The BEATRICE Interview

James Ellroy

"Noir is a simple view. I've taken it as far as it can go."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

He used to pimp and pull shakedowns.
Now he rode shotgun to History.

Interviewed again in '96!

Dig it: Howard Hughes holed up in a hotel suite, strung out on heroin and receiving daily blood transfusions. James Riddle Hoffa at war with the Kennedys. Jack Kennedy ready to jump on anything in a skirt. Sam Giancana and Carlos Marcello scheming to get back the casinos in Havana. Jack Ruby in over his head with some bad, bad men. J. Edgar Hoover sitting in the shadows, watching over everything, listening in through the wiretaps.

This is the world of James Ellroy's new novel, American Tabloid, a world where just about everybody's working two or more different angles. There's Pete Bondurant: disgraced LA County Sheriff, errand boy for Hughes, and private investigator specializing in getting dirt for divorce cases. He ends up taking on side jobs for Hoffa that lead to contract work with the CIA, organizing the Cuban exiles in Miami. There's Ward Littell, alcoholic FBI agent: sick of harassing pathetic, ineffective Communists, he itches to take on the Mob, but his rash decisions have violent repercussions. And Kemper Boyd: G-man who hustles his way into the Kennedy brothers' inner circle, and liaison between the Mob and the Company.

Since the publication of The Black Dahlia in 1987, James Ellroy's star has been rapidly climbing. Each subsequent novel in the LA Quartet (The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, and White Jazz) sold more and garnered higher praise than the last, and Ellroy's prose developed an increasingly baroque, telegraphic style -- his books are what Rudy Rucker is talking about when he asks, "How fast are you? How dense?" Ellroy's novels are so fast and dense that you can whip right through this book, and hours after you've put it down, the ugly parts will still be rebounding inside your head. They combine the dark, shadowy world of film noir with ultraviolent atrocity in a non-stop torrent through which his protagonists -- and sometimes his readers -- try to find some last vestige of morality to which they can cling.

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 history.

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 means.

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 appalled.

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 mindset.

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 popular culture.

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.

BEATRICE Edward Bunker | Stewart O'Nan
All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan