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Underworld USA

Photo by Marion Ettlinger

With his 1981 debut novel, Brown’s Requiem, James Ellroy reinvented the noir thriller. Ellroy’s noir was more true to life, sleazier and more wrenchingly emotional than others, perhaps because he was writing from firsthand experience. Born in Los Angeles in 1948, Ellroy was 10 years old when his alcoholic mother was molested, strangled and dumped by the side of a road in El Monte. This event, as most Los Angeles readers know, led to Ellroy’s obsession with the Black Dahlia murder case — and to the writing of his 1987 novel, Black Dahlia. Ellroy’s father died when he got himself 17. Also, he was expelled from high school, got himself kicked out of the Army, and had become a substance-abusing petty criminal by the time he was 20.

During the ’70s, Ellroy got sober and turned his life around for, as he puts it: “one simple reason. I wanted things. Mainly, I wanted women, and I wanted to write novels.” He’s succeeded in spades, and has turned out 14 critically acclaimed books, one of which was turned into the hit 1997 film L.A. Confidential. His latest book, The Cold Six Thousand, is the second volume in what Ellroy refers to as the Underworld USA Trilogy. Combining historical figures with fictional characters, the trilogy, which commenced in 1995 with the publication of American Tabloid, examines American history from 1958 through 1973. The Cold Six Thousand deals with the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and of Martin Luther King Jr., among other dark things.

Speaking by phone from Spain, where he’s midway through a four-month international book tour, Ellroy says he’ll begin the final volume in the trilogy in July, when he returns to the Kansas City home he shares with his wife, writer Helen Knode. His current book tour will take him through England, where a documentary (the fifth one made about Ellroy), produced and directed by L.A.-based Vikram Jayanti and tentatively titled James Ellroy’s Feast of Death, airs this month on the BBC. The film has yet to find an American distributor.

On completing the Underworld USA Trilogy, Ellroy plans to write a book about Warren Harding, who’s widely hailed as the second most corrupt American president of the 20th century.

L.A. WEEKLY: You were 15 years old when John Kennedy was assassinated, and you’ve said that at the time his death meant nothing to you. Since Kennedy’s assassination made no impression on you as a young man, what made you go back and explore this chapter of history?

JAMES ELLROY: After I finished my L.A. Quartet [Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz], I decided I’d never write another book strictly set in L.A. that could be categorized as a mystery, a crime novel or a thriller. I’d read Don DeLillo’s novel Libra, and gotten belatedly fascinated with the Kennedy hit. Libra is a great book, and I credit DeLillo every chance I get. His theory, which is hardly original with him, is that the nexus of crazy Cuban exiles, the mob and renegade CIA agents killed Kennedy, and that struck me as a viable historical perspective. Once I’d learned a bit about the rules Kennedy lived by, it was obvious to me he got what he deserved, and the preposterous notion that America was an innocent party to Kennedy’s death made me furious. American Tabloid begins with the line “America was never innocent,” and that’s the tonal chord for the entire trilogy, which is a study of bad men doing bad things in a loosely shifting web of conspiracy. I like to think of them as the unsung leg-breakers of history.

Are men more corrupted and violent than women?

Definitely. Men have brought the world to the brink of extinction countless times. The women characters in this book may not be sterling citizens, but they have a self-awareness and humanity that none of the male characters have.

Why does the JFK assassination continue to exert such a hold on the public imagination?

John Kennedy was the woman to America’s male lover, and he was taken before the sex got old. Consequently, America sees him with a glow, and speculates about what might’ve happened had he lived. Going back and re-mythologizing the love affair is seductive, and it was a great thing to live with as I was writing the book.

What was the most challenging aspect of putting the book together?

Getting the tone right, and that required distilling the story into propulsive, direct, simple sentences. The book reads as a sort of shorthand, but it’s not — these are complete sentences written in the language of the violence of the times, and I see the book as a celebration of American language, among other things. Getting that language down was one step in a very long process. I had plot threads from American Tabloid I wanted to continue, and I also wanted The Cold Six Thousand to combine other elements: the informal cover-up of John Kennedy’s assassination; Las Vegas in the ’60s and Howard Hughes’ Vegas incursion; the early days of the Vietnamese War and the heroin trade within; the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; crazy Cuban exiles; and the Klan and racist repression. I hired two researchers, and one of them, Kateri Butler [managing editor at the L.A. Weekly], has been to Vietnam. She gave me snapshots, got a glossary of terms together and scored me some Vietnamese dialect. I put it all together in a few hundred pages of notes, wrote a 340-page outline, then spent the next two and a half years writing five successive drafts of the novel.

 

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

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