James Ellroy has returned to Los Angeles. After stretches in Kansas City and northern California, he now makes his home in Hancock Park, the same neighborhood where, as a youth, he went to school and peeped in windows. Back then, after his mother's murder --the date was June 22, 1958 -- he lived with his father in a scruffy apartment at the edge of the elite school district; now, Ellroy's at the center, in a vintage apartment building overlooking a country club. I met him in a nearby restaurant to talk about his new book Blood's a Rover; it concludes the trilogy that also includes American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand.
He calls Blood's a Rover a love story, one that correlates with his own romantic life, which involved his wife (now ex), another man's wife, and a third woman, upon whom a central character in the book, the Red Goddess Joan, is based. As the story unfolds, strong female characters interact with Ellroy's classic cops and FBI agents and Don "Crutch" Crutchfield, a low-level criminal who shares some Ellroy-like characteristics. Like the author himself, the book winds up back in LA.
"Call me Dog," he says when I address him as Mr. Ellroy. I explain that I'm not calling him Dog, and he tells me I can call him James instead. Maybe Dog is the guy I ran into at a publishing conference this spring, spouting 40-years-stale racial epithets and leering at women, who mimed jacking off for the cameras of Playboy as he introduced his serial for the magazine, "The Hilliker Curse." The Ellroy at lunch -- James -- was thoughtful, candid and told me he voted for Barack Obama. Clearly, he plays to his audience. As our conversation began, he ordered a glass of ice and four espressos.
Barnes & Noble Review: In Blood's a Rover, a character says, "We're self absorbed, and we confuse our lives with history." Do you think that history is something that we are inherently connected to, or is that a confusion?
James Ellroy: It's June 22, '58 where it all goes [makes cracking noise] for me -- when I become interested in crime, sexual pathology police work, detection, LA's social history. But I came to a point as a writer where I decided I'd taken LA as far as it could go, and then I write a novel [Blood's a Rover] that comes back to LA. I feel history; as a younger person, I felt it in my bones. And since I am so, so, so inwardly focused -- so disciplined and meticulous in my creativity and so limited and passionate and obsessive in my interests, I've developed a sterling insight.
I went to John Burroughs Junior High over here. From '59-62, the Kennedy era. I was the weirded-out kid, one of five percent, that came from Beverly and Western. WASP kids from Beverly and Western, me and just a few others, and rich kids from Hancock Park, mostly Jewish kids from west of here.
There were six or seven things that I dug, and they're still the 6 or 7 things that I dig. So I focused. Right at the top was American history. I lived through Kennedy, and I lived through the tumult of the sixties. I saw it, and I assimilated it, to whatever degree I assimilated it. And it's in my bones. So what I do, in these big books, is create the private infrastructure of big public events.
I remember at the Larchmont Safeway, which is where Rite-Aid is now, during the Cuban missile crisis, when everyone thought the world was going to end. I was bicycle stalking a girl named Donna Weiss. My dad sent me to the Safeway, and the shelves were picked clean, because people were getting ready. Our alcoholic neighbor, Big John Kilbride, were stocking up on alcohol and cigarettes. He and I just laughed -- we were the only ones that figured out, the world ain't gonna end. I knew it and Big John knew it, and that was that.
So every once in a while, I dip into culture – under duress or something – I can get to something really quick. I was in Scotland in February of '08. I was in the gym at the hotel, people had the TV on -- I couldn't avoid it. There were snippets of Clinton, McCain, and Obama, and I knew immediately that Obama would win…. I could tell you why. McCain vibes crazy. Clinton, she lies routinely; she seizes up and her eyes get big.
Obama is not that good a speaker. He's not as good as I am. He's a Kennedy imitator. I studied John Kennedy and I lived through it.
BNR: That does not look like four shots of espresso.
JE: It's not, and I expected it. [He orders a second four shots at the end of the meal.]
Obama, who's warmer than John Kennedy, and brighter -- they're both about 6'1", and thin, and they wear thin-cut, three-button suits nicely. John Kennedy did not like people crowding him, or touching him. He liked to keep people at bay. Whereas Obama is more genuinely warm, but he has the Kennedy gesture. What's most impressive about him, and what I saw at the gym, is he knows this: whether he is this person or not, his job as a conscious being and as a politician is to imitate the virtue he wishes to express. Which in his case, was probity, poise and composure. And he did that near unfailingly throughout the campaign. Which is why people across a wide ideological range came to vote for him.
BNR: I'm curious about connecting this to your book. I'm curious about performance. Is there any character in this book who isn't performing a role?
BNR: There are many masks. Anybody who is in the FBI is doing two things at once. You've got informants, and revolutionaries, constantly shifting between one mask and another. Is there such a thing as a straightforward character in Blood's a Rover?
JE: Mary Beth Hazard. Joan is, in her vengeance. And in her fire.
BNR: But even Joan goes through – in her evolution, as you say, her moral center gets torqued.
JE: True. But her desire for vengeance is seamless with her personal grievance. And Karen Sefakis's motherhood…
BNR: At the same time, Karen has two lovers…
JE: She's entirely duplicit. Right. Crutch is the only one who lives in his own unique genius that's uncompromised. All he wants is love. He's just a motherless child adrift, looking to make his way. All he wants is love.
I had this amazing moment. I was on a book tour for Destination Morgue. People know the last question is supposed to be "why do you write," and I usually recite a Dylan Thomas poem, "In My Art or Sullen Craft." [Editor's note: Thomas's poem, "In My Craft or Sullen Art," can be found here; Ellroy's variant recital follows, as spoken.]
In my art or sullen craft
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
Not for the proud man apart
Do I write
On these spindrift pages
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my art or craft.
It's a good way to shut those readings down. It sounds good, and it's a gas.
But I was tired that night. I was in Phoenix, and I hadn't slept, and someone said, "Why do you write," and I just told the truth: so women will love me.
That's Crutch. By the way, it's why he survives.
BNR: Because of that need?
JE: Joan and Karen may say [Crutch] has got the gene of persistence, but it's because the kid loved. It's because he has that. It's because he will not quit, and he's full of love.
BNR: He's also kind of a -- what do you call him? -- a dipshit.
JE: A jerkoff.
BNR: Tell me about your writing process. Do you write every day? You've got these people who you hire to do research. Do you enjoy the research process? Did you ever?
JE: It's a wonderful time in my life. I have great colleagues, and I have great friends. There are some things that I can do better than any writer I've ever met. I'm not the greatest living writer -- you know, I'm damn good; I can think. I know how to think. I know how to crowd the frame. I can write screenplays, I can write TV shows superlatively well; it's a nice secondary income. I can write essays. I'm obsessed with meaning.
A lot of this is natural predilection, it's early religious training, it's spiritual aptitude. It's who I am. I'm a seeker. I want to get to the big shit.
And I've taught myself to think.
As a kid, growing up, I read a zillion books, and I saw a zillion TV shows -- mostly crime -- and went to a zillion movies -- mostly crime -- and I never thought about what they meant. When I started to write, I was naturally meticulous and diligent and logical. I don't know how much of intelligence or aptitude is inherited. Both my parents were linguists, and both my parents were scientists. My dad was a mathematician and my mother was a biologist and a nurse. I don't know how much of this is inherited and how much of it is the luck of the draw.
I don't like formal learning. I like to assess information as necessary and have it there. So what [my researchers] did for me on The Cold Six Thousand, Blood's a Rover, and American Tabloid, was compile factsheets and chronologies so I wouldn't write myself into error.
So I have the information there. And then I have notes on the personal story, I have research, I have the arc of the love stories, the arc of whatever police investigation has to transpire, the big public events, and I start putting notes together, and before you know it, thirty of forty individual notes on the story will evolve into twenty series of sequences that need to be connected. And before you know it, I'm putting it together . . . I'm putting it together . . . I'm putting it together. The story is almost outside my mental capacity to retain it. There's a great deal that's there.
I made a conscious decision after The Cold Six Thousand -- which was a little bit long, a little bit too rigorous in its presentation of a very complex text, overly stylized Helen Knode [Ellroy's ex-wife and fellow novelist] was the first person -- she's my best reader -- to figure this out. I wanted a more emotionally resonant book. I had gone through the break-up of the marriage, the crack-up, Joan, and everything else. So I made an effort in Blood's a Rover to both crowd the frame of my consciousness and de-crowd it, and emotionalize it. I had a great deal of information [my researcher] had put together for me. I knew that I could go anywhere that I wanted to go in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuban waters, public policy gone wrong in '68-'72, riots in Miami, riots in Chicago. I knew that my take on black militancy was sane, that it was sound to create fictional black militant groups that were lesser [to the Black Panthers] -- I had more latitude to fictionalize. So I had a great deal of the story on paper and in my head, and I do what I've done for 20-odd years. I write at the top of the page: JAM [makes popping sound] I put an exclamation point after it.
And I started with the heist, described in shorthand that only I can read, block print. Little line, Crutch's prologue, boom boom boom. The Wayne chapter, Wayne's cooking heroin, establish this-this-this, Janice is dying of cancer, backstory from American Tabloid. I have Tabloid and Cold Six, annotated with post-it notes sticking out of the paperback, right over here to look at. All the way through, it's 70-odd pages in shorthand to go through the [opening scene] heist to Crutch's soliloquy at the end. I've thought it through.
I don't know anyone else who does it this way -- even though anyone who makes up their mind to do it, and has the mental stamina to do it, can do it. Nobody can write books this dense without doing this. Frankly most people have mystified ideas as to what writing fiction is. Are afraid of diligence and meticulousness. And that it comes at the expense of improvisation and joie de vivre, when, au contraire, it enhances it, because you have an inviolate document to work from.
I did this in Helen Knode's garage in Carmel, alone one Christmas, mooning for the red goddess in San Francisco, mooning for the married woman back East with her family. Holed up with Helen's dog who disliked me so much that a professional dogwalker had to come in and take her out every day. And I give that dog nothing but love -- anyway, it's a weird deal.
Then I created the outline, which began by addressing the perceived flaws of The Cold Six Thousand -- what I perceived the flaws of the prior novel to be. I was going for a more accessible style, greater transparency, and was writing a book that would in every way be an historical romance.
I predicted a 1,000-page manuscript and a 675 page hardcover and I got close. It's just a question of -- chapter 1, Wayne Tedrow is cooking heroin in his lab, Las Vegas, the date, following background information exposited. Dwight Holly calls Wayne, following information exposited. Go to flashback. This information exposited.
It took me eight months to write the outline. I wrote the text in eleven and a half months.
BNR: That's fast.
JE: This was fast for me because of the emotional import of the book. Joan, the love story, was pressing me. That's how I did it.
So the outline is here. The ratio of outline to book pages that determines the length of the book. The diagram is inviolate, but I have great latitude to improvise within the confines of the story, because the story is there in such detail.
So what evolved: Don Crutchfield's fixation with Scotty Bennett, and the fact that sartorially, he is so out of it, that he has, like me, short hair in 1968 and a polo shirt with a tartan bow tie.
BNR: It's a look you share.
JE: Yeah, it's a look we share. I couldn't have written that if the outline hadn't been so damn strong. It's like that. I've told other writers about that, and a lot of people reject it out of hand. They feel that it's inimical, if not antithetical, to their individual creative process.
BNR: I know that the idea that you're talking against is this idea that characters mysteriously do things that people don't expect, and that they turn the book in ways that the author couldn't possibly predict.
JE: The short answer is it's bullshit.
The long answer is if you write improvisationally you create characters and situations and you get to a point where you have dramatic options and you choose one or the other.
BNR: You mean you're not waiting for Joan to talk to Crutch or not? You know that she's going to talk to him.
JE: Yeah -- this man's gotta meet this woman. It just takes 600 pages, and three years.
BNR: There's a story that you once turned in manuscript that was a third too long, and when your editor gave it back to you, you went through and pulled out all the adjectives.
JE: It was the novel L.A. Confidential, and it wasn't my editor – it was a woman named Nancy Neiman at Warner Books.
BNR: So there's some truth to this?
JE: She just said to my editor, we're going to lose money on this book. It's a 600-page hardcover -- talk to Ellroy about some cuts. And we agreed it was dramatically inviolate. And I went back -- I've never been adjective-heavy, but I cut it down.
BNR: Your prose style is such a signature, with a tremendous amount of momentum. Do you spend much time editing down?
JE: I do. It's crowding the frame. I crowd the frame. I got a desk, it's a good tall guy's desk, it's got a big well. And it's quiet.
I add words, and I subtract words, until it sounds perfect. And I don't go on to the next sentence until it's perfect.
I'll get 40 pages ahead, or 50, handwritten. I write in black ballpoint ink and I correct in red. I have carets above the words and out into the margins, and when I get that many pages ahead, I stop. I go over all 40 pages again, then my assistant gets the pages to my typist back in New York. I get the pages back. I correct for typos, then I correct in ink, and have it re-typed. So I went through twenty 50-page blocks of Blood's a Rover. Then I went back, re-read it and red-inked it again. Then I had it typed, sent to my editor, Sonny Mehta, who had minor comments. I red-inked it again, Then it went to the copy editor. I red-inked it again.
BNR: God, you must drive copy editors crazy! Because you're playing with language all the time.
BNR: You're doing sentences the way you want to.
JE: I don't use the past-perfect tense, unless it's a more educated person. Marsh Bowen or Karen Sifakis would speak that way. Past-perfect tense from a guy like Crutch would be wrong. It's OK for Dwight, Dwight is a lawyer from Yale. Wayne Tedrow has a chemistry degree.
BNR: So you have to go through and make sure the copy edits are just copy edits.
JE: I love to think -- I have a chaotic inner life, in that I'm very passionate. I'm passionate in my attachments to people, I'm passionately committed to life and the few people that I care deeply about.
BNR: And even their hateful dogs.
JE: Yeah, even their pissed-off, hateful dogs. I'm largely freed to concentrate on what's important to me. And to concentrate on what I think are the big things. And I found ways around it spiritually that make me feel comfortable in the world.
I make a damn good living, and I'm having an especially a good year -- but I have an insane nut (I have to earn a lot of money for alimony to exes, my assistant is a lot of dough, and everything else), but I like it. I like to toil. I like to fight, I like to struggle.
I believe very strongly in God, and I've been gifted -- I have a wonderful gift. I'm good with people, I'm generous with folks, and I don't say no to people. And it helps me with the world, and it brings me back. To things like this -- you know, Blood's a Rover, and whatever it is I'm doing, and the search for truth.
The Hilliker Curse is very much about the search for truth for me.
BNR: Is the process of the writing itself, the discipline of sitting at the desk -- is that a daily practice for you? Is it part of the search for truth?
JE: A lot of the search for truth is -- I lie in the dark. I lie in the dark.
I think about American history and I think about women.
BNR: Do you listen to music? Do you have Prokofiev on?
JE: I listen to Prokofiev significantly. But I'm fixated on Beethoven. There's a lot of Beethoven in The Hilliker Curse. He's arguably the most unfathomable genius in the history of the world. He was unkempt; he was stone deaf.
BNR: Well, only at the end…
JE: He began to go deaf in his early 30s, so all the greatest music was written deaf. The worse it got, the shittier it got, the lonelier he got -- I mean, he had women in his life, but he didn't bathe very often. He was malodorous. I can't quite say that he had bugs crawling out of his hair but it wouldn't have surprised me.…
So what I do is I lie around in the dark and I think.
BNR: If you're on book tour, can you lie around in the dark and think? Are you too busy reading, doing all the interviews and whatnot?
JE: The interviews -- they accrete. They become more and more moronic, they become more and more about the topicality, they become more and more about side issues, like movies that were made from your books. And in Europe, they'll cram 20 in a day.
BNR: So you're doing 20 minutes at a time, sitting in a hotel room?
JE: Sitting in a hotel bar, with an interpreter.
BNR: [Laughs] I know you're not kidding, but…
JE: Yeah. And then you've got a lunch with people, and then you've got a dinner that goes to 11. It grinds you after a while. You go to Europe, and you're doing the first interview, and in the middle of it, you hear – it's the first interview, some French guy for a rock-n-roll magazine -- and in the first sentence you hear "George W. Bush" and "Iraq" and you're thinking, Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, shit. '68 to '72 – Oh, shit.
BNR: If they've read the book, they'll get there. You've got plenty of revolution in the book. France had their own revolution in '68, right?
JE: And they'll all tell you, if they are my age, that they were there, in the streets. Even if they were in Istanbul.
BNR: People are doing that here now -- take, for example, the cultural hegemony of Woodstock.
JE: I was staring at a picture of the November 1967 Playmate of the month named Kaia Christian.
BNR: You wrote about that. You're telling me a story that was already in a book [Destination Morgue]. I was looking at that book this morning.
JE: A cop buddy of mine said we gotta find Kaia! We gotta find Kaia! I said listen, Kaia was entirely too prudent to post under her own name. She regrets her brief transit with Playboy Magazine in 1967. You're going to find that Kaia is unfindable. She's married, she changed her name. All my cop buddies: we gotta find Kaia, we gotta find Kaia! No, Kaia's unfindable.
BNR: She's better left in that moment.
JE: She's better left…. I was living in New York briefly last year, and I gave a talk at Columbia. I thought they were the biggest bunch of dumbshit kids, they were all 26, 27 year olds. It was all about the identity of being a writer…. [I wanted to tell them] Learn the rudiments of storytelling, sir. Become less interested in the issue of identity, and talking about writing with other people, and get to the point of publishing a book.
And don't go for this shit about learning on short stories.
BNR: Short stories and novels are two separate animals. It's like learning to swim and saying that's going to teach you to sail.
JE: I wrote a novel first, because I wanted to write a novel first. Nobody told me I couldn't. I see some of these planned writers communities, and writers groups, and they mollycoddle each other. It becomes about the process, rather than about you and it crowding the frame.
I'm a horrible pedagogue. I'm a Scottish preacher's kid. I love to get up in front of a pulpit…
BNR: … and tell people what to do [laughing].
JE: The greatest education you've ever had as a novelist is the books you've read.
BNR: Really? It's not your life?
JE: They key to writing fiction is, yeah, write what you know, but write the kind of shit that you love to read that nobody else is writing.
Carolyn Kellogg is the lead blogger for Jacket Copy at the Los Angeles Times. Her writing about books and authors has appeared in numerous publications.
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