I’m staring out Bret Easton Ellis’ high rise Beverly Hills apartment window. The view is beautiful yet painfully superficial, a smog-drenched vision of success and struggle. Bret, in a black Izod shirt and workout pants, has been sneezing since I walked in the door. “Sorry. I used to blame my sniffling on allergies when I had a cocaine hangover. Now I don’t do cocaine, but I do have allergies.”
The author of American Psycho and Less Than Zero has, after years of toying with his media perception, finally ditched all masks. The man who dodged questions about sexuality, relationships and his past is gone. The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast is an open forum, a platform for an elder wordsmith with strong opinions about a dizzyingly evolving entertainment industry. With Ellis, nothing is off the record. The Ellis I’ve met is a kind, mildly sardonic personality. Despite the generation gap, we share certain things. There’s burnt incense on a table. There’s discarded cigarettes, stinking in a plastic cup, on his desk. We both love The Replacements’ Don’t Tell a Soul. He escaped into Tales from the Crypt and film as a child, avoiding a volatile father that never understood him.
As Ellis launches the second season of his weekly podcast on May 5th, he has topics he’s passionate about, but never an agenda. He’s simply interested in speaking his mind, and digging into the minds of those who interest him.
When did you discover you had writing talent?
You have to understand this was a long time ago in the Empire, and I remember, compared to parents now, being alone a lot. I didn’t have parents or teachers hovering over my every move, documenting my childhood. If I saw my dad during the week, it was kinda rare. I walked to school alone. I would come home and play with my friends out in the Canyons. Then it was time for dinner, and maybe I’d see my mom then, and then it was time to go on your own, doing homework and watching TV. I liked books a lot, and because my parents were pretty heavy readers, there were always books around. I became very interested in reading at a very early age, and I wanted to mimic the enjoyment of that experience by writing my own books. I didn’t really care or need encouragement. I was an independent kid in that respect. I wrote some out-there stuff. I was really interested in horror, science fiction and fantasy. I did my own graphic novels, well, I wanted them to be novels, but they were 15-20 pages, and I did my own illustrations. I think it’s carried me on to this day. I really didn’t have anyone telling me I was talented. I could kind of sense that teachers were kind of impressed, and I think if the subject matter of my stuff was different, my parents would have been less alarmed. Horror at seven and eight years old? Intense science fiction stories with battles with monsters, and so no one really encouraged me, until I was in high school and was seriously writing. I had a few teachers who seriously encouraged me, and of course in college, but I never needed anyone to tell me I was talented. I still don’t.
Now you get a trophy for turning in a five-page story.
It’s also much easier to share with the world the stuff that you do now. We’re in this “I need to be liked” culture. I often wonder if that does something to the subject matter or the storytelling. The idea of popularity seems to be so crucial to this culture.
Which came first: A love for music or the written word?
The written word. Music was always a big part of the house. I had young parents, so rock music was playing a lot. I didn’t really get into music until I was 11 or 12. My parents forced me to take piano lessons, so I was musically inclined and took piano lessons for ten years. I started writing my own music and was in bands in high school and in college. Music was really important to me, but I discovered books first and then began to get into records and bands. I was a California kid, so it was all these LA bands. The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and all the Laurel Canyon stuff in the early 70s. That was really my big introduction into music. Then because of where I was, in my age and the culture, it became new wave and punk. That turned into, what all musicians on my show talk about, the abyss of the 80s. I don’t fully agree, but Ariel Pink and Kanye are very influenced by 80s stuff.
Was your father ever physically abusive, or was it just mental abuse?
He was an unhappy man, and the abuse he took out on his family was an extension of his depression. It permeated the house, and that is a form of abuse when you’re a child or adolescent. There were a few times when he was physically abusive to me, not to the point where I was in the hospital, but there was drunken hitting. He was just very angry, for a lot of reasons that seem silly to me now as someone who is much older than he was at that time. I can’t understand why he couldn’t just deal with it. Why couldn’t he deal with this dream that he and so many other people of that generation bought into, which was, “I’m going to get married to a perfect-looking woman. I’m going to move into a house, have three children and balance it with a career.” I think a lot of men bought into this idea. I think he really just wanted to be an athlete. I don’t think the whole thing he bought into made him happy. He might have been much happier being a bachelor. That really wasn’t what people did in 1961. You can see this dissatisfaction flourish in shows like Mad Men. He bought into the idea of suburbia, which was Sherman Oaks, here in L.A. I don’t think he liked his job, and all these factors coalesced into him drinking a lot and taking it out on his family. My mother and him had a very volatile relationship, but my sisters and him less so. I just kind of checked out. I disappeared into film, which I was obsessed with. I knew I was gonna get out of here, so I was writing all the time. I’m painting my childhood to be one of utter misery. It wasn’t. It was just an unhappy father who was occasionally abusive.
Are you still close with your mother and sisters?
Yes, I am. I’m very close to my mom.
You were evasive about your sexuality for years. Did you ever formally come out to your family?
I felt no need to and I never felt the need to come out to anybody. I realized I was gay very young, and it was just another thing I felt I had to process. I was sophisticated enough as a child to know that at six or seven I liked guys. I was attracted to Alex in the playground. I thought, “This isn’t really that acceptable,” so I’m just going to deal with it on my own, and it’s not going freak me out. I just processed it as I maneuvered through my youth. To be bisexual or gay in that moment was kind of cool. There was that androgynous thing going on, so you could flirt with it and people were cool, at least within the circles of my friends, in the safety of LA. The kids were a little more jaded, more forward-thinking and a little more experimental. I never really felt that it was a burden. I understood that to fully come out was not going to happen. I had sex with guys in my high school. It wasn’t open, passionate things, but it happened. There were guys there who were available and got the signals. The key thing is that I never saw my sexuality as a lifestyle. I thought it was another thing, like my hair was strawberry blonde, my eyes were green, I like guys and I like films. It was just one thing in my life and I didn’t bring it to the forefront and make it a drama.
I’ve never seen my sexuality as connected to a lifestyle, like the gay ghetto, which is something that I really wanted to avoid. I saw a lot of friends fall into it, where your gayness influences your entire style, set of friends, where you go, where you eat, what you watch and what you respond to. I was in the glass closet, which is what a lot of us called it. Everyone knows, your friends know and you have boyfriends. When you become well known is when it got a little dicey for me. That’s when I did pull back. I never said I was straight or had a girlfriend. I think Less Than Zero has a lot of gay elements. You would think, “Is a straight guy really going to be interested in telling this story about his best friend who is a male prostitute?” The narrator is bisexual, so I thought it was kind of known. I also knew at that point that if I was to come out and say I was a gay author, you were a gay author. Your books were put into gay fiction. You were branded, but it didn’t happen to everybody. It didn’t necessarily happen to Gore Vidal, but for me, at that moment, with this burgeoning interest in gay writers, I didn’t want to be lumped into it, or be ghettoized by it. I never even knew what the idea of coming out meant. I know it’s important, and it’s cool that people do come out, but I just didn’t feel the need to ever come out to my parents. They got it at a certain point, but there was no need to have that tearful conversation. I feel I successfully avoided that.
Were you bullied growing up?
Oh, there was bullying! All of my friends and I were bullied. It was a rite of passage. It wasn’t for being gay. We were just bullied. The older kids just bullied us, whether it was elementary or private school. I remember I was with a bunch of friends about two years ago, and it was after that Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi thing happened in New York. Ravi caught Clementi making out with another dude, filmed it, and Clementi jumped off the George Washington bridge. Tyler became this symbol of bullying. My friends and I were all comparing notes, and we were like, “I got my fucking ass kicked! I was fucking beat up!” I remember walking home from school and getting beat up by these two older kids who wanted money from me. It was really bad, but I learned to navigate through the world. I learned what to avoid, what routes to take. Bullying then was not like someone calling up on the phone now and saying, “You dirty little kid! I’m gonna get you!” They cornered you on the playground. It was a rite of passage and you accepted it. It’s not fun. It was fucking awful.
It gives you a thicker skin.
As you get older, there’s a lot of things where I’m glad I have that thicker skin. You get hit by a lot of shit. I think getting the thick skin at an early age is really important to becoming an adult and dealing with the world at large.
Were you reluctant to enter the podcast universe, or were you fascinated by it?
I didn’t know what a podcast was when I was first asked. I remember Marc Maron, like five years ago, tweeted and invited me on his podcast. I was like, “What the fuck is a podcast? Who the hell is Marc Maron?” This was in the early days, I found out what they were, and was somewhat interested. My agent told me that PodcastOne had reached out and they wanted me to do a podcast. So I met with them and decided to do it as an experiment. It wasn’t gonna be done from my bedroom. It was going to be done at PodcastOne in their studio. I had to get a director and producer. It’s kind of a production. I have a booker and a PR person.
So it’s not the garage.
[Laughs.] It’s not the garage. I’ve done Maron’s show, and he meets you at the door and takes you into the garage. It’s great. I was noticing that when I was posting pieces that I had written, whether it was about Charlie Sheen or gay men, there’d be a ton of shit written on the message boards, but it seemed like people were only skimming them, and no one would get to the final point of the piece. People were just enraged by whatever was in the first two paragraphs. I’d look at these boards, especially for the Gay Magical Elves piece I wrote for OUT, there were very few people who read the entire piece, so they didn’t realize that I come full circle. Or people would complain that something I wrote was a massive 3,600 words. That’s massive? Then I realized that it is in today’s blogosphere. I thought that if I had an hour, and I can talk about whatever I want and people are listening to podcasts, let’s see where that goes. I really did want to have this conversation about what was going on in the culture at the time. I was really interested in this continued conversation about TV vs. film and what was happening to film culture.
This season deals a lot with this whole notion of relatability and the idea that you have to identify with things. You have to relate to things or you don’t want anything to do with it. Having to relate to something in order to like it is a huge death knell to art right now. “I couldn’t identify with it. I couldn’t relate to the movie.” It means there’s an insane narcissism that is really flooding into the culture. We’re looking at a screen and controlling our own world. So the problem is, “What happens when you step into someone else’s shoes? What happens to empathy?” It’s like Fitzgerald saying, “Beauty means the scent of roses and then the death of roses.” It’s this red, fecund molten thing that comes up out of the ground. I’m interested in exploring that this season. For whatever reason at this point in my life, it’s what I like to do. I really think the future of podcasting is [paid] subscription. I know it’s going to be a rough move because people have expected their podcasts for free. PodcastOne and we all agreed that it’s going to be changing because there is such an incredible amount of podcasts. Everyone has a podcast. If everyone has a podcast, will people then pay for the ones they really want? It’s going to be a tough little thing to go through initially, but I think ultimately after that wave of, “How dare you make us pay for podcasts!” passes, it’s going to be the norm.
Do you yearn for a simpler time, or do you get excited about iPhones and gadgets? Glamorama and The Canyons both dealt with themes of technological monitoring and exposure.
I get excited to a degree. I don’t know necessarily if those are just tropes that I enjoy dealing with, or if I’m giving a specific message. I have no problems with privacy. I believe in total transparency. Personally, I don’t believe that I need privacy. Let it all out there. Go into my emails. Check my fucking texts. I don’t care. I have nothing to hide. I understand some people do care about privacy, but I’m just not one of those people, and I wonder why. In terms of my social and personal life, I don’t have any privacy issues. In Glamorama and The Canyons, I don’t know if I’m criticizing it, or it’s just part of the story I want to tell. To me, Glamorama is a deeply personal novel about a boy whose father decides to replace him with a better son. That’s how I always saw it. That was something that I was dealing directly with my father in a way that I felt for so many years. He got the son he didn’t want. He wanted a more athletic son; the son who wasn’t disappearing into gayness and foreign films. I wasn’t a recluse but I just didn’t care about all of the things that he thought were important, that he had grown up with.
Glamorama was also about the erosion of my own self, in terms of how people saw me as a celebrity and the narratives that formed around me based on the books that I wrote. This is especially true with American Psycho, and how I became demonized, this kind of figure, this dark person. I realized that my real self had already been zapped away and no one cared about that narrative. They loved the Brat Pack writer, who must be out doing this. He must be this super evil kid to have thought up all these things. So I disappeared. Bret Ellis really doesn’t exist now, and he got replaced by this other Bret Ellis. That doubling that goes on in the book, where Victor Ward is actually replaced by someone else, and was the central metaphor in my life at that time. I was also interested in the celebrity culture, and that blowing out of control. All these names, and it’s gotten much worse obviously now. I don’t know if the criticism in that book was necessarily surveillance. I don’t know if that was something that really bothered me.
What’s happening with the Yeezus screenplay, or is it still stuck in “Kanye-Land?”
It will be almost two years since I first met with Kanye about this. Kim had just had the baby, and I met with him over at Cedars-Sinai. I heard he wanted to see me about writing this project, which I didn’t even know what it was. I had seen him in concert and had always listened to his music, so I was intrigued. We talked about this idea he had, and how he thought I could write the script. I said, “I don’t think I can do this” because I’m not really getting it. I told him I think I might be the wrong writer. We had a three hour meeting where he showed me designs, he was hiring people to direct it and was getting some people who had worked on Star Wars to do the special effects. He had a costume designer and Vanessa Beecroft was going to help with the sets. I still felt wrong about it, and he gave me a copy of Yeezus and I loved the record. It kind of changed my mind about saying no. It was a typical thing of, “Okay, you’re afraid of this. You don’t think you’re right, but that’s why you should do it.” I agreed to it, we did a deal and I signed on, and then every now and then I would have couple more meetings with them over the last two years. It always seems like they’re gonna pull the trigger on making this thing happen, and then it just dies down. I got a text from him like two months ago saying, “Hey, are we still on to make the movie?” Then he tied me in with Vanessa who was doing the sets, and I said, “Let’s make this movie. It’ll be cool.” So, that’s how it is, and it’s fine. Kanye’s very interesting to me because he used to do this kind of performance art thing. The Kanye you hang out with in private is just not like that. He smiles a lot. He’s very funny, very dirty and makes great jokes. He’s just a cool guy. I understand why people see the public Kanye and want to have a fit.
Do you find his antics and outbursts amusing?
His antics and outbursts are sheer transparency. They’re jokes and pranks. Sinatra would do this in the ’50s and ’60s with the Rat Pack. He would say shit on stage all the time, with Sammy Davis and Dean Martin drunk, making fun of other celebrities with salacious jokes. It reminds me of being a free person. A free, uncensored person moving throughout the culture. I really have to take some umbrage that it’s mostly white people complaining. If you read the black music press, it does not have that kind of attitude. I don’t think there’s anything that he’s said or done that I haven’t liked.
Is anything you’ve written or tweeted strictly been for shock value?
It can’t be effective if it’s just for shock value. I believe that you really do have to feel it and believe it. I don’t know how anyone gets shocked or offended by a tweet. I don’t live in that world. I believe in free speech all the way. I don’t believe in punishing people for free speech. Do I believe in hate speech? Well, I guess if we live in a free society we have to deal with that as much as we have to deal with positive speech. If we insist on having free speech in this country — and increasingly we don’t — then we have to not have Rick Ross get fired from his Adidas gig because someone didn’t like the fact that he wrote a song where he roofied a girl. Yes, you’re allowed to say that, but you’re not allowed to take his livelihood away from him because we live in a country where you are allowed free speech. That means we also have to deal with the Westboro Baptist Church. If we want this society where we really hold this to be an invaluable asset to us as a country, then we have to accept a lot of it. You have these social justice warriors, from the left, who I find the real villains in this anti-free speech movement that’s going on right now. It almost feels like a game. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything for shock effect. Everything that I���ve said I believe in and I really don’t think it���s that outrageous. I do not think tweeting that “Glee feels like stepping into a puddle of HIV” is really that outrageous. Certainly, stand-up comics say a lot worse. I think the idea of wanting to offend is kind of a healthy one, but you have to believe in what you are doing. You have to know how you want to disrupt the status quo, the awful status quo of our society in that corporate culture kind of won. We do live in an increasingly corporate society where you follow the rules of the corporate world or else you are punished. I thought there was a moment where technology was not going to let that happen, but that was naïve.
Where do you find your greatest joy? Is it seeing a project come to fruition, or just a simple day off?
Seeing a project come to fruition in Hollywood is the greatest joy? I don’t think so. You’re just praying the director doesn’t fuck it up. It’s not joy. I think there’s little pockets of joy. It comes from random places, like a good book. Sometimes it’s working on the podcast, thinking, “What am I going to ask this guest? What are the topics?” Joy is a big word. How many times a year do you actually feel joy? Sometimes you just feel good when you’ve had a couple drinks and you’re ready to watch a movie. I’ve always found joy in terms of film, books and music. That really is where I’ve found the bulk of consistent joy. Relationships can go up and down. As much joy as you can get out of that, it’s inconsistent. There’s a consistent joy you can get from art.
As a professional journalist for the past eight years, Drew Fortune’s interviews, live show and album reviews have appeared in Spin, Esquire, Chicago Sun-Times, The A.V. Club, Interview, and numerous other publications. A Chicago native, Drew now lives and works in Los Angeles. He tweets at @drewster187.