“How in the F--k Does Anyone Live Here?”: Bret Easton Ellis on Life, Art, and What the Hell Happened to Manhattan

The American Psycho author makes a rare trip back to New York and gives an exclusive interview, discussing his new 1980s-LA-set slasher novel, The Shards, and the ever-present tension between his public image and private life.
Bret Easton Ellis on The Shards and Returning to 1980s LA Exclusive Interview

Bret Easton Ellis walked out of the elevator of the Loews Regency at 61st and Park Avenue on a Friday afternoon in late January wearing sneakers and a sweater. He smiled and apologized for switching the location of the interview from his suite, which he said was kind of a mess, to the lobby. He wheeled around, looking for a place that would be suitable for a discussion about not only his new novel, The Shards, but also the fact that he was back in New York, the city he lived in and documented for decades before retreating, fully and with only a few days-long lapses, to Los Angeles, where he grew up.

The Shards, published last month by Alfred A. Knopf, is a surprisingly affecting book in which a 56-year-old world-famous novelist named Bret Ellis recalls his senior year at LA’s exclusive Buckley School in the early 1980s. Gorgeous, Wayfarer-wearing teens are haunted by gangs of hippies mutilating animals, and a murderer, dubbed the Trawler by the local rags, is disappearing prepsters, invading homes, and making “alterations” to young bodies. Much of the drama surrounds the homecoming king and queen and their crew of cool kids as the narrator takes countless dreamy nighttime drives on Mulholland Drive stoned on quaaludes, all soundtracked by the constantly mentioned punk and new-wave songs woven into the text. But it’s also a legitimately charming coming-out coming-of-age, with a main character exploring his homosexuality in a deeply closeted Hollywood. It’s the author of American Psycho’s first novel in 13 years, a book nearly as violent as that one. Like all his books, it’s polarizing and very hard to ignore.

Ellis, legs crossed in a lobby booth, was fondly recalling the talk he had given the night before with New Yorker staff writer Naomi Fry at a packed event space in a downtown Brooklyn high-rise. In the front row, influencers and downtown figures sat next to podcasters, one of whom offered, by way of a review, that The Shards was “1,0000 pages of vibes.” Thirty minutes late, Ellis sat before the packed audience.

“We just had a nip of gin backstage,” Fry said into the mic. 

“Not so much—like, two sips,” Ellis said, grinning. 

Ellis had the audience in the palm of his hand as he discussed the origins of the book, the process of edging autofiction away from the truth, the Manson family, Quentin Tarantino, whether writing a novel is like Method acting, and whether he’d been in Brooklyn since the ’90s. In the days leading up to the event, fans, most of them born after American Psycho was published, left Instagram comments wondering if they could sneak into the inevitable after-party. Maybe Ellis wanted to throw down at The Odeon for old time’s sake? Or go somewhere new? 

Ellis went straight back to the Loews.

“I just wanted to come back to my hotel room, order some room service, have a glass of wine, get into bed with the food channel on, check my emails,” Ellis told me. 

Ellis has spent just a handful of days in New York in the last two decades, after he completed his 2005 novel, Lunar Park. He’s owned an apartment in the American Felt Building since 1987, but has not slept there since 2004.

“I had not been to New York in at least 10 years,” Ellis told me, recalling one mid-teens trip. “I had to get some stuff out of storage, and I wanted to meet the new tenant because I’ve been renting it out for years and years and years…. Around Fourth Avenue, 13th Street, I looked up from my phone and I suddenly panicked. I told the driver, ‘You’re in the wrong area…We’re going to 13th Street between Third and Fourth.’ He said, ‘This is it.’ I couldn’t believe the change.”

That was 2016. Last week Ellis again drove through the neighborhood on his way home from the event and didn’t recognize the entirety of Astor Place. He does not miss New York City. 

“I arrived Wednesday night during this horrible storm, and then the usual problems of getting your luggage, an hour waiting at Delta carousel, and then the ride into New York,” Ellis said. “I thought, How does anyone live here? How in the fuck does anyone live here?”

He liked living here in the ’90s, throwing parties (Tom Cruise was a neighbor) and leisurely taking most of the decade to write 1998’s Glamorama, enjoying the last moment of what he’d later dub “Empire”—a time before, in his mind, September 11 kicked off a period of American collapse, when the millennials took over. 

“It was a glorious time to be in New York,” Ellis said. “I talk to a lot of people who just simply agree—to be youngish and living in New York during that period, and to be involved in the magazine world, the glorious magazine world.”

I have over the years heard about being in the ’90s with Bret Easton Ellis. A writer who worked as Ellis’s assistant in the early 2000s once told me a story that I was hesitant to ask the writer about—surely it was apocryphal. Then again, there we were, so I thought I might run it by him. A few years after Ellis had left for LA, the ex-assistant, as he told me, was asked to go to the apartment to move a synthesizer.

“And they dropped it,” I told Bret, “and out of the keyboard came a lot of cocaine.”

“That could have been totally true, totally true,” Ellis said. “I had a Juno-60. I was in a couple of bands in high school and college, and I carried that with me. Cocaine use was ubiquitous in the ’90s, absolutely ubiquitous. And there were many parties in my apartment, many get-togethers. And if that Juno-60 dropped…”

He paused.

“That’s like an image—that is an image of Empire,” Ellis said. “I don’t know. Or maybe not, I’m not sure.”

“I think it’s fair to say it’s an image of Empire,” I said.

In his latest stint in Los Angeles, Ellis has largely worked on scripts—many optioned, few made, especially since 2008’s The Informers, a $20 million indie movie based on his 1994 short story collection, drew just $382,174 at the box office. Ellis detailed the harrowing experience of adapting his own book into a mediocre Mickey Rourke flick in real-time diary entries, which eventually became Imperial Bedrooms, a book about the protagonist of Less Than Zero reuniting with the other characters of that debut novel as they grapple with the effects of having Hollywood actors portray them.

“What basically happened is I had a midlife crisis,” Ellis said. “Hollywood, working on this film, and getting involved in all the myriad difficulties that it takes to make a movie—I was kind of shattered by it all. I was at a very dark place in my life, and I started to write about it late at night…. I didn’t even much like Imperial Bedrooms when I finished it, but people said, ‘Oh, it’s a sequel to Less Than Zero, let’s publish the damn thing.’” 

By contrast, The Shards is the first novel in which Ellis has actually revisited Los Angeles in the early ’80s explicitly, having devoted his sophomore novel, The Rules of Attraction, to his time at Bennington College, the lightning rod American Psycho to Wall Street, and Glamorama to the madcap fashion world of 1990s Manhattan. He’s also returned to a character named Bret Ellis. The narrator is the writer Bret Easton Ellis at the start of the book, their bios all matched up, but the verisimilitude begins to slip as the vibes near their end, and as the reader starts to think about who, exactly, is committing all these murders. 

In the years since his last novel, Ellis’s place in the culture has arguably rivaled even his bold-faced status in the ’80s, when he was a New York gossip-page fixture alongside Jay McInerney, Warhol, Basquiat, Madonna, and Rob Lowe. His college days and early career helped form the subject of a hit 2021 podcast by Lili Anolik (a Vanity Fair contributor).  American Psycho has become a TikTok touchstone thanks to the endlessly memeable scenes from Mary Harron’s 2000 adaptation. Christian Bale is Patrick Bateman in the shared imagination, and Patrick Bateman is as famous as ever. Glamorama has been reclaimed as a late-20th-century epic, finally understood for its satire of crass commercialization. Ellis’s Twitter presence alone spawned big magazine profiles. (I have friends who have referred to his 2:13 a.m. request sent in 2012 to thousands of followers on Twitter—“come over at do bring coke now”—as the greatest tweet of all time. When Fry made a reference to the tweet at the Brooklyn talk, widespread laughs of recognition rippled through the audience.)

On his subscriber-only podcast, Ellis complains about political correctness and talks cinema with A-listers; he has appeared as something of an elder statesman for zeitgeist-making podcasts such as How Long Gone and Red Scare. There’s an obvious through line from the zonked-out hot teens in Less Than Zero to the zonked-out hot teens in Euphoria. There’s never been a time when the impact of Bret Easton Ellis has been more infused into the culture. 

Hearing this theory, Ellis winced a bit.

“As I entered into my 40s and into my 50s, this notion of whatever Bret Easton Ellis is, and whatever his books are, and whatever they do, and whoever the readership is, I have to say, it's been secondary to the piping problem in my building and in my condo,” he told me.

As recently as a few years ago, he didn’t even think he would ever write another novel. There was no book deal. Movie stuff started to fall apart amid the backlash to White, the 2019 nonfiction collection he wrote that was seen as a screed against woke culture. Intriguingly, White has barely come up in the press cycle for The Shards, as if the book’s controversy took place in a long-ago era. But back in 2019, he gave interviews where he shrugged at Donald Trump’s comments after Charlottesville or said the Mueller investigation proved there was no collusion.

With a few years of hindsight, he seems to have softened, saying, “I didn’t want to defend Donald Trump. I wanted to talk about, well, how did this happen?”

“There was some backlash in Hollywood about White; they thought I had this stance that they thought was Republican or conservative, which I wasn’t at all,” he said. “It was a take on Gen X, and if Gen X seems slightly more conservative than other generations, it’s because we were the freest, and we had the most freedom. And so there is a kind of pushback to whatever was going on in the culture, and that’s what I wanted to explore.”

When the pandemic hit, his movie projects on pause, the wine started flowing a bit earlier and earlier every night. According to both the Ellis sitting in front of me and Bret Ellis, the narrator of The Shards, the writer started looking up his old classmates at Buckley during some deep-Google sessions at the start of lockdown. He had a vague idea for a novel that involved a series of seniors at the Sherman Oaks prep school he attended in the early ’80s, and he was wondering what happened to some of them. He couldn’t find many. 

“I mean, look, they’re men my age, and a lot of men my age just don’t have a big social media presence,” he said. 

Suddenly, he returned to a book he had started 40 years earlier, about disappearing 17-year-olds; he had briefly pursued writing The Shards but had abandoned it for Less Than Zero, published when he was 21 and still a student at Bennington. In the book’s opening pages, the narrator explains how he ordered an old yearbook that contained an in memoriam section for the students murdered by the mysterious masked killer. 

Fact, fiction, and autofiction seemingly all start to blur. Ellis’s own 1982 yearbook picture is on the back flap of the book. It comes after a disclaimer that says that all the characters in The Shards are fictional, apart from the narrator. There’s no evidence that a murderer terrorized Los Angeles prep school kids in the early ’80s. Searching “the Trawler” in the archives of the Los Angeles Times will bring you to a whole lot of stories about fishing boats. But it is tantalizing, as it is with most of Ellis’s slasher-film, drug-addled pseudo-autofiction, to tease out what’s real from the fantasy. Ellis invites you to do so—the narrator is often weaving his own fantasy within the book, collapsing any futile search for the truth. 

I asked Ellis, the author, if his real classmates had reached out to him after publication. “I did get a, I guess it was through Facebook, a Facebook message saying: ‘Of all the names you could have chosen, the name I hate the most is Debbie.’ I got that, and then I went back to her and said, ‘I hope you enjoyed my fictional imagining of our senior year.’ And she wrote back a wink sign or whatever. Haven’t spoken to her in decades and decades and decades.”

It’s also tough to tease out how honest Ellis is about the present, or if he’s embellishing it like he’s embellishing his past. In the final pages of The Shards, Ellis admits that the months he spent in 2020 and 2021 writing a 600-page novel about 17-year-olds screwing and snorting coke and driving through Los Angeles on quaaludes and avoiding rampaging hippies who torture cute pets before nailing their bodies to walls—they took a toll on his relationship. Since 2010, Ellis has been dating a musician named Todd Michael Schultz, and he served as the millennial muse-slash-foil in White. As Ellis, the narrator, relays: 

Despite my familiarity with the events, the book frightened me, as love does, as dreams do, and almost drove my partner mad when he read the things I was revealing to this new friend who had moved into our house and who I now spent time with daily in my office. Todd and I would have fights in which he disputed the ‘veracity’ of certain events that I adamantly confirmed, and as the writing of the book took me to the ending, it filled him with such palpable fear that being near me became almost unbearable. And he would leave the condo on Doheny for days at a time while I wrote in my office, and scanned old journals filled with lists, the school yearbook Images opened to a certain page, notes littered with song titles everywhere. Some nights Todd slept in motels he could afford on the darker side of Hollywood and I drank more than usual—after I moved through a particular chapter or sequence of events I found myself wiped out and immediately reached for the bottle of Tanqueray in the kitchen cabinet and simply drank the gin quickly in a glass with some ice. If that failed to move me away from the chill I’d take a Xanax or an Ativan that our dealer supplied us…

In our interview, Bret Ellis, the writer, seemingly confirmed much of what Bret Ellis, the narrator, wrote, telling me that he’d had “a lot of problems with a long-term partner who was going through a psychotic, drug-induced addiction breakdown for most of 2021.” 

“That sucked up everything,” Ellis said. “It was The Shards that I was concentrating on, and dealing with a boyfriend that was completely falling apart, was homeless, had been arrested. He would not go into rehab. I mean, pressing problems.”

Things seem to be better now. When asked about the series of events, Schultz said, “It’s true.” He added that he had since gone to rehab, moving back in with Ellis at the end of 2021. On Schultz’s very active Twitter feed, he converses with Dasha Nekrasova and Tao Lin, engages in dialogue about Tár, retweets Andrea Riseborough stans, and posts a lot of positive content about Bret Easton Ellis. 

When we spoke, Ellis had one last night in New York, with no idea of when he’d ever be back. One last book-tour obligation: giving an introduction to American Gigolo, the Richard Gere Armani-noir that plays such a big role in The Shards, at the Metrograph. He had never been to the downtown theater, which opened in 2016.

I told him to go to one of the Dimes Square spots, but he shrugged, saying he was getting dinner with some writer friends at a neighborhood Japanese restaurant that had been in the East Village since the late ’70s. He was leaving for Amsterdam, then London, then heading back to LA, where he would go back to the movie business. There are plans to direct a horror film in the Canary Islands, standing in for Malibu, toward the end of the year—fulfilling a lifelong ambition. He’s set to collaborate with Trainspotting novelist Irvine Welsh on a true-crime podcast. And he’s also about to repeat a mistake that he’s made nearly a half dozen times: He’s letting someone adapt his book for the screen. For the first time in our interview, he asked to go off the record when telling me about who’s currently attached to helm a filmed version of The Shards, coming soon. It sounds, honestly, quite exciting. 

Until that adaptation hits the screen, there are other pressing issues that need the attention of Bret Easton Ellis. 

“There are the pipes in my apartment and the plumbing that needs to be fixed—it’s an old building,” he said. “That’s been the bane of my existence. I know that sounds absurd, but the practical stuff has got to get done.”

The Rundown

Your crib sheet for comings and goings in the art world this week and beyond…

…Zona Maco, Mexico’s primo art fair, opens next week, and it’s set to be the most ambitious edition since the 2020 fair went down just weeks before the COVID lockdowns. Global mega-gallery Hauser & Wirth will be doing the fair for the first time in a decade, showing works by Mark Bradford, who also has a major show at the CDMX institution Museo de Arte de Zapopan. Outside of the fair, Chicago-and-Paris gallery Mariane Ibrahim is opening up a space in a nabe just north of Roma, and the Museo Tamayo benefit gala will once again be the hottest ticket in town, with the Casa Dragones flowing for hours. Big shows around town include Tunji Adeniyi-Jones at Morán Morán, Nairy Baghramian at Kurimanzutto, Alicja Kwade at OMR, Fernando Palma Rodríguez at Gaga, and so many more. Plus, there’s the legendary Friday lunch at Contramar—it’s so important to the local art ecosystem that when dealers opt to eat salad at their desks at the galleries instead of feasting on red-and-green grilled fish and sipping tequila, it’s bad for business. 

…There is no shortage of events in LA during Frieze. It’s actually a little overwhelming, to be honest. And it’s still a full two weeks until the doors swing open, with plenty more new-gallery bashes and fair-opening dinners to get invited to. Here’s one event on Wednesday, February 15, that actually stands out on the calendar: Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and the experimental guitarist Bill Nace, who record together as Body/Head, will perform at Gagosian’s Beverly Hills outpost to accompany a show of new work by Jim Shaw, marking the artist’s first show at the gallery. We hear there’s a chance that Shaw himself will rig up and jam out with the band, which would be a sight to behold. 

…Plenty of collectors at the Knicks-Lakers game Tuesday night at the Garden—FLAG Art Foundation’s Glenn Fuhrman sitting courtside, plus a smattering of collecting families and their art advisers schmoozing in the Delta Sky360° Club at halftime. And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Jamie Dimon, who’s not a big collector himself but does oversee, with a chief curator, the corporate collection at JPMorgan Chase, which is quite the doozy. But the most discussed collector at the game had to be Alexandre Arnault, repping the family business by rocking the brand-new Tiffany x Air Force 1 collaboration that has since been talked about widely on the internet—perhaps thanks to the fact that LeBron James wore the sneakers to the Garden as well. The verdict? Well, it’s better than the CryptoPunks x Tiffany collab. 

…The International Center for Photography successfully corralled some glamour down to Essex Street last week for the opening of a show of artist portraits by Tacita Dean, Brigitte Lacombe, and Catherine Opie, curated by Helen Molesworth. Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates came by, along with their daughter, the rocker Greta Kline. Chelsea Clinton was there, as was Huma Abedin, sauntering around as Thelma Golden, Joan Jonas, and Fran Lebowitz stumbled upon pictures of themselves. The sleeper hit? A series of behind-the-scenes snaps from the sets of Martin Scorsese films, shot by Lacombe. 

Scene Report: More Angelenos in Manhattan

The New York Times recently dubbed the cluster of blocks above and below Houston Street “LiLA”—as in “Little LA,” as transplants from the City of Angels such as Gjelina, the celeb-heavy Hillsong Church, and the boutique Fred Segal have all opened in the last few months. Sure, the San Vicente Bungalows will take over the Jane Hotel, and there are legal weed stores here now, but does the presence of a mediocre juice bar called Honeybrains on Lafayette Street mean that Gotham’s gone full Golden State? 

One intriguing point not mentioned in the story: A number of Los Angeles galleries have opened in New York recently. In the past year, the powerhouse David Kordansky Gallery has opened in Chelsea, and François Ghebaly, who’s been cranking out star-making shows in a downtown LA space for a decade, opened a gallery on the Lower East Side. And now Nino Mier, who has three adjacent gallery spaces on Santa Monica Boulevard, has opened a grand space in SoHo, a quick post-martini stumble away from Balthazar. He fêted the opening Friday with Champagne in the gallery and cocktails around the corner at Sant Ambroeus. And Mier wasn’t the only LA bigwig who blew into town. The night before, Jonas Wood, king of the Angeleno artists, came in for the opening of a show of gigantic, intricate prints at Larry Gagosian’s space on 24th Street, and the space was jam-packed with fans for two hours straight. And then where did Wood choose to have his exclusive dinner afterward? 

Where else but Zero Bond, the Mayor Eric Adams–approved, members-only club deep in the heart of “LiLA.” 

And that’s a wrap on this week’s True ColorsLike what you’re seeing? Hate what you’re reading? Have a tip? Drop me a line at