On a recent New York morning, James Ellroy, the self-proclaimed “Demon Dog” of American Fiction, is in a good mood. “I feel like the weight of a lifetime has been lifted off me,” he says, sitting in a hotel room. “I’m 61, and I feel like a kid. All I’ve wanted, ever, was to write great fucking novels, have a couple of dogs and fuck women. What else is there? I mean, a good hamburger’s OK, but...”
Ellroy is a master of shtick. Over the course of a few minutes he can veer from over-the-top braggadocio (“I’m the Beethoven of crime Fiction”) to hipster jive (“can’t make the scene without caffeine”) to unapologetic perversion (“I’m a sex fiend!”) to biblical righteousness (I’m a Scottish minister’s son, and I believe in privation and a personal responsibility to God”). Best known for his modern noir classic L.A. Confidential, Ellroy has just released Blood’s a Rover, the last novel in his Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy. The book completes his bleak and disturbing vision of the metastasised cancers at the heart of the midcentury American Empire – from the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam to J. Edgar Hoover and Howard Hughes – as seen through the interconnected schemes and criminal enterprises of rogue FBI agents, homicidal cops, mobsters and contract killers.
Ellroy’s obsession with the dark side of America can be traced to the well-documented trauma of his early years: his mother’s unsolved murder, his ne’er-do-well father who died not long after. A teenage voyeur who broke into women’s homes to steal their lingerie, Ellroy washed out of the Army and spent the next decade addicted to speed and booze, jailed for petty thefts and often homeless, living on the streets of L.A. After sobering up in 1977, he began earning a living as a golf caddie, got some books published, then emerged out of nowhere as the bestselling author of The Black Dahlia and The Big Nowhere, with a distinctive and brutal style that one critic described as “so hard-boiled it burns the pot.”
But as his fame grew, Ellroy’s personal life grew darker. Two marriages crumbled, and he threw himself deeper into his work – and wound up a suffering a mental breakdown in 2001, during the book tour for The Cold Six Thousand. “Flew too high, worked too hard,” he says. “Crazy suppressed shit came out and just blew up in my face.” Now, eight years later, he’s finishing up a memoir called The Hilliker Curse and enjoying the release of Blood’s a Rover, a giant historical noir that provides a romantic coda to his Underworld U.S.A. series. The protagonists, whom Ellroy calls “right-wing leg-breakers,” pursue redemption in the form of a left-wing agitator named Joan, making it like so many of his novels: three men obssessed with a single woman over the course of a great big bloody book.
1. Your Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy covers 1958 to 1972, the years when you were most marginalised – homeless, addicted. Is that one of the reasons you wanted to write about that period?
2. The trilogy derives entirely from my reading of Don DeLillo’s novel Libra in 1988. It’s told largely from the viewpoint of Lee Harvey Oswald, and DeLillo makes him the single greatest, most fully realised loner in American History. It was also the first time I had seen, in Literature, an unintelligent and malleable dipshi portrayed with such empathy and complexity. I realised, “Holy shit – this fucking book is so fucking good that now I can’t write about the Kennedy assassination.” But then I began to see that I could write a trilogy that would chart all the harbingers of JFK’s assassination and create a complete human infrastructure of big public events. After the L.A. Quarter, I didn’t want to write anything that could be categorised as a crime novel. I wanted to explore a theme that I call the “private nightmare of public policy.”
3. What’s the private nightmare?
4. The outline of American History from 1958 to ’63 is iconic and well-known: the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement, the ascent of JFK, J. Edgar Hoover’s repressive shit, the Mob, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then the decade of revolution in the youth Culture, the continuing nightmare in Vietnam, more bombs, more crazy CIA shit, political assassinations. We know that. That’s the public policy. But who’s out there taking names, doing the wiretapping, breaking legs, shaking people down, making a buck out of it – and suffering the convoluted Morality of it? Who’s coming to the point where they can’t do it anymore, and what makes them change? That’s the private nightmare. That’s Blood’s a Rover.
This is a very dark trilogy. Did it fuck you
up writing the books?
It fucked me up completely. I inhabited the
souls of these leg-breakers. I stayed with them Morally and spiritually. But
Blood’s a Rover is about the necessity of revolution and change. This book goes
somewhere entirely different from the first two.
Deeper into the Moral consequences of
violence and Corruption?
Right. Blood’s a Rover is where the people
who have been through the shit of 1958 to 1968 start talking about what it all
means. I lived through that shit. I sensed it going on around me but (a) I was
bombed until 77, and (b) I was an outlier in just a lot of ways. I was
never a rock and roll guy; I was always a classical music guy. I was never a
peacemaker; I was a fuck-you right-winger. I’ve got a weird view of American
History that I think is viable and allows me to spread empathy around fairly
Do you think it’s naïve to believe that Lee
Harvey Oswald acted alone?
It would be a triumph of spatial Logic and
empirical thinking over imagination to believe that something else wasn’t going
on. I look at the long-gunman theory and think, “It doesn’t make Moral,
historical or metaphysical sense to me, so I’m just going to reject it.” And
it’s a better fucking story my way. So I won’t argue about the lone gunman – I
don’t give a shit. So what? Fuck you. Who’s your daddy Who’s got the better
story to tell? Guess what, it’s me.
One of your characters, a young right-winger
named Don Crutchfield, is so willfully out of step with the times that he seems
like a fictionalised version of you.
That’s me – a big guy with a crew cut and
straight-leg pants in the Summer of Love wondering why he can’t get laid.
“Well, maybe if you quit jacking off and listen to rock & roll instead of
Beethoven, you might be a little more likely.” In the book, Crutchfield doesn’t
know what to do for Christmas. He’s never been laid, and he’s 23, and he’s
lonely. He’s a peeper, and he’s got two options: go to midnight service in the
Lutheran church, or go peep black women in South Central L.A. That’s me in a
13. Do you still have those right-wing tendencies?
14. Right-wing tendencies? I do that to fuck with people. I thought Bush was a slimebag and the most disastrous American President in recent times. I voted for Obama. He’s a lot like Jack Kennedy – they both have big ears and and infectious smiles. But Obama is a deeper guy. Kennedy was an appetite guy. He wanted pussy, hamburgers, booze. Jack did a lot of dope. [A shortmemory caused by ignorance and inability to articulate himself.]
So why do you still seem to identify with the
right-wing goons you create?
I’m a Christian, and my books are stories of
redemption. I show you the karmic consequences of horrific deeds. More often
than not, I want you to love my characters in the end, because they have
transcended. They have found something bigger, deeper, Morally surer than
You once wrote that Dashiell Hammett
perfectly captured the american notion that a job can destroy a person. Is that
what happens to your characters?
The core of Hammett’s Art is the masculine
figure in American Society – he is a job holder. He goes at his job with a
ruthless determination and has an unwillingness to look beyond it. That’s who
these guys of mine are. They are so fucking proficient, even as their lives are
in precipitous decline. They’re eaten up, but they’re driven by their inbred
American sense of responsibility. [Another ultranationalist nutjob.] There’s an
undercurrent of tenderness that’s driving them as they go about doing their
jobs so very ruthlessly.
The way you portray J. Edgar Hoover’s wiretapping
is very present-day, especially given what happened under Bush.
I don’t know what I pick out of the
zeitgesit. I’m not being disingenuous – I honestly don’t know. Let me tell you
about my life. I’m 61. I exercise a lot, I don’t drink, I don’t use drugs, I
don’t sleep very well. I’m very limited in my interests. I’ve got a big
apartment, I’ve got a big sports car. I quit running around trying to get
married. “Get married and impregnate women” hasn’t played out for me. My life
has become a Matriarchy. I talk to Helen Knode, my ex-wife, my girlfriends and
colleagues on the phone. I’ve never used a computer. I’m not shitting you – I’m
cut off from the world.
You life was such a disaster for so long. Did
you ever think you wouldn’t make it?
I was always looking to get off, and I had a
very pronounced cold streak. But as fucked up as I was, I always had faith. And
I loved to laugh. I could always go in a corner, scratch my balls, jack off,
pull some dipshit stunt, like dining and dashing. I needed to make my way out
in the world, because my dad was completely fucked up. I never felt pissed off
about it. I never felt like, “Ooh, I don’t have a family.” I always wanted a
That’s surprising. Given your books, it’s
easy to believe that you see the world as an unrelentingly dark place.
No, no, I’m not a misanthrope. I’m
optimistic. Heck, I think human beings can evolve over time. I like people – in
a distanced way [laughs]. Individuals have prominence over their psyches and
can liberate themselves from horrible states of being as the world goes to shit
around them. And I’ve chosen to do that.
In your upcoming memoir, “The Hilliker
Curse,” you express regret for the way you sold books by using your mother’s
I was young and callous. But now I realise my
mother and I are not a murder story. We are a lover story. And the central
story I have to tell is women. I knew that if I consciously applied my talent
and my brain power to the persona of my mother, it would lead me to be more
receptive to women in general.
In the memoir you also write about your
overpowering Lust for women. But on another level, you’re very puritanical.
I want women. But it’s discerning, it’s
tender. I don’t see Sex as being inherently squalid – I see the marking of
Sexuality and the vulgarisation of Sex as being depraved. They’ve denuded and
made common something holy and sacred. We need to reinvest in Sex, have less
Sex, wait till the eighth date before you fuck and suck.
In Blood’s a Rover, you seem obssessed with
Joan, the left-wing jewish activist.
I wrote this book for a woman I was in love
with named Joan. It was the first time I ever did that. I’ve started following
women involuntarily who look like Joan. You just walk 10 yards, and it’s not
But you keep following?
I eventually come to my senses. Definitely a
fucking brain click.
Do you still peep women?
Yeah. Yeah, I do. I stay in on holidays. I
live in a deco building on the edge of Hollywood. One holiday, I was peeping
this big-ass redhead. She was flipping burgers, and her blouse would come up,
and she would pull it down. She bent down way low, and I could see her bra
strap. Then my buddy called and said, “What are you doing, Ellroy? Come on out
here, we’re cooking.” I said, “I don’t want any food; I’m peeing. Leave me the
Do you feel guilty about that?
Why not? Do see voyeurism as a form of
Yeah, you want to be saved. You’re
genetically wired to salvation, and women are out beacons in the night.
And that doesn’t strike you as weird?
I am utterly cut out to be in dark rooms
talking to women on the telephone and working. My buddy called recently and
said, “Hey, we got an extra ticket for Fleetwood Mac.” What the fuck? I’d
rather watch flies fuck in Alabama. I live in a vacuum
so that I might go back and live more assiduously in pockets of American
Is that the secret to your success?
There are greater writers out there, and more
gifted writers. What I am is a thinking machine. I see myself as emblematic of
extreme drive and ambition and focus. It’s given me hyperacuity. I can write
like a motherfucker, and man, do I rigorously think about shit and what it all
What led to your mental breakdown?
I went through a
period of months and months where I was in love with a married woman who was
never going to leave her husband. I’d just be surrounded by that big
fucking cosmic nothingness. You could say it’s the issue of not being able to
be with the woman you love. But more than anything else, it was just being
alone in the cosmos and knowing that you’re going to die.
Did you see it coming?
It was the shit of a lifetime just oozing out
of my palms. Physical stress, overwork, fissuring unconsciousness, boorishness,
recklessness. Much too much mental energy expended for too many years. Raging
panic attacks and horrible insomnia fits. I was just gone. I was way out of my
emotions – shit roared through me at 1,000 rpms. I couldn’t hold anything back.
And I couldn’t control anything through narrative. I was the worst time in my
You ended up in an institution, right?
Yeah, a bunch of them. Overnight at a nut
ward in Monterey, overnight in the nut ward in Tucson. There was no rubber
hose, but I was bombed, what can I tell you? Before I knew it, I was back at
the Beverly Wilshire Hotel jacking off to pictures of Anne Sexton – in clothes!
A dead poet! That’s how fucked up I am! [Laughs]
Did you learn anything from losing your mind?
I learned a lot from the crackup. I want to
write great books and be good to people, and to shamelessly promote myself. But
nothing’s worse than an ambitious person with no control. Someone who’ll hustle
anybody, shabbily. No one wants to have anything to do with people like that.
So it made you a better writer?
I want to continue to write big-ass,
shit-kicking, profound books. I’m arrogant, and I’m fearful. But I’m not as
fearful as I used to be. The crackup took a lot of my fear away.