Interview with James Ellroy

September, 2009
James Ellroy The Demon Dog of American crime fiction, James Ellroy often claims he's the greatest crime writer of all time. Braggadocio aside, Ellroy has the fan base and critical acclaim to support this kind of posturing. L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia are one of a kind, bestsellers written in blistering, staccato prose. His new book, Blood's a Rover, is the final installment of his Underworld USA Trilogy (previous titles include American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand), which chronicles how deep-seated corruption in the United States propelled the Kennedy assassinations and the Vietnam War. Ellroy confesses to Goodreads that Blood's a Rover is his most romantic novel yet (ladies, take note) and describes the power of "the uncluttered mind."

Goodreads: Your fiction is peppered with famous characters, such as J. Edgar Hoover and Howard Hughes. In contrast, one of the three protagonists in Blood's a Rover, Donald Crutchfield, is a real person and just a regular guy. How did he get so lucky?

James Ellroy: There's a triple protagonist motif in this book, but some are replaced by other protagonists. And Don Crutchfield is a friend of mine and a real-life private eye. We made a deal several years ago for him to be the hero of this book, and we're not saying what's real and what's not. Some of this stuff he did, some of this stuff I did, and most of the stuff is fictional. He has read it—he loves it. He'll be doing interviews himself for the book.

GR: Blood's a Rover was eight years in the making. How is it different from the first two books in the trilogy?

JE: It is very much a book about political conversion and belief. It moves into a period of time that's less well-known than the first two books. American Tabloid, the first book, covers '58-'63 and is largely the rise and fall of John F. Kennedy. The Cold Six Thousand is my big novel of the American 1960s with all the political turmoil. This book goes from the tumultuous summer of 1968—the riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, race riots at the GOP Convention in Miami—and then we go off into a largely fictionalized story of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It is the most historically obscure of the books, but it's the book that is the most dramatically and stylistically accessible. It's the most romantic book, and my strongest women characters repose in this book.

GR: We asked some of your readers for questions and selected a few for you. Goodreads member Eric wants to know: "Do you ever worry that you might be misleading the audience by blurring the distinctions between fact and fiction?"

JE: No, I don't care morally. What I'm trying to do is give the reader a human infrastructure of great public events. So I extrapolate off of rigorously established facts fictionally, with both real life and fictional characters.

GR: Next, Goodreads member Natalie wants to know: "Does being a total badass come naturally to you, or is it something that takes years of honing?"

JE: [laughs] Wow. I'm a big, fit 61-year-old man, and I like combat. I'm contentious. I like to toil, I like to struggle. I don't know that that's necessarily badass, but I'm assertive by nature. So yes, it does come naturally.

GR: Natalie also asks, "Your female characters always shine through with strength, intellect, and power, but I'm constantly defending your work from charges of misogyny. How do you respond to these critics?"

JE: I am a complete fool for women, always have been. And Natalie is utterly correct. They are strong women who live lives of great duress; they are critiques of misogyny. I am the son of a murdered woman—anybody who'd call my books misogynistic is, frankly, out of their fucking mind.

GR: Often when your characters fall for a woman, they fall in love for good. Is this a theme in your writing?

JE: Yeah. To me, there's nothing on earth other than women. It's why I get out of bed every morning. You have the opportunity to have a cup of coffee, write, serve God, and you may damn well meet a woman. And that's something to get out of bed for every morning. I'm a big, big, big, big romantic, and this is my most romantic novel. The character Joan is based on a woman named Joan that I was in love with in San Francisco several years ago. We did not end well, but the book is dedicated to her. The dedication page says, "To J.M. / Comrade: For Everything You Gave Me." I sent her a book with a note last week; she hasn't responded yet. Will she respond? I hope so. I wrote this book for Joan in heartache, in love, and undiminished devotion. I hope she digs it.

GR: Do you think in 10 to 20 years you might write about present-day events?

JE: No. I need history's lens refracted backwards for a significant period of time. So the present day and the present culture hold no sway for me. I just ignore it. I will go back—and I'm not going to reveal exactly when and where to—to write an earlier series of historical novels next. But right now I'm on the Blood's a Rover tour. Isn't that a cool title?

GR: It's a reference to an A.E. Housman poem, "Reveille," correct? Why did you choose that phrase?

JE: Well, it's such a damn good title! I dig it.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any specific writing habits?

JE: I get up very early in the morning, and I drink lots of coffee. I am computer illiterate—I'm not kidding you. I've never used a computer. So I've written all of my 17 books, fiction and nonfiction, by hand. And I have an assistant who takes care of corrections for me, and a woman back East who types for me. So I work assiduously by hand.

Blood's a Rover, which is a 655-page hardcover, was a 1,000-page typed manuscript and 1,100 pages handwritten. It was entirely written in ink. It is the result of a 400-page typed outline, in which I describe the characters, the plot, the milieu, and the historical events in the most minute detail.

I work every day for a long period of hours, drinking lots of coffee, with the outline on my desk and white notebook paper that I write on beside it.

GR: At what point in writing the trilogy did you realize you would follow the arc all the way to 1973? At some point, did you write a massive 1,000-page outline for the whole trilogy?

JE: I wrote the first novel, American Tabloid, which covers 1958-1963 (published in 1991)—that was when I realized it should be a trilogy. So I outlined each book individually, in the long form I described.

GR: I hope you have all these manuscripts in a safe place!

JE: They are in my archive at the University of South Carolina.

GR: You've stated that you don't read other fiction writers. How about nonfiction? Do you have any favorite authors?

JE: No. I don't read. I ignore the culture. I don't have a computer. I don't have a TV set. I don't have a cell phone. I don't go to movies or read newspapers. I'm quite unaware of the culture. I limit my curiosity to the time periods and the specific history of the books that I write. I hire researchers who compile fact sheets and chronologies. I'm a big believer in the uncluttered mind.

GR: Finally, do you have any inside information about the prospect of the Underworld USA trilogy becoming an HBO series?

JE: It is doubtful. HBO owns the rights to American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand, the first two books in the trilogy. Since there are continuing characters from the preceding books in this book, either HBO will option it, or nobody else can. I just take the option money and run. I don't worry about this shit getting made into movies. All I can control is the quality of the book and the promotion of the book. So I say God bless you to HBO. Thanks for the dough, and if it goes before the cameras, let me know.

Comments (showing 1-10 of 10) (10 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Natalie (new)

Natalie Did this just make my freakin' day or what?!!

Thanks, Demon Dog, for answering my questions and making me giggle like a starstruck schoolgirl.

message 2: by Jen (new)

Jen Aw, man. Now I will never know if he eats corn! Poor Brian.

message 3: by Plebar (new)

Plebar I love Dog as much as the next reader, but I wonder what's up with this "I don't have a computer, I ignore pop culture" pose...the dude just posted on Facebook 4 hours ago with a YouTube clip promo for Rover. Caveat lector.

message 4: by Natalie (new)

Natalie A friend of his does his Facebook for him; from his FB info page:

"I don't watch TV; I don't have a cell phone; I have never used a computer; a colleague of mine is typing in this information; my publisher made me co-opt this bit of cyberspace in order to promote my new novel -- Blood's A Rover -- coming out in September. It is my greatest work of fiction."

message 5: by Joy (new)

Joy I love James Ellroy

message 6: by Tom (new)

Tom Mcgraw Can't get enought of the Demon Dog!

message 7: by Citizen (new)

Citizen I love that crazy son of a bitch

message 8: by Rob (new)

Rob J I had the great fortune to meet James in 1990 and 95,
when he signed my copy of "The Big Nowhere" and "American Tabloid". What a character,but more importantly what a writer !

Dan Brown and the rest of his dreadful ilk may have the vast sales, but he will be dead and buried before
he could even think about touching the Mad Dog for sheer literary class...

message 9: by Idylldon (new)

Idylldon I've met James many times, starting with a book signing at the Book Carnival in Orange, CA, way back in the early 80s. I've been a HUGE fan ever since. As for all his holographic manuscripts being "in [his:] archive at the University of South Carolina," well, I know of one that isn't.

message 10: by Patrick (new)

Patrick Truly in a league of his own...

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