You're digging it, right?Interview by Stephen Conley
James Ellroy has written a new book. After eight long years and a short story collection or two, Mr. Ellroy has finished his Underworld USA Trilogy with Blood's a Rover, a wild and unpredictable ride through the end of the 1960's and the end of our country's innocence for good.
James Ellroy began his career with such fantastic works in Noir as Brown's Requiem, Because the Night, and Killer on the Road. He hit it big with his LA Quartet: The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, and White Jazz, all of which were international bestsellers. LA Confidential was made into a classic film starring Russel Crowe and Kevin Spacey.
Fast Forward to the 1990's and the aforementioned Underworld USA trilogy, beginning in 1995 with American Tabloid and continuing in 2001's The Cold Six Thousand and finishing today with Blood's a Rover. The trilogy spans the tumultuous and frenetic times of the 1960's, containing inside the assassination of JFK, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the war in Vietnam, the dual assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and the end of the civil rights movement.
Ellroy points the finger at a wild and ecclectic assortment of mafia hitmen, defrocked g-men, and right wing malcontents such as Howard Hughes and J. Edgar Hoover. Ellroy doesn't pull any punches as he holds up such notorious men and deconstructs them down to their basest actions.
I went into the interview a bit scared of such a seemingly dangerous man, expecting to be as deconstructed as his historical characters were. Instead I found a laid back, self assured, and gracious man who is obsessed with the craft of writing. Mr. Ellroy is a man who is as enthusiastic towards his work as his characters are about their work. Nobody writes as well as James Ellroy.
Stephen Conley: Can you take us back to your first book, Brown's Requiem. Where were you at as a person when you were writing this book; and as it was being published?
James Ellroy: 1979, I was 31 years old. I was working as a caddy at Bel Air Country club in Los Angeles. I had recently quit drinking and using drugs. I wanted a girlfriend in the worst way. I combined elements of my real life, growing up at Beverly Blvd and Western Ave in Los Angeles. The caddy experience, I was of course working as a caddy at the time. My obsession with the Club Mecca firebombing, which I turned into the Club Utopia firebombing. And my love of classical music.
Stephen Conley: When did you actually quit your life of crime? Because you're kind of notorious for it.
James Ellroy: It wasn't much of a life of crime. It was drinking and using drugs and breaking into houses to sniff women's undergarments. And it was the LA county jail system. It wasn't prison, it wasn't the big house.
Stephen Conley: Compare how you wrote back then to how you write now.
James Ellroy: I write significantly better, with far greater consciousness, more diligent work habits. I have consciously tried to make myself a better and better writer. I write copiously long outlines that i follow down to both dots on the i's and crosses on the t's. In order to write bigger, more important, and dare i say it; more profound books.
Stephen Conley: In this book Blood's a Rover, you're definitely more refined. When I read The Cold Six Thousand, comparing it to your earlier works, it was a lot more technical and a lot more detailed. Blood's a Rover just came out and you can see a marked improvement as well.
James Ellroy: Well i made a conscious decision with Blood's a Rover to write in a more accessible style and give the book greater emotional depth.
Stephen Conley: I can tell you had fun writing it.
James Ellroy: Yeah there's some laughter in that book. There some good yucks, there's some tremendous love stories and it's a return to the emotional form that perhaps hit its zenith with my novel, The Black Dahlia.
Stephen Conley: I think that's the book you're most famous for. My niece is only 16 and she knows about that book.
James Ellroy: Yeah. I'll take it.
Stephen Conley: What motivates you to write?
James Ellroy: I have to tell the stories. I have to rewrite history to my own specifications. I love providing the personal infrastructure of big public events. In Blood's a Rover's case, for example, you get to go to the Dominican Republic; take voodoo herbs; hang out with Howard Hughes in Las Vegas; make the scene with J. Edgar Hoover in attempting to quash the black militant movement; be part of a daring armored car heist; make love to two great left wing revolutionaries, Joan Klein and Karen Sifakis; have a nervous breakdown as a result of your work in the Martin Luther King assassination; and nobody gets hurt. What a blast! And they pay me.
Stephen Conley: In the first few chapters, there's a couple of mentions of some hippies. I was curious because this is right at the time of the summer of love and Charlie Manson and Woodstock and all that. I was wondering how much of that you tackle in the new book?
James Ellroy: None. I'm not interested in Woodstock, hippies, or the summer of love; summer of love was actually '67. Because I write from the perspective of guys who weren't interested in that shit.
Stephen Conley: I heard you write shorthand, do you still do that?
James Ellroy: No, I take a lot of early notes in shorthand and then i flesh the notes out into the extraordinarily big outlines that i described to you.
Stephen Conley: Have you always done it that way?
James Ellroy: Yes. I've always done it that way.
Stephen Conley: Do you find it's more inspiring?
James Ellroy: I think very very fast. I'm computer illiterate, I don't have a computer. I don't have a cellphone. I don't watch television, go to the movies, or read newspapers. I isolate myself with paper and pen. I have a woman who types for me and when i'm thinking very fast, I can follow my own shorthand notes. Then i flesh it out into the big outlines. Everything is plotted, planned, meticulous, and diligent.
Stephen Conley: It shows in your work, i can really tell.
James Ellroy: Thank you.
Stephen Conley: You also have a very deep insight into your characters and people. I think that's what separates you from other writers as a whole and crime writers. Is this something you've always had or did you develop it?
James Ellroy: I have a very good instinct for human beings and what makes them tick. I'm an excellent judge of character.
Stephen Conley: So you've had it since you can remember?
James Ellroy: I've had a good shit detector in people and the books exposit a moral vision. I have a moralist sense of character.
Stephen Conley: Would you say Blood's a Rover is your best book yet?
James Ellroy: Yes. Blood's a Rover is my ultimate masterpiece.
Stephen Conley: I can tell already, we're introduced to all these different background characters and I know from your other books what we're in for.
James Ellroy: You're digging it, right?
Stephen Conley: Yeah, it's really fun. What would you tell someone who doesn't know who you are and has never read any of your books? Sell Blood's a Rover to them.
James Ellroy: Blood's a Rover is a historical romance. It's a story of big people suffused with big ideas. It's about the necessity of revolution, about political conversion. It's about ideals at war and the extremity of love. And if you want a righteous fuckin' novel, 656 pages, a lot of sex, a lot of violence, a lot of velocity. Some good love shit, some good race shit? This is it, this is your book. It'll make you do the bad buggaloo.
Stephen Conley: What was the hardest part of writing Blood's a Rover? If there's anything really?
James Ellroy: Well the sheer size of the damn thing. It was a lot of time alone in the dark.
Stephen Conley: Was this whole trilogy planned, the Underworld USA Trilogy?
James Ellroy: Not in my mind from the inception, no. It started out with American Tabloid and grew from there.
Stephen Conley: I heard there was a TV deal with Tom Hanks' company to make this into an ongoing series possibly.
James Ellroy: I don't believe it. They've optioned it, that's it. If it happens, they'll tell me. I'm not holding my breath.
Stephen Conley: How does this work? They option you and it's out of your hands?
James Ellroy: They option it, they give you more money to buy it out, they go away. It probably never happens. You get paid.
Stephen Conley: That's good enough, right?
James Ellroy: I'll take it.
Stephen Conley: What about White Jazz? I heard now Nick Nolte is attached instead of George Clooney.
James Ellroy: That's the first I've heard of it. Don't believe it.
Stephen Conley: Have you heard of Joe Carnahan? He was supposed to be directing it.
James Ellroy: I know Joe Carnahan very well. Don't believe that either.
Stephen Conley: Have you seen Smokin' Aces? Did you like that movie?
James Ellroy: No I didn't like that movie. White Jazz is dead. All movie adaptations of my books are dead.
Stephen Conley: That sucks. So then, when did you feel like you arrived as an author?
James Ellroy: With Blood's a Rover.
Stephen Conley: That's what I thought too. It's really big like your other books but much more accessible, much like White Jazz. I've always thought White Jazz was your most accessible book for the mainstream. It's widely considered to be your best novel. I consider it to be your best book but i haven't finished Blood's a Rover yet so i don't know.
James Ellroy: Blood's a Rover is my best novel.
Stephen Conley: If you compared the Underworld USA trilogy to your LA quartet, which one was harder for you to write?
James Ellroy: Well the books are getting harder to write because i'm becoming harder on myself. My work habits are improving. They were stratospherically diligent with the LA quartet, they've become even moreso now. I'm becoming more aware as a human being.
Stephen Conley: So what's next for you? I know you have another memoir coming out.
James Ellroy: The memoir, The Hilliker Curse, which is subtitled "My Pursuit of Women". The first three parts are out in Playboy, part four will be published in November. It'll be an Alfred A. Knopf book next fall.
Stephen Conley: Could you compare it to My Dark Places?
James Ellroy: It's better.
Stephen Conley: Who would you say is your favorite historical character in your books? Who is the most fun to write?
James Ellroy: J Edgar Hoover is great fun to write. My favorite fictional character is a woman you'll meet later on in Blood's a Rover.
Stephen Conley: So which character do you relate to the most, would it be Crutchfield?
James Ellroy: I relate to Crutchfield, Holly, and Tedrow with equal parts pizzazz.
Stephen Conley: You're a pretty fearless writer, I think. You're really honest in your writing. Is there anything that scares you as a person?
James Ellroy: Yeah I don't wanna die. Fuck that shit.
Stephen Conley: Have you ever been questioned or investigated? Because you write a lot of conspirational stuff.
James Ellroy: No, nobody cares.
Stephen Conley: So you don't think you have an FBI file or anything?
James Ellroy: No, nobody cares.
Stephen Conley: Walk us through the perfect day for James Ellroy.
James Ellroy: Well I'm very much in love. Depends on whether I wake up with my girlfriend or not. It goes bad or good from there. Let's just put it that way. Book tour coming up, Blood's a Rover, I'm nothing but happy.
Stephen Conley: Would you ever write a book about today, say 20 years from now?
James Ellroy: I would not write a book about today 20 years from now. Cause I don't read, I don't go to movies, I don't have a computer, I don't have a cellphone, I don't watch TV, I don't read newspapers. I will never write a book about today.
Stephen Conley: It's probably not as interesting as the 60's were. People like to think it is but it's really not.
James Ellroy: Nah.