4 de desembre de 2014

JAMES ELLROY INTERVIEW: HOW I CREATE WORD-PERFECT WORKS OF ART

[The Big Issue, 3 december 2014]

Jane Graham


"I think. I yearn. For history, for women. I talk to imaginary animals..." Inside the mind of noir king James Ellroy
 
James Ellroy lives alone. He likes silence. He dislikes the chatter, the white-noise mumble, of the modern world. He doesn’t have a mobile phone or a television. The only music he listens to is classical, and not when he’s working. He’s a brooder but not an especially melancholy one. And he’s never lonely – he has his imaginary tiger to talk to.

“He comes up to me and says, ‘What’s shakin’ baby’, and I say, ‘Hey tiger, what’s up baby, gimme some stripe’.” The king of hardboiled American crime fiction – shaven head, pencil-thin lips, penetrating gaze – smiles affectionately to himself. He likes this quirky James Ellroy character, an eccentric out-of-time curiosity.

I like to talk out loud to myself, ‘Hey baby, what’s up?’

“I’m not messing with you. I don’t read a lot any more. I think. I yearn. I yearn for history, I yearn for women. I like to talk out loud to myself, ‘Hey baby, what’s up?’ I talk to imaginary animals. I don’t have any real animals. I had dogs but they’re at my ex-wife’s.”

What becomes clear, fairly rapidly, when you interview James Ellroy face to face, is that this man knows himself. Top dawg of a modern literary canon he virtually invented with his first LA Quartet – including the darkly glamorous and eye-poppingly violent The Black Dahlia and LA Confidential – Ellroy is not given to outbursts. He doesn’t fish around for the end of sentences.
He speaks with a contained, laidback swagger, like a confident actor delivering familiar lines he approves of. If he’s a self-made creation, it seems an almost bulletproof one. Despite a potentially psychologically crippling personal history – his mother murdered when he was 10, an adolescence of homelessness and crime, an adulthood of drink and drugs, a sad divorce – there ain’t no cracks. Not that you can see anyway. Make of that what you will.
“I like to control my environment. I check into a hotel, the first thing I do is lay out everything; the $20 dollar tip; my razor so I can shave in the morning; my clothes for the next day. I clean my glasses. When I get back all I have to do is bathe, make a few phone calls to America and then I can get up at dawn and get out of there. I’m always looking forward, like the animal in its den.”
And unsurprisingly for an author whose style – which has in turn employed the rhythms of beat poetry, oratory, rap and machine gun-fire (the short staccato form he’s famous for, he witheringly tells me, he stopped using 13 years ago) – has been studied and imitated more than any living crime writer, Ellroy leaves as much to chance in his writing as he does in his hotel room.
“First, I create an overarching superstructure,” begins the description of habit he has evidently enjoyed fetishising. “The outline for my new novel Perfidia [the first of his planned second LA quartet] was 700 pages. In 10 months I will be able to tell you, within 25 pages, the page number of every event in the next one.

I will never write flabbily or discursively. It might take me 10 minutes to get a sentence right

"I will never write flabbily or discursively. It might take me 10 minutes to get a sentence right. I want to write huge, complex novels that are word-perfect works of art.”

You want to be the Flaubert of crimewriting.
“My model for this is Beethoven,” he says intently. “His string quartets are inexplicable, they’re otherworldy, they’re as fresh today as they were in 1825. I want that to be me.”
He is fixated with America’s past, perhaps because it can’t jump up and bite him. Writing about LA during Word War Two, as he does in Perfidia, was not a difficult choice. “LA in 1941 was a fear-driven, exuberant party,” he says, with some pride.
“Franklin Roosevelt was a chicken shit to Winston Churchill – Churchill said you can always trust America to do the right thing after it’s tried everything else. But by 1941 we’re finally in the war. It’s a time of love and hate. And a time to indulge libido.”
And he talks about the parties he’s dreamt up in Perfidia, frequented by the likes of Bette Davis, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Salvador Dali, who brings his pet leopard to eat spare ribs off Basie’s plate. This is the steamy, sexy, outrageous self-made universe Ellroy gets a kick out of, and his army of dedicated followers will wallow in it with equal pleasure.
He has the next three novels forming in his head. I ask if he’s afraid of dying before he finishes them. He says he’s “not prone to waste time”. But, I urge, sadistically, if you never lose the urge to write, you’re going to die one day with an untold story in your head. Does that drive you crazy?
“No…” he says. Then… “I will need to… Uh… yeah, actually, that idea does drive me crazy.” He frowns, then laughs. Aye, as Shakespeare almost said, there’s the chink.
Perfidia (William Heinemann, £18.99), by James Ellroy, is out now in hardback

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