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James Ellroy interviewed

Philip Hamer interviews the great US crime writer James Ellroy for Confidential as he heads to Manchester

Published on November 3rd 2009.

James Ellroy interviewed

American writer James Ellroy is definitely his own man. No ‘crime writer genre’ strait-jacket could ever restrain him. Not for him a formulaic offering or a pared down quickly written film treatment every twelve months or so. No, he is the slow burner of conspiracy driven epics.

Ellroy, a boxing lover (obviously), writes like a pugilist might choose to fight: short, snappy and full of bruising jabs. He’s not scared to use repetition till his writing style becomes incantatory. As with Dickens his books work well when read aloud.

His brilliant new novel, his first for eight years, Blood’s A Rover (Century £18.99) sees Ellroy writing at the height of his powers. It could well be his masterpiece.

Three years in gestation Blood’s A Rover - the title’s a quote from Shropshire poet A. E. Houseman - is the seven hundred page culmination of his Underworld USA trilogy that also includes American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand.

In these books Ellroy has written an alternative history of his homeland charting the events between the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 and the resignation following the Watergate scandal of another President, Nixon, in 1974.

He visualises a terrain bleached with monumental amounts of drug taking, blood, violence and corruption.

Like the late Norman Mailer, Ellroy depicts America as a great but highly flawed imperial republic. When I suggest parallels with recent behaviour by America on the world stage he is dismissive: “None of the events that have occurred internationally since The Cold Six Thousand coloured the writing of this novel. In fact the period I write about was the last gasp for collusive agendas. The Watergate scandal changed American politics forever.”

When I ask him how he can so unerringly recreate this era Ellroy replies: “By completing ignoring, blocking out current, contemporary culture. I don’t give a shit about it. As far as I’m concerned the vampires have taken over. I see myself as an historical novelist. I‘ve not set anything in the present for a number of years.”

He also admits that Nixon though a flawed character was fascinating: “There’s a lot of him in this book but he had some of the great lines in history and he could be very, very funny.”

Born in Los Angeles in1948, James Ellroy’s early years were deeply affected by the murder of his mother when he was ten years old. The crime remains unsolved and in the past has furnished some of his best crime writing. In a memoir to be published next year he states “I imposed a narrative to ensure my survival.”

He drifted into petty crime and was arrested on numerous occasions and eventually imprisoned. Undoubtedly this gave an almost metaphysical impetus to his writing career which began in the early 1980s. In 1996 LA Confidential, part of his esteemed LA quartet group of novels, became an Oscar winning film and brought him international acclaim.

Blood’s A Rover is a brilliant melange of the actual and the imagined peopled with a cast of real and fictional characters. Sometimes you can be forgiven that American capitalism itself and not Ellroy’s imagination created the psychopathic businessman Howard Hughes who sidles like Dracula like through these pages.

Ellroy sums up his narrative like this: “You’ve got Hughes, Edgar Hoover and Tricky Dicky Nixon. You’ve got the mob’s evil eyes scoping the Dominican Republic. You’ve got voodoo in Haiti, a vicious armoured-car heist and the feds out to deep six the black militant movement. More than anything else you’ve got three obsessed right wing toadies grappling with the horrors of their misdeeds-and seeking redemption in the person of my greatest female character: the Red Goddess Joan.”

Ellroy is not shy about his talents. He says that his new novel is elegaic: “The last few pages of this book are my most optimistic as a writer. The ending is upbeat; there is a redemptive aspect that is necessary.”

Ellroy, a boxing lover (obviously), writes like a pugilist might choose to fight: short, snappy and full of bruising jabs. He’s not scared to use repetition till his writing style becomes incantatory. As with Dickens his books work well when read aloud. You remember an Ellroy book reading long after you’ve attended it.

Stylistically Ellroy confects a novel using a plethora of devices: “This was the old way of collating information. This period in our history was the beginning of the end of the tradition of file keeping so I have used a lot of file print outs in the book. It’s almost an epistolary novel in that sense.”

James Ellroy is a rarity. Despite his refusal to acknowledge it he is the riff master - as he might call it - of a frenetic, flawed time that formed contemporary America.

James Ellroy talks about, and reads from, his new novel at The Dance House Theatre, Oxford Rd. on Weds Nov 4th. Tickets £5 are available from the crime desk at Waterstone’s, 91 Deansgate, Manchester M3 2 BW. 0161 837 3000.

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