Friday, September 25, 2009

James F@*%ing Ellroy

Warning: this post is for mature audiences only.
Profanity ensues.

Wednesday night, I went to hear James Ellroy read from his new book, Blood's a Rover, and event hosted by Harvard Bookstore (independent since 1932). When I came home, my husband asked how he was, and I said profane and magnificent. I stand by my evaluation.

I was going to try to summarize the event for you (I took notes), but yesterday I was delighted to discover that it is available online, so you can hear him for yourself. Thank god, the pressure is off, and I no longer have to try to remember the entirety of his description of how, at birth, the Alfred A. Knopf borzoi (tall, slinky, and ruffle-coated) appeared to him in a vision and told him that he was the only one who could save the printed word...

Don't worry, I'll still summarize a few things for you. Italics indicate a summarized quote from my memory and notes, whereas block quotes indicate precise quotes transcribed from the podcast recording.

The words of James Ellroy:
  • Nowhere is more important to kneel than a place where books are read and sold.
  • This book guarantees your front row seat in heaven, where I guarantee you will be able to have sex with all the people you desired in this life who told you to fuck off, so you better buy this fucking book.
  • When asked if he had any choices words for the Kindle, Ellroy simply growled. Then he added: This book has a great author photo, it cost me five grand to get that photo and three years to write the book, not to mention all the marriages and extraneous girlfriends it cost me, so don't fucking stiff me by reading this book on something that looks like an Etch-a-Sketch. The borzoi will hunt you down.
  • Lesser writers may need to travel to do research. I only need to dream.
I took the opportunity to ask Ellroy something during the Q&A, but I'm going to give you a little background before I tell you what I asked. On Wednesday, Nathan Bransford asked his readers, Do you need to be well-read to be a good writer?

I responded in the comments:
I don't know HOW well-read you need to be... and I don't know how much you need to read in your own genre... but I do think that staying away from writing because it will "influence" your own writing voice is poppycock.

If your voice can't handle a little exposure to other voices, then it's probably not strong enough to write a good novel yet. Exposure helps you find your voice, just like debate helps you clarify your own beliefs.
And then, a little while later, I responded again:
ACK! I'm going to see James Ellroy read tonight, and I just looked up his Wikipedia entry, and apparently he "never reads books by other authors, aside from Joseph Wambaugh's The Onion Field, for fear that they might influence his own."

Can that be POSSIBLE? Surely not. It must just be part of his public persona to claim such a thing, right? RIGHT?
So, during the Q&A, I asked Ellroy if this was true, or if he just said it because it made him sound so much cooler than the rest of us. Here's part of his response:
I largely ignore the world, and it's proven quite efficacious for me... I have no cultural input. I limit my perspective... so that I can live obsessively the themes of my personal life... and the history that I write about.

...I lie in the dark, brood, think about all manner of crazy shit, and wait for the phone to ring... This is the way I live. I'm not shitting you. I've blurbed some books, I haven't read them.
Another audience member followed up, asking if he had any writing influences, and he said: his ex-wife Helen Knode, Erika Schickel, and Beethoven (who will play for you personally in the afterlife if you buy Ellroy's book).

All I can say is this: it works for him. I seriously doubt it would work for anyone else. Like Will Smith walking away from M.I.T. to become a rap, television, and film star. He's the only person that plan will work for. Ever.

At the very end, Ellroy was pushing us to ask "the metaphysical questions," and when we failed to satisfy him, he prompted us further, asking, does anyone want to ask me, "Why do I write?" (Yes, I'm the one who stepped up to ask it.) He answered by quoting Dylan Thomas.
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie 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
On 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.
Now THAT is a man who can self-promote.

When I came up to get my book signed, I told him that I think he's a fucking dialogue genius. He thanked me, and asked if I'd read the new book yet. I said no, because I had a two-year-old who thought all books should be read to her, and that I figured I should wait a year or two before reading his books to her. He agreed that, really, you had to be at least 3 or 4 for his work, and he signed my book "To Carrie, Don't Read To Your Daughter Yet."

It was a blast, and I'm thrilled that I went. I hope some of you will listen to the podcast, even though it is about an hour-and-a-half long with the Q&A. You can pause it up and listen in sections if you like, it will be still profane and magnificent.

The hive mind is still mulling over those self-promotion issues! Rachelle Gardener blogged about it today, linking to a relevant Washington Post article on novice authors from Thursday.


  1. Damn, I've never heard of the lad, but now I'm just salivating to check him out! I'll have to start with the Podcast, though. I'm sure I don't have to tell you about "To Read" piles in the corner...

  2. Now, I know nothing about Mr. Ellroy or his works. The title threw me a bit, though, since Blood's a Rover was the tentative title for a long, long overdue novel by Harlan Ellison. Ellison's (in)famous short story "A Boy and His Dog" was supposed to be the first part of that novel, though as far as I know only a few other scraps have ever surfaced of it. Is there any connection here, or just a strange coincidence?

  3. Most people know of Ellroy because he wrote the book that was later adapted into the movie L.A. Confidential (if you rent the DVD, please watch the interview with Ellroy in the "making of"/special features section, it's that interview that lead me to read his work).

    Blood's a Rover is part of an A.E. Houseman poem (quoted at the start of Ellroy's book)... maybe both authors had the same source material in mind?

  4. Ah yes, that would certainly explain it. I now feel better edjumuhcated. :)

  5. Wow. Amazing post. Complete with Dylan Thomas poem I didn't know. "I lie in the dark and brood, think all manner of crazy shit, and wait for the phone to ring." Let's hear it for unhealthy behavior! Thanks for this.