Bret Eas­t­on Ellis: I think peo­ple want to be victims”

Recent interviews portray Bret Easton Ellis as rather bristly. But then he is an author known for his candour in capturing the depravity of a certain high-flying class of people.

Bret Eas­t­on Ellis enters the hotel meet­ing room with a paper bag from Pret and a box of books. Although it’s two o’clock, he’s had a heavy break­fast (a ham and cheese omelette) and isn’t expect­ing to need lunch until 3pm. The books are to be signed, obvi­ous­ly. He is wear­ing a black track­suit and prac­ti­cal look­ing train­ers. His phone illu­mi­nates his front pock­et. He opens a bot­tle of still water with­out offer­ing me any, and drinks a lit­tle. I have not read his new book, White, a col­lec­tion of essays large­ly bemoan­ing mod­ern life.

Recent inter­views por­tray Ellis as rather bristly – an inter­view with The New York­er went viral after he start­ed up about Trump and sex­u­al assault; but then he is an author known for his can­dour in cap­tur­ing the deprav­i­ty of a cer­tain high-fly­ing class of peo­ple. He is polar­is­ing, sure, but he’s made a career out of it.

White
is his first book in ten years. In the decade since Impe­r­i­al Bed­rooms (a sequel to his first book, 1985’s Less Than Zero), he’s tak­en to Twit­ter, host­ed a pod­cast, helped write a cou­ple of films and watched as Amer­i­can Psy­cho was turned into a musi­cal. He’s also, it seems, spent a lot of time exam­in­ing the void that rules us all: the dark vor­tex of the internet.

I have not read your new book. I’m sorry. 

That’s fine.

I’ve read the oth­er ones, but when they came out.

That’s total­ly…

But I’ve not read this one. 

It is total­ly fine. I have no prob­lem with that. 

Do you think human­i­ty as a col­lec­tive is final­ly get­ting to that point where we know that social media is bad? Because I know more and more peo­ple who’re slow­ly remov­ing them­selves from it.

Yeah, I feel that way. And that is why the inter­net is mak­ing me feel sick. And also odd­ly hos­tile and angry over stuff I would nev­er think of get­ting angry about because peo­ple are so over­ly opin­ion­at­ed and they’re so right­eous in their opin­ions and then so angry at your opin­ion. And so, yeah, I think I’m hit­ting the same place that you’re hit­ting. Twit­ter for me is my news feed. So I go onto Twit­ter to see all the news but I bare­ly engage with it. I use it for pro­mo­tion­al stuff too. I know so many peo­ple who’ve dropped off Twit­ter. Real­ly, it’s for famous peo­ple basically.

Ten years ago it was every­one talk­ing about the same TV show and now it’s more like… angry shout­ing into the sky.

When Twit­ter was new it was fun. You could be cheeky and out­ra­geous and you wouldn’t be can­celled”. And I’m not talk­ing being a racist or a sex­ist, I’m just talk­ing about say­ing fun­ny things, like mak­ing fun of J.D Salinger’s death, which I thought was fun­ny. It was my first big Twit­ter moment. There was a lot of like, Oh my God, my heart is ripped apart, I’ll nev­er get it back, R.I.P. J.D. Salinger”. And I just thought, Should I do some­thing?’. So I wrote, Thank God he’s dead. I’ve been wait­ing for this minute for­ev­er, we’re going to have a huge par­ty tonight, thank fuck he’s gone”. That was my first big Twit­ter moment. And the peo­ple who got it were the ones who under­stood it was a reac­tion against the earnest­ness of show­ing how sen­si­tive you are and how much you care about things. But it’s become kind of a vir­tu­ous site where every­one shows off how sen­si­tive they are and how sad they are. So I agree with you. I can­not believe how good it feels when I walk out of the house and I for­get my phone. But I pan­ic at first. I’m like, Shit I don’t have my phone and I’m already in the car already going someplace’. 

What do you do?

I take a deep breath and then I have the rest of the after­noon off and I know it’s fan­tas­tic. But look, I took my phone down from my fuck­ing hotel room. I mean it’s part of my hand, it’s the last thing I look at before I go to bed and it’s the first thing I look at. I don’t look at it for 14 hours a day like my boyfriend does. But, you know, it’s just….

It’s sort of an exten­sion of your­self, isn’t it. 

It is.

There’s a lot of access sig­nalling on Twit­ter now isn’t there. 

Yeah, well, it’s the same way with Insta­gram I mean there are a lot of mis­er­able peo­ple on Insta­gram who are pre­sent­ing very hap­py lives. I know a few of them. 

But that’s the point of Insta­gram, to be like, Hey look at me and my great life’.

Even though my husband’s going through rehab and my daughter’s sui­ci­dal and I don’t have any mon­ey and I’m going to get divorced soon because I can’t stand my hus­band. I know a lot of those peo­ple and yet they pro­mote these lives like, I’m so hap­py and pos­ing with the kids and everything’s great.’

Do you think peo­ple are afraid to appear as victims?

I think peo­ple are not afraid to be vic­tims. I think they want to be victims. 

Why do you say that?

Because they get a lot of atten­tion. There’s a lot of vic­tim­i­sa­tion on Face­book. There’s the yearn­ing for a lot of dead pets that get lots of, Oh, I’m so sor­ry. R.I.P. Maisie,” and then all the sad pic­tures of the dog. I noticed that those [kind of posts] get a lot of likes. There’s some­thing about bad things hap­pen­ing to peo­ple or hav­ing some­thing bad defin­ing you that acti­vates peo­ple; you become pop­u­lar. But Insta­gram doesn’t real­ly work for that I think – it’s more Face­book and Twit­ter. Twit­ter is just a rage machine.

Oh, it’s horrible.

It’s so neg­a­tive and I found myself in many troll mobs get­ting trolled. I mean, it’s hap­pened about six times in my Twit­ter career – a mass mob of trolls have ral­lied against some­thing that I said. I don’t do any­thing because it ulti­mate­ly goes away. My boyfriend, how­ev­er. I got trolled a cou­ple weeks ago because of this New York­er arti­cle, where I was pranked in an inter­view. It came off ter­ri­bly and I sound like a moron. But it was a piece of per­for­mance art. I was trend­ing in the Unit­ed States because of how moron­ic I sound­ed. And my boyfriend woke me up and said you’re trend­ing’. He got pissed and got online to defend me. He got trolled by thou­sands and thou­sands of peo­ple… He’s a musi­cian and he had put out a lot of videos of him­self like eight years ago but some of them are kind of dumb. It’s like, on a side­walk with a gui­tar, jam­ming out. Peo­ple were repost­ing those say­ing, This is who Brent Eas­t­on Ellis’ boyfriend is? What a moron’. They went back to old Tweets he had [Tweet­ed].

I got trolled a cou­ple weeks ago because of this New York­er arti­cle, where I was pranked in an inter­view. It came off ter­ri­bly and I sound like a moron. But it was a piece of per­for­mance art.”

You’ve spo­ken a lot about pol­i­tics in recent inter­views. Do you think Trump will get in for a sec­ond term? 

A cou­ple of weeks back, after the Mueller report dropped, there was this weird three day thing that the Amer­i­can press was doing with [Demo­c­ra­t­ic for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent] Joe Biden [who recent­ly announced he’d be run­ning for Pres­i­dent in 2020], plac­ing him under a #MeToo umbrel­la and sug­gest­ing he was as bad as some­one who had com­mit­ted sex­u­al assault. My boyfriend had a fuck­ing fit. He had stopped watch­ing Rachel Mad­dow and MSNBC. He was dev­as­tat­ed about the Mueller report, he was very angry and felt he’d been mis­led some­how. And then the Joe Biden thing hap­pened and Oba­ma had to come out and give speech­es, like guys, guys this might be our only shot.” To go back to your orig­i­nal ques­tion, about two weeks ago, after all that was hap­pen­ing, most of the Democ­rats I know thought we fucked it up. But four years ago every­one thought Hillary Clin­ton was going to win and she didn’t. So I don’t know how much I believe this mass way of think­ing that Trump will get in again. My boyfriend said for about a week, We fuck­ing blew it. We blew it. And Trump’s going to get back in.” But any­thing can happen. 

Do you think as you get old­er, you feel like you care less or more?

I care less about stuff that I should have cared less about when I was younger and I didn’t. And it always tripped me up.

Like what?

Like being aware of being cool, car­ing about sex more than I do now and that real­ly being a com­pelling aspect of my life. And that then means you want to stay in shape and look good…I think let­ting go of a lot of that as you get old­er makes you hap­pi­er. I used to get stressed out about things that I real­ly couldn’t do any­thing about. My father, for exam­ple, real­ly upset me, and I let him get to me in ways that I think derailed me off into my life. I didn’t trust men because of my father. I always thought every­one was going to be my dad, and I always had to test my male friends until some­one said enough is enough.” But oth­er than that, I think this not hav­ing to pre­tend to be some­one any­more. Not that I ful­ly did but in lit­tle ways there was a lit­tle per­for­ma­tive stuff going on. Now that’s gone, you do feel free and that free­dom is hap­pi­ness. Look there’s enough prob­lems in my fam­i­ly and in my life to not make it total­ly hap­py. But there is a way of deal­ing with them that I don’t know if I was capa­ble of at 35 or 40 [Eas­t­on Ellis is 55], when I think it’s just eas­i­er now to deal with the shit. 

Do you think let­ting go is some­thing young peo­ple could learn? Do you think that young peo­ple are more angry? 

I mean, look, my gen­er­a­tion was… I don’t know. We were in reac­tion to the boomer gen­er­a­tion so we were cool, aloof, iron­ic, nihilist, neg­a­tive and we were not aspi­ra­tional in any sense. I mean, in terms of our movies or books or the music that we lis­tened to. I do think the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion is there­fore a rejec­tion and a push­back of that. You know, We’re sick of Amer­i­can Psy­cho, we’re sick of Fight Club, Nir­vana was neg­a­tive. We are aspi­ra­tional and we want art that teach­es us some­thing.” There was this thing on a web­site by a mil­len­ni­al who was review­ing Heathers and he was so shocked and appalled that the film got made, and he couldn’t believe what bad taste it was in and how it made fun of sex­u­al assault and school shoot­ings and homo­sex­u­al­i­ty. He said him and his friends watched it with their jaws dropped and one of the things they hat­ed the most about it is that it didn’t teach them any­thing and it wasn’t aspi­ra­tional. I think that’s just push back on my gen­er­a­tion and that just hap­pens, just like my gen­er­a­tion pushed back on boomers as the boomers pushed back. And I guess I’ve got­ten a lot of grief for writ­ing about mil­len­ni­als in White. But I was real­ly writ­ing about my own rela­tion­ship with my boyfriend and then I noticed gen­er­al­i­ties among a lot of mil­len­ni­als that I knew. 

Are you sym­pa­thet­ic to them at all? 

I write very sym­pa­thet­i­cal­ly about what they’ve been through to put them here. I mean they’ve been through: 911, two wars, a pres­i­dent they loathe, school debts, an eco­nom­ic dis­as­ter area. Why should they look for utopias and be super pos­i­tive and try to be dif­fer­ent from their peers, and that is real­ly the main ten­sion between my boyfriend, who is 32, and me at 55. It’s this gen­er­a­tional out­look on stuff. But I think we learn from each oth­er. I real­ly do. I’m not being like Pollyan­na-ish here but we do. I stand in his shoes and he stands in mine… It’s hard to stand in my shoes because he’s so dis­tract­ed all the time.


Relat­ed

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