“May 28, ’04. Sacramento on a spring heat wave. The six thousandth public performance of my dead-mother act … A man called me glib. I brusquely rebuked him. I said she was my mother - not his. I said I’d paid the price - and he hadn’t.” - James Ellroy, The Hilliker CurseFirst, the facts: James Ellroy’s mother, Geneva ‘Jean’ Hilliker, was murdered in 1958, when Ellroy was ten years old. Her killer was never caught. The boy ran wild, stalked women, broke into their houses to peep and prowl. Drug and booze addictions followed. He published his first novel, Brown’s Requiem, in 1981. Twelve more followed, including his breakout novel LA Confidential (1990) and the ‘Underworld’ trilogy of American Tabloid (1995), The Cold Six Thousand (2001) and Blood’s a Rover (2009), all of them riffing on a theme of brutal men avenging vulnerable women.
Ellroy also wrote My Dark Places (1996), a memoir of the time he spent unsuccessfully investigating his mother’s death. The novel The Black Dahlia (1987), inspired by the true-life murder of actress Betty Short, was dedicated ‘in blood’ to the memory of Geneva Hilliker.
The charge of exploiting his murder’s death is not one that Ellroy shies away from in his second memoir, The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women. When his then wife Helen Knode presented him with a photograph of himself taken in the immediate wake of his mother’s death, and asked him what he was thinking, Ellroy replied with a succinctly cold one-word answer: ‘Opportunity.’
“Yeah, opportunity,” he says, easing back into the plush couch. Cue-ball bald, wild of eye, he is not in the least bit self-conscious about dissecting his mother’s murder amid the muted conversations of The Westbury’s lobby, where we meet shortly after Ellroy walked out on an interview with Today FM’s Matt Cooper after a short but robust exchange. “In Blood’s A Rover, Joan tells [the young, Ellroy-esque voyeur] Don Crutchfield, ‘Your options are do everything or do nothing.’ With my mother, my options are do everything or do nothing. I have decided to do everything. It’s who I am. I’m a pro-active, assertive kind of man, and it wasn’t until I realised that my mother and I comprised more of a love story than a death-and-murder story that I was able to conceive this book.”
But hadn’t he already covered that ground in My Dark Places?
“Well, I realised that I had earned - as arrogant as this sounds - the universal significance necessary to write a viable memoir, which has to be about something bigger than you, or you’re full of fucking shit. Misogynistic violence in My Dark Places versus the conjunction of men and women in The Hilliker Curse. I realised this book could be something I’ve never done before, which is an autobiographical essay. By that I mean this: I get to be the younger Ellroy describing his crazy shit, and the older, more mature Ellroy commenting editorially upon it.”
The younger man, as Ellroy documents in forensic detail, was tortured by self-conjured demons. All things considered, would that younger Ellroy think that the older man had burned up those demons in laying the ‘Hilliker curse’ to rest?
“Yes. I put those demons to very, very good use. What I say in the book is that the fount of my will was and is the ability to exploit misfortune. And I could write about my mother or ignore my mother, I could tell my mother’s story, I could address it once, reinterpret it a second time … I had options. And I think I chose the right one.”
In terms of style, The Hilliker Curse is less frenzied than Ellroy’s recent fiction.
“I am giving the reader a helping hand,” he says. “I am giving the reader more emotional breathing room, more rumination. It all comes back to the two Ellroy motifs - the immediacy of the physical description, when I’m younger or in early middle age, and the rumination. You get the highfaluting riff and you get the fuck-shit-fuck-motherfucker stuff interchangeably, and it works. It works here because it is the voice of a dying breed of man. I think that a lot of the mixed reviews in America to date are because it’s written in such a blunt, heterosexual, white male language. And there’s another issue that attends this, which is that it’s not the least ironic. It’s romantic. This book says There Is Someone Out There - Find Her. Go To Any Lengths. Whatever It Costs. Whatever It Takes.”
The ‘Her’ is Erika Schickel, Ellroy’s current partner, and who is in the process of leaving her husband for the writer. “I reject this woman as anything less than God’s greatest gift to me,” he writes near the end of The Hilliker Curse. “She is an alchemist’s casting of Jean Hilliker and something much more. She commands me to step out of the dark and into the light.”
“The thing that’s bothered me about the critical reception so far,” says Ellroy “is that people find it a sleazy book. In fact it’s a tender book, and Erika and I are real. I wrote the relationship up to where we were when I had to turn the book in for publication, so I guess people are allowed to be sceptical, given the empirical evidence of my bad behaviour that precedes it. But Erika and I will flourish. I know we’re going to last.”
Is he happy?
“I’m happy. And I’ve been happy for a long time because I go out and take a bite out of the world, and I kick the shit out of the world, and I express my emotions, tell Matt Cooper to fuck off …”
So what’s next for James Ellroy?
“I’m going to write bigger, more romantic books. I will not be coy, I will tell you for attribution what I’m doing next. I am going to write a second LA Quartet. I am taking characters from the first Quartet - The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz - and the Trilogy - American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s A Rover - and placing them in LA during the month of Pearl Harbour as much younger people. World War II will also be a character in the book, and it’s that month, of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, in real time.”
The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women by James Ellroy is published by William Heinemann (hb, 224pp, £16.99)
Sidebar: James Ellroy on …
“I’m rarely asked about it, but it’s in the novels that I’m a Christian. The men who learn self-sacrifice later rather than earlier, who make the big gesture so that others may live. Atonement, redemption - it’s always been there.”
“Jonathan Franzen - he’s so full of shit. He pulls this crap on his British publisher, with the typos, they have to pulp 80,000 books, it costs them a quarter of a million pounds? Fuck Jonathan Franzen.”
“I first heard Beethoven in 1960, some fifty years ago, and I flipped out. I love the Romantic composers, Beethoven most of all. He’s been a constant companion of mine all my life. He has in many ways provided the soundtrack for my life with women.”
“Cormac McCarthy is a stunning American original, he deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature. But he won’t win it, for four reasons: he’s male, he’s white, American and presumably heterosexual … I got pissed off, when I tried to read The Crossing, at the twelve or fourteen pages of Mexican Spanish. What the fuck? My name’s not Juan Ellroy.”
This feature first appeared in the Evening Herald