Re: RARA-AVIS: JE Interview

From: Steve Novak (
Date: 17 Nov 2009

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    Maybe Iım late, maybe some of you already mentioned it...In any case here it is the latest from JE in the Guardian...and there is also a trying-to-be-hip-very-hard video at that same site: ion/article6915849.ece


    From The Times November 14, 2009

    The conversation: James Ellroy

    The celebrated crime writer reveals that after his last book led to a breakdown, drugs and divorce, this time he has his demons in check

    Stefanie Marsh

    Some illuminating pre-interview James Ellroy research shows: ³Americaıs greatest living crime writer² (some would root for Elmore Leonard) feigning joyful masturbation for the benefit of the Playboy Channel outside the house where a girl he used to spy on as a teenager once lived; Ellroy growling at the presenter of a radio show, ³No, Iım not mellow. I floss with barbed wire and gargle with the Aids virus²; Ellroy showing off about the size of his
    ³donkey dick²; Ellroy telling the whole world that, artistically speaking, he is rivalled only by Beethoven.

    To me it all sounds like chest-beating self-aggrandisement in the style of a wrestling champ. And certainly his fans, and there are hundreds of thousands of them, lap up the alpha male, genius writer, tough-guy rhetoric.

    But there is a minority who take offence at his perceived grandiosity (the word ³jerk² comes up often on internet threads), and even his admirers, literary critics among them, have been known to find fault with his heavily abbreviated writing style, and his use of homophobic and racist language, a claim he seldom feels the need to justify.

    Alongside the Playboy video is a series that Ellroy has written entitled Why I Chase Women, in which he describes himself as a ³tenuously reformed pervert² and details his messy adolescence, chaotic relationship with drugs and alcohol, and his overwhelmingly obsessive relationships with women, including the odd prostitute.

    Helen Knode, his second wife and best friend, nicknamed him ³a zoo animal², while they were still together. When the marriage broke down, she told him:
    ³You drove around Carmel in shit-stained trousers. My parents heard you jacking off upstairs. You peeped women while you walked Dudley [the dog].²

    I assumed he was going to be a handful.

    But in the plush Langham Hilton, Ellroy appeared tall, slightly hunch-shouldered, dapper, bald, energetic and bespectacled. I later watched him being interviewed by the cultural commentator Mark Lawson and expect that he would have behaved very differently had I been a man. Lawson, all British tea-parlour politeness, soldiered on in small-talk mode, unable to cope with Ellroyıs habit of, I think unconsciously, baring his teeth in an appearance of light menace and batting away questions with one word answers, usually ³No².

    But in the Langham, the Demon Dog of American literature behaved as genially as a puppy: chivalrous, engaging, kind, warm, every word carefully chosen. How infuriating. Where was the obnoxious, at times juvenile, man who, not seven months ago, had feigned masturbation for a soft porn site?

    ³The interview for Playboy had no dignity,² he said, with the air of a person who has awoken remorsefully with a hangover. ³I was encouraged to exercise the worst aspects of my rude behaviour. Iım an accomplished public performer and I can act. And I go on book tours and Iım like a dog cut off its leash.

    "I spend a great deal of time on my own and Iım very serious in my pursuits, and put a camera in front of me or put me in front of an audience and Iım there to convert, to seduce, to take over, to dominate and I can be harsh and I can be domineering and I can be brusque. And Iım learning to be less so.²

    Why bother, if the persona works?

    ³Itıs just a better way to be. It puts fewer people off and Iım trying to grow up. Yeah. At no loss of youth or vigour, Iım just trying to grow up.²

    Ellroy is now 61. But he never tires of talking about the pivotal moment of his life, the rape and murder of his mother in Los Angeles, when he was 10. The rest you should do yourself the favour of reading about in My Dark Places, a terrifically crafted memoir that I suspect women enjoy more than something like American Tabloid or L. A. Confidential, complex and macho novels that require a working knowledge of mid-20th-century American history, slang, conspiracy theories and politics.

    His early erotic attachment to his mother, his desire to know her and understand the motivations for her murder, and an abstract wish to live in the period in which she was killed are explored most explicitly in Why I Chase Women, which will appear in book form next year under the title The Hilliker Curse (Hilliker is his motherıs maiden name). But the same themes, it transpires, also drive his new novel Bloodıs a Rover, if in more roundabout, semi-disastrous ways. ³It ripped my f***ing heart out,² he says.
    ³I didnıt think I could go on much longer at certain points while I was writing that book.²

    One of the joys of interviewing Ellroy is that there is none of that paranoid guardedness you get with so many male authors. We move swiftly on to a second turning point in his life, a breakdown he had in 2001. It began innocuously enough with a spell of insomnia and morphed into an addiction to sleeping pills and hypochondria. He spent an unsuccessful spell in a health retreat being slathered with healing oils and doing transcendental meditation. And when antidepressants didnıt work, he went into meltdown.

    The whole thing was brought on, he says, by ³knowledge of ultimate incapacity and death, suppressed emotion, unexpressed sexuality, romantic longing, a life lived very, very, very hard². He was also working like a man possessed, promoting the prequel to Bloodıs a Rover, The Cold Six Thousand, which ³began all the events that lead to all the horror. I was exhausted. Even a phone call was taxing. I had money. I didnıt particularly need to work, I had film jobs, I was trying to sleep around the clock. I needed to rest. I needed to shut 55 years of very, very hard-lived life off.² Most of all, ³I needed to fantasise, I needed to have crushes on women. I mean, I never acted on them, I was entirely honourable.²

    He produces for me his list of infatuations: Anne Manson, the former principal conductor of the Kansas Philharmonic; a lesbian FedEx courier; and the Swedish mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. ³The strangest group of women ever. I just needed to go off by myself and drink coffee and think.²

    Coffee notwithstanding, his breakdown put an enormous strain on his marriage to Knode, culminating in her suggestion of a more open arrangement. Given his compulsive romanticism, she might have foreseen what happened next. As he says, ³You shouldnıt offer a guy like me a deal like that because Iıll do it². Anyway, he had soon met and become fanatically engrossed with a woman who he decided to turn into a character in Bloodıs a Rover.

    ³I was 56,² he said. ³I didnıt have anybody. I didnıt have any ... body. And it was the strangest, most pathetic place to be. Helen hated me at the time. And I met this woman and I should have smelt misalliance, potential obsession ... and then at a certain point I had to reveal to Helen Iım seeing someone, itıs OK, she initiated the deal, it wasnıt a cheat or infidelity and Iım an all-or-nothing kind of guy and I left. I wanted to be with her and we wanted to have a child.²

    It was a disaster, of course. Ellroy was needy to the point of delirium and would have panic attacks whenever left on his own: ³Yeah, and Iım a big f***ing shit-kicking A-type American guy.² Probably wisely, his new partner terminated the relationship and Ellroy swiftly found himself relocating to New York. One hardly needs to ask why. ³At a reading performance I had spoken to a woman for two minutes. And, why not? Why not move 500 miles because thereıs some woman you met for two minutes in a chaste conversation?²

    Well, I could think of plenty of reasons. None of these remotely fazed her new paramour: ³Itıs just this motif, I always tend to get what I want, and all Iıve ever wanted was to write great books, live a big life, know God and commune with women of great substance. And Iım disarming. Itıs not an unreasonable goal if you look at it from a certain standpoint. I donıt want to be President of the United States. I donıt want to be a rockınıroll star. I donıt want to chase showgirls or do anything stupid like that.² In the end the relationship didnıt work out but the pair are still friends and she also went on to become a central character in the book.

    From an authorıs view itıs all very well to draw from real life. But is he so sure that these women were keen on being immortalised in this way? ³I intended nothing but love for these two women. It didnıt pan out that way,² Ellroy says. ³I could have slunk away, been cowardly, or I could honour them by doing what I do best, which is write fiction.²

    What Ellroy does magnificently is draw key moments from history to interpret the events of the time, in the case of the Underworld USA trilogy, the years spanning 1958-1972. His fiction, he says, is approximately one third fact, which he uses to stand up every mid-20th century American conspiracy youıve ever heard: JFK was killed by the Mob; Martin Luther Kingıs assassination was linked to the head of the FBI. How conspiracy-minded is Ellroy?

    Not at all, he says, though the idea for the Underworld trilogy sprang from Don DeLilloıs reading of the JFK assassination in his book Libra. On Kingıs death, Ellroy says: ³FBI men have wondered how James Earl Ray managed to stay out of prison with impunity for over a year and assassinate Martin Luther King and was as stupid as a brick, and always seemed to have money. So I do sense a collusion.

    "And I do sense repressive factions coming together to quash revolution and also I make the case in Kingıs case, even though I revere the man above all other 20th-century Americans, that he was losing a little bit in the last years of his life. I think because he had been so courageous for so long that he just wanted relief from all this suffering.

    "So heıs down at the garbage workersı rally in Memphis and gets shot. He was becoming more demanding, more grandiose and turning a lot of his supporters against him. So what I felt upon research was just a convergence of dissatisfaction and word passing here to here to here, and somebody shoots him.²

    Living in the past as Ellroy does with such relish must make the present seem terribly dull. Yes, contemporary life, he says, shocks and bores him.
    ³Satire irks me; irony irks me; nihilism irks me; loud, discordant music irks me. I find the canonisation of rockınıroll especially puerile: institutionalised rebelliousness of the worst sort. Yeah. I canıt believe the staying power of rockınıroll when you can listen to classical music or jazz. Iım not a misanthrope, but I crave peace and quiet or intense rapport.²

    He avoids ³distractions² such as newspapers and television. What little he claims to know about current affairs, he says, he picks up inadvertently from the plague of televisions that have invaded restaurants in the US. ³The American language has become horribly mangled. Especially among young women, itıs as if feminism never existed. Young women in LA ‹ pierced, lacquered, varnished, enhanced, tattooed ‹ they could not have coarsened themselves more. Itıs only a brief moment before they say Œitıs likeı or ŒIım likeı.²

    To illustrate his point he recalls a conversation he recently overheard: ³A young woman was trying to tell her friend that she had turned down the advances of a suitor. And she couldnıt even say, ŒI rejected himı. She said:
    ŒItıs like, itıs like, itıs like, like, I'm like, itıs like ... No!' It was the most amazing thing! So you have a full generation now who sound equivocal, mitigating, befuddled, unable to exposit their lines in any kind of direct language whatsoever. Whatsoever!²

    One suspects that he is particularly angry about this state of affairs because befuddled women are exactly the kind he doesnıt find attractive and so his pool of potential fantasy figures has become dramatically reduced. But who is to blame?

    ³Kinetic art, I think, is partially at play.²

    What does he mean by kinetic art?

    ³Movies are very, very fast-paced. I tried to watch one of the Bourne thrillers with Matt Damon. Couldnıt watch it, felt like I was having a coronary. And the vulgarity of reality television shows. People seem to be proud to be stupid. Iım just not a liberal and Iım trying not to mess with peopleıs heads as much as I used to. Iım trying. Yeah.²

    This idea of redemption and the reformed character are key themes in his life and his work: itıs there in Bloodıs a Rover in the form of an unprecedentedly hopeful ending and itıs there when he says, repeatedly, that heıs trying to grow up, and that this time heıs found The One, a woman called Erika.

    What about the tenuously reformed pervert. Is that still him?

    ³Iım a son of a woman who was raped and murdered. Itıs core-deep with me. Itıs suffused with discernment and I grew up in an era of privation and so sex wasnıt available and the era of privation, fuelled by my unhygienic state and lack of social skills, induced a great gratitude for me when I finally grew up and changed my life a little bit. And it fuels me still. Iıve never lost a teenage boyıs awe pertaining to sexuality. Itıs the old joke, ŒI want to find the guy who invented sex and ask him what heıs working on nowı. It says it all. It Says It All. I live there.²

    Which I suppose explains why, when I asked him whether in Erika heıd at last found peace of mind, he suddenly looked quite agonised: ³There is a sob in my throat from here on up for women and at times itıs almost unbearable,² he gasped. ³Itıs just f***ing unbearable.² I believe him, although I doubt itıs the first time heıs said so to a female interlocutor ‹ itıs the kind of save-me vulnerability that so many women find irresistible.

    Half an hour later heıs on stage, thrilling his predominantly male fans with his all-American alpha male act. The talk is all conspiracy theories and the Mob. Heıs a womanıs man but a manıs writer. And, surrounded by men, there is no trace of the impulsive, complicated, mother-struck, lunatic romantic that will always be lurking underneath.


    James Ellroy was born in Los Angeles in 1948. His mother was raped and murdered when he was 10. He was expelled from school and was dishonourably discharged from the army just before his father died. By 18 he was living on the streets, drinking heavily, taking drugs and involved in petty crime. After rehab he worked as a golf caddy and published his first novel, Brownıs Requiem, at 30. He earned critical acclaim for the L. A. Quartet and wrote a memoir, My Dark Places, an attempt to trace his motherıs killer. The self-described best crime writer in the world has written 18 books. He has been married twice and lives in Kansas City.

    Small talk

    On his writing

    I want to move people. I want to obsess people. I want people to live at the extreme mental pitch that I work at when I write a book.

    On Los Angeles

    Itıs uncivilised: there are too many cars, too many people. Parkingıs a pain in the ass.

    On language

    The idiom has always lived in me. Alliteration, Yiddish, racial invective, hipster talk, general profanity, itıs been there and Iıve always loved words and Iıve always been talking to myself and having conversations with myself when no one else is in the room.

    On Beethoven

    Thereıs a 20-minute piece of Beethoven that describes the conjunction of men and women for me. Itıs the third movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata. Itıs the most sublime slow movement in solo instrumental history.

    James Ellroy is the author of Bloodıs a Rover, which is published by Century
    (Arrow Books Ltd)

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