Good Dog: James's Ellroy's Bark Is Worse than His Bite
From the May-June 2001 issue of Book magazine.
Wearing a beige cardigan and sporting round spectacles, James Ellroy looks about as dangerous as a college history professor. His spartan office (no computer or typewriter; he writes in longhand with a number two pencil) is in a Tudor-style home in an upscale suburb of Kansas City, Kansas, a long way from the Los Angeles jail cells he often inhabited during his teen years and early twenties. Ellroy, the author of L.A. Confidential and fourteen other books, is happily married, relaxed and calm. For a moment, it seems as if the self-professed "Demon Dog of American Literature" has been housebroken.
But when he leans forward, his brown eyes sighting in like the business end of a double-barreled shotgun, his six-foot-plus frame crowding in close to make a point, it's clear that anyone who doesn't want to get wounded better stay out of the line of fire.
Ellroy often punctuates his conversations with sound effects that are as sharp as the violence in his books. "Boom!" he says, tearing into a dissertation on his new novel, The Cold Six Thousand. "First two sentences of the book: 'They sent him to Dallas to kill a nigger pimp named Wendell Durfee. He wasn't sure he could do it.' What have you got? You've got a horrible situation. You've got a young man of great ambivalence, you've got 'nigger' in the first sentence. That's a warning: You don't like it? You want PC? Get yourself another book, 'cause you ain't gonna find it here."
That's more like it. That's "The Dog" (as his close friends call him) that longtime fans and readers know. Ellroy, fifty-two, is famous for his readings and appearances, where he's been known to call his readers and fans perverts and panty sniffers. His onstage high jinks have ranged from howling out loud to simulating masturbation. In the past, worries about offending potential readers were dismissed with offhanded and
profane remarks. And his telephone answering machine greeted people by announcing him as the "Demon Dog of Crime Fiction." Eventually, the greeting was modified to the "Demon Dog of American Literature." These days, it's simply, "This is James Ellroy. Leave a message after the tone."
Perhaps with literary legacies in mind, Ellroy seems to be more reticent about his larger-than-life public persona. He has been purposefully separating himself from the constraints of genre fiction, stating that he is trying to destroy genre strictures and that he'll never write another book that can be categorized as crime fiction. "If you have to subdivide me as a novelist," he says, "I would say I'm a historical novelist."
Ellroy's own history reads like something out of one his novels: His mother, whom he despised, was murdered when he was only ten years old; he spent years popping drugs, living on the streets, and committing petty crimes; and finally he cleaned himself up, turning to writing as he supported himself caddying at posh L.A. country clubs.
Ellroy detailed those years and the search for his mother's killer in his candid 1996 memoir, My Dark Places. Since he debuted with Brown's Requiem in 1981, praise about the writer has come fast and furious. His early work was influenced by Dashiell Hammett and Joseph Wambaugh, and though he adopted the noir style, he blended in the social history of L.A. He calls himself a Brahms to Don DeLillo's Beethoven. Others might compare his staccato sentences and no-frills style of writing to the down-and-dirty style of Kansas City jazz. (Ellroy, who has been married to writer Helen Knode for nine years, claimed Kansas City as his new hometown after a visit to meet his future mother-in-law.)
The tough, punchy style that is Ellroy's trademark has an interesting origin. Nat Soble, Ellroy's longtime friend and agent, was ready to deliver the manuscript of L.A. Confidential in 1989 when Soble got a call from an editor at Warner Books telling him it had to be cut by 30 percent -- sight unseen -- because the size would prohibit any profits, even in paperback. When Soble made a joking remark about cutting out all the small words (ands buts), Ellroy was struck by lightning. He took the manuscript home that night and returned with a leaner book and a brand-new style. "All of a sudden we had this incredible style that matched the violence of the book," Soble recalls. "And James has never looked back since. That editor, unbeknownst to her, really helped crystallize the style that started with L.A. Confidential."
But what crystallized the Demon Dog persona? Is it all an act, or is it a vestige of days spent guarding himself from more hurt? That's anyone's guess. But Bill Stoner, the former homicide detective from the Los Angeles Sheriff's Unsolved Office whom Ellroy enlisted to help with his memoir, says Ellroy's public persona is at odds with his real personality. "When I first met him, he was so cavalier about his mother's death and his relationship with her -- I wasn't sure I even wanted to work with the guy! I could just see him going up to some eighty-year-old woman and saying, 'Hey bitch, give it up!' As it turned out, he was as gracious as can be. Looking back, in retrospect, I can see he was in shock. And as the investigation went on, I slowly watched a man fall in love with his mother. We grew closer and closer, almost like brothers. He's one of the most generous and loving people I've ever met."
Kansas City next-door neighbor Lee Major thinks the Demon Dog is just shtick, that his friend Ellroy is "a pretty straitlaced type of guy." Soble sees it a little differently. "That is his persona," he says. "If there is anything that can be done to improve his book, he will do it. If there is anything that can be done to help sell his book, he will do it." Soble believes that Ellroy is like "the underdog trying to get greater acceptance from the reading public."
"It's an expression of natural exuberance," Ellroy says. "Since I know how to perform in front of audiences, and since I'm an accomplished public speaker, then I owe it to the people who came to see me, who came out on a cold winter night or a hot summer night to get their books signed, to give them a bit of a show. Doing this disingenuous number where you hem and haw and you play inarticulate, and you stumble over your words and you do everything in your power to appear meek and humble, just isn't me. I'd rather go in there and burn the audience down, give them something to go home with." (Dorman T. Shindler)