Bret Easton Ellis: Psycho? American sweetie, more like

Despatched to the Savoy Hotel to meet Bret Easton Ellis, Tim Martin was expecting a slick, powersuited cynic - just like a character from one of those infamous Eighties novels. So who's the polite, charming guy in the stained bathrobe?
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"Uh, Armani haven't been dressing me," he replies softly, "but someone, uh..." He looks down at himself and gives a short shriek of alarm. "I can't wear this robe! There's egg yolk all over it! I had breakfast in my, aha, hey, excuse me..."

He scuttles off to change. And comes back in a robe, possibly the same one.

"It'll distract me from giving you all the honest answers you so require for the Independent," he says seriously.

Since 1985, when he became an A-list celebrity at 21 after publishing his first novel, Less Than Zero, Ellis has been inevitably, inescapably identified with his characters by the public. From the zoned-out, coke-huffing college kids of The Rules of Attraction to the blank-eyed banker and killer Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, his work has concentrated remorselessly on the excesses of the untouchable rich, ploughing a furrow of numb satire that raised serious worries in many readers about Ellis's own engagement with the material he purports to condemn. You don't expect him to be gentle, soft-spoken and charming. You don't expect him to burst into tears in the middle of an interview. But he is, and he very nearly does.

This Ellis doesn't resemble even slightly the besuited minimalist of his profiles. He is unfailingly charming and courteous, but he looks somehow totally lost. On this tour, he confesses, he is trying to disappear - no cellphone, no email, no nothing. "I can leave my life, or my non-life, or whatever it's called, back in the States for a while," he says. "I'm kind of glad."

The narrator of his new novel Lunar Park, also called Bret Easton Ellis, is lost too. Bloated by a lifetime of celebrity, he weaves his way around an overlarge suburban house, grazing on coke and Xanax and trying to finish a novel called Teenage Pussy. His relationship with his actress wife and his son is souring (the real Bret has never been married); his father is dead, and - what's worse - has started to email him from beyond the grave. Then a furry toy comes to life and starts attacking people, and the killer from American Psycho rises up and goes on the prowl again. All of which is not quite as silly as it sounds. Not quite.

Writing Lunar Park, Ellis says, changed him. "It was conceived years ago and a lot of things happened during that time. I guess I matured, which I should have done a long time ago. 'Cause I've been 21 forever. I became Bret Easton Ellis at 21 with Less than Zero, I became a famous writer. Just - boom - frozen. And I pretty much stayed on that course until relatively recently.

"But then, in other ways, I'm confused," he continues. "Because I was never a huge fan of youth. I always complained about it bitterly and I always wrote about it in such a terrible way. I was always an old man. So I'm not sure why this transitory period is so hard."

Ellis has had his share of woe and catastrophe over the past year or so. Just before the final rewrite of Lunar Park, his best friend and sometime lover, Michael Wade Kaplan, a sculptor, died aged 30. He alludes elliptically to this from time to time - "I was having, uh, a kind of nervous breakdown," he admits at one point in the middle of a chat about Philip Roth - and concedes that it was a catalyst for completing the book much sooner than he might otherwise have done. "And it's a horribly sappy way of putting it," he says, "but you feel the precariousness of life, the fragility of life, and ah God, anything can happen."

It can't have helped that Lunar Park is also a book about Ellis's troubled relationship with his own father, an acquisitive drunk who, he says, gave him much of the material for Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. "He was like a malicious poltergeist when I was a kid, because of his drinking," Ellis says. "If I got anything from him, it was a sense of humour. And male-pattern baldness."

Does he make himself laugh when he's writing? "All the time," he says, laughing. We snicker together at a passage of excruciating yuppie embarrassment from American Psycho. "I guess the way I grew up was to laugh at a lot of adversity and horror," Ellis says. "Especially with my father. I mean, adversity, whatever, we were fed well, but there was a lot of pain and horror, and one way of dealing with that was to laugh it off. Not the healthiest way, I guess. But part of it was that my father was a brilliantly funny man, supersmart about hypocrisy and phoneyness and bullshit in others."

Isn't it difficult to lead such a completely inspected life: celebrity as well as writer? He sighs. "No. What, am I doing this book for posterity, am I worrying about what people will say when I'm dead? I don't feel that way any more. I certainly would never have given an interview in a robe and slippers from the Savoy 10 years ago. I would've put a suit on and tried to be as writerly as possible."

What does he think could have happened if Less Than Zero had never been a hit? "Oh, that's one of those horrible, horrible, horrible things that you lay awake at night thinking about," he drawls, hugging one knee. "God, what if so many choices weren't made? But it was published. Fine. Great! I was happy it was, I was thrilled it was."

But does he ever wish it hadn't been? There is a long, deadly pause. And he draws a long breath and wipes his eyes.

"Ahhhh..." he says. "You know, I don't know why I suddenly feel like crying when you ask me that. I suddenly just feel incredibly emotional, and I suddenly feel... uh... like crying. Why? I don't know."

Another pause. After a while, he looks up.

"Yes," he says quietly. "I often wonder - sometimes - if that book had not been... well, say it hadn't been a success, or hadn't been published at all, what my life would have been like. Would it have been happier? That's the question that haunts me a lot. Would it have been another life without all the complexities and weirdness that this life had?

"I wanted to be a musician," he goes on. "Just writing songs, making music, that always made me happy. And right now, when I'm in this mid-career retrospective and I'm going through some sort of midlife crisis, I am vulnerable to accepting the idea that maybe there was another road that could've been taken. And maybe I'd have ended up happier. But I hope no one ever asks me that again, because I don't want to burst into tears in front of a reporter."

By evening, Ellis is recovered, Armani-armoured (perhaps there really was a fitting), presiding over a party that, somewhat bizarrely, is thronged to the rafters with Tatler lovelies and baying Henries. It's a surreal scene that he himself might have written. As he moves through the crowd shaking hands, his final phrase of the interview returns to me. "Right now I'm just all alone," he said, evenly. "Just moving along... solo."

To order a copy of 'Lunar Park' (Picador £16.99) for £15.99 (free p&p), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897