James Ellroy is a man with few secrets. After spending his early years drifting from one sordid situation to another following his mother's still-unsolved 1958 murder, he beat back a handful of addictions in the '70s, found steady employment as a caddie, and began writing. His autobiographical work–most memorably My Dark Places, his 1996 memoir/true-crime account of his mother's death—is unflinchingly honest, and he brings the same unblinking directness to the bad guys and the clay-footed heroes of his crime fiction. Early efforts like Brown's Requiem and Killer On The Road earned him a cult following, but he didn't truly find his voice until 1987's The Black Dahlia, a fictionalized account of a famous Hollywood murder that bore similarities to the death of Ellroy's mother.
The Black Dahlia initiated an overlapping series Ellroy dubbed his "L.A. Quartet." The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential (adapted as a hit film in 1997), and White Jazz followed, advancing Ellroy's shadow history of post-war Los Angeles and further paring down his prose to a telegraphic essence. With its completion, Ellroy launched the still-in-progress "Underworld USA" trilogy with 1996's American Tabloid, which blew his often-nightmarish vision of a world driven by brutish men and shady assignations up to a national scale with a story that culminated in the JFK assassination. Between that book and 2001's equally massive The Cold Six Thousand, Ellroy filled his time with screenwriting projects, the occasional piece of short fiction, and short pieces of non-fiction, mostly for GQ. While working on the final Underworld USA installment, Ellroy recently released Destination: Morgue!, an anthology of autobiographical sketches, three linked novellas, and journalism that revisits unsolved murders, celebrity trials, and his own past, topics touched on in a recent conversation with The Onion A.V. Club.
The Onion: Apart from autobiographical work, what opportunities does non-fiction present to you that fiction can't?
James Ellroy: I get to go back to Los Angeles, my smog-bound fatherland, and indulge my curiosity in unsolved murders of women, and do things like read the Stephanie Gorman file for that [Destination: Morgue!] piece, "Stephanie." Ilena Silverman, now at The New York Times Magazine, got me to write the piece on Gary Graham. She wanted me to write a piece on the death penalty, and explore the case of someone who might have been dubiously convicted, although 85 percent of me thinks that Gary Graham was guilty. Art Cooper suggested "I've Got The Goods," about tabloid journalism. I've utilized tabloid journalism in the '50s in my fiction. There was also the piece on the creative process, "Where I Get My Weird Shit," and the further autobiographical piece, "My Life As A Creep," originally entitled "Beaver Man." Can't get everything you want, kid.
O: You're back in California now, right?
JE: Yeah, I live on the Monterey Peninsula.
O: You've effusively praised Kansas City. It seemed to suit you. Why leave?
JE: The fuckin' heat drove me out of there. Very hot a third of the year. Monterey's beautiful: It's temperate, right on the ocean.
O: It was never the need to flee L.A. that drove you out?
JE: I wanted to be somewhere else. At the time, I wanted to move east. That was in '81, around the time my first novel was published. I had never been anywhere but L.A. It was time to move.
O: Do you think having been born and raised there, and not having left for so long, gives you a perspective that other L.A. writers don't have?
JE: I can write about L.A. wherever I happen to find myself, but I made a conscious decision after my L.A. Quartet books that I wouldn't utilize L.A. as the strict locale of my novel-length fiction. Hence American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand were set throughout all of America. I was lucky to be born there, I stayed there for many years, and I like going back periodically, but I couldn't live there.
O: Do you find yourself at a disadvantage when you're writing about New York, or Chicago, or another city?
JE: No, but I trust the old Joan Didion line. She said something like, "A place belongs to the writer who claims it most obsessively." In that case, L.A. is mine. The three novellas in the back of Destination: Morgue! are all set in L.A.
O: The last time we spoke with you, you described yourself as "an uptight, rich, square-ass, WASP motherfucker." Does that description still fit?
JE: Well, of course, there's a little bit of the tongue-in-cheek in there, given the kind of shit that I write about. That's the persona that I've adopted, and there are great elements of truth in that. But I sure as hell have a wild imagination for a motherfucker like that.
O: The "uptight" tag seems least appropriate, given where you come from and what you write about.
JE: I think what I was commenting on there was the fact that I despise sordidness and low-life, and avoided it at all costs. I like wholesome, homogenous, peaceful surroundings and amenable people. In that case, L.A. is out, Chicago would be out, New York would be out. The Monterey Peninsula suits me just fine.
O: You said that you coldheartedly decided to use your mother's murder to promote The Black Dahlia. Did you ever fear that your life story would detract attention from your fiction, or change the way people read it?
JE: No. The books are inextricable from me, and I repaid my debt to my mother when I wrote My Dark Places. I copped to exploiting her death to sell books for The Black Dahlia. Still, cherchez la femme: Look for the woman. There are always these unsolved murders of women coming back to bite me on the ass.
O: Looking at your work, it's tempting to draw a line between The Black Dahlia and the L.A. Quartet and what came before it. Do you feel that's when your writing started to come into its own?
JE: Yes, The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz; there was a huge dividing line, as the two more recent novels, American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand, are political novels. It was rising to the occasion of The Black Dahlia that haunted me for so many years, that got me to write a book that fine. When I finished that book, I saw that I only wanted to write epic-length period fiction, and I've been following that lead ever since.
O: There's a shift in prose style, too. Is there any influence you can attribute that to, or was it just a matter of material, changing the way you write?
JE: It came about accidentally, in that I needed to cut 150 pages of L.A. Confidential. It was plot-inviolate, but it ran too long. Thus I began to trim individual scenes, so that there's a telegraphic quality to the prose that fits the story I'm telling: the violence of the action and the violence of the language. I utilized that to a greater degree, stream-of-consciousness style, in White Jazz, which is written in the first person. Then I went back to a more standardized, more explicated style in American Tabloid and My Dark Places. The style I developed for The Cold Six Thousand is a direct, shorter-rather-than-longer sentence style that's declarative and ugly and right there, punching you in the nards. It was appropriate for that book, and that book only, because it's the 1960s. It's largely the story of reactionaries in America during that time, largely a novel of racism and thus the racial invective, and the overall bluntness and ugliness of the language. And the book that I'm working on now, which is a sequel to The Cold Six Thousand, is a different style entirely.
O: You've been working on a lot of film projects lately. How does that differ from the publishing industry?
JE: The movies will never be made. And I understood that going in. I exploited my reputation as a novelist to take rest periods between novels. A novel is very taxing. To earn money writing movies… I don't disdain the process—I don't condescend to the process—but I know full well that the motion-picture business is largely dysfunctional, and that the majority of all commissioned screenplays fail to be filmed for one reason or another. So I go at it to the best of my ability, but I honestly don't care if any of these screenplays I work on ever get filmed. I don't think about it.
O: You don't mind the work being lost?
JE: It's all collected in my drawer, and it'll all end up in my archive at the University of South Carolina.
O: In your essay "I've Got The Goods," you allude to possibly becoming a Lutheran minister. How seriously should we take that?
JE: Not seriously at all. But for all my dark curiosities and profane shtick, I'm a moral guy, and the books are moral, and I think I'm a moralist. I've said this before, so if you see this quote on the Internet, don't be surprised: Morality in literature is largely the expositing of moral acts and their consequences, the karmic price of the perpetrators of the immoral acts, for having committed them. In that sense, I think the books are very moral.
O: You're on the record about hating the notion of closure, but you believe in redemption, correct?
JE: It happens for individuals, yeah.
O: How does that come about? In your books, it seems like it's a process of plunging into the depths before you can come out the other side.
JE: It is, and there's redemption in love. Generally, in my books, some bad men will find some strong women. I once told an interviewer that the subtitle for the L.A. Quartet should be "Bad Men In Love With Strong Women." There's the fact that my guys ultimately come to see the futility of their evil ways, and learn the value of self-sacrifice.
O: As a moral individual, does it ever disturb you to spend so much time with men doing bad things?
JE: No, and this sounds coldhearted, I realize, but the people don't exist. They just reflect my moral concerns and my curiosities and my overall obsession with history, with re-creating it.
O: Do you have any theories as to why the public latches on to some murder cases and not others?
JE: Generally, more than anything else, it's sex. There's a good sex quotient, like the Laci Peterson murder: good-looking woman victim, good-looking woman girlfriend… I haven't followed this one.
O: How long does it take to research your big novels, versus the time it actually takes to write them?
JE: Three-to-one, the actual writing of the text… maybe four-to-one. I hire researchers to compile fact sheets and chronologies. I give them their marching orders; I know what I want, going in. Then it's a question of putting together all my notes on character, plot, milieu, style, historical events. I start connecting them, and then I write a huge outline, a formal outline. For example, the outline for The Cold Six Thousand was 350 pages. The novel itself is 672 pages. It was an 1,100-page typed manuscript.
O: When you're researching these stories, you encounter all kinds of conspiracy theories. Is sorting the bullshit from the real stuff a priority? How watertight do you need these to be, factually?
JE: They need to be factually valid. When I state a historical fact, it needs to be correct chronologically and in detail. Beyond that, what I'm giving you is a secret history. My themes often express the private nightmare of public policy. We all know that attending every great violent, seismic, public event, there must be small minions out there doing their dirty, ant-like work. These are my guys. You have to be able to extrapolate off the bigger events the lower-level implementation of the bigger events. Then you've got the books that I write. I think the books are factually valid that way, yes.
O: During this year's election, Slate.com polled novelists about their political leanings, and they were overwhelmingly for John Kerry. Why are most novelists Democrats?
JE: Because they're misguided humanists. I would never say whom I'm voting for. I actually don't like that whole "Let's weigh in because we're a name" sensibility. I avoid that question.
O: That must be partly due to the rarity of encountering an author who doesn't toe the liberal line on most issues.
JE: Oh, I'm not a liberal. People have figured that out. The third novella in Destination: Morgue! is called "Jungletown Jihad." It starts out with [an appearance by an] informant, Habid Rashad, a male Arab. This has got "Rhino" Rick Jensen, the narrator, and his cop partners knocking on the door of the informant. When he opens up, I describe him as a "full-drag dune coon" in a "Hussein-esque house smock" and a "boss burnoose from Bin Laden's Boutique." One cop laughs, and the other says, "Hey, Ahab the A-rab, where's your camel, motherfucker?" The walkouts I get from reading this are hilarious. I was just at a book fair in the South. I knew I'd get 10 liberals and 10 Christians walking out, and I did.
O: That must be something you deal with all the time: people confusing your characters' racism for your own.
JE: You know what? Call me racist, and call me a xenophobe, but I'm not wild about Arab terrorists. I think they're a bunch of camel-fucking motherfuckers. And I want to make fun of them, because I'm a bad guy. And anyone out there who doesn't like it can kiss my ass. It's saying it that's so much fun. I'll admit, in some ways, even though I'm 56 years old, and dare I say a great artist and a wonderful human being and all that, and reasonably sensitive, there's just some part of me that's immature, that likes fucking over people and pissing them off.