Russell McLean was thinking aloud on Twitter last week, wondering if he should have bought James Ellroy’s (right) BLOOD’S A ROVER, given that he was working on his own novel, and that it’s impossible to read Ellroy and not be influenced, as a writer, by the power of Ellroy’s ‘voice’. I could empathise, because I was (koff) ‘working’ on the second or third draft of my first book, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE, when I read my first Ellroy, LA CONFIDENTIAL.
Now, I don’t know if this afflicts everyone writing their first novel, but at the time I wanted my book to be the best book ever written. In that context, reading LA CONFIDENTIAL was the worst possible thing I could have done; had I tossed a grenade into the m/s, I couldn’t have blown apart my own story more effectively. I was mesmerised. Not only did Ellroy pack more plot into a page than most writers get into a whole book, but it was the way he did it, with prose that was brutal and inventive and funny and angry and fresh; it combined the swaggering bravado of a Western gunslinger with the gravitas of an Old Testament prophet. Yes, the book was printed on paper, but I wouldn’t have been the slightest bit surprised to learn that Ellroy’s first draft had been machine-gunned into a tombstone.
Naturally, deep despair for my own paltry effort followed swiftly. Once I crawled back out from under the bed, however, I decided that reading LA CONFIDENTIAL was the best thing I could have done. Given that I was never going to reach that level of excellence, I could just concentrate on making EIGHTBALL BOOGIE as good as it could be. Which was a huge relief at the time, and my first experience of how living with yourself as a writer involves, first and foremost, learning the art of compromise.
It’s probably no coincidence that I went public with my decision to stop writing in the week after I met and interviewed James Ellroy. Now, said decision is a massive thing to me, and a tiny enough thing in the grand scheme, but I was overwhelmed by the response to the post on the blog – hopefully, if it achieves nothing else, said post will encourage other writers to gird their loins, grit their teeth and say, ‘Well, I’m not going to duck under like that sad sack of shit.” But it was, for me, the latest in a long line of compromises I’ve made with myself. I also think it was no coincidence that the decision came in the same week as I blogged about Darley Anderson’s profile in The Bookseller, and in the same week that I had a dream in which (I won’t bore you with too many details) I found myself on the edge of a cliff, with my father dangling from my hand and his weight already pulling me over the precipice; in the dream I was horribly ashamed when I said, distinctly, “Let go my hand,” and pulled mine from his, and turned my face away so I wouldn’t see him fall. I woke up terrified and horrified, but I suppose the salutary element of it all is that, just before I woke, I realised I had turned my face away towards where my wife and child were holding on to me.
I’d been researching James Ellroy in the run-up to the interview, of course, which might have influenced the dream; how the man survived the various traumas and tragedies of his life is impressive enough, but that he has written wonderful books in the process almost defies belief. Maybe I’m reading too much into it (I don’t dream very often), but I think I was trying to warn myself that I don’t have the moral courage it takes to become a great writer; that, when it comes to writing, I’m happy to peer over the edge into the abyss without having what it takes to make the leap of faith required. There’s also the fact that you’re not taking that leap alone – you’re taking others with you, your wife and child, and asking them to have faith in your ability to fly.
I should point out, by the way, in case anyone is wondering what the hell my wife is doing while I’m so busy working freelance that I haven’t time to write – she’s busier than I am, as it happens, and she’s also the main bread-winner in the family; freelance journalism, no matter how busy you are, is never going to sustain a family in Ireland 2009. My wife is and always has been hugely supportive of my writing; I’ve often wondered if I would have been half as useful to her had our positions been reversed. I’d like to think I would have been, but I really don’t know.
Anyway, at one point in the interview, Ellroy asked me if I have kids, and we talked about daughters, because he has always wanted to have a daughter. He also talked about ‘yearning’, that all of his books, fiction and non-fiction, have the common theme of ‘yearning’; and while I didn’t realise it at the time, it did occur to me afterwards that, brilliant as they are, I wouldn’t swap all of James Ellroy’s books for what I have. And, if not writing is what it takes to keep what I have in the manner to which she is not only accustomed, but is the least she deserves, then that’s what it will take. The most frightening thing about it? The decision has made me happy.
So – I met James Ellroy last Saturday. It went a little like this:
“If you’re asking me if I exploited my mother’s death for the sake of my career, then yes, I exploited my mother’s death.”
James Ellroy does many things with his prose – slices ‘n’ dices, brutalises – but the one thing he does not do is mince words. On stage, as was the case last weekend at the Belfast Waterfront (during which he dedicated a reading from his current novel, ‘Blood’s a Rover’, to all the ‘perverts, peepers, panty-sniffers and pimps’ in the audience’), he is a force of nature who just about stops short of howling at the moon.
In person, in a gothically dimmed and plush hotel suite earlier that evening, he is no less forthright in his opinions, although he is far from the intimidating ‘Demon Dog’ of American letters he is reputed to be. Thoughtful and considered in his responses, he is a careful listener and an elegant, erudite interviewee, regardless of how intrusive the questions may be.
“Yes, I exploited my mother’s death,” is arguably the only answer Ellroy can give to that question. Jean Hilliker Ellroy was found murdered in 1958, when Ellroy was 10 years old. Unsurprisingly, the murder had a profound effect on him. He has spoken at length in interview about it, and written two books on the subject, the non-fiction ‘My Dark Places’ and the fiction ‘The Black Dahlia’.
He’s not done yet, though. When I ask about the parallels between his troubled adolescence, when Ellroy was an out-of-control voyeur who would break-and-enter and ‘prowl’ strangers homes, and his vocation as a writer, which gives him license to snoop through strangers’ lives, he is candid in his answer.
“The common denominator, I think, is exhibitionism,” he says. “And I’ve got a tremendous need to confess my life … Y’know, I realised only belatedly that my mother and I were a love story rather than a crime story. And it was then that I got the idea to write the memoir [to be published in 2010]. It’s about women and me and it’s called ‘The Hilliker Curse’.”
The author of 15 novels and / or memoirs, and three collections of short stories, Ellroy is renowned for his clipped, staccato prose style and the hard, tough men who populate his tales. Yet he insists that ‘Blood’s a Rover’, the third part of the ‘Underworld USA’ trilogy following on from ‘American Tabloid’ and ‘The Cold Six Thousand’, is ‘a historical romance’.
Set against the backdrop of the fall-out from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and with Richard Nixon in the White House, ‘Blood’s a Rover’ delivers yet more revisionism and behind-the-scenes political shenanigans involving a mix of real-life and fictional characters, including Nixon, FBI chief Edgar Hoover, and various Caribbean dictators. Its main characters are FBI agent Dwight Holly and Mob fixer Wayne Tedrow, both of whom return from ‘The Cold Six Thousand’, and Donald Crutchfield, a young peeper and pervert who becomes politicised when he discovers a shocking murder.
“The kid [Crutchfield] is less experienced and brilliant than Wayne and Dwight are, but the kid is the one who is not essentially self-destructive, and who is indefatigable, resourceful, who is lucky, who is endlessly searching for love. And lucky.”
Despite the apparently autobiographical aspect of Crutchfield (the character, whom Ellroy refers to affectionately as ‘the kid’ and ‘the lost boy’, spends much of the early part of the novel searching for his missing mother), the story comes to be dominated by two women: ‘Joan’ and ‘Karen’, both of whom are ciphers for real-life women Ellroy has loved and lost.
“Yeah, there’s a real-life ‘Joan’. And the woman I’m with now, who is the love of my life, Erika-with-a-K, I call her ‘the Joan-slayer’. The greatest moment of the film for me, I mean the book, is where ‘Joan’ asks Dwight what he wants. And he says, ‘I want to fall. And I want you to catch me on the way down.’ And when Erika read that and got that, she owned me forever.”
He is, he says, a happy man these days, a ‘fierce and vital’ 61-year-old.
“I am happy, yeah. Erika’s a grand and wondrous woman and I’m happier than I’ve ever been. You know, I always wanted a daughter but it didn’t really hit me until my ’50s … I wanted to have a daughter with ‘Joan’, and it didn’t work out. And then I moved to LA and I met a very pregnant woman, and had an affair with her – she was the ‘Karen’ of the book. And it didn’t work out with her, either. But that was what life gave me, and I tried to honour both women with this book.”
It is a fitting tribute, and a monumentally epic and elegant work of fiction besides. Almost shockingly, the thunder-blast of yearning testosterone that was motherless James Ellroy appears to have found comfort at last.
“I’ve never gotten over sex,” he says, “I’ve never gotten over women. Women as saviours, women as redemption, women as sex-object and sex-symbol, especially when I’m having sex with them … But I mean, Erika has two daughters, they’re 11 and 13, and the courage of motherhood is astounding. I mean, my God. It’s an astonishing, astonishing level of courage, I can’t even conceive of it.”
With ‘Blood’s a Rover’ and ‘The Hilliker Curse’, Ellroy appears to have finally put his mother’s ghost to rest. So what now?
“For Act III,” he says, “I’m going to write big juicy historical love stories. I know what the next four are going to be, yeah. But what they’re about,” he says leaning in, “I’m keeping that under wraps, so this much is off the record …”
‘Blood’s a Rover’, the third part of the ‘Underworld USA’ trilogy, is published by Century.
This interview was first published in the Evening Herald
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.