Wednesday, August 14, 2019

James Ellroy at The Poisoned Pen!

Although I hadn't read any of James Ellroy's books since The Black Dahlia, I thought it would not be a good idea to miss the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master when he appeared at my favorite bookstore, The Poisoned Pen.

Denis and I arrived early, got the seats we wanted, and settled in. After a while, we were delighted to see that author Jenn McKinlay and her husband were attending the event, too, and we had a nice chat with Jenn while we waited.

After an introduction by Patrick Millikin, Ellroy walked through a sea of fans to rousing applause. He stalked up to the table and brusquely removed the microphone and bottled water, leaving only his book, This Storm. Taking a stance behind the table, he gestured for more applause, and when we finally realized what he wanted, he got it. (Be forewarned: there's a bit of rough language here and there.)

James Ellroy: Good evening, peepers, prowlers, pederasts, pedants, panty sniffers, punks, and pimps. I'm James Ellroy, the death dog of the hog log and the foul owl with the death growl!

I am the author of nineteen books, masterpieces all. They precede all my future masterpieces. These books will leave you reamed, steamed, and dry cleaned. Tied, dyed, and swept to the side. Screwed, glued, tattooed, and [unintelligible but rhyming]. These are books for the whole fucking family IF the name of your family is the Manson Family. [audience laughter]

If each and every one of you buys one thousand copies [more laughter] of my new book tonight, you'll be able to have unlimited sex with each and every person on this earth that you desire every night for the rest of your life. [laughter]

If each and every one of you buys two thousand copies of my new book tonight, you will be able to have unlimited sex with each and every person on this earth that you desire every night for the rest of your lives and still get into heaven. As a result of a special dispensation, signed by me. If each and every one of you buys three thousand copies of my great new book tonight, you get the sex, you get in heaven, and for the first time in its sunbaked history, Scottsdale, Arizona will rule the world! You heard it here first off the record! On the QT, and very hush-hush.

T.S. Eliot wrote, "If you came this way, starting from anywhere, at any time, and in any season, it would always be the same." You would have to put off sense and notion. You are not here to instruct yourself or to inform curiosity or to carry a report. You are here to kneel where prayer has been proven valid, and for me, James Ellroy, the death dog of American literature, newly enshrined in the Everyman's Library Perennial series. Let me say then what better place to buy my hidden prayer than a place where the Written Word-- not digitally presented-- but where words are printed on paper, are honored, venerated, and indeed worshipped. [applause]

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You ain't nobody's audience but mine!

Here's another pithy quote. This is the great humorist, P.J. O'Rourke on Americans: "We're three-quarters grizzly bear and two-thirds car wreck, and descended from a stock market crash on our mother's side. When we snort coke in Houston, people lose their hats in Cap d'Antibes. A rape and a mugging is our way of saying cheerio. And, concludingly, hell can't hold our sock hops."

This Storm and the first novel in my second L.A. Quartet that precedes it, Perfidia-- these, the first two books of my second L.A. Quartet-- are odes to, appreciation of, the hard-charging, shit-kicking generation of America that O'Rourke writes about.

Let's flashback to the dark, cold winter of 2008. I was living in my lonely divorce pad in L.A., my smog bound fatherland. I had a crib at the Ravenswood Apartments on Rossmore on the southern edge of Hollywood. Recently divorced, looking out my southbound office window, I was on the A #1 Most Wanted List of Alimony International. [laughter] A brilliant synaptic flash took me over. I saw a vivid picture of forlorn-looking Japanese in the back of a U.S. Army transport bus headed up a snow-covered pass to the Manzanar Internment Camp in the winter of 1942.

It hit me. I will write the second L.A. Quartet. I will take characters-- real-life and fictional-- from the first L.A. Quartet, four novels set between 1946 and 1958-- The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz-- and the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, three novels set in America at large between '58 and '72-- American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood's a Rover-- and I will plunk them down in L.A. during World War II as significantly younger people.

The first novel in the second L.A. Quartet, Perfidia, my epic story set in the month of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 703 scintillating expose of the grave injustice of the Japanese internment, published to tumultuous acclaim in the fall of 2014. Big bestseller. I follow it up now with This Storm. It picks up the action two days later-- New Year's Eve-- '41 into '42. It goes through the 8th of May.

The second L.A. Quartet is now half complete, and there is nothing more that I rather do right now, tonight, June 20th, 2019 A.D., than to answer the most invasively, over personal questions that each and every one of you peepers, prowlers, pederasts, pedants, panty sniffers, punks, and pimps have for me. Except for one thing. I don't talk about America today. I don't talk about President Trump. I don't talk about contemporary issues regardless of how much people may think 1942 America is meant to stand in for 2019 America because it does not.

I live in the past. I am computer illiterate. I have never booted onto a computer at all. I have never used a cell phone. I write my books by hand. My steely resolve to live in the past informs my books with whatever power and vivid verisimilitude that they may possess. As a kid, I got hooked on history. Way back, circa 1955, before my parents split the sheets, I would steal into a hallway closet and read through stacks of Life magazines. I was obsessed with history then; I'm obsessed with history now. I look resolutely back into the past.

In 1956 when I was eight years of age, I said something that alerted my mother to the fact that I believed World War II was still going on. My mother said, "Au contraire, sonny, it ended in 1945 three years before your birth." I didn't believe her then, and I don't believe her now.

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I have a muse. It's History. And I have never forsaken history, and history has never forsaken me since I wrote my first historically based novel way back in 1985.

I'm honored that you're here tonight. This is my last stop before I go home to Denver, Colorado. I've got a day trip to Austin, Texas next week sometime. Beyond that, that's it for This Storm 2019 in the English language. I've been to Britain. I've been to fourteen cities here in the States. It's time to wrap this up. This will be my final performing gig. With that in note, I would be honored to hear your questions.

Fan: I also believe World War II hasn't ended, and I would like to hear your thoughts on that.

Ellroy: I don't have any. It's an emotional reaction. [audience laughter] It's a referendum on the extent to which I live in the past. I don't discuss the world today. I don't know what's going on in the world today. I can tell you about the Suez Crisis of 1946. I live in a mediated state with the past. The language of the past, the music of the past, the racial attitudes of the past; they are embued within me, good, bad, indifferent.

And I love the American idiom. I love racial invective. I love Yiddish. I love black hepcat hipster jazz patois. I love police jive talk. I love penal code abbreviations even if I don't know the offenses-- hold on-- the numbers designate. I live for it. I live with it, and I will never forsake it.

In reply to another fan: Absolute historical accuracy means next to nothing to me. I don't care. It doesn't have to be absolutely accurate. You can diverge from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. JFK hit November 22, 1963. This is stuff you can't mess with. Beyond that, you have absolute latitude to fictionalize.

Fan: How do you keep the history from getting in the way of the story?

Ellroy: That's an excellent question to ask. The outline for that book is 465 pages, and I wrote it by hand just as I write the text of all my books.

I lay out in minute detail everything broken down chapter by chapter, viewpoint by viewpoint, all the way through. Everything that has to happen character-wise. The investigatory arcs, the story arcs. All I have to do is have it typed up, a stack of pages yay high, go to New York and see my two editors at Alfred A. Knopf. They give me feedback, and then I can go home and I write the book by hand.

Having a superstructure that detailed allows me to live improvisationally in the individual scenes-- and write the hell out of them. And give them the snap and the pop that makes it feel like actual action. As long as I don't violate the strictures of the outline... that's how I get the proper measures of the history, the language, the police work, and the overarching story of World War II.

For those of you who would like to watch the event in its entirety, I urge you to watch it on The Poisoned Pen's Youtube channel. It's not often that you can have a front-row seat to a master talking about his work!


  1. Oh, you are so lucky to have seen Ellroy, Cathy. What an interesting person, and a skilled writer, too. Must have been a great, great time!

    1. I particularly appreciated it when he talked about his writing process.


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