American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Week three: Bret Easton Ellis on the misreading of American Psycho

It feels as if I wrote American Psycho 100 years ago. I think I began it in December 1986 and finished it in December 1989; it was published in 1991. I was 22 when I started writing and 26 – the same age as Bateman – when it was ready for publication. I was young, but I felt old. I wanted to write a novel about the people on Wall Street making vast sums of money. I wanted to write about someone who was very emblematic of the period. But I was also writing about myself. On a certain level it was an autobiographical novel.

In many ways Patrick Bateman was me: his rage, his disgust and to a degree his passivity stem from what I was feeling at the time. And boredom. The novel is really about my loneliness, my alienation. I wasn't part of the yuppie culture of the America of the 80s. I identify a lot with Bateman's criticism of the society and the culture he is in. I found myself in a similar position where I was both upset at what it meant to become an adult and also found myself attracted to certain aspects of whatever that lifestyle meant at that time. The term "yuppie" was coined in something like 1984. In retrospect, Wall Street is just wallpaper in the novel. I don't think it would be as widely read if the point or the message of the book was specifically an attack on yuppie culture. I think there's a larger feeling that people respond to in the book. I don't know what that is, but it is obviously something.

I'm as bewildered as anyone that it resonated as much as it did. It was certainly a word-of-mouth book. When it was published in America the controversy helped sell copies for about a month, then it was silent for maybe a year and then the sales started to spike and it then began to reach a larger readership. I don't think I got a single good review – every one across the board was terrible, apart from one in the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times headline of their review, which ran three weeks before publication, was "Snuff this book: don't let Bret Easton Ellis get away with murder".

The novel was misread. The feminist reaction was an overtly emotional response to a text that was more on their side than they realised at the time. I don't think the book is anti-woman, as I've said many times. But even if it was – so what? It's a novel, it's not a creed. Some of the passages were leaked to the press by "concerned employees" of Simon & Schuster. Publication was cancelled and the novel was picked up by Random House about four or five days later.

I knew it would all blow over – the controversy and the feminist protesting and the death threats that I received – because I knew people would finally get it, so it didn't bother me as much as it would if I hadn't believed in the book. I'd been involved in the publishing industry since I was about 20. I wasn't exactly a veteran, but I knew how everything worked. I'd published two novels previously. I'd been around the block. I had become used to controversy.

Writing is an emotional process. When I'm figuring things out in the early days of the novel, the narrator's voice and sensibility and mindset seem to take over. I'm often surprised at the choices they make and the way they want to tell their story; even though I'm in control as the technician, they are still the heart of the book and I follow their lead. I didn't expect American Psycho to become as violent as it ultimately did, but the more time I spent with Bateman the more I realised what roads he was going to be going down and it made sense to me. The violent passages were difficult to write and I concentrated on them in the two-week period after I had finished the bulk of the book, using criminology text books to help me with some of the more graphic descriptions. They were upsetting to write, but this is what happens when you form a partnership with the person whose story you are telling together.

I had to reread those passages six or seven years ago, for the first time since the book was published, when I was working on the outline for Lunar Park. I was upset by them, they were very traumatic to read. And that was a good thing. I wouldn't write American Psycho now. I'm at a different point in my life. It is not a place I'm at any more.

Next week John Mullan will be looking at readers' responses.

Bret Easton Ellis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Week one: the running joke

John Mullan

25, Jun, 2010 @11:05 PM

Article image
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Week two: the unreliable narrator

John Mullan

02, Jul, 2010 @11:05 PM

Article image
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Week four: readers' responses

John Mullan

16, Jul, 2010 @11:05 PM

Article image
Guardian book club: Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho

Sam Jordison: Critics savaged the book when it first came out in 1991 – but they didn't appreciate that serial killer Patrick Bateman is one of the funniest comic creations since Bertie Wooster

Sam Jordison

14, Jul, 2010 @9:13 AM

Article image
Bret Easton Ellis contemplates American Psycho sequel
US author delights Twitter followers with multi-tweet ideas session, finishing with tentative plans to start writing

Alison Flood

13, Mar, 2012 @11:41 AM

Article image
Bret Easton Ellis: today's American Psycho would be an online troll
The author’s novel is now a musical due to make its Broadway debut – prompting Ellis to muse about what the murderous banker would be up to in 2016

David Barnett

11, Mar, 2016 @5:22 PM

Article image
Bret Easton Ellis still stuck with American Psycho after 25 years
‘I will always be defined by Patrick Bateman,’ says author, adding that the psychotic anti-hero would no longer be a fan of Donald Trump

Sian Cain

01, Apr, 2016 @5:00 PM

Article image
Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis | Book review
Mark Lawson enjoys a midlife sequel to Bret Easton Ellis's debut

Mark Lawson

25, Jun, 2010 @11:05 PM

Bret Easton Ellis: Leader of the Bret pack

Bret Easton Ellis was secretive at school. Buckley was private, up in the hills, a rich teenagers' refuge of tiled roofs and lawns. The rest of Los Angeles, random and vast and frightening to Buckley parents, who mostly worked in Hollywood, stewed far away below: some of their children would work there too. At the beginning of the eighties, Buckley pupils watched their grades, threw parties and footballs, and never burned in the sun.

08, Jan, 1999 @3:46 AM

Article image
Bret Easton Ellis is part dinosaur, part sage. I’m intrigued | Suzanne Moore
He says the reaction to Trump is worse than Trump himself. He refuses to toe the liberal line on race and gender. Where do we position such a writer?

Suzanne Moore

29, Apr, 2019 @5:47 PM