Thursday, 3 December 2009
Meeting James Ellroy
‘As long as it gets me print, I’ll continue to perform in an exuberant manner.’
‘AMERICA!’ He screams into the microphone.
Behind the microphone stand James Ellroy begins to recite a segment of his long-awaited latest novel, Blood’s a Rover. The stage lights of Manchester’s Dancehouse Theatre, the latest venue in his UK tour, douse him in a macabre red light. This is probably at his request, the colour tone enhancing the noir feel evident in his work. This production design is brought to you by Waterstones, who’s events are described as ‘superb’ by The Independent.
In the scene Mr Ellroy is reading, two kids are staking out a woman’s house with the intention of breaking in and stealing her underwear. No Ellroy novel would be complete without a dab of depravity.
Throughout the reading, Ellroy, 61, dressed low-key in a brown-green jumper and chinos, stands with his feet unusually far apart. And doesn’t just read the text- he acts it out; he lives it. If his writing describes that a character ‘yawned’, he’ll stretch the word as he reads it and he’ll lean back, injecting his work with vivid onomatopoeia. He goes on to snore into the mic and grab his crotch, as if the characters he imagined have invaded the body of their creator.
It is evident that ‘”The Reverand” James Ellroy', as he acceptably calls himself, has the same searing enthusiasm for reading as he does writing. In fact, after an introduction compiling memorized quotes from other writers including WH Auden, who he describes as ‘A British poofter’, he declares in no uncertain terms: ‘I live for words.’
It is presumably Ellroy’s intention, by way of this book tour, to make us read a HELL of a lot of them. Blood’s a Rover is the third in his ‘Underworld USA’ trilogy, and he advises us that unless you have read American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand- each 600 pages a piece- we won’t fully appreciate the final instalment. Regardless, he holds up Blood’s a Rover like a preist holds up a bible and barks, ‘Buy this fucking book. It’ll bite your boogaloo.’
It’s going to be an expensive night for me.
After reading a segment of his work, he welcomes our ‘most invasive questions’. Through audience interrogation we learn that he was influenced heavily by Don DeLillo’s Libra (A book I plan to read), but most of his inspiration can be put down to ‘shit-kicking by women’ – possibly why most of his male characters are, as he puts it, ‘boozed-up dope fiends.’ It’s therefore believable when he says he financed his divorces with ghost-written film scripts. We learn of his major influences, who he cites as ‘Gay Edgar Hoover’, ‘Howard Dracula Hudson’ and ‘Tricky Dick Nixon.’ His anger at the history of American politics- certainly the periods he has lived through- oozes out of him evidently, although he never accuses anyone directly. In fact, he makes it clear that he ‘would never criticise or rag on (his) own country on foreign soil.’ His affinity for his own country is apparently so strong that he claims the only travel he will do is for book tours. Ellroy has a lot of passion for his home town of LA, but still describes it as the kind of place where ‘you come on vacation and go home on probation’.
He goes on to describe someone he knew as an ‘underworking cashew-dicked cocksucker’. My lack of shorthand skills prevents me from jotting the name of the recipient of that epithet. I will remember, though, Ellroy wiggling his smallest finger and a bout of laughter from the audience.
A young man in the audience asks how he felt about the movies that had been made from his books. Mr. Ellroy responds by saying he is more than aware that his books are ‘politically incorrect and unfilmable,’ but he admits that, in Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of L.A. Confidential (1997), he felt leads Kim Basinger and Russell Crowe ‘lacked chemistry’. Overall he was ‘nothin’ but grateful’ for everything that Hollywood had done for him, including opening him up to an immense new audience. It's understandable- I wouldn't have heard of him without the film.
I ask him if he had any advice for budding writers. Mr. Ellroy’s response: ‘Don’t write what you know. Write what you always wanted to read, but nobody wrote.’ Valid, trend-bucking and vaguely familiar. Maybe he was already asked somewhere. Maybe many writers say this. (But as it happens, I’m writing something that fits Mr. Ellroy’s bill: stay tuned for Once Upon a Time in Manchester, coming to a cinema near you when I get my Goddamn act together...)
Mr Ellroy rounds off with one more memorized quote: the last stanza of Dylan Thomas’ ‘In My Craft or Sullen Art’.
‘Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.’
He thanks us and walks off stage.
In the foyer I manage to buy Blood’s a Rover and American Tabloid, but they are out of The Cold Six Thousand. That will have to be an Amazon job.
In the signing queue I contemplate whether it would be just too cheeky to leave my blog card with him. I’m the fan of his work. Would I be out of order asking him to read my work?
At the front of the queue I decide to play it safe. He signs Blood’s a Rover, with a dedication, and he agrees to a photo. I give my camera to the man from Waterstones and as he presses the shutter, Mr. Ellroy growls like a dog.