James Ellroy was born and bred in Los Angeles, and he’s made the Californian city the setting for most of his novels. Before becoming a writer, Ellroy had a troublesome life. His mother was murdered when he was only ten years old, and his father was not really a hands-on parent. As a young adult, he joined and left the army, worked as a golf caddie, and ended up homeless after a long period of heavy drinking. All these elements are present in his books. In fact, he wrote a book, My Dark Places, where he investigates his mother’s unsolved murder.
Ellroy’s writing style is intense and laden with expletives, and it takes the reader on a tour of the underbelly of the city of Los Angeles. He often incorporates real life characters and events into his plot lines. His L.A. Quartet, published between 1987 and 1992, brought him international fame, particularly when two of the novels, L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia, were turned into successful movies.
In his Underworld USA trilogy, the author explored both the lead-up to and the consequences of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s assassination. The three books, American Tabloid (1995), The Cold Six Thousand (2001) and Blood’s a Rover (2009) show the political and legal corruption in the States from 1958 to 1973.
JFK is also present in his latest novel, Widespread Panic, and in a not very favourable light: he is depicted as an unscrupulous sex addict messing around with actresses in 1950s Los Angeles. The protagonist of the book, Freddy Otash, is also a real character: he was a former policeman who became known as a fixer in all kinds of deals.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN l.a.
Through Ellroy’s words we have come to know the dark side of many Hollywood celebrities of the 1940s and 1950s like James Dean, Rock Hudson, Liz Taylor and Montgomery Clift. The author won’t disclose how much is fact and how much fiction, but he does say that some of these secrets were well known even when he was a kid.
James Ellroy (American accent): I went to a school, a junior high school, most of the kids were Jewish, a lot of them had parents in the film biz, and they had the dirt. Everybody knew. Marilyn Monroe was a call girl in the 40s… All that shit we knew. Somebody’s a dope addict, big drunk, you know…
In order to understand the world that Ellroy conjures up in his writing, it is essential to bear in mind his own biography.
James Ellroy: The key to understanding a lot of what I do is the rote biography at the back of a book. “James Ellroy was born in Los Angeles in 1948.” Bingo! Perfect age to catch up that shit, perfect age.
Does the author think that Los Angeles in 2022 is worse than the city we find in his books?
James Ellroy: It’s uglier because the Earth is a wear item. It’s wearing down. The finishes on the houses in L.A. are wearing down, the streets are wearing down, the business fronts are wearing down… There is [are – ed.] too many people. It’s hard to park, it’s untenable in general. But it’s a fantasy land for me.
the beethoven method
When asked about his writing method, Ellroy is very pragmatic.
James Ellroy: I write a book until I finish it. And then I sit down and do it again. I write from an outline, just as Beethoven wrote from notes, and everything is thought out, and everything is very exacting. But the concision of the prose, the pace of it, the crazy shit that I’m describing… You know Freddy breaking into these houses, sniffing women’s undergarments… Shit like that. Popping pills…
Ellroy has often mentioned both Raymond Chandler (the creator of the detective Philip Marlowe) and Dashiell Hammett as important influences in his own fiction. He sums both of them up concisely.
James Ellroy: Chandler wrote the man he wanted to be; Hammett wrote the man he was afraid he was. You know, they were all [both – ed.] drunks.
In previous interviews, Ellroy seemed to sympathise with Donald Trump. Now he doesn’t want to celebrate his presidency, but he won’t condemn it either.
James Ellroy: America got what it paid for. You wanted him in, he didn’t destroy the country, he centered on a tailspin for a while, now we’ve got other shit to deal with. We’ve got Putin, we’ve got the pandemic… Life goes on. I’m optimistic.
A WINNING ROUTINE
As far as his own personal plans are concerned, James Ellroy seems quite happy to continue doing what has been his routine for the past forty years.
James Ellroy: I’m seventy-four and healthy, I’ve got to spend the rest of my life locked down and writing books.