Being James Ellroy

In an exclusive interview for our podcast, the originals, L.A.’s last (and crankiest) literary legend has some deep thoughts about sex, love, fame, posterity, and podcasts, but best not ask him about his girlfriends
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Podcasting has reached such a state of saturation now that even those who’ve never heard a podcast before are starting their own. Which, in the case of fans of any of the 25 books by 74-year-old author James Ellroy, happens to be an unexpected blessing. For James Ellroy’s Hollywood Death Trip, a new five-part series for Audible Originals artfully produced by podcast studio Audio Up, the author lends his voice to a reimagining of some of his long-form magazine articles into lush theater of the mind that conjures L.A.’s noir heyday. 

Fittingly, the series begins with the story of the 1958 unsolved murder of then-ten-year-old Ellroy’s mother, Jean, strangled and dumped near a high school following a night out in El Monte, an event that sparked his obsession with unsolved murders like the Black Dahlia case, the subject of his 1987 breakout novel. 

“Dead women own me,” he intones at the top of the first episode, though his foray into audio will soon also include his less victim-obsessed, more conspiratorial work with an upcoming Audio Up adaptation of his sprawling 1995 novel American Tabloid for audible, in which JFK’s killers tell the story of the assassination from their points of view. Though over the years the project was in development to star Tom Hanks, then Bruce Willis, and, most recently, James Franco, it will finally be brought to life featuring the voice talent of a cast that includes Brian Cox, Bobby Cannavale, and Elliott Gould. It’s a project its producer, Audio Up’s Chief Creative Officer Jimmy Jellinek, describes as “the first blockbuster of the audio era,” comparable in ambitions to The Godfather.

Though Ellroy’s work is as associated with Los Angeles as any living author, he decamped to Denver seven years ago to be close to his former wife—and current girlfriend—the novelist Helen Knode. The pair live in separate apartments on the same floor. “The commute is about 16 seconds,” he explains. “Come and go as you please. And if you enjoy your separate solitude, as Helen and I do, Daddy-o, that’s it.”

A note to future Ellroy interviewers: Though Ellroy might have written two shockingly candid memoirs about his obsessive womanizing and decades spent engaging in extensive onanism, he’s gotten particularly touchy about the topic. So make sure you don’t begin a Zoom interview noting how it’s surprising that the existence of so much free internet porn hadn’t compelled the famously horny, famously technology-averse novelist to finally learn how to use a computer. “Fuck you!” Ellroy barked, slamming his borrowed laptop shut. Following the intercession of a flustered colleague, Ellroy was back on-screen five minutes later, cooler but still testy and ready to tussle. 

Would it be fair to call your relationship with Hollywood adaptations mixed? You’ve written a lot of unproduced scripts. You’ve had one fantastic film adaptation of your book L.A. Confidential. Another one, The Black Dahlia, didn’t get great reviews or do great business, but I gather it sold you a ton of books.

Let’s put this way, Mr. Goldman. The Black Dahlia movie sold 40 times as many books for me and made me 40 times the royalty dough in seven weeks than L.A. Confidential has made in 25 years. I didn’t like The Black Dahlia. Now that the director, Curtis Hanson, who was a friend of mine, has passed away, I can tell the truth about L.A. Confidential the movie. I didn’t like it. I don’t think it’s any good.

It was critically beloved. It made Russell Crowe a star. 

It’s about as deep as a tortilla.

I’m curious why L.A. Confidential didn’t move as many books for you. 

Who knows? The reading public is fickle. Maybe the fact that the Black Dahlia is a famous murder case. Snappy title, shorter book. 

ames Ellroy signs books at the French release of The Hilliker Curse at the Virgin Megastore in Paris, 2011. (PHOTOGRAPH: SIMON ISABELLE/SIPA/1102010948 (SIPA VIA AP IMAGES))

Your 1996 memoir, My Dark Places, saw you teaming up with a former homicide detective and unsuccessfully trying to solve your mother’s murder. I got the impression that perhaps you didn’t want to solve it—that closure wasn’t important to you. 

Yeah, I think closure is bullshit. I wanted to solve it, but some part of my bunky brain that understands myself to be an exploiter of tragedy, an opportunist, and a literary glory hound, understood, “Man, this is up against it.” I was pessimistic, but I still put a lot of dough into it. I paid Bill Stoner, the retired homicide detective, some good dough to help me out. Staying away from my wife at the time for 15 months was taxing on the relationship, taxing on my pocketbook. I spent most of the advance on rentals and buying steak dinners for Stoner and me as we drove all over L.A. talking to people who said, “Oh yeah, Mrs. Ellroy, I remember her.” I’d say, “Did she have boyfriends?” They’d say, “I don’t know.” It was like taking a tour through the faulty-memory zone of elderly people. In the end, nothing played.

It was incredibly brave for you to admit that you’ve long had a psychosexual relationship with your dead mother— that you saw her naked when you were a kid and would eventually sexually fantasize about her. Was this something that you wrestled with talking about?

Yeah, it was. There are lines of decorum that I would cross at 46, in my first memoir, that I wouldn’t cross now as a 70-year-old man who writes only fiction. I wouldn’t do it now. 

It sounds like you regret sharing that.

No. I’m not a guy who harbors regrets.

You also say quite clearly in your second memoir, The Hilliker Curse, which was written in 2010, that you have a type, and your type . . . 

Let’s not talk about my old girlfriends, Mr. Goldman. 

Well, I wasn’t talking specifically about your ex-girlfriends; I was talking about your current girlfriend. 

Yeah, Helen Knode, my second ex-wife. My ex-wife girlfriend.

There are lines of decorum that I would cross at 46, in my first memoir, that I wouldn’t cross now as a 70-year-old man who writes only fiction.

Your redhead obsession, she talks about it. It didn’t seem like it’s any secret that you like tall redheads who resemble your mother.

Well, there you go. No, you’re right.

I would love to ask you about The Hilliker Curse, but it doesn’t sound like you want to talk about it. There are landmines all over. I don’t want to go into any territory that’s going to make you angry. 

Hey, Mr. Goldman, how old are you?

I’m about to turn 50.

Wow, you’re turning 50. All of a sudden, 70, 71, 72. That shit is for real. If you’ve got qualms about turning 50 . . . shit.

I didn’t say I had qualms. I’m going to have a big party.

OK, have a big party and have a blast. When you’re 71, 72, you look back, and you see the things of youth. You see a horrible propensity for indecorous behavior on your part. You live, and you learn. And I hope I have. As Jesse Jackson famously said some decades ago, “Be patient—God isn’t finished with me yet.” 

Then can you tell me specifically what this indecorous behavior was?

Chasing women. It’s what I cop to in The Hilliker Curse.

You’ve changed since you wrote that?

Yeah.

Amber Smith and David Strathairn in the 1997 film adaptation of L.A. Confidential directed by Curtis Hanson. “It’s about as deep as a tortilla,” Ellroy now says of the film. (PHOTOGRAPH: WARNER BROS./PHOTOFEST)

You’re now living in Denver in an apartment just down the hall from Helen Knode, who you were married to from 1991 to 2006.

Yeah. Fifteen years. Listen, Helen is a no-fly zone, sir. It’s my marriage. If I had a therapist, I wouldn’t talk to my therapist about my marriage.

So you’re Lutheran. I don’t know many Lutherans. The most famous Lutheran I know is Garrison Keillor, who seems like the total opposite of you. What do Lutherans believe happens when you die?

Go to heaven. 

But how do you get there? Do you have to repent? How does it work?

That’s part of the deal. Sir, I think we’re getting off track here again. Again, I’m not a spokesman.

All right, James. Why don’t you ask me the questions, and I’ll answer them.

No. You know what I’d like to talk about? The podcast! Yeah, the podcast. I want to talk about “‘James Ellroy’s Hollywood Death Trip.”’ I want to talk about the transcription of nonfiction and fiction from printed word.

What podcasts do you like, James?

I’ve never listened to one. I went right into performing them.

You’ve attained great commercial success. You have a reputation as a good tipper. Do you enjoy money?

Yeah, I like to throw it around. Because I grew up poor. I started out as a caddie at Bel-Air Country Club, and if a golfer gave you an extra 20 bucks, it was a big deal. Then I could stay home the following day and work on the first two books that I was writing because I had the extra 20 scoots, and could ply myself with food and pay my rent. So I throw it out there. It’s the way to be.

What do you like to spend your money on now?

Security. I like to upgrade to first class any chance I get, to get more leg room in the seat. I like to take care of the very few people in my orbit.

You’ve often described yourself as right-wing. When you talk about spending your money on security, I don’t know if that means . . . are you sitting on an arsenal?

No. Ah, shit, no. We’re getting into the territory now. I don’t like talking about politics. In fact, I would’ve said right at the front of the telecast, it’s off the board. I don’t like being categorized in these terms. I don’t like being a personality anymore. All I want to talk about is each and every book or podcast that I have written or participated in or read from. Exclusively. And in this case, that single declarative sentence, “Dead women own me,” from “James Ellroy’s Hollywood Death Trip.”

All right. Let’s talk about that line. Back in 2006, when the Black Dahlia film was coming out, you said you were never going to talk about the Black Dahlia or your mother’s death ever again.

Yeah. I was mistaken. Boy, I blew that one, didn’t I?

(PHOTOGRAPH: LOS ANGELES MAGAZINE)

It’s something you’ve been very honest about it—about saying that you feel like, in mining her story, you robbed her grave. You’ve referred to your readings as “the 6,000th performance of my dead-mother act.” The first episode of the show tells the story of your mother’s death. You’re really leaning into the dead mother.

Yeah. The podcast is something else entirely. The whole idea of podcast form is how it transposes the written

word and illuminates it for a wide array of English-speaking people. 

I’m trying to imagine what your ideal interview is. Because I read so much about you, and there was so much I wanted to ask, but I’m looking over my notes and I’m being like, “If I ask him that, he’s going to fucking jump down my throat.”

Yeah. I think this is a good, contentious interview.

Oh, you do?

Yeah, I do. I really do. I’m glad we got back on the horn. 

See, I’m sort of getting the sense that as angry as you come across, you might actually be enjoying yourself. 

I’m having a blast now. We put our shit behind us.

James, I’m wondering how a woman reacts, when, as you wrote, after she disrobes and you see her breasts, you weep uncontrollably. 

That was a prostitute, by the way, in Hollywood.

Well, he had an 18-incher. After he had his first stroke, the old man’s beast hung out the left leg of his boxer shorts. 

Oh, I thought that was something that happened with a girlfriend named Joan. Do you still go to prostitutes? There was a period where you . . . 

No, no. Come on!

Well, do you still want me to ask you the questions that I actually had written?

Yeah. I’ll just tell you yes or no.

In the intro to your podcast, you reference your “hog log” and call yourself the “slick trick with the donkey dick.” You have spoken extensively the size about your father’s penis.

Well, he had an 18-incher. There it is. And I know it’s not a whacked-out kid’s recollection. Near the end of his life, my dad was senile. After he had his first stroke, the old man’s beast hung out the left leg of his boxer shorts. Our landlord was an Italian carpenter named Dino Lupo. Dino would go, “Hey, kid. Hey, kid. Come here.” He’d point to the old man. He’d go, “Hey, kid, your father the bull.” This’ is all part and parcel about something I call dog humor. I love dogs. You like dogs?

I love dogs. I’ve got mine hidden away right now, so we don’t hear her.

Well, God bless. I’m going to pray for your dog tonight. I love dogs insanely. And the antics of dogs and dogs’ bravura nature—and loving nature and fierce nature—move me.

Ellroy’s 1995 novel, American Tabloid, imagines Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover, and Jimmy Hoffa in the years leading up to the JFK assassination. (COURTESY OF KNOPF)

You had dogs in the past, and you’re a serial anthropomorphizer of dogs—funny dog voices and funny dog sayings. But I read that you have only an imaginary dog now.

Well, numerous imaginary dogs. See, here’s the deal, Mr. Goldman. I can’t live through the horror and pathos of another animal death. So I give lots of dough to animal trusts. 

You don’t want to talk about ex-girlfriends, but I want to ask about your life as a serial romancer. You’ve written that you’d get a phone message, and you would listen to it over and over. You fell in love with a woman who showed up to one of your readings because you were convinced that she’d appeared in a memorable dream you’d had 20 years before. You sent love letters frequently, as though you were Beethoven sending them to your Immortal Beloved. It all sounded to me very time-consuming and exhausting.

It’s the best question anyone has asked me, sir, in a very long time. Yeah. It’s exhausting being me. And God’s been very, very kind to me, and I have a good work ethic, and I have gifts. I got sober the first time in 1977 with Alcoholics Anonymous. And the late ’70s was an extraordinarily permissive milieu. Men and women would meet at a Sunday AA meeting on Federal Avenue in West L.A., and instead of going out for coffee, they would take one or two cars to a joint on Olympic and Stewart—right on the Santa Monica-West L.A. border—called Hot Tub Fever. 

I’d rent a tiny, cramped cubicle with a hot tub and a half a dozen condoms on a shelf and an 8-track cassette player. They had a bed big enough for a short person to lie down on, which is where you were supposed to do it. And we’d shuck our duds and get in the water. 

I’ve been there 30 times with 30 different women. Most of the time, women would say no. But a few times, they’d say yes. I exploited it. I was a big, good-looking kid, and all of a sudden, women liked me, whereas before, they were holding wolfsbane up to ward me off. I was a dipshit and a nose picker and everything else.

You don’t seem like a guy who’s fearful about the idea of cancellation. 

Yeah, well. So does some shit from my past come back to haunt me? Everybody has secrets. Everybody has made injudicious, heedless, vile comments. I have repented my inactions. 

You know what the thrill is? Here’s the thrill: I’m very, very, very, very, very curious about people. I’ve always been very, very curious about sexuality.

What does the repentance look like? 

“Dear Lord, I have done this. Suffuse me with thy will so that I may not repeat this sin.” That’s about it.

Before getting sober, you had a long period as a serious drug addict. You were doing a lot of breaking and entering. And from reading your tales, I wasn’t sure whether the primary motivation was for you to drink people’s liquor or to sniff women’s panties. 

When you have a backstory like mine, and you’re besieged by media people who want to hear it, they exaggerate. It’s a natural propensity. So between 1966, when I was 18, up through the summer of 1969—the summer of the Manson family killings—I did it 16 or 17 times in households where I knew the girls. And, OK, so maybe 20 minutes each time, in and out, aggregate. I was a scaredy-cat. I stopped in the summer of ’69 because of the Manson killings—because more and more people in Hancock Park started getting security signs staked into their front lawn. 

But the thing is, as a cumulative force in my imaginative life, it’s negligible. It’s a minute proportion of my time. It’s a dipshit on the loose. What I primarily did at the time was read. Even when I had no pad and sleeping in parks, I’d read in public libraries. Read, read, read, read, read. I’m a testament to the curative power of fiction, specifically, and nonfiction. I can recall stints—weeklong, two-week long stints—of reading in public libraries that cumulatively eclipsed and blitzed all my time doing this peeper break-in shit. It’s minute. But it’s snazzy compared to, “Ellroy, age 20, read in public libraries sometimes as long as 10, 12 hours a day.”

Ellroy’s mother, Geneva Hilliker. was murdered in 1958 when the author was ten years old. The back of the photo is marked, “This one we took so you could judge how tall Lee is. I have platform soles & high heels on, & Stinkey ducked his head, so the idea didn’t come off.” (PHOTOGRAPH: JAMES ELLROY ARCHIVE, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CAROLINA LIBRARIES; NEWSPAPER: LOS ANGELES TIMES)

Well, you didn’t spend chapters writing about your reading habits.

No.

You spent a lot of time writing about the break-ins. I was trying to figure out what the thrill was.

You know what the thrill is? Here’s the thrill: I’m very, very, very, very, very curious about people. I’ve always been very, very, very curious about sexuality. I was then, and I am now. There was a gag line from a nightclub comic that says it all: “I want to find the guy who invented sex and ask him what he’s working on now.” And that’s the goad for me.

You had what you called “a crack-up”—you went away to a facility for a period. It seemed like you were suffering from what sounded like a panic disorder. 

Yeah. I don’t know what it is. My nerves were sure as hell shot to shit. I’d been working too hard for 23 years. Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam—all day, all night. Book, book, book, book. Book tours all over the place.

I assume you’re better.

I am better. I’m here talking to you, and I’m healthy as shit.

What’s the Ellroy prescription for curing a crack-up?

Seek God.

Oh, that sounds very difficult for someone like me. How do you do that?

You gotta hit the shit. I don’t know. I don’t know what anybody’s “hit the shit” quotient over endurance is. Mine’s pretty high. But I’ve hit the shit more than once.

Since all of your books are set before 1972, there’s a lot of dialogue in the lingo of the time, much of it casually racist. Has anybody told you that this is not tolerated anymore?

Yeah. People have mentioned it. 

And I think their case probably isn’t hurt by the fact that for a period as a teen you identified as a Nazi. And back in 2010, in this magazine, Amy Wallace described the moustache you used to wear as “Hitlerian” and perhaps in itself a provocation.  

That’s about my physiognomy, Mr. Goldman. When I had darker hair, it was a toothbrush mustache. And since I was bald when I met Amy Wallace of your publication, it was suffused with some gray bristles. I looked pretty good.

I don’t want to end this with an explosion, so I’m not going to name her. But you ride off in the sunset with a character at the end of The Hilliker Curse. And then she came out with a memoir that was not flattering to you.

Let’s move on, Mr. Goldman. We’re near the end.

Do you miss L.A.? 

No.

Not at all?

No.

Listen to Los Angeles’ The Originals podcast with James Ellroy.


Or listen here at Apple Podcasts.

Read ‘Co**s**ker!’: How My James Ellroy Podcast Went Off the Rails

This story is featured in the July 2022 issue of Los Angeles.

(Photographed by Shayan Asgharnia)

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