An Evening with James Ellroy

L.A.  noir novelist James Ellroy accepted the Ross Macdonald Literary Award in front of  a hundred spectators on Sept. 26 at Victoria Hall Theatre in Santa Barbara. Ellroy learned to write crime from Macdonald’s stories about private detective Lew Archer, he said in his speech.

"I learned how to take very, very big stories and mold them down to comprehension," Ellroy said. "I learned how to take the loner hero here and elsewhere, while I learned more than anything else out of taking Lew Archer’s lovelessness and give it a voice of passion."

Ellroy, tall and pale in a white polo shirt, was standing alone in front of a big red curtain. "Good evening, peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty sniffers, punks and pimps," he said. From the first row, it was obvious that his breath smelled of wine.

Ellroy is best known for his crime novels about Hollywood in the ’40s and ’50s in the so-called L.A. Quartet: The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1990), and White Jazz (1992). Many of his books have been rendered to the white screen. L.A. Confidential was adapted for an acclaimed Warner Brothers motion picture of the same title in 1997. It won two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress (Kim Basinger) and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Ellroy mentioned that he had written 16 bestsellers, "masterpieces all." And he quoted himself from another event: "These are books for the whole family, if the name of your family is the Manson family." Repeatedly, he tried to challenge the good taste. He introduced himself as "the king of American literature," told a dirty joke, and ended his speech by calling himself a Marxist. The audience responded with applauses or laughter, depending on the situation.

Macdonald’s fictional city Santa Teresa is "the spot, where we are standing and sitting right now," Ellroy said. "Geography is destiny." He compared his mother, Jean Ellroy (maiden name Geneva Hilliker), a wartime navy nurse, to Macdonald. They both were of two countries. She was from Scotland, and he grew up in Canada, although he was born in California. According to Ellroy, she rose to the same military rank as Macdonald.

Ellroy also described similarities between his mother and Elizabeth Short, a young woman who wanted to become a Hollywood actress, portrayed in his break-through novel from 1987, The Black Dahlia. They both lived in the Los Angeles area, where unknown perpetrators brutally killed them. "Geneva Hilliker unconsciously moved to California to fulfill her horrible destiny," he said. "We’re all as one."

At the end of the event, Ellroy invited the audience to ask questions. People wanted to know about his fictional characters, LAPD, background research, the movies, and his way to treat women. Someone wondered whether he had borrowed a theme from Michael Connelly.

Ellroy said that he hadn’t read him at that time and that Connelly was "about eight years younger." According to Ellroy, Connelly had called him and asked for permission to borrow a theme from one of his novels. "I do not hold the patent on murdered mothers," he had said to Connelly.

"Doesn’t anyone want to ask me why I write?" Ellroy said. Scattered voices in the audience shouted back: "Yeah, why do you write? Why do you write?" He pulled out a paper and started to read a slightly modified version of "In My Craft or Sullen Art" by Dylan Thomas:

In my art or sullen craft
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms
I labor by singing light
Not for stock and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Ellroy’s spech opened the 10th Annual Santa Barbara Book & Author Festival on Sept. 26. Chair Member Kate Schwab handed Ellroy the award, a glass relief. She alluded to Reinhard Jud’s 1993 documentary, when she referred to Ellroy as "the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction." And she told how she had met him in a bookstore in Minneapolis "about 16 years ago," when he was signing his latest novel. "In my book collection, White Jazz is one of my prized possessions," Schwab said.

The Ross Macdonald Literary Award each year goes to "a California writer whose work raises the standard of literary excellence." Ray Bradbury and Dean Koontz are among earlier recipients.

SBBF and UCSB Arts & Lectures sponsored the event, which was called "An Evening with James Ellroy." It started 7:30 p.m. and lasted less than an hour.

© Torgny Lilja (2008)