The following James Ellroy Q&A session has
been transcribed verbatim by Jonny Walsh.
It is taken from his appearance
to promote his new novel Perfidia,
at Manchester’s Dancehouse Theatre,
on Bonfire Night 2014.
… It was a new level of the American idiom and one indigenous to 1941 Los Angeles. It’s the greatest run of diversity that I’ve ever had in my books. I write from a woman’s perspective, a closet homosexual Japanese-American criminologist in the deepest of shit after the Pearl Harbour attack. A real-life character – William H. Parker, Captain on the LAPD in 1941. He was easily the greatest American policeman of the 20th Century. He would go on to take over the LAPD as Chief in 1950 and reform it from the ground up.
And, lest we forget, the demonic Irish Cop – Dudley Smith from the LA Quartet… Lad. Played by the imperiously tall James Cromwell, and sinister… in LA Confidential, which is not as good as the book.
This man asked me about the sources of language I use in my books…
It’s the American idiom. It’s my great love of slang, profanity, racial jive, alliteration. It’s the laughs inherent in shocking people. It’s being a bad kid sounding off in church for the sheer shock value of it. It’s scandal language of the American 1950s…
Here’s a line from my novella Tijuana, Mon Amour…
“Sensational Sinatra, a macho-maned momma’s boy, and pussy whipped putz, a punk with a pack of pit dogs to rough up recidivistic reporters.”
I love that shit.
At some point, and it’s at an early point in the note taking process for my novels, I write:
Racial-Shit – 5 exclamation points.
Sex-Shit – 5 exclamation points.
Wild-Ass Language-Shit – 5 exclamation points.
Animals Doing Outrageous Things – 5 exclamation points.
You have a funny scene: some cops are discussing wacking a traitorous informant. One of the cops has a beloved pit bull. What does the pit bull do? Amble off and get himself a drink of bracing toilet water…
Dog-Shit – 5 exclamation points.
You keep the vulgarity going with the overall sterling intellect the books express and the deep metaphysic of this grand geopolitical event… World War II.
David Simon – The creator of The Wire once said he credited the success of The Wire from being set in Baltimore, rather than New York or LA. Do you think your writing has suffered from being set so much, so obviously in LA, that it’s never considered more universal?
It is universal, it is considered as such.
I think it’s bullshit… I’ve seen three episodes of The Wire and I thought The Wire was bullshit. I can tell you what David Milch, who created Deadwood, thinks of The Wire. You know what his great quote is?
“A thousand miles wide, and an inch deep.”
I’ve always gotta get the last word. Baltimore over LA? Fuck you, suck my dick.
That was my point… Is it bullshit, and if it is how is LA representative of the rest of the United States?
I can’t answer that, Sir and I’m not being disingenuous here. I’m from LA, my parents hatched me in LA, Cal. It’s where I go when women divorce me. I’ve lived there for the past eight years. I need to live there because I need to write TV pilots that I concoct, and film scripts I concoct to pay my alimony nut, and to finance my full time assistants so that I can write the books by hand and yearn and brood. Thus, coming from there, having been born there in the film epicentre at the height of the film-noir era; I’m going away for periods of time and coming back… I don’t view it as phenomenological, it’s where I’m from. Thus, it’s universal because I consider myself universal in the manner of Beethoven, widely known in his time as ‘The German Ellroy’. Tolstoy, Dostoyevski… ‘The Russian Ellroy’, Shakespeare… ‘The British Ellroy’…
You’re getting it.
Does music play a part in your story telling?
Yes. I’m a classical music fanatic. I’m a rock n roll hater. I hate rock n roll. I know I shouldn’t be saying this… You’re gona lynch my ass here in Manchester. I find it reductive, I think it’s nothing but perpetuated canned juvenilia. And, my message to all rock n rollers, British, American, European… especially European, and worldwide is this:
grow up, quit rebelling against your parents, quit dressing solely in black, be nice to your parents they aren’t that bad – they brought you into the world…
Silence greets this.
I’m a classical music fanatic. I learned more from listening to classical music about the structuring of my books, about theme, about contrapuntal structure, leitmotif, than I’ve ever learned from reading anything. I don’t listen to music when I write though. I live in the Hollywood Hills, I have an office. Next to it I have a music room, the walls are red. There are framed Deutsche Gramophone covers on the walls. There are numerous busts of Beethoven. There is a photograph of a tall and svelte Ukrainian violinist named Viktoria Mullova who was the heart-throb I went for until I met my girlfriend. She’s Ukrainian, she’s about fifty five, she’s looking pensive and one can say extremely narcissistic. But, she’s there next to Beethoven nonetheless because I derived inspiration from her. So, I will go back after I work and blast the theme songs for Perfidia, which is not the plaintive love song ‘Perfidia’ from 1941 but is the first movement of Samuel Barber’s violin concerto and the first movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony. That’s the music, I dig it, I go for it.
Hello, err, obviously the first two lots of books you did… one was set in the 50s, one was set in the 60s. I for one expected you to move onto the 70s because I thought Nixon would be rife for an evaluation by you. Why did you decide to go back to the 40s? And, what makes that decade different to the two decades that followed?
Here’s why I didn’t go forwards…
The 70s after J. Edgar Hoover’s death in May of 1972, bores me. Right off the bat.
I knew it was over. Hoover crapped out. You’re going into Watergate. Watergate’s been done to death. Some of those cats are still alive, they can sue your ass.
I’ll tell you what an odd bit of inspiration was for me. It was the recent James Bond film – Skyfall, and I loved it. I thought it was a consummate piece of popular entertainment, and in its weird way – high art. And, it’s not that the komodo dragons in the pit were great. And, parenthetically – this is how out of it I am technologically – I thought they were real, and I thought Daniel Craig was really running across their backs. Which is another story right there. Why did I love that motion picture? Because it’s about resolutely the defence of The West. Who is The West primarily? It’s America and Great Britain. What is World War II? It’s the defence of the civilised world, more specifically the defence of The West. It is as I call it in my flap copy… ‘the party at the edge of the abyss, and the precipice of America’s ascendance’. There is more nobility in Perfidia than in my seven preceding novels. There will be more nobility in the next novel, as America and Britain move further into World War II, than even in Perfidia itself. The historical romance.
My question is: Whether you’ve ever been tempted, or made any efforts at all to write in different genres about different subjects?
I have written in many different genres about many different subjects. I have not written a crime novel since my book Suicide Hill. Again – mergers, incremental, large. The crime novel, the historical novel – the LA Quartet. Crime novel, historical novel, political novel – the Underworld USA Trilogy. Now, the historical romance. One can only guess what I’ll be doing in my dotage after I’ve finished this extended body of work. I’m writing as fast as I can. I’d be writing now if I wasn’t here talking to you.
I live in the past. I indulge in my life the heavy metaphysical memory. In the human race we are all one soul united. Every one of us males and females in this place tonight. There is a collective unconscious, William Butler Yeats called this the spiritus mundi. And, I’m going back into our shared memory of the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s, into the 1970s and extracting from my 66 year immersive project of Life On Earth.
I started looking backwards at a very young age. In 1956, when I was eight years old, I believed that World War II was still going on. I said something that alerted my mother to this misconception. She said something along the lines of…
“Au contraire Sonny, it ended three years before you were born”.
I didn’t believe her then and I’m not sure I believe her now. I’m having a blast in Manchester here in 2014, and living in LA and bopping around the world to promote this book. But, my heart belongs in January 1942.
Hi, I was wondering what the attraction of multi-part novels is to you, in terms of writing trilogies as opposed to writing more stand-alones? Also, when you write those… what your process of writing those is? Whether you understand from the beginning where the end of the whole trilogy’s going to be? Or very much book to book?
I love big shit. I love epic novels, I like long movies, I like a well strung together crime television show with a continuous plot line. I love Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler’s lengthy symphonies. There’s a marvellous British composer… raise your hand if you know this guy… Havergal Brian.
The Gothic Symphony is the longest on record. Martyn Brabbins and three combined British orchestras and choruses recorded it. Havergal Brian wrote thirty five operas and none of them have been performed. Havergal Brian wrote thirty symphonies and only the first, The Gothic, is rarely performed and I think, twice recorded. He’s an acquired taste frankly, that not many people… me and a buddy of mine have acquired. But, I like that big shit.
I called my buddy, Andrew Quintero, up about a year ago and I said…
“Andrew, are you ready yet?”…
“Ready for what Ellroy?”…
“For the Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony.”
Brother, have you heard it?
How many times have you heard it?
Yeah. I like big shit like that.
So, I wanna write large novels in trilogies and quartets because when I was a lonely, tortured, brooding, yearning boy; if I could read a long novel or series of novels I was just that less alone for longer periods of time. My grand design in communing with human beings is to disrupt your lives as they stand now. You must neglect your spouses, neglect your children, you must get strung out on amphetamines so that you can stay up all night and read my books. You must read this book first before you go on to the LA Quartet, chronologically, and the Underworld USA Trilogy. Put your lives in the shitter. And then, in the period of months preceding the publication of the second book in this series you go to Ellroy Rehab where I will extract $50,000 a month from each and every one of you, and you can move on with your lives.
Yeah, it’s shtick, and yeah, it’s a gag; but this is what I’m onto. I write these books obsessively. I made a great many sacrifices to write these books. I want you to sacrifice the time, so that you might read these books most efficaciously, so that you might enjoy them more, so that you might read them in longer stints rather than shorter stints to approximate the obsessiveness of the characters and the state that I wrote the books in which, parenthetically, will also enhance your perception and comprehension of difficult texts.
What have been your sacrifices and your benefits from your writing?
I’m sixty six and I don’t have a family, and it wasn’t for me. I’ve been married a couple of times and it didn’t work out, for me. I like to be alone, I need to be alone, I need to brood, I need to ignore the telephone. I have never logged onto a computer. I’m completely computer illiterate. I’ve never used a cellphone. I may borrow cellphones, I’ve never owned one. I watch television with a friend on Friday nights. I rarely go to the movies. I have very few friends. I’m a yearner, a brooder, and an imagineer; and it takes time. And, then there is the exhaustive process of writing 1200 page manuscripts by hand.
Hi, Herman Melville wrote… ‘Genius worldwide stands hand and hand and the shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.’ On the subject of loneliness, do you take any solace in a sense of affinity with other writers? Because, to my Lancastrian ears your rhythms and cadences evoke Bukowski or Hunter S. Thompson, or do you revel in the solitude of being the bad kid mouthing off in church?
It’s a very, very interesting question. It’s a great quote to begin it with. I’ll say first of all there are some writers I despise. For their nihilism, for their profligacy, and for their overall embrace of the immoral, godlessness quality. Chief among them – Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski and William S. Burrows. And we can add to William S. Burrows – Murderer, because he murdered his wife in Mexico in 1951. And, the Burrows-Wellcome pharmaceutical fortune got him out of that one.
I have one great writer friend. I Identify with him completely. We share the same métier, and it’s the secret human infrastructure of large public events. This man is the great living American historical novelist. It’s Thomas Mallon, who wrote Two Moons, who wrote Henry and Clara, who wrote Dewey Defeats Truman, and who wrote most recently and notably the great novel Watergate. Couple of things… If you’ve ever want to know what happened in the United States between the Watergate break-in and Richard Nixon’s resignation two years later, Watergate is for you. It’s a haunting human story, it’s a love story, it’s a breathtaking work. Thomas Mallon – the great living American historical novelist, I’m honoured to call him my friend. We’ll be doing an event together in Washington DC next month. Tom’s new novel – Finale, a book about the final two years of Ronald Regan’s presidency, will be published next Fall.
I’ve always been interested in how you’ve weaved characters that are obviously in the real world into your fiction. You write about a lot of them in such a colourful way. Which are the ones you like writing about most?
My favourite fictional character is the ultimate hero of Perfidia – William H. Parker. Who is nowhere near as notable as J. Edgar Hoover. He’s a huge figure, he will loom over the second LA Quartet like a colossus. So, Brother, this is my personal entreaty to you… buy this book.
Daddy-O, ask me a question.
My question was, James, why do you write?
No, no, I’m going to get to that one next and I’m gonna point to you. Because, I have a canned response I can’t bullshit you on this one. It’s heavy duty Brother.
What I loved about the last part of the LA Quartet was the relationship between Exley and Dudley. It seems in Perfidia you kind of re-enact that relationship with Dudley and Parker, is that your intention going forward with the rest of the books? And, do you wish you could have carried on the Dudley – Exley relationship a bit further?
It’s a very interesting specific question. Edmund J. Exley is the ultimate hero of LA Confidential and a sidekick hero to David Douglas Klein in White Jazz. And, White Jazz explicates Dudley Smith’s comeuppance, let us say.
William H. Parker and Dudley Smith, devote Roman-Catholics at odds in the Protestant LAPD throughout World War II, loom over the second LA Quartet.
And, when we talk in private after this public event I’ll give you some more information as to what is occurring, since you’ve already read the book.
Why do you write?
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
Not for the proud man apart
Do I write on these spindrift pages
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.
– Dylan Thomas
Thank you people.