When Bret Easton Ellis ambles on to the stage at England's genteel Latitude Festival, it's like the arrival of a rock star. The literary tent is packed, the cult author of American Psycho the star attraction. The problem is, he doesn't seem to want to talk - not about his new book, Imperial Bedrooms, not about, well, anything much at all. He seems more interested in taking pictures of the crowd on his iPhone. None of which bodes well for my chat with literature's bad boy directly afterwards.
Waiting in the wings, my heart sinks further. "Questions like the reasons why I write... I mean, please!" he sighs. "Giving laborious answers about this stuff is so boring. I have no idea why I write." I begin frantically to revise my line of questioning. And just when he starts opening up and talking about his demons in front of 1,000 people, he reveals that he has been known to make up answers in interviews. "Or I like to call the journalist out and say, 'I just don't know the answer to that question,'" he smiles, a little too manically.
But, as the hour passes, it becomes clear it's all an act. Like the consummate professional he pretends he isn't, he flirts with the crowd, he makes them laugh. I vow to ask him why he's so compelled to write after all. Perhaps not straight away, though. The most surprising part of the event is that, a few risqué references aside, it's not the kind of X-rated experience most festival-goers had probably expected. Which probably disappointed a few people, not least because Ellis is one of those authors you either love or hate. As he tells me himself later while manically flitting about his dressing room: "If you look on Amazon, I either get one star or five stars. Honestly, I really don't care. I always get bad reviews for my books anyway. I've published seven now, and I've never got a good one in The New York Times. Let me tell you, in literary circles in America that's kind of an accomplishment."
The haters - of whom there are many - are almost always given ammunition by the violence in Ellis's books. In his 1985 debut, Less Than Zero, the protagonist Clay watches a "snuff" movie - a film of a real death - but only seems passingly disturbed by it. His friends participate in the abuse of a girl and it bothers him, but not enough to do anything about it. In American Psycho, murderer Patrick Bateman kills people in such sadistic ways the book was sold shrink-wrapped in some countries. Violence has become Ellis's calling card. Does he understand why people find it so offensive?
"Well, with American Psycho I really thought people would get why it was so violent," he says. "Patrick Bateman lives in a world where everything is amplified and ultra-detailed? So it made sense for the violence to be on the same sort of level. But maybe I was wrong. I overdid it, I misjudged the mood. And at the time, I certainly did think: 'Did I really want to upset people so much?'" It's a question Ellis is clearly practised at answering. But it's a slightly disingenuous response, judging by what came next. The furore seemed to encourage him rather than put him off. Glamorama (1988) appeared to be a rather amusing satire on celebrity culture before it spiralled into torture scenes. Imperial Bedrooms, in which he returns to the characters of Less Than Zero 25 years on, is sometimes eye-wateringly violent. So why the continuing fascination? Ellis playfully rolls his eyes.
"If you're asking me where the violence comes from, I really don't know," he says. "I'm not a violence freak in my everyday life. Get me into a fictional world and the drama of a character's psyche though, and I do find myself going down some very dark hallways. But when I'm writing a book, do I put on a big black cape, smear blood on my face and get all excited by the violence I'm about to dream up? No, I don't. And actually, what people forget is that if you take the 15 pages of completely upsetting mayhem out of American Psycho, the rest is what happens to anyone growing up in a big city."
I suspect the reason there's such interest in where Ellis digs up his depravity is that his books do invite us to read their author into the protagonists. He freely admits that all his books are in some way reflective of his state of mind at that particular time, and the narrators' lives often run parallel to his. Imperial Bedrooms, for example, sees Clay return to Los Angeles from New York as a screenwriter, just as Ellis did. I take a deep breath and ask the hitherto forbidden question: why did Ellis go back to Clay's world?
"I kept trying to figure out what would have happened to him," he says. "I was bored with New York myself - I wanted to stop doing drugs and hanging around with the people I was hanging around with. So I went back to Los Angeles, which seemed like a good idea, and found this alienating, isolating city. I was really surprised by that. And at the same time I was producing and writing the film of The Informers, which was a disaster. So all of these things; the stress of moving, the paranoia of Hollywood, the bleakness, informed the book about this raging narcissist."
And as if he realises he's over-analysed it, he adds: "But yeah, I would have written it anyway, regardless of where I was." Perhaps that's true. It is a different kind of book from Less Than Zero in that it has a semblance of a plot - Clay becomes enmeshed in a Hollywood noir-thriller involving odd stalkers and murky murders - whereas Less Than Zero was a simple portrait of the amoral, monied Los Angeles set of the mid 1980s. But it's still impossible not to be curious about which parts of the novel are in fact Ellis's own life.
"Is it though? Why do people need to know that?" he asks, not for the first time making my questions sound a bit stupid. I tell him I think fans do want to know about the lives of their favorite authors. "I get that. I'm interested in the stuff around my favourite bands. But the problem is being one of those people that everyone wants to know about. It's tough to deal with. There are lots of complications in my life, some of which I will talk about and some I won't, and some things I need to work out. And sometimes fiction is a release of all that. Writing isn't logical or practical for me, it's emotional. It's a feeling."
But they're your feelings? "Well, every book I've ever written has been a process of working through my feelings. For me, the novel is almost a form of therapy. I hate saying that. But you know what, I think I'm saying it more and more. If it sounds touchy-feely then so be it. The books certainly aren't!" Which is the other criticism of Ellis's work: it lacks humanity. Instead, his novels are, on the whole, cold, alienated vistas of the darker sides of human nature, filled with nihilistic, narcissistic characters such as Clay.
Before I met Ellis, I'd read Imperial Bedrooms as a kind of satire on American society. The object of Clay's desire is Rain, a woman who degrades herself only because she wishes to be famous. But Ellis genuinely seems to empathise with her "human desires". "Look, I always have people ask me why the people who inhabit my books are so horrible," he nods, matter-of-factly. "And if I look at my very favourite books, do I like Humbert Humbert from Lolita? No. Is Jay Gatsby a really great guy? No, he's a gangster and a fake. You can go on and on with a list of great characters in great novels, and they're people you would never want to hang out with.
"So I don't know why it's me in particular that gets criticised for writing characters who aren't huggable. I mean, isn't it more interesting to try and find out why these villains became these people? Believe me, I get Clay. I don't like him, but I get him. And that's more interesting to me." And in the end, Ellis's writing is unique in the way his books never judge their consistently appalling narrators. They are who they are, and it's up to us to decide whether we want to like or loathe them. Which is a bit like most people's relationship with Ellis himself.
"My books have caused this creature to be made, this person that everyone thinks I am," he agrees. "I'm not Bret Ellis any more, and I realised that pretty early on. Out there, in this vast, dark ocean I'm Bret Easton Ellis, and that's a far more interesting story for people, whether it's true or not. "That's why people come and listen to me. That, and the fact my books all say 'I dare you.' That's how I work."