By Janet Somerville
The candlelit café tables of the Brigantine Room were crowded and it was standing room only on Friday night for noir novelist James Ellroy’s conversation with thriller writer Linwood Barclay. Barclay wisely kept his introduction simple, noting Ellroy would read from Perfidia, the first volume of the second L.A. Quartet, “a story of war, romance and an astonishingly detailed homicide investigation.” Ellroy sashayed up to the mic, encouraging the applause by raising his hands like a preacher, and, in an amusing schtick, announced that after he read the prologue and chapter two in Kay Lake’s voice and chatted with Linwood about the book, he would “welcome the most invasively over-personal questions that every one of you peepers, prowlers, pederasts, pedants, panty-sniffers, pimps and punks has for me, your foul owl with the death growl.” The room, full of acolytes, ignited in laughter.
© Jennifer Carroll
Before he read from the novel, in order to set the tone, Ellroy referenced poems by T.S. Eliot and Anne Sexton, words that he quoted by heart. First, from “Four Quartets:” “In my beginning is my end… and in my end is my beginning.” Next from “With Mercy for the Greedy:”
“My friend, my friend, I was born
doing reference work in sin, and born
confessing it. This is what poems are:
for the greedy,
they are the tongue’s wrangle,
the world’s pottage, the rat’s star.”
And then, he invoked himself in the mystery: “Tonight I’m your rat and I’ll hitch you to my star.” Perfidia begins on December 6th, 1941, the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, and continues in real time for the next 23 days, at its heart, “the grave injustice of Japanese internment.”
Ellroy spoke and read in well-paced rhythm. He made the weight of every word count. His performance, for surely that is what it was, was hypnotic, and the audience was soon under his spell, a co-conspirator, as he weaved his siren tale.
Barclay suggested that “unless you’re a Glenn Miller fan, perfidia may not be a term you connect with, but its lyrics, at least these ones, contribute to the novel’s theme: ‘While the gods of love look down and laugh / At what romantic fools we mortals be.’” Ellroy added, “Perfidia, the novel, is history as yearning. And, it also means betrayal. Graham Greene made a career and a life out of betrayal, right?” Then he sweetly sang the opening bars of the song, “To you, my heart cries out Perfidia / For I found you, the love of my life / In somebody else’s arms.”
The genesis of Ellroy’s book? Early in 2008 “I was looking out my office window, wondering why women kept divorcing me and why I didn’t have a girlfriend. Then, I had a flash of Japanese heading to an internment camp in a military vehicle, the grave injustice of that, but also a vision of the murder of a Japanese American family in the hours before the Pearl Harbour attack.” He re-read seven of his novels to refamiliarize himself with the characters and decided to make Kay Lake a protagonist, because she was his “favourite female character. I’ve lusted after her for 30 years. It’s a narcissistic and onanistic love and I stand indicted.”
Because Perfidia includes characters who were people of the time, like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Jack Kennedy, Barclay asked, “is there any sense of responsibility to the people who are real that you are writing about?” Ellroy responded, “I will do what I damn well please. If my human dramas are plausible or convincing, if they are morally sound, I will make you believe them.” Noting the two driving events in Ellroy’s life as “the murder of your mom when you were 10 and the Black Dahlia case,” Barclay coaxed the response from him that “my mother hot-wired me to history and I’ve been making hay ever since. I love to lie in the dark, brood and yearn. I am a yearning motherfucker and I wear it well.” Wondering further if contentment was an enemy of creativity, Ellroy noted, “for every traumatic moment there are probably 35 days of joyous time spent in libraries researching.” As a kid he was happy there, reading James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald. The last novel that Ellroy loved was Watergate by Thomas Mallon, “a breathtaking and heartbreaking book.”
Prompting comments about his style of tight, staccato sentences, Barclay asked, “why does that appeal to you?” Ellroy said, “Content dictates style. I love the American idiom in all its forms. I’m here to exalt in its language. I love profanity. I love Yiddish. I love Black hep-cat jive jazz patois. I love alliteration. In my world all hard “c” words should be spelled with a k-k-k.” As for process, Ellroy always begins with a detailed outline that runs hundreds of pages long and makes sure that everything connects: “I block print in capitals. That’s how I’ve written everything. I have a typist who can read my handwriting. I edit constantly. I want to write huge books that are word perfect. I am out to create seamless verisimilitude. I rewrite history to suit my own needs. It’s benign megalomania.” What makes an Ellroy novel? Well, according to the man himself, “historical shit, sexual shit, booze and dope shit, racial shit, hilarious cop shit and internecine police intrigue.”
Ellroy was careful to note that “Perfidia isn’t meant to refract anything contemporaneous. I’ve never had a cell phone. I don’t have a television. I go to the store. I talk to people on my landline phone. I’ve absented myself from the world as it is.” When Barclay suggested “it must be great to not be part of this maelstrom,” Ellroy responded, “I’m appalled by it. I’m a solitary being. I live to an uncommon degree in my imagination, but I am not delusional. I have enough anxiety as it is.” Anxiety that he sometimes assuages in his red-walled music room decorated with framed Deutsche Grammophon LP covers, sitting in an Eames chair, facing his Beethoven shrine, the music by “the most inexplicable genius” blasting.
When asked by someone in the audience about the connection between substance abuse and the creative life, Ellroy, who refers to himself as a sober alcoholic, was quick to implore, “You better get sober, Jack, or you won’t have any creativity.” And, his final words in response to the age-old question, why write? Borrowed ones from Dylan Thomas, recited passionately, in full plaintive song:
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
Or by the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
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.
The audience roared to its feet in celebration of James Ellroy, L.A. noir’s acknowledged bad-ass master, sporting his Mr. Rogers camel-coloured cardigan. Oh, what a night. A wondrous ride with the demon dog.
Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.