Monday, November 11

collage of book covers

Monday, October 20, 1997

Dark places and a bright career

BOOK Despite two current best-sellers, "L.A. Confidential"
author James Ellroy remains self-critical

By Brandon Wilson

Daily Bruin Contributor

This isn’t a typical Thousand Oaks event. The cavernous space of
the local corporate bookshop bustles with activity on this Saturday

Inside the bookshop, a man reads of gruesome events. A group of
60 have gathered to listen to this author, who many consider the
Dostoevsky of hardboiled fiction, as he recounts in detail how his
mother’s body was discovered. The crowd is riveted. After the
curious venture is over, their brows furrow as the words slap
unpleasant images into their minds. Parents shoo their kids out of
earshot into the kids section.

As the chapter reading concludes, the group claps. And after a
few questions, author James Ellroy gets to do what he loves most
about publicity tours: sign books and meet his fans.

"Hot crime fiction signed by the author, folks!" he barks like a
carnie to those who have wandered in unaware. "You can’t get high
if you just walk by!" These lines have been created by Ellroy, ever
the best promoter for his unique brand of crime lit, to grab the
attention of readers who are content to buy only safer name writers
like Grisham, Crichton or King.

But Ellroy’s name is growing in recognition, thanks in large
part to the big-budget adaptation of his masterpiece "L.A.
Confidential," playing in theaters for a month now. The table
before Ellroy is covered with movie edition trade paperbacks of
"L.A. Confidential" (the covers identical to the movie poster) and
his latest effort, his first major non-fiction work "My Dark
Places" (from which he read earlier). Both books are currently on
the top five paperback bestsellers list for both fiction and
non-fiction. And for a writer (in)famous in literary circles for
his gallows humor, labyrinthine plotlines, harrowing violence,
disturbing, challenging themes and acidic wit, Ellroy is teetering
dangerously close to joining the ranks of those aforementioned,
high-profile novelists.

But this is no overnight success story. Ellroy has been churning
out blistering pulp fiction for 18 years, earned the devotion of an
international cult following, and wrote the basis for the year’s
most effusively-praised American film. Two years ago, his novel
"American Tabloid" was named Time magazine’s Novel of the Year.
Last year, he took the bold step of publishing the story of his
life, his mother’s life and death, his investigation of her murder
and the evolution of their relationship. And now, one year after
"My Dark Places" hit the shelves, Ellroy is on the road again. As
his 50th birthday approaches next year, the author sat down with
The Bruin to discuss the release of "L.A. Confidential," his life,
his career and, quite simply, how it all feels.

"I feel very calm, and peaceful inside as I approach 50," Ellroy
says. "I feel the weight of my life in a very buoyant way. I feel
poised to write the best novel I’ve ever written. I’ve been off for
a year, I’ve written two original film scripts, I was exhausted and
played out when I finished ‘My Dark Places,’ then I had to go out
and promote the shit out of it for four months, and I’ve been on
the road (for the ‘L.A. Confidential’ film) since Aug. 30. I’ve
done a lot of media and I’m looking forward to concluding these
film and media commitments and going away to do what I like; write
a novel and be with my wife."

"My mother continues to ambush me," he continues. "It’s an
amazingly obsessive, sexually-derived relationship that in no way
impinges on my marriage, yet the whole derivation of the
relationship with Geneva Hilliker Ellroy and I is sexual in nature,
and if she wasn’t such a great stern-looking woman in her way, we
wouldn’t be having this discussion right now because I wouldn’t
have had this ambiguous relationship with her that’s pushed over
into love after all these years. She’s there as a presence, and
what I need to do now is show a greater diversity of character and
motive in the next book. I want to take it to the next level,
whatever the next level is after ‘American Tabloid,’ all of it
coming from confronting my mother, learning what I have about her
and myself, about my world, about men and women, history, race,
class struggle, all this kind of stuff."

Back at the Thousand Oaks reading, a fan asks the author about
his influences, namely genre titans Dashiell Hammett and Raymond
Chandler. And while he has come to disavow Chandler, Hammett still
holds great appeal to the author. Ironically, Hammett’s literary
career was cut short by his refusal to open up to his audience,
step out from behind the shield of genre, and get intimate. And
while the publication of "My Dark Places" illustrates Ellroy’s
fearlessness to that which paralyzed Hammett, the elder writer
still resonates for Ellroy, his downfall perhaps as much as his

"My wife calls it the abyss of masculine unconsciousness,"
Ellroy says. "Men especially get to the point where their demons
overtake them, and as artists, these men can’t go beyond that. As
great as Hammett was, he was this emotionally retarded, fucked-up,
scared little baby, caught in these abusive relationships and in
alcoholism. That kind of stuff scares the shit out of me, that you
can’t get better and better; ideally, an artist of either gender
will hit their peak in their 60s, classical pianists peak in their
60s, symphony orchestra conductors sometimes peak even older,
you’ve got everything marshaled. What I’ve always tried to do is
say, how do you write richer, darker, deeper, better, more
stylistically evolved and more profound books."

"When I finished the L.A. Quartet, I wanted to get out of L.A.
in the books, I wanted to get rid of psycho-sexually driven
characters, I wanted to write a book that couldn’t be classified as
a thriller, that didn’t revolve around a homicide investigation.
What I want to do in the next book, the sequel to ‘American
Tabloid,’ is show these bad men of mine getting older and reaching
out for threads of decency throughout their entire lives, their
entire dramatic arc of the book rather than just at the denouement.
Because as bad as these people are, they do have the germ of a
conscience. And (in the case of the three protagonists in
‘Tabloid’) the germ of sympathetic feeling for women. You’re
dealing with people like this in history, and if you’re willing to
take the big view of history – my God – you can create great drama;
if you’re willing to look into yourself and change, which is why
I’ve always tried to write books that not only nobody else would
want to write, but that nobody else would have the patience to

At 31, the author published his first novel, "Brown’s Requiem,"
a contemporary private-eye yarn written in the shadow of Chandler,
which already bore the telltale marks of Ellroy’s unique
sensibility. He followed with "Clandestine," his first period work,
and also his first fictional depiction of his mother’s murder; an
equally blood-splattered and subtly nuanced work about a reckless
and ambitious young cop who goes after a serial woman killer on his

After a trilogy of contemporary thrillers about
sociopath-with-a-badge Lloyd Hopkins and one first-person account
of a serial killer, Ellroy began The Great Works, namely his L.A.
Quartet, four novels (of which "L.A. Confidential" is the third)
that detail epic skullduggery and evil in paradise circa 1947 to

The dirty deeds continue in Ellroy’s last effort, 1995′s
"American Tabloid," which hard-boils such historic moments as the
Kennedy election, the Bay of Pigs, and the JFK’s assassination.

Often praised and sometimes maligned for his ambitious subject
matter, his hyper-stylized handling and the extremity and graphic
detail with which he tackles his stories, Ellroy writes with an
intensity rarely matched by bestselling authors. Reading the story
of his life in "My Dark Places," in particular his battle with
addiction and aimlessness, provides a great deal of insight into
what fuels the writer. The work continues to be Ellroy’s bottom
line; the author pushes himself toward excellence with the
intensity only the novice writer typically demonstrates.

"I’ve made a lot of smart moves, I haven’t done stupid things in
a long time," says the writer. "I think psychologically, I’m
terrified of doing stupid things, cause I lived stupid for so many
years. When I was going to A.A., when I first got sober, I saw a
lot of people keeping up stupid, self-destructive patterns. I’ve
tried not to be stupid in my life, I had a painful, stupid,
buffoonish and occasionally wonderful, long crazy run with women. I
always wanted a profound relationship with a woman, and I found it.
That was a big thing. To meet Helen Knode. That put me into a space
where I am terrified on some level of dying ’cause there’s no more
her. I’ve always tried to be grateful for what I had and put it
back in the work."

"I’ve sought God in my way, and a lot of people don’t get it
because I say ‘fuck’ a lot, and because I write these books with
all this horror in them. There’s some people who egregiously
misread the books and me, like young rock ‘n’ rollers. That’s OK,
that’s their problem, rather than mine. The whole thing with Helen,
the whole thing with getting older and mortality, and this
wonderful life I have and gratitude for it, fuels me, along with
the desire not to do stupid things. I think I’ve just tried hard to
grow up. And learn. I think I’m a lot calmer than I was a few years
ago. I’ve always postponed the moment where it’s ‘Ellroy, you
motherfucker, you’re the king, you’re the greatest, blah, blah,
blah …’ Success and recognition has come in nice increments, and
steadily graduated, for years; and I think I learned to handle it
over time because if it had come to me at 35 I would’ve been
insane. Who knows what would’ve happened. But I’ve learned my

Rather than repeat what works from book to book or engage in a
tedious cycle of reworking the same plots and characters ad
nauseam, Ellroy constantly ups the stakes in his writing; the more
he perfects his art, the closer he gets to the artistic heights he
has chosen to scale.

"I had this wonderful moment when I was writing ‘The Black
Dahlia,’ and it was really the conceptual moment of ‘L.A.
Confidential,’ where I realized whatever I could conceive, I could
execute. I already knew I was going to do ‘The Big Nowhere’ and I
wondered what the next book was going to be. That’s when ‘L.A.
Confidential’ in all it’s spread came to me. If you’re willing to
conceive at great length, then you’ll give yourself a
superstructure to live up to within the course of the novel. And
there’s something I sometimes think is a personality flaw of mine,
and it’s that I’m not interested in many things. There’s books,
classical music, film noir, I love all that, but I’m not easily
distracted. I have a stable marriage with no kids; and it all leads
me to sustained concentration. Other than a little coffee
addiction, I lead a very wholesome life. Kansas City is a wonderful
place to live bourgeois and have a raging imagination.

"If you live this committed, concerned life where you want to be
good to people, where you put the work first, where you’re not
easily distracted, where you’re willing to stay in six nights in a
row, rather than go see the movies that you’d like to see, or go
out and get laid, then, you’re going to up the ante that you can
have it, that you can improve on whatever God-given talent you

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