James Ellroy's Criminal Mind

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Each morning around daybreak, in an adobe house tucked away in the canyons of L.A., James Ellroy, the self-proclaimed "demon dog of American fiction," wakes up to see a portrait of his idol Ludwig van Beethoven scowling down at him. "And what does Beethoven say?" Ellroy asks. "Get to work." To which Ellroy responds: "Fuck you. I'm going down better than you, Beethoven."

Ellroy, 66, will be the first to tell you his novels now constitute an incredible body of work, a fictional history of the U.S. from 1941 to 1972 as a nation of dangerous men, iron-willed women, leering perverts, and bloodthirsty killers. He's also documented the details of his own troubled life: beginning with his mother's unsolved murder in the 1950s, growing up under the supervision of a ne'er-do-well father, then as a street kid, a speed freak, an alcoholic, and finally a prolific writer. Four years ago, he moved back to L.A. from New York and began working on a second L.A. Quartet — a return to the fictional world he created in The Black Dahlia, The Big NowhereL.A. Confidential, and White Jazz. The first installment came out in September. The excellent, densely plotted Perfidia is a 700-page murder mystery set around the events of Pearl Harbor and the internment of Japanese-Americans. Half the fun is revisiting his old cast, albeit in much younger forms, and his staccato prose laced with hepcat patois still hits like a hammer.

Have you returned to L.A. for good?
Well, I moved to Brooklyn for a woman, and that fell apart, and it was too urban for me. I wanted to be back here. If I live to be 99 years old, and I'm planning on exceeding that, any way you slice it, this is act three. Groucho Marx said, "You're only as old as the woman you feel." But I'm here and happy to be here. I've never enjoyed people as much as I do at this time in my life. I'm calmer, I'm more at peace. I'm still the rabid pit bull of American literature. But there is something changing within me. I unclenched my narrative grip when I wrote Perfidia, and I let my heart go a bit.

Are you single?
I'm single these days. You know, uh, there's a prospect. I'm recklessly eyeballing this woman who lives out of town, and we talk a lot; we talk on the telephone and we exchange letters. It's decorous. I appreciate it.

What do you do for kicks?
I brood. I've got a buddy; we will watch serialized crime television dramas at his place and watch film noir on Friday nights. I talk to my ex-wife. We talk every night. I go to church.

You've written a lot about surveillance. Do the NSA revelations scare you?
No. It doesn't scare me personally. I'm computer illiterate. I don't really know how all this stuff works. I've got enough crazy shit going on in my head without overstimulating myself. I've got a landline phone. And when I go out for the afternoon or the evening and I come back, it will say seven calls and maybe, maybe a woman called, maybe some groovy message from a film, TV, or publishing colleague. Maybe my ex-wife called. It's something to look forward to.

Then you see technology as more of a social problem?
I was at the market down the street here, and I was peeping this age-appropriate, 55-year-old woman, OK? So I sharked her on over to the checkout line and she looked my way. I smiled at her, she tensely smiled back, and I tried to start a conversation with her. And I had good luck with this in the pre-internet era. But now it's "Why are you trying to meet me? Go away! Having a polite conversation violates my social code because I conduct all this shit on the internet."

What do you want your legacy to be?
"He was a great American novelist." Just that. I've done some things that I don't think any other crime writer has. I've merged a crime novel and a historical novel and a political novel. I've done it. And the books themselves bear this out.