“I Don’t Live in the World”: An Interview With James Ellroy

The crime writer opens up about his mother’s murder, his love of dogs, and his new novel, This Storm. Just don’t ask him about Donald Trump.

Photo: Ulf Anderson/Getty Images

InIn one of the opening scenes of the 2001 BBC documentary Feast of Death, James Ellroy tells a story about his encounter with an elderly fan in a Kansas video store. She’s effusive about how much she enjoyed the movie L.A. Confidential, which was based on Ellroy’s bestselling novel of the same name — part of his now-iconic L.A. Quartet series.

“Kim Basinger was so beautiful,” she tells him. “What a wonderful, wonderful movie. I saw it four times.”

“Listen, Granny,” he interrupts her. “You loved the movie; did you go out and buy the book?” She admits that she hasn’t, and Ellroy snaps, “Then what the fuck good are you to me?”

It’s a quintessential Ellroy moment. “The modern master of hard-boiled fiction,” as he has been called, has a profane, confrontational demeanor that wouldn’t seem out of place in his own fiction. Ellroy came by his world-weariness honestly: When he was just 10 years old, an unknown assailant strangled his mother. The mystery continues to haunt him. (He has tried in vain to find the murderer.) Since then, Ellroy has been a petty thief and a drug addict, a restless wanderer without a home, and a guy with a head full of demons that would’ve made Sam Spade crack.

At the same time, unlike Hunter S. Thompson — who made himself the main character of his own literary works — Ellroy doesn’t usually write about himself directly, other than the occasional memoir. He writes crime thrillers about damaged cops and dangerous women, in a hyperkinetic prose that caused fellow crime author Elmore Leonard to remark “reading it aloud could shatter your wine glasses” — books like The Black Dahlia, White Jazz, American Tabloid, and his latest, This Storm, part of a new L.A. Quartet that takes place during World War II.

I recently called the author, who is 71, and expected to get an earful from the self-proclaimed “white knight of the far right” about the state of American politics. He wasn’t interested; he declined to even utter Trump’s name unless I turned off “that little machine of yours.” Instead, he wanted to talk about his books, his personal life, and a dog named Zero.

The hard-boiled characters that inhabit your novels are hard to come by these days. Or are they still out there and we just have to look harder to find them?

Are you talking about literature or real life?

Well, I meant literature, but let’s talk real life.

Yeah, there are a lot of foo-foo guys out there, politically correct guys. There’s no doubt about it.

I thought you didn’t want to discuss politics?

How is that about politics?

Accusing somebody of being politically correct is kind of a right-wing talking point.

Listen, I don’t comment on anything contemporary. I found the best way to put yourself in a whole lot of shit with a whole lot of people and have yourself and your books misunderstood is to start commenting on contemporary shit. Chiefly politics. So I don’t do it.

That’s fair. But your new novel is about Nazis.

It’s not about Nazis. It’s an extended love story that encompasses all the years of America’s involvement in World War II.

But it’s got a swastika on the cover. Nazis aren’t exactly ancient history anymore.

I have no interest in that. Everything I write is fiction. I hire researchers who compile fact sheets and chronologies for me. I don’t enjoy research, but I have to do it occasionally. I have policemen friends who I talk to. My closest friend is a retired LAPD anti-terrorist cop. We talk a lot. I love cops as people. They’re my favorite breed of cat.

Would you have been a cop if the writing thing didn’t pan out?

I’ve never wanted to be a policeman. I’ve never wanted to do anything but what I do. It’s all I’m qualified for.

Do you ever talk with cops who seem like they’re auditioning to be in one of your books?

Nah, they don’t care. They’re not trying to impress me. Here’s a little secret about writing for you: I’m making it all up. Everything. I take the established facts and I go hog wild. If you can’t make it up, you ain’t worth a shit. And I don’t ever draw characters from real life unless they’re established. There’s an art to writing about characters who existed in the real world. You have to show them in a new context. You don’t need to see Martin Luther King doing his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech. We all know how that went. Better to show him in an intimate context, something that’s left only to our imaginations.

A lot of the characters in your books are criminals and tough guys, alcoholics and sex addicts and all-around dirtbags. Do you see a nobility in some of them?

Like who?

Like Dudley Smith [from L.A. Confidential, White Jazz, Perfidia, etc]. He’s a corrupt Irish cop, but are there life lessons to be learned from him?

Well, first of all, Dudley Smith is evil. He’s psychopathic and entirely corrupt of the soul. But he’s also tremendously stylish. I’m not Irish, and I wasn’t born in Dublin in 1906. But I’m a big guy and I wear a tweed suit well. And one might say that Dudley Smith, at least in the style sense, is an okay guy. I know I’m being glib here.

How about Lieutenant David Klein [from White Jazz]? He’s got some skeletons in his closet, to say the least.

Yeah, being in love with his own sister is not helping things. He’s got some rough edges. But you know what? He’s redeemed in the end. In some ways, this is my most Christian book. We’re talking about White Jazz here. This guy goes to the gutter depths of sin. But in the end, he repents, reveals himself to God, and is somewhat cleansed. He gets the classic Ellroy end of the novel.

Is that classic Ellroy? I never think of your characters as getting redemption.

Blood’s a Rover ends that way, White Jazz ends that way. L.A. Confidential ends with Bud White crippled forever, but going off with Lynn Bracken. In Black Dahlia, they very tenuously work their way toward a partial and ambiguous redemption.

You’ve said in the past that you’re the greatest crime writer who ever lived. Are there any other crime writers who come close?

I like Ross MacDonald. Do you know him?

He did the Lew Archer series, right?

Damn right. I have all 18 of those Lew Archer books. I’ve also been going through the old Travis McGee books by John D. MacDonald. The hardcovers are pricey, but I’ve got about 20 of them, and I’m going through them like a rabid pit bull.

Do you notice any similarities between his stuff and yours?

That guy is as obsessed with women as I am. But he’s less disciplined. He’s writing contemporaneously, and he just gasbags about women. And in a rather puerile way, ad infinitum.

What else? Are you a Dashiell Hammett fan?

Depends on the book.

The Thin Man?

I don’t like The Thin Man. I like the movie because I could look at Myrna Loy all day, every day. Hammett wrote five novels, and there are two turkeys in there: The Dain Curse and The Thin Man. The poor fucker was embroiled in that monstrous relationship, and he was just a godawful drunk. Never wrote another novel after the mid-1930s.

Do you read any contemporary authors?

Never. I don’t even live contemporary. I’ve never used a computer. If I want to send an email to a friend or colleague, I write it down on notebook paper and fax it to my assistant Leslie. She types it, faxes it back to me for corrections, I call her with the corrections, we go over it verbally, and she sends it on.

That sounds exhausting. Do you write books that way too?

Everything I’ve ever written for publication is on white notebook paper. My wife’s got a computer but I rarely use it. If I need to buy a CD for my boombox or I need a new shirt, I can look at the pictures on Helen’s computer, and then she takes care of it. So I don’t live in the world today, really.

Does that keep you sane?

Yeah. I’m anxious enough as it is. Ignoring the world and limiting my access to it keeps me on an even keel.

You live in Denver now, right?

I’ve been here since 2015. I moved to Denver to be with my second ex-wife. I only move for women.

Did she ask you or did you just show up?

Helen said, “Okay, fucker, I’ll get back with you. But I moved three times for you, so now you come here.” So I moved here. But we don’t live together. We live down the hall from each other.

In separate apartments?

Yeah. Sometimes I’ll forget and I’ll walk down in my underwear. [He bursts out laughing.] I usually write in a T-shirt and underwear and slippers. I’ll forget what I’m wearing and walk over to Helen’s place and she’ll say, “Do you know what you’re wearing?” And I’ll go, “Oh shit!”

Is it going to last with Helen this time?

I was on the prowl for the 11 years Helen and I were separated. I had a bunch of bad deals. Most men are lucky — or unlucky — to have one truly crazy, self-abdicating, obsessive love affair. I’ve had three. And all fucking three of them were like something out of a film noir plot.

Could you be attracted to that? Three relationships with noir overtones seems more intentional than accidental.

Oh, I absolutely am. You know how when you see a woman, and you’re reaching for the toilet to flush your life down it immediately? I used to get my kicks on that, where it went from first kiss to the gas chamber in six months.

Not to get all Freudian on you, but is it possible this all ties back to your mother? She was your first big complicated love, and she was murdered. How does that not color all your future relationships with women?

It certainly does, yeah. I was 10 years old when she died, and it’s still unsolved. I went back and looked into it with her retired homicide detective, but we didn’t find the killer. I wrote a book about it called The Hilliker Curse. Hilliker was my mother’s name.

What was the curse?

On the occasion of my tenth birthday, in March 1958, my mother said, “Okay, kid. You’re a young man now, you can make up your mind. You can either live with me or live with your dad.” They’d been divorced for two-and-a-half years. I said the first thing that came into my mind. “I’m living with my dad.” So my mother whacked me, and I fell off the couch where we were sitting and hit my head on the glass edge of a coffee table. I had a big gash on my forehead. I was so angry, I issued her the Hilliker Curse.

Which was?

“I want you to die.” Three months later, she was murdered. It was a horrible, sexually charged, probably random homicide. And my libido is all wrapped up in that. Here’s this big, good-looking redhead — the first woman I ever loved and had complicated feelings about — and she’s alive one day and dead the next, and I caused her death, at least in my imagination.

That’s a lot to blame yourself for, at any age.

It messed me up. Every romantic interaction I’ve had with a woman since then, I have to ask myself, Is this in service of the truth?

The truth being what?

Why this particular woman? Is it because she looks good? Is it because I’m feeling vulnerable in this moment? Is it unresolved guilt about my mother? Am I after her because I want her, or because I’m angry?

What do you do with all that sexual energy that used to consume you? Do those desires ever completely go away, or do you find something healthier to replace them with?

You find things. I like going to coffee joints and talking to dogs. I see some great dogs at this place down here called Ink. The name is because both ink and coffee are black or something.

What do you say to these dogs?

Just small talk. “Hey, baby, you look good. What’s shaking?” I love dogs. I’ll go up to any strange-ass dog, right up to his snout, and just start talking to him. I’ve been bitten a bunch of times.

But that hasn’t deterred you?

Why would it? I just like getting right up in their face and saying, “Hey, baby. What’s going on, baby? Give me some love, baby. How are the other bitches treating you, you fine motherfucker?”

That may be the single greatest thing I’ve ever learned about you.

You’ve got to talk to dogs. There’s this one dog I see all the time. Now, I don’t give a shit about football. But people around here are nuts about the Denver Broncos. I wouldn’t know John Elway if he dipped me, but he owns a steakhouse and apparently he has something to do with the Broncos. I don’t know about that, but his food is okay. Anyway, there’s a dog I see around here, and he always wears a Broncos jersey with the number zero on it. So I started calling him Zero. He’s a nice-looking golden retriever. I’ve kissed him on the snout a few times.

How many more books do you think you have in you?

I’ve got five more novels that I want to do. I’ve got to finish the second L.A. quartet, the one that started with Perfidia and This Storm. Then I want to write another series of three. I’m writing as fast as I can.

It sounds epic.

It is epic. I am the greatest living writer in my genre. Maybe all genres. Anything less than epic wouldn’t be worth my time.

Did you always have a healthy ego, or did it take a few bestsellers to get there?

I was never worth a shit at anything. I failed as an athlete, I failed as a middle-distance runner, I failed as a boxer — I never did anything well. But I can write and I’m a killer public speaker. I can walk up to a podium and speak without a hitch for half an hour and run the room down. It’s a good thing I’m not a politician because I’ve got demagogue tendencies.

Most of writing isn’t about adoring crowds, though. It’s being alone in a room with your thoughts.

That’s right. About 99% of the time I’m sitting here at my desk, like I am right now. I’m talking on a landline telephone and I’ve got handwritten pages of the next book to my left, and I’ve got my feet up on the desk. And that’s just the way I want it. If I get restless, I can always walk down to the coffee shop and see Zero.

I’ve written for Vanity Fair, The NYT Magazine, and Playboy, among many others. I’m the author of 10 books, including my most recent, “Old Records Never Die”

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