The Books Interview: Bret Easton Ellis, A felt life, rough or smooth

How do you join Bret Easton Ellis's party list? Toby Young tries a cute meet in Manhattan
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Bret Easton Ellis: A Biography

Bret Easton Ellis was born in Los Angeles in 1964, the son of a real-estate salesman. He published his first book, Less Than Zero, aged 21 while still a student at Bennington College. It was instantly acclaimed as the voice of a generation. His follow-up, Rules of Attraction (1987), was less successful but his third novel, American Psycho (1991), catapulted him to literary stardom and still sells 25,000 copies a year worldwide. The Informers (1994), was less a novel than a collection of short stories and was generally considered a disappointment. Glamorama, his fifth novel, will be published in January. Less Than Zero was made into a film in 1987 and a film of American Psycho (in which Leonardo diCaprio has reputedly shown an interest) goes into production in March 1999.

As I approached Bret Easton Ellis's apartment building in New York, I felt a wave of apprehension. What if I didn't like him? Worse still, what if I didn't like his new novel? I didn't want to be ejected from his annual Christmas party, which I've been gatecrashing for the past three years. Yet precisely that fate befell a friend of mine who wrote an unfavourable profile of him in an American magazine.

These are the kind of dilemmas which confront aspiring literary journalists in New York these days. Glamorama, which is published by Picador early in January (pounds 16.99), is Bret Easton Ellis's fifth novel, set in the New York fashion world. He has described it as "the big book", a follow-up to American Psycho, published in 1991.

And it is a big book, at least in event terms. His American publishers, Knopf, are greeting its arrival with the kind of bells and whistles they reserve for their most highly-prized writers. In addition to an 11-city author tour, there will be a national advertising campaign, advertising on websites - even a 3-D poster. The publication of Glamorama will mark the beginning of Bret Easton Ellis's comeback tour as the bad boy of American fiction.

Unpromisingly, the name of his apartment complex in the East Village is the American Felt Building. Easton Ellis isn't supposed to have felt anything in his life. If his reputation is to be believed, the 34-year- old author embodies the emotional flatness of Generation X. He was banned from the opening of Euro Disney, for Chrissakes.

When I set foot in his apartment, things went from bad to worse. The only times I had been there previously, it had been dark, crowded and littered with empty bottles. Perfect. But on this occasion it was clean and airy with a beautiful wooden floor stretching from the entrance to the farthest wall and a modern, open-plan kitchen. "Would you like anything to drink?" I was asked by the polite young man who took my coat. "I can offer you a Diet Coke."

Could this be the the creator of Patrick Bateman, the yuppie serial killer of American Psycho? Could this be the author who prompted the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organisation of Women to boycott all books published by Random House?

Admittedly, he was dressed from head-to-toe in black, but in all other respects he confounded expectations. There were no signs of the "substance abuse" he has confessed to. On the contrary, he was fresh-faced and healthy- looking, hardly the "young Richard Nixon" or the "debauched cherub" of other descriptions. His sleeves were rolled-up to the elbow. Yet, far from revealing track-marks, they exposed his impressively muscular forearms. He looked like a man who spends more time in the gym than in seedy after- hours clubs.

He began by telling me a story about his last trip to London. He was there to promote a TV documentary and agreed to be interviewed at the ICA by Will Self. However, at the last minute the ICA pulled a switcheroo and the bestselling writer of Great Apes was replaced by Elizabeth Wurtzel, the notoriously self-involved author of Prozac Nation.

"She thought she was being interviewed," he laughed. "I think she mentioned her book 20 times in the course of asking me questions."

But why was she asked to do it? "Apparently," he explained, "Will Self fell ill." Then, to indicate what he thought the real reason was for Self's absence, he repeated the words "fell ill", this time placing a massive set of quotes around them.

I quickly made a note. "Air-quotes!" There could be no doubt that the man sitting opposite me was indeed Bret Easton Ellis.

As the interview progressed it became clear that, far from being an immoralist, he thinks of himself as a very moral writer. Perhaps that explained why he looked so clean-cut. He described American Psycho as a "feminist text" in that it contained "a complete critique of male culture" and he professed to be perplexed by the reaction to it.

"That the book was read so literally caused me to despair," he said. "I think I lost my innocence."

Glamorama, too, contains many violent episodes, and Patrick Bateman makes a brief cameo appearance. The action switches between New York, Paris and London, as the protaganist screws and snorts his way through the jet set, becoming involved in a sinister terrorist plot. One scene, in which a Boeing 747 explodes in mid-air above Paris, is every bit as gruesome as anything in American Psycho. The title page even quotes Hitler. Wasn't Ellis guilty of courting the very reaction he claims to be disappointed by?

"If you're going to write a book about violence," he explained, "it seems logical that it should contain violence. In my so-called real life I'm much more squeamish. I wince when I see violence on screen."

But why did he have to eroticise violence? "I don't necessarily feel that I do in this book," he protested. "Maybe when you're writing about violence it's difficult not to."

Logically, one can see Ellis's point. He has chosen as his satirical target rich American men and, in order to portray them in their true colours, he has them inflict terrible atrocities on women. The novelist Susanna Moore, a friend of Ellis's, sees nothing wrong in this and taught American Psycho at a seminar at Yale. "I think it's very funny," she told one magazine. "It has a meanness that was misunderstood. I saw the book as being polemical, outraged, pissed off."

Yet it's hard to dismiss the suspicion that Ellis harbours a deep resentment towards women. In last October's Vanity Fair, the critic James Wolcott quoted him as having an "angry feeling" about the models who populate his new novel. "The `angry feeling' Ellis nurses about models," he wrote, "reflects a deeper aversion to women, who are pretty much chopped liver in his fictional universe."

But if you accept his professed intentions at face value, his new, cleaned-up image seems of a piece with his high-minded moral agenda. He does not so much want to re-establish himself as the poster boy for violent fiction as re-position himself as a satirist of the MTV generation. It remains to be seen whether the critics will be convinced.

A few days after interviewing him I received an invitation to his Christmas party. Had he been charmed by me or was it just a bribe to get me to write a favourable piece? My original dilemma became more acute. Then I noticed the date. Thank God. I would be back in London by then. My integrity was not going to be tested after all.

Comments