Recap: James Ellroy in conversation with Linwood Barclay

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

© 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:

with mercy

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.”Ellroy, Perfidia

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.

An Evening with Lorrie Moore

By Janet Somerville

(c) Linda Nylind

(c) Linda Nylind

Last Monday, Jared Bland interviewed and hosted a reading by Lorrie Moore, which was followed by a Q&A with the audience.

The candlelit tables in the Brigantine Room, surrounded by hundreds of Lorrie Moore acolytes, had the full-to-bursting space abuzz as Moore read a story from her new collection Bark.  Before her reading Moore said, “I always feel so scolding. Feel free to take cell phone calls as I read from ‘Thank You For Having Me,’ which is how I feel about being here.” The audience was rapt in between the swells of laughter in response to lines including: “What a good idea to have the look of Big Pharma at your wedding;” “He would rather look startled and insane than 56;” and “’Marriage is one long conversation,’ wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. Of course, he died when he was 44, so he had no idea how long the conversation could really be.” Great, right?

Bark by Lorrie Moore

Bark by Lorrie Moore

Moore’s reading was followed by a conversation with The Globe and Mail arts editor, Jared Bland. About her process, Moore said, “Stories begin for me with an interest in a particular feeling or a situation, and, with luck, the story has preserved them. People think writing is about words. But, it begins with a feeling and you’re trying to find the language and dramatic circumstances that will express it.” When asked her if writing was cathartic for her, Moore responded, “I don’t believe in catharsis. It’s cheap and temporary and not a fiction writer’s business. I want people to be in possession of a feeling.” I had never thought about catharsis in that way until Moore articulated it. On finding and using humour in her work, Moore explained, “It’s a great leap of trust to assume that someone else will find it funny and you never really know if the audience does. They could be drunk.”

What I didn’t know about Moore until last night was that she’s as much a fan of The Wire as I am. It is, after all, the best narrative television ever made. Yet, when asked if she’d ever consider writing for TV, Moore was firm: “I don’t have any desire to write for television because it’s collaborative and you don’t get to control everything.”

After the onstage conversation, Moore patiently signed copies of her books for many delighted readers. There’s such a warmth and light that shines from Lorrie Moore. Those of us lucky enough to hear her on her only Canadian stop on the Bark tour basked in her radiance.

Follow Janet Somerville on twitter @janetsomerville

Five Questions with… Shani Boianjiu

Shani Boianjiu, author of The People of Forever Are Not Afraid and a participant in this year’s International Festival of Authors, answered our five questions.

Share this article via Facebook or Twitter for your chance to win two tickets to see Shani on October 27! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA or use #IFOA2013. Good luck!

IFOA: The People of Forever Are Not Afraid chronicles the experiences of several young men and women in the I.D.F. Do you have a favourite of these characters?

Shani Boianjiu: Avishag, Lea and Hagar are my favorite characters. Shani Boianjiu

IFOA: When did you decide to write about your experiences over those two years in the I.D.F.?

Boianjiu: I would not say my book is necessarily just about female soldiers in the I.D.F., and it is most certainly not a book about my own experiences in the IDF. It is a work of fiction, and there are many characters in it that are not soldiers and not even Israeli. Several of the Israeli female characters are not soldiers in several of the chapters in the book. I never sat down and said, “I shall now write a novel.” I just happened to write one word, and then another. And then before I knew it, I had something that looked like one day it could be a novel.

IFOA: What did you consider when choosing the title for your novel?

Boianjiu: It chose me, but I considered language, overall appropriateness for what was happening in the book, sound and emotion.

IFOA: You have said that every piece of your writing “represents the music it could never quite become.” Is there a song that is particularly meaningful or inspirational to you?

Boianjiu: I have mentioned, elsewhere, many of the songs I listened to as I was writing, although there are thousands of others, of course. But one song that is sort of (in an extremely indirect way) parodied in the book and that I haven’t mentioned in interviews before, is the song “Still Alive” written by Jonathan Coulton and performed by Ellen McLain.

IFOA: What are you working on now?

Boianjiu: A vast novel that is at the same time also very small. And that will try to silence the least amount of people in the world as possible. Those are at least some of the futile hopes.

Shani Boianjiu is one of the youngest writers on Random House of Canada’s prestigious Bond Street Books list. She will be discussing her riveting debut novel with award-winning writer and filmmaker David Bezmozgis on October 27 at 1pm.

An Evening with Andrew Pyper

Last night’s book launch for Andrew Pyper’s latest thriller, The Demonologist, proved to be entertaining, intriguing and even a little creepy. The room at the Gladstone Hotel was packed with Pyper’s family, friends and fans. After a short reading Pyper shared stories about the writing process, his beliefs in the paranormal and what makes a good scary novel. Interviewed by the Globe and Mail‘s Russell Smith, the audience hung on every word from the bestselling author. Below are a few photos from the event. Thanks to Simon & Schuster Canada who co-presented the event. Find out more about Andrew Pyper here.

Andrew Pyper reading from The Demonologist (c) readings.org

Andrew Pyper reads from The Demonologist (c) readings.org

Andrew Pyper interviewed by Russell Smith (c) readings.org

Andrew Pyper interviewed by Russell Smith (c) readings.org

Rebecca Lee, Ben Lerner, Jess Walter: considering language and lost in translation

By Janet Somerville

Canadian poet Jacob McArthur Mooney was a gracious and thoughtful host of the reading/interview featuring Rebecca Lee (Bobcat and Other Stories), Ben Lerner (Leaving the Atocha Station) and Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins). My table companion in the Brigantine Room, David Kent (President of HarperCollins Canada), may have revealed himself to be an equal Lit Nerd to me, as ebullient and supportive as he was about all of the participants and their intelligent comments throughout the afternoon.

The event began with each reading from their work. Lee picked a story about plagiarism, set circa 1985, pre-Internet, when students “had to be bullied into admitting it” in which the accuser asked, “who helped you? A book or a person?” Lerner read an excerpt grounded in misunderstanding because of his poet protagonist’s assumed inability to communicate in Spanish as he tried to establish a life for himself in Madrid, where he “looked at the water and was sober,” comprehending only “in chords.” Walter introduced his Hollywood producer, Michael Deane, “a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed,” one who was seventy-two “with the face of a nine-year-old Filipina girl.” George Hamilton, anyone?

Jess Walter reading at IFOA 2012 (c) readings.org

Jess Walter reading at IFOA 2012 (c) readings.org

Prompted to consider lost in translation as a motif in each of their pieces, Lee suggested it was like falling in love, while Lerner said he found it interesting that “ambiguity is celebrated in poetry–it’s not a problem.” And, in Leaving the Atocha Station, his protagonist “believes people only find him interesting when he speaks in enigmatic fragments. He’s trying to keep fluency at bay.” For Walter, “miscommunication creates interesting distances.” When two of his characters “find each other and fall in love, but don’t speak each other’s language” it seems a “perfect metaphor for stumbling along in any of our lives.”

On writing itself as a process Lee said, “the essential struggle for me is moving ahead in the story and writing it beautifully. I have to write the first sentence and care about it.” For Lerner, “language is what I am most sensitive to, in love with, and annoyed by.” Walter admitted, “the lines drive me in the writing. I have to like the sound of them.” All of that is true for me as a reader, too. What matters is the phrasing, the rhythm, the pacing of each mindfully selected word. How many bars of Ella Fitzgerald do you need to listen to in order to know she’s great? It’s the same with finely crafted writing. You know in a moment or two.

Visit readings.org for more event listings. Follow Janet Somerville on twitter at @janetsomerville or on her blog Reading for the Joy of It.
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