Lunch and Tea
by M.G. Smout
Easter Sunday, April 15, 2001. Maritímo Restaurant, Barcelona.
Jeez, the mans a giant. The person towering
over me and shaking my hand looks nothing like the photo commonly found in his books
the one where he looks like a squat, chubby, neo-fascist British politician circa
1950. "Great hair, if I had hair Id have it like yours." The man is a
charmer and I am won over in one sentence. He then asks about my background and says how
much he likes the north of England, Manchester and so on. Americans are like that, they
can go on autopilot extracting basic social information, but Ellroys probings seem
genuine. He loves meeting people and our arrival (myself and TBR editor Jill Adams) has
sparked an interest, maybe even revitalised him a little. Barcelona is the quiet start to
the Spanish leg of his massive book tour, but he still has to speak slowly and carefully
as he and his hosts - Spanish publishing house Ediciones B - can only communicate in
ponderous English. On our arrival - a Brit and a Yank without a tape recorder - Ellroy
relaxes and, not performing for journalists, is off, every pent up sentence let loose in a
flood of rapid-fire speech, vitriol, slander and wonderfully sick humour. In a lull,
Santi, on my left, says sadly, "I could understand him until you two came
...the one where he looks like a squat, chubby, neo-fascist British
politician circa 1950..
We are in an ugly, crowded, box-like
all-window restaurant whose saving grace is an incredible view of the old port and the
dockside, and good food. An added bonus for Ellroy are the German shepherds in the
boatyard below. Their presence often draws his attention. Ediciones B editor Susana Andres
asks for a menu in English, but it is a wasted effort as Ellroy is the worlds
fastest chooser of food. He doesnt eat meat so goes straight to fish and from there
anything with the word cod. He starts off with a raw salt-cod salad a
Catalan specialty and follows it with a huge cod steak in a cream sauce. It is very
rich and defeats Jill, but Ellroy is a hearty eater and scoffs the lot in minutes. He also
has a frightening array of vitamin pills and supplements lined up on the table. These he
washes down with copious amounts of green tea which he has brought along for the tour,
producing bags from his pockets to plop in hot water after testing the temperature with
his finger. The fear of illness, the upheaval of travelling (alone) and being on a tight
tour schedule, calls for strict cautionary measures to help combat a persistent
apprehension over health matters which leads to nervous check-ups in hotel mirrors. Every
blemish, mark on his skin, wheeze or whatever urges him to seek transatlantic phone help
from his wife, writer Helen Knode. Her name crops up a lot. It is mid-April and he
wont finish this tour until July, and although he actually enjoys it, you can tell
he desperately wants to be back in Kansas City.
The vitamin pills, the no-booze and tobacco,
working out in hotel gyms (if they have them - no such luck in Spain) all speak of worries
other than just surviving a tour. He is worried about getting old. This worry has added
extra depth to the characters in his latest novel The Cold Six Thousand, but it
also serves as a reminder that Ellroy has quite a few missing years which he
fully intends to recuperate in some way. And looking at the very fit and bouncy man
opposite me, wolfing down cod like it was going out of fashion, waxing lyrical on all
things and being very in love with Helen and life in general, I see a hyperactive teenager
without zits and not someone in his early 50s. The only way James Ellroy is going to grow
old gracefully is if someone sedates him. The man is all energy - he must have been one
hell of a drinking buddy.
The Spanish contingent are the only drinkers at
the table (and the only smokers, although they kindly refrain). We touch on the subject of
alcohol abuse and the effects it has on ones character. He has recently finished a
documentary for a TV station that shows a bunch of his colleagues slowly
getting drunker and therefore more stupid around a table. He knows they are going to shit
from embarrassment when they see themselves as others saw them. He quit booze and his
self-destructive lifestyle in order to survive, to create a whole new person, and knowing
what he was is all the fuel he needs to keep from the bottle. He is not really tempted but
tells of being on an aeroplane where there is a Johnny Walker promotion of some sort and
the whisky is flowing freely. The guy next to him is throwing the stuff back and Ellroy is
inhaling the wonderful fumes and enjoying it until "the motherfucker passed
The past sometimes catches up with him. An
ex-girlfriend, now married and living down in Valencia, once tried to get in contact with
him. Ellroys response was to hide behind his (genuine) tight schedule and say no.
His dilemma is not because he is married he only has eyes for Helen but
because he doesnt know and doesnt want to know what this woman wants. Now that
he has some money, is she going to try and hit him up? Fame and bucks make you a target
and though a meeting could have just been two old lovers nattering over green tea, Ellroy
prefers to play it safe and keep the past at a safe distance. Fame and being a target: he
hadnt heard about Boris Beckers run-in with the girl in the broom closet who
supposedly impregnated herself with his semen from a blow job. Ever the practical
storyteller, he wonders how she kept the stuff alive or was she just very lucky to get it
right the first time. Thinking about it kind of put people off their food and the subject
was quickly changed.
We also hit on Hollywood. Ellroy loves to
scuttlebutt and one of the secrets he divulges has Susana nearly in tears, "No, not
him, I dont believe it"! It is a hilarious roll-call of names and vices, with
Jill egging him on. Whether the stories are true or not there is a certain joy in having
these untouchables reduced to corruptible flesh and blood. Ellroy points out that just
being a Hollywood actor has got to warp you in some way. The pressure and surreal nature
of the whole scene has to have a wounding effect on the psyche. I ask him who then is
normal. There is silence, then a few names are bandied about and I realise that even to
name the normal ones automatically points a finger at the hundreds not on the list. What a
freak show. Ellroy has a new piece of scandal that he heard the night before and you know
that even if the rest of the trip to Spain is a disaster the nugget he heard was worth it.
A Spanish writer the night before confirmed that Ernest Hemingway did have a
homosexual relationship while in Spain. This leads into the less slanderous area of
debating whether or not Hemingways The Nick Adams Stories wasnt thinly
disguised gay writing in the first place.
He tells us that he is very pissed off with the
selling of his manuscripts and galley proofs of The Cold Six Thousand for vast
amounts of money over the Internet. It isnt the loss of money thats the
problem those who paid for them will buy the book anyway - but the fact that people
are reading versions with typos and errors. That is not the Ellroy he wants people to
read, obviously. He put a message up on the Net expressing his displeasure and in
explaining this it became apparent he was not very computer savvy. I somehow didnt
see him with the latest, all-flashing-lights PC and imagined him being, like many
Americans his age, an Apple user banging away on a Mac Classic or, the cutest CPU ever
built, an LC111. It was jaw-dropping then to discover that he writes by hand
and faxes the pages to someone - the same person for about the last twenty years or so -
to type out and send back. There cant be many authors in the 21st Century writing
such vast tomes as the Underworld USA Trilogy by hand.
Ellroy has a fierce reputation while on these
tours and we were told to be early and that lunch would be short as he likes to get back
to the hotel in the afternoon and do all his transatlantic phoning. It was this latter
necessity that eventually forced the issue. Ellroy appeared to be having fun, was actually
chilling out, and I think we could have jawed away for another two hours or more. We were
in a quite privileged position and on hindsight I wonder if we would have clicked as well
if there had been a tape recorder present or if we had been on native soil. I
think so, because he likes people anyway. And I liked him a hell of a lot, I liked his
vulnerability about his age, I liked his honesty and genuine interest, and I liked that
the fact that even as a fanatical dog lover he also likes cats. I also like his books.
Lunch over, we felt a bit guilty as our Spanish hosts
had been pretty much left out of the conversation. We asked him to sign a book for our
quiz winner and when he asked the rest of the table for things to sign, a library of
Ellroy in Spanish immediately appeared and we realised that we hadnt brought a copy
of an Ellroy from our collection for him to sign. Boo-hoo.
But that was a minor disaster. They
start to get bigger. Not wanting to detain him I fired off a few photos on a digital
camera that only records images at 72 dpi. The quality left a lot to be desired, see
opposite, but Montse Gurguí, his Spanish translator (along with Hernán Sabaté), was
going to take more photos in Madrid the next day, so no problem. She did . . . and then
her travelling companion left the camera on a bench in a small village where they stopped
to sit on their way to Segovia. Ellroy had also kindly granted Montse some time to
interview him while he was in Madrid, but by the time her allotted time came he was tired
and a Madrid journalist had pissed him off royally. She hadnt read any of his work
and was only interested in the websites dedicated to him. He told her in no uncertain
terms that a man who writes by hand has doodly-squat interest in websites. Listening to
the tape that Montse bought back, it was obvious that Ellroy had had enough. He answered
some questions with a No or a Yes when just the day before he was
spinning circles and only a large blow to the head could have shut him up. One could feel
his irritation. Then, just when he was slowly warming to the task, Fabio Vericat, who is
reviewing the book in Spanish, asked about the film version of L.A. Confidential.
We had covered this topic in Barcelona, and Ellroy - though very willing to talk about it
- made it plain that what he had to say about it was off the record. Anyway,
when Fabio unknowingly asked the question, Ellroy answered but turned the recorder off
first . . . and it was never turned back on.
April 16, 2001. Hotel Alcalá, Madrid.
A very noisy hotel lobby. James Ellroy has
just spent all day promoting the Spanish translation of The Cold Six Thousand. He
is at first very chatty with Montse Gurguí, Hernán Sabaté and Fabio Vericat but admits
to being very tired and sleeping badly; he asks about over-the-counter sleeping pills. It
is safer that nobody points out that even green tea has caffeine. He tells them
about the journalist and biting her head off (Dog bites journalist thats
news) and then laughs off the whole sorry incident, but not before slagging off Madrid and
stating that the next time he is in Spain he is only going to go to Barcelona. Seeing that
he appears to be his normal self, Montse decides its time to switch on the tape
recorder. Ellroy stiffens. He had hoped his day was over. He is not a happy bunny.
This is a long tour. How do you cope?
I go back to my room and I do deep breathing and a little bit of yoga and
try to calm down. Travel fucks your brain. I dont enjoy it.
So this is a new habit, yoga
Yeah, my wife Helen taught it me
I try it myself when I get to the point
When you get stressed out, you mean? It works, doesnt it?
(Ediciones B PR person reminds Ellroy of his appointment to get a haircut.)
If we can begin by going back to the distant past. . . You once said that you
couldnt get laid in the Summer of Love . Is that right?
I was trying in the worst way. I had short hair in the Summer of Love
thats how fucked up I was. Nobody wanted me.
Then later as you were discovering the writer inside you, you were getting laid
regularly as well as working as a caddy . . . how did you do that?
Well, I wrote in the afternoon. Caddied in the mornings, wrote in the afternoons and
early evenings and had the affairs later on.
How many hours a day is that?
It was a full day.
At the time did you have any contact with the publishing industry
how did all
that come about?
I knew a woman in
well, I knew a woman who had published a novel and she told me
that she found an agent in Writers Market, which is a literary reference
book. I bought a copy of Writers Market in 1980 and there were about four
agents who would read unsolicited manuscripts, so I sent four copies of the manuscript to
them and they all wanted to represent the book and I went with the guy who sounded the
most intelligent and aggressive.
When did you start living off the money from your books?
I was paid for my books from the beginning. I actually hung up my caddy cleats when I
was living in suburban New York, in the early fall of 1984. I started making a couple of
grand here and a couple of grand there to where I didnt have to caddy.
So you kept it all together, pretty much.
Is it true that your publisher made you edit White Jazz down from 900 pages to 400?
No, LA Confidential was 800 pages, I cut it to 635. I had developed a
telegraphic style that I later used in White Jazz.
By telegraphic style you mean
I am talking about the fractured sentence style only in White Jazz. I am not
talking about the more concise style of American Tabloid or The Cold Six
Is your telegraphic style modelled from or used by any other writer?
There is no one else.
It seems you are using fewer and fewer words to explain the most intricate stories. Many
writers and artists when they reach their maturity tend to dispense with all that is
superfluous and go straight to the essence. What is your process towards this minimalism?
It is actually more and more words. Secondly, the style is not minimalistic, its
anti-minimilistic. Its highly stylised, its extremely literal, its a
direct expression of the language of the characters, their inner and outer lives, and the
language of the base narrator, but theres actually more physical description in this
than there has been in my last few novels, it just doesnt seem like it because
its so stylised. It isnt minimalistic at all.
What are the implications of minimalism for you?
Small lives, neurosis, an unromantic way of looking at the world, an absence of moral
ardour or rigour and the denial of the fact that people have free will. If you have free
will, and you know something is wrong, and you act upon it in the wrong way, you are a bad
person. I heard somebody once say that there are no bad people, the forces that have made
them force them to make their decisions and I dont believe that.
Do you believe in God?
After writing the LA Quartet why did you then pick the vast subject of modern American
I wanted to write bigger books, I wanted to write books that can never be categorised
as a thriller, mystery or police and I wanted to get out of L.A. as a strict locale for my
books. I wanted to become a more mainstream, less generically derived, novelist.
You speak about being up against the ghetto genre all the time in America. Can
you elaborate on that?
Well, you know, who wants to be a mystery writer? Who wants to be a crime novelist
when you can be a plain old novelist with a capital N? You are known by the
company you keep. I mean, do you want to be in the same. . . mentioned in the same breath
as Agatha Christie and a bunch of people like that?
How about being in the same category as Dashiell Hammett?
Thats dandy, I mean I certainly dont want to morally be Dashiell Hammett
but.. Ill take that. But the truth is he wrote crime novels, they subscribe to a
formula, he largely invented the formula and invented the language. But there is a big
difference between writing The Dain Curse, The Maltese Falcon, Red Harvest, The Thin
Man and The Glass Key. . . establishing the
genre, taking off the genre then doing something different, completely different, as he
did with his last two books. Also, he was finished very young in his career.
You are moving away from crime and physical violence to psychological intrigue and
politics. In what essential ways has the White House changed in the last 50 years? Where
is America heading?
I dont know and I would never comment for attribution on the current political
scene today. Ill tell you, I voted for George Bush because I wanted to repudiate
Gore and Clintonism and nobody hates Bill Clinton more than me unless its a
wonderful American pundit, Bill OReilly, or the wonderful author of the Book of
Virtues, William Bennett, or Christopher Hitchens, the writer for Vanity Fair.
My only recent political occupation was hating Bill Clinton; now that Clintons out
of office I dont have much to do.
best politician in the last 50 years?
One thing youd say to George W. Bush.
Sign the Kyoto Accord.
To protect the animals.
Your thoughts on gun control. . . . You are an advocate, arent you?
No, I own 30 guns. I have a commemorative firearms collection. I think responsible
people should be able to own guns for sporting purposes and home protection. I think assault
weapons should be banned, I mean, youre not going to go hunting with a machine gun.
Theres no reason for that.
But some people do. . . . Would you ever consider moving to Europe for a time?
No, I only want to live at home, Kansas City.
And this is where you want to spend the rest of your life?
(Ellroy is brought some hot water for his green tea.)
Female characters are becoming more prominent in your books, would you care to comment on
Im getting older, Im seeing a broader base of humanity. I made a conscious
effort to do this as a direct result of having confronted my mother in My Dark Places
and I want to write more profound books. I mean The Cold Six Thousand is largely
about gangmen getting older and this book is intimate in a way that none of my previous
books have been.
By rediscovering your mother then reconciling yourself with women, how
No, no, I am not reconciling myself with women; it was reconciling myself with this
woman and realising that I had to do this.
And the consequences for the rest of the women are
The rest of the women are just fiction. Theres only one woman in my life, my
wife. The rest of them are just fiction.
In what way did writing My Dark Places mean a turning point in your life as a man
and as a writer?
as a writer I learned a great deal about myself. I plumbed my origins
and this gave me a greater resolve to show the larger diversity of plot and motive in my
next novel and to give more time to work with characters, and I think this all comes to
fruition in The Cold Six Thousand.
What are "Wet Arts?" Its a term I'm not familiar with.
Wet Arts are killing arts as defined by intelligence agencies: strangling, neck-slicing,
And these things really go on?
Is it true you dont eat meat?
No, I dont eat meat. Im an animal lover. Youre an animal lover, right?
Isnt it a bit of a contradiction? In your books there is so much blood and guts
and then you don't eat meat
Yeah, but its human, human blood. Id never hurt an animal. I am very
soft-hearted about animals.
Youre like a surgeon; you cut but repair rather than eat it afterwards? (laughs)
You have said that you want to write in a vacuum, you dont want to make
references or have another author in mind when you write. Isnt there a denial, in a
sense, of the influences of the real and literary world?
Ive learned from Don DeLillo. I discovered Don DeLillo and I credit him every
chance I get, but I am not in competition with Don DeLillo nor with any other writer and I
am my only frame of reference.
But you acknowledge an influence from DeLillo?
Yes, absolutely, every chance I get. Specifically Libra. I have only read two
books of his, Libra and Underworld. I write journalism and I went to the
Republican and Democrat conventions and I went to the Eric Morales and Marco Antonio
Barrera boxing match so I partake of the real world as far as journalism goes. I have no
desire to go see current movies; if something moves me Ill go see it. Contemporary
music doesnt interest me.
What did you think of L.A. Confidential?
Ill talk off the record. Is that on?
Not now. (clicks off)
. . . conversation continues; filed under Barcelona Confidential.