Not many authors are interviewed by Vogue and The New Yorker on the publication of their latest book, but then not many authors are the notorious Bret Easton Ellis.
An audience with Bret Easton Ellis
He published his debut novel while still in college and watched it become the literary sensation of the 1980s. His third novel is merely the most notorious fictional work of the 20th century. Max Williams meets the man who gave the world American Psycho
Controversy sticks to Easton Ellis like blood to a blade, most recently seen in the reaction to White, his first collection of non-fiction essays.
In person, the man is far from the ranting misanthrope portrayed by many reviewers. He seems perpetually amused at the modern world’s many absurdities, punctuating his answers with bouts of laughter (often directed at himself).
Monster, misunderstood, or something else entirely? Read this interview and draw your own judgement. He’d like that.
Are you surprised by the queues at your book signing for White?
I am. Totally surprised. Sometimes you believe that the press is indicative of everyone’s idea about you, and that never really was the truth about me and my career. There’s always been this disconnect between the people who like my work and the press. And I just assumed that because the press was so negative about the book, it would correspond with who would show up – and it didn’t happen in America, and it hasn’t happened.
Presumably the reaction to the book validates the book itself?
Of course it does. Of course it does. It’s rather ironic. But also, there are people who just don’t like my work, and they don’t like my outlook. That has been going on for 35 years. I don’t necessarily think they’re wrong; this is their opinion. The other thing I argue about in the book is opinion, having an opinion – how can an opinion necessarily be wrong? It’s just a conversation, that’s what I’d argue; and often the press doesn’t want to have a conversation, they want to insist on their narrative.
Why did you write White?
Why do it? Well, my agent had asked me to do it for many years. ‘Collect all your essays from 1985 onwards, we can make a book of it.’ I went back to the essays, and I didn’t think any of them were any good. So my agent said look at your podcasts, maybe there’s a book in that.
I started writing at five. I started writing picture books and drawings and children’s books
You write about two Bret Easton Ellises in the book – you, and the public version of you. Right now you’re being portrayed as the man out of time –
[Smiling] Man out of time, yelling at clouds.
Do you care at all about this?
You know, I care about a lot of things. I care about my life; I care about my partner; I care about my work. I don’t think I’ve ever really cared about, or craved, public acceptance. If I did I’d write something else – I’d write something that would make everyone love me, or try to. I’d publish more frequently. I’d write something that would probably get nice reviews, and maybe I’d win a prize in my life. It’s just never happened that way. I don’t care.
And part of that disconnect is – when you’re at a signing, and you have all these fans with your book, coming to see you, it’s kind of a rush. You want to please them; you really want to please them. That is over, and then you’re back to a hotel, you have emails to answer.
So this overall notion that I need to placate the quadrants – the young, the female, the old, the male, the whoever – it’s never been something that interests me. So – angry old man, yelling at clouds. Perfectly happy with that.
Someone told me that Less Than Zero was a very old man book – that the book had a very judge-y feel to it. I think what saves it is the narrator implicates himself in all of it – there’s a little bit of distance from everything else that’s going on. I imagine what that novel would be like if his girlfriend had narrated it.
You started writing that novel at 15 – why? It’s hardly normal 15-year-old activity…
I started writing at five. I started writing picture books and drawings and children’s books. Then I was doing comic books. I wrote my first proper novel when I was 14 – 1978. After that novel I wrote, very quickly, a kind of journalistic version of my life as a teenager in LA. I definitely made up shit, I made it seem more dramatic and darker, but basically at the core of it was the truth of my life. OK, that was interesting – but this isn’t really working as a novel. So I began to keep a journal, and I began writing about this guy, Clay, in the first person. I started writing about him in the tenth grade – I was 15, 16. Through junior year, senior, 17, 18, I had amassed a lot of material.
‘Why’ is really the question. None of my friends were doing that! Looking back, I was always an outsider. I figured out very young that I was gay, and really noone else around me was gay. And I remember thinking, ‘oh. I know I’m gay, and I’m very into writing – are the two intertwined? Why do I feel like an observer all the time? I participate, I’m not a loner, but I do feel even within the crowd, and at the party, and at the beach or wherever, as if I am different from everyone, and I am seeing the world in a way that none of them are seeing it. I’m seeing the real world. I’m seeing how the world really works, because I’ve been taken out of the world. I’m not part of the high school world, I’m not part of the prom, I’m not part of the dance.
I wasn’t complaining about it, and being gay was about eighth on my list of concerns – it didn’t really define me, I didn’t feel I had to come out, it didn’t worry me or make me freak out. But that was the impetus to understand the world, get closer to the world by writing about it, writing about the world that I was in. I was never lonely, but I was a solitary figure, and I have pretty much always been that way since I was a teenager.
Clay is bisexual in the book. Most teenage writers would probably build the book around their gayness...
Why? Look, Less Than Zero is in some ways a gayish book – it’s very pansexual. But LA at that time was; this was written before AIDS, and there was a kind of experimental thing going on, a very laidback sexuality. I remember it in Hustler pictorials, and also in the Penthouse letters section. Male bisexuality was an OK thing to deal with at that time. But I never felt that to be the core of who I was, and I never found it that interesting. I’ve never written a novel about two gay men dealing with their non-issues.
Honestly, there seems to be a lot less drama between two dudes who are living together, and I could never locate it, or it never interested me. I’m not that interested in gayness as a political thing, or as an ideological thing. I don’t know. My gayness made me see the world differently – it didn’t necessarily make me want to write about it.
Then you wrote American Psycho in your mid-twenties, which is quite staggering…
Yep. [Laughing] And then it’s all downhill after that! After 26! Orson Welles!
You said you couldn’t write American Psycho now because of the climate…
Not so much climate but because of approach. I don’t know if I’d be interested now in what I saw as an experimental novel. I don’t know if I have the temperament now to write down lists of clothes, lists of music, what they’re eating – going through pages and pages of ephemera to make a point, basically. And to write those music reviews again. And honestly to go that deep into the violent acts.
But, true, I don’t think the book would find a publisher now, either – which is strange. But would Taxi Driver get made today? I don’t know.
My favourite line comes from Patrick Bateman imagining walking with his secretary through Central Park – “we buy balloons, we let them go”. Even a monster like Bateman wants to be loved…
I want to fit in. I guess he does and he doesn’t to a degree. But the sadness that’s at the core of the book, and the sadness about life in so many ways, and that I was experiencing at the time of writing the book, was ‘I hate this society. I hate the people in it.’ This is the adult world that I so desperately want to be a part of. That I moved through college to go to cocktail parties, meet adults, and the world of sex has opened up – and this was in the analogue era: you met people, and things got going. But I didn’t like the values, and I didn’t like the notion of what the American Dream was.
I was wrestling with this: I was thinking, so these are adults, this is the adult world, these are its values? Especially at this time, it was the height of the Reagan era, it was the height of yuppiedom, and I just was not happy about it, and that’s where American Psycho stemmed from. But I also didn’t know where else to go. What else was I supposed to do? Move to a shed in Portland? It seemed like there was this existential trap, and that’s what the book was a reflection of. I know a lot of people who feel that way – it’s a universal feeling of being trapped in society, being alienated.
In one of the essays, you celebrate the contradictions of people –
I love people who are open about their contradictions. I hate people who are fake about presenting a front and presenting an ideal. That is something I’ve never been attracted to, never been drawn towards. I like the messy, alive person who is able to admit that they’re wrong about something, admit that they’re foolish, and also have strong opinions about things that maybe other people don’t. Maybe a bit of a contrarian, but a contrarian for the right reasons.
A lot of the negative reaction stems from you not attacking the malignancy of the far right in the same way you attack the irritating qualities of the far left...
Because, in this period that I was writing about, there seemed to be more of a malignancy to what the left was morphing into than whatever was happening on the right. If I had written this book ten years earlier, I would have totally gone after the Tea Party, the birther movement, any type of extreme pitch like that.
It is all in the timing. There is something about the way the left in my country fucked itself up so badly in reaction to Trump – they got Trumped – that I don’t know where they’re going, and what’s happening. And I honestly don’t know if in this state they can defeat him. I also don’t know how you can be an artist and align yourself with liberalism and the Democratic party – because of their rules about speech, and appropriation, and all these things you can and can’t say. As an artist I find that to be extremely problematic.
I told my boyfriend in 2017: go out, use your cunning, find that candidate, work toward policy, ignore Trump, get to 2020 and vote him out – but do not have mental breakdowns every fucking night when his face comes on the TV. That is not resistance. That is not resistance! That’s letting yourself go.
People love Trump no matter what. All the shit over the past three years, nothing stuck
Which Democratic candidate would you pick to defeat Trump?
Do you honestly want me to say this? Right now I don’t think that there is anybody, unless the party really becomes unified. Joe Biden might have had the best chance, but there’s so much history of bad stuff that is going to be used against him…
…Trump as well – there seems to be a double standard…
Doesn’t matter: people don’t care about Trump. People love Trump no matter what. They love him. All the shit over the past three years, nothing stuck.
You can see why people on the left would find this irritating…
What? [Laughing] Yes, of course! But nothing sticks, and nothing in this election is going to stick to him either. But I am interested in Pete Buttigieg. I’m interested in finally seeing a gay man run for President – not a chance in hell. But just the way he presents himself, and his partner, it’s so normal. As a man of my age, that’s kind of a surprising thing to see.
We’re in a circular firing squad, because there’s a lot of young, gay progressives who think Buttigieg isn’t gay enough, he’s not progressive enough, he’s not radical enough. It’s the circular firing squad that Obama warned of when Joe Biden got #MeToo’d by the left, by his own party.
Does Trump win in 2020?
You know what? Everyone thought that Hilary was going to win – and she didn’t. And all of my Democratic friends are convinced that Trump will be reelected, pretty much across the board. Who knows in these crazy times?
In White, you note that modern technology and surveillance would prevent the ambiguity of American Psycho in 2019 – we’d immediately know if Bateman was guilty or not. But we also live in a world where Trump can lie brazenly, and his acolytes will back him up. So surely Bateman could be President now…
[Laughing] I never thought of that! That’s hilarious. Look, I don’t know where he would be. There were a lot of American Psycho covers after Trump got elected. I was called up to give a lot of interviews, and I didn’t do any of them – I even deleted a tweet from election night about ‘Patrick Bateman’s smiling somewhere’. And yet, the Trump victory reignited an interest in American Psycho because Patrick Bateman loves Trump. At every moment in a decade I’m forced to reconsider Patrick Bateman, who just haunts me! He was just this faceless person in this experimental novel.
[Laughing] Victor Ward, who I lived with for eight years on Glamorama, was really going to be the poster boy for what my brand was – and noone even knows who Victor Ward is! And Patrick Bateman, of all people – this little schmuck who had a cameo in The Rules Of Attraction and I just gave this book to – has haunted me my entire life!
But that’s a very interesting scenario that you just came up with. Yeah. Patrick Bateman as President. Probably a bestseller. Any Patrick Bateman would probably be a bestseller. I just don’t know if I can go back to him.
Could you not argue that ‘liberal overreaction’ moves the conversation forward? The extremity makes previously extreme ideas more palatable?
That’s a great point – that is a really good point. But then it’s like, the people who get fucked over by it be damned. Various people who got caught up under the wheels of #MeToo, who might just be douches or losers or whatever, are really not sexual assaulters. This notion of systematically tearing down the hierarchy – and therefore harassment in Hollywood is where it started. Good. Hollywood is built on that.
Hollywood is built on young, fuckable people coming in and being put into movies. That’s what it is, it will never go away. Maybe as a metaphor – maybe not physically – but it is favours: the way casting is done, the way people are chosen because they look this way or that way. It’s built into the nature of the business.
But where has this overreach come from? And it’s not even in that movement, it’s in a lot of movements. It’s just what happens, it’s the way of things. Is it ultimately for the good that people get hurt and trampled by this? Maybe. I don’t know. Moving the conversation forward…But this is the problem: it’s already turned so many people off that I don’t know if you can bring them back into that conversation. I think that is the problem that has happened with #MeToo.
I know so many people who are fucking done with it. Done with it! Women and men: absolutely done with it. They hate what it’s turned into.
What’s your version of an afterlife?
Probably on a beach somewhere. A little cottage right on the beach in Wainscott where I stayed during the summer of 1991 – after American Psycho was published. The woman who owned it – because there was a terrible recession – she said to me, ‘I’ll sell this cottage for $80,000’ – it’s now probably worth around $16m. Beachfront property in the Hamptons.
I didn’t really have the cash to do it. But I was happiest that summer, and I think that would be the perfect afterlife: that cottage, that beach, the mood that summer, the person I was with… Yeah.
I woke up the next morning and I was like, ‘why is my Twitter blowing up? Oh…’
There’s that famous tweet of yours from 2012, about bringing coke to a party…
Come over, do now, bring coke or something like that. [Come over at do bring coke now].
Gawker wrote a full breakdown of it...
I was in bed, and my boyfriend called me. I did not want to go out that night. I stayed home and I started watching this long Rolling Stones documentary. I was doing tequila shots while I was watching, and I got a bit hammered. And then I thought, ‘ah fuck, I’ve got a headache’, I got into bed, I took a Xanax. I kind of passed out. I was kind of jonesing for something – I hadn’t had coke in so long. My boyfriend said, ‘hey, I’m out, I’ll be back around 2.30’. And I thought I was texting to him, and
I said, ‘OK, I want you to bring some coke over, maybe we can do some blow, I’m really drunk’. And I was actually tweeting this out. [Chuckles]
Then I passed out – no blow came, nothing happened. I woke up the next morning and I was like, ‘why is my Twitter blowing up? Oh…’ It’s still up there, I haven’t deleted it. That was me that year. I have to own it.
Is there an argument that it's easier to switch off than fight back? Most of this stuff is online, so you don’t need to engage if you don’t want to…
It’s sort of like what Quentin Tarantino once told me when he was going through this really terrible week in his life. He was called a racist, and a sexist, he said this stuff in an interview that got him in a ton of trouble. All of this stuff came down on him. I asked him, ‘how are you dealing with this? This is a really bad week for you.’ He said, ‘is it? I don’t see anything.
I don’t read anything. I’m not online. I never go on social media. So they’re saying all this stuff about me?’ And it’s true – he didn’t look at anything and then it kind of went away.
To the same degree, I haven’t really gone online and checked things out about myself since this tour started in America. I can only imagine. I will read all the reviews that come in – bad reviews, good reviews. But going online to see what people say – I’m just, pft.
White by Bret Easton Ellis is out now.