James Ellroy

In 2009, James Ellroy completed his Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, a sprawling, globe-spanning shadow history of the United States from the late 1950s through the early ’70s. He’s much happier sitting still, however. In his new memoir, The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit Of Women, Ellroy shares some of the behind-the-scenes details of the years he spent writing the Underworld books, a period that saw the dissolution of his second marriage, a nervous breakdown, romances with a pair of elusive or unobtainable women (he calls them Helen and Joan in the memoir), his renewed appreciation for solitude and study, and finally, his new relationship with memoirist Erika Schickel.

Readers of Ellroy’s final Underworld novel, Blood’s A Rover, will instantly recognize Helen and Joan as the inspiration for two of its characters, but longtime Ellroy readers already know the line between his life and his fiction is thin. Ellroy’s mother was murdered in 1958, and that never-solved case, and the sense of sinister undercurrents running beneath the surface of everyday American existence, has informed his crime fiction from the start. It surfaces most explicitly in Ellroy’s breakthrough 1987 novel, The Black Dahlia, a fictionalized version of another famous unsolved murder case. Dahlia and the three other books (The Big Nowhere, the hit-film-inspiring L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz) have been collectively labeled as the L.A. Quartet. Ellroy returned more directly to his mother’s murder with his first memoir, My Dark Places, in 1996. The Hilliker Curse takes its title from Ellroy’s mother’s maiden name, and it focuses, per the subtitle, on his relationships with women. He’s devoted as much obsessive contemplation to that subject as to his other interests, classical music of the romantic period (especially Beethoven), and American history. On the cusp of writing a second L.A. Quartet, which he promises will be bigger than anything he’s written yet, Ellroy spoke to The A.V. Club from his Los Angeles apartment about his unexpectedly dramatic recent life, unplugging from popular culture, and a forthcoming TV show co-starring a cartoon dog.

The A.V. Club: You described yourself as being “willful and callow” when you approached My Dark Places. How has your approach to writing memoirs changed since then?

James Ellroy: You’ve read The Hilliker Curse, right? And you’ve read My Dark Places? Okay, you know what happened, is life kicked the shit out of me. And if you’ve read The Hilliker Curse, then you know all the details of my second marriage, with Helen Knode, who remains my best friend. And our jive open union deal, and Joan, and Karen, and my crack-up, and everything else. I had to consciously address the single largest journey of my life, which is not murder, it’s women. And I began to realize this, and formulate the memoir in ’06, when Joan dumped my ass, and I moved back here to put the moves on a woman I’d met for a minute and a half, who resembled a woman I’d seen in a dream, which was an astonishing conjunction of events. I began to see more clearly than I ever had, women as the biggest journey of my life, and the topic of a memoir that would be both universal—because no one wants to read a candy-assed discursive parenthetical-filled memoir indigenous to one human being. Memoirs must explicate larger spiritual and social issues, and I had a novel to write first, and I had some misadventures to go on, and it was only retrospectively that I realized, “Ah ha, there are specious underpinnings to My Dark Places.” Which does not relegate it to obscure status, in my oeuvre, but I was simply a younger man, a less experienced writer, and needed some hard lessons to unfold.

AVC: So this revelation that women have provided the overarching narrative of your life was around 2006. How did you think about women before that? 

JE: I have been—and you know this from The Hilliker Curse—that obsessed for that long. There’s a joke from the 1950s that says it all: “I want to find the guy who invented sex and ask him what he’s working on now.” It’s like that; I don’t understand lack of romantic drive in human beings, diffidence as pertains to romanticism and sex in human beings. For the life of me, I don’t understand how people can be more enamored of food or drink than romanticism and sexuality. It’s a head-scratcher for me, and I have lived in symphonic romanticism, at this point, for over half a century. The most important male figure in my life was not my father, or any male friend or colleague, it was Beethoven. It’s not just my opinion; this is the quintessential genius spawned by civilization. So I’m in the dark, I’m thinking about women in the way I described in the book, communing with Beethoven, and I decided to bring it to consciousness in this memoir, and got the assignment to write it in a reduced form, serialized in Playboy, [and in] enhanced form to write it for Alfred A. Knopf. I outlined it to keep it up to the moment as pertains to my relationship with women. And then just as I was heading toward the conclusion of me lying around expectantly in the dark, waiting for the phone to ring, fate intervenes in the form of Erika Schickel. 

AVC: Do you remember the first time you heard Beethoven? 

JE: Yes. I was in music class in the winter of 1960. My end of junior high school, John Burroughs Junior High School. In the first year of junior high school, you had one semester of art, and you did kid artwork: You painted, you drew pictures. And I had absolutely no aptitude for it. I was bored. And then it was music appreciation. The teacher’s name was Alan Hyams. God bless him, I hope he’s still with us. And he had a record player on the desk at the front of the room, and he said something along the lines of “Hey kids, dig this.” And he let the needle down on the record, and it was [Sings the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.] “Duh duh duh duuuuh.” And I’ve been going ever since. Rock ’n’ roll has never meant anything to me. That was, along with American history, criminal history, crime literature, these were my primary cultural influences. And since I don’t read anymore, and know what I know about American history to the extent that I do, and only read prepared research briefs that get me specifically the information that I require, classical music, the Romantic composers, Beethoven above all remain the key cultural influence in my life. And I learned more about writing big, densely packed, formally structured books from listening to symphonic music than I ever did from reading books.

AVC: People compare your prose style to jazz a lot, but it seems like this is a much bigger influence. Do you sense the rhythms of Beethoven and other composers in your writing? 

JE: No, it’s the sense of scope and proportion that classical music gives me. I enjoy jazz, in its more symphonic forms, its less improvised forms, but it’s classical music that’s given me the sense of structure that makes all the wild events depicted in my books—betrayal of masculinity gone wrong, romanticism in that these men in my books die for women—and I must create emotional order out of my overweening emotionality, and what I’m saying to you now is indicative of Beethoven, Liszt, Berlioz, Bruckner. Not Brahms, whose music was described by Nietzsche as the “melancholy of impotence.” Rachmaninoff certainly, Chopin to a lesser degree—these are the artists that have taught me. 

AVC: You have two memoirs out now. Does your personal tendency to unburden yourself of secrets have any relationship to your tendency to write about men who are overburdened with secrets? 

JE: Yes, and men who are obsessive. And I only understand A/B, dark/light, stop/go. And within those confines—because I’m religious, because I’m faithful, because I understand the dark side of authoritarianism, because I’m prone to misconduct—I must unburden myself, and I must do it artfully with an eye toward universal meaning. And I’ll repeat: anecdote after anecdote after anecdote in a memoir, assuming that your own life has universal importance because it is specifically your life, is not the way to go at this. The overweening issue, the enormous issue, the conjunction of men and women, the male sex drive, are bigger than you and I. And I intended The Hilliker Curse to explore those themes.

AVC: How do you know when you’ve hit on something universal rather than something specific to you?

JE: Conscious thought. I look at the material. I dissect it for universal meaning. I understood going in that The Hilliker Curse allowed me to write in an all-new form. Yes, it’s a memoir; more than anything else, it’s an autobiographical essay. This means I am allowed to describe events in the immediacy of their unfolding as a young man, a middle-aged man, and then attribute meaning to them, editorially, as an older man, in retrospection. Which is why there is the motif in that book of “then and now.” I do it repeatedly. The motifs are repeated there, alone in the dark—I must reiterate the phrase 25 times in that book, “then and now.” The book is deliberately intended to refract and enhance readers’ enjoyment of a sense of edification pertaining to my proceeding when the novel parts are over. Then, now. Then, now. 

AVC: The number of direct parallels between characters in Blood’s A Rover and the people in your own life is surprising.

JE: I owe that book to Karen, and I owe that book to Joan. Were it not for those severe ass-kickings that I received in the romantic netherworld with those two women, I wouldn’t have been capable of writing Blood’s A Rover. Karen and I were together for the bulk of the writing.

AVC: It seemed for a while there that you were on a course to lead a less dramatic life than you had before. You were settled in Kansas City, and you were established as a novelist. Were you surprised that your life took a turn for the more dramatic at your age?

JE: I had a nervous breakdown. You know it from having read the book. And at that time, I had been working way too hard, I was way too overcommitted, I was brutally suppressed emotionally, and I had been at the iron-willed pursuit of perfection for 23 years. And something had to give. And I dislike travel. I dislike variation of routine. I have always avoided frivolity and non-efficacious stimulation, and I hadn’t yet reached the point of breaking. And my nerves were shot to shit. I was in a state of acute nervous exhaustion. Although I was in fine, fine health while all of this transpired, I simply could not stop thinking, stop ascribing meaning, stop performing, stop working, and I couldn’t sleep. And as a result of existing in that state of physical exhaustion, every single long-suppressed emotion and the emotional cost of my life to date—the gutter-to-stars extreme walk of it—manifested physically, and I could not keep the world out.

AVC: The last time we spoke, you described yourself as a moralist. Your memoir is filled with what a lot of people would consider immoral behavior. Did you have to fight the temptation to justify your actions in writing this? 

JE: No. I state there that I wrestled with the notion of adultery as a sin with Karen, and I had already met a series of women who I was in no way involved with who were in a similar existential condition. They were fiercely bright women, capable women in their 40s, who had felt the urge, the very natural urge, the essentially female urge, to create a zone of safety and to bear children. And frankly, found themselves a seed-bearing wimp to carry his part of the weight. And I never for a moment with Karen thought that she wouldn’t see the wisdom in dumping the husband to be with me. And I was very much mistaken there. And I felt queasy about it, and my read on this woman was that if she remained in this state of psychic and physical duress with the husband and these two children, she will go insane in a manner that would make my bout of insanity, my nervous breakdown, look oblique. And I misjudged. 

AVC: Do you find it easier to talk about your fiction or your nonfiction? You’re very frank about the details of your recent life in The Hilliker Curse, which can’t be easy.

JE: It’s like this: I love the book, I think the book is universal in its meaning, that was my intent, I fully expect the book to be misread, misjudged. I fully expect people to skeptical about my relationship with Erika Schickel, which continues to flourish beyond my wildest dreams, and continues to play out in the manner that it was playing out when we were conjoined 15 months ago. And I wrote the book, up to the moment that Playboy needed the reduced version, and Knopf needed the finished version, the version that you just read. And it’s equally easy for me to talk about the fiction and the nonfiction, and you’ve noted the parallels between my two most recent books, and they’re inextricable to me. And the next time I write a novel, which will be very, very soon, and I discuss it with you and other journalists, then we will have the issue of the time and the place to discuss. 

AVC: You have a habit of being drawn to professedly left-wing women, and now you’re writing characters who have that habit too. How do you explain that attraction?

JE: There’s the glib answer, which is that I’ve never met a gassy women out for a passionate relationship in church or on the Los Angeles Police Department. I think women are more drawn to the dubious ideologies inherent in secular humanism. And that’s the sociological gene pool that I live in. And I’m not looking for ease in relationships with women; I always cringe when a male friend of mine, who’s very fixated on women, puts “compatibility” at the top of his list of attributes that he would be looking for in a woman. I would replace compatibility with dialectic. The most prominent example of a cultural war in a relationship that I had was with Joan. Helen and I would concede willingly to the wisdom of the other person’s worldview; we were not out, pathologically, to fight. Ditto Karen. It’s certainly true with Erika. But I’m way past the idea of using ideology or political view as a gauge of human character. I simply don’t believe it. And many people, I tend to think most people, feel that way. Since I don’t have to worry about it, I’m happy.

AVC: “Dialectic” seems to be a key to understanding how the sweep of politics and ideologies works in your novels. It seems odd that someone who would repeat that and illustrate that through novels would, when talking about himself, come down firmly on the side of strong views about morality and God.

JE: Yeah, these are my beliefs. Let’s go back to Blood’s A Rover, which you read, and its corollary in The Hilliker Curse. There are people, cultural critics, people at large, who see no distinction between being a conservative, and going out and murdering civil-rights leaders and liberal politicians. And that’s their faulty dilemma that they will have to deal with. Blood’s A Rover is a romantic novel; one can make the case that Don Crutchfield—a real-life character, with many of my personal attributes, and certainly my personal backstory—undergoes a process of political conversion because he witnesses endemic corruption in the Dominican Republic, and sees racist misdeeds firsthand. I don’t think anything in what I just said contradicts the ideological text of conservatism. Wayne Tedrow, with his horrible, horrible history of misdeeds with black people, which were never enacted intentionally, falls in love with a black woman. Crutchfield, who’s love-starved, virginal, falls in love with the photograph and his personal viewing of Joan Klein, and in his haste to love her, in all his murdered-mother misery, ennui, and trauma, must make his worldview conform to Joan Rosen Klein’s, in order to love her. That’s the moral and emotional basis of Blood’s A Rover. 

AVC: You said you don’t read newspapers, you don’t have a computer, and you don’t go to movies. At what point did you feel like unplugging from contemporary culture?

JE: Very, very much so, when I moved back to Los Angeles on the heels of—since we’re referencing Curse—my breakup with Helen Knode and getting dumped by Joan. I moved into the apartment that I’m talking to you from, and began enjoying—because I was living alone—my solitude on a renewed level. I’ve always laid in the dark, conjured women, thought about American history, pondered Beethoven. I do it every night that I’m not with Erika. At a point during that time, everything cohered formally for me. I began to see the parameters of the rest of my career. I conceived The Hilliker Curse knowing full well that I had to write the novel first, and was very, very much spurred by the idea of honoring the real Joan. Very much spurred by notions of the real Karen, as she and I unfolded and she resisted all my imprecations to leave her husband and begin a life with me. Concurrent with this, the idea of having daughters overtook me, in a very big way, much later in life. And it hasn’t panned out. And that’s life. Ironically, Erika has two wonderful daughters. 

Everything other than yes/no, A/B, dark/light felt inimical, if not antithetical, to my intent. I very much enjoyed the process of interdicting the culture. I’m older; I have a great love of the English parlance. I can’t stand dipshit, tattooed, lacquered, varnished, depilatoried younger people talking their stupid shit, stage-sighing, saying “It’s like, I’m like, whatever,” and talking in horrible clichés, rolling their eyes when they disapprove of something. I saw that the culture was pandering more and more to this kid demographic. And in the course of driving from here to there, I began to see more and more billboards for vile misogynistic horror films, white-trash reality-TV shows, neck-biting fucked-up vampire flicks, and stoned-out teenage-boy pratfall comedies. Bad drama, bad comedy, that portrayed life preposterously, frivolously, and ironically, and that got to me. So I would drive here, there, and elsewhere through residential neighborhoods in order to avoid billboards. Since I wasn’t married and had no more in-law commitments, and was starting over again in a new locale, I developed strong friendships with male colleagues where we share the common goal of work and earning money, and I became fixated on women in my late 50s more than I’ve ever been fixated on women in my woman-fixated fucking life. My time in the dark felt productive rather than reductive, and the rest of the chronology, you know from the book. And I’m comfortable living in this manner, which people find hard to believe that I’m happy. It’s a gas. It’s a gas. 

AVC: It’s mostly hard to believe that a lifelong voracious reader can give up reading other people’s books.

JE: Well, sir, and this is on the record, I’ve blurbed a lot of books I haven’t read. Blurbed a lot of books I haven’t read, and have decided to drop the curtain on that. I’m certainly not going to do that anymore. The only way I ever change is to make up my mind to abstain, and the product of my Christian education is, it’s simply my temperament. But here’s the thing: Classical music fulfills for me the function of narrative. I spend 90 minutes a day listening to symphonic music—Beethoven to Bartók—some chamber pieces, and that’s my enrichment. I don’t feel in any way obligated to remain current with the culture. I feel no social obligation whatsoever. I trust my morality in the narrow path I trek through the world as I work. I’ve been very much enjoying the financial flatline—and divorce, frankly, and alimony—because I dig struggle. I love to fight. And I’ve enjoyed the financial necessity of going out and finding work in what is to many a dwindling marketplace, but to me seems to be an ever-expanding marketplace. 

AVC: How so?

JE: I have colleagues; we are always on the phone trying to hatch something to make some dough. Because if I’m not with Miss Schickel, laying in the dark thinking deep shit, communing with God, I want to be working. 

AVC: In the past, that’s taken the form of screenplays. Are you working on anything now?

JE: I have my own television show that will debut in the late fall on the Discovery Channel.

AVC: You alluded to a television show in the book, but it sounded like a project that never took off. 

JE: Well, I talk about writing many TV pilots for money that were never filmed, and that was certainly the case. So nothing going on there. But in December or perhaps early January, my television show—we’re shooting it now—called James Ellroy’s L.A.: City Of Demons will debut on the Investigation Discovery division of the Discovery Channel. And it’s a crime magazine show, built around my vision, my personality. I interview people. I’m on camera for the entire thing. I write all of the voiceover narration. I talk about, we talk about, my guests talk about indigenous Los Angeles crime, the historical periods depicted in my fiction, my autobiography, my fixation on dead women, my fixation on women in general. And I have a computer-generated talking dog, a sidekick, called Barko, who is my beloved bull terrier. And astoundingly, since I am computer illiterate, Barko can talk. Barko’s on the LAPD, and he’s corrupt, and he’s a strong-arm cop, and he’s funny as shit, and he chases women, and deals drugs, and engages in misconduct. And this bountiful and wonderful canine exemplifies all my conflicting attitudes toward authority. As I do, very strongly, veer on the side of authority. We interact, and I interview people, and there are marvelous archival clips, and I delve into more recent crimes. It’s a gas. I’m on a TV show. 

AVC: You probably would not have expected that a few years ago.

JE: You know, I never—if a book of mine is optioned for the movies—I certainly got lucky with L.A. Confidential, but I don’t think about it. I focus on the work at hand, and that mentality has saved my ass time and time again. Because the L.A. Confidential movies of the world come and go. They just come and go. And they’re remunerative for the time that they are, and then… you better write a book.