Thursday, January 28, 2016

My Ellrovian Journey

(Editor’s note: Steven Powell is a British scholar and the co-editor of The Venetian Vase, a crime fiction-oriented blog. He wrote Conversations with James Ellroy and edited the encyclopedic work 100 American Crime Writers, both released in 2012. In the essay below, Powell recalls the lengths he went to in order to produce his latest book, James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction.)

It was a blurred image of President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade which first brought my attention to the work of James Ellroy. I was in my mid-teens, on holiday with my parents on the south coast of England, when a leisurely detour through a local bookshop led me to spot a striking book cover that looked like it had been adapted from the Zapruder film: it was James Ellroy’s 1995, novel American Tabloid. I had never read Ellroy before, but a novel about the 1963 Kennedy assassination seemed interesting. Sure enough, a few pages in and I was gripped. Ellroy portrayed the assassination conspiracy from an Underworld perspective. His characters were brutal but sympathetic, the prose seemed both telegraphic and poetic. But what stood out more than anything else was Ellroy’s unapologetic determination to make the reader empathize with the characters who ultimately conspire to kill Kennedy. As he put it in the prologue, “America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets.”

Of course back then I had no idea that I would one day write a book about Ellroy, but it was that chance discovery in a bookshop that was the genesis of what I like to call my “Ellrovian Journey,” a journey that culminated in the release last September of James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction, the latest addition in Palgrave Macmillan’s Crime Files series. Previous entries have included Barry Forshaw’s Death in a Cold Climate (2012) and Lee Horsley’s The Noir Thriller (2001). With this study of Ellroy, I have considered all of the author’s major works, examining how his writing style has changed between novels. I have also analyzed the role Ellroy’s “Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction” persona has played in his literary career.

The book was adapted from my thesis. It was my better half who persuaded me that I should take my fascination with Ellroy’s work and direct it toward scholarly research, which is why the dedication of the book reads “For Diana—who started the journey.” During the course of my Ph.D. study, I had to decide what angle I would take in exploring Ellroy’s work. The novelist Craig McDonald has written, “Read five biographies of the same man, say, of Ernest Hemingway, and you’ll close each book feeling like you’ve read about five different people.” There seemed to be many different sides to James Ellroy and many aspects of his life and work I could focus on—the potential autobiographical connections in his fiction stemming from his often horrific early life, the unsolved murder of his mother, Ellroy’s descent into alcohol and drug abuse, and his various stints in the L.A. County Jail—which have all, to varying degrees, had an influence on his fiction. There is also the development of Ellroy’s idiosyncratic prose style. Read his debut, Brown’s Requiem (1981), a private-eye novel, and compare it to a later work such as the epic historical fiction of The Cold Six Thousand (2001), and you can see the remarkable evolution of both plotting and prose in Ellroy’s writing. Then again, a classic work such as The Black Dahlia (1987) could easily justify a Ph.D. in itself. In the end, I opted for a comprehensive study, examining all of the key issues in Ellroy’s work but paying special attention to his literary persona (against the advice of some academics who thought the Demon Dog role was just playacting on Ellroy’s part). Well, I was soon to learn that Ellroy is a very different man in private than his more outrageous media appearances would suggest.

Ellroy kindly consented to three telephone interviews, and when I visited his archive at the Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina, I was able to travel to L.A. directly afterwards and interview Ellroy in person and at length. I had been studying his interviews for a long time, and when speaking to him, I was able to avoid subjects he had already exhausted in writing and conversation (such as his mother’s murder) and focus instead on his unfinished projects (“L.A. Death Trip” and “The Confessions of Bugsy Siegel”) and lesser-known works like the Lloyd Hopkins novels. So, following this research trip I began editing the anthology of interviews Conversations with James Ellroy for University Press of Mississippi. You never truly know when you’ll see a breakthrough while working on a project such as this, and curiously enough it was during a routine copyright request that I was afforded a glimpse into the role and purpose of the Demon Dog persona. One of the earliest interviews of Ellroy’s career was conducted by Duane Tucker and published in 1984 in the now-defunct but fondly remembered Armchair Detective magazine. When I contacted Tucker, he denied conducting the interview and suggested Ellroy used his name to write the interview himself. The more I looked at the interview, the more I became convinced that it is not a two-way conversation, but rather the young Ellroy’s written manifesto for what he wanted to achieve as a novelist. Of course, there were other possibilities: was Tucker winding me up? Had he simply forgotten the interview took place (as former Armchair Detective editor Otto Penzler suggested to me)? In the end, I was unable to elicit a confession from Ellroy, and the anthology states that the authorship of that 1984 interview is disputed, although my personal belief is that Ellroy wrote the interview out of a nascent literary ambition to craft his Demon Dog persona.

(Right) James Ellroy, photographed by Guillaume Paumier

Once I completed my Ph.D., Palgrave awarded me a contract to adapt it into a monograph. During the redrafting stages of the book, I kept myself busy by organizing the “James Ellroy: Visions of Noir” conference at the University of Liverpool. It was a deeply rewarding experience. Not only did we have noir expert Woody Haut as our keynote speaker and novelist Martin Edwards as the special guest, but it was interesting to see through the work of the delegates who came from as far afield as Brazil, Germany, and Australia how critical interest in Ellroy has developed rapidly in the past few years. Although not every critic holds Ellroy in high esteem. Ellroy’s always been a risk taker, and a consequence of this is that some experiments may alienate the reader. Mike Davis described Ellroy’s work as “at times an almost unendurable wordstorm of perversity and gore.” In the book, I examine how Ellroy has developed his idiosyncratic prose and plotting style, which has won him legions of fans, but also some severe critics like Davis. Two of the key novels in the development of this style were the L.A. Quartet entries L.A. Confidential (1990) and White Jazz (1992). As I state in the book:
The sparse, distinct style Ellroy had achieved with L.A. Confidential, which was partly reliant on the removal of what he deemed unnecessary words, such as adverbs, adjectives and conjunctions, would become an issue in the first draft of White Jazz. According to [writer and digital marketer] Martin Kihn, Ellroy had taken this redacted style so far with White Jazz that words needed to be added back into the manuscript:
The first draft of Jazz, for instance, was even more clipped and opaque than the version about to be published. Working first with [literary agent Nat] Sobel, then Knopf editor Sonny Mehta, Ellroy painstakingly added words to the manuscript. “The first draft was extremely challenging,” says Mehta. “What James was doing was extremely ambitious. But I think you have to engage people and draw them into the story. And I thought essentially we had to make it a little easier for them.” (Kihn 1992: 34)
Ellroy, however, has offered a different account, claiming he only returned to the clipped style after finding the initial draft of the novel unsatisfactory: “I started writing White Jazz, in a normally discursive, first-person style, but the book felt flabby to me, so I started cutting words” (Powell 2008a: 159). Ellroy’s and Mehta’s accounts of the drafting process, taken together, indicate that the manuscript underwent a laborious process in which thousands of words were cut and then many were subsequently restored.
The immense levels of concentration and determination Ellroy had developed in outlining and writing his original L.A. Quartet ensured that those novels would become defining works in the crime genre. The dizzying, spellbinding style of his later novels American Tabloid and the recent Perfidia (2014) seamlessly flow from what he achieved in L.A. Confidential and White Jazz.

Ellroy’s journey from being a homeless alcoholic, periodically locked up in jail, to becoming one of the most acclaimed contemporary novelists is, in its own grueling fashion, a remarkable vindication of the American dream. As for my own Ellrovian journey—it goes on.

1 comment:

Dana King said...

Thanks, Jeff. I've developed a pretty serious Ellroy chubby the past few years. There are plenty of things for me to follow up on in here. Much appreciated.