Bret Easton Ellis is ready for you. The author of Less Than Zero (published in 1985, when Ellis was still a Bennington undergrad) and, most notoriously, American Psycho, along with four other novels and a collection of stories, seems incapable of not creating a stir—with his books, his Twitter rants, and, in recent years, his podcast. “I get shit all the time for being the cranky old man on the porch,” says Ellis, who’s now 55, “but I don’t think I’ve changed. I think I was that when I wrote Less Than Zero. My temperament is cranky old man.” And while White, his first nonfiction book (just out from Knopf), has already been attracting incendiary attention for what Ellis has to say about Donald Trump, or Trump haters, or our culture of “survivor-victims” and triggered millennials and the liberal bubble we’re all apparently living in, it’s worth noting that the book is also a candid look back at his youth, his generation, and the ever-evolving national culture. Vogue chatted with Ellis recently—and despite best intentions to stay chill and everything, things got a little heated.
You write in White about how your original conception of American Psycho’s central character—who ultimately became the psychopathic investment banker and serial killer Patrick Bateman—was that of an earnest and disillusioned and nonviolent person. But then, at a dinner with some Wall Street friends, you had a kind of instant revelation that he needed to be a serial killer. How far along did you get in your original treatment? Is there a complete draft somewhere?
No—I just had the overall arc of the book in my head and a lot of notes written. It was going to be more like my first two books in terms of a seemingly random series of scenes that our narrator goes through and this time on Wall Street. This was actually a very normal lost guy, kind of like Clay [from Less Than Zero] in a way: very passive, watching everything unfold around him, and ultimately not being able to deal with this environment and leaving. I think he had a fiancée, and he was going to get a promotion or something, and everything was centered around drugs and going out in Manhattan every night. This was going to be the earnest novel.
Why did you decide to make Donald Trump the hero of Patrick Bateman?
When I was writing the novel in ’87 and ’88 and ’89, Donald Trump was kind of ubiquitous. Wall Street people liked him—they thought he was funny; he had a lifestyle that they envied and wanted to work toward. I think the reason why I don’t have such a problem with Trump now is that I got all of my things about him that I didn’t like into American Psycho. That was my moment of being annoyed by Donald Trump. And it was really kind of an eye roll that this kind of nouveau-riche guy with not great taste became the man that so many other young men looked up to. I mean, Trump Tower was ridiculous! I would get my hair cut in Trump Tower, and I spent a lot of time there taking notes, and I was going to set some scenes there, but I didn’t. There’s one scene at the end that takes place outside of Trump Tower when Patrick Bateman, in his mania, just finds himself drawn to it—[laughing] as it’s, you know, glowing gold in the late-afternoon sun [more laughter]—and then he starts thinking about killing young black men. That was kind of my idea about Donald Trump. I was interested in him: I did the dive into learning about him and his father not allowing certain races in their apartment buildings, and the Roy Cohn thing; I was bothered by the Central Park jogger stuff. Then it all kind of came together: Trump was the daddy that Patrick Bateman didn’t have—the guy he’s always thinking about and wanting to connect with and wanting to emulate. It wasn’t supposed to be prescient—I thought Donald Trump would fade away as the ’90s went on. But I also thought it was funny.
You end one section of the book by remembering that “people assumed my career as a writer was about to be over” with the publication of American Psycho. “I was never happier,” you write. Why?
I think it was going through this trial by fire that had happened over the five months starting in late October or early November of 1990—and also the overwhelmingly negative critical reaction: the media wanting to stop the publication of American Psycho, actively banding together to stop this book as a cause of moral certitude or something. If you had a Rotten Tomatoes for books when American Psycho was published, it would have gotten a zero. The one good review in the national press—Henry Bean at the Los Angeles Times—caused an outcry at the book review there. The week after that review, they had a three-page letters section of all these people canceling their subscriptions. That was one example of how loud it was. I remember during Christmas vacation of 1990, I was in San Francisco in a hotel room and turned on the TV, and suddenly CNN was on, and Gloria Steinem and the National Organization for Women were all on a panel talking about how Vintage Books had a moral obligation not to publish American Psycho. That was what I was going through. But the novel was always very clear to me—it was everything else in my life that was kind of a blur.
Whether people liked it or not, the entire culture, for a brief moment, revolved around this thing that you created. That sort of thing doesn’t seem to happen anymore. Was that any kind of satisfaction?
I’m not the kind of person that takes a lot of pride in that—I’m just not. What saved it all was that I knew that whatever people said my intentions were—they were wrong. And The New York Times was wrong when they ran 18 articles about American Psycho and had it reviewed by Roger Rosenblatt three months before it was going to be published. I still remember the title: “Snuff This Book! Will Bret Easton Ellis Get Away With Murder?”
Some of my friends—Jay McInerney being one of them—really do think that’s what started my distrust of corporate culture and corporate censorship, and maybe even what made me a bit of a contrarian. Jay thinks I’m being ridiculous in complaining about the kind of things I complain about in White.
And is Jay right?
Later in the book, you note that New York City in recent years has become like “American Psycho on steroids.” You write: “Patrick Bateman lives on without me, regardless of how close we became during the time I spent writing about him.” It’s an oddly emotional, oddly paternal moment.
I have no choice in the matter: He took on this life of his own, and so many people became invested in him, largely due to Mary Harron’s adaptation of the movie—and of course Christian Bale’s embodiment of the character—which triggered a massive reinterest in the book and gave it a second life. There was the musical; there’s always talk of an American Psycho TV series over at Lionsgate. Patrick Bateman has become a meme—rarely a day goes by when I’m on the Internet and don’t see someone making a joke about him or posting a still from the movie, or I come across someone on Goodreads who says they’re reading the book. I’m constantly reminded of him.
You tweeted on election night, “Somewhere, Patrick Bateman is smiling,” and told Rolling Stone that our country under Trump is “certainly Bateman’s dream America.” Yet you seem utterly enraged that people aren’t taking this dystopian scenario—that of a country run by the idol of your fictional psychopath and serial killer—calmly and with good grace.
First of all: Everybody is full of contradictions. That’s one thing I prize in people: their contradictory natures. But I am not “enraged.” And I hope that in White there is a very calm, chill voice. It is a literary voice in many ways—something that is kind of mine and is kind of not mine. It’s a little more distant. I really do think that White is an argument for not being enraged.
Okay—let’s say “annoyed.”
Annoyed, yes—and I think disappointed. I didn’t think that people would be so apoplectic. But the Trump tweet on election night—the world was buzzing with something. It was scary. And my boyfriend had collapsed back into his opiate addiction. Everything seemed out of whack, out of control, and I did type that up and post it, but I thought, “Everything is so crazy right now. Why am I going to add into this? People are going to respond to this, and what are they going to think that I mean by this?” So I deleted it. And certainly there were plenty of American Psycho references in the weeks that followed with Trump on the cover of stuff, “American Psycho” being a headline in European and even in American media.
White also contains a reworked version of your 2011 Daily Beast story on what you call “Empire” and “post-Empire” America: Basically, Empire is when we had something approximating a unified national culture—something to orient ourselves around, from Frank Sinatra to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Reagan; post-Empire is Kanye stepping on Taylor Swift’s stage at the VMAs. Where does Trump fit in? He straddles both eras.
But isn’t he trying to hoodwink everybody into believing that if we just make him the emperor that he’ll get us back to Empire times, where everything was better and happier and simple again?
Yeah—if you look at it that way. I don’t know if that’s how some people look at Trump. Now I’m not saying yes or no, but I think some people see him as transparent. And certainly if you dare to watch one of his rallies—which are really rather remarkable stand-ups—you feel that. Part of the problem with understanding Trump is that he does not fit into any of what I seriously think are outmoded ways of dealing with the political landscape now. And he has completely figured this out—he is the bull in the china shop, and partly what’s so fun is to see the owner of the china shop going, “You really can’t act like that in here—you can’t do that in the china shop!” That’s the disconnect that’s going on right now. You say that Trump’s trying to hoodwink everybody—I don’t see that as Trumpian. I see Trump really purely being himself, id and all. He doesn’t have the poses of Barack Obama—which became kind of infuriating by the end of that presidency—but there is something, I have to say, that I miss when I heard Obama give a speech the other day. There’s something about his calmness and his rationality that I am missing, to a degree. Even though he might have been an incredibly ineffective president, there’s something about his demeanor that has seemingly evaporated from the stage.
I was listening to your latest podcast on my way into work today—you go on a pretty impressive rant about “being lied to by the media” in the wake of the Mueller report, which you say “erupted into flames . . . there is no collusion . . . ” and then go on to call the last couple of years of investigations and indictments and convictions of a rather large circle of people around Trump “a moronic, liberal-led conspiracy that arrived at the right moment and caused the butt-hurt media [Ellis chuckles] still licking its wounds over Hillary not being anointed queen to start salivating, to grab anything and go with anything . . . even though the proof was nonexistent.” I don’t want to get bogged down in the weeds of arguing about politics with you, but just so we’re still based in reality: Your entire cri de coeur here is based on a four-page memo from an attorney general who got his job specifically because of his view of executive power—particularly the legally flimsy notion that the president of the United States can’t actually be charged with a crime. Four pages: It’s like reviewing a novel from the press release, or—
[more laughter] I have heard this kind of take for four years! I’ve heard it ever since Trump came down the escalator in the summer of 2015 and through the primaries, the electoral college, Stormy Daniels and Michael Avenatti, and our savior Bob Mueller. Okay, sure: We haven’t seen the Mueller report. What do you think is going to happen, Corey?! I’m seriously asking that: What do you think, once this is out there—like the song in Hamilton that King George sings: “What Comes Next?”
Well, now we’re arguing about politics, but for starters: Don’t you think that if the Mueller report completely exonerated Trump, as all of his fanboys are jumping over themselves to tell anybody who’ll listen to them—don’t you think that we would have seen that report the next day?
What you’re saying is totally fair. It is my podcast, however, and I’m talking about how I see things and what I think is going on, but, yes, sure: That is certainly a fair point, and I nod to you on that, yes.
White has a fair amount of writing about our country’s increasing polarization—at one point, you relate the story of dinner with a friend who “often wondered: Was this really all it took? Was defending the president you had supported and voted for that immoral and outrageous?” In principle and in theory, I get this: Yes, act on your beliefs, etc. But doesn’t the real answer to this question depend on, you know, what that president actually does?
You say this with a certainty that there’s not another side. On the other side of the aisle, people love everything that he’s done. You may not like him; I may not—but this is what happens when you get elected president. So, yes: I understand why they won’t release the full Mueller report or why [Attorney General William] Barr’s being careful with it. Because you’re all going to do whatever you want with it! Nothing can appease! Nothing can appease. Nothing can make you look at it from the other side of the aisle. That’s all.
I didn’t really feel the need to start bringing policy in, because I’m personally not that interested in policy; I’m interested in everybody’s reaction and the coverage that’s going on. So, yes, I hear you, Corey, but to get bogged down in policy stuff—I don’t even know how I would have put that in as a writer. I would have, what, had a paragraph about that?
I mean, if I had written this at a different time, the book would be different: If the Tea Party was having its moment now, I would completely go after that. It just so happens that a lot of the last two or three years, after the election, has been spent catastrophizing everything, with everyone’s emotions pitched at such a high level. White, I think, is asking for some kind of neutrality, a kind of blankness—a way of looking at things in an unblinkered light.
I will say this, though: I hear you clearly, and I do not disagree with you.
Moving on: In the final section of White, you write about your first meeting with Kanye West in the private wing of Cedars-Sinai the day after the birth of his first child in 2013, when you apparently talked about everything from porn to The Jetsons for four hours before Kim Kardashian came out with baby North. Kanye poured you a shot of Grey Goose, and you left.
I turned it down. I didn’t feel like drinking Grey Goose.
You write that “Kanye, like everyone else on both sides of the divide, now envisioned the world as a theater where a musical was always playing and hopefully starring someone like themselves voicing their own opinions.” And then you end the book by saying that “Kanye’s . . . narcissistic dragon energy power . . . allowed him, no matter what others thought, to be totally free.” Is Kanye some kind of everyman exemplar that we’re all trying to be—the completely free person who’s the star of their own piece of musical theater?
That whole section has to do with the media. It was all about the coverage of Kanye. I happened to be working with him on some vague thing—and I had known him for the past five years—so I felt I had a front row seat to what was really going on. And he was no different now than he was in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016. The media was different. Kanye hadn’t changed. The point of that section was about how Kanye was covered by the hysterical media. Kanye himself was just Kanye, and I hope I portrayed him in an honest way, but in no way was he supposed to be an example of anything. He’s Kanye West. There’s no one else like Kanye West.
There were certain times, reading this book, where I couldn’t help but think that you were on some much larger meta trip and were completely fucking with us just to get a rise—
[laughing] Look, no: My job isn’t to trigger millennials into hysteria—but I have to say that when it happens it’s rather delicious. But whether I’m damned or not damned, none of it is a fake-out. I believe everything in the book.
Are you concerned about a critical backlash from White—
There’s already a backlash.
—or is there a part of you that delights in just freaking people out?
I don’t want to make anybody freak out! People are already freaked out. I mean, if you just don’t want to say anything, great. But if you are creative and you’re a writer and you’re a public person and you have opinions, you have to be true to yourself, and however other people react to it should have nothing to do with why you write and why you express yourself. If people are so triggered by this that there is a backlash, what can I do about that? Go back and reedit it? Apologize for it? Say “I didn’t really feel this?” You’re suggesting with that question a relationship between the audience and the artist, and I don’t think you can really create with the audience being over your shoulder and trying to placate them and appease them and trying to make them like you.
Are you still writing the novel you mention in the book?
The novel that I was thinking about in early 2013 never really came to fruition. I dabbled with it, worked on the outline, wrote a synopsis of a chapter; it just never came to anything. Also, I’d published six novels, plus a collection of stories, and I thought that was plenty. However, after writing White, something did get activated, and the notion of writing fiction again became interesting to me. Now I am in the process of putting something together, and I think I’m going to do it—not that novel, but another novel. That’s as honestly as I can answer you. Something did happen. I’m just not sure where the novel is now—that’s the only problem. I can’t just do a fake novel just to write a book. It’s gotta be about where I am right now and where the novel is right now.
I’m still figuring it out.
Ellis is giving a TimesTalk on Thursday at 7:00 p.m.