In Cold Blood

Novelist James Ellroy reshapes America's ugly history in his own image

His first book, 1981's Brown's Requiem, was pretty tame stuff, all things considered: a story about a cop-turned-private dick hired by a nutso caddy to tail his cello-playing sister. It hinted at the Ellroy that was--at the time, he was still caddying on some of L.A.'s nicer greens--and the Ellroy to come--the guy obsessed with pervs, porn, pussy and police. The second book, Clandestine, was his first shot at dealing with his mother's unsolved murder. Ellroy decided, in fiction, to solve the killing: He pinned it on his old man, an innocent. Then came his first trilogy, a series of books about an L.A. homicide cop named Lloyd Hopkins. Lloyd was a good man capable of bad things: He was racist, reactionary--"a basically shitty guy...a fascist fuckhead...a vessel of urban torment," Ellroy wrote in 1987, for the introduction to L.A. Noir, which collected Blood on the Moon, Because the Night and Suicide Hill.

"That's baby stuff compared to The Cold Six Thousand," Ellroy says of his earliest books. "In the simplest, vulgarest way, when I wrote Brown's Requiem and Clandestine and the three Hopkins books, my energy was dispersed, frankly, by chasing women." His wife's laughter is heard in the background. "I had two missions then. Writing The Black Dahlia freed me. Going back and writing that story and embracing that old obsession and old demon freed me. It freed my curiosity, and I went and wrote the L.A. Quartet from there, and then things just exploded."

Ellroy has left L.A. behind. He lives in Kansas City with his wife, Helen Knode, a former writer for the L.A. Weekly. And he now writes all of American history, not just the yellowing past of his hometown. After the final installment in the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, which will move through Watergate, Ellroy will collaborate with the ghost of Warren G. Harding. And he will keep on writing about what he calls "the lunatic country," reinventing himself--and the language, and literature--each time out. It's what he calls his mandate: to present the novel as "the great book of life."

James Ellroy at 53: "Perspective comes," says one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th--and 21st--century.
James Ellroy at 53: "Perspective comes," says one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th--and 21st--century.

"I come out of this generation where the mandate of the novel was to portray the great diversity of the human experience, to explore humanity and all its pity and horror and pathos, and to show lives in great duress and to show that there is nobility in and among the most horrible of human beings," he says. "It's this emotionality that fuels the books. My curiosity about people has grown exponentially. L.A.'s secret history has given way to America's history. I've become conscious of language and its deployments and of a mission to coarsen, vulgarize and reinvent the American idiom.

"These concerns come to you if you're candid with yourself and if you're on a journey of truth and self-knowledge in your personal life. People ask me, 'Could you write a contemporary-set novel?' I say, 'No, I have no perspective on it.' Perspective comes. And if you're honest with yourself and seek truth in your life, it will be at no cost to passion."

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