entertaining and memorable.
And that is perhaps what I loved and now love even more about Ellis—he’s a regular guy (which includes being prone to nerves), he’s a real writer, he doesn’t take the industry or himself too seriously, and he has brilliant and witty things to say if we stop trying to put literary, analytical words in his mouth. Upon a second listening of the now-infamous in-conversation session with Koval, I hear all that. And I officially love Ellis, my writing super hero, more than ever before.