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.
I’ve read the other ones, but when they came out.
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.
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 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: 9⁄11, 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.