Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Onion talks to crime-fiction kingpin James Ellroy

Mystery writer James Elroy poses for a portrait September 8, 1996 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo: Bryce Lankard/Liaison)

The A.V. Club, which started as a non-satirical pop culture supplement to The Onion, first went online in 1996. In honor of 1996 Week, we’re republishing vintage interviews from that year.

James Ellroy’s fiction works—classic books like American Tabloid and L.A. Confidential—include some of the world’s finest contemporary crime fiction. But in many ways, the new My Dark Places is his most compelling work to date: Ellroy’s first non-fiction book, it tells the harrowing story of his attempt to investigate and come to terms with his mother’s brutal murder 38 years ago. The Onion recently spoke to Ellroy about his new book, his place in the world, his persona as “Dog,” his hard-living past, his future writing, and sports cars.

Advertisement

The Onion: So, how’s it going? Are you recovered from writing this book?

James Ellroy: I don’t want to recover from writing this book. I feel very poised. I feel like I’m with my mother for the first time ever. I feel like I’ve confronted her, and the confrontation goes on. You’ve read the book. There is no closure. Closure is a preposterous concept worthy of the worst aspects of American daytime TV. It goes on. But my role relationship to the event will continue to mutate. My relationship to my mother will continue to change as I revise my judgments of her depending on what I learn about her. It goes on. But I feel no less obsessive about my work and no less passionately committed to the life I have now, but I feel poised inside. Which is a good thing to feel at 48. So, did you love the book?

O: Um, yeah. I loved the book.

JE: I think it’s a monster.

O: Well, you’d know. You’ve always been very pro-James Ellroy.

JE: Well, you know I work hard. I’m grateful for the life I have. I lived bad for many years, and I’ve got a great life now. I’ve got the kind of life people only dream about. You know, it’s good! It’s just good.

O: Yeah, but describe exactly how you lived bad.

JE: Well, it’s there in the book. I drank, I used drugs, I broke into houses, sniffed women’s undergarments. I ate Benzedrex inhalers, jacked off for 18 hours at a pop, lived with my dad in a shitpad I described in the book. He laughed when nothing was funny and told TV commentators to fuck off and suck [his] dick. And I never felt terribly put down by any of this, which is interesting. I almost had an intransigent mental spirit. I always wanted things. How did I change my life? I wanted things. I wanted women and I wanted to write books. I wanted things. Whatever it cost and whatever it took, I would do it. And that’s it. That’s what saw me through. Shit, I lived bad. Now, I live in Kansas City. Now I’m an uptight rich square-ass WASP motherfucker.

O: Well, God bless you.

JE: Yes. Life is good, man. Life is good. You, you got the WASP part down. Your parents did you a favor there, right?

O: Yeah, a happy accident of birth. But you, you’re kind of from white trash.

JE: Well, interestingly, my father actually went to college, and my mother went to nursing school, so, you know. I wouldn’t… They were actually too square and right-wing to be hip, too well-educated to be white trash, too sexy to be square. They really didn’t fit any mold. They weren’t really hipsters. They were just—they were two of a kind, those two. They didn’t fit on any of the pegs of the 1950s, that’s for damn sure.

O: And then again, you have this persona about you, the way you ask to be called “Dog.” And on book tours and in interviews you’ve described yourself as a “knight of the far right.”

JE: I just do that to give people shit, especially in leftist enclaves. It’s just a schtick. That’s all it is. White knight, far right. Rhymes. Death-dog-with-a-hog-log. And I’ve toned down that act for this tour. It’s a very serious book for me. And I think the reviews reflect that so far. But all that’s just an act and that’s all it is. I like to have fun out there. I work hard, and then I get to cut loose and go out and tour, and I enjoy it. I like to go out and meet the people. I love to sell books.

O: You seem to. You scared the living shit out of Conan O’Brien.

JE: Yeah. He was not up to me. No. “Hey, I’m an Irish Catholic!” So? I’m German Protestant, so what? Fuck you. Hey, I’m going do his show again in December. I’m not gonna scare him this time, though. Tall motherfucker! Taller than me. Big guy.

O: Those guys are always tall. It helps them physically intimidate the guests, I think.

JE: Yeah, Letterman’s tall, too. Is Leno tall? I don’t think he’s tall. Anyway.

O: A lot of people were expecting American Tabloid, your Kennedy assassination book, to really tick off the Kennedys. Or at least fans of the Kennedys.

JE: Nah. They don’t give a shit. They’re way past commenting, those people.

O: And you don’t care?

JE: Nah, I don’t care.

O: Are you afraid that anything in this book—in which you’re pretty hard on yourself and revealing some ugly hard things about yourself—is going to turn anybody off of James Ellroy?

JE: Sure. It’ll turn people on and it’ll turn people off, and I figure that as long as more people are turned on than turned off, I’m doing fine. If more people are turned off than turned on, that’s the way it goes. You know the boxing term, “He went out on his shield,” right?

O: Actually, yes.

JE: That’s what I did with this book. Anything less than total candor was bullshit. I owed that to my readers, I owed that to myself, and I owed that most specifically to my mother. I’ve had some thrilling moments in my 18-year literary career to this point, and nothing comes close to giving Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, the farm girl from Tunnel City, Wisconsin, to the world. People have said, “Did you write this book to exploit your mother’s memory and make money?” And there’s a simple answer to that, which is, I got paid less than half of what I get paid for my novels. I spent just about the entire U.S. advance on the investigation. If I wanted to make money I would have written another novel. You know, I addressed the issue of exploiting my mother’s memory, especially concerning The Black Dahlia, and the tour I did for that book nine years ago. I feel poised. Not really at peace with my mother, because I’m determined to learn more about her. But I feel good. I feel good inside.

O: It was kind of a shock to me, and to many people I’m sure, that you’re married. Happily married. I know that for some people it added to your rep a bit when your first marriage broke up rather quickly.

JE: Yeah. Well. What people don’t understand, particularly younger people with the rock ‘n’ roll sensibility—wearers of black, grad students, counterculturites, all that—they like to think I’m a certain way. Look at the books. Look at how fuckin’ meticulously they’re constructed. You would have to be an absolutely disciplined, mentally controlled, systematic, meticulous worker capable of sustaining great concentration to write the kind of books that I write. The 250-page outline for American Tabloid. The books are so dense. They’re so complex, you cannot write like I write off the top of your head. It’s the combination of that meticulousness and the power of the prose and, I think, the depth of the characterizations and the risks that I’ve taken with language that give the books their clout. And that’s where I get pissed off at a lot of my younger readers. I come on avuncular sometimes: I say to a young guy, “Son, what are you doing? I’m your dad. I drank, I used drugs, I hate William Burroughs, I hate Hunter Thompson, I hate Charles Bukowski, I don’t think any of ‘em were worth a shit, and none of ‘em can write, and William Burroughs is a misogynist cocksucker who murdered his mother.” [Long pause.] His, ah, mother? Oops, Freudian slip. Murdered his wife. People can’t take that. I get confronted with that all the time. I’m quiet. I’m peaceful. I’m 48 fuckin’ years old. I got a great marriage. My wife is profound. I’ve had more poontang than fuckin’ Frank Sinatra. I don’t need to prove myself that way anymore. I got a woman I’m loyal to above all things, above my career. She’s profound to me. I’m quiet. I live in Kansas City. I work. I’m not interested in popular culture. I hate Quentin Tarantino. I rarely go to movies. I hate rock ‘n’ roll. I work. I think. I listen to classical music. I brood. I like sports cars.

O: You like sports cars?

JE: I love sports cars, yeah.

O: What do you run?

JE: Well, we’ve got an 840-series BMW now.

O: Oh, yeah!

JE: You like those?

O: Yeah. If it was my six figures to spend, I’d get the 850, but hey.

JE: Well, I’ll tell you one thing that’s frustrating about them, and I’ve driven them both: You can’t get a six-speed manual transmission this year. It’s the Steptronic. It’s okay—there’s no clutch, you go 1-2-3-4-5 up and down—but it’s not the same thing. They’re great-lookin’ cars, don’t you think?

O: Hell yeah.

JE: I drove an 850 with both the Steptronic transmission and a used six-speed model, and listen, the 840 with the AC on gets 11 mpg. I mean, they lie about what you get. The 850, well, I don’t know what that gets, but it’s a little too cramped for me. I’m tallish, and it just isn’t sporty enough. Great car, great performer, but it ain’t a Porsche. It ain’t an Acura NSX. The 850Ci that I drove, with a six-speed? It’s fuckin’ so motor-heavy, and so heavy up front, that it steers like a muscle car. It’s a drag. It’s a drag, and it’s too much engine. You don’t need 12 cylinders; you don’t need that kind of acceleration. You can lay rubber in three gears, which is a kick, but at the same time it isn’t a six-cylinder rear-engined Porsche, which would just blow it off the line. So, anyway… [Laughs.]

O: Yeah, anyway. In your books, there seem to be two main forces at work: There’s evil, and there’s weakness, and those are the two things that oppose each other throughout your books.

JE: I think there’s a strong moral line in the books, and it’s not a moral line you can attribute to any one character. It’s just the overriding karmic zap that all my bad guys who fuck other people get. And my guys are essentially guys who discover their humanity a bit late in life, and learn the power of self-sacrifice and sometimes die and get blown up behind it. I find that very moving; it’s a moving part of the male drama to me. I think the great unspoken theme in noir fiction is male self-pity. It pervades noir movies. I think you’re on to something there. My guys are morally weak, and they reach toward a tenuous knowledge of self-sacrifice, and sometimes it’s too late. I find that moving. It’s not a life I’d want to live. But, then, I’m not completely my books.

O: Why the obsession with bad white men?

JE: I think it all has to do with the world I first glimpsed the day my mother died. Men in suits, authority figures, darkness just around the corner. El Monte. White trash. L.A. County. Cops. Men cheating on their wives. Homosexual informants. Hophead jazz musicians, that kind of stuff. Black be-bop players. Guys carrying beaver-tailed saps. Toadies for the right-wing establishment. I sensed it. My mind was a police blotter.

O: How did you go about applying that idea to My Dark Places? One of the most striking things about it is that it’s so similar in tone to your novels.

JE: I needed to address that I’ve had some profound moral shifts in my own life. I cleaned up. I quit drinking, I quit doing drugs, I quit stealing, I quit breaking into houses, I tried to quit being a bad human being. I developed a conscience later in life than many. I call it the lost-time-regained dynamic. I can err on the side of being judgmental at the drop of a hat. Bill Stoner [with whom Ellroy investigated his mother’s murder] is actually, I think, in many ways a person who appreciates the concept of mitigation, and acts on it more than me. He’s the cop, I’m the writer. It’s one of the reasons we made such an interesting team, parenthetically.

O: Do cops like your books? In My Dark Places, you mentioned Jack Webb’s book as being a big influence on you as a kid. He was notoriously tight and buddy-buddy with all Los Angeles cops. I don’t imagine that you are, but do cops ever give you feedback on your books?

JE: I have policeman friends. Stoner’s my best friend, and I know a retired LAPD homicide detective who’s a good friend. I’ve never gotten any shit from cops, no. Joe Wambaugh’s a friend. I know him only casually, but I like him a lot. I think he likes my books.

O: What writers do you like, who you would perhaps consider your influences?

JE: Wambaugh, more than anything else. Dashiell Hammett.

O: You don’t have any feelings for, say, Raymond Chandler, or…

JE: Yeah, Chandler, I just… I reread him now, and there’s a lot of bad writing there. I don’t think he knew much about people. I think Hammett’s a much more important guy.

O: Where would you say you fit in the structure or hierarchy of American crime fiction?

JE: I think I’m out of crime fiction now, and I think the dividing line is American Tabloid. I don’t think I will write anything that could be even remotely considered a genre novel from this point on. I think I’ve graduated. I’m trying to be less bombastic. I love my books. I think I’ve done things nobody else has done. I don’t think I came out of anybody. I think I developed out of the influences I described in My Dark Places. American history, L.A. of the 1950s. I’m comfortable with that. I am my only point of reference at 48 years old. I don’t have any literary points of reference right now. I don’t give a shit what’s out there. I don’t read. I’ll tell you this: After this book tour, I’m doing France, Japan, Germany and Sweden, and I will never answer another personal question after this book is over with. You’re getting it in now.

O: So, from now on, you’re done with L.A. in the ‘50s. And you’re going to continue what you started in American Tabloid—your Secret History of America, or whatever you decide to call it?

JE: I would say that’s the general design for the rest of my career, yes. The next novel will be a direct sequel to American Tabloid. It will begin five minutes after American Tabloidleft off and go up through the assassination of Robert Kennedy. The two surviving members of the Tabloid troika continue. They get into trouble, they get out of trouble, they meet women, they fall in love, they have a blast. They learn dark truths about themselves and try to change. I think as much as I show bad white men getting into trouble, I will now show them trying to get out of trouble, because I confronted my mother. I wrote My Dark Places. I think her specific lesson to me as a writer is to show a greater diversity of character and motive in my books.

O: You don’t see any problems taking yourself away from the time and place that shaped you?

JE: I did it with Tabloid. Time’s Novel of the Year. My best book. No. I don’t think so. It’s consciousness. You try to learn who you are. You work hard. You’ve either got it or you don’t when it comes to writing books. And you tend to only get these things if you want them, and want them to the exclusion of everything else. And that’s what I did. That’s why it’s worked out for me. I came to work.

Share This Story