James Ellroy Fear Factor

Sometimes you have to face your fears. That’s why I took my bad old self down to Vroman’s in Pasadena Tuesday night to hear James Ellroy speak. I’m pretty sick of the Black Dahlia hype by this time, but I’m also a fangirl and I’ve got a first edition of “The Big Nowhere” that cost me $10 almost two decades ago at a quaint little bookstore on Santa Monica Boulevard called Gene de Chene. And I wanted it personalized.

I also needed to chat with him about certain literary matters, and that’s why I was scared. I’d heard that Ellroy can be unpredictable, volcanic, arrogant, dismissive. That he’s a strange fellow. Vroman’s, which was clearly taking no chances, had stuck a big sign at the top of the stairs, letting people know that the event might contain strong language and adult themes and was not for the faint-hearted. But I’ve heard worse. And the way I see it, anyone whose mother was brutally murdered deserves to be cut some slack, even a half-century later.

It’s a fine line to walk between exorcising your demons and exploiting your tragic family history, but Ellroy’s done it by being brutally honest, much the same way Mikal Gilmore did. (His memoir “Shot Through the Heart” is about his brother, executed murderer Gary Gilmore). I bought Ellroy’s memoir “My Dark Places” at the signing because Janet Fitch had raved about it. I started it last night and she’s right.

Ellroy has vowed never to speak in public about the Dahlia and his mother’s murder after December 1, when a documentary about the topic airs. He’s sick to death of it, he told the 140-plus crowd, and it’s time to move on. He also feels it takes attention away from his other 15 books, many of which he thinks are better.

Ellroy’s quite a performer at the mike, literature’s bad boy rapper with his checked, short-sleeved shirt, tall kinetic gauntness and rimless glasses, reciting boastful rhymes and genial audience put-downs (panty-sniffer is one of the milder ones) quoting from Dylan Thomas, generally delivering such an over-the-top performance that one senses he’s dead serious, slyly ironic, and subverting his crazy tough guy image, all at the same time.

Somehow, it works, and you know that writing saved this man, that diving into the heart of his own personal darkness has allowed him to come out the other end, scorched and scarred, but alive and girding for the next battle. It’s an involuntary Faustian bargain that no one would wish for -- the murder of his mother was the dark crucible which forged him, made him the world-renown writer he is today. Had she not been killed, he would have experienced the world much differently, just another post-War, lower middle class kid running through the streets of the San Gabriel Valley. Maybe he would have become a surfer. Or a hippie. Just think.

At the reading, Ellroy was gracious and funny. He talked about how his Dad gave him Jack Webb’s book “The Badge” on his 11th birthday, shortly after his mother died, and Webb’s chapter on the Dahlia entranced him and fused her murder with his mother’s murder forever after. He encouraged the audience to ask him outrageous inappropriate personal questions. He spoke wistfully about his former wife Helen Knode, a onetime L.A. Weekly film critic and herself a crime novelist, and his ‘former dog,’ who lives with Knode because his place only allows small yappy dogs.

Ellroy says he doesn’t own a TV, a computer or a VCR. He writes his books out longhand and sends them to New York to be transcribed, a friend who accompanied him explained. At night he suffers from insomnia and lies in bed and thinks of dead women he couldn’t save, something he and his cop friends have in common.

Ellroy’s fiction is so thoroughly rooted in the past that he can’t imagine setting a book in the present, he tells me as we chat after the reading. And yet, contemporary L.A. is an intensely Ellroyian place to me, a teeming global crossroads where the First World and the Third World live cheek by jowl and people intersect across lines of race and class and geography, especially where crime and passion and secrets are involved.

When I ask him whether he finds elements of noir in today’s Los Angeles, Ellroy concedes that I’m probably right. Maybe that’s what drew him back to his birthplace. It’s the fount of both his inspiration and his sorrow. He aims to die here. But not anytime soon, he quickly adds, as the adoring crowd shifts and laughs uneasily.

It’s a singular life. The long strange journey of James Ellroy, reporting back from the dark side. We’re sorry fate dealt him such a raw hand. We're grateful it made him a writer. We welcome back a native son.

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