The room in Bingham where Bret Easton Ellis completed Less Than Zero
Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel, Less Than Zero, was published in 1985—30 years ago—while Ellis was still a junior at Bennington College. At the time of its release, the novel’s critical response was mixed, with Michiko Kakutani calling it “grossly sensationalistic at times,” though she also praised Ellis for the book’s “unnerving air of documentary reality.” Less Than Zero is just as unnerving today as it was to readers in the 80s, and it even seems prophetic: the numb, pornographic haze its characters swim in feels a lot like the internet.
When he wasn’t working on the “Less Than Zero Project,” as he refers to it, Ellis, in his Bennington days, could often be found lounging around Booth House. To get a better sense of his life on campus, we scoured through the Crossett Library archives and found a program which cites Bret’s contribution on piano and synthesizer to Ian Gittler’s Senior Concert on May 23, 1984.
I called Ellis at his home in Los Angeles, California from my room in Stokes to discuss rumors, music, and romance (with writing, that is), and other current happening on Bennington campus during the years of 1982 to 1986.
Literary Bennington: First things first: You originally came to Bennington planning to be a music major, is that right? I’m curious, what inspired the switch?
BEE: Well, I was in a band here in Los Angeles and we were fairly serious about keeping it going. We didn’t really play out much in those days. We were much more of a recording band, meaning we didn’t really know much about touring, but we were going to make a record. Ironically, the lead guitarist of the band, a guy called John Shanks, went on to produce Miley Cyrus and Sheryl Crow and win a Grammy as Producer of the Year. I mean, he is big. But it really came down to my parents and touring was not acceptable to them.
I thought, Okay, I want to play music, I want to write music. But I was already writing fiction on the side. I was invested in Less Than Zero as a seventeen-year old high school student. I started writing the project— I guess it was Less Than Zero—when I was fifteen or sixteen. I kept journal entries. I was writing about Los Angeles and my peers. Writing and being in the band took up most of my time. I thought, Okay, I’m going to stay with the band and I’ll push college off. But that was not going to happen. My parents were not happy about it at all. I thought a year of college, maybe two.
I was going to be a music major and a creative writing major, with music being the main focus. I just got too involved in the writing of the book. It was pretty overwhelming, and the music took a backseat. But I was still playing. I was primarily a keyboardist. I knew how to play a lot of instruments, not well, but I had perfunctory guitar, perfunctory bass. I kind of knew my way around them, but I was mostly a really good keyboardist and a good pianist.
I was in a couple of bands at Bennington. Probably the most professional one was Ian Gitler’s band. Ian Gitler was pretty uptight, a very good musician, a very exacting guitarist. He needed a keyboardist, so I auditioned. I was also friends with Ian, but he would not have put you in the band just because you were friends. He had very exacting standards.
I think we only played one concert. He was such a perfectionist that whenever the idea of playing at Sunfest came up, he would say the sound would have never have been right and that he didn’t want to play outside.
So that’s how that concert came about. It was a one time thing.
LB: How long were you in the band for?
BEE: It was for an entire term, with one concert. And then Ian graduated. He was two years older than me. Everyone in the band was younger than Ian. He was crazy about finding a drummer. He really distrusted drummers, always thought they were super flakey and could never get the right beat. So he used a drum machine for the concert. He had four different programs for the songs.
LB: How do you think the concert went? Do you remember any of the songs?
BEE: I remember all of them. There were only four I played and then Ian did a solo. I remember that it was so practiced there wasn’t a single note out of place. We were so rehearsed that nothing could go wrong. And I remember the audience loving it. It was very different from most of the Senior Concerts because it was kind of a rock concert. They were all original songs by Ian, except for the final song, which was a cover from the ’60s, “Sealed with a Kiss” by Bobby Vinton.
I used to have a tape of it, but I don’t know where that is. It was an extremely popular thing that night and most of the campus went. In a way it was just Ian’s show, so the others and I were just there to, like, service him, accompany him.
LB: It seems like he really had it all planned out. I see that he also had slides of his drawings projected while you played.
BEE: To be totally fair, it was his senior show; we were just there to help him out. But it turned into a very intense rehearsal. He had everything really worked out far in advance. I remember that the next day there were a couple complaints that it was a little too programmed, a little too soulless, there was no improvisatory quality, it was really just a rigorously designed concert. I think some people were bummed that it wasn’t more loose.
LB: I appreciate that because a lot of concerts here are loose beyond being able to sit there and listen.
BEE: These were very concise four minute pop songs. And then Ian played a solo to show off because, I mean, he had to. It was his senior concert. First we played a song, then he did his solo and after that we went into the big number. I did a piano thing with him and then it was over. Very structured, in-and-out in forty minutes: 6 songs, his solo, and his artwork being shown in the back.
LB: Do you still play the synth at all?
BEE: I don’t. I have a boyfriend who is a musician and he’s got a lot of instruments around the house, but I don’t play anymore and I don’t know why.
LB: Do you still keep in contact with Ian?
BEE: I haven’t talked to him for many, many years. He was actually a photographer, a very good photographer, who took most of my book jackets photos. I think last time we talked was ten years ago. A bit of a falling out, it happens among friends.
We always had a kind of contemptuous relationship; we were close, but we had problems. I think a lot of them were competitive problems, the usual male B.S. that happens with dudes. It’s hard to explain. But if one person is successful, the alpha male or whatever, it can cause problems with the other alpha males. Boy stuff. Not to be crude, but it was a blank-measuring contest. It happens with guys. We should have just worked it out.
LB: Back to your classes and studies, did you consider yourself a “good student” in the mid 80s? Or if that was even a thing?
BEE: I guess I was a good student in that I fully took advantage of what Bennington offered. I fully committed myself to the idea of Bennington. I say that because many of my freshman classmates just could not get Bennington. At the time—I don’t know what it’s like now—but at the time, Bennington in fall ’82, spring ’83, the attrition rate was 50%. So it was not like everyone got it.
People thought, Oh interesting, Bennington. Sounds like a cool school. Some people got there and flourished and some people got there and they were completely lost. Bennington really asked you to be an independent person in so many ways, and you really got the most out of it if you knew what you wanted to do and if you were already fixed on something. “I’m going to paint,” or “I’m going to be a Chinese literature major,” or “I’m going to be a…” Whatever it was.
At the time Bennington had a strong creative writing program. I know it’s hard to imagine this now, but at a certain point, not a lot of places offered creative writing. It was not that big a thing in ’82, ’83. It first really started to flourish around then. There were some schools I looked at where freshmen or a sophomores couldn’t get into creative writing classes. Bennington made adjustments. A class might say it was open only to juniors or seniors, but if you talked to the teacher, showed them some writing samples, well. It was very loose, and for some of us, we loved that.
We loved the fact that we could talk to our writing teacher and say, “I need a novel writing tutorial. Can I do that with you and a couple other people?” And they’d say, “Sure.” So for some of us it was great, but for other people, they lost their shit. They couldn’t deal with it. They needed structure, they needed to be told what to do.
Going back to that question of whether I was a “good student.” Yeah, I think I was, even though I did have problems in not being interested in a lot of other things besides writing. I got threatened with a couple of incompletes. Although I did get credit by doing two summer writing workshops. If I went to the summer workshops that would take care of whatever I’d missed the previous year. Like, if I kind of screwed up in a class on The Tale of Genji taught by Claude Fredericks, I could make it up by coming to the summer workshops and taking four weeks of writing classes.
Bennington was very loose about these things and I liked it. I was a good student. Even if I messed up in some of my classes, I did take full advantage.
LB: So these workshops took place at Bennington in the summer …
BEE: The summer workshops at Bennington were quite well-known in the ’80s and a lot of people came. Famous writers gave readings every night; some pretty well-known writers at that moment were teaching, well-known short story writers who were all publishing in The New Yorker or Esquire. So it was kind of a thing. People knew about the summer workshops and it was four weeks taught by these writers. It was divided into two-week seminars with a break in between.
LB: Were there any specific spots on campus where you worked on Less Than Zero or that inspired you?
BEE: I started the novel here [in Los Angeles]. A lot of it was written during my first term at Bennington, as a freshman. I was into a lot of other writing that wasn’t Less Than Zero at the time too. I was in a writing workshop and really concentrated on that, writing short stories, and nonfiction too. And then during the break—it was then called the Non-Resident Term, or the NRT—that’s when I took everything I had been writing for three years and I decided to put it into real book form. I had journal entries, I had short stories, I had ideas for things, I had all of this material and I decided I was going to organize it and put everything I had been doing for the past three years into one book. That’s what I spent the NRT doing.
When I came back, I showed what I had to my writing teacher Joe McGinniss. It took him a little while to look through it all and tell me what was good about it and what needed work. Then that spring term I was in another writing workshop, and really, I was just writing all the time. But that wasn’t the Less Than Zero project. So I can’t say that a lot of Less Than Zero was actually written at Bennington. Not until later, the summer of ’84, which was after my sophomore year.
Again I was at the summer workshops. There wasn’t a lot to do there. You read, you go to the readings, attend the occasional class. So the summer of ’84, I remember, I was finalizing the final version of Less Than Zero. That was the last time I touched it, the last time I worked on it. I was in my room at Bingham that I finished it.
By Janie Radler ‘17