You’re currently on a book tour in Europe, where this book has been very well-received; is your work interpreted differently in Europe than it is in the U.S.?
There’s absolutely no recognition of me as a genre writer in Europe. They think this is the real goods about America, and people here often want to take me to task for what they consider to be America’s misdeeds. What they don’t seem to understand is that this book isn’t about America as a whole, or Joe and Jane America in the ’60s. It’s a book about the collusive web of renegade intelligence operatives, low-rent lounge entertainers, racist lunatics and high-ranking police officials whose actions spiral and affect America as a whole.
Much of your writing has been shaped by your mother’s murder; have you worked through that? Is it possible to bury the dead once and for all?
My mother’s death mandated my mental curriculum, and she’s very much a part of me now, after spending a year and a half re-investigating her murder with a brilliant homicide detective named Bill Stoner. Having written about that experience in My Dark Places, I’ve come to the conclusion that closure is bullshit. My mother and I will continue.
You’ve described your father as “a womanizing Hollywood bottom-feeder,” and you lost your mother, who was alcoholic, when you were 10 years old. One gets the impression your parents didn’t do a very good job of teaching you how to love. How did you learn?
It’s true I never had a family life, and I learned self-sufficiency very early, because I didn’t expect people to take care of me. There is, however, the great human need, and whatever you want to say about me, I’ve got a vivid imagination. In the end, my wife taught me how to love. But beyond that, human beings are self-evolved. Many people don’t self-evolve, of course, but I believe in self-will, and there are people who simply overcome their environment. I’m a Lutheran, and I believe in God very strongly. I had a Lutheran upbringing, and even during the darkest period of my life I always believed. Martin Luther was off the deep end in many ways, but he burned the world to the ground. He told people, “There’s you and there’s God, and you don’t need the Catholic Church — which was the only Christian church at the time — to arrange a meeting.” I have to admit I can’t quite take the big dive for Christ, but I do think he was a hell of a guy.
If the Kennedy assassination meant nothing to you in the ’60s, what was occupying your attention then?
Using drugs, reading novels, attempting to have sex with girls who didn’t want me, breaking into houses, sniffing undergarments — living the crazy shit I recounted in My Dark Places.
Was it exciting committing crimes?
Burglary and breaking into houses was exciting, but the thrill was part of an emotional hunger I felt. I was a poor kid who grew up at Beverly Boulevard and Western Avenue on the edge of Hancock Park. I grooved on the groovy-looking girls of Hancock Park, which was just a stone’s throw from where I lived, but was light-years away. I only broke into houses of the girls I grooved on.
What makes one person vulnerable to the temptation of crime, and the next person incorruptible?
It comes down to moral character. We all have a moral responsibility to do the right thing, and if we capitulate and do the wrong thing, then we’re bad people who should be censured and judged. The morality of literature is often expressed by showing the consequences of immoral acts, and the karmic price people pay for perpetrating them. The guys in The Cold Six Thousand anguish, pay and suffer, and there’s no nihilism in this book. I hate it when black-wearing, 25-year-old, rock & roll–worshipping kids think I’m Jim Thompson, and that I write books about grubby psychopaths holed up in hotel rooms — books that Thompson wrote under contract in two weeks, by the way. That’s never who I’ve been. I’m determined to live a wholesome life.
The Cold Six Thousand | By James Ellroy | Knopf | 688 pages | $27 hardcover