The Beatrice Interview

James Ellroy

"This book was ordained even before I saw my mother's file..."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

Read the original '95 interview!

James Ellroy's mother was brutally murdered when he was just a child. The killer was never found. In My Dark Places, the critically acclaimed novelist (whose last book, American Tabloid, was named 1995's best novel by Time and other publications) looks back at his mother's death and the subsequent investigation. He also conducts an unrelenting self-examination, showing us how the murder turned an already angry boy into an angrier, violent adolescent who became a petty crook to support his drug and alcohol addictions, then cleaned himself up and started turning his obsessions into increasingly brilliant novels about crime in mid-twentieth century LA. Finally, Ellroy discusses his recent efforts to track down his mother's killer based on the slim leads from the original investigation.

RH: We talked a little bit last year about the friendship with Bill Stoner that had developed when you started looking into this case, and I wanted to find out how that relationship has grown since then.

JE: Stoner and I are great, great friends and we will always be great, great friends. It's as if I was waiting around for this guy all my life and didn't know it... It's funny, but I think that this book was ordained, even before I saw my mother's file, when Stoner told me the story of the Beckett case, such a horrible story of a misogynistic crime. I told Bill, and this is when I had just met him, "Jesus Christ, that's the most horrible crime story I've ever heard, and believe me, I've heard a few." It all played out nicely for the themes of the book, right on cue, that the Beckett trial ultimately occurred three doors down from the O. J. Simpson trial, while I was in L.A. investigating my mother's murder.

RH: Last year, we also talked about the cathartic value of this investigation, regardless of whether you solved the murder or not. Reading the book, I feel as if you've come to grips with a lot of the stuff in your past.

JE: It's true, and I feel very calm and poised underneath it all, but no less passionate or committed to the work. I won't go soft on you, but I feel calm inside. It's not a catharsis in that I can say, "OK, now this is over with," but my mother and I will continue on some level that I haven't determined yet. I think my mother's a great character, and I have to say that giving my mother to the world has to be the biggest thrill of my writing career.

It was interesting to write directly about what things meant to me. A lot of the art of writing novels is in telling things by implication. Here I can say flat out, "This made me, this formed me, this is what I thought about this, this is how I view the world."

RH: While you're going over the personal history that formed your public persona as the 'Demon Dog of American literature," it's with a certain degree of calmness.

JE: You'll see when you catch my act on tour that the Demon Dog is on his way out. I'll still crack a few jokes, but it's generally a more serious performance.

RH: The candidness and the greater sensitivity to women also helps refute a lot of critics who've attacked you for racism, homophobia, misogyny and all the other bogus complaints about your work over the years.

JE: We've both always known that they were wrong, but now we can show them this book as proof.

RH: What's been happening with the case since the book's come out?

JE: Nothing particularly. They reran the 'Unsolved Mysteries' episode, and I've gotten in touch with some more people who knew my mother in nursing school in Chicago back in the '30s, and people who knew her at Airtech in '57 and '58. But no real leads.

RH: So now that you're mellowing out...

JE: I wouldn't go that far. Calming down's a better way to put it.

RH: OK... now that you're calming down, does this mean a departure from your 'Mad Dog' style when you write the sequel to American Tabloid?

JE: I'll start writing volume two of the Underworld USA trilogy soon. I think I want to show a greater diversity of character and motive in it, because that's what I learned from my mother. I'll show my bad men getting older. And I want to show the eroticism of monogamy. It's very easy to show a man and woman when they first get together, but showing them together for the long haul is something else entirely, and I very much want to show that. I think that intelligent, perceptive critics will see my mother's imprint on that book.

BEATRICE Anne Fadiman | Madison Smartt Bell
All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan