James Ellroy

By
Photography Marco Grob

Published September 9, 2014

James Ellroy was born in Los Angeles in 1948. His parents were, he says, “uncommonly good looking.” Their relationship was ugly. Ellroy sided with Pops and, when the boy was 10, prayed for his mother’s death. Three months later, on June 22, 1958, his mother, Geneva “Jean” Hilliker, was found beaten, with signs of sexual assault, and strangled to death. The crime has never been solved, and Ellroy’s guilt—his feeling that he brought about his mother’s death—has never diminished.

In his haunted adolescence, the lonely Ellroy read obsessively. He acted out in class and obsessed over film noir and TV’s The Fugitive. He broke into the homes of his coed classmates to steal panties and drugs. He lusted. He grieved for his mother. These streams of yearning crossed, and Ellroy pined double-time, for sex, and for a ghost.

After he was expelled from high school in 1965, Ellroy made a brief foray into the Army. He came home just in time to watch his father die. A still lonelier Ellroy now turned still more heavily to booze and dope. The peeping continued, ditto the reading, the fantasizing. At 30, Ellroy put his fantasies on paper and, while working as a golf caddy, started sublimating full time. His own obsessions and depravity became that of his protagonists—and his mother and the women who eluded him, inspiration for their lovers, their victims.

The great novels that resulted from his early work form “The L.A. Quartet,” The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1990), and White Jazz (1992). These books made Ellroy famous—the movies adapted from L.A. Confidential (1997) and The Black Dahlia (2006), more so. In writing them he found his voice. He became a master of plotting, and refined his prose to a glinting, guttural extreme. Peopled with dozens of characters, and written in a variety of voices, slangs, and even tabloid jargon, this series may be the ne plus ultra of noir, grittier than Chandler, more operatic than Hammett, and more violent even than Cain.

Emboldened by these successes, Ellroy broadened his canvas to the whole of America and beyond. The staggering novels that make up “The Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy” of his middle period, 1995’s American Tabloid, 2001’s The Cold Six Thousand, and 2009’s Blood’s a Rover, are an epic crime saga, weaving several narrative threads through America’s bloody mid-century: The hits on JFK, MLK, RFK; Vietnam; Hoover, the Mob, the CIA, Cuba, the Beard, heroin, and Howard Hughes; all led by a series of unforgettable characters in the Ellroy mold-broken, dissolute, obsessive.

And obsession is the fuel for Ellroy’s great narrative bonfires. Male or female, real or imaginary, his characters yearn and burn. His characters reel. His characters latch on to idée fixes like lifesavers, and hold tight. His characters flail, they hate, they spew racism, misogyny. His characters are, in and of themselves, a provocation from a self-professed provocateur. But even though his world is full of the power-hungry, the power-mad, and those deranged by the weight of their power, his characters care less about amassing strength, clout, or information, than they do in unburdening themselves. They don’t want to lock up and hoard, they want release, through sex, through drugs, through violence. And Ellroy whittles their thoughts and actions into sentences the way others do shivs—lean, brutalist, and intended to puncture, to penetrate.

Living and working in Los Angeles now, Ellroy, at 66, says he is in his prime, doing the best work of his life. Presently that work is the beginning of the “Second L.A. Quartet,” a prequel to his two famous series, linking his best books and his most loved characters. The first novel in this new series, Perfidia, out this month from Knopf, opens in the days before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and reintroduces us to the bent copper Dudley Smith (famously played by James Cromwell in L.A. Confidential), and a 21-year-old Kay Lake (who would become the woman played by Scarlett Johansson in the Black Dahlia film). Perfidia is a massive love story loaded with all the racial and sexual tension of Ellroy’s best, and draped across the kind of byzantine crime plot for which he earned his fame.

Ellroy met me at a hotel in downtown Manhattan one morning last May. He wore a Hawaiian shirt, chinos, and sparklingly new kiltie spectators. He spoke as you might expect—this moment as a ’50s hepcat, then as an erudite historian, and now like a ’30s tabloid gossip—”reveling in the language of other times,” as he says. We ordered hamburgers and black coffee and talked about … well, everything. 

CHRIS WALLACE: I’ve been re-reading your memoirs, My Dark Places and The Hilliker Curse, which are more explicit than I remember about the sort of narrative genetics of your fiction—just how directly this stuff comes from your life. In the new novel, Perfidia, the psychiatrist Kay Lake is seeing asks her, “Do you see the exterior world as a manifestation of your thoughts?”

JAMES ELLROY: I do. And I think you do, too. I’ve created a narrative of the world. I live in the world—tenuously, most times. [Wallace laughs] I’ve avoided the digital world. I don’t have a cellphone or a computer. I deliberately circumscribe my mental life within the periods that I write about, and the power of Perfidia is that it’s the result of complete immersion. I was there for the two years that it took me to write that book.

WALLACE: “There,” as in the trance state, which you describe in The Hilliker Curse as “a world we can’t see. It exists separately and concurrently with the real world. You enter this world by offering prayer and incantation.” So the work is a sort of transcription of that meditation?

ELLROY: It is.

WALLACE: Have you been following the stories around the killings near UC Santa Barbara? I thought it would be interesting  to get your read on it because you’re so adept at male obsession, writing about people right out at their frontier, when they start to crack.

ELLROY: Think about being that age, or thereabouts. I was 19 in the Summer of Love, when there was one stunning, long-haired, un-brassiered, un-made-up, un-nail-polished hippie goddess after another. I was dying of impacted longing and 19-year-old hormones. I was a virgin. I could have gotten laid in a whorehouse, but I was and am a religious person and I came of age in an age of chivalry. I would have sobbing fits because I had no love. All you have to do, really, is transpose that state of being to the present with all the internet pornography, with 40 years of evolving mores, and then take this individual, whatever his former influences were—Hollywood kid, right? director’s son—whatever his brain chemistry is. He’s 22 and completely fucked up. He’s wrapped up with these girls because they look a certain way, because they comported themselves in a certain way. He developed fantasy relationships with them. He was driven by a self-destructive urge. Guys like this—who go out and kill like that—are, in effect, committing suicide. And that’s what he did.

WALLACE: I consider you to be a tough, confrontational, and important writer on race. Do you feel as though that’s part of your métier?

ELLROY: It’s very much a part of my métier. When I created Perfidia, I saw it as a parallel-race shit here [domestic, internecine], race shit there [international, jingoistic]. In the time just before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when Perfidia opens, we were pre-psychologized. There were no concepts of identity, no politics of victimization. Reparation wasn’t in the language. Nobody thought about giving the great grandchildren of black slaves so much as $1.98. And all of a sudden the bombs hit, interventionism versus isolationism became a dead issue, and it was us-versus-them in a heartbeat. The lunatic populism that preceded the Pearl Harbor bombing is astonishing in its permutations, its crisscrossings. Guys like [Catholic priest and controversial radio broadcaster] Father Coughlin and [racist and anti-Semitic agitator and founder of the Christian Nationalist Crusade] Gerald L.K. Smith started out as share-the-wealth socialists. And the only forms of socialism in the world that were then getting results—malign ones, as it was—were the Fascist and Soviet republics. Fascism is a form of socialism—you rebuild the country, you find a scapegoat, and you go from there.

WALLACE: The divide-and-conquer aspect of race in America is really well rendered in Perfidia. To see it from inside a character is fascinating—the way that, for some of them, their racism doesn’t come from any sort of belief. It’s opportunistic. Everybody’s flip-flopping all over the place in Perfidia, as in American Tabloid—their race politics are more about self-preservation and personal advancement than any earnest belief system, though that may be true of all racism full stop.

ELLROY: There’s that, and there’s the fact that these people are impetuous. They’re romantics. Perfidia is a historical romance. And when you look back at Los Angeles in December of 1941, it’s a party. We’re going to war. Young men—men up to the age of 36—can be drafted. Japs can bomb our ass or invade our ass at any minute. Which is one of the reasons why there are these indelible party scenes in Perfidia. Don’t you want to go to Uncle Ace Kwan’s basement and get laid? You can fuck Bette Davis!

WALLACE: The beauty of those scenes is the panoramic possibility—everyone is invited to the party. Now, of course, society is completely stratified. And, in fact, it’s not so much the egalitarianism that’s gone as much as the privacy. There’s no place you could do that, where you could mix it up.

ELLROY: I wanted to portray a newly democratized, enclosed society. I wanted to show how extraordinarily fluid people are in their embrace of other human beings. Dudley Smith is deeply flawed—

WALLACE: And probably my favorite villain in recent literature.

ELLROY: But you have to love him. He’s just this dashing, handsome guy. Did you figure out who the killer was?

WALLACE: No.

ELLROY: Well, the clues are there. They always are. Which is why when crimes are solved decades after the fact, it’s obvious that the clues had always been right in front of them. A traffic ticket in Brooklyn is how they got [“Son of Sam” serial killer] David Berkowitz. You’ve just got to look.

WALLACE: I wonder if somebody was reading Perfidia with an eye to the recurring Ellroy patterns—like the red-headed phantom woman who haunts all of your books—they might have gotten to the killer faster than I did.

ELLROY: Well, speaking of ghostly redheads, my original plan was to base Joan Conville, the navy nurse in Perfidia, on my mother, Jean Hilliker—righteous Jean Hilliker. And she and Parker [Los Angeles chief of police from 1950 to 1966, William H. Parker, a central character in Perfidia] have an affair the next book. But, do you really want to have Whiskey Bill Parker fucking your mother? Haven’t we had enough of this woman?

WALLACE: [laughs] I just re-read the trilogy, so it seemed to me that in this one you are almost making fun of yourself for the redhead tic.

ELLROY: It wasn’t that. I’m not any kind of deconstructionist or outsider gawking. It’s just, there’s something about a tall redhead. And her name’s Joan. There’s a woman named Joan very prominently in my past. There’s Joan Klein [a character who has also appeared in “The Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy”].

WALLACE: And the child Joan—the girl from your childhood whom you never met but decided to call Joan.

ELLROY: Yes, the girl from the Curse. That first girl Joan, who was a Santa Monica High girl—so I would have been 9 years old; she would have been 15 or 16—she wore black frame glasses, which, for a girl, was incongruous for 1958. She had dark, shoulder-length hair, hugged her schoolbooks to her chest, and lagged behind the other kids, swaying a certain way when she walked. I knew she was Jewish because her dad had a yarmulke. And I just called her Joan, I don’t know why. And then I met a woman named Joan in real life who is that girl point by point. It’s just uncanny shit.

WALLACE: How much do you feel that there is, in a mystical way, actual conjuring going on?

ELLROY: I feel completely mystical. Ten years ago yesterday—it was the 28th of May ’04—I was giving a speech at Cal Davis. I was in a bit of a dark place. And my childhood Joan is there.

WALLACE: No way.

ELLROY: No, it wasn’t her. But she became a great love of mine—she was Jewish, she had dark gray streaked hair, she was 38 years old, and she asked me an astonishingly brilliant question. I asked her name, and she said Joan. Oh, shit. Sometimes I think there’ll be some cessation of consciousness about all of this stuff, about this through line of women in my life. The vividness of memory will abate. But it hasn’t; it’s increased. So, okay, I’m 66 years old, healthy, horny, vigorous, doing the best work of my life. I wire up my pad, I sit at my desk, and I think of women. Perfidia and that party atmosphere of December ’41 and the depiction of Kay Lake, of people having more than one lover, switching lovers, looking for that perfect fit, in this time of great fixation, ideation, turmoil, passion, belief, risk, challenge, change, call to duty—I don’t think I’ll ever be the same for having written this book.

WALLACE: There’s the great Hemingway line about writing. He said that when he’s writing, he makes sure to not make love to [his then-wife] Mary too much, because it all comes from the same place: sex and writing.

ELLROY: It’s all sex for me. Politics is sex. Race is sex. It’s the novel. It’s the novel!

WALLACE: These haunting women, these sources of obsession that power so many of your novels, and clearly power you to write them—do we have to make them up, the muses that don’t exist?

ELLROY: We do. Or re-create the ones we have, and project. My whole life is projection.

WALLACE: And what is it about the historical element—writing books set in the past—how does that help to refract your yearning, your projection?

ELLROY: History is a state of yearning. I yearn for Kay Lake throughout this entire thing. There’s an essay I’ve written where I talked about living in the past. There’s a whole motif in the book of then and now. And I lived there … I was in L.A. in ’08. It was a cold Saturday night. I had spread my phone number out to a score of women and was just indulging this sweet, sad, elegiac, bale loneliness—don’t tell me you haven’t been there.

WALLACE: Oh, yesterday, an hour ago, right now.

ELLROY: Yeah, yeah! And I had a vision of an Army bus filled with maniacal, scared Japanese Americans heading up to Manzanar in a blizzard. And it was [snaps] instantaneous: Oh, it’s the “Second L.A. Quartet.”

WALLACE: Had you always wanted to see it all united as one complete work?

ELLROY: Once I envisioned the “Second Quartet,” I knew. Before Rover was published, in ’09, I had played around with the idea of a book to be called Blooming Groves set in Washington during Warren Harding’s administration. I fucked around with it. I never got a handle on it. But then came this notion of setting the balance of public opinion straight on William H. Parker—who’s a titanic figure and who is actually, the record will show, more progressive than reactionary—but that’s inimical to the commonly held text on Parker. And then all of a sudden I saw—the megalomaniac in me just rose to the occasion of this big piece. And I thought, “Fuck, World War II, where have you been all my life?”

WALLACE: Well, you’ve dealt with the aftermath. In the introduction to Tabloid [which opens in November 1958 and runs right up to the Kennedy assassination], you wrote, essentially, now is the time for us to praise bad men. Why? Are you, as you say with Parker, making a case for, maybe not of revisionism, but reconsideration?

ELLROY: I’m not in therapy with the books I write, but a third of the way through Perfidia, I realized Parker is the deepest explication of myself and my conflicts, my insane ambition. Parker is the two sides of my nature. I’m entirely pious and religious, and entirely profligate. I’m a sober alcoholic and dope fiend, and seasoned obsessive, womanizing, dipshit fool, and serial ex-husband. [laughs] Parker comes from the Dakota prairie. Parker is chaotic and deeply romantic in life, in his desire to impose order on external circumstances, and on people at large. And make this big, clean, good-looking corrupt place cohere in his moral vision.

WALLACE: A place where the good guys lose. And the Dudley Smiths win. Smith isn’t any smarter than his competitors, but he’s hungrier. He’s refined by greed.

ELLROY: He’s driven by his own dark romanticism. The progenitor of my work is symphonic romanticism. It’s the music of the German, the middle European, the Russian.

WALLACE: This is opera.

ELLROY: It is, yes. And Kay and Dudley and Parker are all classical music fiends. And Dudley’s the romantic demon, the Faust, Berlioz’s artist in the Symphonie Fantastique. He’s quite mad. He loves Shakespeare. He loves Wagner. He’s fucking Bette Davis.

WALLACE: It breaks my heart, but it’s also so romantic.

ELLROY: She trashes his ass. He’s a poor, traumatized Irish mother’s boy, beat up by his mother.

WALLACE: And his illegitimate daughter is—

ELLROY: Elizabeth Short [the so-called Black Dahlia, victim of a famously gruesome and famously unsolved murder in L.A. in 1947]. You’re right—it’s opera.

WALLACE: That introduction to American Tabloid begins, “America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets. You can’t ascribe our fall from grace to any single event or set of circumstances.” In other words, it’s not just the genocide of the native population, it’s not just slavery—our fall from grace is inherent, endemic, it’s indelible to America. So, with the completion of this massive saga—from the wickedness and political banditry in the trilogy, to the dark, existential chaos in the “L.A. Quartet,” and now this great political upheaval from the Second World War—are we to see the American canvas as just that, a backdrop onto which man has revealed himself in his natural state, all the horror and all the poetry?

ELLROY: It’s the unbridled drama, is what this is, with these utopian glimpses of the matriarchy. And it began, for me, in ’05. Coming off the disillusion of my second marriage, a nervous breakdown, rehab, and all kinds of crazy shit. It was Kay Lake revisited, Kay Lake reconsidered, Kay Lake from The Black Dahlia was my way into the romance of the era. She and the two political firebrands, Karen Sifakis and Joan Klein, speak to the matriarchy. And it is the counterpoint to this male drama.

WALLACE: Do you believe men are by nature good or bad? Or is it a little bit nature and a little bit nurture?

ELLROY: I take the Christian view that we’re falling, and we carry the germ of good and evil within us, and it’s what we do with it as we become conscious of it.

WALLACE: When did that moral thing come online for you? In The Hilliker Curse you write that your mother underestimated your ability to translate sighs, which is a great line, but it’s also so true. She is fighting with your father in hushed tones and thinks for some reason that you cannot intuit the complete scenario. It doesn’t make any sense to me that we who were once kids have forgotten how aware we were then, making moral judgments, and responding morally, too, to what we saw around us.

ELLROY: There’s a line from Don DeLillo’s Libra—probably the most important novel to me—where DeLillo writes that Lee Oswald had a “mean streak of independence brought on by neglect.” And that was me. I always had the refuge of my thoughts.

WALLACE: I’m an only child, so that makes total sense to me.

ELLROY: And you love to read, you love to escape, right?

WALLACE: Yep. A total fantasist, and an observer, too, a people-watcher.

ELLROY: Sometimes I’ll leave the house and go to a delicatessen down the street from me—it’s been there a million years—just because I can look at people.

WALLACE: That’s my favorite sport, people watching, and New York City is the Yankee Stadium of the game. And this time of year, for a girl watcher, let’s say …

ELLROY: You get up in the morning because you might meet a woman. And if you stay at home by yourself, alone, you will not meet a woman.

WALLACE: One thing I kept thinking while reading Perfidia is that none of the action could take place today because of traffic. Nobody would be able to get anywhere. Do you identify yourself with L.A.?

ELLROY: No. It’s polluted. It’s overpopulated. But it is very much home. It was inevitable for me, the moving back. I was living in San Francisco, and Joan broke it off with me, and I needed a place to live. I’d been divorced. And I needed to write movies and TV shows to earn a living. Alimony. All that. So I figured what the hell, I’ll go back to L.A.

WALLACE: You mentioned Oswald. I’m so curious what you think went down in Dallas that day. Is Tabloid your sense of what led to it, just a fictional sort of rendering of it?

ELLROY: Not necessarily. I’d never been interested in the Kennedy assassination until ’88, when I read Libra. And from that point, I went out and bought the existing Kennedy theory books, most of which are outlandish. But what DeLillo posits—some rogue CIA guys—is the most dramatically sound, plausible explanation for it.

WALLACE: There’s a point in Perfidia where someone has pictures of Cary Grant in flagrante delicto, if you will. I always wonder how pictures like these never surface, how nothing, save the so-called deathbed confession by Howard Hunt, ever rises about the Kennedy assassination. I guess I’m sort of on the Oliver Stone side of the fence—the military-industrial-complex did it.

ELLROY: I did an event for the 50th anniversary of the assassination with Thomas Mallon at the Paley Center. You’ve got to read his book Watergate. It’s a brilliant historical novel. And if you’ve always wanted to know what happened, that’s it. He gives you the infrastructure. But what I give you—and this is the theme of these 11 novels of mine, eight written and three to go in the new quartet—is the secret human infrastructure of large public events. We look for explanations for these things. My mother’s murder—how do we explain misogynist violence? You go back to the granddaddy of all crimes for me, Elizabeth Short, the Black Dahlia. It’s not part of a serial killer train, it’s Elizabeth Short and this fiend she met that horrible night in 1947. There have been all these studies on the Black Dahlia, all these ridiculous accounts that purport to solve the crime and explain the psychology, and they become more and more broke and outlandish. Kennedy’s death is an epochal crime, as Elizabeth Short’s is.

WALLACE: And is storytelling a way to make sense of it for you? Or is it a way to make sense of yourself within that context?

ELLROY: I have insane curiosity as to what happened in all these events. I will never know. I’m not a researcher. I don’t possess that kind of mind. I have a researcher who compiles the fact sheets and chronologies that allow me to write these big books of mine. I want to have enough data, so I won’t write myself into thin air, so that I can extrapolate and give you this secret human infrastructure. The only way I sate my own curiosity is to create this from scratch. There must be commanding love stories. There must be great moral cost.

WALLACE: I was at your rather notorious reading at Skylight Books in Los Angeles in 2006. It makes me wonder to what extent you care about your public persona. For a lot of writers, there is an overlap between the work and the persona.

ELLROY: There’s none with me, although you’ve seen me before—I’m outrageous.

WALLACE: At one point you were barking.

ELLROY: I kept saying, “Stop me now. It’s going to my head.” I got some photos. [Wallace laughs] Really, I did! It’s not my noblest sexual self in these moments, but I want to have fun. I want to undress. I get off my leash to go out and perform. Some other writers are just discomforted by the way I behave in public. Because they’re loath to perform.

WALLACE: I wish you were reading some of the stuff online these days. A lot of it seems to bear your influence. Internet writing is very knowing. It’s very insider-y. And it’s sort of Hedda Hopper-ed-out-hyper-alliterative, poppy, slangy. It does that staccato tango that you do really well. I also happen to think your voice anticipates much about what we have loved in rap. Are you aware at all of your artistic influence?

ELLROY: You know what’s funny? For a much lauded writer, I’m not terribly self-absorbed. In social situations, which are difficult for me—I mean, this is an interview—I’m normally uncomfortable talking about myself. But then I’ll see something on my buddy’s TV, and I’ll realize the extent to which I fucking invaded the culture and language. I saw the first three episodes of True Detective and I thought, “Oh, yeah, where’d you get that, kid?” There are a lot of Ellroy lifts, man. This guy went to school. But then there’s a willful thing that comes over me—God gives it to me—where I go, “That’s real nice, let’s just go home, pat yourself on the back, good dog, good dog, and wake up in the morning and go to work.”

WALLACE: Do you get the same fulfillment as a dramatist, writing screenplays?

ELLROY: The novel is final form; it’s the ultimate individual final form. Television and motion pictures never get there. You’d be fabulous to think that something you write is even going to be filmed. I give it the best shot of which I’m capable. But it’s more a payday for me. And if I didn’t have alimony and the full-time assistant …

WALLACE: You have a great sense of where your work fits in to the spectrum of literature itself. Do you ever get upset when these other historical novels, like, say, Wolf Hall, get all the big awards, while you’re often shelved in genre and considered a crime writer?

ELLROY: I think it’s unavoidable. When I look at Perfidia, I think, “That’s a Pulitzer Prize winner. That’s a National Book Award winner.” It’s not going to get it. It’s going to be shelved in crime and it’s just the way it is. I’ve done something that no one else has ever done; I’ve started out as a mystery writer, a police writer, and a crime writer, and I became something entirely different. I owe this to Knopf and Sonny Mehta, my editor. I’ve had complete free run for 24 years to do whatever I wanted to at Knopf. And they only want the big, great books.

WALLACE: A lot of artists seem to tend toward minimalism as they mature. They get cleaner, more spare. You are getting still more baroque and more ambitious. Which makes sense to me. I would think that the more in command of one’s powers, the bigger they want the stakes, the bigger game they want to hunt. Is that the way you feel?

ELLROY: Yes. I work within the framework of a very concerted, purely driven Protestant Christian mindset. I had dark early circumstances. I went inward. I have a sturdy will. I have a big heart. I’m a decent guy. And I have a great gift. It’s blunted me to the world in many ways. I’m 66, I’m alone. I don’t have children. I serve the world and I serve God by living as deep within my work as I can, reveling in the language of other times and putting it forth for the world. Other people, some other writers, will win certain accolades or sell in far greater numbers than me—and I’m a legitimate best-selling author—but I live and die for the work. That’s thrilling to me. It’s thrilling that I do for others what certain writers did for me when I was a kid. Here I was, some lonely, fucked-up little boy with his dipshit dad, his dead mom, and his unhousebroken dog, going to the public library. And here’s an [English thriller writer] Eric Ambler spy novel—and here’s the protagonist, he’s just met a woman, he’s got a pocket full of money—What’s going on? All this shit. I’m doing this for people like that, most of whom I’ll never meet. And I meet plenty of them. It’s insane in Britain [his fame]. It’s really insane in France. And it’s just dandy here. Periodically I just notch up. And everyone among my colleagues thinks that Perfidia—in its accessibility, its big throbbing heart—will be the biggest notch up yet. We’ll see what happens. It’s on my ass.

WALLACE: In Perfidia, Kay Lake writes in her diary, “Women write diaries in the hope that their words will beckon fate.”

ELLROY: Yeah. “War gives men a plain-and-simple something to do … Women write diaries in the hope that their words will beckon fate.” It’s a romantic manifesto.

WALLACE: It’s also why man writes novels too, isn’t it?

ELLROY: Yes, it’s the big thing. I’m much older than you, but you caught that. It is the big deal. It’s the novel. It’s not some bumfuck movie or, you know, rock-‘n’-roll—it’s the novel. It’s that big, male thing. What Perfidia does is present a picture of the United States and the sense of the outrageousness of the U.S. and a deep sense of American identity. Dudley Smith, the immigrant Irishman, is American egalitarianism and self-interest writ astonishingly large. But it’s that party where Bette Davis, Stan Kenton, Joan Crawford, all the characters are in Kwan’s basement, passing around a picture of Cary Grant with a dick in his mouth; Clark Gable’s there too, and he’s got Salvador Dali’s pet leopard curled up with him, and the leopard’s got his paws up on the buffet eating spare ribs; and there’s Count Basie, this black guy, in with all these other people—that’s America to me. They’re drinking Benzedrine tea and Dudley Smith’s smoking opium with the chinks. Fuck. What a time.

CHRIS WALLACE IS INTERVIEW‘S SENIOR EDITOR.