James Ellroy: Mug Shots

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Before he started writing, James Ellroy was busted for being drunk and disorderly, DUI, petty theft and trespass. He was hassled as a suspicious pedestrian, was caught squatting, had police shot-guns shoved in his face, and was eventually locked up with pimps, killers, drug addicts and winos.

His diet was bennies and booze, and jail time was his “health retreat”:

I abstained from booze and dope and ate three square meals a day. I did push-ups and worked trusty details and got a little muscle tone going. I hung out with stupid white guys, stupid black guys and stupid Mexican guys—and swapped stupid stories with them. We had all committed daring crimes and fucked the world’s most glamorous women. An old black wino told me he fucked Marilyn Monroe. I said, “No shit—I fucked her too!”

Jail taught Ellroy a few truths—he was big, but not tough; he committed crimes, but was no criminal—but he knew he could ride it out.

I worked the trash-and-freight detail at the New County Jail and the library at Wayside Honor Rancho. My favorite jail was Biscailuz Center. They fed you big meals and let you read in the latrines after lights-out. Jail was no big fucking traumatic deal.

I knew how to ride short stretches. Jail cleaned out my system and gave me something to anticipate: my release and more booze and dope fantasies.

One day Ellroy woke-up tied to a hospital cot, his wrists bloodied by the restraints. He was 27, and near death—an abscess the size of a fist on his lung.

‘If it’s not working, then get the hell out.’ Ellroy once told me. ‘If your life isn’t working the way you want it, then do something to change it.’

We were in a car, driving down the curve of road from the Griffith Observatory. It was Fall 1994, and he was giving me advice he had learned on a hospital gurney some 20-years earlier. We had been filming an interview for a TV documentary. For a week Ellroy had given a guided tour of his life:  El Monte where his mother had been murdered, Hancock Park and the houses he had B&E’d, the panty sniffing, the pill-popping, the drinking, the parks where he jacked-off, the Sav-On where he stole Benzedrine inhalers to get buzzed, the empty apartments where he lived off booze and drugs, bad sex and fantasies.

Then it all stopped. He woke-up in hospital, and knew he was no longer invincible. And that’s when Ellroy started writing.
 
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Previously on Dangerous Minds

James Ellroy: An early interview with the Demon Dog of American Literature


 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
James Ellroy: An early interview with the Demon Dog of American Literature

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James Ellroy lies in a darkened room brooding about the past. He thinks about his mother, Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, who was murdered in 1958, when Ellroy was 10-years-old. The killer has never been found.

Ellroy was born and raised in Los Angeles. When his parents divorced, Ellroy lived with his mother in El Monte during the week, and spent weekends with his Father.

His father, Armand Lee Ellroy, was an accountant and one-time business manager for Rita Hayworth. Ellroy usually adds his father had a massive schlong, and schtooped anything that moved. His father gave Ellroy a copy of Jack Webb’s book The Badge. Ellroy read the book obsessively.  He read the story of Elizabeth Short, aka The Black Dahlia, whose severed, mutilated body was discovered on a vacant lot, on the west side of South Norton Avenue, between Coliseum and West 39th, in 1947.

Ellroy merged his mother’s murder with the Black Dahlia’s. He fantasized how he’d save the Dahlia and marry her. He fantasized how he’d save his mother. The fantasies were inspired by guilt and depression.

Before Geneva’s murder, his parents had been going through a rough time. His father was poisoning Ellroy’s mind about his mother. His father let Ellroy do what he wanted. His mother had rules. When she died James had wanted to be free of her. Now he was, he felt guilty.

He grew up lanky, and geeky. He was awkward around girls. He was a WASP at a Jewish school. He hated to be ignored. Ellroy played at being the weirdo. In the schoolyard he riffed on the Black Dahlia, serial killers, and Nazis. He made it look like he didn’t care what others thought. It worked. It made him untouchable.

He flunked school and prowled the neighborhood. He peeped on girls he could only dream about. He broke into their houses, sniffed their panties, drank their parents’ booze, looked in medicine cabinets and popped pills, stole what he wanted. They never knew.

Ellroy lived off T-bird, and the wading from Benzedrex inhalers. It made him grind down his teeth. He tripped. He became homeless. He stole. He did gaol time. His life was in freefall - the parachute was an abscess on his lung, the size of a man’s fist.

Ellroy prayed for a second chance. He got it. He turned his life round and started writing crime novels. Influenced by Hamnett rather than Chandler. At first hooked around his own experience as caddy on a golf course, then the large multi-narrative, police procedurals, re-telling the history of modern America. Ellroy was riffing on the things he obsessed about, the Black Dahlia, sex, violence, bad, bad, bad men coming to grips with their humanity.

He wrote the L.A. Quartet, which included The Black Dahlia, and L.A. Confidential. Then a book about his search for his mother’s murder, My Dark Places. He never found him. Closure is bullshit, he says. Then the trilogy Underworld U.S.A., which includes American Tabloid, and the brilliant Blood’s A Rover.

Now, Ellroy is one of America’s greatest living novelists, and very few come close. He still lives in L.A. and writes everyday, long hand, ink pen, legal pad, and lies in darkened rooms brooding about the past.

This is a rare clip of James Ellroy, in his trademark Hawaiian shirt (worn in pouring rain), interviewed for the French program Cinéma Cinémas in 1989.
 

 

Written by Paul Gallagher | Discussion