- 23 May 19
With his first book of non-fiction, White, Bret Easton Ellis has again found himself at the centre of major controversy thanks to his criticism of millennials and the American left. In a fascinating, in-depth interview, the American Psycho author talks scandal, Trump, Kanye, Donna Tartt, Tarantino and more.
Bret Easton Ellis, it seems, just cannot escape controversy. Famously, the Los Angeles author, now 55, caused dismay amongst the US literary establishment with his classic 1985 debut novel, Less Than Zero, a brilliant portrait of nihilistic LA youth lost in a sea of excess and depravity.
At the book’s US publishers, Simon & Schuster, opinions were divided as to its merits. “If there’s an audience for a novel about coke-snorting, cock-sucking zombies,” suggested one editor, “then by all means let’s publish the damn thing.” Ellis repeated the trick with his third novel, 1991’s American Psycho, a dark satire on ’80s Wall Street.
Though the book was primarily a masterpiece of black comedy, the pornography and ultra-violence indulged in by the homicidal narrator, Patrick Bateman, outraged feminist groups and earned Ellis numerous death threats.
Since completing 2010’s Imperial Bedrooms – a sequel to Less Than Zero and his best novel since American Psycho – Ellis has attempted to move into movies and TV, with mixed success. Notoriously, his 2013 erotic thriller The Canyons – directed by Taxi Driver and Raging Bull writer Paul Schrader, and starring the unlikely duo of Lindsay Lohan and gay porn star James Deen – turned into a debacle.
However, as one of his generation’s foremost writers, Ellis was always going to be far too talented to simply fade into the background. His podcast, in which he offers his views on various subjects, and interviews a fascinating array of writers, directors, musicians and actors, has seen him move from acclaimed author to one of the finest cultural critics around.
With that, of course, has come the obligatory controversies. An outspoken critic of millennials and the American left, Ellis has fully articulated his views in his outstanding new book White, partially a memoir but primarily a vehicle for his perspective on contemporary culture and politics. Emphatically not a Trump supporter – American Psycho, in which Patrick Bateman’s hero is Donald Trump, was a stinging critique of the US President’s worldview a full quarter-century in advance – Ellis’ reflections on the failings of the Democratic Party in the 2016 election have, nonetheless, generated something close to hysteria.
In the week prior to our meeting alone, a whistle-stop tour of the outrage included: a dismal New Yorker interview/hatchet job by Isaac Chotiner, which achieved nothing other than playing to the east coast liberal gallery; a landslide of social media reaction to the same piece; and a Sunday Times interview that – in a development reminiscent of something from Ellis’ own novels – ended up in the Daily Mail under the shock-horror headline, “Ellis slams sheltered millennials”.
On no account would you think that the middle-aged man, dressed in a black hoody and tracksuit bottoms, who ambles into the Mint Bar in Dublin’s Westin Hotel for our interview is the most divisive cultural figure of the moment. Such is the era we live in. After Ellis suggests we retire to a quiet corner to talk – where he will, for the next hour, engagingly hold forth whilst occasionally clutching a pillow – it’s time for a deep dive into this hugely fascinating American psyche.
PAUL NOLAN: Just before I got on the train to come here, a friend messaged me and said, “It’s unbelievable the amount of hate Bret Easton Ellis is getting”. Nearly 35 years into your career, you still seem to be one of the most controversial figures in the culture.
BRET EASTON ELLIS: Unbelievable. Why? For just being myself and expressing an opinion? I don’t think there’s any hate speech against millennials in any of this. The first big review was by a transgender woman in Bookforum, and it was a howl of despair about me. It called me sexist, racist, irrelevant. Also old, white, male. It was like, “How can we even be listening to him? How is Knopf actually publishing this in America.” Three thousand words this went on for.
You loved it!
This was Exhibit A of exactly what I was talking about in the last chapter and throughout White: over-reaction and hysterical generalisations about shit, on social media and in the media generally. If I met this woman, if we sat down and talked, we’d probably come to some kind of disagreement, and it would be an interesting conversation. Then there’s Exhibit B – the New Yorker article. An incredibly hostile piece.
I got into an argument with a friend about that interview. I thought it was terrible and very un-New Yorker like.
Yes. And this is a problem with the left in our country – they’re not listening. Again, this is what I’m talking about in my book. I really wish I could have had a conversation with that guy, and that he hadn’t pulled this prank. But as I’ve said, I got punked and I own it. I wished I’d stopped the interview two minutes in; I felt I could win it. I felt like a fighter. But then I was just flailing and I didn’t know how to control it.
Would you expect that from The New Yorker?
Not at all, I did not expect anything like that. The guy is known for doing interviews like that – I don’t know why Random House didn’t warn me.
My friend suggested you must have been raging at your publicist!
I really didn’t care. My boyfriend cared a lot more, and it is ominous to have your t-shirt tugged at 8.15 in the morning, and have your boyfriend say, “You’re trending.” You know this can’t be good. Why am I trending? Oh, because of the New Yorker article. You know what? This has become far more controversial than I ever thought, and it’s building in London, I can sense it. Though not at a Waterstones signing yesterday, when a tonne of fans came.
I thought it was going to be much more hostile on the US book tour, but that was always packed with fans. I was needlessly worrying over that. So I don’t know, I just really wish people would sit down and talk about their differences, and not have this over-reaction to the book. I mean, when I read some of these reviews, I really think “My god, they care more than I do.” But I’m 55: I don’t give a shit anymore.
You’ve been through it all.
My editor and I were talking about all the controversies in the States, and his wife was extremely upset over some of the reviews, like my boyfriend. He said, “Don’t you remember 1990 and ’91 with American Psycho? We had death threats. We couldn’t send you on tour. There were women throwing fake blood on the novel in book stores. The National Organisation of Women and The New York Times collectively tried to cancel you. That was something – this is just wherever we are right now.”
Like you, I’m a part of Generation X, and two of our generation’s primary characteristics are irony and nihilism – which aren’t exactly in vogue amongst millennials.
Perhaps they’re rebelling against it. Maybe they’re fucking sick of nihilism and ironic horror movies. But I think they’ve swung too far towards this aspirational fantasy of, “I can live in my bubble and I can only like what I like.” I think if you do that, you misread history. I talked about this with Chuck Palahniuk on the podcast recently, and about the 24-year-old who reviewed Heathers on The Wrap.
He said he found it shocking – I couldn’t believe it!
It’s real – look it up! Is it a kind of trolling? But it makes you look dumb, that’s the problem with that kind of trolling. If that’s what you take away from a movie like that, you’re not really reading it correctly. I mean, you have other millennials saying Taxi Driver glorifies the incel movement.
Something else that was like a parody of millennials.
I don’t know where this ascendancy goes, I don’t know what the end point is. The end point is death. Life is fucked! There’s a lot of pain and you’ve got to deal with it. I don’t know where this pretend puritanism is coming from, where everything is dirty, everything you say is bad or racist. In a way, it’s the inability of one generation to accept what another generation was about.
I do find it troubling how often we say these days, “you couldn’t make that now”. I found myself saying it the other day about True Romance, because of the famous scene between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper. What movies can you make now?
That scene’s amazing, there’s something powerful about it.
It’s also hilarious.
It is. It really is this kind of slippery slope. You start by saying you can’t do one thing, and then you can’t do anything. That’s what happens. Could Fight Club have been made today? No. Could American Psycho have been made today? Probably not. So I don’t know, what can you make today? I’m trying to figure it out. Where’s the taboo?
I remember reading an interview with you, in which you were asked why you always write about wealth, materialism etc. You said, “This is all Americans are interested in”. With the election of Trump, it turns out it’s completely true.
It is and I believe it even more now than I did then. The entire culture and how we’re reacting to everything proves it as well. People are obsessed with it, they want it, they don’t have it – they’re angry and they’re rebelling. What has been happening this past five or six years is that they’re consolidating their power on social media.
In what way?
An individual’s only power is their social media status. Where else do millennials have power? It’s your social media status, and that has resulted in the social media mob destroying people and taking them down. But it is all tied into the Kardashians, and people making themselves richer and more famous than they’ve ever been. It’s always been about that in America. You have the election of Trump as… I don’t want to say this fake rich person, because he has wealth. But even that kind of degraded, nouveau riche version of wealth is what people aspire to still. I do think one of the reasons that he appealed to so many people is that they thought they saw this self-made man who had created an empire, and that was what America needed in that moment.
It was all tied into Trump, the brand and the wealth.
The people you know who voted for Trump – what did they like about him?
I don’t think people necessarily like the aesthetics of Trump. Even people who support him. They don’t like the bullying, the vulgarism, the orange face and weird hair. I don’t think they like that at all. In that particular moment, let’s say, there was a very deep disappointment about Obama – that he had been this ineffective President. We’re not talking about that, and the mainstream media doesn’t want to talk about it. But a lot of liberals and Democrats did. And if someone like Trump could come in and completely wipe away eight years of Obama, well that’s an ineffective President. It’s a very deep-rooted, sad pain for liberal America. I know people who supported Hillary, who a year later were going, “What the fuck happened?” Ultimately, Hillary was a candidate that not a lot of people could get behind without holding their nose.
Trump was grotesque but he wasn’t a politician.
Why did Trump become this thing in America? I don’t believe it’s just about racists and sexists. There was something compellingly real about him. Certainly in the primaries, it was extremely satisfying to see him take down all these fake fucking politicians.
He made them all into sputtering wrecks in debates, and he was completely cool and calm – he didn’t give a shit. There was something about that in the American spirit, along with his fake wealth, that collided and made a lot of people like him. He was a kind of no-bullshit bullshitter.
But he’s a bullshitter.
I’ve always said, you cannot take Trump literally, it is going to kill you. Like my boyfriend, he’s very attuned to logic and super-educated. Everything Trump tweets drives him crazy, which to me is absurd. But those people in Los Angeles who voted for him, they were all small business owners and they were hoping for some kind of change in immigration. California is a disaster of a state.
In what way?
In terms of the taxation, the deficit – it’s horrible. San Francisco is falling apart. You hear these horror stories about the homeless crisis, and I went there and it was feet from my hotel. I couldn’t believe it. It’s become a moated, gated city for the rich. All the young people are gone, which is what’s happening to most major cities. They’re just becoming these communities of wealthy people. But why Trump? Why, when I was sitting there that night in March of 2016, did these people who’d voted for Obama twice say they were voting for Trump? I don’t know.
I don’t know if you’ve seen Oliver’s Stone documentary on Putin, who is running rings around people on the geopolitical front and obviously delighted Trump won. Do Americans give a shit about how they’re perceived by the rest of the world?
They do not care. The media’s trying to do this thing, where they’re saying, “We are looked on so badly by the rest of the world.” People don’t give a shit. The media’s using that as a weapon to try and stir things up, but they’re fine with themselves and their country, I believe. Maybe we will hear them start to say, “Well, we’re very concerned with what our allies think about us.” But I don’t get that feeling at all.
The Democrats now have about 75 possible candidates…
What’s going to happen?
Depressingly, Trump will probably get re-elected.
Probably, and I’m not necessarily happy about that. Look, my boyfriend understands it, and he believes that Trump will be re-elected, as do most Democrats I know in the States. Now, my boyfriend’s had a big bounce-back. He was very depressed the last couple of weeks, especially with the Mueller thing. And he hated the media going after Joe Biden and putting him under the Me Too thing, because he liked to touch women’s shoulders and smell their hair or whatever. He thought, “Okay, we’re fucked if the media is going to do this.” And even in America, gay groups are going after Pete Buttigieg, saying he isn’t gay enough. Politically, I don’t know. But – and I’m old saying this – you have a conservative-seeming, though he’s liberal, gay man. He’s clean-cut, he seems like any other guy, he’s been in Afghanistan – I think it is a huge moment. For older gay men, it’s a big thing that’s happened.
We have a gay Taoiseach at the moment.
And I think it’s great. But in America, I don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s 80 possible Democrat candidates or whatever, and I think it’s just going to be a real shit-show, so fractious. I’m interested in the theatre of it, but I’m just not that interested in politics. And when people tell me this is a political book, I say, “Dude, I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s not political, it’s not about policy.”
I interviewed Kanye West in Dublin and he said he was a fan of American Psycho. You’ve had an association with him, and he even proposed that you write a porn film he was going to produce.
The last time I talked to him was when I saw him last May. He is the same Kanye I’ve always known. He’s always had his bipolar moments, maybe his drinking problems, opiates. To me, he was exactly the same person. A shift had occurred in the way he was being covered – because of the Trump dimension, it became extremely negative and there was a new kind of narrative about Kanye. But that narrative about Kanye was always there; it’s always been in the music. He’s always thought of himself as an individual and an outsider. When I wrote about going to meet him in the summer of 2018, that was the thing that bothered me. He had been turned on by the press, but he’s always been controversial.
He ended up in hospital at one point.
Yeah, but he’d also been unwell when he had drinking problems. I also don’t think that’s why all this happened. It was that he was so attracted to Trump. In 2016, when he was saying he would have voted for Trump, I really do think there was an attraction to him.
It was not (about) policy, but in terms of this gangster kind of person. I interviewed Kim Kardashian last fall for this art magazine – she came over to my house and we talked for an hour or so. She said, “Yeah it’s real, he likes him.” She made it very clear, she said, “I’m not a Republican, but if you’re a celebrity, all you have to do is call up Trump – he loves celebrities – and get something done. And I got that woman out of prison, and I’m going to do it again.”
So they have a very calm, not overly hysterical take on Trump, which is admirable in that celebrity world.
I always tell people my favourite authors are you, Martin Amis and Donna Tartt. You and Donna went to college together and she co-dedicated The Secret History to you. It’s remarkable that two such renowned authors were in the same class.
We also had some other people, like Jonathan Lethem. I will say this: one of the reasons it happened is that we were at Bennington College. It was super experimental and they let us write our novels. We took novel writing tutorials and we got credit for it. Donna was creating The Secret History there and I was creating Less Than Zero. I do think if we were at a more traditional school – where we were taking classes all the time and we weren’t just writing our novels – maybe it wouldn’t have happened like that. The minute I read Donna’s stuff in 1983, in the first workshop, I knew that she was a great writer, better than all of us. And she was going to have a massive career if she ever finished The Secret History.
You’re on Twitter far less these days.
It’s bullshit. I use it for my newsfeed, I’ll tweet podcast stuff and occasionally something will move me and I will tweet something maybe once a month. I don’t really use it anymore – it’s just not worth the trouble.
Finally, I wanted to ask you about Quentin Tarantino, who you interviewed for The New York Times about 18 months ago.
He left me a voicemail earlier! (Takes out phone and plays the message.) So, speaking of.
There were rumours at one point that he wanted to film Less Than Zero, which would have been amazing.
Well, actually, it’s too late, because 20th Century Fox shot a pilot for a TV series and it didn’t work. So that’s over and dead for good. Quentin had been obsessed with Less Than Zero, I know because we talked about it. He said, “That movie didn’t work and I would love to do it one day.” There were always vague rumours; Quentin never confirmed or said, “Oh yeah, I’m going to write a script.” But there was nothing in development at all – so no!
White is out now, published by Picador.