Detachment isn’t just Ellis’s mind-set, it’s his artistic mantra. “Neutrality, distance, reserve: I have always believed in these things as my guiding aesthetic,” he said. “White” follows suit: “I approached it as I approached the novels, in a literary way. I wanted it to be as though you were almost with this character, this narrator that was me, but kind of not me in a way.” A student of the New Journalists — his title pays homage to Joan Didion’s “The White Album” — Ellis has played in all his work with his shifting identity and the cross-pollination between fact and fiction.
But unlike his novels, he insists, “White” was “never supposed to be a deep dive into anything. It was supposed to be newsy, very much in the present.” He’d resisted the idea of writing nonfiction for years before finally yielding to his agent. “I don’t know how people will take my laissez-faire attitude about Trump and this moment we’re in,” he said.
Ellis’s cool nonchalance applies to his personal life, too. “I’m in a good place in terms of truly not caring,” he said. “It’s freedom, not worrying what people think of you. Not worrying about whether you’re attractive. Not caring about the burdens of sex.”
Ellis finds himself now in his longest relationship to date, with a 32-year-old musician named Todd Schultz. Their courtship, which began 10 years ago at a dinner party where Schultz was the boyfriend of the host (Ellis: “I was the Angelina”), ended what the author called his “louche bachelor years.”
He described their post-2016 household as “a bad sitcom of a crusty old Gen X-er, who’s kind of a lapsed liberal centrist, and my communist gay boyfriend.” In contrast to the self-consciously homoerotic undertones of his early novels, written while he was still closeted, references to his partner now register almost like a comedian’s bit: Todd’s a “political monster” who “sits in front of MSNBC having meltdown after meltdown … yet his bounce-back time is pretty good.” If Schultz stands for the melodramatic, media-obsessed millennial, then Ellis identifies as “the old man on the porch,” whining over the cultural profundity of decades past.
For all his posturing as a jaded, middle-aged relic of a less-woke time, though, Ellis exudes the same youthful spirit he’s always had: of irreverent amusement, quiet irony, indefatigable artistic curiosity. He’s a living embodiment of how, between the predigital world of 1985 and today, both everything and nothing has changed. And it’s been Ellis’s life’s work to make us confront the absurdity of that world in all its grimness, comedy and plastic beauty.
But he wouldn’t want us to think too hard about all this. For Ellis, literature, Twitter, politics, relationships, life itself — none of it is meant to be taken too seriously. “Enjoy it! Be interested in the world, delve into it,” he advised. “But let’s not turn everything I write into a public service announcement.”