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Great Conversations: James Ellroy

05/26/2015 08:45 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016

I interviewed James Ellroy, the great American noir novelist, at LA's venerable Pacific Dining Car in April 2001. We were there to discuss his latest book, The Cold Six Thousand, but wound up tackling a myriad of subjects over our three hour lunch. Ellroy sported a snappy fedora that I said would have looked great on Meyer Lansky. He barked a laugh and removed it, displaying his bald pate. When he looked at my full head of 33 year-old hair, his eyes narrowed: "That thing on your head real or a rug?" "Real," I replied. Ellroy exhaled for what seemed like a full minute, then murmured: "Cocksucker." We were off and running.

JAMES ELLROY: BARK AT THE MOON
The "Demon Dog of American Fiction" sinks his teeth into RFK, MLK and Vietnam with The Cold Six Thousand

If there were any justice in this world, and in the world of James Ellroy that's debatable, there would be a picture of the imposing, 6'4" author in Webster's Dictionary under the word "survivor." Regarded by literary scions as not only the reigning king of crime fiction, but also one of the greatest authors of our time, James Ellroy came into the world as Lee Earle Ellroy, born in the city of his literary dreams and nightmares: Los Angeles, during the post-war boom of 1948. Ellroy's father Armand was an accountant, and onetime business manager of Rita Hayworth. Mother Jean was a registered nurse. According to Ellroy, in his memoir My Dark Places, "They stayed together for 15 years. It had to be sex."

After a nasty divorce, Jean was given custody of young Lee, and a tempestuous relationship between the two quickly developed, for Geneva Hilliker Ellroy had two fatal weaknesses: booze and men. Both took their toll on her young son. After initially moving to Santa Monica, Lee suddenly found himself living in the town of El Monte, a less-than-glamorous enclave in the lesser-than-glamorous San Gabriel Valley. In 1958, after spending the weekend with his father in L.A., Lee returned to El Monte, only to learn that his mother had been murdered over the weekend, strangled to death, her body dumped in a field next to Arroyo High School. The murder is still unsolved. It would be the spark that ignited some of the most brilliant American fiction of the latter 20th century.

The next decade and a half was a continuous downward spiral for Ellroy, who nearly succumbed to alcohol and drug addiction while still in his early 20's. After getting sober, Ellroy began reinventing himself, and started writing in an attempt to purge some of the demons that nearly consumed him. While supporting himself as a golf caddy, Ellroy published his first novel, Brown's Requiem, in 1981, followed by Clandestine, the following year, which was a fictionalized account of Jean Ellroy's murder set during the Red Scare of the early 50's. Four more crime novels followed, each more powerful than the other, gaining momentum as Ellroy began to find his literary voice: many of his stories dealing with the brutal slayings of innocent women, and the knights in tarnished armor (usually cops) who sought to avenge them. His work garnered rave reviews and a solid cult following. Stardom was just around the corner.

The Black Dahlia hit bookstores in 1987 and made Ellroy a full-fledged literary star. A fictionalized account of Los Angeles' most notorious unsolved murder (wannabe actress Elizabeth Short's bisected body was found in a vacant lot. She had been slowly tortured to death over a two day period), it deftly blended historical fact with fiction so seamlessly, it was difficult to ascertain where the reality/fantasy line was in the sand, if it was ever there at all. The Black Dahlia was also Ellroy's first chapter in his now-legendary "L.A. Quartet," which includes The Big Nowhere, White Jazz, and the classic L.A. Confidential, which was adapted for the screen into one of the most honored films of 1997. Although Ellroy's books have taken place in a variety of locales, his primary creative real estate will always be in the City of the Angels.

1995 saw the publication of Ellroy's epic American Tabloid, a down-and-dirty jigsaw puzzle of U.S. history in the early 60's, ending with JFK's assassination. Time Magazine named it "Book of the Year." In 1997 Ellroy published his shattering memoir My Dark Places, in which the author reopened the investigation of his mother's unsolved murder with the help of retired L.A. County Sheriff's detective Bill Stoner. Ellroy has also published Hollywood Nocturnes, a collection of short stories, and Crime Wave, a collection of fiction and non-fiction pieces that he penned for Gentlemen's Quarterly (GQ) Magazine. It was to be the 21st century, however, that would see Ellroy's greatest work, to date, come to pass.

The Cold Six Thousand is the sequel to American Tabloid, following that story's surviving characters, and a few new ones, immediately following JFK's murder, up to Robert Kennedy's assassination in 1968. A labyrinthine, epic, and passionate tale of greed, twisted ideals and the underbelly of the American dream, The Cold Six Thousand deserves to take its place alongside the greatest American novels of our time. Ellroy has outdone himself once again.

James Ellroy, who now lives in Kansas City with his wife, writer and journalist Helen Knode, sat down with Venice Magazine in his favorite L.A. haunt: the original Pacific Dining Car on 6th street downtown. Journey with us now to the dark places, big nowheres, and black dahlias that exist in the world of James Ellroy...

The thing that really struck me with this book, as you did in American Tabloid and many of your previous works, is how you weaved historical fiction with historical fact, and made it seamless.

James Ellroy: The one question I never answer is what's real and what's not in my books. What I give you is the human infrastructure of public events. I make them more real because I give you the hearts and souls of the people who were there, implementing public policy at its very lowest levels. There's no sense of hindsight in these books, and especially in this one, because the human stories I'm telling are so immediate. They're integral to the larger public events, but they are, in most occasions, even more compelling. The idea of a young cop who travels to Dallas on November 22, 1963 to kill a black pimp in order to prove himself in the police hierarchy, and then the shit hits the fan with JFK getting killed. What's important to Wayne Tedrow, Jr. now is getting out of Dallas with some honor still intact. But oops, he starts saying things he shouldn't.

All your books are journeys of self-discovery for your characters. But with this book, this was history that you lived through, as a young man. In the course of writing American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand what did you learn about the United States?

I made a conscious decision after I finished the L.A. Quartet books that I would never again write anything that could be perceived as a crime novel or, God forbid, a mystery. I think these two books, if you have to hyphenate with the word "novel", would be classified as historical novels. I was moving into the years of my cognizance. The four quartet books began in '47, before I was born, and ended in '59, when I was not quite eleven years old. I had a reluctant idea of what the key events would be in both books would be about going in: J. Edgar Hoover's reluctant war against organized crime; John Kennedy's ascent; Bobby Kennedy's rise as crime fighter number one in America; Fidel Castro's takeover of Cuba in 1959 and the mob's being pissed off that they were losing a couple hundred grand a day when Castro nationalized their casinos; the 1960 election; Howard Hughes' colonialist designs on Las Vegas; the crazy Cuban exiles mingling with the CIA and the mob; the Kennedy assassination; J. Edgar Hoover's war on the Civil Rights Movement; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; the early days of the Vietnam war and CIA men bringing heroin out there. Just an enormous tapestry of America from 1958-1968. I knew the rudiments of the story. I had a sense of collusion, which is the title of part II of American Tabloid. You had then that last gasp of republic accountability America, this nexus of rogue intelligence agents, crazy Cuban exiles, right wing lunatics of all stripes, the intelligence community and high-ranking law enforcement officials and political operatives all serving a common cause, which was the anti-Communist agenda. They were all in bed with each other incestuously. They had imperialist designs on Central America, Cuba and Vietnam. What I decided I was going to write was the epic history of American bad ju-ju.

L.A.P.D. mugshot of Lee Earle Ellroy, circa 1971.

That's when it really all started, isn't it, after WW II?

Exactly. I heard a story where Eisenhower, who was traumatized by what he saw during WW II, particularly the death camps, said in his first cabinet meeting "Gentlemen, I will tolerate no foreign wars during my administration." And what he did was let the CIA run amuck in Iran, Guatemala, and all over the globe, because he didn't want another full-scale conflict. As Saul Bellow wrote in The Adventures of Auggie March "Everyone knows there is no fineness or accuracy in suppression. If you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining." That's what these guys ultimately learn (in The Cold Six Thousand).

And we're still recovering from the hangover that this party gave us, aren't we?

Absolutely. The party of drugs and American expansionism, mass skepticism, and bad wars.

Do you think we'll ever recover from JFK's assassination?

I think we already have. I think if we found out today who really pulled the trigger, it would be irrelevant. I think that America was never innocent. This country was founded on slavery, land grabs and the genocide of the indigenous population. This narrative line has been stuck on JFK's death. The truth is, Jack Kennedy accepted favors from organized crime, then sicced his rabid, pit bull kid brother on them. Jack promised the Cuban exiles a second invasion after they were betrayed at the Bay of Pigs, then continued to screw them. Jack Kennedy deported (mob boss) Carlos Marcello. He walked out of El Salvador and Guatemala with cactus thorns in his ass. He fucked up and fucked with some very hot headed Latins that most sophisticated people would know "Don't fuck with these guys." It's a terrible story of hubris and naiveté. I think what Jack Kennedy's death was, was a glorified business dispute killing. I think that by the rules that Jack Kennedy lived by, he got what he deserved.

What about Bobby?

I came to admire him a lot in the course of my research. He was the greatest American crime fighter of the 20th century and Martin Luther King was the greatest man of the American 20th century. He was a marked man from the Montgomery bus boycott on, and I think that sustained physical courage that he was forced to have, messed with him.

How do you get in the mindset to write a period piece?

I isolated myself in the 1960's when I wrote The Cold Six Thousand. I thought about it from a 60's mindset. I immersed myself in it. I sat in a room and thought about it, and savored what I always call "the tremor of intent," which is the title of an Anthony Burgess novel. The tremor of intent is gearing yourself up to write a great novel, a novel of complexity, depth, stylistic ardor, characterization and, dare I say it, profundity. It's going back to when you were a kid and all you wanted was to be a great novelist, because great novels were the only thing that moved you. It's savoring that kid's feeling of "I want to do that, and I want to be the best." You've gotta get there first in isolation, which helps you conceptualize it, plan it, and steer you for the sustained concentration that books like that require. Part of the process for me, aside from the assiduous note taking from research, is the outline. The outline for The Cold Six Thousand was 343 pages, and took me eight months to write. Then you have to pull it off in successive drafts. There has to be perfect order in the words, perfect depth of characterization, perfect setting of every scene. You've got to be able to track all your references, to be able to juggle the 125 characters that the book has. You've got to be able to push everything away so you can shape this thing into a cohesive whole. Even though I'll break to do magazine pieces, like in GQ, it's all about living in that pitch. So present day politics and social conditions are not considerations. It's all about thinking, immersing yourself in the era. It all comes down to this: how well can you lie? How well can you do it? It comes back to that. You have it or you don't.

How did you get the nickname "Mad Dog"?

Well, really it's just "dog," but I guess it's because I've always loved dogs. I have a canine identity thing, and I've always done dog shtick.

Let's talk about your background. My Dark Places is one of the most amazing memoirs I've ever read. Like all your characters, you are a survivor who's lived many lifetimes. In a nutshell, what was it like being Lee Ellroy, long before you were reborn as James Ellroy?

It was fearful. It was anxious. It was debased. It was bufoonish. It was occasionally horrifying. It was degrading. I doubt if I've had five depressed minutes in my life. A lot of anxiety, though. Some anger. I possessed in the early part of my life, a horrible obsessive nature, and I've been able to turn my obsessions into something good, creative and life-affirming and now I'm having a big, fat, fuckin' blast! I'm the happiest person I know.

Any one of the things that happened to you as a young person would have killed most people. What do you think accounts for your resilience?

I saw the enemy, and it was me. It's like that line from the Pogo comic strip: "We have seen the enemy, and it is us." When I cleaned up and was suddenly sober at 29, I didn't have anybody to blame. My parents were dead. I didn't have any brothers or sisters, or any family. I knew that nobody turned me into an alcoholic and a drug addict and a bum and a thief and a lowlife and a full time fantasist. I understood that I had free will in all of this. And I understood at the time that each one of us is fully responsible for his success and happiness and no one else. I cleaned up because I wanted things. I wanted to get laid. I wanted either the woman, or women, plural and I knew I wasn't going to get either in my current, raggedy-ass state. I wanted to write novels. I wanted to live a decent life.

Tell us about when the fascination with writing started.

I always wanted to be a novelist, I think even preceding my mother's death. I read kid books up until her death, boy's adventure books. Then after my mother's death, I started reading kid's mystery stories, then adult mystery stories, then true crime books, then the entire crime fiction genre: Raymond Chandler, Joseph Wambaugh...good and bad crime writers across the board. I loved Mickey Spillane when I read him as a kid, because he's a big anti-Communist, as I was then. The Fugitive TV series made a huge impression on me as a kid. I watched the first couple years of that. It debuted at an interesting time: two months before John Kennedy got it. It was great, because wherever David Janssen went, he always hooked up with the best looking woman in town! (laughs) And these actresses...oh God, Diana Muldaur, Anne Francis, June Harding...

Actress June Harding.

I love June Harding. Remember her in The Trouble With Angels (1966), with Hayley Mills?

Are you a June Harding fan? That's great, because she's a friend of mine. I wrote a piece for GQ called "My Life as a Creep," about my teenage years when I was obsessed with June Harding. My buddy Rick Jackson of the LAPD was working as a private eye then, and I was telling him about her, and he found her, living back East. She's an artist now, a great human being. But she was a guest star on The Fugitive. Let's see, there was also Patricia Crowley, Madeline Rue, Lois Nettleton...all these good-looking, classy, smart women and great actresses. I felt like the Fugitive as a kid, like I was on the run. So here I could fantasize being on the run, getting all the babes! (laughs)

Your first novel, Brown's Requiem, was written in 1980, when you were still working as a golf caddy.

At the Bel-Air Country Club. I was living in Venice, on Ocean Front Walk, near the Victory Coffee Shop. I didn't have a car, and would take the bus out to Bel-Air, write on a bench outside the caddyshack, caddy, make just enough money to pay my rent and eat off of, a little for bus fare. I'd write on my days off. I'd write at night, late afternoons. I wrote the book in 10 1/2 months.

The book that really put you on the map was The Black Dahlia.

I'd been obsessed with that case since 1959 when I read about it in Jack Webb's book The Badge, which my dad bought me for my eleventh birthday in March, 1959. In the wake of my mother's death, I found it shocking, revelatory. I didn't understand at the time, of course that (murder victim) Elizabeth Short was the stand-in for my mother. I had nightmares about Elizabeth Short, became obsessed with her. I used to ride my bicycle down to 39th and Norton where her body was found. I later read John Gregory Dunne's wonderful and fanciful novel True Confessions in 1977, which is also based on the Dahlia case. When I started to write two years later, I thought that I couldn't write about the Black Dahlia case because he already had...years later in 1985, I was finally, tenuously, self-supporting as a writer. I had moved East. I ordered up the LA Times, January-May 1947 on microfilm. I went to the big New York library on 42nd street and 5th avenue. I got myself $400 in quarters, which is a shitload of quarters, and copied it off of microfilm. So I had complete chronologies of the LAPD investigation. I had known the essential story for many years, the details. I savored the tremor of intent very large on that book. I was living by myself in a basement apartment in Eastchester, New York. I put the story together largely through finding a methodology and a psychology that was so horrible, so baroque, that it would credibly explain the horrible crime itself. So, hence the story of Georgie Tilden and the Sprague family. I realized after I'd finished it that I didn't want to write contemporary-set books, that I didn't want to continue the Lloyd Hopkins series. I wanted to write a quartet of books about L.A., my smogbound fatherland, between the years '47-'59...I even remember staring at my desk, thinking that the third book would be called L.A. Confidential, that it would be huge, that it would feature a hellish robbery, people gunned down in a meat locker, and scandal rag journalism. It all evolved in a fever pitch between the years '85 and '91--I wrote the four books in six years.

The film of L.A. Confidential became an almost instant classic and was adapted from your book which was thought by most to be unfilmable because it was so complex.

I thought L.A. Confidential was a wonderful film, and a very deft adaptation, particularly considering that it only encompasses 15-20% of the overall story. It was amazing and dislocating to see these deft actors portraying Bud White, Ed Exley, Jack Vincennes, Sid Hudgens, Lynn Bracken and Dudley Smith. It was strange to see these actors, because I never think of actors when I'm writing, who weren't these characters as I'd pictured them, speaking some of my words reinterpreted was startling. The music was wonderful. Curtis Hanson would be the first to admit that a few of the scenes are underdressed due to budgetary constraints. To see it fly along of its own momentum, it's own wit and own dramatic arc was startling because it was a work that could only have originated with me, but in the end, was something entirely different, yet mine. (The film of) L.A. Confidential is the best thing that ever happened to me in my career, that I had nothing to do with. It was a fluke and it's probably never gonna happen again.

Are we going to see more Dick Contino and Danny Getchel stories?

Yeah, I want to do another Dick Contino and a whole bunch of Getchels, with Danny spreading his bad ju-ju. I want to do a piece where he's hanging with Ayn Rand during the Red Scare. I want to do a piece where he's a front man for Ronald Regan during his gubernatorial campaign. I'm actually going to do one where he's hanging out with Curtis Hanson and Sam Fuller during the Watts riots! (laughs)

You dedicated The Cold Six Thousand to former L.A. County Sheriff's homicide detective Bill Stoner.

Bill's my best friend. We remain very, very tight and talk a lot. He's a profound human being and a very old soul, as they say. It wouldn't have worked with anybody else but him. It was a guide shot. It was a great confluence.

Were you able to make peace with your mother after My Dark Places?

We continue. As I say in the book, "Closure is bullshit." I think about her. There's moments when I'm savoring the tremor of intent, and my thoughts keep coming back to her. There's a great photograph of her that I describe in My Dark Places from August of '46. I'm a year and a half away from being born. She wasn't married to my father then. She got married when she was a few months pregnant with me. She's sitting in the backyard at a swimming pool at a party, looks like a Beverly Hills movie biz party. She's sitting there, and she looks so good, and she's smiling and she's delightedly content. And I'm thinking (whispers) "What were you thinking? What's going on there?" Why did you settle for so little when you could've had so much? What were the blanks, what were the fill-ins of your horrible story, your horrible childhood in rural Wisconsin? Her dad, my grandfather, drank himself to death at 49. He was a forest ranger and game warden. He'd hire Indians to put out forest fires, then they'd use the money to go out and buy booze, then start more fires so they could get paid to put them out again. It's a classic example of a woman who was molested in the home, was promiscuous at a very early age, back in the day when promiscuity was wild and crazy ju-ju, not like it is today. She got out of that town and never looked back. She was running for the rest of her life. My mother was statuesque, fair, red-haired, hazel eyes. She was a very handsome woman. Always wore her hair in a bun. She exuded allure and mystery and she created a blank space around her and made people come to her. She hid from people. She only told people so much. She didn't let people all the way in. She slummed with cheap men. She listened to the Brahms symphonies and piano concertos on a cheap record player we had at the place in El Monte. She loved reading historical novels and Reader's Digest condensed books. She'd get drunk and her alcoholism escalated during the last couple years of her life, even though I was only 8 or 9 years old I was able to figure that out. She would formalize and overstate her lies. She did not credit me with being a good lie decoder. There's so many mysteries. Who killed her? Why did she suddenly move us from Santa Monica out to El Monte, which my father called, aptly, "Shitsville, USA"? You never knew what she was thinking.

Geneva Hilliker Ellroy

At the end of the book, even though you didn't solve the physical mystery, it felt like you solved an internal one.

I got a handle on my origins. I got a handle on my ancestry. I calculatedly understood, going in, that it's highly unlikely that we were going to find her. I understood, on a semi-conscious level, that the book would not be about a successful homicide investigation, but would be about my journey of discovery with my mother and Bill Stoner's journey of discovery as a homicide detective.

You live in Kansas City now. Any chance you'll ever move back to L.A.?

No. I love Kansas City. It's quiet. It's peaceful. It's homogenous. It's physically very beautiful. It's nicely contained. It's a peaceful zone in the middle of the country. I went there with my wife before we got married to meet her mother, and I fell in love with the place.

What advice would you have for a first-time novelist?

I would say, don't write what you know. I would say write the kind of shit that you like to read. I would say outline assiduously. I would say savor the tremor of intent. I would say think. I would say make the whole process as unintimidating as possible by planning. This will allow you to write a more surely plotted, and more complex book than you might be able to if you just went at it hack and burn and chop.

James Ellroy's latest book, LAPD '53, was published May 19 by Harry N. Abrams and is available in both print and Kindle editions.