Writer James Ellroy, who once announced his ambition "to be known as the greatest crime novelist who has ever lived," was born is Los Angeles in 1948. Ellroy has written Brown's Requiem, Clandestine, Blood on the Moon, Because the Night, and Killer Road. His LA Quartet novels — The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz — have been best sellers and critically acclaimed. In 1995, he published the first book (which he referred to as a "sewer crawl" through history) in his Underworld USA trilogy, American Tabloid, which takes us up to November 22, 1963. In 1996, Ellroy re-investigated the unsolved homicide of his mother, in his memoir, My Dark Places. In 1999, he published a collection of short crime pieces, both fiction and non-fiction, entitled Crime Wave. His newest book, The Cold Six Thousand, begins on the day of John Kennedy's assassination in Dallas and moves through the early summer of 1968. James Ellroy is also a writer-at-large for GQ magazine and lives in Kansas City.
Robert Birnbaum: …six years in the making. The second book of your trilogy, The Cold Six Thousand…
James Ellroy: Not quite six years in the making because I wrote My Dark Places and re-investigated my mother's murder in the interim.
RB: …and what's Crime Wave?
JE: It’s a collection of my GQ pieces. Short fiction as well as crime reporting.
RB: You are still going to do the third book in this trilogy?
JE: I'm still going to do the third. I would look for the third in 3 or 3 1/2 years.
RB: Any chance you'll go further?
JE: No, no. I'm going to stop this trilogy in the summer of 1972 short of Watergate. Because Watergate bores me. It's been done to death. And most of the characters are still alive; thus you can't use them fictionally.
RB: Watergate apparently shocked Americans because it exposed the rampant clandestine activities that were a part of politics and government. American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand show an American political system that was rife with crime, intrigues and conspiracy. Should people have been shocked?
JE: No. The essential contention of the Underworld USA trilogy volume one, American Tabloid, volume two, The Cold Six Thousand, is that America was never innocent. Here's the lineage: America was founded on a bedrock of racism, slaughter of the indigenous people, slavery, religious lunacy ...and nations are never innocent. Let alone nations as powerful as our beloved fatherland. What you have in The Cold Six Thousand — which covers the years '63 to '68 — is that last gasp of pre-public-accountability America where the anti-communist mandate justified virtually any action. And it wasn't Kennedy's death that engendered mass skepticism. It was the protracted horror of the Vietnamese war.
RB: The last time I thought about it — there was a film based on a book by Melvin Van Peebles novel, Panther — raising the issue of government dealing drugs in the ghetto. This was something that was dismissed and ridiculed when proffered by African-American activists.
JE: I believe it is stupid. I think the movie Panther is a joke. They were a bunch of dope-dealing idiot thugs, the Panthers themselves. And the cops were the relative good guys in that whole operation. In The Cold Six Thousand it's not the government that's dealing drugs, it is a confluence of hoodlums and profiteers who are fueling the Cuban exile cause.
RB: Your character John Stanton, who sets up the drug dealing in Black West Las Vegas, is a CIA operative.
JE: The character is fictional.
RB: In the book he is a CIA agent.
JE: He is a CIA agent but it is a clandestine, non-CIA-sanctioned, wholly autonomous operation. It isn't the CIA as an entity.
RB: How can we be sure he didn't, in any way, represent government policy?
JE: No, no. When you have a book this complex... When you have a book with shifting and overlapping webs of conspiracy, it is sometimes difficult to really figure out who is gaming who. Who's doing who, who's doing what? For instance, in this book, J. Edgar Hoover is passively complicit in a number of rather shady deals. It's a semi-firm belief — because in the end, I am a purveyor of fiction, not of fact — that J. Edgar Hoover, who was ordered by Robert Kennedy, then Attorney General, to remove many of his organized crime bugs circa 1962, left these bugs in place and picked up great glimmers and imports of resentment against John Kennedy and perhaps prophesied his coming assassination and then did nothing about it. Hoover might have sensed that it was coming and did not warn the Kennedy White House. I don't think Hoover had any thing to do with it actively.
RB: The issue would seem to be what is fact and what is fiction. At about the time of American Tabloid's publication, Anthony Summers, a British writer, published a book on Hoover exposing every rumor...
JE: I don't for a second believe Summers' contention that J. Edgar Hoover went in drag to the Waldorf-Astoria...
RB: ...with Roy Cohn...
JE: ..with Roy Cohn. For one thing he was much too discreet. Secondarily, he was much too ugly to ever successfully impersonate a woman. Parenthetically, I think Hoover and Tolson were a Victorian gay couple who probably never had sex with man, woman or beast. The way that I portray Hoover, J. Edgar Hoover, known to many as Gay Edgar Hoover in this book, is as a joshing repressed homosexual whose repression manifests itself in the form of verbal sparring with the many dangerous men in his employ that he is attracted to but would never consider, obviously, having sex with.
RB: Do you believe that he was on the take from a California racetrack he and Tolson visited yearly?
JE: No. He was a two-dollar bettor. What J. Edgar Hoover was, was a voyeur, an antique collector, a fan of various pedigree dogs and a person obsessed with accruing derogatory data. The true evil of J. Edgar Hoover is that he disingenuously contended that organized crime did not exist for many years. It wasn't until Robert Kennedy exposed him, when Kennedy was chief counsel for the McClellan Senate Rackets Committee forcing Mr. Hoover, belatedly, to form an anti-organized-crime operation. Hoover's chief evil was that while ignoring the presence of organized crime and its cancerous growth in the United States, he put the full resources of the FBI behind hassling harmless left-wingers.
RB: What is your sense of obligation to historical fact?
JE: I never specifically answer what's real and what's not in my books. I think that my vision is true to the moral thrust and the psychological thrust of history. Thus The Cold Six Thousand, which so far as I know is the first time in one novel, the whole of the social tumult from 1963 to 1968 has been encapsulated in one contiguous narrative. It's largely the story of, again, that pre-public-accountability America. Bad men, enacting a repressive agenda trying to derail the civil rights movement. Specifically, the thrust of the profoundly heroic Martin Luther King and at the time before the Vietnamese War largely discredited this notion — the anti-communist mandate ran supreme and justified virtually anything.
RB: You don't want to talk about what is true or not, but one of the fun things about reading your books are the tantalizing factual tidbits interspersed...for instance, [jazz saxophonist] Wardell Gray's murder was never solved. He was dumped in the desert...
JE: Dexter Gordon always contended — people have called me on this — the estimable Dexter Gordon contended that Wardell died of a drug overdose and they were afraid that they (Dexter and some of his confreres) would get popped for this. So they took him out to the desert and dumped him. What the hell he was dead anyway and they didn't kill him. Of course, I give another explanation and Dexter Gordon — God bless him — is not alive to dispute it.
RB: And you mention Karyn Kupcinet? If you didn't grow up in Chicago she would mean nothing...
JE: Right. I wrote a magazine piece on Karyn Kupcinet's death called Glamour Jungle. She was the daughter of the Chicago Sun Times columnist Irv Kupcinet, big cheese in Chicago. Karen died several days after John Kennedy's assassination in West Hollywood, in Los Angeles it was an LA County Sheriff's case. For years it was commonly believed that she was murdered. She was a young woman being floated by her father as an actress not doing that well. She was an amphetamine user and by all accounts a very neurotic but soulful young woman, may she rest in peace. I re-investigated the case. I interviewed Irv Kupcinet, Irv's wife, Essy Solomon Kupcinet. And Cary Kupcinet, Karen's young niece who was born in 1971, eight years after Karen died. I don't think it was a murder. I think it was an accidental death. Yet it assumed some stature as an unsolved murder. The Karyn Kupcinet case, be it accidental death or homicide, would have been a much bigger story had it not occurred in direct proximity to John Kennedy's assassination. This is a very convoluted answer to your question. Imaginative, highly imaginative conspiracy theorists have tried to link her death to John Kennedy's assassination, which is preposterous.
RB: What kind of research are novels based on?
JE: I hired two researchers who compile fact sheets and chronologies so that I would not write myself into factual error. And then it becomes a point of extrapolating. You can not have egregious error. There is one error I can tell you right now...I have Nicorette gum in 1968 in this book and Nicorette gum did not appear until 1992. Oops! You want to buttress your period sense with as much fact as you can without appearing overly factualized. One of the ways that I do this in The Cold Six Thousand is that the book is written largely in the language of racism, because it is seen from the perspective of racist characters bent on enforcing a racist agenda. And frankly if this creates controversy around this book and sells me some copies and gets me some more ink and some more spotlight, so be it.
RB: There was a mention in yesterday's local daily quoting a USA Today review which said your book is unreadable.
JE: What they are talking about is the style of this book. It is written in a direct sentence, declarative sentence style. It is full of the American idiom, racist invective. Yiddish. Elements of French and Spanish. Good plain hard old American slang. It is a deliberately proffered vulgarization and coarsening of the American idiom. The style, which is very easy to read, runs to shorter rather than longer sentences. No compound sentences. Only direct sentences and there is a design behind this. This book is a linguistic rendition of the violence of the text. It is a melding of form versus content. It is a representation of the violence of the events themselves and of the inner and outer lives of the three main characters, bad white men, doing bad things in the name of authority. These bear full brunt of both my empathy and my moral judgment. That said, it is a propulsive read. And it is a book that reads like nothing else. To compare this to Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake may be at first complimentary but those are deliberately obscure exercises in language, and this is a very blunt, forceful and easy rendering of the American language. Also, you get to this point very quickly. Do you want to write a book that will be magnanimously praised or do you want to take the risk and piss off some people? All of us go for the latter. And why is somebody quoting somebody else's review [as was the case of the Boston Globe's Alex Beam quoting a USA Today review of Ellroy's book]?
RB: I'm not the person to ask.
JE: It's what I would call — this is my wife's line — the specious proximity of media. It's as if we are all in the same media bag. It's like me being on tour for this book for seven weeks in Europe and the first question is always, "What do you think of George W Bush?" My answer is, "What does he have to do with me?" This is a book about the American 1960's when Bush was a callow youth.
RB: You were also quoted as liking Bill O'Reilly...
JE: Again that's the specious proximity of media and that's media-defined. Why should any human being have to be up to date on shit as diverse as the dealings of the Vatican, my new novel, abortion activism, George Bush's latest malapropism or gaffe or Dick Cheney's latest heart attack? Why should we have to care and be that diverse and that multi-faceted in our curiosity? It's an unreasonable demand of media.
RB: Does it seem to you that as we are distanced from the period you are writing about that the revelations about that period make it harder to distinguish what is fiction and what is not?
JE: I think so. I think as the facts have been obscured more and more. And as the facts have been overly dissected and overly scrutinized and facts have overly proffered both as theory and fact, it gets very very murky. So here is the ultimate thesis sentence of the grand design of The Cold Six Thousand: if my human infrastructure to great public events attended by fictional characters and real life characters mixed seamlessly, this drama is humanly plausible, then I have rewritten and encapsulated history successfully to my own specifications. If you believe the personal stories of Pete Bondurant, Ward Littell and Wayne Tedrow, Jr., and their horrible transit through five years of American history, then I've done my job. I'm fifty three now and healthy and planning on staying healthy and eating a lot of soy and doing everything right. I don't know much about corporate politics, and I don't know much about corporate corruption, but we have most profoundly corporatized presidential administration in history going on now.
RB: Our first court-appointed president.
JE: Yeah. He is more corporatized than Reagan or Bush 41 so who knows what I'll write about thirty years from now when I have some perspective. And right now I have none.
RB: What are your plans beyond the third book in the Underworld USA trilogy?
JE: I'm going to write a book about Warren Harding's presidency in the 1920's.
JE: It's interesting. There's a wonderful book called The Shadow of Blooming Grove by Francis Russell published in 1968. Blooming Grove is a little town near Marion, Ohio, where Harding was from, born there in 1865. The Shadow of Blooming Grove is a rumor that Warren Harding was black or had black blood. That's an Ellroy story. I don't know where it's going but I know I'm going to write the book.
RB: Mark Hannah, Harding's sponsor and creator, a fascinating character...
JE: Right, there was also Harry Daugherty, who was his attorney general who allegedly met Harding walking out of a whore house to the privy circa 1900 — Harding was a big handsome guy, they called him the Roman idol — and he said, "Jesus, that guy looks like a United Stated Senator." Well, damned if they didn't make him a United States Senator and later the President.
RB: Is this intended book fiction or non-fiction?
JE: Oh, it's fiction. I'm a novelist.
RB: You live in Kansas City. Is that Kansas or Missouri?
JE: Well, there's a distinction here. There are five counties that comprise suburban and urban Kansas City: three in Missouri and two in Kansas. Kansas City, Kansas, is a dump. I live in Johnson County, Kansas, which is a block and a half from the Missouri border and which is quite nice. Then there is Jackson, Clay and Platte Counties in Missouri and it's a beautiful place. It's quiet. It's peaceful. It's a great place to live.
RB: How does it look when you look out upon America from your vantage point in the American Heartland?
JE: I don't think about it much. I like to pull the Kafka routine. Sit perfectly still. Do nothing. This is a raw paraphrase, I've never read Kafka, frankly, but I know this quote. "The world will show itself to you." And that's what I do. I have a nice wood-paneled den. And I just sit there and listen to Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Schubert, and Schumann. Beethoven...
RB: Lots of Germans.
JE: Yeah, lot of Krauts and Austrians and some Ruskies, too. I sit with my dog and think about things. I rarely think about America today. I often think about the given periods of history that I write about.
RB: Have you left behind your noir period?
JE: I made a conscious decision after I wrote the L.A. Quartet books [The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz] that I would never write another book that could be categorized as a mystery or a thriller. I wanted to become a historical novelist. That's what I've done with American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand. That's the grand design of the rest of my career, to recreate 20th-Century American history through fiction.
RB: You may be a latter-day Gore Vidal? Have you read him?
JE: Burr, 1876 and Lincoln. Yeah, I read Burr many years ago and I enjoyed it. I want to read 1876. I have always been perversely interested in Grover Cleveland, and I know nothing about him. Except that he was the only guy to serve two non-consecutive terms as president.
RB: The 19th century seems to be dim for many Americans.
JE: None of us have lived through it...
RB: Well, of course, but other than the occasional resurrection for TV, we as a nation seem to be ahistorical. Do you think people are receptive to historical novels as a version of history?
JE: I think they see them as historical novels. I think it's an evergreen genre. I don't know how well it's practiced today. And the 20th century is my school of study and my literary stomping grounds for the foreseeable future. And I was fortunate to have lived through the American 1960's. Fortunate enough now that I am exploiting it. I was almost twelve when the decade began and almost twenty-two when it concluded. Even though I was a messed up kid with a kid's self-absorption and a kid's self-obsessed agenda, I sensed that there was a human infrastructure to these great public events and that there were satellite characters who on some levels were influencing public policy. So to be able to go back and write a book from the perspective of bad men, the unsung leg breakers of history and be the guy who guns down Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and be there as Gay Edgar Hoover hatches his plots is tremendously seductive. Now I am tapping into the memory banks of all of us — middle-aged or older folks now — who have lived through that era. And I'm having a blast with it.
RB: Your fictional version of history may be the version that sticks with people. I'm thinking more of younger readers...
JE: That would be ironic and it comes back to an assertion I made a few minutes ago; if the human infrastructure of the human dramas attending these great public events are plausible in this book, then it will have that effect. But again, this is a novel. Let me quote William Butler Yeats, "Poetry makes nothing happen, it survives a way of happening, a mouth." It's not like this is Uncle Tom's Cabin and I'm an abolitionist and as a result of this I will have served the purpose of furthering the abolition of slavery.
RB: You don't have an agenda? You are writing to entertain?
JE: Shock. Horrify. Appall. Move. Terrorize and obsess before entertain. And I think all those things, on some levels comprise and form entertainment. Divert...
RB: You are doing an extensive tour of this country.
JE: I just did seven weeks in Europe and Great Britain, where the book is a big smash. We published early there so I could make one continuous trip to Europe. Boston is the second city of 25. I will go home on the July 8.
RB: You're a trooper.
JE: I come to work.
RB: And your reception in Europe?
JE: The book's a best seller in all of the five countries that I went to. The critics were four to one positive. And the fifth the critic hated the book. Said it was unreadable. Said it was racist. Said it was a horrible linguistic indulgence. And as always, in the bluntest and politest possible way, I will state that any critics that don't like my book can kiss my fucking ass.
RB: What is the conversation like in Europe about such an American book?
JE: Wonderful dialogue over there with the critics and English-speaking readers because of the love/hate relationship they have with America. America is the great exporter of culture for the world. The Europeans and the Brits acknowledge this and they view America as a strange, young and very wild place, and they are appalled by their love of America and wholly seduced by America as well. So they have a powerfully ambivalent relationship to our culture, and a book like The Cold Six Thousand that advances a wild-assed view of America is their meat.
RB: How well-versed are they in our history? Do they quibble with you?
JE: They don't quibble. The 60's are permanently embedded in their memory banks. It is the recent past and the most scrutinized decade of America's recent past. It is a period that is ripe for deconstruction, reconstruction and speculation.
RB: Interwoven into the text are documentary insertions are transcripts of conversations. Are those fiction?
JE: Yeah, they are fiction.
RB: The newspaper headlines that are presented as documentary insertions, are those fiction?
JE: They are factually valid, chronologically valid encapsulations of events that occurred.
RB: But not literally the headlines?
JE: No, I rewrote them. I rewrote them to my specs.
RB: Some transcripts have the instructions that they are to be destroyed after they are read...
JE: You have to assume that everything in direct time and that you the reader are reading the actual "Burn after reading documents" as they are proffered. Everything is immediate, everything is in the present tense even though the text is written in the present tense.
RB: Tell me about this movie that's been made about you?
JE: This is the fifth Ellroy documentary. And it is in a league of its own. James Ellroy's Feast of Death was directed and produced by Vikram Jayanti who is the Academy Award-winning producer of When We Were Kings. He came to me — wanted to make the documentary — we made it. It's largely me in conversation with friends of mine from Los Angeles Police Department and the LA County Sheriff's Department. We shot in Dallas. We shot in Rowe, Wisconsin. My mother's stomping grounds. My home in Kansas City. Los Angeles and Las Vegas, which is a primary locale of my book. It's about my life. It's about my work. It's crime. It's about misogynistic violence. It's about American history. It's 89 minutes. I think it will have a theatrical release in the fall.
RB: I wasn't aware that there were other films about you.
JE: There is an Austrian documentary called James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Literature from 1992. There is a British documentary called White Jazz for a Channel 4 show called The Red Light Zone in Great Britain. There was an episode of E TV, True Hollywood Story about me and there was a French documentary about me directed by a friend of mine, Benoit Cohen. This was for the French TV series Great Writers of the Twentieth Century.
RB: And White Jazz with Nick Nolte and John Cusack is scheduled to begin shooting soon?
JE: From your mouth to God's ears.
RB: From your publicist to my eyes...
JE: Yeah, I'll believe it when I see it, yeah.
RB: Have all your books been optioned for movies?
JE: With the exception of The Cold Six Thousand, and some fool will option that and give me some option money and then will screw up the development process and it will never get made. The motion picture business is richly dysfunctional. It's a snake pit. And, as I used to tell people back when I was paying alimony payments, "If my movie option income exceeds my alimony payment I am ahead of the game." Now the alimony has been paid off and I am very happily married and alimony is a thing of my past I can only say to Hollywood, 'Thanks for the option money and don't tell me who is going to be in it because you are never going to make the fucking thing.'"
RB: You wouldn't be excited to see your books as movies?
JE: I actually wrote the script of White Jazz. They say they are going to shoot it in the fall with Nolte as Dave the Enforcer, John Cusack and Uma Thurman, and I hope it happens but I'm not going to lose any sleep if it doesn't.
RB: Any interest in producing movies?
JE: No. I'm a novelist, and I delegate badly, and I have to be able to control everything, and I have a horror of dealing with unreasonable people. And Hollywood has cornered the market on unreasonable people.
RB: Is that part of the reason you moved to Kansas City?
JE: No, I moved out of L.A. in 1981. I'd just been there too long.
RB: Do you see a lot of movies?
RB: Read a lot?
JE: No. I think a lot. I listen to classical music. I exercise. I watch boxing on TV and go to the fights occasionally. The only television show I watch is "The O'Reilly Factor." I like O'Reilly. I profiled him for GQ.
RB: What do you think about his political ambitions?
JE: Let me put it this way. If Bill O'Reilly ever decides to run for office, I will reach into my checkbook make the maximum allowable individual campaign contribution and assist him in his quest for public office to the limits of my ability. He is not a Republican and is no where near as right-wing as most people think he is. He shares my hatred and moral concerns about the death penalty among other things. And he is a pro-environment guy. And I am the world's biggest lover of wildlife, and I want to secure the lives of the polar bears. Whatever it costs, whatever it takes.
RB: How is your dog?
JE: Dudley is doing great. Dudley is lean, mean, obscene, and barely out of his teens. Dudley, my bull terrier, is cross-species heterosexual. And loves human women. He is an ardent lover of human women. If you want to walk Dudley — and he won't go for a walk into Kansas City — you go to the corner where our house is situated, and you wait for woman to jog by and he just follows them. Frankly, he has stalker tendencies.
RB: Where do you think he got those?
JE: From his dad, me.
RB: Do you have a working title for the next book?
JE: No I don't. Not yet. I'm thinking about it.
RB: Stylistically, are you inclined to continue the staccato, short sentence style of...
JE: Whatever the new book mandates in the way of style, that's where I'll go.
RB: How will it mandate that style?
JE: I don't know. I gotta figure out the new book yet. I have to outline it. I have to do some research. My researchers have their marching orders. From that point on, it's a question of thought.
RB: Do you immerse yourself in the period? See a lot of movies, watch TV footage, read a lot? Or do you just think about it?
JE: Think about it. I sit in that quiet peaceful, dark-paneled, air-conditioned den of mine with my dog, blast a little Bruckner and let my thoughts go...
Copyright 2001 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing