issue 24: May - June 2001 

excerpt from The Cold Six Thousand | book review | quiz

ellroy.jpg (8812 bytes)Lunch and Tea
James Ellroy

by M.G. Smout


1. Lunch:
Easter Sunday, April 15, 2001. Maritímo Restaurant, Barcelona.

Jeez, the man’s 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 I’d 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 Ellroy’s 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 along".

Ellroy picture used in many book jackets

...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 world’s fastest chooser of food. He doesn’t 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 won’t 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 one’s 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 out".
        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. Ellroy’s 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 doesn’t know and doesn’t 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 hadn’t heard about Boris Becker’s 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 don’t 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 Hemingway’s The Nick Adams Stories wasn’t 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 isn’t the loss of money that’s 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 didn’t 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 can’t 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 hadn’t brought a copy of an Ellroy from our collection for him to sign. Boo-hoo.
James Ellroy in Barcelona        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 hadn’t 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.

James Ellroy2: Tea:
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 – that’s 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 it’s 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 … you know… try to calm down. Travel fucks your brain. I don’t 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, doesn’t 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 couldn’t get laid in the Summer of Love [1967]. Is that right?
I was trying in the worst way. I had short hair in the Summer of Love – that’s 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 Writer’s Market, which is a literary reference book. I bought a copy of Writer’s 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 didn’t 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 Thousand.

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, it’s anti-minimilistic. It’s highly stylised, it’s extremely literal, it’s a direct expression of the language of the characters, their inner and outer lives, and the language of the base narrator, but there’s actually more physical description in this than there has been in my last few novels, it just doesn’t seem like it because it’s so stylised. It isn’t 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 don’t believe that.

Do you believe in God?


After writing the LA Quartet why did you then pick the vast subject of modern American history?
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?
That’s dandy, I mean I certainly don’t want to morally be Dashiell Hammett but.. I’ll 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 don’t know and I would never comment for attribution on the current political scene today. I’ll tell you, I voted for George Bush because I wanted to repudiate Gore and Clintonism and nobody hates Bill Clinton more than me unless it’s a wonderful American pundit, Bill O’Reilly, 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 Clinton’s out of office I don’t have much to do.

Well… best politician in the last 50 years?

Harry Truman?

One thing you’d say to George W. Bush.
Sign the Kyoto Accord.

To protect the animals.

Your thoughts on gun control. . . .  You are an advocate, aren’t 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, you’re not going to go hunting with a machine gun. There’s 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 this?
I’m getting older, I’m 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. There’s 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?
I learned… 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?" It’s a term I'm not familiar with.

Wet Arts are killing arts as defined by intelligence agencies: strangling, neck-slicing, obviously…

And these things really go on?
Oh yeah!

Is it true you don’t eat meat?
No, I don’t eat meat. I’m an animal lover. You’re an animal lover, right?

Isn’t 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 it’s human, human blood. I’d never hurt an animal. I am very soft-hearted about animals.

You’re 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 don’t want to make references or have another author in mind when you write. Isn’t there a denial, in a sense, of the influences of the real and literary world?
I’ve 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 I’ll go see it. Contemporary music doesn’t interest me.

What did you think of L.A. Confidential?
I’ll talk off the record. Is that on?

Not now. (clicks off)

. . . conversation continues; filed under Barcelona Confidential.

© 2001 The Barcelona Review

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barcelona review 24           May - June  2001


James Ellroy: excerpt The Cold Six Thousand
Pedro Juan Gutiérrez: Buried in Shit
Pedro Juan Gutiérrez: Stars and Losers
Terry DeHart: About Half-Crazy
Heather Fowler: If King Hammurabi
picks from back issues
James Meek: Two Stories
Alicia Erian: When Animals Attack

-Profile Lunch and Tea with James Ellroy

Ellroy Quiz
Answers to last issue's Hemingway Quiz

-Book Reviews Bill Broady, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, James Ellroy, Sara Bird
-Regular Features Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives
(authors listed alphabetically)

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