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Reading James Ellroy’s novels, it’s tempting to imagine the sixty-one-year-old author as a hyperactive, shotgun-toting, trash-talking connoisseur of crime, women, and American history, the kind of guy who pals around with homicide detectives and wears fedoras and bespoke suits. This portrait, as it turns out, is entirely accurate—except for the attire. These days he favors ivy caps and Hawaiian shirts.
The interview was conducted over the course of a week last spring at his Los Angeles apartment, in a thirties art-deco building where Mae West and Ava Gardner once lived. (“You’ve reached Ellroy’s pad,” he says on his answering machine, in the groovy voice of a late-night-radio DJ. When he rented an apartment in Carroll Gardens last winter, the message was: “This is Ellroy’s swinging Brooklyn pad.”) His apartment could double as a film-noir set: dark red walls, heavy shades, dim yellow lights, plush leather furniture. There are posters for the movie adaptations of L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia. Two massive dark mahogany bookshelves frame the entrance to his living room. The bookshelves are full. Every single book is by James Ellroy.
Ellroy is a hulking presence. He is six foot three, with strong eyes and a tall, gruff face that reflexively composes itself into a frown. He does not walk so much as stomp. During rare pauses in conversation he makes deep guttural noises to fill the silence. His tone is relentlessly jocular, conspiratorial, wisecracking. He screams with laughter. Often he sounds like one of the characters from his novels about fifties-era LA: he has a gas or a blast, he vibes women, he digs it. Someone who doesn’t know the score is a dipshit or, worse, a geek. There is always a grin hidden behind his most brazen performances.
We spoke for several hours each afternoon, the sunlight disrupting the darkness of the living room in thin horizontal bars. Ellroy usually nursed his trademark drink, a quadruple espresso on the rocks, and when he got particularly animated he would pitch his torso forward, as if he were about to jump across the table; at other times he’d stand up to full height, blocking out the sun.
When we weren’t in the apartment, we drove around the city. He showed me the houses where the attractive girls in his high school had lived. As a teenager he would peep through their windows, and if the girls weren’t home, he’d break in and look for drugs, alcohol, panties. He still remembers each house’s weak spot, the back door left ajar or the window with the faulty latch.
Ellroy is a charismatic public speaker and rarely turns down an invitation. That week he had two engagements. He exhorted a class of aspiring screenwriters to quit smoking, get rid of their tattoos and piercings, and always address their elders as Mr. or Mrs. “Do this, and people will say to themselves, This kid knows his shit and understands that there is a social contract.” At the LA Police Academy in Griffith Park, he emceed a ceremony in which academic scholarships were awarded to children of police officers. On the way out he tried to buy a Depression-era shotgun from a display case in the LAPD weapons supply store, but was politely informed by a clerk that it was not for sale.
There were also less formal engagements. He talked to women—on the phone, in restaurants, in his apartment. Late one night he drove to the house of his girlfriend. The lights were on: the woman, her husband, and their children were inside. Ellroy opened the window of the car and proceeded to bay like a dog. He drove around the block and howled again. Then he did it a third time. The girlfriend called him the next day, laughing. Apparently he bayed at her several times a month. They had a unique arrangement.
He is now at work on a memoir that links his obsessive skirt-chasing to the main biographical fact about his life, the murder of his mother, Jean Hilliker, when he was ten years old. The killer was never found. The crime, and Ellroy’s reinvestigation of it some forty years later, inspired his first memoir, My Dark Places. which was praised as much for its formal innovation as for its shocking subject matter. But his mother is present, to a varying degree, in most of his novels. This is especially true of The Black Dahlia. his fictional retelling of the investigation into the rape and murder of Elizabeth Short, a young woman whose gruesome death in 1947 transfixed the public and became the stuff of local myth. Like Jean Hilliker, Short was a beautiful, hard-living woman who had moved to LA to escape a difficult past. And like Hilliker’s, her case was never solved—though in his fictional version of events, Ellroy finds the killer.
The Black Dahlia. The Big Nowhere. L.A. Confidential. and White Jazz make up the LA Quartet—a series of novels that won Ellroy a massive readership and critical praise for his manipulation of genre conventions, his unsympathetic depiction of Los Angeles in the fifties, and his manic, staccato, hard-nosed prose, about which Elmore Leonard said, “reading it aloud could shatter your wine glasses.” Ellroy next began work on an even more ambitious project, the Underworld USA Trilogy. American Tabloid. The Cold Six Thousand. and Blood’s a Rover map a secret history of America from the JFK assassination to Watergate through the intersecting stories of government agents, snitches, mobsters, ideological zealots, movie stars, and national politicians. In these books Ellroy refined a style that is all his own, incorporating elements of street slang, FBI officialese, and Hollywood gossip-rag shorthand. The Ellroy sentence is jumpy, overcaffeinated, spring-loaded—always ready to pounce.
Before I could ask my first question, Ellroy cut me off with two of his own: “I’m the greatest crime writer ever, right? Is there anyone better than me?” But as the week went on, and we pressed past the shtick and the riffs, he grew more reflective. He leaned back in his chair, and spoke more slowly. One afternoon he even went to his bedroom, shut the blinds, and took a nap.
You were away from Los Angeles for twenty-five years. Why’d you come back?
One reason: Cherchez la femme. I chased women to suburban New York, suburban Connecticut, Kansas City, Carmel, and San Francisco. But I ran out of places, and I ran out of women, so I ended up back here.
While I was away, the Los Angeles of my past accreted in my mind, developing its own power. Early on in my career I believed that in order to write about LA, I had to stay out of it entirely. But when I moved back, I realized that LA then lives in my blood. LA now does not.
I fear the sloth, the disorder, and the moral depravity. It makes me want to hole up in my pad for days on end.
And what about the LA of the fifties has a hold on you?
A lot of it is simple biography. I lived here, so I was obsessed with my immediate environment. I am from Los Angeles truly, immutably. It’s the first thing you get in any author’s note: James Ellroy was born in Los Angeles in 1948. I was hatched in the film-noir epicenter, at the height of the film-noir era. My parents and I lived near Hollywood. My father and mother had a tenuous connection to the film business. They were both uncommonly good-looking, which may be a hallmark of LA arrivistes, and they were of that generation of migrants who came because they were very poor and LA was a beautiful place.
I grew up in a different world, a different America. You didn’t have to make a lot of dough to keep a roof over your head. There was a calmness that I recall too. I learned to amuse myself. I liked to read. I liked to look out the window.
It’s rare for me to speak about LA epigrammatically. I don’t view it as a strange place, I don’t view it as a hot-pot of multiculturalism or weird sexuality. I have never studied it formally. There are big swathes of LA that I don’t even know my way around today. I’m not quite sure how you get to Torrance, Hermosa Beach, Long Beach. I don’t know LA on a valid historical level at all. But I have assimilated it in a deeper way. I had lived here for so long that when it became time to exploit my memory of the distant past, it was easy.
Whatever power my books have derives from the fact that they are utterly steeped in the eras that I describe. LA of that period is mine and nobody else’s. If you wrote about this period before me, I have taken it away from you.
My mother was a registered nurse. She worked a lot. At one point she had a job at a Jewish nursing home where movie stars brought their aging parents. She was fluent in German, and when the patients spoke about her in Yiddish, behind her back, she could understand them. She was a big reader of historical novels, and she was always listening to one specific Brahms piano concerto—I remember a blue RCA Victor record.
I have more memories of my dad. He was a dipshit studio gofer, a big handsome guy, a scratch golfer. He worked for a schlock producer named Sam Stiefel.
He was always snoozing on the couch, like Dagwood Bumstead. He was a lazy motherfucker. God bless him. He was always working on some kind of get-rich-quick scheme. This is what my dad was like: I’d say, Hey, Dad, we studied penguins today in school. He’d say, Yeah? I’m a penguin fucker from way back. Dad, I saw a giraffe at the zoo today. Yeah? I’m a giraffe fucker from way back. That’s my dad. My dad was a giraffe fucker.
He said to me once, I fucked Rita Hayworth. He said that he once introduced me to Hayworth at the Tail O’ the Pup, circa 1950. I would have been two years old at the time, but I don’t recall it. He said I spilled grape juice all over her. I never believed that he had worked for Hayworth, but after his death I saw his name in a Hayworth biography. Sure enough, for a period of time, he was her business manager.
You have said you dislike profanity, but you use it a lot.
I learned it from my father. He was raucous, profane, and freewheeling. I say fuck routinely—my generation is the first generation to say the word routinely, across gender lines. I love slang. I love hipster patois, racial invective, alliteration, argot of all kinds.
What was your childhood like before your mother’s death?
I don’t remember a single amicable moment between my parents other than this: my mother passing steaks out the kitchen window to my father so that he could put them on a barbecue.
I had my mother’s number. I understood that she was maudlin, effusive, and enraged—the degree depending on how much booze she had in her system. I also understood that she had my father’s number—that he was lazy and cowardly.
There was always something incongruous about them. Early on, I was aware of the seventeen-year age gap. When I knew her, my mother was a very good-looking redhead in her early forties. My father was a sun-ravaged, hard-smoking, hard-living guy. He looked significantly older at sixty than I do now. Everybody thought he was my granddad. He wore clothes that were thirty years out of style. I remember that he had a gold Omega wristwatch that he loved. We were broke, and then all of a sudden, one day, the watch wasn’t there. That broke my heart.
In My Dark Places you describe a sense of foreboding not long before your mother’s murder. Where did that come from?
Near the end of January 1958, my mother sits me down on the couch. She’s half blitzed, and I can tell. She says, Honey, you’ve never lived in a house before, so we’re going to move to a nice little town called El Monte, in the San Gabriel Valley. I sensed that there was some other, more sinister reason we were moving to El Monte, but I still haven’t figured it out. I think she was running away from something, or someone.
We go out there, and it was very upsetting. It was a dirty little stone house with a single bathroom. It was half the size of the apartment that we had in Santa Monica.
Five months later, I come back from a weekend with my father. He put me in a cab at the El Monte bus depot. The cab pulls up to my street, our little stone house is on the left, and there are men in brown uniforms and gray suits standing around. And right then, I knew it: my mother was dead. I knew it in that moment.
Someone said, There’s the kid. A cop got down on my level and said, Son, your mother’s been killed.
I swooned. My field of vision veered off in one direction. But I didn’t cry. I started calculating. I began performing almost immediately. I loved being the center of attention. The cops took me to our neighbor’s garage, and they took a photograph—often reproduced—of me standing in front of a workbench. I was goofing, mugging and making faces. The El Monte police chief was dispatched to pick up my dad. Of course, he was the first suspect. At the police station, they sequestered my dad and me in separate rooms. They gave me a candy bar. When they finally let my dad out, I ran to him and put my arms around him. We went back to his pad on the freeway bus. I recall a stream of cars going by with their lights on in the opposite direction, and I forced myself to cry for just a few minutes. I remember thinking that I should. I was already at a great emotional distance from my mother’s death.
When I got back to my dad’s crib, I immediately fell asleep. I woke up on Monday morning, June 23, 1958, and I swear to you, the whole world seemed light powder blue, like a ’56 Chevy Bel Air.
It technically could have been a state of shock. I had a nervous breakdown much later in life, and I’m still subject to panic attacks: big swells of emotion and anxiety, an aging person’s unsuppressable fear of catastrophe and death. All I can tell you is what went through my mind at the time. I couldn’t express my thoughts about my mother, because my relationship with her was too compromised. I thought, I got what I wanted. My mother is dead. Now what do I do?
I felt death all around me. For a period of some weeks, my dad was very permissive. I began to wonder how much time he had left. I’d stay up late watching TV, waiting for him to come back from sporadic all-night accounting jobs—if indeed he wasn’t out fucking every woman who’d let him.
I began to read mystery books: the Hardy Boys, Ken Holt. My father would buy me two of these things a week. I could read the damn books in four or five hours. I started stealing them when I was ten years old.
At the time I had no creative outlet, no indication of genius or a literary gift. I was fearful and occasionally violent, physically outsized, and out of my mind. But I knew right then that I had discovered a secret world.
Yes, but I enjoyed junior high. That’s where I began to perform for the first time. I was a provocateur. I gave oral reports on books that I had invented in my head. I’m a huge kid, I don’t do well in school, I’m girl crazed, and I’m already peeping in windows. Here we are in this cheap apartment, no air-conditioning, and an unhousebroken dog. One block away: a bunch of Tudor mansions. They’re there, and I’m here. I want the girls, I want the family life, I want something that isn’t malodorous and fucked-up.
Is your voyeuristic impulse related to your need to write and tell stories—to go into the lives of fictional characters?
Those impulses are one and the same. I already had the massive creative will. Now the performer in me is starting to act up. How do you stand out as a kid with no gifts at all? How do you enact your estrangement, your alienation, your self-loathing, your feelings of oddness and being unloved? The status quo at John Burroughs Junior High School was Jewish, so I shouted, Heil Hitler. I’d say, Bomb Russia, I hate JFK, fuck the liberal hegemony. Of course, I never hated anyone, and most of my friends were Jewish.
I got significantly crazier. I joined the American Nazi Party while I was at Fairfax High School. I painted swastikas on the dog’s water dish. I always had a flash roll. My dad would give me a twenty-dollar bill to go to the store. I’d steal the food and I’d bring him change for a ten. I watched The Fugitive religiously on TV. If you’ve seen the original run of the series, it is all about sex and dislocated men and women. They drink highballs, smoke cigarettes, and sizzle for each other every Tuesday night at ten. It was everything that I wanted.
You claim to be ignorant of contemporary pop culture, but it seems that you were completely immersed in it as a boy.
I was, but back then I didn’t know what it meant. I just felt compelled to read, go to crime movies, and watch crime television shows.
What does it mean to you now? Why is crime an important subject in American fiction?
We’re a nation of immigrant rabble. A great rebellion attended the founding of this republic. We’ve been getting into trouble for two-hundred-and-thirty-odd years. It’s the perfect place to set crime stories, and the themes of the genre—race, systemic corruption, sexual obsession—run rife here. In a well-done crime book you can explore these matters at great depth, say a great deal about the society, and titillate the shit out of the reader.
You’ve said film noir hasn’t influenced your writing, but you watched a lot of it in your formative years—and you say you were born and raised in the heart of film-noir culture.
I dig film noir. The great theme of film noir is, You’re fucked. There are a few very fine films: Double Indemnity. Sunset Boulevard. and, of course, Out of the Past. Robert Mitchum sees Jane Greer in Acapulco. and he knows. She sees him, and she knows. He’s passive, inert, but very resourceful. She’s murderous and altogether monstrous. He just wants to forfeit to a woman, to give up his masculinity. She wants to be enveloped in her masculine side. They each want the other. When film noir is deeply about that, it can be very powerful. But noir is overexposed now. I’m over it.
You’ve called Dashiell Hammett “tremendously great” and Raymond Chandler “egregiously overrated.” Why?
Chandler wrote the kind of guy that he wanted to be, Hammett wrote the kind of guy that he was afraid he was. Chandler’s books are incoherent. Hammett’s are coherent. Chandler is all about the wisecracks, the similes, the constant satire, the construction of the knight. Hammett writes about the all-male world of mendacity and greed. Hammett was tremendously important to me.
Joseph Wambaugh was immensely important, too. He is a former policeman whose view of LA perfectly dovetailed with my minor miscreant’s view of LA. I also loved the quickness, the ugliness, the assured fatality of James M. Cain. That giddy sense that doom is cool. You just met a woman, you had your first kiss, you’re six weeks away from the gas chamber, you’re fucked, and you’re happy about it.
I did poorly, and I had an unimaginably dim social sense. I was horrified when the civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi in ’64, but I made light of it in school. I knew it was wrong, but I had to be superior to the events themselves. You can see this in my books. There’s the reactionary side of me as well as the critique of authority, the critique of racism and oppression. Back then, though, I possessed no social awareness.
No. I flunked the eleventh grade and got expelled. I decided I wanted to join the marine corps, because I wanted to be a shit kicker, which I certainly was not. I did not want to go to Vietnam, I never thought about Vietnam. I had a vague desire to shoot guns. My father’s health was deteriorating ever more rapidly—he started having strokes and heart attacks—and he let me enlist in the army.
If you think I’m skinny now, at a hundred and seventy pounds, picture me at a hundred and forty. I got shipped out to Fort Polk, Louisiana. Flying bugs all over the place. Right away, I went from being a big egotistical bully to a craven scaredy-cat dipshit. My dad had another stroke the first week I was at Polk. I got flown home to LA, in my uniform, on emergency leave. Two weeks later, he had yet another stroke. I got flown back again, just in time to see him die. His final words to me were, Try to pick up every waitress who serves you.
Is that when you started writing—after your father died?
The first thing I did after he died was snag his last three Social Security checks, forge his signature, and cash them at a liquor store. From ’65 to ’75, I drank and used drugs. I fantasized. I swallowed amphetamine inhalers. I masturbated compulsively. I got into fights. I boxed—though I was terrible at it—and I broke into houses. I’d steal girls’ panties, I’d jack off, grab cash out of wallets and purses. The method was easy: you call a house and if nobody answers, that means nobody’s home. I’d stick my long, skinny arms in a pet access door and flip the latch, or find a window that was loose and raise it open. Everybody has pills and alcohol. I’d pop a Seconal, drink four fingers of Scotch, eat some cheese out of the fridge, steal a ten-dollar bill, then leave a window ajar and skedaddle. I did time in county jail for useless misdemeanors. I was arrested once for burglary, but it got popped down to misdemeanor trespassing.
The press thinks that I’m a larger-than-life guy. Yes, that’s true. But a lot of the shit written about me discusses this part of my life disproportionately.
Aren’t you responsible for this? You’ve written a lot about this period, and you frequently talk about it in interviews.
I’ve told many journalists that I’ve done time in county jail, that I’ve broken and entered, that I was a voyeur. But I also told them that I spent much more time reading than I ever did stealing and peeping. They never mention that. It’s a lot sexier to write about my mother, her death, my wild youth, and my jail time than it is to say that Ellroy holed up in the library with a bottle of wine and read books.
Still, writing couldn’t have been exactly in the forefront of your mind at the time.
But it was. I was always thinking about how I would become a great novelist. I just didn’t think that I would write crime novels. I thought that I would be a literary writer, whose creative duty is to describe the world as it is. The problem is that I never enjoyed books like that. I only enjoyed crime stories. So more than anything, this fascination with writing was an issue of identity. I had a fantasy of what it meant to be a writer: the sports cars, the clothes, the women.
But I think what appealed to me most about it was that I could assume the identity of what I really loved to do, which was to read. Nobody told me I couldn’t write a novel. I didn’t live in the world of graduate writing schools. I wasn’t part of any scene or creative community. I happened to love crime novels more than anything, so I wrote a crime novel first. I didn’t buy the old canard that you had to start by writing short stories, and only later write a novel. I never liked reading short stories, so why the fuck should I want to write one? I only wanted to write novels.
Did you feel that your period of homelessness and delinquency was giving you experience that you could turn into a novel?
If I did, it was false. The real education I had was from the books I read and TV shows and movies I saw. When I watched a film or read a book, I was engrossed. I learned in an unmediated way. I didn’t know what I was taking in—I wasn’t thinking about theme, content, or style—but I took it all in.
You started caddying at golf courses near the end of that period. Did you think you needed the stability of a paying job in order to write?
What happened was that I quit drinking. I knew I couldn’t write a novel as long as I drank or used drugs. And I was on fire with a sense of urgency. A buddy took me to an AA meeting, and I quit drinking in June of 1975. I continued taking uppers and smoking weed up until August 1, 1977. That’s when I really got sober. I started writing a year and five months later, in late January of 1979. I was not quite thirty-one.
Did you have an idea for a novel? Or just the general notion that you wanted to write one?
I concocted a story idea. A friend of mine at the country club had taken a job as a process server. He asked me to come work for him. He said it was fun. So I went out as a process server and looked for a couple of witnesses that we never found. It was like being a private eye. I was a big guy in a suit.
I started to plan a novel about a guy who gets involved with a bunch of country-club golf caddies, who does some process serving, who grew up at Beverly and Western, who was a tall, skinny, dark-haired guy with glasses, all of which is me. But he was an ex-cop, which I am not. I invented a nice arsonist—a psychotic, anti-Semitic firebug named Fat Dog Baker. I knew a caddy who was called Fat Dog who slept on golf courses.
That’s Brown’s Requiem. It’s wish fulfillment, it’s crime, it’s autobiography. But it’s mostly a work of imagination.
How, after fourteen years of telling yourself that you were a writer, did you actually begin to write?
I was on the eighth hole at Bel-Air Country Club and I said, Please, God, let me start this novel tonight. And I did. Standing up at the Westwood Hotel, where I had a room. Using the dresser as a desk, I wrote:
“Business was good. It was the same thing every summer. The smog and heat rolled in, blanketing the basin; people succumbed to torpor and malaise; old resolves died; old commitments went unheeded. And I profited . . .”
Native talent—who knows? I sat down and did it—and I had it. The beast was loose. I felt like I had created myself entirely out of sheer will, egotism, and an overwhelming desire to be somebody. All of a sudden I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I haven’t stopped since.
When to use first person versus third person. How to set a scene. Where to put a line break or a new paragraph. How to write an ending. How to develop a tragic sense of the world. Where to put a love scene. When to stress autobiography. When to realize you’re actually not that important.
What inspired you to write Killer on the Road. a novel told from the perspective of a homosexual serial killer?
Killer on the Road is the only book I ever wrote for the money, because I needed some dough. It was my first large advance, ten grand. In part, I was influenced by Thomas Harris’s brilliant Red Dragon—to me the best pure thriller I’ve ever read. With Killer on the Road. I deliberately set out to shock. I wrote it in four months. It’s the only one of my books that I regret.
It’s a good book, but I had a hot date with Elizabeth Short—the Black Dahlia victim—and I wanted to get to her fast. The Black Dahlia had been building inside of me for a long time. I became obsessed with the Black Dahlia murder case shortly after my mother’s death. I didn’t openly mourn my mother, but I could mourn Betty Short.
Why did it take so long for you to turn to the Black Dahlia case in your writing? It’s your seventh novel, after all.
Because I thought for a long time that the success of John Gregory Dunne’s novel about the Black Dahlia, True Confessions. would preclude a successful publication. That’s a wonderful novel, but it doesn’t truly adhere to the facts of the Black Dahlia murder case. Mr. Dunne calls the Black Dahlia “the Virgin Tramp.” Elizabeth Short becomes “Lois Fazenda.” When I took on the murder for my novel, ten years later, I adhered to the facts of the case more than Mr. Dunne did. His book is phantasmagoria. My book is a much more literal rendering of the truth.
It liberated me. It was a best seller, I was earning a living as a writer for the first time, and I was exponentially more committed to creative maturity. I’m the most serious guy on earth, but I can bullshit with the best of them, and I play to my audience. There’s a concept in boxing that you fight to the level of your competition. You’re in with a big guy, you bring the fight. You’re in with a bum, you do just enough to win. But if you get lazy, then you put yourself at risk. I’ve always come to fight, from the very first page.
You do certain conventions of crime fiction particularly well. How do you go about writing a great interrogation scene?
You have a good deal of information that needs to be conveyed to the reader. There has to be reluctance on the part of the suspect to give up that information. There has to be a level of coercion and guile in the interrogator. It has to be physically interesting. You have to be on the side of the interrogator, but at the same time you have to identify with the victim, and experience his horror at encountering official brutality. I’m thinking of a scene in White Jazz when Lieutenant Dave Klein is beating on some black guy who’s handcuffed to a chair. Klein says, I’m not enjoying this, but you’re not getting out of here unless you talk. But, of course, Klein is enjoying it.
Most importantly, the scene can’t go on too long. It has to be fast.
Why do your interrogators always beat their suspects with phonebooks?
Two reasons: they don’t leave marks and they don’t hurt your hands.
Some authors say that their characters are flesh and blood. Other authors say that they are puppets that the author moves around on the page.
It’s disingenuous when writers say that they have no control over their characters, that they have a life of their own. Here’s what happens: you create the characters rigorously, and make clear choices about their behavior. You reach junctures in your stories and are confronted with dramatic options. You choose one or the other.
You take great pleasure in making your characters commit heinous acts, yet at the same time you rail against immorality. Is there a contradiction here?
I can describe depravity without being depraved. I wrote My Dark Places. a memoir about my own slimiest actions, but I’ve refrained from such actions for many years. Breaking into houses was a thrill, peeping was a thrill. But these practices need to be curbed and regulated in order to ensure a safe society. There has been a great deal of chaos in my life, and there remains chaos in my creative life, so I crave order. This is what the superstructure of the novel allows me—ultimate authority in the creation of an ultimate order, even as I describe flagrant disorder in wondrous detail.
I’m a Christian. I’m a proponent of Judaism, and I see Judaism and Christianity as the through-lines of the rule of law in world history. I love the Reformation. I am of the Reformation—that moment when you stand alone with God. More than anything else, I am an enormous believer in God, the God who saved my wretched, tormented ass so many times.
I feel that I have a responsibility to portray the spiritual, religious aspect of life. I hate squalor. I’m always astonished when people come up with the nutty idea that my books are nihilistic. I try to show the result of immoral actions: the karmic comeuppance, the horrible self-destructiveness. I explicate the dire consequences of historical and individual misdeeds. What happens to you when you do not know that virtue is its own reward.
I begin by sitting in the dark. I used to sleep on the living-room couch. There was a while when that was the only place I felt safe. My couch is long because I’m tall, and it needs to be high backed, so I can curl into it. I lie there and things come to me, very slowly.
I take notes: ideas, historical perspective, characters, point of view. Very quickly, much of the narrative coheres. When I have sufficient information—the key action, the love stories, the intrigue, the conclusion—I write out a synopsis in shorthand as fast as I can, for comprehension’s sake. With the new novel, Blood’s a Rover. this took me six days. It’s then, after I’ve got the prospectus, that I write the outline.
The first part of the outline is a descriptive summary of each character. Next I describe the design of the book in some detail. I state my intent at the outset. Then I go through the entire novel, outlining every chapter. The outline of Blood’s A Rover is nearly four hundred pages long. It took me eight months to write. I write in the present tense, even if the novel isn’t written in the present tense. It reads like stage directions in a screenplay. Everything I need to know is right there in front of me. It allows me to keep the whole story in my mind. I use this method for every book.
Your outlines resemble first drafts. Is that how you think of them?
I think of the outline as a diagram, a superstructure. When you see dialogue in one of my outlines, it’s because inserting the dialogue is the most complete, expeditious way to describe a given scene.
Do you force yourself to write a certain number of words each day?
I set a goal of outlined pages that I want to get through each day. It’s the ratio of text pages to outline pages that’s important. That proportion determines everything. Today I went through five pages of the outline. That equals about eight pages of the novel. The outline for Blood’s a Rover. which is three hundred and ninety-seven pages, is exponentially more detailed than the three-hundred-and-forty-five-page outline for The Cold Six Thousand. So the ratio of book pages to outline pages varies, depending on the density of the outline.
Is it important for you to have a steady writing routine?
I need to work just as rigorously on the outline as I do on the actual writing of the text, in order to keep track of the plot and the chronology. But once I’m writing text, I can be flexible, because the outline is there. Take today: I woke up early, at five-thirty. I worked for a couple of hours, took a break for some oatmeal, shut my eyes for a moment, and went back at it. I was overcaffeinated, jittery-assed, panic-attacky. Sometimes I go until I just can’t go anymore. I flatline and need some peace.
I write some nights, and I edit at night. I write by hand. I correct in red ink. When I’m close to finishing a book, I will write more and more, because I’ve got finishing fever.
No, but this pad is perfectly outfitted. Some people find my place appalling. It’s too neat and clean. Nothing’s out of place. If you look in my clothes closet, you’ll see that everything is arrayed by fabric, style, and color. I’ll do anything I can to simplify my life.
Chaos in my early life, fear of incapacity and death, an attempt to control my overweaning emotionalism, my Beethovenian drives and lusts. I’ve become more single-minded as I’ve gotten older. My subsidiary obsessions have fallen by the wayside, with one big exception.
I go over it, editing fifty pages a day. I send it to a typist, who enters the changes. Then I proofread it once, make some more additions and subtractions. At that point, there are two sets of corrections. In copyediting, I continue to make small changes. Every opportunity that I have to reach perfection, I take.
What do you do once you have a draft that you’re happy with?
I show it to my agent, Nat Sobel, who is a stickler for the logic of the dramatic scenes. He makes certain that each character’s motivations and actions are sensible. I’m a perfectionist. I go to great lengths to get it all right. It’s the biggest challenge I face when I’m writing. If you’re confused about something in one of my books, you’ve just got to realize, Ellroy’s a master, and if I’m not following it, it’s my problem. You just have to submit to me.
There was no research required for my first six novels. I made the stories up from scratch.
The LAPD will not let civilians see the file on the Dahlia case, which is six thousand pages long. When I started working on the novel, I was still caddying. I was living in Westchester County and realized that I could get, by interlibrary loan, the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Herald-Express on microfilm. All I needed was four hundred dollars in quarters to feed the microfilm machine. Man, four hundred bucks in quarters—that’s a lot of coins. I used a quadruple-reinforced pillowcase to carry them down from Westchester, on the Metro-North train. It took me four printed pages to reproduce a single newspaper page. In the end the process cost me six hundred dollars. Then I made notes from the articles. Then I extrapolated a fictional story.
The greatest source, however, was autobiography. Who’s Bucky Bleichert? He’s a tall, pale, and thin guy, with beady brown eyes and fucked-up teeth from his boxing days, tweaked by women, with an absent mother, who gets obsessed with a woman’s death. It wasn’t much of a stretch.
Did you conceive of all four books in the LA Quartet at once?
No, it was only when I decided to write The Big Nowhere that it became a quartet. Thus, the last three novels—The Big Nowhere. L.A. Confidential. and White Jazz —were linked more closely with one another than with The Black Dahlia .
My intention was to recreate the world that my mother lived and died in, as an homage to her, a conscious address to her, and a sensuous capitulation to her. I wanted to tell big love stories, big crime stories, and big political stories. I wanted to honor Elizabeth Short as the transmogrification of Jean Hilliker Ellroy. Whenever someone asks me what the LA Quartet books are about, I say, Bad men in love with strong women.
What kind of research did you do for the extended sections on the homosexual underworld in The Big Nowhere ?
I was influenced by a bad William Friedkin movie from 1980, Cruising. It has a great premise. There are a string of homosexual murders in the West Village and Al Pacino is a young, presumably heterosexual cop, who goes undercover and is tempted by the homosexual world. What an idea! Hence, The Big Nowhere. A cop in LA in the fifties gets assigned to a homosexual murder case and becomes aroused by the men he’s investigating.
After the LA Quartet, you said you wanted to go in a more “mainstream” direction. I wonder what that word means to you.
I realized that I had taken the police historical novel as far as it could go. I had written a series of masterworks about LA, so I decided to do the same thing with full-scale America. Hence, the Underworld USA Trilogy: American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, Blood’s a Rover.
Most of all I credit Don DeLillo. Mr. DeLillo’s novel Libra was published in ’88. I was astounded by it. The book detailed the JFK snuff, largely through the eyes of that horribly persistent loser Lee Harvey Oswald. I said to myself, You can’t write this book—DeLillo got there first. He had created the entire metaphysical worldview of the Kennedy assassination. Jack Kennedy was responsible for his own death. His death was no more than the world’s most overglorified business-dispute killing, on a huge geopolitical scale.
I was kicking myself that I didn’t come up with this idea first. And then, very slowly, I started to see that I could write a trio of novels, placing JFK’s death in an off-page context, with a giant social history of the United States to follow.
When Knopf was slated to publish American Tabloid. I sent Mr. DeLillo a copy in advance to thank him for the influence. I included a thank-you note, telling him that I would attribute his contribution in all my big interviews. I got a very nice note back from Mr. DeLillo. He sent it on March 4, which is my birthday. It was 1995, but he incorrectly dated his note 1955, which seemed appropriate. He praised the book, and that was that.
Why, after American Tabloid. did you interrupt the trilogy and turn to a new form—the memoir?
I was forty-five and very happily married. I was living in New Canaan, Connecticut. Life was good. For Christmas one year, my wife got me a photograph taken of me by the Los Angeles Times at the time of my mother’s death. She had it framed. She said, Do you remember this? And all of a sudden—boom. It was like a little knife to my heart. I thought I had locked my mother away after The Black Dahlia.
A month later, a reporter for the Pasadena Star-News told me he would be seeing my mother’s file, as part of a piece he was doing on unsolved San Gabriel Valley homicides. Immediately the opportunist in me said, I have to see my mother’s file and write a piece about it. GQ gave me the assignment.
I visited the unsolved-homicide unit at the LA County sheriff’s office, and I met Sergeant Bill Stoner. We joked around a little bit and talked about other murder cases. I realized that I was avoiding looking at the file. Finally, he showed it to me. I looked at the pictures first. They weren’t terribly shocking, perhaps because I’d lived with the event mentally for so many years.
Then I read the police reports and saw immediately how I would write the book. I knew that it would be my autobiography, my mother’s biography, and Bill Stoner’s biography. I knew I’d get a significant advance. I knew each of the book’s sections would begin with italicized addresses to my mother. I knew that we would try to find the killer. I knew that we wouldn’t find the killer. I knew we were going to get a lot of publicity, and that it wouldn’t help the case. The book would be about my journey to reconcile with my mother. And all of this came about just as I had thought it would.
Because, like me, he was driven by a chivalrous notion of saving women in jeopardy. I identified with his emotional maturity, his intelligence, his resignation. He’s worldly, in the sense that he has a great knowledge of people, but he’s not in the least sophisticated. He says “excape” rather than “escape” and “eyetalian” rather than “Italian.” He has horrible taste in books and movies. But, God, does he know people. You don’t see that often.
For a novelist’s memoir, there is remarkably little about your own experience as a writer.
That would be irrelevant to the main narrative, which was my mother and me. I did not want the book to be a discursive autobiography. I fear self-absorption as a writer. The book had to be about something more than me.
Has anything new happened in the case since the publication of the book?
No. Bill Stoner and I continue to get phone calls, but nothing of real merit.
Is your mother as present in your life now as she was when you were writing the memoir?
There is a quotation from Dylan Thomas that I think of often, “After the first death, there is no other.” He was writing about the firebombing of London, but for me the first death will always be my mother’s. She’s with me still, but no amount of effort will allow me to touch her concretely. I have fulfilled my moral debt to her to the best extent that I could. I have granted her a mythic status through my work. The price for that is public exposure. I am a gloryhound, I’ve always wanted to be famous. She never sought these things. I have a need to refract myself through her, and I owe her a deep spiritual debt.
There’s a line at the end of My Dark Places where you write, “She was no less than my salvation.” Salvation from what?
From the horrifying, lustful, self-destructive aspects of my masculinity. She’s always there in the wings going, Ha-ha, you dipshit, you exploited my death, and now you’re doomed to have women kick the shit out of you the rest of your life.
She also represents a powerful negative example. She’s an alcoholic, I’m an alcoholic. She never got sober, I did. She was a woman of the American fifties with appetites, and was harshly judged for indulging them. I would daresay that she indulged her appetites with a great deal more dignity than I have. I was a man in the sixties and seventies, and I got to drink and fuck with an abandon that she never dreamed of.
You’ve called yourself “the greatest crime novelist who ever lived,” and it’s difficult to think of another living writer who presents himself as aggressively as you do. How important is it for a writer to have swagger?
You want swagger, look at Norman Mailer. I don’t go around beating people up. I’m just James Ellroy, the self-promoting demon dog. It comes naturally to me. You call it swagger, I call it joie de vivre.
You did say about Blood’s a Rover. “This book is going to be better than War and Peace .”
Tongue-in-cheek. Wink, wink. The highest compliment ever paid to me was by Joyce Carol Oates. You know what she called me? The American Dostoyevsky. Stop right there, I’ll take it.
Ultimately, I’m impervious to criticism. The ass kicking I got by a lot of critics for the style of The Cold Six Thousand was a real motherfucker, but I stopped reading the reviews. You can’t start thinking that critical consensus is a guarantor of quality. This is something I feel very strongly about. I remember that when L.A. Confidential went to the Cannes Film Festival, a critic from The Hollywood Reporter wrote a negative review. He just didn’t think the movie cohered. But by then all the other critics had loved the film, and this guy at The Hollywood Reporter had to join the club, so he included L.A. Confidential on his list of that year’s best films. The irony is that I think much of what he wrote in his original piece was actually dead-on.
L.A. Confidential marked a significant change in your writing. You adopted a “telegraphic style”—extremely short, clipped sentences. How did you come to this?
When I handed in the novel, my editor told me I had to cut more than a hundred pages, without altering the thematic emphasis or shifting any of the specific scenes. Because the story was violent, and full of action, I saw the value of writing in a fast, clipped style. So I cut every unnecessary word from every sentence.
I wrote White Jazz, the direct sequel to L.A. Confidential and the last book in the Quartet, in the first-person style, and in a normal, discursive voice. But it didn’t seem to fit the main character, Dave Klein—a fucked-up, racist cop bombing around black LA in ’58, who inexplicably gets hooked on bebop. I saw that if I eliminated words from his speech, I would develop a more convincing cadence for him: paranoid, jagged, enervated. I reverted to a more normal, albeit still terse style in American Tabloid and My Dark Places, but then I went back and did an extreme telegraphic style with The Cold Six Thousand .
Do you think the extreme style of The Cold Six Thousand was a success?
Helen Knode, my second ex-wife, is my best friend and the greatest Ellroy scholar on earth. Helen said to me, Big Dog, it’s a great book, but it’s too difficult. As a reader, you want less style and more emotion.
It seems as if most sentences in that book are four words or fewer. It’s been called minimalistic.
Minimalism implies small events, small people, a small story. Man, that’s the antithesis of me. Telegraphic means straight sentences—subject, verb, repetitions with slight modifications.
The book has flaws. It’s too long, and the style is too rigorous for such a complicated story—the JFK assassination and its aftermath, the plotting of the Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, Howard Hughes’s takeover of Las Vegas, all told through the overlapping stories of three morally compromised and traumatized men desperately in love with strong women. It’s a big picaresque mess, and too demanding a read. But the stamina of it is sui generis. If you get it, you get it. It might not be your favorite of my books, but you can appreciate its scope, its audacity. I try to write books that no one else would have the balls to write. They require the reader’s intense concentration. Most writers, as they age, write shorter and tidier. My books are getting bigger and more stylistically ambitious. And my style will continue to evolve.
In Blood’s a Rover. as in many of your novels, several of your main characters undergo extreme shifts of allegiance—from fascistic reactionary, say, to Castroite leftist, and sometimes back again. Why?
I wanted to dramatize the seismic shifts that took place during the sixties and seventies. I wanted to show the positive effects of ideological transformation. So I have two right-wing-toady assassins who can’t live with the horror of their misdeeds, chiefly the assassination of Martin Luther King. They are two men who embrace revolution, driven by a hope for redemption and by the women in their lives. It’s a more hopeful book than the others in the trilogy. As a character says at one point, Your options are do everything or do nothing.
This novel also displays my greatest diversity of characterization. Karen Silfakis is a mother and a revolutionary. Marshell Bowen is a homosexual black man who goes undercover for the FBI. These characters think about their actions and analyze what they mean. They’re not afraid to write down their thoughts. There are a lot of diary entries and correspondence that give us different perspectives on American history between 1968 and 1972. It’s all about conveying the complex, ideological nature of that era.
When you’re writing about vast political events, do you have a particular political agenda in mind?
No. I do have a complex relationship with authoritarianism. I’d rather live in a society that errs on the side of authoritarianism than a society that errs on the side of permissiveness. Try telling that to a woman and see if you get laid.
But in my fiction, the two major arch-villains are authoritarian, reactionary conservatives: Dudley Smith, a corrupt LA policeman in the LA Quartet, and J. Edgar Hoover in the Underworld USA Trilogy. And the overarching moral voices of the trilogy are Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
Where did you get the idea to introduce document inserts—FBI transcripts, tabloid copy, police reports—between chapters?
Sometimes I need to get outside of the perspectives of the characters in order to convey information that they don’t know, and offer occasional editorial comments and historical facts in a compressed, direct way. That’s where the document inserts come in. It’s also a great excuse for me to write copy for Hollywood gossip rags.
As far as literary influences go, Confidential magazine seems a big one for you.
I loved Confidential. Along with the Lutheran Church, it’s probably the biggest cultural influence of my life. Who’s a homo? Who’s a nympho? Who’s got a big one? Who’s got a small one? Who fucks people of color? Who’s getting head at the Griffith Park john? Who’s a muff diver? That shit was important to me then, and it’s important to me now.
You like to read your work before an audience. How do you prepare for the performance?
I semimemorize the passage so that I can stand at the podium and share eye contact with the audience. I read shorter sections with as few differentiations in dialogue as possible. Never go long. Never try the audience’s patience. Never put in something too plot deep. Never hem, haw, pause, or do anything that isn’t dramatically effective. How many times have you seen people go for forty minutes, lose it routinely, wet the page, cough, fart, belch into the microphone, say “um,” and do everything short of take a shit on stage. It’s deadening.
I walk in and situate myself. I hunker down and read something outrageous. Something with race, class, dope, sex, insane language. I read a section about rug burns—that’s when you’re fucking on a rug and you scrape your knees. Do you want to hear some candy-ass artiste saying, Oooooh, I’m an artist, my characters do things that I didn’t intend? Or do you want to hear about rug burns and get some yucks?
I don’t read for more than fourteen minutes, tops. Then I answer questions for twenty minutes. Afterward, you don’t short-shrift anyone—you talk to everybody. You scope out the women. You have a gas. You’re happy, you’re grateful, you’re God’s guy.
You claim not to read books anymore, yet you seem extremely well-read. How do you account for that?
There are big gaps in my literary knowledge. I’ve never read anything by Faulkner. I haven’t read anything by William Gaddis or James Baldwin. I tried to read True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey, because I met him, but I didn’t buy his style. I tried to read a Cormac McCarthy book and thought, Why doesn’t this cocksucker use quotation marks? I picked up another Cormac McCarthy book and saw that there were six or seven consecutive pages in Spanish. I didn’t know what it meant. My name isn’t Juan Ellroy, OK?
You’ve been criticized at times for being racially insensitive. Why do you think that is?
Critics want racism, and secondarily homophobia, to be portrayed as a defining characteristic, rather than a casual attribute. Racist language uttered by sympathetic characters confuses hidebound liberals. Who gives a shit?
I’m a god in Europe—the dominant American writer of our time. And that’s no shit. America is the cultural top of the world, and my books are viewed in Europe as realistic critiques of America—at least by those Europeans who worship and loathe America equally and wish they were Americans and wonder why they’re not the height of culture for the entire world. I sell more books in France than in America.
You’ve talked about your competitive instinct. Who do you feel you’re competing against?
No one. I’m only fighting myself. I have a duty to God and to the people who love my books, and that is to get better and better. At this stage of the game, I’m entirely self-referential.
It is. I don’t want to die. And I’m not going to.