Earlier this week, Bret Easton Ellis visited The UnHerd Club to celebrate the publication of The Shards, his first novel in 13 years. Below is an edited transcript of his conversation with Jacob Furedi.
Jacob Furedi: Bret, you’ve spoken before about the struggle you had writing this book. You first tried in 1981, and then again a number of times in the decades since. What changed that meant you could write it now?
Bret Easton Ellis: I’m old. That’s really why I ended up writing this book. I was 16 or 17 when I started writing Less Than Zero. I was in high school at Buckley, Los Angeles, and something happened in my senior year. The writer in me suddenly got a little out of control. I started to embellish a lot. I started to make up things. I was a fabulist. I believed things were happening that really weren’t happening.
I had a girlfriend, one of the most popular girls in our senior class at Buckley, but I was gay, and only pretending to be a boyfriend. I was having a secret affair with a closeted football player, and that was a whole other drama. (Unfortunately, I told a good friend of mine about it, and he confronted the football player.) I made up stories about an English teacher. I was making up stories about my family. And everything kind of collapsed. Becoming a writer had spilled over into my real life. And it was like an origin story: how do you control this superpower? How do you make it work, and not wreck your life and wreck the lives of others?
This was in my senior year, in 1981 and 1982, and I realised I had to pull back. And that was the moment when I moved from being a teenager to being a man, when the corruption of adulthood happened and moved me into the world of adults.
I interrupted Less than Zero and I tried to write The Shards, but it was just too big, too complicated. There were too many characters, too many things that happened to me that I wanted to dramatise. So I forgot about The Shards, and went back to writing Less Than Zero, which was a vibe novel: parties, the beach, nightclubs. It wasn’t heavily plotted, there was very little characterisation. It seemed like the easier book to write. Decade after decade, I would go back to The Shards and try to figure out how to write it, but I never could.
Then the pandemic hit. And the Hollywood dream I had chased for 14 years — of directing the scripts that I had written — died with lockdown. We were all stuck in our apartments. And I found myself doing something that I never did, which was going on Facebook, thinking about classmates from that senior year — a lot of classmates that I had perhaps betrayed.
Jacob: What do you mean by “betrayed”?
Bret: Well, certainly, my girlfriend. And certainly the boy who was closeted. I had certainly made up stories about things I felt bad about. I started looking at these people who I hadn’t spoken to in decades. Some I couldn’t find. They didn’t have any social media presence. And that began to haunt me.
As with every book I’ve written, it starts with a feeling. I was confused about not finding those people. I was feeling nostalgic. I began to look for all the places that we hung out, the coffee shops, the malls, the movie theatres, the restaurants, the nightclubs — they were gone. All of them are gone. I started listening to the music from 1981 and 1982 — Icehouse, Kim Wilde, Blondie — and things began to swirl around me.
The novel just poured out of me, in a way that none of the fiction that I’ve ever written has, and it upsets me now to realise, at the age of 58, that I wasted those key, great years, your forties and your fifties, when a lot of American writers produce their masterpiece. They’re really at the height of their powers. And I had been in Hollywood chasing a mini-series, and trying to get movies made that had just died. This book should have been written 10 or 15 years earlier, and then I could have gone on a book tour and at least been appealing to groupies!
Jacob: So you think you’ve missed your opportunity to write a “masterpiece”?
Bret: I’m not immune to the idea of how people perceive me. I do read my reviews: I know there are a lot of five-star and one-star reviews on Amazon. Some even say DNF — Did not finish!
But at the same time, I’m not a career writer. Books are a hobby. I’m not that writer who works with an editor at a publishing house and says, “OK, I’m gonna have this book in 18 months, and you’re going to publish it.” I don’t really write for an audience. I dedicated my new novel, The Shards, to no one. I didn’t write it for you. I wrote it for myself. And it was a very emotional thing to write. That’s how every single novel I’ve written works.
Someone once asked me why I haven’t written a memoir, a proper memoir. But I have written my memoir, over nine volumes of them — my novels. All have a narrator of the same sort of age as I was, and they are all a reflection of whatever pain, confusion, distress I was going through at the time. And writing each novel helped me move through those problems.
Jacob: What was that catharsis in American Psycho? What did Bret Easton Ellis reveal about himself in that novel?
Bret: The catharsis was that I had moved into a world that I didn’t want to be a part of. I didn’t want to be a man, and I was becoming a man. I was out of college. I was living on my own in Manhattan. I was making money from my books and I wanted to fit into the world of adults. But I just hated the world that was being presented to me.
It was the end of the Reagan era: yuppies, Manhattan, Wall Street. What it meant to be a man, how masculinity was defined, was very different from what I aspired to be. And yet… I wanted to fit in.
I felt, in a lot of ways, like Patrick Bateman, because I don’t think Patrick Bateman is necessarily as insane as people perceive him… He wasn’t wrong about a lot of things that he noticed! There’s a truth to his criticism of the society that he was a part of, which comes out every now and then in the novel.
I was also interested in creating fiction, which is what Patrick Bateman does. Is Patrick Bateman fantasising about all of this? Is it real? Is it not? Is he creating these narratives because he’s so angry, so crazy, so upset about stuff? The only way he can feel anything is to have these insane violent fantasies.
I was also deeply impacted by growing up in California, in the late Seventies and into the Eighties, when it was home base for serial killers. They were everywhere: two or three operating at once. Cults, too — it was just part of the wallpaper. I was five or six when the Manson murders happened. I was talking to Quentin Tarantino about this as well. Because he grew up in California at the same time. And he said: “Man! The Manson murders just really freaked everyone out.” And it traumatised me too.
Jacob: Now you’re 58, do you feel more comfortable than you were when you wrote American Psycho?
Bret: I do feel somewhat embarrassed exhibiting myself now, in a way that I didn’t at 28 or 38. When I started doing book tours, I was the youngest person in the room. Now I’m the oldest. I do feel at 58 that it is kind of unbecoming: you’ve aged out of that notion of having fun on book tours, staying up all night, then doing interviews on Oprah the next day.
I did not do a book tour for The Shards in the United States. I refused to do one, although it was very problematic for my publisher there. But the media in the United States is insane. There’s no reason to try to deal with a fake media that’s really out to get you — and is far snarkier than in England.
But in England, I am also publishing my new novel in a very different way. I have left Picador, which had been my publisher since I was 21. They didn’t want The Shards, so I am publishing it with Swift instead.
I didn’t know anybody at Picador’s new regime. I don’t know why they didn’t want the novel. Maybe it’s because I am a white privileged male, writing a novel with no diversity or inclusivity. I think they wanted me to write more about the Nicaraguan maid that Bret [the character in The Shards] was with. I’m not really joking! I do think that there is something about the tenor of the times, and this book itself, that they didn’t want.
Jacob: While we’re on the subject of publishing, you must have heard about sensitivity readers. Can you imagine The Shards in the hands of a sensitivity reader? Or American Psycho?
Bret: Well, The Shards did get through my publishing house in America, which does employ sensitivity readers. And look, I know they exist. I heard a horrible story about sensitivity readers, and a novel written by a middle-aged woman about middle-aged women. The women want to meet and talk about their problems with their husbands. They are going to go to a Chinese restaurant. One of them says: we probably shouldn’t go there, because of the MSG. And someone flagged that as racist — you can’t have that. So they made the writer move the scene to a coffee shop. I really don’t want to be a part of that.
Maybe part of the reason The Shards got through is just because I’m old — I was grandfathered in. But still I heard the view that there was way too much sex in the novel, and that it was not a “positive” portrayal of homosexuality. I mean, what is a positive portrayal of homosexuality?
Jacob: Ok, but at the same time, if you look at Amazon UK, The Shards is currently sitting at number one… in the section for Gay Biography.
Bret: Did you have to tell me that? It’s not Gay Biography at all.
Jacob: There is a biographical element to it, though. And that seems to be quite common these days. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans — a lot of fantastic creators are going back to their pasts. By writing The Shards, were you trying to escape the present?
Bret: I think you hit an age where you want to go back into the past, and you want either to romanticise it, or to understand the shadow history of which you weren’t aware at the time. A lot of great film directors have done that. At a certain age, Federico Fellini made Amarcord about his childhood; Alfonso Cuarón made Roma; Woody Allen made Radio Days; Ingmar Bergman made Fanny and Alexander. I’m writing fiction that took place in 1981. I do not want to write anything with a fucking cell phone in it.
Jacob: But you still keep an eye on the present. Your last book, White (2019), was rooted in contemporary politics — on the state of liberalism and Trump.
Bret: It wasn’t about any of those things. It was about Generation X — a cultural examination of Gen X and their attitudes. It wasn’t a defence of Trump (which is what the crazy moment of 2019 thought the book was); it was about the reactions to Trump.
And as a member of Gen X, I was interested in why we had gotten into such a hysterical divide. I think part of the reason why Gen X is the most conservative of the generations — much more than boomers, much more than millennials — is that we had the most freedom. We looked to be shocked. We wanted to be offended. We loved dirty jokes. We loved music.
But today, the world has to be childproof. And you have to think like the better people. I didn’t experience that. So I think part of the reason why Gen X is 10 to 12 points more conservative in the polls in the US is precisely because of this reaction against this kind of authoritarian language. That’s what White was about. It was not a defence of Trump or an attack on liberalism. I was a liberal — what are you talking about? It just so happened that the culture had moved so far over to this other side that I guess I wasn’t anymore. So that’s what that was about and why it was written in a very heated moment in 2019.
I would never write that book now. I was asked recently whether I would write that last chapter again, where I was talking about working with Kanye West for five years on projects that never happened. Kanye is a bit crazy. But the Kanye now is really no different from the Kanye I met in 2013. He is the same person. He is outrageous. He is a provocateur. He is going way too far on the platform he is on now…
Jacob: Is he an antisemite?
Bret: I don’t believe he’s an antisemite. No, I do not believe that at all. I believe that he’s a destroying artist. And I believe that he’s at a point in his career, because I’ve been I’ve been there too…
Jacob: But you’ve never said anything that could be as construed as antisemitic as he as.
Bret: … I’ve had a lot of a Jewish boyfriends. But look, my Jewish boyfriend and I make antisemitic jokes all the time. What’s wrong with an antisemitic joke? But the problem is that with Kanye, he wants to live in a world that is completely free and… To not be able to say that you liked voting for someone or that you like this… And that there’s this entire industry that is trying to shut down free speech and label a lot of stuff hate speech… I think that’s what Kanye is reacting to. I don’t really know why he wants to die on this particular hill, but I kind of get it, knowing Kanye the way that I did. He just wants to say “fuck you” to everybody. “I can say whatever the fuck I want. If I want to say that I like fucking Adolf Hitler, what are you going to do about it?”
My boyfriend’s Jewish. And my stepfather is a Jew who lost his family in the Holocaust… I know, I know. Saying that is so stupid… And he fought in the Israeli war and everything. And he just shrugged and said “Kanye is a moron”. He didn’t turn it into some gigantic tornado of hysteria that the American press liked to do — and that corporate culture likes to now punish. But I would not rewrite that chapter about Kanye or add that into it because that took place in 2018. That chapter was a reflection of that moment, and where we were, and I thought it was a pretty accurate portrayal of who Kanye was overall.
Jacob: I want to pick up on something you said earlier. You talked about that freedom that you and Gen X had, but also how conservative that generation has become. How did that happen? And does that mean you’ve become a conservative?
Bret: I don’t know how to answer that. That is such a millennial question! I don’t even know how to start answering that question.
Jacob: Try and answer it?
Bret: What was the first part of it again?
Jacob: I’ll rephrase it. Are you a conservative or a liberal?
Bret: I’m nothing. I’m not a conservative or a liberal. At least in the US, I can’t agree with either of them. I think they’re both completely bonkers. I don’t watch the news anymore. We have the Food Network on all of our TV screens, or video games. I’m done.
It’s very hard to follow it when it all seems like a simulacrum, a preordained narrative that is being fed to you. The mainstream press in the United States right now just seems so fucking fake.
Jacob: That seems the perfect place to go to the audience for questions.
Is anyone going to write the great millennial novel?
Bret: No. Last time I was here, everyone was telling me that Sally Rooney has written the great millennial novel. And I think: she’s fine. Whatever. But I just don’t know whether the novel is vital to millennials as a way of expression. There’s nothing bad or wrong about that — they just won’t write it.
I had dinner about two months ago with three millennial men in their mid-thirties. One was a socialist actor, two were tech bros, who had sold their company for a fick a lot of money. All three of them said they had never read a novel. I said, I don’t know what you mean. You’re all college graduates. How is that possible? Oh, yeah, they told me, we were assigned novels. We just did our essays from articles on the internet. We have never read a novel.
I’m not saying that’s indicative of everyone, but it was telling in terms of what the novel meant to them. Thirty years ago, everyone had read the Pulitzer Prize winner of that year, even if you were not a writer. People then had a different relationship to novels from what they do now.
So how can there then be the great millennial novel? I hope I’m wrong. I’ve read novels by millennials, and some are good. But I just don’t think novels mean as much to their generation as they did to Gen X or Boomers.
America’s culture of violence has clearly influenced your novels. What do you see its role being?
Bret: Violence is tense, it’s gripping, it’s dramatic, it’s emotional. Tarantino once said that he uses violence in the way that people use the musical numbers in movies. They’re just there. They’re fun, they’re exciting. They lift the movie up into another tier and they’re integral to his vision of the world.
I feel the same way about my books. I don’t think that the violence is gratuitous, as people would argue about American Psycho. It’s not only part of my sensibility, but also part of the subjects that I write about. It would be inauthentic to write about a serial killer without certain details about the murders.
I never forgot when Jean-Luc Godard was taken to task for having bloody scenes in his movies. And he said: “That’s not violence, that’s red.” Violence is just part of my aesthetic, but then again, I can’t over-intellectualise it. It just seems like an authentic part of some of the books that I’ve written.
Sorry to bring this back to politics, but how are we going to get ourselves out of this mess?
Bret: I don’t know how we’re going to do it. In the last two American elections, there were tens of millions of people who thought they were fraudulent. They don’t believe in the process. There is a huge divide in that country. You would be shocked at the percentage of people who said 2020 was an illegitimate election. And then the other side said that Donald Trump didn’t win in 2016, or that the Russians aided him or whatever.
I don’t want to blame the media because, when you look at TV ratings and newspaper circulation, you wonder: where are people getting their information? If CNN has, like, 300,000 people watching it, is CNN really the devil as the Right likes to say? The distrust of elections is out of control. I don’t know what’s going to happen in 2024. But I’m not the right person to ask this because I’ve veered away from politics. You can’t really have that kind of debate, or help people see things in a different light. Talking about America is now like talking into a mirror.
Will I vote? I guess it depends on who’s running. But I am in the majority of Americans who don’t vote. The majority of Americans don’t trust the political system, and they don’t like the people running. And so why would you vote, if you feel that way?
When I was in my mid-teens, I wanted to be a writer, and showed my dad something I’d written. He didn’t like it very much, and I’ve struggled to write since. You started at a very young age — did you ever have a moment like that?
Bret: I’ve noticed that millennials have a huge sense of shame, which my generation simply didn’t have. I did not care what my parents thought about my books. I do know that my parents were not happy with some of my books. I found out after my father died that he described Less Than Zero to my mother as “that dirty little book that our son wrote”. My mother is proud of me, but I don’t think I write the kind of books that my mother particularly likes. That’s fine. They weren’t written for her.
Wanting to be liked was not part of Gen X. But I do think it’s a major — and crushing — part of my boyfriend [musician Todd Michael Schultz]’s millennial generation. He wants to be liked. He wants to be followed. He wants likes on Instagram, a lot of views on his YouTube video. He is exhibiting himself. He’s not a typical millennial — he is very critical of his generation, which might be one of the reasons why we’ve gotten along, and been together for as long as we have. But he wants to be accepted in ways that I just never did, and my generation never did.
A teacher reading something I wrote and slamming it made no difference to me. At college, my professor read one of the first stories I had turned in, and said, why all the brand names? Why are you mentioning the songs people are listening to, or what’s playing on TV? And my reaction was, well, this is part of the wallpaper, the background noise of their lives. That’s life. And he took me to task and said: “You’re going to end up on the ash heap of literature. If you keep writing books like this, you’re going to date yourself.” And I really didn’t care.
What are you reading at the moment?
Bret: A collection of essays by David Mamet, the playwright. He’s a big free speech advocate and these essays are a very interesting take: short, to the point. I’m also reading a collection of non-fiction pieces by Michel Houellebecq, which are just absolutely terrific. Mamet and Houellebecq understand our moment better than anybody; they see through the hypocrisy, what they call the “authoritarian liberalism” that has been infecting Europe as well as the United States. They locate it, they decimate it, and it’s pretty great. I’m also reading Great Expectations.
The last great book I read was The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, which I’d never read before, and it is absolutely amazing — with a spectacular ending, so terrifying. It’s just wonderful. I was also blown away by Lost Illusions by Balzac. I’m disappointed with a lot of contemporary fiction.
What would you have been if you had failed as a writer?
Jacob: That’s a great question. Because, Bret, when you were asked this before, you once answered that you would have been a porn star. Were you serious?
Bret: Well, I hope I would have been a successful porn star! But seriously… I don’t know. There are days when I think I am a failure.
As a writer, I’ve had a really strange career in terms of being equally liked and equally hated, never nominated for a prize. The American mainstream literary press thinks I’m a bit of a joke — they don’t really take me seriously. So I don’t wake up in my bed, clutching my Pulitzer Prize, my National Book Award, my framed great reviews in The New Yorker, whatever. I never had that kind of adulation. And I didn’t really care about any of that.
What I do care about are the tactile, tangible, pragmatic things that you have to deal with in your everyday life. You know, I have ageing parents. I have a boyfriend who went through major addiction issues two years ago. I’m really worried that this is the first time I’ve left him alone for two weeks… I’ve had major plumbing issues in my apartment for fucking ages. It’s been a Kafkaesque nightmare of trying to get the plumbing sorted and it’s so expensive. And I’ve been thinking about these things much more than I have about The Shards. That stuff really is the main part of my life and so… Failure? Success? I don’t know. I’m just a human being, with other concerns.
The Shards is published by Swift Press.