James Ellroy - in his own words

Posted: Wed Sep 22 2010

As he prepares to embark on a UK tour, American crime writer extraordinaire James Ellroy has a chat with Chris Moss on topics ranging from the exhilaration of novel-writing to, inevitably, women…

Los Angeles-born bestselling novelist James Ellroy published his first book, 'Brown's Requiem', in 1981. Since then he has published an autobiography, and his novels include the revered
'LA Quartet'. His latest work, 'The Hilliker Curse', is part-memoir about the still-unsolved murder of his mother, Jean Hilliker.

Is the process of writing cathartic or dirtying?
'Neither. The process of writing is never dirty, rarely cathartic - and always exacting and exhilarating.'

Do you feel bad about dragging your readers through the mire?
'The “mire” is always edifying and entertaining, and geared toward the end of redemption. So I never feel bad.'

There's a lot of disgust in your work - usually the sign of a moralist. Would you describe yourself as a moralist?
'Yes, I would. I am always trying to show the catastrophic ramifications of immoral acts.'

Your characters usually die once they gain crucial knowledge - what's the warning?
'You're wrong about this. More often, my characters gain self-knowledge and transcend rather than die. It's better to die with that knowledge rather than not.'

What happened after 'LA Confidential' and before 'White Jazz' that made you trim back your sentences and go all taut on us?
' “LA Confidential” was too long; I trimmed for expeditiousness of plot - and inadvertently created a style. The hyper-conscious and abbreviated style of “White Jazz” resulted.'

With 'Blood's a Rover' you're getting expansive again - the sentences breathe more easily. Have you come full circle?
'The story of “Blood's a Rover” mandated a more explicated style. Thus, it was imperative I followed that mandate and again revised my style.'

Is language morality? I mean is our style - our form - integral to our sense of good and evil?
'Style in no way dictates the proportion of good and evil in my books; the actions of the characters are the moral centre.'

Most authors modulate their tone when turning from novel to memoir, but 'The Hilliker Curse' is as muscular and pacy as any of your novels. What's the reason?
'I write in the blunt, male-viewpoint manner that is a hallmark of the hard-boiled school. I deploy the style to all-new effect in “The Hilliker Curse”. Thus, the book is muscular - as well as thoughtful and insightful.'

'The Hilliker Curse' shows women, not crime, have been your guiding focus in life. Would you have been happier as a romantic novelist, or a pornographer?
'I am a romantic novelist. I despise pornography and think that it should be banned.'

Reviewers use words like 'hard-boiled', 'noir' and 'crime writing' in responding to your work. Is this a straitjacket? Does it piss you off?
'I am a crime writer, as well as a great writer, bereft of genre classifications. I don't care what critics think of me.'

Any chance of you having a chomp at contemporary history?
'History needs time to percolate within me. That's why I will never write contemporaneously set novels.'

You've referred to your current partner as the 'ultimate woman'. How do you know this - ie how can we ever know this?
'When you know, you know. And, man, do I know with Erika Schickel.'

These book tours mean you get around. Do you enjoy the moving?
'I hate travel and love book tours. I love British tours. They allow me to go to a wonderful foreign country where everyone reads and speaks English.'

People who love your books almost verge on the fanatical. Usually men. Do you think the hell that started off this narrative of yours sometimes gets forgotten in all the muscular swagger of the prose? In short, do you feel people understand you?
'I am happy to have spawned a fanatical readership - and hope “The Hilliker Curse” expands the female component. People understand me to an indiscernible degree. I'm nothing but grateful.'

'The Hilliker Curse' is published by William Heinemann at £16.99.