Novelist James Ellroy

Legendary crime writer shares the painful childhood story that led to his troubled relationship with women, as told in his new memoir.

Crime writer James Ellroy is often called an American master. His best-selling novels include a series that would become known as "The L.A. Quartet"—The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential being two that have been adapted into feature films. The Los Angeles native worked as a golf caddy while pursuing writing and overcame the tragedy of his mother's murder, which was the basis of his '96 memoir, My Dark Places. His latest book, The Hilliker Curse, is being described as a raw, riveting, high intensity and brutally candid memoir.



Tavis: Pleased to welcome James Ellroy back to this program. The award-winning writer of books like “L.A. Confidential,” “The Black Dahlia” is out with a new memoir called “The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women.” James Ellroy, good to have you back on this program.
James Ellroy: Tavis, it’s good to be here. (Laughter)
Tavis: I’m not even going to – never mind.
Ellroy: After the show we’ll talk.
Tavis: Yeah, I’ll tell you – I can’t even tell the audience that. Anyway, how you been?
Ellroy: I’ve been good, yeah.
Tavis: It’s good to see you, good to see you.
Ellroy: Yeah, because I wrote that book.
Tavis: Yeah, and this is quite a book, “The Hilliker Curse.” Let me just set this conversation up this way. You’re 10 years old.
Ellroy: Right.
Tavis: On your tenth birthday your mother asked you who you’d rather live with. I should back up – your parents are divorced and your mom comes to you on your tenth birthday and says, “Little James, who would you rather live with?” And you say –
Ellroy: “My dad.”
Tavis: “My dad.”
Ellroy: Yeah.
Tavis: What happens next?
Ellroy: She gives me a big whack on the snout, fall off, gouge my head on the glass coffee table, call her a drunken whore. She hits me again; blood comes out of the cut. She’s getting ready to do it again, and I had read a book, a library book, wholesome kids’ book about spells and witchcrafts and elixirs and curses several months earlier – Christmas ’57 – and I knew, at least I thought I knew in my kid mind, the power of formal malediction, and I wished my mother dead. Coincidentally, she was murdered three months later. This is the story of my guilt, my search for atonement, and women and I.
Tavis: All right, let’s unpack this now. So you’re 10, you wish your mother dead; she is literally murdered three months later.
Ellroy: Mm-hmm.
Tavis: What’s inside your head then? What are you going through at that age when your mother is murdered?
Ellroy: Well, there’s the old joke of the 1950s, and we’re talking about 1958 now – I want to find the guy who invented sex and ask him what he’s working on now.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs)
Ellroy: So I’ve never strayed too far from that, just as the metaphysic of my life, and I like women and I’ve been with a bunch of them, and I have a pure, pure heart. I’m a Christian, I’m always looking for “the woman,” but looking for the woman will get you, as I’m sure you either know or sense, in a lot of trouble.
Tavis: So I’ve heard.
Ellroy: Yeah, (laughter) between you and the right woman are a lot of the wrong women.
Tavis: Yeah, so I’ve heard. (Laughs)
Ellroy: There’s a significant literature on this – musical literature, television literature, film literature, book literature, and this is my version of that.
Tavis: How, though, at 10 – and maybe you did – how at 10, when your mother is murdered, do you not crash and burn then? Why aren’t you crazy right now?
Ellroy: Kids are astonishingly resilient, and I took refuge in books. It was that last gasp of pre-public accountability America. It’s the late 1950s, all kinds of social hoo-hah is brewing, but I’m a kid with $1.98, my dad was poor, but I also had three hots and a cot and a book to read and a window to peep in, and I lived on the edge of Korea Town, which also borders Hancock Park here in L.A.
So here I live in a crummy pad with my dad, but two, three blocks away you’ve got all the prep school girls in those beautiful houses, and I started going nuts. But I’ve always had a strong, strong will to be happy and to fixate, and I just started thinking about what things mean.
I’m a brooder, and I suspect you might be too. You like to lie around in the dark and think.
Tavis: We are – many of us, at least – are on this search for the right woman. In between here and the right woman, as you said earlier, you find a bunch of the wrong women. But how much of that search for you, for James Ellroy, had to do with just being a man and growing into adulthood versus being connected to what happened to your mother. Is there a connection there?
Ellroy: There is, but I can’t separate the general biological significance attributable to maleness from the traumatic influence of my mother’s death. I was already a seasoned brooder and watcher and reader and from that point on a fixated thinker. I only think about a very, very few things – women, chiefly – and so after two marriages, a crack-up, numerous relationships, some stupid male adventures, I finally meet the woman near the end of writing that book, and that’s astonishing to me.
Tavis: And you’re still with this woman?
Ellroy: Erica Shickle (sp), yes, I am.
Tavis: Why call it “The Hilliker Curse?”
Ellroy: Because that was the formal issue of the summons to death. I considered it in my mind to be the Hilliker curse. I was stigmatized by my mother’s return to her maiden name. After she dumped my dad, she dumped the Ellroy and became a Hilliker once more. So what I am, since I feel more like a Hilliker than an Ellroy, is a man with a female surname.
Tavis: Was your dad aware, did you confess to your dad this longing that you had for your mother to be dead?
Ellroy: No.
Tavis: So your dad was unaware of this.
Ellroy: Yeah, he was unaware of it. He was a lazy, permissive man, very, very good-natured man, but would not crack the whip on me. I wanted to be with him because I got away with more kid woo-woo. No, he didn’t know any of this. He hated my mother because my mother had his number, so we were both just quietly relieved.
Tavis: How did the rest of the adolescent period go with you and your dad?
Ellroy: He was negligent; he was never actively mean in any way. I was largely left alone to roam, look in windows, get a half-baked public school education and read. Read, read, read, listen to classical music, watch boxing on TV, develop mentally and harbor the dreams of being a great writer. Not discouraged, not encouraged.
Tavis: You’ve come back to this notion of reading a number of times in this conversation. Every time I’ve talked to you it comes through so loud and so clear, with such clarity that reading saved you, reading, reading, reading. What’s our appreciation or value or lack thereof today for reading, for the written word?
Ellroy: The computer is a barrage of imagery that often includes written words that have to be scrolled down. It’s not the same as the active act of discourse in picking up a book – a book with a storyline, an arc of character, an intent, and being alone with yourself with a lamp and a chair and getting into it.
It’s a very active pursuit in a way that motion pictures, television and electronic interaction, like all these messed-up kids with the attention spans of cockroaches going around texting each other as they’re walking across the street, trying to avoid being hit by cars, and they have their friends right there that they can be talking to.
Tavis: I’m told, at least, that you pretty much eschew computers, television, radio. True? You pretty much –
Ellroy: I have a boom box at home that has good stereophonic sound. I listen to classical music.
Tavis: There’s an old word for you – a “boom box.” (Laughter)
Ellroy: That’s what people – I have a fax machine, too, and a boom box. A fax machine.
Tavis: Fax – I haven’t had a fax machine in, what, 20 years. You’ve got a fax machine and a boom box.
Ellroy: And a boom box.
Tavis: You’re coming along, James. You’re coming right along.
Ellroy: Yeah, I’m coming along. I’m coming along. I’ve got a Model T, too.
Tavis: Okay. (Laughs)
Ellroy: A rotary phone. But I have to watch stimulation in the world, so if I’m driving over from Erica’s pad, so going over the edge of Hollywood to the edge of La Cienega and Pico, there’s streets I avoid because it’s nothing but posters for giant bloodsucker movies or white trash bounty hunter TV shows or teenage, bombed-out boys on marijuana comedies, and garish, garish kids.
Tavis: So hold on – you navigate your way around this city by what you do and don’t want to see?
Ellroy: That’s right.
Tavis: Wow.
Ellroy: I’ve got a very fine mind, and I’m tenuously anchored to the world. I need to be back in that dark den with my woman, Erica Shickle, my bust of Beethoven on the shelf. Look out there – hm? Pit bull’s looking out the window.
Tavis: Is that possible for all of us, to find that woman that can accept us for who we are, as we are?
Ellroy: Yes, and you must find her extraordinary and live in the sense of her as extraordinary. She must make you feel extraordinary and you must find her extraordinary, and the two of you must go on a mission of find the truth together, interactively, collaboratively, and it’s a gas.
Tavis: This bliss that I seem to feel and see coming off of you, this radiance, does this make this worth it?
Ellroy: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
Tavis: You said that with supreme confidence.
Ellroy: Absolutely.
Tavis: This is a whole lot here. You went through a heck of a journey to get to this.
Ellroy: Yeah, and the issue of men and women is defined by the fact for you to find the woman, you have to undergo some self-inflicted and woman-inflicted (unintelligible) first. You may not enjoy them as they’re transpiring, but you may enjoy them – there’s always that edge to it. (Laughter) Yeah. As the Grass Roots sang, sooner or later, love is going to get you.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs) Who needs Dr. Phil? I got Dr. Ellroy.
Ellroy: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right.
Tavis: I got this thing all figured out, and who knew it would come courtesy of a journey told in a powerful story? We’ve laughed and had some serious moments here, but it’s quite a story, the life of James Ellroy. It’s told through this book now, “The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women,” a memoir.
So James, what are we going to – this is one of those inside kind of stories. Every time James is on the show it seems that we end up trading something. He’s the only guest I’ve ever done this with. We end up trading something. So you sent me a box of goodies, and I –
Ellroy: And you sent me some cashmere sweaters.
Tavis: And I sent you some cashmere sweaters. So what are we going to trade this time?
Ellroy: Well, we’ve both got the pinstripe suit, and we can’t trade that, we’re different sizes.
Tavis: Yeah, we’ll figure something out. We’ll figure something out.
Ellroy: Yeah, we’ll figure something out.
Tavis: We’ll figure something out, all right, all right. I’ll talk to you soon.
Ellroy: Yeah. I’m writing as fast as I can.
Tavis: All right, thanks. (Laughter)
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Last modified: August 11, 2014 at 11:28 pm