The new novel by James Ellroy, Blood's a Rover, is on my Christmas list this year, and boy am I anxious to read it, having waited 14 years for Ellroy to finish his Underworld USA trilogy. Below is an extract from a lengthy 1995 interview I made with Ellroy. If you want the full 15,000 word interview, in which Dog talks about every book he wrote up until that time, then send $2 to firstname.lastname@example.org via PayPal and I'll send it to you. Enjoy...
If there's one thing you have to admire about Dog, it's that he puts on a good show. He swears. He digs up his past and shoves it in the faces of his adoring public. He simulates masturbation on stage. He howls like the Demon Dog Of American Crime Literature that he is. What's even funnier is that so many people take this stuff seriously.
Besides, what do people expect after reading one of Dog's novels? From Brown's Requiem to American Tabloid, they're full of swearing, racism, drugs, bodily functions, violence, fluids, sleazeballs and hairballs. How could you expect Dog to be anything other than rabid in real life?
The fuel which keeps Dog up nights writing his fever dreams is the unsolved murder of his mother in 1958. His books are full of mother-substitutes, the most famous being Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia, a celebrated unsolved murder which occurred in January 1947. It is as though he is trying to deny his mother's reality by treating her as fiction. However, Ellroy has shown a greater maturity with his last novel, American Tabloid, and with the publication of My Dark Places, which details Ellroy's search for his mother's murderer, he hopes to acknowledge his mother, to recognise her for the person she really was.
James was born March 4 1948 in Good Samaritan Hospital. He learnt to read aged 3, and has been prolific reader ever since. In 1954, Lee and Jean divorced. Lee drank Alka-Seltzer for his ulcer and chased women. Jean drank Early Times bourbon and chased men. James drank what he was given and did some middle distance running at school. Result: James lived with his mother during the week and his father most weekends.
Jean worked as a nurse at the Packard Bell electronics plant and went out with men on a regular basis. One, Hank, was fat and had a thumb missing. She was always pissed. James preferred his father. When he turned 10, he was given the choice of living with mother or father - he chose father, his mother slapped him, he called her a drunk and whore.
Three months later, he arrived back from a weekend with his father to find cops at his mother's house. They told him his mother was dead, a cop gave him some candy, a news photographer snapped him at a neighbour's workbench holding an awl - they didn't use the second picture of him clowning, showing off.
James begged off the funeral. Moved in with father, freelance accountant, womaniser, minor hero in the war, bullshit artist, a history of heart disease. Briefly, Rita Hayworth's business manager in late forties. He wondered whether his father was going to be murdered as well. The following year, his father gave him a copy of The Badge by Jack Webb, which included a summary of Black Dahlia case - Elizabeth Short, a starlet tortured and mutilated, found naked and in two halves, reminded James of his mother, neither case solved.
James used to ride over to the spot on Norton Avenue and 39th Street, where the Dahlia's body was dumped, to feel her presence. He had nightmares about her, saw her in daylight flashes. Read crime novels from that time on. True crime too. He talked about the Dahlia case with Randy Rice, childhood friend. Kicked out of school for truancy. Years later, he went to Black Dahlia's grave, felt that he knew her, loved her.
Aged 17, James went into the US Army, then father became gravely ill, so James faked nervous breakdown, stammered, to get kicked out. His father died. James was virtually penniless and homeless.
Dog became a peeper around Hancock Park, breaking and entering, sniffing women's underpants in South Arden. Bought amphetamines from Gene The Short Queen. When no money, Dog drank cough syrup, or swallowed cotton wads in nasal inhalers to get high. Dog spent nights in Robert Burns Park taking speed and masturbating. This was Dog's life for 11 years, drinking, stealing food, drinking, dropping acid, drinking, shoplifting, stealing drink, smoking Maryjane, living on the streets, lifting wallets, sleeping in dumpsters, flophouses. In and out of county jail more than a dozen times. Had odd jobs, once minded till at a porn shop until his hand was found in it.
Dog caught pneumonia and told abscess on a lung. Coupla weeks later was hearing things from the drink. He knew he'd die if he didn't quit the life. Dog quit. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous.
Today, Ellroy doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, goes to bed early. He's very neat, meticulous, keeps a neat house, is disciplined. He presently lives with his wife, feminist author and critic Helen Knode, in Mission Hills, Kansas.
"It's the Hancock Park of the mid-West. I own a house like those, now. The surroundings are restful and physically beautiful and they underscore the silence that I need to work. I abhor outside stimulation."
Dog caddying at the Hillcrest and, after punching another caddy, the Bel-Air Country Club for $200-300 a week, whilst living in a $25-a-week room at the Westwood Hotel. Dog got the idea for a private eye novel in 1978 and began writing it January 26 1979.
I've seen you put Brown's Requiem down in previous interviews, but it ain't no dog. I think it's great and much underrated. It contains all the Dog trademarks: corrupt cops; excessive violence; the Black Dahlia case; our hero getting beaten to a pulp; Tijuana; dogs; wine, women & drugs; the unobtainable woman; and the bittersweet conclusion. The unobtainable woman was a major feature of your early novels.
"I wrote that book shortly after I got sober. I hadn't been with a woman for years and years and years. I'd had scant experience with women prior to that and I was looking for THE woman. I was a big, grrr grrr grrr kinda guy and women were afraid of me. I hadn't refined my social act at the time. I was working as a caddy and sober and writing my first book. I wanted a woman, I wanted sex, I wanted all that stuff and I wasn't getting any, and that's what really informs that book."
I figured that Ross Macdonald would have been a big influence on Dog - Macdonald's books are all about people with hidden pasts, just like Dog's characters.
"Yeah, he is. Raymond Chandler was also an influence early on. He's diminished in my mind now. A lot of his writing is flat-out bad. A lot of the construction is spotty. And I don't think he knew people anywhere near as well as Dashiell Hammett.
"There's a genre ghetto and people want the sympathetic character, the easy-to-identify-with character. People want that rebelliousness, the one person against the system book. Raymond Chandler created a very easy to adapt style which is why so many people have adapted to it with such great success. In America, you're up against a genre ghetto all the time. I've broken through that - I'm the darling of the deconstructionists, college professors, homosexual media mavens, people in the movie biz, the cognoscenti. These media hounds are capable of digging on irony but American writers take an almost perverse pride in being simplistic, in being proud of their genre roots."
"I am a fiend for darkness, sleaze, groovy twisted sexuality. I'm especially interested in this around the late fifties, early sixties, at the time of my emerging sexuality. I recall being holed up with a copy of Confidential magazine looking at a picture of Corrine Calvet for about three hours on a hot Summer night before I even knew what masturbation was. And I like to go back and relive those times, the time of darkness in my life and explicate it.
"I don't like to practice these things, but I'm curious about them. I like to retain an immunity from it which is why I live a very quiet, blissfully monogamous life in Kansas. I love to watch boxing on the TV - my wife has turned into a tremendous boxing fan. I go to the movies occasionally. I love the old film noirs. I lift weights. I like to think.
"I haven't live in Los Angeles in 14 years. I have enough crazy shit going on in my imagination to last me the next 47 years of my life. Believe me, I need no outside stimulus whatsoever. But I grew up in LA and my father was a sleazebag on the edge of the movie biz. I knew that Rock Hudson was a fag in 1959 - it was no newsflash when he finally caught AIDS and died 8 or 9 years ago. I like movies as cheap entertainment. To me, they're like hamburgers. I've ate about 10 profound hamburgers in my life and I've probably seen 10 profound movies. I'm voyeuristically curious about people's sex lives, about their inner moral workings, and here you have a whole cast of - usually very good-looking - characters, both women and men and all I want to know is who's a homosexual, who's a nymphomaniac, who's a sader, who's got the biggest wang in Hollywood, who's got the smallest, who's impotent, who's the underhung, who's the snap-diver, who's the sword-swallower, who's the peeper, who's the prowler, who's the pimp, who's the pederast and who's the panty-sniffer? Don't put me in some fucking Martin Scorcese/Quentin Tarantino symposium - contemporary movies don't interest me that much. I don't want to know about that. I want to know about the stars, what they're up to: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Keanu Reeves, Brad Pitt, Liam Neeson, James Woods, Willem Dafoe..."
Dog entertains and shocks by saying libellous things about various well-known movie personalities. He says he's got some well-placed sources in Hollywood, but anyone could say that.
"White Jazz is definitely a one-off. It's a first-person narration of a very bad man, a cop named Dave Klein, whose life in running down in Los Angeles in the fall of 1958. The book is a fever dream - it's a stream of consciousness style - there are no tricks in it - everything is quite literal but, if you blink, you will miss things. You have to get into the rhythm of Dave Klein's head or you won't get the book at all. There are many people who didn't understand the book. The book did not sell as well as the three previous volumes of the LA Quartet. It was a risk I took - I think the risk is worth it. The important thing with me is always the book, not the sales. I did it for that one book and I returned to a more fully developed style for American Tabloid, and I will never go back to White Jazz again. I've done it.
"Each book, I think, is darker, more dense, more complex and more stylistically evolved than the previous book. I have finished the LA Quartet. It is considered a monument of some sort - I consider it a great monument, like Mount Rushmore, and so does my dog, my wife, my agent and my current publisher. Others are not so charitable, but fuck `em because they don't have to be. The bottom line is this: if you don't like my books you can kiss my ass."
"The short story form does not interest me. I wrote short stories at the behest of editors that I owed favours to and, luckily for me, because I'd recently been divorced, I saw that I had collected enough short stories to sell a short story volume and make some very quick cash with minimal effort. So I wrote a novella to stand as the frontis piece of this collection, called Dick Contino's Blues.
"Dick Contino was a big star in America in the late forties and early fifties. He was a handsome Italian guy who played the accordion and nobody ever played accordion like this motherfucker. He humped it, he wolfed it, he waggled it, he gyrated with it, he orbited it like a fucking dervish flying on benzedrine, maryjane and glue. He was a handsome guy. He really banged that box. He had 400 fan clubs nationwide and 5000 fan-letters a week. But he was a fearful young kid and in 1951 his handsome ass was about to get drafted and sent to Korea. He told the draft board that he was really scared and didn't want to go to Korea. This was the wrong thing to say at the height of the red scare in America. The draft board and Hearst newspapers throughout America took the stand `Hey Dick, you're getting more ass than a toilet seat, you're making five Gs a week and you're 21 years old - we're gonna draft your ass.' So, Dick's ass was drafted. He was sent to basic training at Fort Ord, California. So Dick ran for 24 hours, went home to his mom and dad, turned himself into the Feds, got slammed, took it right up the rump-ramp for this one in the worst way. Got six months in the federal penitentiary at McNeil Island, Washington and was then drafted and sent to Korea, where he served with distinction. He came back to find the accordion somewhat passé and his career completely derailed. He went from being a big star and a main room guy, to a lounge act and the star of a very sleazy B-movie called Daddy-O.
"I have some very dim recollections of Dick Contino from the late fifties, and after finishing the LA Quartet I was suffering some separation pangs from Los Angeles, so I decided to do a picaresque, light-hearted farewell to LA in the fifties, hence the novella.
"Dick and I are still in touch. Dick is presently undergoing romantic troubles. He's 65 and is going out with the daughter of one of the members of his original fan club. There is only a 37 year age difference between Dick and this woman. She's an Italian woman from upstate New York. She's divorced. She has had several kids by several different men. I think Dick has picked a black marble with this woman. I think Dick is still, many, many years after his great fame and a few years after his resurgence via me, perpetuating the same patterns with bad women. So, in his way, Dick Contino is a noir character."
"When I finished the LA Quartet, I realised that that was then and this is now. I never wanted to do another novel that could in any way be categorised as a thriller, a mystery or a book based around police work or, specifically police investigations. I realised, what I wanted to do was write a trilogy - three books with fifteen years of American history broken down into five year increments. I wanted one theme to pervade these works and that is politics as crime and the private nightmare of public policy. The genesis of all this is reading Don DeLillo's novel Libra, a brilliantly fictional take on Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination. The first book is called American Tabloid.
"Now, I was fifteen when Jack `The Haircut' Kennedy got whacked in 1963. I was never fond of the Kennedys - I never loved them nor hated them. I was unmoved by Kennedy's death even though he was very much of my youth. But now, all of a sudden, after reading Libra, I was obsessed by the Kennedy assassination and the events which I viewed to be the harbingers of it.
"I began to see that Libra precluded me from ever writing a novel specifically about the assassination but what I could do was write a novel wherein the assassination was but one murder in a long series of murders. I decided that this book would be my first novel that would, in no way, be driven by psycho-sexual plots. Some of the action would take place in LA, my chief locale, but most of it wouldn't. I would go one on one with history and recreate that era to my own specifications, so I did.
"I hired a researcher, a magazine editor friend of mine. She compiled chronologies and factsheets for me so that I wouldn't write myself into factual error. I extrapolated from those facts. I show all the real life characters in the book - the Kennedy brothers, Jimmy Hoffa, Howard Hughes and the key gangsters of the era - Santos Trafficante, Carlos Marcello, Sam Giancana - in a totally fictional context. You don't need to show Kennedy giving his inaugural speech or having his brains blown out. We've seen it eight million times. Lee Harvey Oswald does not appear in the book. The assassination is 12-15% of the overall text. If you have the stones to say I can rewrite history to my own specifications, I can populate this book with fictional characters, the minor minions of the time, and make them more interesting and more perversely apathetic than the Kennedys, J Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes and the rest, then you can get away with it.
"I have stopped writing psycho-sexual driven plots. It's the covenant of consciousness. I think writers can get better and better and better and better. I think good writers can bring a thematic unity, an innate talent and a certain native intelligence embedded in his/her unconsciousness and that can see you through any number of books. 3, 4 or 5. There are then the implications of editors - write a series character, a sympathetic private eye, British inspector, innocent person who keeps getting caught up in violent intrigue, so that readers can have somebody to come back to and come back to and come back to. I have decided to ignore that rule and forge my own territory.
"For me, my big thematic journey is twentieth century American history and what I think twentieth century American history is, is the story of bad white men, soldiers of fortune, shakedown artists, extortionists, legbreakers. The lowest level implementors of public policy. Men who are often toadies of right wing regimes. Men who are racists. Men who are homophobes. These are my guys. These are the guys that I embrace. These are the guys that I empathise with. These are the guys that I love.
"Now, parenthetically, a number of critics have called me a fascist, a racist, an anti-semite, an anti-papist because my characters are like that. These are the characters who are portrayed as multi-faceted human beings. The reader, on some level, is meant to empathise with them, and I certainly do. I think what angers critics is that the racism, and homophobia and anti-semitism and everything else that these characters express is not fundamental to their character - they are just casual attributes that they possess because they are men of the time.
"So I write books of the time, in the language of the time in the first and third person, refer to Jews as kikes, homosexuals as faggots, and blacks as niggers. People don't know how to take it. I love the American idiom. If I can dip into the American idiom I would rather use it, as profane and ugly as it sometimes is than so-called normal King's English.
"The bottom line is that twentieth century American crime fiction is the story of bad white men and I'll go to my grave thinking that."