Barney Chats with James Ellroy

Literary Lion (or Demon Dog) of American Crime Fiction Writes from Experience

Barney with James Ellroy
Sue De Lapa

Demon Dog: Novelist James Ellroy, lanky, bald, dressed as if he were ready to take out the garbage, slouched against the wall and told me how he can’t type and doesn’t have a TV, cell phone, or computer.

The author of L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia writes everything longhand.

Yet there he was, an ex-jailbird about to receive the Santa Barbara Book & Author Festival’s Ross Macdonald Literary Award last weekend, quite an honor considering how high Macdonald (Ken Millar) stands in the town’s pantheon of authors. Of Macdonald, Ellroy told me: “He’s the master of the private detective novel.”

On the Beat

While the late Macdonald’s style was smooth and literary, Ellroy’s is hard-boiled and hits hard, in staccato wording and incomplete sentences. He’s known as the “demon dog” of American crime fiction.

Before walking off with his ex-wife from the Arts & Letters gallery reception, Ellroy whispered to me a colorful, scatalogical profile of the two main presidential candidates and their running mates that even I am reluctant to put in print. Ellroy is quite a piece of work. As a boy, his mother was murdered, an unsolved killing that in some ways mirrors the sensational Black Dahlia case. As a teen and young man, he hit the bottle hard, pulled off some burglaries, and spent time behind bars.

His mother’s murder, and a book of sensational cases from the files of the L.A. P.D. (a gift from his father) sparked his imagination. He eventually sobered up and supported himself by caddying at L.A. country clubs to allow time for writing. Not until his sixth book was published did he quit the links and the tax-free tips, Ellroy told me.

Here’s a writer with work ethic. Preparing for his newest book, a “huge historical novel,” Blood’s a Rover, he wrote out a 397-page outline, then a 911-page manuscript. It’s set for publication in the fall of 2009 and a 10,000-word excerpt will be published by Playboy on November 10. Ellroy puts his stuff down in block capitals. An assistant sends it all to the East Coast via fax or FedEx for typing. “I don’t know how to type. I work five, six, seven days a week and some nights.

“All my books have been optioned for movies,” and several got made. Others not, but he still gets the option money. “They pay me for nothing.”

I bumped into fellow author Barnaby Conrad and asked what he thought of Ellroy’s work and his action-packed, punchy sentences that would send English teachers screaming. “I find it compelling,” Conrad said of the style. “It’s weird.” Then he told of Ellroy’s appearance at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference a few years ago. “He looked out at the audience and pointed to a group of grey-haired women. He said, ‘You and you and you are going to get laid tonight.’ He’s a maverick.”

I didn’t see Ellroy take a drink but I heard that he prepped for the night with a quadruple espresso from Starbucks. The reception over, Ellroy strolled off with his ex-wife, Helen Knode, author of the 2003 novel The Ticket Out. All divorced couples should be so friendly.


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.