Combustible Celluloid

Interview with James Ellroy

Harvesting the 'Black Dahlia'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Jeffrey M. Anderson: Why do you write?

James Ellroy: "In my craft or sullen art/ Exercised in the still night when only the moon rages/ And the lovers lie abed with all their griefs in their arms/ I labour by singing light;/ Not for ambition or bread/ Or the strut and trade of charm upon the ivory stages/ But for the common wages of their most secret heart./ Not for the proud man apart from the raging moon/ I write on these spin drift pages/ Nor for the towering dead with their nightingales and psalms,/ But for the lovers/ Their arms round the griefs of the ages/ Who pay no praise or wages nor heed my art or craft." - Dylan Thomas. That's my stock answer.

JMA: I'm assuming because you're here that you like this particular movie adaptation of your work. How does it stand up to L.A. Confidential?

JE: I just got lucky on this one. I also got lucky on L.A. Confidential. It's a compression of my book. It's a very lush restructuring of the basic theme of triangulation. Triads abound in my book. They've been reduced in Mr. De Palma's movie. There is the triad of Lee, Bucky and Kay; the Black Dahlia, Bucky and Kay; the Black Dahlia, Bucky and Madeline. Always one man and two women, on one occasion two men and one woman, but always threes, threes, threes. So you have a series of sexual mediaries. And the traumatized, morally dubious Bucky character caught in the middle. What especially impressed me was Josh Friedman, his construction of actually bringing Elizabeth Short into the story physically. I was against that. I thought it would be more powerful if she were only commented upon and ruminated upon. But the device that Mr. Friedman created and Mr. De Palma realized of the screen test footage that Lee gets obsessed with, worked beautifully well. And Mia Kirshner is fetching. Come on, it's Brian De Palma and it's sexual obsession, you win the lottery!

JMA: The Black Dahlia was a kind of stylistic breakthrough for you, wasn't it?

JE: It wasn't so much stylistically. But it was a breakthrough in many, many ways. It was my first best-selling novel. It's a big period novel. It is an emotional re-telling of the story of my own mother's murder. It explicated my obsession with L.A. in the forties and fifties, and obsession that began on June 22nd, 1958, the day that I heard my mother had been killed. And so here it is, 25 years almost to the day that I moved to Los Angeles -- I'm living back there now -- and I made the determination that this film tour and this book tour that I'm on right now will mark the end of autobiography, my public discourse. I've taken discussing my mother's case -- and of course I wrote a book about that as well -- and I've taken the Black Dahlia case as far as it could go. And Mr. De Palma's film marks the conclusion. That's just a gift I've been given.

JMA: This is the first in a series called the "L.A. Quartet." How do you decide it's time to continue or revisit a series like this one?

JE: I get to go back and re-write history to my own specifications. It's enormously seductive to live in the past. I know the sixties very, very well. I'm obsessed with the forties, because that's just beyond the reach of memory for me.

JMA: When you wrote your first story, where did you submit it, and how long before it was finally published?

JE: My first novel was called Brown's Requiem, no stories, no articles. I was working as a caddy at Bel Aire Country Club in Los Angeles. I had a cheap pad on the beach in Venice. I sent five copies of the manuscript to agents who advertised that they would read unsolicited manuscripts in Writer's Market 1980. They all wanted to represent the book, and I went with the man who seemed the most intelligent and aggressive. And he sold the book to Avon Books for $3500. I thought, you publish your first novel, you get a shitload of money, you get some swinging women, and a swinging sports car, and a swinging pad and clothes, and I was mistaken. The first check I got was for $1404.75. I went out and I bought I $500 junk car, paid back rent, cash for a sweater and got a call girl. And I was broke. I was ecstatic. I was published.

Age: 58
Birthplace: Los Angeles, CA
Education: John Burroughs Junior High School; Fairfax High School, Los Angeles
Favorite song, piece of music: Bruckner, "Ninth Symphony"
Biggest literary inspiration: Libra, by Don DeLillo
Most memorable book from my childhood: Compulsion, by Meyer Levin
Most meaningful line from any book or poem: "Cherchez la femme, Bucky." - James Ellroy, The Black Dahlia.

August 21, 2006

This interview also appeared in the San Francisco Examiner in a slightly different form.

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