Breaking The Curse: Paying Penance with James EllroyInterview by Joshua Chaplinsky
Hot on the blood-slicked heels of last year's Blood's A Rover, James Ellroy returns with The Hilliker Curse, a memoir of his quest for atonement through women. Curse is a soul laid bare, an open chest wound at risk of infection, where anyone can stick their grubby little mitts in and poke around. Lesser authors might balk at displaying such honesty, but Ellroy remains committed to the cause. He is doing important work, telling important stories. This one just so happens to be his own.
Sequestered in his publicist's office, my first taste of the larger than life author is the sound of barking as he greets the denizens of Knopf. With nothing but my ears to go on, I think maybe he is accompanied by pets. "Call me dog," he tells me later, as we adjourn to the empty conference room where I am allotted thirty minutes to pick his brain. He is an intimidating presence, despite the bright pink polo shirt and congenial smile, but the man's also a pro. He orates as if from a script, like he was given the questions ahead of time, even when I think I've hit him with something new and different.
True to the spirit of his memoirs, no subject is off limits. Not the death of his mother, his messy romantic life, or his recent mental breakdown. But lest you think it is all doom and gloom, Ellroy is a man of astounding optimism, and our conversation reflects this. He also throws in a few choice tidbits about upcoming projects, unprovoked, including a tabloid style TV show on The Discovery Channel and his next quartet of books.
Joshua Chaplinsky: You've always been incredibly honest in your writing, especially when it comes to your personal life. The Hilliker Curse presents you at your most candid and most vulnerable. What compels you to expose yourself so openly?
James Ellroy: I'm driven by the idea of self explication, because I've led a wild, manic, reckless, emotionally assurgent life. Themes emerge that are universal in their import- misogynistic violence in My Dark Places, and the conjunction of men and women in The Hilliker Curse- and I feel the necessity of weighing in.
JC: So it is for the reader's benefit, as well as your own?
JE: It's for my benefit, it's to save my huge ego, it's to say something important, it's to sell books.
JC: You seem to revel in the attention it brings, even when you're discussing things other people would want to keep private.
JE: It's a gas to be able to write about yourself and have fifty-five thousand words of minute self examination, candor, and religious fervor published by Alfred A Knopf. The specific miracle of The Hilliker Curse is that when I sat down to write it, I could not have foreseen [current girlfriend] Erika Schickel.
JC: You started the book before you met her?
JE: I had met her. I had conceived it. I had begun the execution of the book, the writing of the text.
JC: How do Erika and the other women in your life feel about how candid you are?
JE: Helen Knode, my second ex-wife, has not read the book. We've remained close friends; I doubt if she'll ever read the book. Friends of her's have read it and told her- you look good, Ellroy looks bad. You were right, he was wrong. Erika loves the book; she's the heroine.
JC: Do you ever feel like you've shared too much?
JC: Do you ever feel that you've exploited or capitalized on your past?
JE: Sure. I don't think exploit is in any way a callously defined verb. I have an enormously strong will to be happy, to transcend tragedy, to turn shit into gold. My options at one point in my career were to ignore the death of my mother and the enveloping issue of misogynistic violence or write about it. Joan Kline, inspired by the real life Joan that you read about in The Hilliker Curse, says [in Blood's A Rover], your options are do everything or do nothing. So I'd rather do everything.
JC: Speaking of The Red Goddess Joan, between Blood's A Rover and The Hilliker Curse, you've seemed to embraced romanticism like never before. Can we expect a continued evolution of this new softer side of James Ellroy?
JE: It's not that it's softer, man, it's that it's bigger and more romantic. If you trace the musical antecedents of romanticism, you go back to the spiritual father of this book about matriarchy, which is Beethoven. He is the greatest artist ever spawned by civilization. I have been obsessed with Beethoven for fifty years. The idea of romanticism- the transcendence of form, deep physical love, the holy conjunction of men and women, the virtuoso as God, the return to nature, the seeking of transcendent experience- all of these things comprise romanticism. I have always carried that deep within me, and I have finally found the female voice of romanticism, Erika Schickel.
JC: So it is an increase in romantic intensity, as opposed to a mellowing with age.
JE: Being mellow is okay if you wanna be a piece of cheese. The trouble with being a piece of cheese is that someone's gonna spread you on a cracker and eat you.
JC: I also find there's a P. T. Barnum element of showmanship to how you present yourself. When writing about your personal life, have you ever embellished for the sake of the story?
JE: No, I don't embellish, but here's the thing about memoir- and in this case, it's a memoir, yes, but it's also an autobiographical essay- I am free to emphasize. I am free to extrapolate meaning. There are two Ellroys always at work here. There is the Ellroy describing events, and Ellroy the editorializer. There's Ellroy as the younger man, there's Ellroy as the more mature man ascribing meaning to the actions of Ellroy the younger man. So I am allowed to comment retrospectively. You may consider that embellishment, but as long as it isn't fraudulent, it is entirely permissible.
JC: You've said in the past, you don't use a computer and you don't watch TV. In this day and age where the lines of celebrity are blurred and even some so-called artists are more well know for their personal lives than the art they produce, where do you see yourself fitting in? What's the difference between airing your personal life in a memoir and going on a reality TV show and doing it that way?
JE: Well, look at the artistry involved and look at the body of fictional art that I have created- the memoirs are a small proportion.
JC: It's about the quality is what you're saying.
JE: The quality and the fact that everything that I write based on my personal life is gauged with an eye towards universal import. I have my very own TV show debuting on The Discovery Channel, James Ellroy's LA: City of Demons. It is a crime magazine TV show. I am the star, I am the personality, I am the narrator, I do interviews, I write every line. Will the line get blurred even more? Yes. But what is my duty for the rest of my creative career and my life? To write novels.
JC: You seem like a natural performer. Have you ever considered a career as an actor?
JE: I do act. I act on stage; if you come to The Strand tonight you'll see it. I love performing.
JC: I saw you there last year, when Blood's A Rover came out. You controlled the room. It was very entertaining.
JE: Listen, here's the deal. You gotta go out and sell books. How many times have you seen some motherfucker read for forty minutes? He'll scratch his balls, lose his place, go uh uh uh, every other word, adjust his glasses, pick his nose. Do everything short of take a shit on stage. There's an art to it. Talk to your audience, distribute eye contact. Read the same thing every time, so you can have it memorized, so you can have it timed, so you can get the cadence and distribute eye contact.
JC: You seem to have your script down when you read.
JE: Yes. I'm a pro public speaker and I want to entertain people and have fun. So many writers think that that's antithetical to the craft or antithetical to the artistic persona. You can turn it into drudge work or you can turn it into a gas, and I like to turn it into a gas.
JC: What do you think about a writer like a Salinger or a Pynchon who just locks themselves away and doesn't want anything to do with it?
JE: I don't know who they are. I read Catcher in the Rye forty-seven years ago. I didn't quite get it, and I've never read a Pynchon book. I've never understood how you can't be grateful for public acclaim, remuneration, glory- and go out and try and have a gas.
JC: Have you ever considered acting in film?
JC: You have a cameo in Wonder Boys.
JE: You can't see me. It's right at the beginning, in the party scene. You can see a little bit of my back.
JC: Did you do that as a favor to Curtis Hanson?
JE: Yes, it was a favor to Curtis Hanson.
JC: Are you a fan of Michael Chabon at all?
JE: Wouldn't know him if he bit me.
JC: Are there any modern authors that you do like?
JE: Erika Schickel. Read her book, You're Not The Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom. Helen Knode, my second ex-wife, read her novel, The Ticket Out.
JC: The Hilliker Curse ends on a note of hope with the meeting of Erika, who is the fabled "Her," but considering your track record as presented in the book, is it hard to maintain optimism when it comes to relationships?
JE: No. I am buoyantly positive by nature. I'm immune to depression and regret. I go forward. And now I've found the woman I will go forward with for the rest of my life.
JC: You say you're immune to depression, but what about the breakdown you had a few years ago?
JE: There are two parts to the brain a therapist recently explained to me. On one side you've got fear and rage, apprehension, anxiety, anticipation and vigilance- that's me. The other side- sloth, narcolepsy, depression, self pity- I'm immune to that shit. I'm over on the other side.
JC: Do you fight a constant battle with that side?
JE: I don't sleep well at night, but man, do I get up ready to go.
JC: How would you respond to cynics who say the end of The Hilliker Curse is born out of a need for an ending as opposed to actual optimism?
JE: A, I never address my critics. B, if I did, I'd say, fuck you.
JC: Have you ever done an interview with someone who openly disliked your work and was confrontational about it?
JE: No, I can't recall.
JC: They're usually fans? Or polite?
JE: Yeah. I'm polite with people. If they're rude with me I'll tell them to get the fuck out. Why would I have an interview with someone who was openly hostile?
JC: Maybe they wanted to provoke you, for the sake of an "interesting" interview.
JE: I've never had an interview where someone deliberately tried to do that. I've had dicey moments with interviewers and told them to curb their questions. That's as far as it got.
JC: I don't think I'd be interested in doing an interview with someone whose work I didn't appreciate.
JE: That's because you're a moral man. You don't wanna fuck people over. I'm the same way. I'm not gonna job somebody, fuck somebody over in print. That's why I don't review books. Because I like very few books and I don't want to fuck people over. I hate journalists who job people. If you don't admire somebody, if you're not going in there to be good to somebody, why the fuck are you doing it?
JC: How do things stand in your romantic life currently? Has the curse truly been broken?
JE: The curse has been broken. Erika Schickel and I continue and flourish.
JC: You've described yourself as a religious person, how do you feel about the controversy over the World Trade Center mosque?
JE: What mosque? What controversy?
JC: You have no idea?
JE: No idea.
JC: They're building a mosque relatively close to the World Trade Center site, and certain people have taken umbrage.
JE: This is the kind of question that I dislike, and I'll tell you why- it's got nothing to do with me. Whether they build a mosque or don't build a mosque.
JC: But people are interested in your opinion.
JE: I don't give a shit. I don't think about it.
JE: You're informing me of this phenomenon for the first time. I'm not a cultural critic; I ignore the world. I don't have a computer, I don't watch TV, I don't have a cell phone. I'm not up to date. I don't think about this shit.
JC: When Blood's A Rover came out, you were quoted as saying you had a number of books in you that you still wanted to complete.
JE: I know what the next four books will be, and the fifth, probably. I'm 62, I'm very healthy, we'll see what happens.
JC: Are you writing another quartet?
JE: There's another quartet, and I will tell you this- it is set earlier than any of my previous historical books.
JC: Can we expect any more memoirs, or are things going too well?
JE: I expect that's it, but I've said that's it before. I changed my mind. I always reserve the right to change my mind.
JC: When Blood's A Rover was released, you called it your ultimate masterpiece-
JE: Knopf did, and they were right.
JC: How do you follow up your ultimate masterpiece?
JE: Write a better book. If you're only in competition with yourself and don't care what other people think, and you're determined with all your conscious might to write better and better books, and your faculties remain with you and your consciousness expands, you will write better and better books.
JC: So if your next book is then your ultimate masterpiece, that would make Blood's A Rover your penultimate masterpiece, and there would be a continuing cycle of one-upmanship.
JE: That's my goal.
JC: Have you ever considered writing another small, intimate novel?
JC: Just bigger and better from here on in?
JE: That's it.
JC: Have you ever considered writing in another genre?
JE: I've written many. The books are not noir, that's a misconception. The L.A. Quartet- The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz- are historical novels set in the film noir era.
JC: You don't consider them noir?
JE: No. And the Underworld USA Trilogy- American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, Blood's A Rover- are political historical novels. I cut genre loose a long time ago. There's how people classify you, and how you actually are self defined.
JC: That being said, would you ever try and throw a curve-ball, write something completely different?
JE: You never know.
JC: Being such an experienced craftsman, have you ever considered teaching? Imparting some of that wisdom?
JE: No. I give talks to kids, and I will give editorial advice to anyone who asks for it.
JC: The Cult has a lot of aspiring writers, do you have any advice for them?
JE: Write the shit you like to read, but no one else is writing. Tell a story.
JC: I was looking up your credits on The Internet Movie Database, you might not know what that is since you don't use a computer-
JE: I know what it is.
JC: Mind if I run a few things by you for comment?
JC: Oren Moverman, who directed The Messenger, is in pre-production on a film called The Rampart, on which you are given story credit-
JE: No, no, no, no. I wrote the script.
JC: It's an original idea?
JE: It's an original Ellroy screenplay. Moverman is a good guy, an Israeli filmmaker. He did some rewrites on it. The movie goes into production October 25th.
JC: I just read this morning that they cast Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright...
JE: Woody Harrelson. That's correct.
JC: I also read you're adapting Nicci French's novel, Land of the Living.
JE: I wrote and delivered a script, based on Ms. French's novel, called Extremis. There's another man who is writing behind me on it. I don't know what's going on there.
JC: Is that the first time you've adapted someone else's material?
JC: I read it was your take on the novel that got the studio interested.
JE: I don't know what's happened behind the scenes after I turned it in.
JC: What is it that attracted you to that material?
JE: The paycheck, the paycheck, the paycheck.
JC: Haha. It wasn't a case where you said, I would love to write the script for that?
JE: A producer named Alexandra Milchan came to me. She had some ideas pertaining to the adaptation, and I said, you know what, Alexandra? You're right. I'll do it.
JC: I also saw a listing for a film called The Linscott Case. Does that have anything to do with Madeleine Linscott from the Black Dahlia?
JE: No, Linscott's a family name of mine, on my mother's side. And that's an original screenplay that I wrote for my producing partners, a man named Farok Peterson (sp?), and an Israeli filmmaker named Dror Soref. The Israelis have been good to me.
JC: So that has nothing to do with The Black Dahlia?
JC: Finally, there was a short film produced in 2009 called Sunfax Territory. It says it's based on one of your novels, but that's all the information I could find.
JE: That's the first I've heard of it. It's probably illegal.
JC: Maybe you should have your lawyers look into that. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.
JE: Good chat.
JC: Thank you. You give good answers.
JE: You gave good questions. You like the book? You like the book.
JC: I like all the books. I'm a fan.
JE: And there's nothing wrong with that. Be an advocate. Be an advocate for yourself. Be an advocate for me.
Cult review of The Hilliker Curse
Cult review of Blood's A Rover