"I have an innate ability to go places that disturb and bother people,” Bret Easton Ellis says via Zoom from his home in Los Angeles. “It doesn’t necessarily disturb or bother me, but I’m interested in exploring those things that some people consider taboo and others consider the normal fabric of life. I love being confronted by art. I guess some people would say offended, but I’m not offended by art. I like to be pushed.”

Ellis has been pushing boundaries, and readers’ buttons, since he skyrocketed to literary stardom in 1985, at 21, with the publication of Less Than Zero, his novel of drug-fueled L.A. teens behaving badly. If that book made him famous, 1991’s American Psycho—a satire about a Wall Street bro turned serial killer—made him infamous. It cemented what he calls his “prince of darkness” literary persona. He accepts that he’ll always be both loved and hated by critics and says controversy “keeps the conversation going.”

The author’s seventh, haunting novel, the semiauto-biographical The Shards (Knopf, Jan. 2023), is his first work of fiction in 13 years. Set in Los Angeles in 1981, it follows 17-year-old Bret Easton Ellis, a senior at the exclusive Buckley prep school, which the author also attended. Young Bret aspires to be a writer, and may be having a mental breakdown, as he navigates a world drenched in sex and violence and tries to piece together the identity of a serial killer who has infiltrated his friend group.

Ellis, whose books have sold 2.5 million copies in North America and have been translated into 32 languages, tried for decades to write The Shards. “I was always nostalgic for that time period,” he says, referring to the ’80s, but the book didn’t crystallize until the pandemic. “I was going online, listening to music, looking at videos from that era, and it led me to look up classmates. I couldn’t find a couple of them and it disturbed me. The novel began writing itself.”

After about five months of writing, Ellis began serializing the novel on his podcast. (An unedited version is still available there.) He kept working on the story, even as he dealt with a crisis at home. “When I was finishing the book, I was having a problem with my partner,” he says, “who’s luckily okay but who was going through a horrible psychic drug thing and we had to get him into rehab. Living with him was extremely stressful, but it didn’t stop me from wanting to go to The Shards and get through it and get to the ending.”

Ellis’s editor, Jordan Pavlin, says, “Bret would be the first to say, I think, that The Shards is a deeply personal book—not because it draws on real-life events but because it mines the psychological terrain of his own adolescent terrors and longings. It’s as if the whole novel unfolds over an exposed nerve.”

Born in Los Angeles in 1964, Ellis has long been mesmerized by storytelling. As a kid, he liked horror movies, and as a teen, he became an “uncontrolled fantasist” who created drama “when there was no need for it.” After college and the publication of Less Than Zero, he moved to New York and became part of the literary Brat Pack, along with Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney. (The latter makes an appearance in The Shards.)

“Writers were glamorous then,” Ellis says. “You were suddenly on MTV and the red carpet. It was this moment where writing seemed like a sexy business. When you’re young you go to a lot of parties. I threw a lot of those parties, too. I think there was maybe too much cocaine. But I had a schedule. I wanted to write more than I wanted to get wasted.”

Morgan Entrekin, publisher of Grove/Atlantic, acquired Less Than Zero when he was an editor at Simon & Schuster and has known Ellis for four decades. “When Bret moved to New York he wasn’t exactly a retiring academic-type writer,” Entrekin recalls. “Bret was a public figure, and rightly so. He was like any great social novelist. He was participating in the vanity fair and observing it.”

Party boy reputation aside, Ellis says he always kept his focus on work and recalls staying in on Friday nights to write American Psycho. (“I was obsessed with it.”) The novel, which he quips will be mentioned on his headstone, became a lightning rod for controversy—critics accused Ellis of exploitation and misogyny—and was pulled from publication weeks before its scheduled release, only to be scooped up by Knopf soon thereafter.

“It was surprising to watch it happen on the sidelines,” Ellis says. “To see people redefine you as who they think you are—some evil person who could possibly think up this kind of fiction. The weirdest thing was the schadenfreude of a lot of my male writer friends, who believed that this had destroyed my writing career—that I would never be published again.”

Ellis never thought of American Psycho as a serial killer story. “It’s about being a young man struggling with identity,” he says. “Trying to fit in but knowing that this world was lousy and you don’t agree with any of its values and you’re trapped. Maybe you go insane if you adapt to the values of that world. That’s what I was thinking about.”

“Bret is daring,” says Knopf publisher Reagan Arthur. “He depicts characters who are on the face of it unlikable or challenging, and he’s not afraid to write about flawed and damaged people. He gets inside their heads so convincingly that it can be uncomfortable for a reader. I think he’s fearless.”

One-on-one, Ellis is witty, an easy conversationalist—far from a prince of darkness—who’s candid about his struggles. In 2006 he was hit hard by a midlife crisis, which he references in the 2019 essay collection White. “It was this realization that you’re being phased out,” he explains. “Your youth is, if not fading, then completely gone, and it’s just that coming to terms with mortality that’s difficult for many men who have seen themselves in a certain way for a long time. And that’s what it was.”

These days, Ellis goes out far less than he used to (“I can’t drink like that anymore”) and jokes that he’d like to “fade from public life,” or at least do less press. He enjoys hosting his weekly podcast and is planning to direct a film based on a horror script he wrote. He continues to relish the “solitary exercise of writing” and is proud that he’s never had to compromise his vision.

“When I look at the titles I’ve written, I can say I wanted to write every one of those books,” Ellis says. “None of it was a job, written just for money. With The Shards, I wrote exactly what I wanted to write and it felt really good. Now it’s here. We’ll see what happens.”

Elaine Szewczyk’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications. She’s the author of the novel I’m with Stupid.