Monday, February 06, 2023

Digging for Gold in Ellroy’s Backstory

(Editor’s note: This coming Thursday, February 9, will bring the debut—in both the United States and Great Britain—of Love Me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy [Bloomsbury Academic], an almost 400-page biography of the multifaceted, oft-troubled but celebrated Los Angeles-born author, written by Steven Powell. An Honorary Fellow in the English Department at the University of Liverpool, UK, Powell is the author of such previous books as Conversations with James Ellroy [2012], James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction [2015], and The Big Somewhere [2018]. Additionally, he edited the encyclopedic work 100 American Crime Writers [2012]. In the essay below, Powell delivers brief background on his experiences in preparing Love Me Fierce in Danger, which critic-author Barry Forshaw calls “an essential purchase for anyone interested in modern American crime fiction, couched in prose that is as lively as its uncompromising subject.”)

When I was writing my biography of James Ellroy, Love Me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy, the observation that resonated with me the most came from his second wife, Helen Knode: “James lives life like he was shot out of a cannon.” Sometimes non-fiction writers strike gold. I was blessed to have a fascinating subject in James Ellroy. He is the direct opposite of how many people envisage writers—withdrawn, reclusive, able to observe and document the world but unable to live in it. Ellroy is a larger-than-life figure, determined to leave his mark. His whirlwind existence dictated the pace of this biography. I found myself writing a page-turner. There were times in my research when I could barely keep pace with the events in Ellroy’s life and squeezing as many as possible onto the page became a real challenge without resorting to a seven-volume biography.

There are a multitude of dramatic events in Ellroy’s life and his family history for a biographer to explore—the unsolved murder of his mother, Jean Ellroy; his father’s time as Rita Hayworth’s business manager, which included planning her wedding to Prince Aly Khan; Ellroy’s descent into alcohol and drug abuse. His history of housebreaking, petty crime, jail time, ill health, brushes with death, and a redemptive embrace of sobriety. All of this happens before he even writes a word.

The literary career that followed that traumatic, gut-wrenching upbringing must surely be considered one of the most remarkable achievements in American crime-fiction writing, producing such modern classics as The Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential, and American Tabloid. Ellroy has written two memoirs but neither one follows a linear chronology and both leave decades of his life unaccounted for. To include the full depth and breadth of his extraordinary life was quite the challenge, but I knew it could do it when I scored an early research coup. I was able to discover the identity of Jean Ellroy’s first husband—real estate heir Easton Ewing Spaulding. This had been a mystery even Ellroy had been unable to solve. It felt like a sign. Sure enough, everything began to fall into place from that point on. British publisher Bloomsbury offered me the contract to write the book, I won Ellroy’s trust, and it was time for me to reach out to everyone who had been involved in Ellroy’s life who was willing to talk.

(Above) Scholar and biographer Steven Powell.

The interviews were the most pleasurable part of the research, especially as most were conducted at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown and people were eager to talk, as indeed was I. The importance of human contact and being able to share memories, either good or bad, never seemed more important. Finding Ellroy’s old friends, partners, and ex-colleagues often required playing detective. Taking my lead from Ellroy and his memories of people he knew as far back as his school days, I would set out to find them. It could be complicated as people change their name, leave town, or even emigrate. I had to study property records, marriage and divorce certificates, and other forms of documentation to track people down. Digitization made it easier, and for those who have asked me why an Ellroy biography hasn’t appeared before now, I would answer that the scale of the challenge could only be met when the full potential of the Internet could be utilized. And yet, it was crucial I didn’t waste a day. Ellroy is a man in his 70s, many of his friends and colleagues are older. I interviewed his old friend, legendary crime novelist and attorney Andrew Vachss, only a few months before he died. Of the more than 80 interviews I conducted, I feel honored to have heard the testimony of this older generation in regard to the life and times of one of the most extraordinary American crime novelists of all time.

Love Me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy is the product of those labors. Over the course of them all, Ellroy was generous and supportive. I only hope I’ve done him justice. After all, he set the standard in American literary history.

READ MORE:Steven Powell on Love Me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy” (Shotsmag Confidential); “In Conversation: Steven Powell with Jill Dearman” (The Brooklyn Rail); “The Life and Legacy of James Ellroy,” by Andrew Nette (CrimeReads).

No comments: