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The Art of Fiction: Interview with James Ellroy

Written by son of rambow on Friday, November 27, 2009

Interviewed by Nathaniel Rich
The Paris Review, Issue 190, Fall 2009

You’ve called Dashiell Hammett “tremendously great” and Raymond Chandler “egregiously overrated.” Why?

Chandler wrote the kind of guy that he wanted to be, Hammett wrote the kind of guy that he was afraid he was. Chandler’s books are incoherent. Hammett’s are coherent. Chandler is all about the wisecracks, the similes, the constant satire, the construction of the knight. Hammett writes about the all-male world of mendacity and greed. Hammett was tremendously important to me.
Joseph Wambaugh was immensely important, too. He is a former policeman whose view of LA perfectly dovetailed with my minor miscreant’s view of LA. I also loved the quickness, the ugliness, the assured fatality of James M. Cain. That giddy sense that doom is cool. You just met a woman, you had your first kiss, you’re six weeks away from the gas chamber, you’re fucked, and you’re happy about it.

How did you do in high school?

I did poorly, and I had an unimaginably dim social sense. I was horrified when the civil rights workers were killed in Mississippi in ’64, but I made light of it in school. I knew it was wrong, but I had to be superior to the events themselves. You can see this in my books. There’s the reactionary side of me as well as the critique of authority, the critique of racism and oppression. Back then, though, I possessed no social awareness.

Did you graduate?

No. I flunked the eleventh grade and got expelled. I decided I wanted to join the marine corps, because I wanted to be a shit kicker, which I certainly was not. I did not want to go to Vietnam, I never thought about Vietnam. I had a vague desire to shoot guns. My father’s health was deteriorating ever more rapidly—he started having strokes and heart attacks—and he let me enlist in the army.

How long did you last?

If you think I’m skinny now, at a hundred and seventy pounds, picture me at a hundred and forty. I got shipped out to Fort Polk, Louisiana. Flying bugs all over the place. Right away, I went from being a big egotistical bully to a craven scaredy-cat dipshit. My dad had another stroke the first week I was at Polk. I got flown home to LA, in my uniform, on emergency leave. Two weeks later, he had yet another stroke. I got flown back again, just in time to see him die. His final words to me were, Try to pick up every waitress who serves you.

Is that when you started writing—after your father died?

The first thing I did after he died was snag his last three Social Security checks, forge his signature, and cash them at a liquor store. From ’65 to ’75, I drank and used drugs. I fantasized. I swallowed amphetamine inhalers. I masturbated compulsively. I got into fights. I boxed—though I was terrible at it—and I broke into houses. I’d steal girls’ panties, I’d jack off, grab cash out of wallets and purses. The method was easy: you call a house and if nobody answers, that means nobody’s home. I’d stick my long, skinny arms in a pet access door and flip the latch, or find a window that was loose and raise it open. Everybody has pills and alcohol. I’d pop a Seconal, drink four fingers of Scotch, eat some cheese out of the fridge, steal a ten-dollar bill, then leave a window ajar and skedaddle. I did time in county jail for useless misdemeanors. I was arrested once for burglary, but it got popped down to misdemeanor trespassing.
The press thinks that I’m a larger-than-life guy. Yes, that’s true. But a lot of the shit written about me discusses this part of my life disproportionately.

Aren’t you responsible for this? You’ve written a lot about this period, and you frequently talk about it in interviews.

I’ve told many journalists that I’ve done time in county jail, that I’ve broken and entered, that I was a voyeur. But I also told them that I spent much more time reading than I ever did stealing and peeping. They never mention that. It’s a lot sexier to write about my mother, her death, my wild youth, and my jail time than it is to say that Ellroy holed up in the library with a bottle of wine and read books.

Still, writing couldn’t have been exactly in the forefront of your mind at the time.

But it was. I was always thinking about how I would become a great novelist. I just didn’t think that I would write crime novels. I thought that I would be a literary writer, whose creative duty is to describe the world as it is. The problem is that I never enjoyed books like that. I only enjoyed crime stories. So more than anything, this fascination with writing was an issue of identity. I had a fantasy of what it meant to be a writer: the sports cars, the clothes, the women.
But I think what appealed to me most about it was that I could assume the identity of what I really loved to do, which was to read. Nobody told me I couldn’t write a novel. I didn’t live in the world of graduate writing schools. I wasn’t part of any scene or creative community. I happened to love crime novels more than anything, so I wrote a crime novel first. I didn’t buy the old canard that you had to start by writing short stories, and only later write a novel. I never liked reading short stories, so why the fuck should I want to write one? I only wanted to write novels. [The Paris Review. Purchase this issues]

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    "There is only one school of literature - that of talent."
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