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A 'Lasciviously LA' Lunch With Crime Novelist James Ellroy

James Ellroy lives in Los Angeles, which serves as the setting for much of his work. (Knopf)

Writer James Ellroy has spent decades capturing a gritty, noirish Los Angeles in sprawling crime novels like The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential.

Ellroy could be a character in one of his own books. He's a thoroughly uncensored guy, a bit of a Luddite, and unafraid to talk on any subject at all: his mother's horrific murder when Ellroy was just 10, which was never solved; his decades-long struggle with alcoholism; his religious beliefs. And, of course, his LA crime fiction.

Historical novel-writing is in his blood, he explains to NPR's Arun Rath — and his city, too, is a part of him. "I'm 66 years old — I realize I don't look it — and I've lived here in LA most of my life," he says. "It's where I come when women divorce me."

His latest novel, Perfidia, follows the Los Angeles Police Department's response to a brutal murder on the eve of Pearl Harbor. It's the first installment in a new crime quartet — a prequel series, set before the books of his famous LA Quartet. Ellroy's longtime readers will find some familiar characters in the new book, from Dudley Smith to Kay Lake.

"I wanted to live World War II in the American homefront," the author says, "with characters I had already created — missed, frankly — and dearly loved."

I largely ignore the world today. I live almost completely and very happily within my imagination.
Novelist James Ellroy

Ellroy invited NPR to meet him for lunch at the Pacific Dining Car, a time capsule of a steakhouse near downtown LA.

"I've been here at least 16 trillion times," he says. "They've made films about me here. I met my beloved second ex-wife, the novelist Helen Knode, in that booth I'm pointing to; we had our divorce party here. So it's a place with some history."

Inside, it's dim and quiet, even on an intensely sunny August afternoon. It looks like it's hardly changed in the past 50 years: white tablecloths, rich green leather, impeccable service. It's Ellroy's favorite restaurant.

"I like steak," he explains. "I like that it's been here since 1921. I like that it's quiet and comfortable and cool on what bodes as the hottest day of the year."

Despite his stated fondness for steak, Ellroy orders a chicken Caesar salad with extra anchovies. He's been sober now for years, so it's just a coffee to drink. Over their food, Ellroy tells Rath about the appeal of history and the rewards of giving up technology.

And as the meal comes to an end, Ellroy offers up a firm handshake: "Arun, it was a deep-down, dirty, lasciviously LA blast," he says.


Interview Highlights

On the significance of LA in his life

My relationship with Los Angeles is entirely autobiographical. I was born two blocks from [the Pacific Dining Car] in 1948. So my parents hatched me in the film noir epicenter at the height of the film noir era, and my parents were right out of film noir.

In my book My Dark Places about my mother's murder, I said they were a great-looking — my mother and dad — cheap couple, rather like Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in Macao. So where else are they gonna go? LA. They were both too good-looking to live — they had to have me. So I survived to tell you the story of LA, way back when.

On the setting and plotting of Perfidia

One of the first things I noted when putting the notes together for Perfidia was proximity. Here's Little Tokyo, the chief Japanese enclave of the era. It adjoins Chinatown. You go a few blocks west, you have the LAPD Central Station and the crime lab on the third floor. You cut back northeast, and there's the LAPD Detective Bureau. You get on the first freeway in LA, the Arroyo Seco, and it's a straight shot north to the scene of the Watanabe murder case, the Japanese family killed the day before Pearl Harbor [the murder at the heart of the novel].

It's a hotbed of geopolitical tension, war fever, racial enmity and flat-out race hate. You can go get your Peking duck and talk anti-Japanese stuff at Uncle Ace Kwan's and cut back two blocks on foot and you're in the middle of the police rousts in Little Tokyo. So that is what gave this book this realization of mine: It's combustible. It's all localized. This is in a weird way both sprawling LA and small-town LA at the same time.

On his attraction to historical fiction

I've always been in awe of history, and there's an anecdote that serves to explain it: When I was 8 years old in 1956, the pervasiveness — the imaginative pervasiveness — of World War II was staggering to me. I believed that it was still going on. I said something that alerted my mother to this misconception, and she explained to me, "No, sonny, the war ended in 1945, three years before you were born." And I had a very hard time believing it.

I've always been moored to recent American history, but way, way back, during my youth, if a historical epoch — its big characters, its circumstances, its geopolitical stakes, its human infrastructure — speaks to me, I know it's time to write a novel about it.

On his tech-free lifestyle

The laborious process that I engage [in] of writing by hand with pen on white notebook paper, being computer-illiterate, existing outside the digital world — and I've written all 19 of my books in this manner — allows me to sustain concentration, I've come to believe, more deeply, and allows me to live more richly in the text as I compose it. ...

I have an assistant. She has a cellphone, she has a computer, she types my books. And I submit handwritten pages to her. I have a fax machine, too. ...

I have a music room and a classical CD collection and a great stereo system. Aside from that, I will watch the occasional crime TV show at a friend's place. I have no television. I have no VCR. I don't watch the news. I don't listen to the radio or read newspapers. I largely ignore the world today. I live almost completely and very happily within my imagination. There's it, which is the book (Perfidia now), and there is me.

I'm like — and God will forgive me for this comparison — Beethoven at his desk with a quill pen and his piano over here that he taps out notes on, although I can't play the piano. I like going back to another time and getting lost in it. And living, as immediately as I can, the lives of a tormented Japanese criminologist who is in the direst of straits the month of December of 1941, Kay Lake, [police captain] William H. Parker and Dudley Smith.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Writer James Ellroy has been capturing a gritty film-noirish Los Angeles for decades now with novels like "The Black Dahlia" and "L.A. Confidential." He's just released the first installment in a new L.A. crime quartet - a 700-page epic called "Perfidia." It follows many of the same characters from those previous novels. And it focuses around L.A. police response to a horrific murder of a Japanese-American family the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

James Ellroy's life reads like a James Ellroy novel. He was just 10 when his mother was murdered in East Los Angeles - a case that was never solved. Ellroy still lives here in L.A., so he invited us to lunch. James Ellroy, thank you for joining us.

JAMES ELLROY: Arun, it's good to be here.

RATH: We're at the Pacific Dining Car, a relic of a steakhouse near downtown L.A. It's his favorite restaurant.

ELLROY: I've been here at least 16 trillion times. They've made films about me here. I met my beloved second ex-wife, the novelist Helen Knode, in that booth I'm pointing to. We had our divorce party here. So it's a place with some history

RATH: What do you like about it?

ELLROY: I like steak. I like that it's been here since 1921. I like that it's quiet and comfortable and cool on what bodes as the hottest day of the year.

UNIDENTIFIED WAITER: Are you ready to order?

RATH: For me, the crab cakes. And Ellroy...

ELLROY: Brother, how about a chicken Caesar with extra anchovies.

RATH: We start out talking about Los Angeles.

ELLROY: My relationship to Los Angeles is entirely autobiographical. I was born two blocks from here in 1948. So my parents hatched me in the film noir epicenter at the height of the film noir era, and my parents were right out of film noir.

In my book "My Dark Places" about my mother's murder, I said they were a great-looking - my mother and dad - cheap couple, rather like Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in Macao. So where else are they gonna go? L.A. They were both too good-looking to live. They had to have me. So I survived to tell you the story of L.A., way back when.

RATH: There is a delicious to the detail in this book. I mean, I find myself wanting to put addresses into Google maps and look them up. When you're doing the research for the historical detail, like for instance looking into the reaction in Los Angeles after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese internment, how do you go about that? How do you sit down and figure out how to re-create that world of Los Angeles at that time?

ELLROY: It's in my blood. I'm a historical novelist at my heart. You know, I'm 66 years old. I realize I don't look it. And I've lived here in L.A. most of my life. It's where I come when women divorce me.

One of the first things I noted when putting the notes together for "Perfidia" was proximity. Here's Little Tokyo - the chief Japanese enclave of the era. It adjoins Chinatown. You go a few blocks west you have the LAPD Central Station and the crime lab on the third floor. You cut back northeast and there's the LAPD Detective Bureau. You get on the first freeway in L.A. - the Arroyo Seco - and it's a straight-shot north to the scene of the Watanabe murder case, the Japanese family killed the day before Pearl Harbor.

It's a hotbed of geopolitical tension, war fever, racial enmity and flat-out race hate. You can go get your Peking duck and talk anti-Japanese stuff at Uncle Ace Kwan's and cut back on foot two blocks and you're in the middle of the police rousts in Little Tokyo.

So that is what gave this book this realization of mine. It's combustible. It's all localized. This is in a weird way both sprawling L.A. and small-town L.A. at the same time.

RATH: Halfway through my conversation with novelist James Ellroy, our food arrives. And I ask him what about historical fiction attracts him so much?

ELLROY: I've always been in awe of history. And there's an anecdote that serves to explain it. When I was 8 years old in 1956, the pervasiveness - the imaginative pervasiveness - of World War II was staggering to me. I believed that it was still going on. I said something that alerted my mother to this misconception. And she explained to me - no, sonny, the war ended in 1945, three years before you were born. And I had a very hard time believing it.

I've always been moored to recent American history. But way way back, during my youth, if a historical epoch - its big characters, its circumstances, its geopolitical stakes, its human infrastructure - speaks to me, I know it's time to write a novel about it.

RATH: So what was it about the - well, particularly the beginning of the U.S. involvement in World War II and the Japanese internment that caught your imagination?

ELLROY: I wanted to live World War II in the American home front with characters I had already created - missed, frankly - and dearly loved.

RATH: Do you feel like these are characters external to you or they're part of you?

ELLROY: They are entirely part of me. The laborious process that I engage of writing by hand with pen on white notebook paper, being computer-illiterate, existing outside the digital world - and I've written all 19 of my books in this manner - allows me to sustain concentration - I've come to believe - more deeply, and allows me to live more richly in the text as I compose it.

RATH: So you're - you live without a computer, without the Internet, all that.

ELLROY: I have an assistant. She has a cell phone. She has a computer. She types my books. And I submit hand-written pages to her. I have a fax machine, too.

RATH: What about other media - are you watching the news, listening to the news? Like, what do you take in?

ELLROY: No. No. I'm not.

RATH: What's your media diet?

ELLROY: I have a music room and a classical CD collection and a great stereo system. Aside from that, I will watch the occasional crime TV show at a friend's place. I have no television. I have no VCR. I don't watch the news. I don't listen to the radio or read newspapers. I largely ignore the world today. I live almost completely and very happily within my imagination.

I'm like - and God will forgive me for this comparison - Beethoven at his desk with a quill pen and his piano over here that he taps out notes on. Although, I can't play the piano.

I like going back to another time and getting lost in it and living, as immediately as I can, the lives of a tormented Japanese criminologist who is in the direst of straits the month of December 1941, Kay Lake, William H. Parker and Dudley Smith.

RATH: James Ellroy, it's been a blast speaking with you. Thank you so much.

ELLROY: Arun, it was a deep-down, dirty, lasciviously L.A. blast.

RATH: The novelist James Ellroy - his newest novel, "Perfidia," is out now. And by the way, those crab cakes were delicious. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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