James Ellroy, crime fiction’s self-proclaimed ‘demon dog’, is about to come off the leash again. Ben Isaacs discovers he’s more fired up than ever
James Ellroy is a living legend. Don’t believe us? Ask him yourself. Many writers are wracked with self-doubt about readers not liking the book they’ve poured years of their life into. Ellroy is not one of those authors. And the world is a better place for it.
After capturing the planet’s attention with his brutal LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz) of crime novels, he secured his all-time great status with the jaw-dropping must-read Underworld USA Trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s A Rover).
And now, as the 65-year-old author puts the finishing touches to his first piece of fiction since 2009, he picked ShortList for a rare interview. Hell, he even picked up the lunch tab. Twice. So is he mellowing? Not in the slightest.
What have you been doing since your last book, the autobiographical Hilliker Curse, was published in 2010?
I have a second career writing movies that don’t get made and TV shows that don’t get picked up. I want to write a Scotland Yard movie, but I don’t know the nomenclature. I’m considering spending some more time in Britain. But would I be confounded by the left-hand drive again? I once drove over the border into Scotland and kept clipping fence posts. F*cking nightmare. But I’m thinking of coming over to London – in winter, when it’s cold.
We could do a house swap.
Where do you live?
Bromley in south London. I’m not sure you’d like it. It’s suburban.
[Carefully looks around the diner] I hate hipsters, I hate liberals, I hate rock’n’rollers, I hate the counter-culture, I hate movie people. I want to go somewhere quiet, peaceful and decorous, and be radical in my mind. I have fatuous American ideas about Britain. I want to go to the moors. I want to buy a shotgun from Purdey for a lot of money, but I understand it’s tough to buy a gun – you can’t just walk in and say, “I’m an American, give me that gun.” British people are the best readers. They speak the same language, but view the material as foreigners. There’s no class distinction for readers there. They ask the best questions and you can talk to them afterwards and go to an Indian restaurant.
What can you tell us about your new project, the second LA Quartet?
I’m about to finish the first volume, called Perfidia – my biggest book – which will be published in Britain this fall. The new quartet takes characters both fictional and real, major and minor, from the first quartet and the trilogy, but places them in LA during the Second World War. It’s the month of Pearl Harbor, 6-29 December 1941. It seamlessly takes the quartet and trilogy, adds four novels, and makes my oeuvre as a historical novelist one inextricable 11-novel whole. And although the story is very much about the injustice of the internment of the Japanese – most of them innocent – let me say, and this is very un-PC, the f*cking internment was not the Holocaust or the Soviet Gulag.
Will people disagree with that?
I don’t think they’d like my tone. But the book takes a theme I first got hip to thanks to Skyfall. It’s f*cking brilliant and it’s the only profound James Bond movie. They’re usually boring and overlong; the books are boring and racist. The stories are shoddy and sloppily plotted. But Skyfall is about the defence of the West, and that’s what the series is about. I also want to write an espionage trilogy set immediately after the Second World War called the Red Alert Trilogy. Churchill predicted the Iron Curtain and Soviet aggression, and thought we should go into Russia while they were weak after the Second World War. In hindsight, he was right.
How do you feel about Obama?
I hate him. I think he’s a coward, incompetent and I find him sinister. He’s the face of cancerous socialism under the guise of benevolence. His wife going on the Academy Awards by remote hook-up made them come across like Soviet apparatchiks. However, I don’t have a TV, cellphone or internet and I find the world untenable. I’m a big Tory. Big. Tory. There’s also a part of me that loves to say, “F*ck you, I’m a Republican.” I’m a Thatcherite and a Reaganite.
OK. You don’t have a TV, but some say that medium is now better at telling stories than films. Will you ever write a TV drama?
This is where my TV paycheques have come of late – people wanting to make an Ellroy TV show. I like the form, in fact I love the form. I watch TV shows at a friend’s house most Friday nights. I think Deadwood and Mad Men were intermittently quite wonderful, but often shoddy and veered into incoherence. I saw one or two episodes of The Wire and thought it was bullsh*t. Bad writing. And I have no sympathy for the underclass. I was hired to adapt LA Confidential for TV last summer, but it didn’t sell. I also came up with a TV show about the private eye Fred Otash. The cable channel FX paid me, and dumped it. We have an actor attached now and we’re putting the script out again. I‘d love to put my stamp on this form of drama if I could control it to the most minute level.
How do you write?
I have a strange writing schedule now. I go to bed at 8pm, wake up between 1.45 and 2.30am and work for three or four hours, then go back to sleep, then write again in the afternoon. I know how to exploit what’s been given to me: early parental dysfunction, my mother’s murder, all my crazy sh*t. The most startling moment I’ve had as an artist was in New York in 1985 while writing The Black Dahlia, and in a heartbeat the structural entirety of LA Confidential came to me. I then realised that whatever I could conceive, I could execute. So I’ve executed ever more grandly throughout my career.
The books have become more emotionally accessible. In [2009 novel] Blood’s A Rover there’s more interior monologue, more sex sh*t, more love sh*t. There’s even more of that in the novel I’m finishing now. Anyway, I need to go back to bed now. What are your plans for tomorrow?
Nothing concrete until about 4pm…
In that case, I’ll meet you back here at noon, after I’ve been to church, and we will continue. Don’t worry about the check, I’ve got this. And, whatever you do, don’t try getting a bus anywhere around here. Only a cab.
And, like that, the interview is paused. Ellroy leaves a 50 per cent tip for the waitress and darts away. I was warned he was a difficult interviewee, so was prepared for that. I wasn’t quite ready for the journalistic equivalent of the girl who texts to ask when you’ll see her again after a first date. As I wait for a cab a woman approaches me. “I know you from somewhere, don’t I? You’re a producer. I saw you with James Ellroy. I’m an actress. Here’s my card. Call me.” Welcome to Hollywood.
Less than 24 hours later I’m back in the diner. As I walk in he holds up an arm and says loudly, “Mr Isaacs!” Although I’m on time, he’s already eating. I order a sandwich he will eventually pay for, and get talking.
You’ve said you’ll only write about LA now. What do you love about the city?
My parents hatched me here. It’s a cool locale. As it happened, Raymond Chandler wrote about this place and preceded me. The likes of Double Indemnity were shot at Paramount – I grew up just south of there – and the movie features the market where I used to shoplift. My parents were quintessential LA arrivistes from the Midwest and East Coast. My mother was murdered here. Kevin Starr addressed the city from the left-hand side of the plate and viewed it as a dystopian nightmare, but I love this place. Now I live here because it’s where I come when women divorce me. The people I love are here, and I need to write movies and TV shows to earn a living. Plus, I love cars, girls and Mexican boxers. The winters here are great. My LA isn’t down and dirty. The fondness some people have for dives I don’t share. I can’t stand even a hint of discord or squalor. I’ve always preferred the more affluent parts of LA. I’ve always loved Beverly Hills. They used to have great movie theatres there when I was kid and you could lose yourself in a matinee.
You set your Lloyd Hopkins Trilogy books in the modern day. Would you write a contemporary novel again?
I don’t give a sh*t about the modern world. I was hassled by my agent to do it. I wanted to write third-person, multi viewpoint. I saw that I had to get to the historical novel – specifically The Black Dahlia. It allowed me to get to my work‘s major themes: the secret human infrastructure of big public events, and bad men in love with strong women.
You sound like you’re thinking about your legacy…
I’m very much doing that. I want to get my sh*t in line. In case I go to the doctor and he says, “Ellroy, you f*cker, you’ve got six months to live.” I want to leave a great literary legacy. I will leave legal documents so no one can ever co-opt my characters or write an Ellroy knock-off book, like when Robert B Parker finished a Raymond Chandler novel. I came of age when being a writer was a big deal. Now everyone’s a writer, due to the internet. Half the people in LA are writing screenplays that’ll never get made. I want to secure my literary legacy despite being more and more flummoxed by cyberspace, the internet and the dissolution of the civil contract. That’s part of my reason for wanting to come to Britain – I’m hoping there’s a higher standard. You’re smiling, so I think you’re going to say no!
Probably not as much as you’d like…
They’re so sincere, wonderful, especially the working-class people. I stick around to be with them if I’ve got time. There’s just that it in Britain that you don’t see here. And dogs are treated well there. I had a dog gig when I was a writer in New York in the Eighties, working on Because The Night. For a few months I was the caretaker of a big snowbound estate in Rhinebeck; keep the heat on, chop wood once a week and finish my book.
Wait, this isn’t going to be like The Shining is it?
No. Sh*t no! [Laughs] I was looking after two Akita females. I took walks with them across golf courses in the snow, and urinated and defecated with them. We were a pack. I wasn’t the leader, but we slept together at night. If it was cold I’d call it ‘a two-dog night’. They’d growl at me if I got up to take a leak. Grr. It was like having two big, good-looking women fighting over me. So good. I love women and I love dogs. The potential nightmare for me is I go to Britain and all I see is like in LA; meth labs, white trash and women with tattoos.
Perfidia is out in September (William Heinemann). To see Ellroy’s LA, stay at Maison 140 from $195 (maison140.com) and plan your trip at visitcalifornia.co.uk and lovebeverlyhills.com. Virgin Atlantic flies from Heathrow to LA from £691.75 (including tax); virgin-atlantic.com
(Images: Getty/Ulf Andersen/Kobal/LA Times)