Dead Women Owned His Soul
An Interview with James Ellroy
Ellroy began devouring crime novels at the age of 10. Growing up in L.A. in the Fifties and Sixties was a long walk through hell. He was a voyeur, petty thief, burglar, wino, Benzedrex addict. He became obsessed with true crimes, especially the Black Dahlia case of 1948. The victim's real name was Elizabeth Short, a wannabe Hollywood starlet. After torturing her for several days, the killer cut her body in half, scrubbed it clean, rearranged her internal organs, and dumped the remains in a vacant lot. The crime was never solved.
By his late 20s, after several near-death experiences, Ellroy cleaned up his act but his fantasies continued. Dead women owned him. He started writing his fantasies down on a legal pad. Ten dark crime novels later, he still uses the same method.
In The Black Dahlia, published in 1987, James Ellroy channeled his fascination with the case to produce his first best-selling novel. The next four were bestsellers, too: The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, White Jazz, and American Tabloid. But with this giant leap forward in his writing career, Ellroy also took tentative first steps on a journey that would eventually take him back to the genesis of his fascination with crime, to the terrible event that warped his future and spawned his consciousness: His own mother was murdered in 1958, when he was ten years old. Her body was found dumped near a schoolyard in El Monte, a suburb of Los Angeles. At the time, Ellroy hated his mother. She made him go to church. She hit him occasionally. She told him lies (he thought) about his father, a small-time Hollywood hustler. He lusted for her. She hot-wired him to sex and death. Her death set him free -- he thought. Like the Black Dahlia, Jean Ellroy was a woman who had bad taste in men and liked to party. A redhead. As with the Dahlia case, the murder of Jean Ellroy was never solved.
In 1992, a friend of Ellroy's called him and said he was working on a story about unsolved murders in the San Gabriel Valley. He was going to look at Jean Ellroy's file, he said. Did Ellroy want to see it for himself? He did. He had to go back. All the way back. To know her. To know where he came from.
The moment Ellroy opened the file and saw the photos and read the detectives' notes, "a little gear clicked." He knew he had to investigate the crime for himself, if not to find the killer, to finally get to know his mother. My Dark Places (Knopf, $25, hard) is Ellroy's account of the original murder case, his own investigation with retired L.A. County Sheriff's Detective Bill Stoner, an autobiographical memoir, and four decades of homicide in Los Angeles County. It is the darkest and most explosive of all of Ellroy's work. At the same time, it is easily the most readable.
I've known James Ellroy for six years or so. I've seen him do his psycho-hipster rap at bookstores a dozen times ("If you buy a thousand copies of this book, you'll be able to have unlimited sex with the partner of your dreams for the rest of your life... It's a book for the whole family -- if your family's name is O.J. Simpson."). People who only know him for that shtick might be surprised to hear that he's a genuinely nice guy who remembers to ask about your spouse and child, who has an incredibly deep love of canines. In his own way, he's one of the least self-absorbed writers I know.
Knowing all these things, I wasn't shocked when I learned that he finally realized he had to go back. I was also a little worried at the effect it might have on his mental health, and further, on his desire to continue writing crime fiction. I spoke with him during his recent trip to Austin. He said not to worry about that stuff.
A.C.: What do you expect readers to come away with after reading My Dark Places?
J.E.: I would want people to be thrilled, moved, appalled, horrified by the book. I would want them to see my mother as the complex and ambiguously defined woman that she really was. That's the biggest thrill about the book, giving my mother to the world. I wouldn't have wanted to write a full-length memoir at the tender age of 48 that was just about me. It's so much about her, and women in our society, and violence. That was the density that I was going for, you know, all the woman-killings that were woven in along with my mother's story.
A.C.: After your mother was murdered, you began your fantasy life, breaking into houses, stealing women's undergarments, things like that. In the book, it appears that the seed was planted after your parents separated, when your father asked you to spy on your mother when she had you on weekends.
J.E.: Yeah, that was the beginning, really, of voyeurism, and toward the ending of the book, Joe Walker, Bill Stoner's colleague, found my parents' divorce records, and there's my father breaking into her house, and I'm letting him into the house, through the French windows. Then, ten, eleven years later, here I am doing this shit myself, breaking in places. I mean, you can really see the arc of my life and hers in this book.
A.C.: Was there a sexual thing connected with your voyeurism and breaking and entering from the very beginning?
J.E.: It was imagination and a sexual thing, pretty early on. We were right on the edge of Hancock Park. If we were out in L.A., Jesse, even though you were a Valley guy and I'm a city guy, I could show you the pad. It's right on Beverly and Irving. It's a dump. If you walk a block south from 1st Street, you're in Hancock Park. There's all these nice Tudor and Spanish and French Chateau houses, and girls, and cars, baseball gloves, and Ivy League clothes. I grew up right on the edge of that and I was hungry.
A.C.: I can picture it. I can picture El Monte, too -- the way you describe it back in the Fifties. Why do you think your mother moved there after the divorce?
J.E.: She was a big one for starting over. I think that's probably what she was doing in El Monte. And man, when you're starting over in El Monte, you're at the end of the fucking line. And you know my father, who was a stone low-life, called El Monte "Shitsville, U.S.A." And he was right. I mean, this was dulled-down, pre-breakdown-America-Shitsville, U.S.A. There were only four murders in El Monte in the entire decade of the Fifties -- the two lesbians who killed that guy, the head job, the guy who drove his car through the window, and the guy who killed my mother.
A.C.: I was really fascinated with your blow-by-blow account of the original investigation, the difference in the witness accounts, and how they described the "Swarthy Man" [the suspected killer]. Margie was the one who had the incredible memory for the kind of hair people had, for example.
J.E.: Yeah. We interviewed Margie's daughter. Margie bellied-up from a cerebral hemorrhage in '72. He slipped through the cracks. The guy slipped through the cracks. My feeling is the guy killed Bobby Long, as well [a waitress murdered in early '56, with the same modus operandi as the Jean Ellroy case]. But he just... he freaked out twice in seven months, and didn't do it again. And he got away with it. And the way that it can be cracked is, you know, the blonde woman probably told people. In these bar milieu lust killings scenarios, the material witnesses that don't come forth for fear of reprisal usually tell people, and the more publicity we get, the better our chance. But you know what? If I don't find the killer, who gives a shit. I got my mother back.
A.C.: That's the important thing, right?
J.E.: Yeah, I honored her in this book.
A.C.: Do you have any unresolved feelings about your father?
J.E.: Not really. You know, he lived in my purview for another seven years. I had plenty of time to get disillusioned with him over time. And I treated him badly, I deserted him when his health was failing. I just wanted to get the fuck out of town.
A.C.: Before reading this memoir, I had no idea you were in the army.
J.E.: Yeah, very, very briefly. I mean, I wanted to join the Marine Corps because they had cooler uniforms, but my dad wouldn't sign for it. And that's good. I might not have been able to fool them in the Marine Corps. I might have gone to Vietnam and got my ass shot.
A.C.: Do you think you'll ever get past this?
J.E.: I think I've gotten past it. I think I've looked at my craft consciously and tried to improve. I mean, as much as I've understood the importance of this event, I have -- first intellectually and then emotionally -- confronted my mother. After a while, you know, it just becomes consciousness. You're not just reacting to stimuli because your mother got whacked out thirty-eight years ago.
J.E.: I've got another eight days to tour for the book here in the States, and I'm going to France, Japan, Germany, and Sweden, and after that, I will never answer another personal question. I figure that's it, you know. This stands as the text. That's how I got here. Now ask me questions about my new book.
A.C.: And what's the next book going to be?
J.E.: The next book is going to be the sequel to American Tabloid. It picks up five minutes after Tabloid concludes. It's going to cover 1963 to '68, John Kennedy's assassination to Bobby's. It's going to be bigger than American Tabloid, and more evil, and I think it's going to show a greater diversity of character and motive as a result of my having confronted my mother.
A.C.: When are we going to see a James Ellroy novel on the big screen?
J.E.: L.A. Confidential was filmed. It'll be out early next year. Curtis Hansen directed it, the guy who directed The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild. Danny Devito, Kim Basinger, James Cromwell -- who was the pig farmer in Babe -- and Kevin Spacey are in it. I've seen about half an hour of that and it looks good.
A.C.: I look forward to that. It's sure taken awhile. I thought the Fallen Angels episode adapted from your short story was really good.
J.E.: Yeah, for what it was, a doofus-y little short story, that was it.
A.C.: I was pleased to see your reference to Macao in the new book. That's one of my favorite movies.
J.E.: Yeah, starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell.
A.C.: You know, the back story for Mitchum's character is such a mystery at the beginning. Finally, it dribbles out, and it just boils down to a couple of lines: "There was a hassle with a redhead... There was another guy, and a gun. The gun went off..."
J.E.: No kidding? "It was a hassle with a redhead"? Oh that's the best. Well, you're a real romantic, Jesse, I can tell you really liked the thing with the redhead.
A.C.: Well, yeah, Mitchum's always been my hero, too. And I was thinking, if you were going to cast your past, with period actors, Mitchum would be in there somewhere, wouldn't he?
J.E.: He'd be one of my mother's low-life boyfriends, yeah. Denzel Washington as me. Jesus, I can't even think. Maybe Danny Devito as me. I'll have to think about that and tell you later.
A.C.: You aspired to be a great crime writer in your early teens. Have those aspirations changed?
J.E.: Yeah, fantasy was my big thing. My one great hero was myself. Finally I outgrew that shit. Now I just want to write great novels. I'm trying to tone down my act, Jesse, be a little less flamboyant. I mean, I'm 48.
A.C.: Now you can just start being eccentric. You've already got the rep.
A.C.: What was the moment you decided you had to investigate the case for yourself and write this book?
J.E.: It was after I went back and wrote that piece for GQ. The gears clicked when I looked at my mother's file. It was an amazing moment. Then I met Stoner, and Stoner impressed me. I think I examined myself. It was really when [my wife] Helen got that picture of me as a kid, and that got me thinking. Then a friend of mine called and said, have you seen your mother's file. And the die was cast.
A.C.: "Dick Contino's Blues" (in the collection Hollywood Nocturnes) is a great novella. Are we going to hear any more from Dick?
J.E.: Maybe if I can find a venue, a place to write a novella-length story.
A.C.: You told me once before that blues and rock & roll is just noise to you. Do you still feel that way?
J.E.: I don't care for popular music. I don't know why. I haven't the vaguest idea. It's just one of those instincts that I just trust.
A.C.: What about O.J.?
J.E.: He's guilty. We all know that. He's a piece of shit.
A.C.: Are there any modern crime writers you admire?
J.E.: No, I haven't read a book in I don't know how long.
A.C.: Who's your number one favorite from the old school?
J.E.: I was always a Dashiell Hammett guy.
A.C.: Do you think it helps to have a little psychic damage to write good crime fiction?
J.E.: Doesn't hurt, yeah. But it's about consciousness, it's about getting better.
A.C.: Has the adventure of investigating your mother's death and writing this book changed you in any way? How do you suppose it will affect your writing?
J.E.: I want to show greater diversity of character and motive in my books. I want to be less dark but no less powerful. And I think that's my mother's gift to me in the course of this investigation. It was an astonishing journey, and it's not over yet. My mother and I are a continuum and we will continue. We may never find the swarthy man but I will learn more things about her.
Jesse Sublett lives and writes in South Austin. He is currently writing his fourth mystery novel.