Ellroy Confidential

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2011 - 3:41 PM

He lives like a monk and swears like a sailor. He worships Beethoven and doesn't own a computer. For novelist James Ellroy, fierceness and stamina are required to reveal giant lies and tell big stories.

LOS ANGELES - The most important writing tool in James Ellroy's apartment is his leather couch. For hours every day, the author of such high-octane action novels as "L.A. Confidential" and "The Black Dahlia" stretches over its sturdy, cool surface and broods. No pillow, no notebook, no tape recorder, no music, no lights. Just him and a steady stream of perverted thoughts.

He broods about an era 40 years past, infested with fictionalized versions of Howard Hughes and Richard Nixon reimagined as supervillains who would make Batman urinate in his codpiece. He broods about conflicted antiheroes who talk tough and act even tougher, emerging from drug-induced hazes and acts of random violence with cries for absolution that may or may not be heard. He broods about femmes fatales, fragile enough to need rescuing, strong enough to live for another pack of cigarettes. He broods about finally being heralded as the most powerful writer of his generation, literature's equivalent of his hero, tortured composer Ludwig van Beethoven.

It's the centerpiece of a self-contained, lonesome process that almost killed him a decade ago, makes him nearly impossible to live with and seals him off from the contemporary world. It's also what makes his latest novel, "Blood's a Rover," one of the crudest, most compelling, comical and complex thrillers of the season.

"The price to be James is high, and the price to be around him is pretty high," said novelist Helen Knode, who divorced Ellroy in 2001 after 14 years of marriage, but remains a friend and fan. "I don't think he feels that artists have to suffer to be great. I think he's just that way. It's not the healthiest thing in the world."

Few get a chance to plop down on Ellroy's couch.

He's not known for entertaining, either inside or outside the red-painted walls of his art deco pad, next door to suites once occupied by Judy Garland and Mae West. His idea of graciousness is offering his guest a mug of cold, black coffee and showing off a photo shrine in his bedroom to the women who have loved and left him.

He's never used the complex's swimming pool and has visited the beach only 10 times in his 61 years. He avoids restaurants with TV sets and hates going to concerts and movie theaters. The sight of blockheads on their cell phones and the smell of Velveeta cheese from soggy nachos make him nauseated. His numerous shelves are filled, but only with titles of his own books. He doesn't read a newspaper or pay attention to anything that would be mistaken as modern.

Ellroy, the loner

"Blood's a Rover," which covers the period between 1968 and 1972, crisscrosses the globe, including a stopover in Minneapolis, yet Ellroy employs friends to do the traveling for him, relying solely on their notes and his imagination.

"I'm solitary by nature," said Ellroy, sporting a casual pink shirt, khaki pants and white sneakers. "I want an uncluttered mind. I find technology intrusive. There's too much imagery in the world."

Ellroy's latest novel, the final installment in a trilogy about U.S. history in and around the Kennedy presidency, might have been easier to construct if he had done research on a computer (which he doesn't own), picked up tips from other historical novels (which he doesn't read) and settled for a breezy, economical tale, the kind that can be digested on a plane ride to Cleveland, instead of a 691-page doorstop with more characters than a Cecil B. DeMille epic and language that might shock a rapper.

Big book, massive outline

But that's not Ellroy. He needs to struggle. He needs to sweat, even if that means dedicating eight months to a 397-page outline before the writing process even begins. If the reader has to do the same, that's just fine with him.

"You cannot write a book this big, this coherent, without superstructure," he said. "It's part of the dynamic of reading an Ellroy novel. You have to think. You have to come to the books with a clear head. I would rather that you read the book in fewer rather than many sittings because that approximates the obsessive state I was in when I wrote the book."

Most days, he awakens at 5 a.m. after just three or four hours of sleep, pours himself a cup of coffee -- the first of eight for the day -- and mixes up a bowl of oatmeal. He'll sit at his desk, surrounded by memorabilia from past books, and, with a black-ink pen, write in block letters on legal paper. He never moves on to the next sentence until the last one is perfect. Even then, he'll pore over the draft with red ink in hand. When he's finally satisfied, an assistant types it up (Ellroy never learned to use a typewriter) and Ellroy once again attacks the project with his red pen.

A Beethoven admirer

Mix in the occasional break for exercising in the bedroom or brooding in the living room, and you have a painstaking approach that Ellroy imagines might have been applied by Beethoven, whose portrait hangs in the living room aside black-and-white 1940s-era photos of his L.A. neighborhood. The painting, the only flash of color in his art collection, presents the composer as a burly brawler who could just as easily be the cover boy for a romance paperback.

"I aspire to be him," said Ellroy, who ignores popular music. "He was fiercely determined."

"Rover" reflects Ellroy's aspirations of creating a memorable symphonic work with its four-act structure, recurring themes, powerful motifs and sense of rhythm. "I want to see an epic. I hate minimalism. I like grandeur. I like the arc of big lies. These are big people with big ideas."

Of course, Beethoven struggled with deafness through much of his life. Ellroy's handicaps are self-induced. One only has to point to the tragedy that most shaped his life: the 1958 murder of his mother when he was just a child, a cold-case crime that occurred just a few blocks from where he currently resides. That case is dealt with directly in his 1996 nonfiction book, "My Dark Places," but it reverberates in all his books, where injustice, cruelty and heartache are more American than truth, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

"It's a tragic thing when somebody takes something away from you," said actor Danny DeVito, who befriended Ellroy when they were both promoting the film version of "L.A. Confidential" at the Cannes Film Festival. "My heart goes out to him."

Drug use and breakdown

The past caught up with him in 2001 when he suffered a nervous breakdown, most likely triggered by heavy drug use, Knode said.

"In my mind, I married him with the idea that I was signing up for this big adventure of discovery and strangeness and mystery, and you think maybe it will make you a better writer, but all it does is make you crazy," said Knode, who currently lives in Austin, Texas, where she's working on her second book. "I could have easily been destroyed by it. I thought he was going to die. Luckily, he didn't. He pulled himself out. He's changed in some ways, but in many ways he hasn't."

One thing that's changed is his treatment of women in his books. In past works, they are beautiful, damaged creatures who stay static in the chaotic world around him. In "Rover," the primary females are stronger and more complex than they have been before. In his note to booksellers, Ellroy calls Joan, who forces his three main protagonists to review their sordid lives, his greatest female character.

Knode doesn't disagree.

"I think she's groovy," she said of Joan. "He's always had bad men fall in love with strong women, but this is the first book in which bad men fall for strong women and it changes them. I think he got that from our marriage."

Other things about Ellroy are unlikely to ever change. He is still determined to stay rooted in yesteryear (he vows that he'll never do a novel that steps out prominently beyond 1972). He can't wait to fall in love again, even though he's pretty sure future romances will lead to further "butt kickings." He still wants respect -- no matter the cost.

"I want to write the books that no one else would have the stamina to write," he said. "It's not about writing what you know. It's about writing what you think no one else is writing."

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431

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