‘Fasten your seat belts – it’s going to be a bumpy night.’ Bette Davis’s warning is something that any interviewer of James Ellroy might profitably bear in mind. His abrasive reputation is legendary, and the self-styled ‘Demon Dog’ of American crime fiction has also described himself as ‘the greatest living crime writer’, a soi-disant observation that a great many of his contemporaries – and thousands of readers — would agree with. False modesty is not James Ellroy’s thing. But this man who has shaken out all the exhausted tropes of American crime fiction like lose nails, leaving behind something as ambitious, corrosive and unsettling as anything in the genre, is famously unsparing with interviewers: he has them for breakfast. This reputation was on my mind as I approached the Taj Hotel near Buckingham Palace (he’s in the UK to promote his latest novel, the gargantuan Perfidia). What’s more, it had been communicated to me that he was none too pleased with my review of the book in this newspaper – even though I’d tried to suggest that the book’s vaunting ambition made the work of most of his contemporaries seem like minnows in Perfidia’s formidable wake.
Certainly, no genteel, collegiate encounter was on the cards. This, after all, was a man who in his own abrasive autobiography My Dark Places goes some way to explain why his work is often a descent into a neon-lit, hellish Los Angeles – and his own psyche. That book presented an unvarnished picture of his terrifying childhood. His mother was murdered when he was only 10 years old, and his teenage years were a smorgasbord of drugs, alcohol and a variety of off-kilter sexual obsessions (which included raiding women’s apartments for their underwear). Now a robust 66, Ellroy has a reputation for taking no prisoners. Am I – in American argot – about to get handed my head?
There is little argument among aficionados that Ellroy’s monumental LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, 1987; The Big Nowhere, 1988; LA Confidential, 1990; and White Jazz, 1992) is the greatest of modern crime novel sequences. Starting with a relatively simple premise (a killing at an all-night diner is under investigation by three LA cops, each of whom has a very different agenda), Ellroy utilises the discursive narrative to produce a massive panoply of Los Angeles in the 1950s, more assiduously detailed than the work of that other great chronicler of the area, Raymond Chandler. Blending his fictional scenario with real events and characters, the picture-postcard vision of the city (with its non-stop sunshine, glistening beaches and universal prosperity) is swiftly undercut by Ellroy’s penetrating vision of the darker side; but his real subject is the psyches of his three very different policemen. It is in this area that the true greatness of the novels lies, for while the psychology of his protagonists is laid open with a scalpel-sharp precision, the task is always accomplished in prose which is as accomplished as anything in literary fiction. Perhaps the ‘Great American Novel’ might spring from the pen of marauding Visigoth Ellroy, writing about the defining era of post-World War II America, stirring into his heady brew real-life figures such as JFK, cross-dressing FBI supremo J. Edgar Hoover and gangsters such as Vito Genovese.
But then something happened: Ellroy’s subsequent books were couched in an eccentric ‘telegraphese’, prose so spare (but dense) that it cost him many readers – while not, however, denting his reputation one iota. As I head towards the sumptuous Jaguar suite, I wonder: do I bring up this audacious change of method? My teeth are gritted.
But as James Ellroy walks into the room — tall, elegant, and with the look of a bookish intellectual rather than a volatile streetfighter — I suspect I’m in for a somewhat different experience from the one I expected. It seems my English politeness is a plus; Ellroy has a Hannibal Lecter-like respect for politeness over all else, and tells me later that he has walked out of interviews in which he’s felt that the interviewer has been rude.
So: where to start? A discussion of Perfidia, perhaps? No; the first thing we discuss is how he feels about today’s news that the Republicans now rule the roost in the Senate and that Obama’s presidency is of the lame duck variety. He hadn’t heard the news, and is elated. ‘Really? Is that the case?’ he asks, grinning. ‘That really pleases me – I can’t wait to ring up my left-wing friends and rub that in.’ So, I ask, is he an unapologetic right-winger?
‘Well, I’m in the country of Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill, both heroes of mine — as was Ronald Reagan. In fact, all three shared something other than sensible right-wing views: a love of splendid, old-fashioned oratory.’
But oratory (in at least two of those cases) written by others, I demur…
‘That doesn’t matter!’ smiles Ellroy. ‘What they said – and how they said it — is what counted.’
To the book: I ask if Ellroy really needs to do this kind of promotional tour: exhausting, multi-country, multi-event. Surely his books will sell whether he publicises them or not?
‘Yes,’ he replies. ‘But they will sell more if I do Manchester one night and Rome a week later. And I want to support my publisher. Besides,’ – he looks me in the eye – sometimes the boredom is allayed when I’m asked something I haven’t been asked.’ No pressure for me, then.
How – in his sixties – are his energy levels for these kinds of junkets? ‘I have terrific energy levels. And I’m good at husbanding my resources. I’m able to focus on the things that are important in my life and to cut out the crap. For instance, if a restaurant or bar is playing loud rock music – which I loathe — I simply get up and go. I cut short a meal the other night because the restaurant was simply too loud. If there is going to be music in my life, it will probably be Beethoven. Experiencing genius recharges one’s own batteries and is immensely good for the soul. I don’t allow myself too much untoward stimulation. I want fewer people in my life — I’m not looking for new friends. Most of the time I live in a sort of monkish seclusion; I see a friend and his wife, and we watch things like The Killing — both the American and the Danish versions. The original, incidentally, is about 30 times better. I don’t assiduously read what my crime fiction contemporaries are writing, however.’
Ah, yes — the soul. Does Ellroy share with the Republicans whose victory pleased him a strong belief in God? ‘Absolutely,’ he answers. ‘I’m able to find God everywhere, and that offers me the same solace as the music of Beethoven. After my grim childhood and a life which has hardly been peaceful, I know the value of things which now give me peace – such as God.’
But this isn’t the iconoclastic figure I had been prepared for. I try to stir things up. Hasn’t religion (I suggest) been the source of so much strife throughout history? The things done in the name of Christianity and Islam? But Ellroy is not to be provoked: ‘We can hardly blame God for the things his followers do in His name, can we?’
‘The murder of my mother is something that affected the subsequent course of my life – and continues to do so.’ He smiles gently (something I’m realising is his default mode — no channelling of the ‘Demon Dog’ in this interview). ‘My mother’s killing… I always wonder how long it will take before it comes up in any interview.’ (I avoid pointing out that it was Ellroy himself who brought it up.) ‘Of course that trauma was immensely influential for reasons I wrote about in My Dark Places, and the excessiveness of the event was perhaps a harbinger of the excessiveness of the life I was to lead – until now, that is.’
I also avoid mentioning that I’d written the Independent review of Perfidia with which he was not best pleased, but ask him how he responds to the critical reception of any new book.
‘Perfidia has had some… interesting reviews, some of which get the book wrong, but I don’t review the reviews. I can’t afford to take on board hostile criticism of, for instance, my attempts to take risks with language. But Perfidia is the first of a new quartet and then I’m thinking of writing a trilogy, and in all of these I’m planning to do something different.’
I ask if it’s something of a Damoclean sword, being ‘the greatest living crime writer’; that can’t be too relaxing, can it?
‘Fuck, no — it isn’t, but writing is one area where I’m not looking to relax. I want to write better and better books. Sometimes the writing process is not an organic progression, but something shocking. LA Confidential – in its entirety — came to me as something of a synoptic flash, and in the backlash of that flash, I realised that whatever I could conceive, I could execute. It was a seismic, life-changing moment.’
Ellroy leans back and sips his mineral water; he doesn’t drink any more. I am by now starting to wonder if the dyspeptic view of flawed humanity one gleans from his books is, in fact, illusory. ‘I’m an optimist!’ he exclaims. ‘Whatever people may think, I have an ameliorative view of human nature. Sex, for instance, may be a deeply troubled area in my books — and many of my characters are deeply fucked up in that area. But I see sex as an expression of love and a very positive thing. Love and sex have always fuelled me.’ But what angers him? ‘Do you want to know what I really hate in people? Nihilism! That really pisses me off.’
Ah ha – so I’ve found an area which may channel a little of the Ellroy bile which has been conspicuously absent so far in our talk. One source of anger, surprisingly, is the youthful audience he spoke to in trendy Shoreditch the night before. ‘Hipsters – God! They were all so nonconformist in an utterly conformist way; they all resemble each other; the fashion accoutrements are a straitjacket. I do find hipsters immensely self-regarding, and bizarrely enamoured of squalor in a rather effete way.’
But isn’t Ellroy himself the hippest of writers? He smiles wryly.
‘All I can say is that I like to surround myself with square people. I was never really "hip". The hipsters like rap: misogynistic, semi-literate doggerel. The voice of urban youth? Give me a break. Rap as art? Fuck, no! Art should encompass the world, open avenues and cross boundaries. At least it’s what I try to do.’
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