James Ellroy Interview
Seldom, if ever, does a novelist let us see him enter personally into his own genre. In My Dark Places, James Ellroy, a celebrated author of crime fiction, does just this, rubbing elbows with the cops, snitches, loonies, and lowlifes he depicts so luridly in novels like The Black Dahlia and White Jazz. The idea of such interaction between artist and subject almost seems frivolous. It's been toyed with in the occasional Warner Brothers cartoon, where the artist's hand becomes visible and his characters talk back to him. My Dark Places, though, goes beyond fancy, bringing Ellroy's fiction to life and landing him smack bang in the middle of the action.But I'm skewing the chronology. In the opening of My Dark Places, James Ellroy writes, "Your death defines my life." The death he refers to is that of his mother, Geneva Hilliker Ellroy. Jean was murdered back in 1958, the victim of a sex crime, when James was 10 years old. The culprit was never caught. My Dark Places is the story of his mother's killing and of Ellroy's consequent obsession with murder, a fixation that grew into a penchant, and finally a genius, for crime. "It's a monument to my mother," says Ellroy, in Boston recently to promote his book. "It's a mark of my obsession with her." It's not so much that Ellroy places himself in this crime story, but that the story has long been inside him.The book consists of three narratives. The first is an account of the crime; it reports the grisly particulars in dispassionate, detail-riddled fashion, rather like a well-written police report. The second is autobiographical, chronicling the harrowing details of Ellroy's existence following the murder -- from denial to substance abuse, sexual and social deviancy, psychic dilapidation, and eventual recovery. The third narrative follows Ellroy and Bill Stoner, a retired unsolved-homicide detective, as they attempt to track down Jean Ellroy's killer, 36 years after the fact.It's a fascinating, often distressing journey, suffused with dark humor and mordant insight. Ellroy's dark places extend well beyond his own psyche -- he provides intimate expert testimony on madmen, the cops who hunt them, and the society that spawns them. Ellroy says that his mother's murder is the central horror of his life, but the event has also served as an inspiration. Jean Ellroy is her son's muse. And as much as the author is held in thrall by death, My Dark Places betrays a tenacious lust for life.Life, in fact, is an abundant commodity for James Ellroy. All through the interview, he seems about to leap from his chair. He has an intellect like a pinball, bouncing from subject to subject, never content to stay in one place for more than a few moments. "I like to be quiet, I like to be peaceful, I like to brood," he says, yet he rarely stops to take a breath. He speaks in a rapid-fire baritone, driving his points home with rhetorical flourishes that have little in common with the clipped, economical prose of his fiction.Ellroy is particularly animated when talking about his new book and its subject. "This book is about how a woman shaped a man. It's about me denying my mother and ignoring my mother, lusting for my mother, hating my mother, to reconciliation with my mother. It's a treatise on murder and misogyny. Also, we've never seen this milieu before. This is not the hot and swinging LAPD, this is the studious and unswinging Sheriff's Department. This is really the rat's ass of Southern California. I wanted to establish the honky-tonk Wild West misogynist-based culture that killed my mother. I wanted to write a real-life murder investigation, and I did. This is a real homicide."Some critics, he says, have misunderstood the book's tone; one reviewer in particular expressed the need to wash his hands after each chapter. "It's an easy book to take cheap shots at, because it's so blunt, because the use of language is very bottom-line. It's written the way I think." And Ellroy's thinking, judging by his conversational style as well as his prose, is nothing if not blunt. His talk is peppered with Anglo-Saxon idiom (he boasts that My Dark Places contains "the most ingenious use of the word 'fuck' in literary history") and raunchy, off-the-cuff observations ("What boy hasn't wanted to fuck his mother?").Though Ellroy claims to be comfortable with the fact that some people can't "dig" his subject matter ("Who would want to write a book that's universally praised?"), he admits that "I want great reviews, I want everybody to say, 'Yeah, Ellroy's a genius, and this book is a masterpiece, powerful, moving, compelling -- scintillating.' You get to a point, though," he goes on, a weary note entering his voice, "where you just want to see if they get it. Critics don't want to praise across the board in a way that will make them seem like a shill, so they have to find fault and bring you up short in the most wrongheaded ways." One of those ways, Ellroy believes, is to criticize his book for its honest examination of violent crime.Some of the details in the book, though, are not just blunt or honest, but painfully graphic. "I'm very conscious about that," says Ellroy, when asked whether his morbid diligence might attract a prurient interest. "I've got a lot of fans who are black -- wearing rock 'n' roll kids fighting hormone problems. They want me to admire people like Ray Brooks, who murdered his wife and stashed his marijuana plants down the block."What is mistaken for admiration on Ellroy's part is actually fascination, a total immersion in his subject. Part of his genius is an ability to burrow into the minds of criminal perpetrators and investigators alike. At one point in the interview, Ellroy brings up Robbie Beckett, the younger half of a father-and-son team accused of the murder and rape of a young woman. Suddenly, without warning, he slips into a mock-interrogator role, yelling into the face of an absent villain: "Bullshit you didn't mean to kill her! You probably raped her! You probably cut her up with a chainsaw!" Just as I'm considering going to fetch help, he returns to a relatively calm tone. "Misogynistic violence is right at the core of this book, and I'm not going to shrink from it. But I don't know how anyone can think that I'm less than 100 percent sympathetic to women."The process of writing My Dark Places, Ellroy says, has been cathartic. "Frankly, if I was just some 48-year-old schmuck bebopping through life I wouldn't have written the book, but there was a specificity to it, a way to move outside myself that I appreciated. I ended up happier. I'm a hopped-up, passionate, obsessive guy. Underneath it all, though, I feel very poised, calm. I've learned a lot about myself writing this book. I've learned a lot about my mother." And, by his own admission, he had a lot to learn.After Jean Ellroy's death, James moved in with his estranged father, who bombarded the boy with hateful invective about his mother. Jean was a slut, a bitch, a lush, he said -- the implication being that she was in some way responsible for her own fate. James bought his father's shtick, and his own feelings for his mother soured before disappearing altogether. "I made my mother's death something positive early on," Ellroy claims, although this could not be further from the truth. While Ellroy kept his mother's memory sepulchered behind a wall of bravado, he suffered a host of neuroses as a result. The young Ellroy was a manic attention-seeker, the kind of boy who would rather be hated than ignored (one of his stunts was to become a kiddie Nazi while attending a largely Jewish school). "I was a tremendously ineffectual, passive little fiend," Ellroy says of himself at the time. "My life was so absurd, so buffoonish, so dark, so ugly. My mother was a murder victim, my father was a bullshit artist. There was almost no place to go but up."Twenty years after the murder, Ellroy wrote his first crime novel and began the quest to retrieve his mother's memory -- a process that culminated in My Dark Places. "I've learned just how much I have in common with her," he says. "She was an alcoholic woman who liked sex in the 1950s, I was an alcoholic man in the 1970s when sex was absolutely groovy and everybody was supposed to get all they could. I like women just as much as she liked men, but I had history on my side, and men always get the long end of the stick. I was able to put all this in perspective and see just how much she tried for me, just how much she cared for me, just how much she fought my father for control of me. I can feel the debt in my bones."Jean Ellroy fought Ellroy's father for control of their son, and lost. Ellroy says that he now holds his father in contempt. "It's not hatred, it's lack of respect. He's a fallen idol -- a big, handsome, charming bullshit artist. I wised up to him. I don't blame him -- except for the lies he told me -- I don't blame anybody." It would seem that the battle for Ellroy is still raging, with his mother currently holding the upper hand. The more he unearths his mother, the more he buries his father. In any case, the parental issues that have long plagued Ellroy seem anything but resolved.Ellroy says he doesn't believe in resolution. Closure, he says, is "a fatuous, preposterous, and moronic concept worthy of the worst aspects of American daytime television." But when talk turns to capturing his mother's killer -- the so-called Swarthy Man -- his eyes glaze over, and he's there. Geneva Ellroy's murderer was never captured, and James Ellroy, her only son, is wracked by the idea of closure.He's probably been there a thousand times: "I'm not going to knock on the door and hit the old cocksucker," he says with an enthusiasm that would suggest otherwise. "I can see Stoner and me walking up and knocking on the door, and a very old man opening it up, Stoner flipping his badge and saying, 'We'd like to talk to you about the murder of Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, June 22, 1958.' There's a pretty good chance he'd just drop dead on the spot, which would be satisfying." But there is little to indicate even potential satisfaction in Ellroy's voice. "I might feel a certain rage, and I might not. I just imagine that I would feel awe. I try to imagine the event and that's as far as I get -- awe."He sits quietly for a few seconds, puts his elbows on his knees, and exhales. "What a moment."