Oedipus Wreck

Laura Miller interviews James Ellroy, Salon's 1996 Best Books of the Year Winner

Published December 9, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

james Ellroy is a publicist's dream. He's got a dynamite story, loves doing press and has no discernible sense of shame. For over 15 years, Ellroy has been writing crime novels set in 1950s Los Angeles -- where he grew up -- in lean, bleak prose once described as "so hard-boiled it burns the pot." His fascination with murdered women, particularly the infamous, unsolved "Black Dahlia" case, is, as he has repeatedly pointed out, rooted in the mysterious killing of his own mother in 1958, when he was 10.

"My Dark Places," Ellroy's recently published memoir, records his attempt, at age 46, to investigate his mother's murder. Enlisting the help of a retired L.A. County Sheriff's Department homicide detective named Bill Stoner, he sifts through piles of decades-old evidence, rousting octogenarian witnesses and suspects and gradually learning how to truly mourn his loss. The book is a corrosively addictive read, not the least because Ellroy gives himself no quarter, describing his squalid post-murder life (drugs, shoplifting, homelessness, creepy voyeurism, petty crime, white supremacism, jail time, 12-hour masturbatory sessions) in pitiless detail.

Such relentless self-exposure requires a cast-iron ego, which Ellroy possesses in spades. Tall and lean, he's so amped up even in his married middle-age that it's a bit frightening to imagine him as an adolescent speed freak. He leaves his interlocutor in no doubt as to who runs a James Ellroy interview, but since no topic is off-limits, and it's a helluva ride, who's complaining?

You once wrote a fictionalized version of your mother's murder, didn't you?

My second novel, "Clandestine," was a chronologically altered, greatly fictionalized account, yes. I solved the case in that book.

People expect that in a detective novel. People will probably hope for that with this book, and it doesn't exactly happen. When you compare "Clandestine" and "My Dark Places," how do you think you understood your mother's murder?

With "Clandestine," I was 32 years old, very ambitious. I was still caddying full-time at a Los Angeles country club and I wanted to get rid of the story. I wanted to prove myself impervious to my mother's presence and to get on with it. I wanted to delay the writing of "The Black Dahlia," the book I really wanted to write, until I was better. I made my father the killer, even though in real life my father was with me at the time the crime occurred. I got rid of it, I go, "OK, great, that's done." I didn't know at that time that you can't run from such an overweening presence.

That was 1980. I wrote "The Black Dahlia" in '85 and '86 and dedicated the book to my mother. I wept when I finished the book. Then I cold-heartedly decided that I would go out and utilize my mother's murder to promote the "Black Dahlia." I understood that it was a very easy story for journalists to comprehend. Boy loses mother, unsolved killing. Boy, bereft, seizes on Black Dahlia murder case to express the grief he never felt on the occasion of his mother's death. Many years later, after a tragic youth and subsequent resurrection, boy becomes bestselling novelist and writes book, dedicates to mother. I did that. I went out and glibly used that story to promote the book.

I thought I had shot my mother down that way. Again, I was very mistaken. It wasn't until a confluence of events -- [Ellroy's wife] Helen giving me a picture of myself taken just after the murder, [Ellroy's friend] Frank Girardo telling me he was going to see my mother's murder file, seeing the file myself and meeting Bill Stoner -- that I realized the extent to which my mother's death had formed me. I was only three columns down, reading the first report in the file, and I knew I couldn't run -- I couldn't go back. I am a writer. I could not afford to take 15 months off from my writing career to play detective. There had to be a book in this.

But you had always made a big deal out of your mother's death.

It was intellectual. I am the most well-adjusted human being I know. I started out this investigation as a very happy man with a great career. I've got the life people dream about: I am rich, I am famous, I've got a fabulous marriage to an absolutely, spell-bindingly brilliant woman. I was not bemoaning. I don't regret my past. I wouldn't go back and change it. My mother was murdered. She gave me gifts -- her death did. Those gifts have stood me in very good stead. I cannot go back and undo the past. I never even think of what might have happened had she lived. Would I be a writer? I had gone to great lengths in my life, in my career, to seek consciousness and get better and better. That eclipsed everything with me, everything in my subconscious.

Seeking consciousness?

Yes. Seeking consciousness. I will be a better writer. I will take the risk, will write the book that takes longer, the book that will destroy genre strictures. The book that might not be as magnanimously praised as the books of lessers who adhere to genre strictures. I will risk sales. I will risk losing this big income of mine to write better books. That's the world that I lived in. The other part of the world is going out and promoting everything to the hilt. That completely eclipsed my emotional awareness of my mother and the effect of her death on me. It wasn't until I went back and saw the file that I said, Oh shit.

so, it went from being almost a public event to the most private dimension. How did that feel?

It felt like she re-entered my life, or entered my life for the first time since she exited it on 6/22/58.

As the same kind of presence that you remembered?

No, as a mature presence. I thought the pictures of her dead would be the most shocking. I had a bunch of envelopes there, photo envelopes. In the first picture I saw of my mother, she was alive. She was 42, it was August of '57, 10 months before her death. I was shocked. She looked like a puffy-faced drunk, older than 42. And I realized that in my mental images of her -- I have no pictures of her -- I had smoothed out the planes of her face and frozen her at "a lusty 40," as I say in the book. I made the lines in her face show strength, not dissipation. When I saw the pictures of her dead, she looked like a sick woman sleeping. She didn't look like anybody I'd ever known. There was a terrible photograph of her from the autopsy, on a morgue slab, nude from the abdomen up. I could see that I had re-made her body in my memory to suit the lust I had then for zaftig women. She was actually more slender than I recalled. That was a revelation, too. So, now she is in my life with images I can't shake. I couldn't re-make her; I could only see her face the way it really was in her declining months.

You re-imagined her life in melodramatic terms in "Clandestine." The reality was somewhat more average.

Emblematic of its time, I think. She was a profligate woman on the one side: she was alcoholic, she liked cheap men. She was a hard-working, stern, almost Calvinistic woman on the other. She lied to people, although not to the pathetic extent that my father did. But she carefully selected her facts and fabricated to good effect. By the end of the investigation, I began to see just how much I am her, how much I came out of her. I had a profligate side, I was able to live through it, while hers killed her. I can put some of that off on the culture. I was a man drinking, using drugs and whoring around in the '70s. She was a woman doing it in the '50s. I had gender bias on my side. She didn't. I had some health scares that helped push me toward getting sober. She could've made those changes in her own life if she hadn't intersected with that piece of shit who killed her. It was as if I outlived my profligate side and she didn't. As I say in the book, her pain was greater than mine. The war within her was greater.

I learned from her self-sufficiency by negative example, learned not to trust people. I had been given the gift of obsession by her and I wanted things. I wanted very concrete things when it came time for me to change my life. I wanted to be with women and I wanted to write books. She never got to this moment of clarity, this moment of revelation. And she might have.

When you say you got the gift of obsession from her, do you mean from her death or from her personality?

Partly from her personality, from her wild side, from this sensual abandon that she tried to compartmentalize on weekends when I was gone with my father. One of the reasons that I am as effectively obsessive as I am is that I am meticulous, punctual, hard-working, diligent to an extreme fault -- and these are all things that she tried to instill in me, to no avail. She thought that I would grow up to be a weak, lazy, slothful, duplicitous man like my father. That certainly was the way that I was headed for many years. Her death gave me this tremendous curiosity. It fueled me, and fueled me.

What do you think motivated her?

Unconsciousness. She reacted to stimuli. She rationalized tremendously. She had some moments of clarity: She told her friend Mary Evans in the mid 1930's, "I am drinking too much." Well, she drank for another 22 years. Why didn't she stop? Why didn't she seek help when it was readily available? Helen asks a very poignant and pertinent question, vis-a-vis my mother: "What did she think she was doing?" I don't think she knew.

That's the question: What did she want? What was she after in life?

I think she wanted self-sufficiency. I think that is one of the reasons she became a nurse, even though she was no kind of altruist and do-gooder. I think she wanted a respectable profession that was open to women. I think she wanted to get away from her father. She comes out of a background that is almost a classic textbook child-abuse case. What did she think she was doing? She cut her losses. She went forward, if it didn't work, she moved on. If she was in relationships that didn't work, didn't get her what she wanted, she moved on. I am exactly that ruthless myself.

And how did she feel about you, I mean, when you were a child?

She doted on me because I was her son. I think she loved me in a protective way, and I was developing a very bad and weak character. She couldn't have been pleased that I was doing poorly in school. I was vile, fearful, lazy. I hated her, she knew it. I was completely in the thrall of my father. She was in the enemy camp with me.

You talk about taking after her, and say that she was a liar. In writing this book, did you find yourself exaggerating things?

The emphasis is mine, the facts are all true.

Given the brutal self-examination that you pursue, I wonder if you ask yourself, Am I remembering this correctly?

I have a brilliant and wonderful memory. The only surprise, really, was that I couldn't remember my baby sitter. No, I trust my memories.

But your memory about your mother, how she looked, wasn't accurate.

But then I address it ...

But that's because you have physical evidence to contradict the memory.

This is the way I saw it, with no lying, no dissembling, no exaggeration to the best of my memory, this book.

So you have no doubts about it?


Do you feel that you've finished with this type of story now that you've dealt with your mother's death?

I'll never write another L.A.-set book. I made a conscious decision to get out of L.A. with my last book, "American Tabloid." I made a conscious decision not to have any psycho-sexually driven protagonists. What I'm interested in now is politics as crime. The two sequels to "American Tabloid" that I'll be writing next will go into that. That played very well for me. It was my first book set outside of L.A., my best-selling book, my most praised book, Time magazine's novel of the year.

It was an obsession of mine, the old L.A., for a long time. Now I'm done. I think after a while it just has to be all about consciousness. OK, what have we done? Where are we going? How do you write deeper, darker, better, bigger, richer books? How do you show a greater diversity of character and motive in your books?

So, you feel you have exorcised the L.A. demon, or whatever you want to call it?

No. I think it's still there. I think I'll force it into new forms. We didn't find the man that killed my mother. It's doubtful that we ever will. There is no closure, as I say in the book. Closure is bullshit.

What do you mean by "politics as crime"?

I think that the "L.A. Quartet" books and "American Tabloid" run antithetical to your standard crime fiction sensibility, which is usually a noble loner working against authority. I think my books are about bad men doing bad things in the name of authority. I dislike institutionalized rebellion. It's one of the reasons, aside from hating the music itself, that I despise rock 'n' roll so much.

To me, crime fiction is the story of bad men in 20th century America and I want to take it up a level. I like these fascist -- if not fascist ideologically -- toadies of the system going out there, overthrowing countries.

About your dislike for institutionalized rebellion -- it almost seems that, at this point in popular culture, the noir aesthetic is no longer a fringe thing. We have TV shows like "The X-Files," which is hugely popular and all about conspiracies and paranoia and cynicism.

Well, I write in a cultural vacuum, so I don't understand what's out there in the culture too much.

You don't watch TV?

I watch boxing on TV and I listen to classical music. I talk with my wife a lot and exercise. Culture to me is just shit in the brain. I just hate it when I tour overseas and people want me to talk about Quentin Tarantino. I've offered a lot of flagrantly abusive opinions about modern popular culture, and I've put the skids to it. I just don't know what it is. I like to think. I like to lie in the dark and brood about things. I have a good idea where my own writing career is going. I have no idea where American culture is going. I really don't. I mean, I don't even know who the good guys are in the Serbo-Croatian war. I don't know who we're supporting.

I'm just noting that it's become a prevalent, popular aesthetic. Since you have written critically about it in "My Dark Places" and elsewhere, I'd like you to talk about the problems you have with it.

Well, cinema noir itself is a cliché. It really had its run from 1945, right after World War II, to the late 1950s. It's fatalistic. To me, the classic noir subgenre is the heist-gone-bad movie. It's all about fallibility and I saw a lot of films like that in the months preceding my mother's death, which is interesting. It certainly is there in my "L.A. Quartet" books, except the books are just so damn big compared to anything else that anyone in the genre has ever attempted. I have never been able to read noir and enjoy it very much. I put down the Jim Thompson book "The Killer Inside Me." I just thought it was shit. I honestly think that most of noir is a cliché. I differed from other noir writers by giving you noir as social history. Now I have done that and I am off to something else.

You dislike the loner heroes, and the fatalism of it?

I don't mind the fatalism of it. What I really hate is the Raymond Chandler type of hero -- who is noble, who hates everything mean-spirited and petty, who'd really like to have a woman, but is just too sensitive, and besides, he's having too good a time beating up and killing people. That's a literary style that I feel is superannuated. That, and serial killer books, books that glorify pathetic and horrible fiends, are things that I despise.

Since you used to like that stuff, what do you think the appeal is?

Serial killers appeal to people because they're self-contained evil units and are easily adaptable to a mono-drama. I think people are unconsciously attracted to their sexual power. Serial killers are sexual fiends who can have anybody they want. The way they have them is to possess them for brief moments, sexually abuse them, torture them and kill them. The idea of conscienceless sexuality appeals to the nihilism in people. That's what I think serial killers are, and why they have become so popular in the culture these days.

And the loner hero?

Well, the basic subtext is always male self-pity and most of these books are written by men, and I find the self-pity so thick that you could cut it with a gigantic bread knife. It bores the hell out of me. If there are new practitioners working in this Raymond Chandler, isolated-male, private-eye mode, that are good, and that bring an original voice to it, I don't know who they are. I just don't read books. I'll blurb one occasionally but I usually don't read them.

You read them if you blurb them, don't you?

No. I've rolled over for a lot of editors. And I am on blurb sobriety now. I am not doing any more blurbs.

But a lot of people could see this book as just a variation on this thing you've supposedly gotten over. It's about an investigation into a murder ...

It is. But it's my autobiography. It's all real.

You could just be turning your autobiography into the same thing that you say you despise.

It's completely different.

How so?

It's set in the county, rather than in the city. The homicide investigations fail, as opposed to the investigations that succeed in my books. For another thing: This is my story. This is telling you how I wrote all the previous books. For somebody who gets catered to a lot and interviewed a great deal, I am not that self-obsessed. If I am in a social situation, I'd rather not talk about myself. The idea of a strict autobiographical memoir at the age of 48 didn't thrill me at all. This book is more about my mother than anything else. This book is a book about how women form men. It's about explicitly explored threads of misogyny in America today. Bill Stoner is a good cop. He's not a psycho-sexually driven shithead. He's not a corrupt guy. He's not a womanizer. He's not one of these fiends out of my previous books. And I will never write another cop the way I wrote my old guys, as a result of having known Bill Stoner.

Did he surprise you?

He surprised me going in.

You include the passage where you describe Bill Stoner thinking about the parade of women victims in the crimes he's investigated. You describe his philosophy. How did that come about?

He told me that he was thinking about his women victims extensively in the weeks preceding his retirement. When we first talked, he was dreaming about them a lot. I wanted to show the extent to which these women owned him.

He's also developed a gender analysis ...

Right, men kill because of this, because of that ...

Many people might absorb the facts of all of those specific cases, without coming up with the larger shape.

He is an excellent thinker and an atypical cop. I sensed it about him right away. I told Helen, upon meeting Stoner, that he makes every other cop I have ever met seem like a child. He's liberal in his social attitudes, far more so than most cops. He's more liberal in his social attitudes than I am, which is odd in that I am the writer and he's the retired policeman. He's less judgmental than I am. He is a guy who has always looked for the truth of his life, both in his marriage, which was turbulent for many years, and the truth of police work. That is what distinguishes Stoner. He never copped a plea behind the common resentments that most cops did.

He's a guy that has always been capable of taking the wider view. He's absolutely not afraid to say, for example, that the LAPD is a racist institution or that America is a misogynistic culture. He learned that as a homicide detective. And he's got a gender-wide crush on women. I think that is what kept him through his marriage.

The homicide detectives at the sheriff's bureau are a very bright and capable bunch of people of both genders. There are maybe four or five people there out of 120 that aren't obese. They travel around a lot and can't exercise and are taking small condolences from life, food and booze. I have to howl every time I watch five minutes of some homicide TV show with these great-looking, slender young women. I mean, women homicide detectives are all 50. They are all heavy-set, 50-year-old women who look like their heavy-set, 50-year-old male counterparts.

You live in Kansas now, right?

I live in Kansas City and it's a beautiful, beautiful town. We went there to meet Helen's mother before we got married. I fell in love with the place. I'll never leave.

What do you like about it?

It's quiet, it's peaceful. There's no culture. It's homogenous. It's just well-behaved squares with impeccable manners who leave you alone. It's 2 percent unemployment. It's a very habitable place.

And it doesn't have a dark side?

Well, it has a dark history of corruption. Sometimes I'll fantasize about Kansas City's past, the era of Boss Pendergast, but I don't intend to write about Kansas City. I just want to live there. I like comfortable, affluent surroundings. I hate the big, sweaty tongue-kiss of the city. I was in Manhattan for three days, driving around doing media, I was going nuts. I don't like noise. I would rather that the despair that surrounds me -- because there's despair everywhere -- be at least quiet, civilized despair.

You're fascinated by the random, adventurous or dangerous life in fiction, but only in terms of your own life, no?

I lived very badly for many years. I don't want to live that way. I want to live morally, I want to live quietly. I want to treat people kindly, decently and live a quiet, contemplative life. I have a very raucous imagination, I have a very raucous relationship with my wife. We howl and laugh about just about everything. I enjoy boxing a lot. I've got a TV set.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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