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Q & A: James Ellroy

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The Scene talks to crime writer James Ellroy about rewriting and revisiting American history and growing up in the old LA.

The Scene: Where are we?

James Ellroy: The Pacific Dining Car. It's a swank steak pit on the western edge of the L.A. freeway loop. Elegant joint, pricey. Best steaks in L.A., been coming here for 20 years. I meet my friends here; we talk about crime and sex and have uproarious, profane good times. I've used this in my period books going back to the Black Dahlia, which is set in 1947.

TS: What is it about this place that makes it so conducive to talking about crime, sex and Los Angeles?

JE: One: it's so venerable. It's been here since 1924. Two: it's open 24 hours so you can come here and brood and conduct an illicit love affair right on the premises. It's a power spot. Lots of judges, DAs and cops come here, cutting bad deals. It's a blast.

TS: What is its connection with the real life Black Dahlia murder?

JE: It is the subject of my 1987 novel entitled the Black Dahlia, I solve the case fictionally, and the movie will be out next year. There is no discernible real life connection between the Pacific Dining Car and the Black Dahlia murder case. I just made it up.

TS: How does your background influence you work?

JE: I grew up here in the Wiltshire District, Hollywood border. I read a lot of crime books, I watched a lot of crime TV, I harboured great notions of becoming a great crime writer; I prowled the adjacent areas. It's lucky I can write because I am too lazy to work, too nervous to steal and to proud to accept welfare. I knew things. I knew there was an alternative world that co-existed concurrently with my idiot kid world, going to school, being with my father, trying to gain an education. There's the famous story that attends everything I do. My parents were divorced when I was quite young. On June 22, 1958, my mother was murdered. It's been an unsolved homicide for 47 years now. In 1994 and 1995 I went back and investigated the case with a brilliant L.A. Sheriff's detective. We did not find the killer and I wrote my memoir "My Dark Places" about the case.

TS: What sort of person are you now?

JE: I am a very peaceful minded, not quite retiring, aging, but still lean, mean and obscene king of crime writers. I am to crime fiction what Beethoven was to music. In fact, people have called Beethoven the German Ellroy.

TS: What do you get out of writing?

JE: I get to rewrite American history to my own specifications and no-one gets hurt. I get to assassinate John F. Kennedy. I get to solve the Black Dahlia murder case. I get to be there with the Klan in Mississippi. I get to invade the Bay of Pigs with the Cuban exiles. I get to hang out with J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI back in the 60s and nobody gets hurt. What a blast.

TS: How does old L.A. compare to modern L.A.?

JE: I know absolutely nothing about contemporary L.A. I write about the old L.A. of 50 or 60 years ago. I don't know about the Honduran, Guatemalan, Korean, Salvadorian, Colombian, Venezuelan, Peruvian and Cuban cultures here. It's not my world anymore.

TS: What was the old L.A. like?

JE: It was a hard drinking, hard smoking, woman-chasing, crime-fighting, crime-provoking, crime-committing culture. I was prone to think of everything in terms of crime. That's why I do what I do. People want their nostalgia deconstructed. They want to go back to these allegedly simpler and more innocent times and get the inside dirt and that's what I give them, off the record, very hush-hush, on the Q.T.


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