Unpublished James Ellroy Interview
I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing James Ellroy four times: on three occasions by telephone and once in his apartment in LA. Three of these interviews are included in the collection Conversations with James Ellroy which I edited for University Press of Mississippi. The interview I excluded from the volume was the third telephone interview which took place in November 2008. After giving the matter some thought, I decided that the interview wasn’t up to the high standard of my other interviews with Ellroy. You have to make some very difficult decisions when you’re editing an anthology of this kind, and I wanted to ensure there was space in the book for some of the outstanding interviews Ellroy has given throughout his career to such figures as Duane Tucker, Paul Duncan and Craig McDonald. However, I came across the interview again recently when searching through an old thumb drive, and I thought there were enough interesting moments to share it with you here, published for the very first time. I’ve edited it down quite significantly to the highlights:
INTERVIEWER: I watched Zodiac last night. My wife and I watched it with the director’s commentary, and I was thinking you’ve been involved in a lot of documentaries, factual shows, well Murder and Mayhem, Bazaar Bizarre, the Zodiac DVD commentary. Why the change…
ELLROY: Bazaar Bizarre is just a horrible movie and a horrible performance on my part. I was coming off a crackup and taking some bad medication and my weight was up. I didn’t look good. It’s a bad, vile movie. Why mince words?
INTERVIEWER: I was wondering, you moved from your early fiction where there were lots of motifs about serial killers and murderers, psycho-sexual murderers, but then you moved into more factual explorations of serial killers. Why the move from fiction to factual interpretations?
ELLROY: Well… It started out with the bridge between those two types of works The Black Dahlia, which has the psycho-sexual aspect and the historical aspect in the King of psycho-sexual Los Angeles crimes, and the King of LA crimes period. And it was at that time that I determined to write the LA Quartet. And hence first LA history and then American history, and I have been synchronous ever since. And there may be some psycho-sexual aspects to individual crimes within a larger set of crimes in a given book of mine, but I will never write exclusively in that vein. I determined that I had taken it as far as it would go.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, I’ve been reading Scene of the Crime: Photographs from the LAPD Archive, and it has very haunting photos. Very strange experience to look over those photos of Elizabeth Short, which are of course shocking. Your explanation as to the treatment, well, the torture of her body, and what happened to her hinges a lot on a kind of art, aestheticism, the Victor Hugo novel The Man Who Laughs and the painting. Is that something out of your research on the case or are you interested in any links between art, aestheticism and murder?
ELLROY: I made it up and what happened. And then subsequently, oddly, the writer named Steve Hodel who wrote the book Black Dahlia Avenger– he’s a former LAPD homicide detective– where he posits that his physician surgeon father did the job to imitate the art of Man Ray. It’s a quasi-factual book: it purports to be real, but it’s entirely theoretical and suppositional. But Black Dahlia Avenger made that connection. What a man [Ed Beitiks]. He’s a journalist. He’s dead now, may he rest in peace, Ed Beitiks told me. It was a very fine but still inadequate explanation of the horror visited upon Elizabeth Short that we’re trying to contain within some kind of reference, cultural reference, artistic reference of the horror inflicted upon her, and no level of detail can do that horror justice. And so the Victor Hugo The Man Who Laughs painting, which doesn’t exist, just came to me out of the blue. Someone told me about the painting as I was preparing the text to the book.
INTERVIEWER: One of the things that was interesting about Zodiac (the film) was the Zodiac case is still officially unsolved, whereas a lot of the issues of crime fiction is the theory that everything connects or everything should connect. How do you explore that question of how everything connects or does everything still connect in things like historical fiction and real life?
ELLROY: It certainly does in real life, and the genius of Zodiac, which I think is one of the greatest American crime films, is that nothing ever quite fits and the three men, the three obsessive men, you know the Ruffalo, Gyllenhaal and Downey characters, simply go on and endure in not knowing. And when they know to whatever extent that they know, I’m talking about the scene with Ruffalo and Gyllenhaal in the diner at the end. So what? The guy’s not killing anyone else, and he’s still out on the loose working in a hardware store. And I was haunted by the movie. It influenced a TV pilot that I’m working on now about, although it’s not about the serial killers at all it’s about the cops and the Hillside Strangler task force, and I give Zodiac in the composure and the stillness and the quietude of that movie every credit.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, yes it’s a great movie. I very much enjoyed it.
ELLROY: Very slow isn’t it? It’s just boom.
INTERVIEWER: Yes, it takes its time– and just great performances. I guess on the theory that everything connects, there’s now that quite famous line in your first novel Brown’s Requiem which, I’m gonna have to paraphrase because I don’t have the book right in front of me, when Brown is in Mexico and spots a suspect presumably by chance, he said ‘This was odd. It’s proof of the existence of God.’ With the other references to God in your books, they’re rather ambiguous: Lloyd Hopkins very often prays to a God he admits that he doesn’t believe in. Do you think there is a presence of God in your literature?
ELLROY: Yeah I do. I do and I’m a Christian. I’m not an Evangelical Christian, but God and religious spiritual feelings always guided me during the worst moments of my life, and I don’t for a moment doubt it. Blood’s A Rover is the fullest expression of people from 1968 to 1972 including a woman who’s a Quaker activist pondering the existence or non-existence of God and talking about the nature of belief. And I always like getting in asides and putting it out there and stopping just short of preaching.
INTERVIEWER: There’s been a lot of criticism of your work, in my eyes completely unjustified, but you know people like Mike Davis in his book City of Quartz, a kind of unusual history of Los Angeles, he seems to think the racism of the characters by extension makes the author or the text racist. How would you respond to criticism like that?
ELLROY: Well the racism of protagonists in my book, the actual men that you’re supposed to dig, is a casual attribute, it’s not a defining characteristic. And most people who decry racism, most PCers want racism distilled in that manner. It’s defining, thus it’s indicted, and so casual racist asides from Jack Vincennes or Bud White or Buzz Meeks or Danny Upshaw or Pete Bondurant or, you know, Dwight Holly or any of these guys flummoxes people. And I don’t write from grievance. I’m not out to change the world. I would hope that my being would serve to influence them in some minor way, but I got no beef. And I write stories that are contained within plot boundaries, circumscribed arcs of time. People can think what they like. And I don’t engage in criticism of other writers for a couple of reasons: one, I’m too competitive and I don’t go on panels for the same reason. I’m out to take over the show rather than have a collegial chitchat. And so criticism like the criticism Mike Davis levied at me just, while it bugged me in the moment, goes in one ear and out the other. There are people out there they live on grievance, and I can understand why, and I’ve just gotta say ‘God bless em.’
INTERVIEWER: Your portrayals of LA in the forties and fifties of course the narrative relies not just on either third person or first person but FBI transcripts, newspaper articles, sleazy Hush-Hush tabloids. Why the use of these, you know, other means of communication or telling the story?
ELLROY: To update the actions of the characters outside of their limited viewpoint. Entirely to further the story from a different viewpoint. In the case of White Jazz, to alleviate the burden of the extreme language and update the reader simply from the slant that the protagonists have not seen.
INTERVIEWER: Another thing that may be linked to communication is the portrayal of institutions: the FBI, the CIA, the Mafia. Some illegal, some governmental institutions, and in the Underworld USA, their interests often overlap. How do you render concisely, and where do you get this inspiration for these incredibly complex and convoluted institutions?
ELLROY: Part of it’s just having lived through the era and having soaked up a good deal of doublespeak. A lot of it’s instinct. I’ve never had the instinct to do a great deal of research. I want coherent facts in front of me as I like to extrapolate. A lot of this overlap of agency and obfuscatory talk and the jockeying of men, I’m talking about the political books, aligned with various bogus male authority derive from my reading of Libra.
INTERVIEWER: Yes Libra is a fascinating novel, and I just recently read Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Would it be an inspiration on The Cold Six Thousand?
ELLROY: No, I actually read it after I wrote The Cold Six Thousand. I also think it’s very, very pretentious and flawed. I think it’s a great, great novel, at times I thought this is the greatest novel I ever read. But God does he go on! Did you find that, he just goes on?
INTERVIEWER: Yes, definitely. It’s rather unusual some segments like the nuns and the…
ELLROY: The nuns go nowhere don’t they? I wanted it to stay with the baseball. Yeah and the baseball changing hands, and then it just kept going here, here, here and here and felt more and more undisciplined.
INTERVIEWER: I quite liked Lenny Bruce, the comic monologues which link the story. Would you say that Lenny Bruce and his kind of insult comedy, his highly and wildly adrenalised, neurotic schtick. Was that an inspiration for Lenny Sands?
ELLROY: No, I just liked the idea of Lenny as a name with no dignity. And I also think that Lenny Bruce was nowhere near as good as the monologues that Don DeLillo wrote for him. I mean DeLillo wrote those monologues. He didn’t say that shit. I guarantee you he did not say that shit. I guarantee you he was not that smart and omnivorously gifted. I mean he was a dope fiend who was entirely hit and miss.
INTERVIEWER: I guess a lot of what makes the monologues so fascinating in Underworld is that they’re caught in the moment, particularly around abut the Cuban missile crisis everyone thought they were gonna die in a nuclear holocaust and in the monologues he plays off that fear
ELLROY: The story American Tabloid is entirely inspired by Libra and DeLillo’s tripartite theory: Mob, renegade CIA, crazy Cuban exiles. It’s the line in the prologue ‘Only a reckless verisimilitude can set that line straight.’ And it’s so diligently about the inner lives of the assassins that it creates empathy. YOU WANT JACK DEAD. You want Jack dead because you dig these guys and you’re in their head. It’s only after the fact that I think most people, most people who liked the book think, Oh shit. Why do I feel such great empathy with those who killed John F. Kennedy?
INTERVIEWER: Yes, yes, that is unusual and the ending with the cancer victim Heshie. His death creates this empathy with the death of JFK as well.
ELLROY: ‘Don’t nod out Hesh. You don’t get a show like this every day.’ Pete tells him, yeah.
INTERVIEWER: The history of Los Angeles, it’s your birthplace it’s intensely romantic to you. You’ve lived in a fair few places in in the US: New York, Connecticut, Kansas City. Do any of those settings particularly inform or inspire your writing?
ELLROY: I’m from LA, and it’s a life sentence. As a fount of inspiration, I can write about LA wherever I find myself. LA was what I first saw and I’ll take it. I’ll take it. I have an instinct in this stage of my life to get to places that are a little bit more peaceful and we shall see.