James Ellroy is one of those men who leave an impression. Standing at 6 feet 3 inches tall, he seems to tower above everyone else, and his personality is just as commanding. He speaks with a gruff voice and a conviction that has been born from years of writing both fiction and nonfiction about crime and murder.
He towers above literary journalism professor Amy Wilentz as she introduces him to the 40 or so people who have gathered in Humanities Gateway 1030 for his master class “Memoir, and Memoir Revisted.”
“Normally, I would ask people to come closer but this is James Ellroy so a little space is probably necessary,” Wilentz says during her introduction of the writer. Ellroy is, indeed, an outspoken and crusty old man, unafraid to speak his mind.
“You could be taking this time to attend to your sex life, drug habit or your arduous worship of Barack Obama — but you are here. I am honored,” he says, as his audience laughs.
Born in Los Angeles in 1948, Ellroy has had a fascination with crime since he was a child. His memoir, “My Dark Places,” is based on his memories, as well as his investigation of his mother’s murder, which occurred when he was nine years old. In September of this year, 13 years after “My Dark Places,” “The Hilliker Curse,” also about his mother’s death, was published.
“I can obsessively and repeatedly honor my mother by depicting her 43 years on earth,” he says of the two memoirs.
“I was craft-bound to depict her a certain way. I was honor-bound to redress my glibness in ‘My Dark Places’ — [my mother and I] are not a crime story, we are a love story.”
While his mother’s death has influenced his interest in murder and death, he also attributes his crime writing to his place of birth.
“Place is destiny … I was born in L.A., the film noir capital, at the height of the film noir era … L.A. and its history has been extremely kind to me,” Ellroy says. “I believe in the potent allegiance of fate.”
Shortly after his mother’s death, he received a gift from his father, Jack Webb’s book “The Badge,” in which Webb described the Black Dahlia murder case. Both his mother’s and Black Dahlia’s murders remain unsolved to this day — and Ellroy saw the two as one and the same. His mother’s ghost, he says, “speaks to him through flesh-and-blood women,” and this has haunted him throughout his life.
Los Angeles, too, haunts him. The city was where he lived, physically, but it was also where he dreamed; the way he tells it, LA has always been an obsession for him, and his relationship with the city is romanticized and all-encompassing.
Ellroy never finished high school, joined the army and left Los Angeles. But he longed for LA and, when he came back for his father’s death, the city welcomed him back with open arms. He spent years as a drug-addled alcoholic until he “quit drinking, and using drugs and breaking into houses to sniff women’s undergarments — and started writing” at the age of 39 years old. This was his payment and honor to LA, as he tells it in his essay, “The Great Right Place – James Ellroy Comes Home.”
Since then, Ellroy has left Los Angeles multiple times but always comes back, drawn for some inexplicable reason back to the city. Much of his best writing — nonfiction or fiction — has taken place in this indefinable city of murder and sex and intrigue. His seventh novel, “The Black Dahlia,” is, in ways, a culmination of a lifetime’s worth of obsession with the city and the murder both of the woman and of his mother. He is both defined by and tries to escape from the city.
His books are arguably all about his mother, her murder and his relationship with the two. Themes of misogynistic violence and unhealthy relationships pervade his writing.
“Do I want to empower women? Yes. Am I an avenger of devastated women? Yes. I love to fuck with and fuck over men who hurt women,” he says.
To do so, Ellroy became an artist with the brevity of his words. His gruff and no-nonsense persona is tempered by a thoughtful and reflective attitude toward life, which shows in his work ethic and the way he “lies in the dark, by myself. Thinking.” This gives him the focus necessary to delve beneath the surface of what he writes. Beyond the murder and scandal and death, there is always a deeper significance.
“My life has always been the pursuit of assessment of meaning. I have to know what shit means.”
Universality is key, he insists. To avoid “navel-gazing narcissism, an overlying theme must be developed in any work, fiction or non-fiction, memoir or otherwise. Aspiring writers must be able to see these themes and expand upon them.”
With several best-selling novels and a few that have been turned into movies, Ellroy remains deeply appreciative that he has had the opportunity to do what he does.
“I am in constant awe of what I do. You get to be the guy who tells the story and lives the history,” Ellroy says. “I live for that tremor of intent. That great feeling that there’s just me and there’s just the story.”