When I spoke to Ellroy in Los Angeles, I could see that he's genuinely
excited about the success that his last two novels have achieved, on
both the financial and literary levels, and it shows in his exuberance
as he speaks. "You know what the biggest thrill of my career
is?" he tells me. "Being published by Alfred A.
Knopf." In person, Ellroy drops the psychohipster spiel and
talks seriously about his craft and his life.
Ron Hogan (RH): You've said recently that "noir is
dead" for you now.
James Ellroy (JE): It's gone.
RH: What's going on, and what do you see developing in your style
as you get out of the noir of LA and into the big national story
of American Tabloid and beyond?
JE: American Tabloid is history as noir on an epic
scale. One of the chief ironies of the book is that Boyd, Ward, and
Pete get fucked out of the assassination; they don't get to kill him.
These guys all start out enamored of Jack to one degree or another,
and all end up hating him. Their motives for killing him are really
very personal, but they are in the grip of events bigger than
themselves and don't even get to kill him. Kemper Boyd dies; he gets
off easy. The two surviving protagonists have tried to force history
and history has ended up getting them where it hurts the most. The
men are getting older. Littell is 50. Bondurant is 43: he's desperately
in love with a woman, he's heavily compromised. Kennedy is about to
die, he's knows who's doing it. He was part of a number of botched
plots, but it's going to happen, and there's hell to pay. He and Littell
have been exiled to Las Vegas, and they've got a five-year span
coming up in the next book in which to confront themselves; I want
that confrontation to be gradual and subtle and dramatic and to push
them in some very very odd directions. I want to show a greater
diversity of character and motive, and I want to see these bad, bad,
bad, bad men come to grips with their humanity.
Noir is dead for me because historically, I think it's a simple
view. I've taken it as far as it can go. I think I've expanded on it a
great deal, taken it further than any other American novelist. What I
want to do is take the noir elements that I developed in my
first eleven books and... not soften them, but take them out to
different places. I think the dividing line between noir and what
follows is the non-fiction book I'm working on now.
RH: That's My Dark Places,
which is a combination of your autobiography, your mother's
biography, and the story of the two investigations into your mother's
murder: the original investigation in 1958, and the reopened
investigation you've recently undertaken.
JE: I'm going to recreate the original investigation as best I can
from the documents and witness testimony. I'm not going to
extrapolate; I have to adhere to fact. Then Bill Stoner and I conduct
our own investigation. We have no hard suspects.We have a number
of call-ins from psychics who wanted to come in and conduct seances
for 75 bucks. We'll see where it goes.It's going to be an uphill battle...
I don't know. I honestly don't know. In some sense, and I'm not
being disingenuous, you know as much about it as I do, about how it
will turn out.
RH: Watching White Jazz (the British TV documentary on
Ellroy and his work), I got the feeling that in a certain sense, it
doesn't matter where it goes, because you're already on a journey in
which, no matter whether you find out who killed your mother or
not, you've already started coming to grips with your mother, and
cleansing yourself of her death.
JE: I go back and forth on it. There's times when I'm intensely
determined to make it happen. I'm clenched down, I'm locked in on
it, which is my general approach to life. There are times when I
realize, "You're simply doing all you can, this is way out of your
hands. So let go of it." It's like this; Stoner and I are becoming
very close friends, we've been close friends almost from the gate.
I've become friends with Bill's family, my wife Helen has become
friends with Bill and his wife Anne, and I think that they're going to
be close friends of ours for as long as we live. Toward the end of the
summer I'll need to go away and write the book. Bill will be here if
anything comes up, he can call me, we'll be talking every day or so.
If we're nowhere, if it's a washout by the time the book goes into
production, that's that. Then I think Bill and I will just get together
periodically and chase leads.
RH: In terms of the personal journey that you're going through in
this investigation, in the documentary you mention that your
friendship with Bill Stoner has really helped you to get out of
yourself, so to speak.
JE: I have a very intense marriage, and the intense thing with
Stoner, and most of my friends are colleagues. Other than that, I like
to be alone so I can write. But focus can hurt you. I don't want to be
some stress casualty in early middle age. So Stoner is amazing in that
I don't have to perform with him. I'm profoundly interested in just
about everything he has to say. I can quit being myself, which is a
tremendous freedom for such a whacked out personality. If I'm not
performing, I feel rather deferential to people. If I'm going to a party
or meeting with a group of people, I would much rather not talk
about myself. I can do that in front of a podium and have a blast at
it, make people laugh. If this were not an interview, and you and I
were just sitting around having a cup of coffee, I'd much rather hear
about your life. I like to perform but when I'm not performing, I'm
not performing. I've led a colorful life, but I'm always trying to
demythologize that life. I was terrified as a kid. I broke into houses,
how many times did I do it? 30, 50? I don't know. How much time
did I spend in jail? Six months, eight months, four months? Mickey
Mouse stuff. I don't think I could have survived in the shape I was in
then in the jails today, but that was in an era when a lot of middle
class and lower middle class white kids were being arrested because
of the availability of hard drugs, so there were a lot of guys like me
in jail, which really greased the skids for me. I was always
frightened, I was never a tough guy. Every wild thing that I did was
tinged with alcoholic and drug-addicted self-loathing and a large
degree of fear. Today I put on such a good show, the story is
outrageous, and people don't want to hear that I'm basically a
reasonable human being. As long as it continues to get me print, I'll
continue to perform in an exuberant manner.
RH: What you've been doing in the LA Quartet and in American
Tabloid is connecting your characters to history, but in a way that
connects history to people.
JE: As a kid, I sensed history going on all around me, but the
basic thrust of it didn't move me. For instance, the events in
American Tabloid: I was for Richard Nixon in 1960 when I
was twelve, because my father was. I was not upset by Kennedy's
assassination. I was just a little shitbird nihilistic fifteen year old kid,
and I thought it was cool that somebody gunned down the Prez. I
don't recall the Bay of Pigs. The Cuban missile crisis didn't scare me
because I thought it would be cool if the bomb went off. I sensed
these things going on all around me, especially as I got older, and as
all the social torment of the late '60s occurred, I felt completely
divorced from it, but I sensed the bigger stories going on.
When I was a kid, Eisenhower had been President forever, and all of
a sudden, everything in the world was all about Jack Kennedy. The
primary election -- I was 12, interested in politics; my father was
from Massachusetts, had an accent like Kennedy -- everything was
about him. He handled it with a certain ironic detachment that was
appealing. He was amused, he was bemused, and people mistook it
for love. Bad miscalculation. Everything was about him for some
years, especially after he was elected. I couldn't believe it, because
he looked so young and he had his run and he died. It's like being
with a woman and she leaves you before the sex gets stale. You're
always going to think of her, you're always going to want more, you
didn't get enough. That's how America was with Jack. That's why we
put this preposterous 'loss of innocence' tag on his death.
Raymond Chandler once wrote that Dashiell Hammett gave murder
back to the people who really committed it. This was his comment, I
believe, on the 'tea-cozy' genre, and I think that's interesting, and I
think that I would like to do that again. You're under a great deal of
pressure, if you write crime fiction, which is what I used to write, to
create serious characters, so-called sympathetic characters, with
which the readers can empathize, so that you can build a readership.
Of course, it can kill you because you have to write the same book
over and over again. And I think that Chandler, who I have less
affection for by the day, spawned an whole number of easy
imitators. His style is easy to adapt to the personal prejudices of the
individual writers, which is why you now have the gay private eye,
the black private eye, the woman private eye, and every other kind
of private eye. But I don't think that's the realistic archetype of
twentieth century violent intrigue: to me, it's these legbreakers,
these guys like Pete Bondurant, corrupt cops like Dave Klein, and I
take a great deal of satisfaction out of putting these guys back in
RH: When I read critics of your work, they often react: "Oh
my god, he's writing these horrible homophobic, racist, misogynist,
psychopathic books." And I'm thinking: "No, he's not
writing from his perspective. He's getting into the heads of
these ugly characters." You're not endorsing their world by any
JE: I think I know what's behind this, especially some of the
views expressed by Mike Davis. These are fully rounded characters,
and the racism and homophobia are casual attriubutes, not defining
characteristics. These are not lynchers or gaybashers, toadies of the
corrupt system. When you have characters that the reader
empathizes with, who are carrying the story, saying
"nigger" and "faggot" and "spic", it
puts people off. Which is fine. I would like to provoke ambiguous
responses in my readers. That's what I want. There's part of me that
would really like to be one of Dudley Smith's goons and go back and
beat up some jazz musicians, and there's part of me that's just
RH: One of the first major advances I noticed in your style after
going back and reading the earlier stuff is that around the time of
The Black Dahlia, you stopped having your protagonists be
outside the racism and homophobia, like in Clandestine, where
the protagonist clearly distances himself from the attitudes. You've
allowed yourself to position your characters within that
JE: I figured out a while back that I'm an unregenerate white
Anglo-Saxon Protestant heterosexual. So are my men. Their racism
and homophobia is appalling, but it's germane to their characters,
and people will either get that or not get it. That's that. You can't
really respond to the press and say, "I'm not a racist or a
homophobe." Nobody's going to believe you.
RH: Getting back to your comments about Chandler -- do you think
there are other writers who avoided -- not necessarily the mistakes
-- but the direction that he made it easy to take? Or writers that
have particularly influenced you?
JE: I've been tremendously moved by a bunch of odd books.
Ross McDonald is very important to me. I love the Lew Archer books.
I don't know if I could stand them now. I glanced through one the
other day, and it seemed to be appallingly overwritten, full of
metaphor and so on, not really my bowl of rice. Did he influence me?
Yeah, and there's some elements of his lost child motif, and the webs
of violence going back generations, in my earlier books. He
influenced me, but I can't see how it's made its way into my books
for years. My first novel, Brown's Requiem, was very heavily
indebted to Raymond Chandler. He was an influence, but one that
I've had an apostatsy regarding.
Hammett, especially Red Harvest: big big book to me. Big book,
political book. A book about a toadie for the corrupt system restoring
order to a town and then turning it over to the National Guard,
martial law. The mining company wins, the rival factions are wiped
out, and he goes on to another job. I think it's a great vision. James
M. Cain at his best. Serenade, Postman Always Rings
Twice, Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity. Joseph
Wambaugh: BIG. The major influence, the biggest. Big big big
influence; most important crime writer since Hammett.
Odd books. No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker: the best
armed robbery novel ever written. Other than one of my books, if
you want to hole up with a great book this weekend and you haven't
read it yet, get Compulsion by Meyer Levin, his novel of the
Leopold-Loeb murder. A brilliant portrait of the Chicago of the 20s,
500 pages, a great psychological epic. True Confessions by John
Gregory Dunne. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris: even though I
think there's some things wrong with the structure, easily the best
serial killer book ever written. Libra, by Don Delillo.
RH: That actually brings up an interesting point, in that
immediately after finishing American Tabloid, I realized that you
had produced a very compelling portrait of the Kennedy
assassination, what Malcolm X called "the chickens coming
home to roost", with NO OSWALD.
JE: There's some things that you don't fuck with. One of them
is Don Delillo's portrayals of Lee Harvey Oswald and David Ferrie. No
way. His portrayal of Oswald, as the ultimate American loser, broke
my heart. It's the first time I've ever seen such a stupid man
developed into such a complex character.
RH: Have you seen JFK and if so, what did you think?
JE: I was just enthralled for an hour and twenty minutes.
Bravuro moviemaking, wonderfully layered and dense and jazzy, and
then Donald Sutherland arrives to posit this preposterous theory, and
it goes downhill from there. I think organized crime, exile factions,
and renegade CIA killed Jack the Haircut. I think your most objective
researchers do as well. When Oliver Stone diverged from that to take
in the rest of the world (Lyndon Johnson, the Joint Chiefs of Staff), I
lost interest. I went out and bought a copy of the video and I watch
it right up until Donald Sutherland appears, then I turn it off.
I haven't been to a movie in a year and a half. Helen and I went to
see The Fugitive, which was a big influence on me as a kid. I
was running wild, and I was obsessed with that show in a way I've
never been obsessed with any show since. Here's this tormented
fifteen year old kid, and his stand-in is handsome David Jannsen
who's bopping around from one town to the next, all of which look
like LA, cops are in hot pursuit, and the grooviest woman in town
falls in love with him wherever he goes. Then I saw the movie, which
is this hyperkinetic piece of shit, culminating in a fistfight between
two fifty year old cardiologists. That pretty much burned me out on
RH: What do you think the future holds for the relationship
between you and your fans, as you begin to pick up critical acclaim
from the mainstream reviewers? Do you see your reputation moving
beyond the 'gory crime writer' image?
JE: I'm getting a wider circle of fans now. More women, more
middle class people, more people outside the regular "Ellroy
combine" of journalists, rock and rollers, and movie biz people.
If you have to have a bunch of fans marked off demographically,
those are the kinds of fans to have. Journalists will write about you;
movie people are opinion makers to one degree or another, they can
influence the media; rock and rollers can get you the youth buzz, and
younger people are fanatical readers. But when people are digging
you for the wrong reasons, you start thinking, "What have I
spawned? Don't they understand the moral of White Jazz, the way
that Dave Klein crumbles under the weight of his own evil, how he's
just flailing at acts of decency like a man dying of thirst reaching for
a glass of water?" As critical acclaim and response has built up,
every interview I give is a chance to puncture the myth I've created
about my work and refine it.