Lunch with the FT: Bret Easton Ellis. 5 November 2005

It is just past noon, and I am sitting at one of the best tables in one of London’s most sought-after restaurants – The Wolseley, where reservations need to be made weeks in advance – neatly decked out in an expensive mohair grey woollen suit and awaiting the arrival of my lunch companion. While I wait, gazing nonchalantly into The Wolseley’s opulent domed ceiling, I leaf through London’s Evening Standard and catch sight of a report in the gossip column about a book launch party the previous evening. It was, if the report is to believed, an outrageously glamorous affair – Joan Collins, Bryan Ferry and even David Gilmour from Pink Floyd were in attendance. And the celebrity New York author Bret Easton Ellis, in whose honour the bash was thrown, is quoted as telling the gossip columnist: “I’m having a fun time.”
A fun time? Is that all he could think of to say? As soon as Bret Easton Ellis arrives, I thrust the paper into his face and ask him. The cherubic author of Less than Zero and American Psycho looks flushed and a little sheepish. He grabs the newspaper and holds it up to his face, reading it but also pretending to hide his blushes behind it. “I’m a little hung over,” he admits. Do you actually know any of these celebrities, I ask? “Listen,” he says, with the lazy drawl of someone who might be better off in bed. “It’s all business for everybody. All I did last night was work.”
After the party, he tells me, he went for dinner with his agent, Amanda Urban – known as Binky, who features in his latest book Lunar Park, a novel narrated by a character called Bret Easton Ellis. Binky wanted to eat at a certain London restaurant but was told that there was no room. But when she announced that the table was for the famous writer Bret Easton Ellis, and that Ellis badly needed to eat, the poor head waiter changed his mind. “Can you believe that? That’s crazy.” It’s not so crazy, I say. I used the same tactic to get us a table here. I don’t have the heart to tell him it didn’t work, that I had to change the time of our lunch to get us a table at all.
Perhaps because he is afraid of flying, Ellis hasn’t been to London for six years, and is only here now to promote his latest book. When the waiter arrives, I plump for the smoked salmon starter, and Ellis takes a dozen oysters. I suggest he joins me in having a glass of wine, but he is afraid that it might make him sick.
Being shepherded around on an international book tour must be a tiring business. “But I have nothing else to do,” he says. “I wasn’t working on anything, and if I was it was stupid crap. And I was very depressed.” Oh dear, I say. “So even though I was dreading this tour, I thought, look, at least you’re going to be depressed and doing something.” Like hanging out at parties with has-been, second-rate celebs, I suggest? “Hey, they weren’t second-rate. And, come on, the point of the party was to get the book out there, to get the product noticed.”
The oysters arrive on a beautiful silver tray, and Ellis generously invites me to tuck in. They turn out to be delicious. “Oh my God,” he says, having tried one, “these are quite amazing.” But he has a complaint. “They weren’t shucked properly. They’re incredibly fresh, the brine is near-perfect, but these babies are not properly shucked.” The sophistication of Ellis’s palate reminds me of one of his showy, taste-obsessed characters.
A defining feature of a Bret Easton Ellis novel is that it is full to the brim of designer labels, high-end brand names and the whole detritus of luxury consumption. His oeuvre is perfectly poised between criticism of and collusion with the world of celebrity and brands, and that’s how he seems to like it.
So what does he make of my best suit, I wonder? “You know, I’m not an expert on suits. Everyone seems to think I am.” But in Lunar Park, the Ellis character is sent suits by Armani all the time. That was fiction, he protests. “I’m only wearing a suit today because I woke up hung over and I wanted at least to have the illusion that I’m in control of things; that I’m not feeling absolutely sick. The suit helps with the illusion.” But surely he gets sponsorship money and a few free suits by placing brand names in his books? “None. Ever. That’s just a total myth.”
But there is something nagging at the back of his mind. “Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute,” he says. “I did get a suit last night for the party. An Armani.” He didn’t ask for it, he says, but Armani was sponsoring the party, so someone came round to his hotel, the Savoy, with a bunch of suits. But usually brands don’t want to be associated with him because of the violence and excess of his books, he says. “American Express, for example, didn’t want to be associated with a book where the card was used to buy prostitutes and chop out lines of cocaine.”
Ellis has ordered a lavish spread of food on the basis that it might help to soak up his hangover, but now he’s a little worried for his health. “What am I doing eating this? What am I doing? This is crazy food to eat when you’re hung over.” He takes out a small tablet, and uses a knife to cut it into something even smaller before popping half into his mouth. “I have stomach problems. I’m worried. I’m just worried about what I’m eating.” Ellis worries a lot, not least about himself. I tell him that I think Lunar Park is darker and more penitent than the razzle-dazzle of his earlier novels, and is shot through with terrible self-loathing. The Bret Easton Ellis character, for example, is a pathetic excuse for a writer, who spends much of the book being chased by a psychopath dressed up as Patrick Bateman – the Wall Street banker in American Psycho who spent his spare time killing and maiming random strangers.
I wonder whether it is himself or simply his public persona – which has never managed to exorcise the ghost of Bateman – that he hates? “Both,” he says, without missing a beat.
There is one thing that every journalist needs to know about Ellis: he lies, often and with great enthusiasm. In his books and even in his conversation, Ellis is every bit as slippery as one of the oysters he has just knocked back with such ceremony. His latest book, for example, is not only narrated by a character called Bret Easton Ellis, but it was launched with some carefully choreographed stunts (such as fake websites) to make it look like a real memoir, albeit a rather disturbing and horrific one. So does he ham it up for journalists? “I lie a lot.” Can I have a scoop for my editor, I wonder? “No.” Not even a made-up one? “I can’t force it; it happens naturally during the course of any interview. How do you know I haven’t already given you a couple of lies?”
Even Ellis’s new solemnity, his new enthusiasm for baring his soul and for public self-flagellation, I begin to think, might be part of his act. Authors, after all, are increasingly persuaded to offer up their emotional innards as part of their relationship with their audiences, and Ellis is a connoisseur of the Zeitgeist if ever there was one.
Ellis’s candour about his approach to interviews has taken the wind out of my sails. I am left wrestling with my partridge, which has arrived garnished with what look a little like crinkle-cut potato crisps. It’s great how they give you a few crisps with it, I say, to change the subject. “That’s my motto about life,” he says.
In an attempt to liven him up, I say how wonderful it must feel to be the centre of a hurricane of media attention. Did he bed many of his groupies? “Yes,” he says. Girls and boys? “Yes,” he says again. “I’m a guy. I took every opportunity that came my way. If I wasn’t famous, I wouldn’t have gotten laid a half, a quarter as much.” But he slips back into a rage with his disillusion about the world of celebrity. “The way everyone interacts with one another is based on a set of crap. It’s a bunch of crap, all this fake shit. I guess I see through it all now. I’m having a mid-life crisis,” he says, a propos of very little. “It happened immediately I was done with the book.”
Is that the real Bret Easton Ellis talking, or one of his fictional alter egos? It hardly seems to matter. Even with a sore head, a mid-life crisis and a blithe propensity to tell lies to nosey journalists, Ellis is bracingly good lunch company.
As we drink our coffees, he points to a couple near by. The man is twice as old as the woman and, whispering at me not to stare, he says, “What do you think about them? Do you recognise the old man with the walking stick?” “I’m not sure,” I say, “but it’s always depressing to sit in swanky restaurants watching rich older men seduce attractive younger women.” “Get real,” he says. “That’s life. And it gives me hope.” The former literary bad boy laughs broadly, downs his Americano, and leaves, under the steadying direction of his publicist, to be the subject of yet another celebrity interview.