Not much has changed since Time Out caught up with James Ellroy back in December 2009. He’s still smart, stern, to the point and, above all, obsessive. He lets few things get in the way of his passions, chief among them women and crime. A proud Luddite, he famously claims never to have used a computer – instead preferring to compile vast stacks of notes that are eventually transformed into best-selling books such as The Black Dahlia and LA Confidential.
Ellroy’s new memoir, The Hilliker Curse, ties together his most well-trodden themes while also touching on his mother’s murder and his subsequent experience with what he calls the ‘divine presence’ of women.
What’s your writing process like?
I’ve spent many years laying in the dark thinking; it’s my primary activity. I’m extremely single-minded; I believe in the process of germination and minute reconstruction. I have a way of going about this: I don’t
have a computer and am computer-illiterate; I’ve never used a computer. I have an assistant, a woman who works for me, that has a computer.
I don’t have a cellphone. I don’t go to movies. I don’t watch TV. I have very few friends. I have no family. I spend most of my nights alone. I like to lie in the dark and think. And I’ve done this for half a century. I think. I think about women, I think about American history, I think about classical music. I’m quite fixated on Beethoven. I’m a brooder. I’m a thinker. I’m a recollector. I’m a plotter. I’m a planner. I’m meticulous. I’m diligent.
You’ve written a previous memoir (1996’s My Dark Places). Is it a different process for you to write a memoir versus a novel?
I put this book together almost to dot the Is and cross the Ts. This is how I work and have worked with all of my novels, my two memoirs and all the journalism I’ve done, [plus the] television and film scripts that I’ve written. It’s a wonderful, painstaking way to go about it. I suspect very few people are as capable of doing this as I am. And I’m good at it. And man, I like it. I was born to live obsessively and single-mindedly, as I write in the book… It’s only natural that my love of social history, my criminal past, my worship of classical music, my very, very deep, traumatically formed attachment to women should all cohere in my imagination, in my soul, at this point of my life, and of course I wrote the book… You have to tell the truth, whereas in a novel you do not. The outline for this book – which is my shortest full-length book – was abbreviated compared with the outlines for the novels, which are immense.
How much fact-checking do you have to do in a memoir?
There was none. I have a very, very fine memory enhanced by all that time in the dark. I went out of my way not to dump on any of the women. There’s nothing sleazy in that book. I erred on the side of honour in my depictions of the women. Morally, I’m covered. And I’m sure there will be plenty of people out there who think I’m just nothing but a predator with a thing for tall redheads. And they’re entitled to their opinion, however wrong.
You said The Hilliker Curse was good fun to write. Are you proud of what you’ve portrayed?
I’m proud of the book. I think it’ll be a controversial book; there are people who will love it and people who will hate it. I always would prefer fawning magnanimity. I very rarely get it.
Do you think that loving and hating the book is a necessary contrast?
It’s essential to the book. I make no bones in stating my belief in God. I make no bones about stating my conservative political beliefs that run counter to the times, at least in the artistic community. There are people who will get it, there are people who won’t. You can put it out there for people to read; you can put it out there for people to analyse, scrutinise, review. Do they get it? Who knows? At a certain point you realise (I realised 20 years ago) that nobody’s going to get it like I get it. It’s okay.
The Hilliker Curse is published by Heinemann.