“I’ve had precious few moments,” admitted the novelist James Ellroy, “where I’ve said to myself: ‘Ellroy, you are the king. You’re the greatest crime writer that ever lived.’” A comment like that might be insufferable if it weren’t delivered, as it was by Ellroy, with a grin and if it didn’t also have a plausible claim on the truth. Ellroy’s morally complex, baroquely plotted, sprawling and highly stylized novels — “The Black Dahlia” and “L.A. Confidential” chief among them — constitute a singularly intense body of work. In the 71-year-old’s opinion, he has reached a new peak with his latest, “This Storm.” But he’s not taking that as an invitation to coast. “The reflex kicks in,” Ellroy said, and it tells him: “You’ve got more work to do.”
Almost all your books are set and I know that you’re intentionally disconnected from modern culture. Are you missing out on something important by not living more deeply in the times in which you live? I have a quotation here. [Ellroy removes a note from his shirt pocket.] This is the great pianist Glenn Gould on the great composer Richard Strauss. “The great thing about the music of Richard Strauss is that … it presents to us an example of the man who makes richer his own time for not being of it, who speaks for all generations by being of none. It is an ultimate argument of individuality, an argument that a man can create his own synthesis of time without being bound by the conformities that time imposes.” That says it all.
O.K., I know you like to do shtick in public. Is that about concealing anything? A lot of it is being the pit bull staked by chain to a spike in the front yard. I’ve been writing a book for a couple of years, and then they slip the chain off and I can run wild. But I realize part of it is a cover-up. My early life was horrible privation living with the unhousebroken dog and telling me, “I [expletive] Rita Hayworth.” I passed that off as [expletive], and then 10 years after my dad died I saw a Hayworth biography in a bookstore and looked his name up in the index. It didn’t say he’d eh eh eh but it did say that he was her business manager between about 1948 and ’52.
Could any of your self-mythologizing stand to be deflated? The more I look at my own life, the more I realize that traumatic influences have played a part in it. I’m talking about.