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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Miranda Sawyer

James Ellroy: ‘Alcoholics Anonymous was good for hot tub parties in the 70s’

James Ellroy
James Ellroy: ‘Podcasts are writing, 100% transposed. That’s a kick to me.’ Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

James Ellroy, 74, is a crime writer known for his hard-boiled noir novels and true crime essays. Feted for his “LA quartet” of novels, which includes The Black Dahlia and LA Confidential, and his “Underworld USA” series examining US political corruption, many of Ellroy’s obsessions (murder, crime, politics, masculinity) have been influenced by the unsolved 1958 murder of his mother, Geneva Hilliker. Recently, he released two books from his “Second LA Quartet” – Perfidia (2014) and The Storm (2019) – which begin with Pearl Harbour and take place during the second world war. Ellroy has a new podcast, James Ellroy’s Hollywood Death Trip, which features him reading several of his true-crime essays.

Let’s start with the podcast. You chose five stories including Stephanie from Destination: Morgue!, and Clash by Night from your Hollywood Reporter piece on the killing of Sal Mineo. Why those?
They’re crime, and they all take place in Hollywood. Couple of things. I’ve got a bass baritone voice, I’ve got a punchy voice, I can read dramatically. I’ve got a rat-a-tat journalistic style. And one can make the case that my mother’s unsolved 1958 murder, when I was 10 years old, is what got me hooked on crime... The podcast has been a joy, but as much as I dig this series, it’s nothing but a stalking horse for the full and unexpurgated version of my 1995 novel American Tabloid about John Kennedy’s reign. And that will go 12 hours with me narrating, and noted actors reading the dialogue.

Black Dahlia
Josh Hartnett, Aaron Eckhart and Scarlet Johansson in the film adaptation of Ellroy’s Black Dahlia. Photograph: Universal/Allstar

So this series is a taster for that?
Yes, a taster. The opening act. I like to say that movies and TV shows are out, and podcasts are in. Podcasts are the perfect transposition of the novel to another form. Time is no factor. There is no censorship. It is writing, 100% transposed. That’s a kick to me.

What was your idea of podcasts before you started on this one? Do you have any favourites?
No, I don’t listen to anything. I don’t have a computer, I don’t have a cell phone. I’ve written all my books by hand.

Can we talk about Stephanie, which features in the podcast?
That is my favourite of all my crime pieces. I went to high school just a few high schools to the northeast of Stephanie Gorman. I was born in ’48, and she was born in ’49. And, if one can use that term to describe a murder file, hers is the best file I’ve ever read.

In your telling of Stephanie’s still-unsolved murder you write, “the act creates the disorder”, and, “the killer is crucial and irrelevant”.
If you were to take the man who killed Stephanie Gorman in the summer of 1965, if you were to get him under the hot lights, you would find out that he was nothing but a human blob of delusion. He wouldn’t know why he did it. I doubt if it was much premeditated. He might have seen her going in and out of that house, in that very middle-class neighbourhood, and developed a yen for her. And then, one day, he knocked, she opened the door, and he reacted.

One of the things that can be difficult with true crime is that it’s often women that are killed, and yet they are lost in the telling of the crime. What’s your position on that?
I’m very interested in the victim’s character. To me, the question is always, “Who was she?”… It was 2001 when I wrote the Stephanie piece for GQ, and there had been a reopening of the case, and the detective, Tim Marcia and I, we visited her old high school. Stephanie was a uniquely lovely girl. She exuded character. Tim and I were just gaga for her. And we saw some old school yearbooks with Stephanie’s picture in them. I’d seen the death pictures before, and some family photographs. But I’d never seen live shots of Stephanie on the tennis team, or Stephanie in her history class before. We saw those pictures, and Tim and I just lost it, crying like animals. I said to Tim, “I love her.” He said, “Yeah, I can get it.”

In the past, you’ve spoken about Bill Clinton, and his moral degeneracy in how he treated Monica Lewinsky. How did America’s last two presidents impact on you?
I’ve been out of the world for a very long time. I didn’t follow the Trump presidency, I haven’t followed the Biden presidency, I don’t watch TV aside from boxing. The world that I depict in my books –of powerful men – there are hapless young women who want to be part of the scene. Men will lie, and do virtually anything to impress women. It’s the nature of the beast.

And also, perhaps, to impress other powerful men.
Yes. Which is some twisted shit.

Why don’t you get involved any more?
My books are enormously complex and require a solid year of planning before I write the first word of the text. And if I read only to the era I’m writing about, I’ve got everything I need at home. I exercise a lot, I’ve got an elliptical machine in my office. After this interview I’m going to jump on that. I have a boom box and I play classical music CDs, so I’ll listen to a piece of music and exercise. Blow my endorphins into the sky? Yes.

James Ellroy in 1995
James Ellroy in 1995, outside the LA restaurant where his mother was last seen alive in 1958. Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP

The first time I interviewed you, you were living in Kansas, the second time, you were in LA. Now you’re in Denver. I understand you’ve got back together with your ex-wife, Helen Knode?
Yes, yes, back with Helen, and very happy for six years. Monogamy was never our problem. It was always cohabitation. Cohabitation is horrible. So now I live in apartment 208 and Helen lives in Apartment 200.

Do you still have dogs? You had a bull terrier called Barko
Barko the bull terrier, Margaret the bull terrier, Dudley the bull terrier. Very British dogs. But no, no dogs now. Because I’m older. I’m just all broken up with how dogs predecease you.

Do you still own a lot of guns?
When I had the house in Kansas City, I had a lot of guns. And I had a library and everything. But here I think I’m down to two. They stay in the apartment. What’s my position on gun control? I don’t think about it. The thing is with psychopaths, if they want to get their hands on a gun, they’re going to get it by hook or by crook.

I was thinking more of mad young kids who think, “I hate everybody”. If it wasn’t so easy for them to get guns, they could just hate everybody and not harm them.
That’s a very good point. With me, though, call me shallow, but I don’t give a lot of thought to those issues.

You joined AA in the 1970s, so early that cocaine wasn’t even around.
Yes, it was so long ago that I’ve never used cocaine. Cocaine became a big deal in LA in the 1980s. When I joined AA it was good for hot tub parties. There was a place called Hot Tub Fever where people used to go. Take a date to Hot Tub Fever and have your own room with a hot tub in it. I don’t think it exists any more.

How are you feeling about getting older?
I’m trying to have a strong third act. I’m in competition with the late Philip Roth. What sounds like a good lifespan would be 88, or 89, or 90 even, which gives me plenty of time to finish this novel I’m writing right now, and the two concluding books of the “Second LA Quartet”, and maybe another book. And do some podcasts. There’s no way that you can rationalise 74 as middle-aged. This wild ride ain’t for ever. But I’m not particularly afraid.

James Ellroy’s Hollywood Death Trip, produced by Audio Up, is available exclusively on Amazon Audible

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