Bret Easton Ellis: ‘James and the Giant Peach changed my life’

The provocative novelist on looking back at his teenage self, the sales generated by a hostile Q&A and his obsession with Marilyn Monroe

Bret Easton Ellis, 58, is the author of nine books, most recently White (2019), a memoir of culture and politics that describes, among other things, the impact of reading Thomas Tryon’s violent 1971 horror classic The Other when he was seven years old. Speaking from home in Los Angeles, where he’s currently at work on a mock true-crime audio show with Irvine Welsh, he calls his new book, The Shards – a high-school mystery first serialised on his podcast – “a Bret Easton Ellis novel for people who don’t like Bret Easton Ellis novels”. Of whom, he adds, there are many: “I am the worst-reviewed American writer of my generation. It’s just a fact. If you can find another one, please, I’d like to know; it’s not Chuck Palahniuk, I can tell you that.”

Your previous book, White, which was mainly about movies and novels, was widely discussed as though it were only about Donald Trump, not least in a hostile New Yorker Q&A. How did that feel?
I think Trump really deranged mainstream media. Anyone who even came close to figuring out [his appeal] got deemed a traitor. The response perfectly illustrated what I was talking about and I can only be grateful: the book was kind of doing nothing and then the New Yorker thing appeared and suddenly we shot up to No 1 on about six different levels on Amazon. I got booked on Tucker Carlson, which sold a ton of books. Controversy helps! The negativity was nothing compared with American Psycho. After American Psycho, people assumed I would never publish again. All 30 of my publishers around the world dropped me. Not one stood by me except for Picador.

So why aren’t you publishing The Shards with them?
They didn’t want it! I’d been with them since I was 21 but something felt broken. They made a lowball offer and my agency made this decision to take a risk trying a new kind of deal [with Swift Press]. There is this antiquated notion in traditional publishing: “Give the big fat advance! Never make it back! Promote a book that will never make anyone any money once that advance is given up!” What if you partner with a publisher, don’t take an advance and work together selling the product? Start making money for the house and yourself from book one.

Did serialising the novel on your podcast shape its composition?
I don’t think it did. I knew the book’s movements from the beginning, I just couldn’t figure out how to tell it; I had to get old enough. I’d been thinking about the book so often since first trying to write it in 1982 that when the spark ignited one night in April 2020, I had 14 pages the next day and just spent a year and a half finishing the rest.

What drew you to the novel’s autobiographical voice?
It gave the project an immediacy I hadn’t been able to locate for 40 years. I wasn’t really thinking, oh, I’m going to create a work of autofiction. I just wanted to write about some of my classmates and my somewhat sentimental feelings of nostalgia about a period in my life that was also extremely painful; to finally, at 58, look back at [being] that boy in 1981, a year that changed everything for me, and to write about it, and people I love, without embarrassment.

Are you less reluctant now to be viewed as a gay writer?
Someone told me American Psycho is the gayest novel ever written, so I think if you look at my work it’s obvious; I just didn’t feel like being labelled a queer writer. At this age, I don’t really care about protecting this part of me and I did feel very free to write about stuff I’ve wanted to write for a long time, especially a couple of relationships I had with men when I was in high school. If anyone recognises themselves, they should be flattered. All I wanted was to present them in the ways I felt emotionally, and to be open, not judgmental, about the Bret character’s feelings.

Does Bret’s creeping instability hint at the dark side of the generational freedom you celebrate in White?
What I was talking about in White was childhood into adolescence; The Shards is adolescence into adulthood. There are contradictions everywhere, of course. Do I wish my parents were more there for me? Sure. Would I prefer coddling? I’m not saying there’s not an in-between. But do I like that my dad took me to R-rated movies and that it made me more of an adult? Sure. Quentin Tarantino and I talk about this all the time: man, it was great to grow up then! True, there’s a bite to that freedom. But it’s much preferable to whatever the other thing is. That’s why gen X is by far the most conservative of all the generations. We had the freest world – just this freedom that we slowly see being smothered. And I think that conservatism is a reaction to that.

Are you less attracted to satire nowadays?
Less Than Zero [1985] had the kind of moralising that a sophisticated 19- or 20-year-old might inflict upon everyone with his self-regard; you grow out of that. I had no desire in this book to satirise Bret’s milieu. I just wanted to present it how I remembered it and how I felt it. Someone approaching it from a much younger point of view would maybe write a novel about Bret and his Nicaraguan maid and how he wants to help her. Maybe Picador would have published that book.

What have you been reading lately?
I’ve been immersed in Joyce Carol Oates’s novel Blonde, about Marilyn Monroe. I was very impressed by the Netflix adaptation – I didn’t think I would be – and I’ve become obsessed with reading about Monroe’s life. It’s very dense, about 750 pages, but it’s riveting; I don’t want it to end.

You once said your favourite children’s book was Roald Dahl’s
James and the Giant Peach. Why?
It changed my life. My aunt read it to me, my sisters and my three cousins in two sittings over vacation at a beach house when I was about six. The idea that the world was meaner, crueller, more absurd and fantastical than anything that picture books had previously showed me made a real impact. That was the moment I couldn’t go back [as a reader]. I was flipping through my parents’ books. They had The Godfather - it was the first time I saw “fuck” in print, which blew my seven-year-old mind. I picked up my mom’s library copy of The Other because there was the face of a little boy in the “O” on the cover; I thought, is this novel about a little boy? And then I started to read it.

  • The Shards is published by Swift Press (£25) on 17 January. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply


Anthony Cummins

The GuardianTramp

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