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The Two Men Who Saved James Ellroy’s Career

May 31, 2013

As much as any contemporary crime writer James Ellroy is a household name, a celebrity author whose appearance on a chat show can turn mundane television into electrifying entertainment. What other crime writers can we say this of today? Needless to say, it hasn’t always been this way for the author, and Ellroy has gleaned much material from his harrowing early life. But even after Ellroy began his writing career there was a period when it seemed his early promise and the luck every successful author must possess had run dry, before two men, Otto Penzler and Nat Sobel, were to rescue his career and, by doing so, take a role in reshaping the modern American crime novel.

Otto Penzler Credit: Carolyn Hartman

Otto Penzler
Credit: Carolyn Hartman

In the early 1980s, Ellroy had published two novels with Avon, Brown’s Requiem and Clandestine, both to moderate success. Although they were not groundbreaking works, there is no doubt that these publications were an incredible boost for Ellroy. It was only a few years earlier that Ellroy had been battling drug and alcohol addictions. For many first time writers, finding a publisher is usually a much more difficult process than writing itself, but Ellroy was to find a home for his first two novels remarkably quickly. He moved from Los Angeles to New York City in the hope of breaking out and living the writer’s life. But Avon rejected his third manuscript ‘LA Death Trip’. Now things started to go downhill as Ellroy describes in his memoir The Hilliker Curse:

My publisher rejected my third novel. They found the sex-fiend cop and his feminist-poet girlfriend hard to believe. They were right. I wrote the book in a let’s-ditch-L.A.-and-find-HER-in-New-York fugue state. My quasi-girlfriend agent sent the book to 17 other publishers. They all said nyet. My quasi-girlfriend dropped me as a client and pink-slipped me as a quasi-boyfriend.

The fact that he was dating his agent suggests Ellroy was not receiving objective advice about the manuscript. There’s no doubt that this was a crisis for his still fragile literary career. Ellroy had never before faced the rejection that is a rite of passage for most writers starting out. His solution was appropriately dramatic, and typical of the flamboyant persona which has come typify Ellroy’s public image. In an interview with Poets&Writers, Nat Sobel describes the New York literary scene that he had a hand in shaping at the time and that was to help Ellroy immeasurably:

Years ago, my lawyer was, and still is, the lawyer for Otto Penzler and the Mysterious Bookshop. He thought Otto and I should get together. I’ve been Otto’s agent for many years. Anyway, I liked Otto a lot, and we couldn’t figure out how a bookseller and an agent could do anything together. I got the idea, or maybe it was Otto, to form the Mysterious Literary Agency. This was really at the point when I was just beginning to represent authors, and the idea was that Otto had this wonderful bookshop where crime writers came in all the time, and he would send writers to me who asked how to get an agent. So we started the Mysterious Literary Agency. We did a whole thing where our letterhead had no address and no phone number. If you wanted to find us, you had to solve the mystery.

Ellroy must have solved this little mystery as one day he arrived at the Mysterious Bookshop, walked into Otto Penzler’s office and announced:

“I am the demon dog of American crime fiction.” Otto said, “I’ve never heard of you.” James said he had this manuscript, which Otto sent to me as the first manuscript of the Mysterious Literary Agency. It was Ellroy’s third novel, which I edited, as did Otto. About that time, Otto got financing to start Mysterious Press. He told me he wanted to buy Ellroy’s novel for his first list. So the Mysterious Literary Agency went out of business.

Penzler was clearly taken aback but also impressed with Ellroy after their first meeting. In a profile of Ellroy by Martin Kihn, republished in Conversations With James Ellroy, Penzler was quick to diagnose the problem with Ellroy’s writing at the time:

I thought, “This is an extraordinary original talent who doesn’t really know how to write a book.” A very powerful stylist, but they weren’t particularly well constructed plots. But he was such a bright guy and had so much raw talent, I never thought for a moment he wasn’t going to be a monster.

Nat Sobel Credit: Pieter van Hattem

Nat Sobel
Credit: Pieter van Hattem

It wouldn’t be plain sailing for the self-proclaimed Demon Dog, though. Ellroy had written half of a historical fiction novel titled “The Confessions of Bugsy Siegel”, and no doubt he wanted to finish it and see it published, but Sobel and Penzler had other ideas, as Kihn remarks, ‘During a meeting at Penzler’s store, Sobel and Penzler told Ellroy that Siegel was out to lunch but “Death Trip” could be reworked.’ However, Ellroy was withholding information from his two mentors: ‘Of course neither Otto nor I knew that James’s previous agent had had seventeen rejections on this novel. But we had done a lot of work on the book.’ Sobel also reveals that Ellroy was no pushover when it came to the editing process of ‘LA Death Trip’, which was finally published under the title Blood on the Moon:

I wrote Ellroy a rather lengthy editorial report about that first novel I represented. I got back what looked like a very lengthy kidnap letter. It was written in red pencil on yellow legal paper, and some of the words on it were like an inch high: I AM NOT GOING TO DO THIS. I thought, “Oh, I’ve got a loony here. Somebody who calls himself the demon dog? Maybe he is a demon.” But it was a very smart letter. He was very smart about what he would do, why he wouldn’t do certain things. And he did do a lot of work on the book. I’ve edited him ever since. Nearly all of the editing is done here. He’s been wonderful to work with.

Although Ellroy moved on from the Mysterious Press some years ago his professional relationship with Penzler and Sobel continues to this day (Penzler and Ellroy edited The Best American Noir of the Century (2011) together). I’m not saying that Ellroy would have never published again were it not for Penzler and Sobel. Ellroy had the talent, drive and determination to succeed regardless of how many times he faced rejection. If he hadn’t found them, he probably would have found someone else. Still, Penzler and Sobel deserves credit for spotting a great talent when he was down and not letting him slip away. Fans of Ellroy and crime fiction have a lot to thank them for.

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