The Channels interviews James Ellroy
Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.
Email This Story
Before James Ellroy walked on stage and rapped about his genitals in the Garvin Theatre on Tuesday, Nov. 27, Anne Redding, the co-chair of the justice studies department, introduced him.
She read from a card that was handed to her: “If you like piña coladas and getting caught in the rain; if you’re not into yoga and you have half a brain, James Ellroy is available if there are any single women.”
Among the reasons he cited for visiting City College that day to discuss a murder case that he frankly admitted he is bored with, is to chase women.
In 1997, he appeared on Conan. Ellroy has had interviews with Rolling Stone and TIME Magazine. He has written for Newsweek and GQ. The afternoon of his visit, The Channels had an interview with him.
Ellroy, the internationally best-selling crime fiction author, is the author of the L.A. Quartet novels, which include “The Black Dahlia” and “L.A. Confidential.” The infamously ultra-gruesome murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947 was the inspiration behind the former novel.
Both novels were adapted into films. “L.A. Confidential” (1997) was very well-received by critics and was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. “The Black Dahlia” (2006) starred Scarlett Johansson and Josh Hartnett and was considered a failure at the box office.
Ellroy is writing a second set of L.A. Quartet novels, which takes place during World War II.
Jean Hilliker, his mother, was murdered when Ellroy was 10. She was beaten and strangled to death with one of her own stockings. Her body was dumped next to Arroyo High School in El Monte. Pearls from her broken necklace were scattered on the dirty ground.
In the television series, “James Ellroy’s L.A.: City of Demons,” Ellroy confesses that his mother instilled in him a passionate interest in crime, and he lusted for her.
“My relationship with my mother was refracted through the lens of my raging pre-teen sex drive,” he said. “I wanted to live with my slothful dad. I issued a curse and wished my mother dead. I hated for her and lusted for her in equal measure.”
With Ellroy was Glynn Martin, the executive director of the Los Angeles Police Museum. Ellroy sat at a circular desk. He was wearing a short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt. He leaned back in his chair with his arms folded behind his head and his shoes propped up on the desk before him.
It was difficult to catch Ellroy rambling, since he chose his words carefully and spoke in paragraphs. He never used five words when only four were necessary. He became extremely annoyed when he had to repeat himself.
The Channels talked to Ellroy about murder, his mother, Beethoven, eviscerating technology, and sniffing women’s underwear.
I watched an interview online in which you said you saw L.A. Confidential and thought it was overrated. Did you really see it 32 times and consistently and not enjoy the movie?
There’s a great many things wrong with it. It’s not profound. And why should it be? It’s a Hollywood movie. It’s 15 percent of my novel. There are 14 plotlines in the novel, and although not dramatically connected in the novel, served as the basis for a coherent narrative.
You really saw it 32 times?
While The Black Dahlia was in pre-production, you seemed cynical about the adaptation. Was there anything you enjoying about that movie?
Let’s put it this way: I would never criticize for an attribution any motion picture based on one of my books because I took the money. Nobody forced me to take the money. Black Dahlia, the poorly received movie, sold more books for me in seven weeks than the magnanimously acclaimed L.A. Confidential did in fifteen years. It’s about the books in the end.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t expect logic from the world. I truly don’t.
In 2009, you said in an interview that “All movie adaptations of [your] books are dead.” Have you enjoyed anything of yours that was translated into film?
I enjoyed the money. I love a good movie. If I never saw another movie, I wouldn’t care.
Did you enjoy Rampart?
Did the film stay true to how you envisioned it?
It’s not my vision at all. It was rewritten from underneath me by the director. That motion picture has nothing to do with the original script that I wrote. Nothing.
How is writing a screenplay different from writing a novel?
That’s an easy question and you already know the answer to it. It’s very, very easy: with a book, every word furthers character, furthers plot. Motion pictures are collaborative works that very seldom cohere under the strain of collaboration. Novels are organic works indigenous to a man or woman.
Do you think it’s really common in Hollywood to distort the original work?
They have to take a work of narrative fiction and reduce it to a form that will fit into two hour time frames in motion pictures.
Are you okay with them doing that when you make the money?
They can do whatever the f–k they want as long as they pay me.
What is it about L.A. and that era that is so important to you?
I was born in L.A. during ‘48. My parents hatched me in a cool locale. I got lucky.
What can you tell me about the second L.A. quartet novels?
The L.A. quartet (“The Black Dahlia,” “The Big Nowhere,” “L.A. Confidential,” “White Jazz”) covers Los Angeles between 1946 and 1958. The Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, (“American Tabloid,” “The Cold 6000,” “Blood’s A Rover”) covers America at large from ‘58 to ‘72. The second L.A. quartet, I’ve just begun the first volume, takes characters from the original trilogy and places in Los Angeles during World War II as significantly younger people. I’m writing the first novel now. It transpires solely within the month of December, 1941, the month the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
Is there a release date for Perfidia?
Toward the end of next year.
I read online that it was toward the end of this year.
Never believe anything you read on the Internet.
You claimed aside from “The Onion Field” by Joseph Wambaugh, you never read contemporary books by other authors in fear that they may influence your work. Is this true?
I never said they would influence my work. That’s a misquote. I don’t read. Period. I don’t read. It has nothing to do with [influence from other writers]. I don’t enjoy reading anymore. I’m a master. You have to be great for me to dig you. I don’t enjoy distraction.
I am best served in my life’s goals if I lay in the dark, brood, sleep, listen to classical music, spend time with my few friends, and chase women. That’s what I do. I chase women. I spend time with my few friends. I brood. I sleep. I earn money, and I work.
So you enjoy writing much more than reading.
Yeah. That’s why I’m here.
Why do you think people enjoy your books?
They are obsessively realized. They are deeply passionate and rigorously intelligent.
In an interview with TIME magazine, you said people aren’t born good writers and they have to read consistently to assimilate the rudiments of style and technique in writing. Is there a reason you don’t follow your own advice?
I took what I could while I was young. I read for many, many years. I turned 30. I started writing. I was good. I quit reading. It was an instinctive change.
Do you have anything that inspires your writing style? Would you claim it’s wholly original?
I have at home an alcove adjoining my living room fireplace. It’s the Knopf Korner, my publisher. It’s the greatest publisher in the world. Corner with a K. Their mascot, their symbol is the boar’s eye dog, so I have a boar’s eye dog there from an old Knopf advertisement.
I have my own six hardcovers, published by Knopf. I have below that the Knopf books that I have published, all of which I read while I was quite young. Raymond Chandler, the five novels of Dashiell Hammond, the great novels by J. M. Kane, three anthologies compendiums of Ross McDonald’s work.
I have key early work of Joseph Wambaugh, who Glynn and I were just talking about the Los Angeles policeman-turned-novelist and Compulsion by Meyer Levin, Libra by Don Delillo, the complete poems of Anne Sexton, Jack Webb’s book, “The Badge” his ode to Los Angeles police department.
They’re covered with plastic sheaths. They are the key books. I have the boar’s eye, again the Knopf symbol, bookends and I pay homage to my reading influences every time I pass through my living room, but I am not interested in reading new books.
You just stick to those books?
I look at them occasionally. I’m happy to have them there.
Have you learned anything about how to write since you started writing?
I learned by doing every day. I’m obsessed with language. I love the American idiom. I love racial effective. I love Yiddish. I love black hipster street patois. I love a great racist joke, a great dirty joke. I love the American language. I love perfect English. I love differentiating voices in my policemen characters, my criminal characters, my politician characters. I love engaging the grand design of my career, which is to rewrite American history to my own specifications. It’s a form of literary megalomania. I am nothing but power-crazed and I have finally found a vent, World War II, big enough to house my megalomania. This is what will keep me busy for the next seven or eight years.
Why do people think it’s so weird that you don’t rely on technology and you still write long-hand?
I don’t own a TV set. I don’t own a cell phone. I’ve never used a computer.
Why do people think that’s so weird?
Because people are full of shit and people are conformists and people want a life of convenience and ease and I don’t. People like distractions. I like solitude.
Why do people think writing long-hand is so archaic?
I don’t know. I’m not in their heads.
[On The Black Dahlia case]: One of the things I never talk about in my fiction is what’s real and what’s not. In the end, it’s a novel and I made it up. I don’t know who killed Elizabeth Short. I will not discuss any theories about who killed her. I will not discuss the specific, horrifying things that happened to her in the days preceding her death. There’s a great deal I don’t know about the Black Dahlia case. Professor Redding knows a lot more about it than I do.
Do you think it’s the way Elizabeth Short’s body was left behind is what distinguishes Black Dahlia case from other murder cases?
It was a crime of unique and unspeakable savagery. It occurred at a time in pre-public accountability, pre-media saturated America that mandated all by itself its notoriety. In other words, not a lot was happening than this horrible crime.
Do you think the murderers of your mother and Elizabeth Short were misogynists?
Of course. You don’t kill women unless you were found of misogynistic rage.
When was the latest development or lead in the Black Dahlia case?
False leads come in all the time. There is currently a very gifted homicide detective with LAPD who is charged with overseeing the Black Dahlia case because leads still come in. There’s not the slightest hope in Hell in ever solving the case.
Would you say your mother’s death began your interest in studying crime?
What’s the last memory you have of your mother?
You know what? I’m not going to answer that. That’s a second source question. You need to look at the book, “My Dark Places.”
Did you ever feel you were trying to reconnect with your mother posthumously?
The book describes my arc of reconciliation with her and it was the experience of a lifetime. I’ll reconnect with her when I shuffle off this mortal coil and we reunite on a cloud. Until then, and I’m not looking forward to it, because it means my death, I’ll be content with the way things are.
Would you say it’s “The Badge” by Jack Webb that started your interest in crime fiction?
My mother’s death occurred in June ‘58. I eagerly began obsessing over kid mystery books. The Badge by Jack Webb was one of the first adult crime books I ever read. It was really the beginning of my fixation with The Black Dahlia case, thus I am here at Santa Barbara City College today and my fixation with the Los Angeles Police Department.
Why did your father buy you the book?
I loved crime and I watched Dragnet every night on TV every Thursday night and Jack Webb was the star and director. He played Sergeant Joe Friday.
Why did your father buy it for you?
Because I was an uncommonly precocious 11-year-old boy and he thought I’d dig it.
You’ve accepted that you’ll never find the murderer of either your mother’s case or Elizabeth Short and you’ve said closure is nonsense. How do you reach acceptance with that?
The passage of time. The constantly shifting tides of memory that those of us who are left behind go through and the fact that I just have very strong will to be happy. I want to be happy and I want to be fulfilled. I don’t want to succumb to my traumatic influences.
Are you happy?
I love to brood. I am God’s child. I am gifted. I am blessed with talent and drive and height and good looks and ambition and I’m digging life.
You compared yourself to Beethoven in an interview because you’re both megalomaniacs. How are you a megalomaniac?
I want power. Oh, yeah. I like having personal power. I like being able to go off by myself and create something from scratch and have it reach fruition in a form of coherence that only I could have come up with. I like seeing my books on people’s shelves. I like living the lives of characters I’ve created. I like rewriting history to my own specifications.
You write your characters with your own attributes?
There’s a little bit of me in most of my major characters. You look at aspects as far as the new book goes. Dudley Smith’s charm. Kay Lake’s passion. William H. Parker’s moral rectitude. It all comes from me.
In your teenage years through your twenties, you were engaged in minor crimes and spent some time in jail. Did this have any affect on the way you viewed crime in L.A.?
I broke into houses and sniffed women’s undergarments. I drank and used drugs. I stole. I slept in deserted houses. I’ve always despised crime. I’ve despised lawlessness, even while I committed crime. I was atypically conservative for someone of my generation of a profligate lifestyle of someone in the American 1960s and ‘70s. I was ashamed of what I was doing even as I did it and I quit drinking and using drugs as I quit doing it.
How much do you know about the Zodiac killer?
I know some. I’ve seen David Fincher’s wonderful movie a dozen times. I read the two books. The movie’s a luminous work of art. Glynn loves the movie as well. I find it breathless and very deep, imperfect, and wonderful. Glynn, Anne [Redding] and I at lunch were talking about unknowability and the metaphysics of it. It’s at the heart of the Black Dahlia murder case.
Both the Zodiac killer and the Black Dahlia murderer sent anonymous letters to the newspaper with evidence proving that the letter-sender was the murderer. Do you think that the Zodiac killer drew inspiration from the Black Dahlia case?
[whispering] I don’t know. You can’t chart in anyone’s life direct influence like that. It’s impossible to prove. As a novelist, I can go ahead and make the leap to fiction and say the character was influenced in this matter.
What do you think their motives were in mocking the press?
They were seeking to say to their huge and defective egos.
Do you think they succeeded?
No, people like that, horrifying, cowardly predators are just that. They’re horrifying. They’re cowardly. They’re weak and they operate from an abyss of psychotic emptiness. They kill wantonly. They destroy the happy, the contented, and those who can walk honorably in the human community for the specific reason they cannot.
Do you think if a murderer did the same act today, the message would be published as it was then?
I’m sure unscrupulous newspaper people might do it, yeah, for whatever their motives.
How important was crime in society then?
It’s definitive of the society. America’s a place with great secular freedom. We’re an outlaw nation built on superhuman drive, grit, spittle, sex, land grabs, tribal feuds, religious acrimony and all great nations are. Wherever you have a society like that at base competitive, you will have crime.
Is it true humans are the only species that kill themselves?
I don’t know. Have I ever heard of a Bengal tiger having a sexual identity crisis and killing himself? No.
[Glynn]: No thumbs.
How much does the motive behind a murder matter?
Everything is inextricable. The history. The psyche of the detective. The psychology of the victim. The motive of the killer. Everything is proportionate. It depends upon the artistry of the person telling the story.
How about in real life?
I don’t know. I make it up. In the case of Perfidia, we know the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor on 12/7 of ‘41. We’ve got a Japanese criminalist over here. We’ve got Capital William H. Parker over here. The demonic Irish cop Dudley Smith over here. I know what I’m doing. I know what’s real and what’s fictional. After a while, as I’ve put it all together, it blurs. In the end, I end up telling people like you I don’t know.
Among all the murders you’ve studied, is there some unifying factor among them?
Is there a fundamental difference between a person who has the capacity to kill someone and a person who doesn’t?
You don’t know if someone has the capacity to kill someone. That’s an intangible factor. If they kill someone, they have the capacity. I don’t know if you or I do, or if Glynn does.
Have you ever considered killing anyone?
Would you ever kill someone?
To protect a loved one, to avenge a loved one, certainly.
What would have to be the circumstances to lead you to it?
What I just told you.
Do you think spending time trying to analyze the minds of someone like Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer is a waste of time?
I’m not a psychologist. Serial killers don’t interest me. There are people who do this for a living. I’m glad they do because knowledge is power. It’s not for me.
How long have you been studying Black Dahlia?
I haven’t looked at it in many years. I’ve looked at it more since earlier this year when I became friends with Anne than I have in a long, long time. I’ll think of some new shit to say during my talk tonight and then that’ll be it for awhile until next time I do an interview on The Black Dahlia or do a speech on it.
So this is a one-time thing?
When was the last time you publicly spoke about it?
Do you ever get bored with talking about it?
Are you bored with it?
Are you doing this begrudgingly?
No. Anne and I are good friends. It’s a good outing for Glynn and I. I may meet some women at the reading.
Have you lived in L.A. your whole life?
No. I spent 25 years away from L.A. How many more minutes of this?
Did you vote in the recent election?
Are you in favor of capital punishment?
At what point do you think someone doesn’t deserve to live anymore?
When their transgressions become so horribly remorseless, premeditated, usurious and vile. That they have violated the civil contract past all shot at human redemption. It’s time to stand up as a society and say, ‘You go.’
In a Rolling Stone interview, you said that in the 1960s and 1970s, “I was never a peacemaker. I was a fuck-you right-winger.” Subsequently you claimed your right-wing tendencies are just something you say “to fuck with people.”
I exaggerate my right wing tendencies to fuck with people. I know when to vulgarize them and play them up to get peoples’ goat. I’m a conservative.
Do you frequently mess with interviewers?
Do you openly lie during interviews?
Is there anything else you would like to add?