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James Ellroy Chronicles the Crimes of the Leg-breakers Who Made America Great

Master of Fiction


He’s called himself the Tolstoy of crime fiction. Not only is he right, it sounds like he’s about to publish his War and Peace. James Ellroy, author of three epic historical novel series set among the toughest hombres in Southern California, Las Vegas, and points east and west, will be in town on Friday to speak at Victoria Hall and to accept the 2008 Ross Macdonald Award for “a California writer whose work raises the standard of literary excellence” from the Santa Barbara Books Council as part of the Book & Author Festival. I spoke with Ellroy recently about his next book, Blood’s a Rover (Knopf, 2009), his working methods and goals, and his prurient interest in Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

James Ellroy

Tell me what’s going on. I have a new book coming out. It’s the third in the “Underground USA” series. It’s called Blood’s a Rover-that’s an A. E. Housman quote, from the poem “Reveille”-and Knopf will publish it in fall of 2009. This December, Playboy is going to run a ten-thousand-word excerpt. That will hit the stands on November 10.

It sounds like you are happy about this. Yeah, I feel good about it. The story goes from the summer of 1968, which is when The Cold Six Thousand left off, through to May of 1972. This is the big one. I wrote a seven-hundred-page book this time.

The character you created out of J. Edgar Hoover in the earlier books was so great. Will there be more of him? Hoover’s in this one too, and so is Howard Hughes. And this is the era of Tricky Dick Nixon, so he’s in it quite a lot, along with Papa Doc Duvalier and Rafael Trujillo. There’s a lot of stuff about the Dominican Republic and Haiti and the Americans who were involved there.

Do you have a historical research process that you follow? No, I make a lot of it up. I take what history I do know, and then I extrapolate. When I have written something, sometimes I hire researchers, and they take what I have done and check it to make sure that it doesn’t get me into trouble.

An Evening with James Ellroy

  • When: Friday, September 26, 2008, 7:30 p.m.
  • Where: Victoria Hall Theater, 33 W. Victoria St., Santa Barbara
  • Cost: $5
  • Age limit: Not available

Full event details

Your protagonists don’t tend to fall neatly into the categories of hero or villain, and they aren’t really anti-heroes either. What do your characters mean to you? Well, I like the idea that there is this human infrastructure to American history, and that lots of big historical events couldn’t have happened without these leg-breakers that I write about doing violent things in the background. That’s what I set out to write-the stories of the men and women behind the scenes who did the dirty work of American power.

These leg-breakers of yours really are fascinating. Why is that do you suppose? Well, I think you root for them because you dig these guys, you’re on their side. They’re tough, they fight back, and they like women. All those things go together to make up their appeal.

Any feelings about the election? I’d like to see McCain win, not because I believe in any of the things he is saying-I don’t, because I think he’s mad, and what he says is ridiculous. It’s just that I want him in the White House to give liberals something more to be pissed off about.

The Democrats have got to do something or they will definitely be sore when there’s another Republican in the White House. And the Democrats, they’re so funny when they’re angry. Look at Obama. Doesn’t he look like a ringtail lemur? You know, around the eyes and the ears? And then Joe Biden plays like a furious Daffy Duck to McCain’s blind Mr. Magoo. But, hey, admit it, you would do Sarah Palin, wouldn’t you?

Um, uh : sure, I guess. Have you been looking at the glamour shots of her that are on the Internet? I don’t use a computer. Tell me though, what is she wearing?

Platform heels, fishnet stockings, leather miniskirts-that kind of thing. I love it. It’s like Alaska is this other country that’s actually more American than America.

I read somewhere that you have a way of describing how you have reversed, or maybe just left behind the traditional formula for conflict in the crime novel. Do you recognize what I am talking about? Yes, I do. The idea is that the traditional formula in crime fiction is an individual in conflict with authority, but I’m writing about bad men doing bad things for authority, on behalf of authority. I’m not trying to do anything to the other tradition. I am just writing about what interests me. It’s what I prefer.

Have you got any feeling for the name on your award, Ross Macdonald? Sure, he’s great. Ross Macdonald was a good one-a good writer and a morose guy.

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James Ellroy will be at Victoria Hall Theater on Friday, September 26 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.

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