Who killed Jean Ellroy?
“It’s James Ellroy, woof, woof,” his answering machine used to say, “demon dog of American literature!” That was a couple of years ago when Ellroy, writer of nightmarish thrillers such as Killer on the Road (1986), The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1990), and Hollywood Nocturnes (1994), was king of the pulp-cult shelves. Since then, the demon dog has mellowed. With White Jazz (1992) and especially American Tabloid (1995) – his dense, caustic novel about the web of conspiracies that culminated in the J.F.K. assassination – his stature grew from writer to author.
With the recent publication of his much-anticipated memoir, My Dark Places (Knopf), Ellroy seems to have exorcised some old demons from his Los Angeles youth. It’s a real-life detective story, his first nonfiction work, about his search for the killer of his mother, Jean Ellroy, who was found strangled when Ellroy was ten. He will next return to his trilogy, Underworld U.S.A., of which American Tabloid was the first installment. “The second one,” he says, “will start about twenty minutes from where the first one left off. The third one will take you to the end of the century, which Is about when it will come out. There’s nothing you could want to know about crime in this country that these books won’t tell you.” Woof, woof.
ALLEN BARRA: You grew up in L.A. and you’ve lived in New York City. Why, at age forty-eight, do you choose to live in Kansas City?
JAMES ELLROY: Shit, let’s see . . . I guess I came here five years ago with my wife [journalist Helen Knode], who was then my fiancee, to meet her parents, and I fell in love with the place. I realized I wanted to live the rest of my life here.
AB: In that case, don’t see Robert Altman’s Kansas City.
JE: Oh God, wasn’t it fucking awful? I wanted to kill Jennifer Jason Leigh about an hour before that woman did.
AB: Why did you leave L.A. In the first place?
JE: I was thirty-three and working as a caddy to sustain myself while waiting for my first two paperback originals to come out. I suddenly felt an urge to see the other side of the country. It was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. If I hadn’t gotten some perspective and achieved some maturity then, I might never have gotten it. I realized I had to start giving myself challenges if I was ever going to make it as a writer and as a person.
AB: So Kansas City is going to be the home of “the greatest crime novelist who ever lived.” By the way, did you really call yourself that?
JE: Yeah, I did. It was a really stupid thing to say.
AB: Why was it stupid?
JE: Fuck being a crime novelist when you can be a flat-out great novelist. I was younger when I said that, and a lot more genre directed.
AB: One bookstore in New York City has your earlier books in the “crime” section but American Tabloid in “literature.”
JE: I’m happy about that. I made a strict decision with American Tabloid to write a book that could not be categorized as a mystery, thriller, or crime novel. I didn’t want it to be in any way beholden to homicide investigation.
AB: Someone else comes to mind who kept threatening to get out of crime fiction and never did. I hate the comparison, but because he wrote about Los Angeles –
JE: Raymond Chandler?
JE: Can I say something? I think Chandler is the most overrated genre writer of the century. I think the guy was a bad writer, frankly. I often find his books engaging and humorous, but I think he knew jack shit about people. He kind of gave away the game when he said that in real life someone with Philip Marlowe’s attitudes could no more be a private detective than he could flap his arms and fly to Milwaukee. He all but admitted that Marlowe was bullshit. I’m tired of Big Ray. I wish he’d go away.
AB: I’ve noticed in your books that you don’t cut criminals any slack – no sociopolitical excuses for murder.
JE: God, I hate that crap. There’s such a culture of self-pity in this country. It starts with youth culture, where kids are practically told that it’s O.K. to indulge themselves and feel sorry for themselves.
AB: Some people would find that statement surprising coming from you, given that your mother was murdered when you were ten and that you raised yourself and got into continual trouble with the law. Didn’t you ever feel sorry for yourself?
JE: Sure, of course I did; but the abandonment of self-pity is the beginning of wisdom. To be a kid is practically to be self-pitying. I’m not a big fan of kids. I’m not a big fan of adolescent culture. I hate rock ‘n’ roll. I hate pop culture.
AB: Does that extend to, say, country music?
JE: I hate country music – rednecks whining.
JE: Black men whining. I love classical music. Beethoven didn’t whine.
AB: I think a lot of people assume that you like jazz because you wrote a book called White Jazz.
JE: If you ever want to torture me, put me on a desert island with nothing to listen to but Charlie Parker and John Coltrane records. I think that stuff is absolutely hideous.
AB: Is there any kind of pop music you enjoy?
JE: I don’t mind sappy, oldie kinds of tunes – say, 1958 to 1963. I just don’t see the point of popular music that hurts your ears or makes you feel depressed.
AB: Most crime-fiction writers are what I would call novelizationists. Remember in the ’60s when a movie came out –
JE: There would be a paperback novelization.
AB: Right. Now you read books by John Grisham and Michael Crichton and they’re like novelizations written before the movie. Your books are . . .
JE: Big, dense, complex, multilayered, multi-plotted. Every word means something. Every sentence furthers the plot. I made a decision when I wrote The Black Dahlia that every book I wrote would have to eclipse it in terms of sheer quality and be bigger, richer, darker, more stylized, dare I say it, more profound. Let me give some credit to Sonny Mehta at Knopf; no one but he would have encouraged me to take fifteen months to investigate the murder of my mother and let me write a book about it.
AB: My Dark Places must be a book you’d thought about writing for years.
JE: Yes and no. Obviously the subject was on my mind, but the impetus was when a friend of mine, Frank Girardot of the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, called me up and said he was going to open my mother’s file in preparation for a piece on five unsolved San Gabriel murder cases. As soon as he told me, I thought, Shit, I’ve got to see that file. I called my GQ editor and asked him if I could write five thousand words on seeing my mother’s murder file. It was a shocking experience, as you can imagine. That’s when I realized I needed to deal with this subject in a book.
AB: There’s a technique you use in My Dark Places – when you start to build a point to a revelation, the sentences get shorter, quicker, you build momentum.
JE: That was deliberate, at least in one section of the book. I wanted the reader to feel what I felt each time I was close to finding something out. I guess I was like a baseball pitcher changing speeds.
AB: There’s a picture in the book that’s startling. It shows you seconds after you heard of your mother’s murder. How did you get it?
JE: My wife dug that out of the Los Angeles Times archives. She had it framed and gave it to me for Christmas [in 1992]. When I opened the package, a rush of memories came back. I thought, This is me at ground zero. I hadn’t seen pictures of me as a kid in years. There I was at ten at the moment when my life went blurry.
AB: In your youth you were Into all sorts of pseudo-Nazi stuff, but you dumped all that when you grew up.
JE: I knew that was all bullshit even as a kid, but it had shock value; it got attention. As I got older, I came to realize I’m just not a hater.
AB: Do you hate the man who killed your mother? Is it possible that if you got past that, you’d lose the itch to explore the criminal impulse?
JE: If I could walk the guy to the gas chamber and drop the pellet myself, I’d feel good about it. But I’ll never lose the urge to write about crime.
AB: Despite everything, you’re happy?
JE: Hey, because of everything I’m happy. I’ve got a great marriage, a great career, and I’m living in a great town. I’m writing some great books. I’m having a fucking blast.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Brant Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning