For two decades, James Ellroy has made his fame on superlative crime novels like Clandestine, The Black Dahlia, White Jazz and L.A. Confidential. Yet his truly seminal recent work ventures far beyond the insular genre from which he came. Laceratingly articulate and almost evangelically driven, Ellroy underscores his writing skill with a flair for showmanship: In public, this man pulls no punches. Yet he is also unwaveringly loyal, oddly sentimental, and radiates with the integrity of the born again. Ellroy's personal biography may be the strongest story of them all--mother murdered, years of addiction and misdemeanors, redemption through writing--but this tortured Californian now leads a quiet, contented life in Kansas City.
Six years after his part-fact-part-fiction political epic American Tabloid bravely and brutally demythologized the Kennedy era, embracing "bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time," the author has returned with the second installment of a planned trilogy, The Cold Six Thousand. Appropriately, Ellroy spoke to Willamette Week about his new book from that quintessential landmark of political crime: the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. One wonders if this will be the setting for a dénouement to his trilogy.
"You're the second person today to bring that up," he laughs. "But actually Watergate bores me. The scandal has been done to death."
The Cold Six Thousand takes up where American Tabloid left off: Dallas, November 1963, a few seconds after President Kennedy's assassination. While an uneasy alliance of mobsters, Klansmen and shady FBI operatives erase the conspiratorial evidence of their gruesome handiwork, a young Las Vegas cop named Wayne Tedrow Jr. arrives, $6,000 of blood money in hand, to kill a black underworld figure who has run out on casino debts. Over the next 700 pages, Wayne will have a front-row seat for the kind of historical events that remain carved on our national consciousness: Vietnam, drug-running, civil-rights struggles and more assassinations. Says Ellroy, "It's the arc of human drama mixed with the arc of history."
As he emerges from the shadow of his hate-mongering father, Wayne undergoes the classic Ellroy conflict, struggling to negotiate between idealism and violent realities. "Wayne's an observer, a watcher. But he's also volatile," says the author. "His horrible Oedipal drama is what fuels the entire book."
Meanwhile, two characters from American Tabloid--Ward Little, a liberal FBI agent turned embittered mob lawyer, and Pete Bondurant, a fearsome shakedown specialist--are, as Ellroy explains, "afraid for their lives. They understand the extent to which the life has run them and they have not run the life. These guys are riding the whirlwind of history, and boy do they pay."
The Cold Six Thousand walks a careful tightrope between fact and fiction, a challenge Ellroy clearly relishes. "I never reveal exactly what's real and what's not in books," he says. "I'm going for that cohesive verisimilitude. If I can give you a complex and dramatically plausible, psychologically sound human-interest structure to great public events, then I've rewritten history to my own specifications."
Moreover, Ellroy enjoys using fiction to elucidate unsolvable mysteries. Just as his early novel, Clandestine, essentially solved his mother's real-life unsolved murder, so do American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand cater to our burning desire to know who perpetrated the cataclysmic political murders of the 1960s. "It's tremendously satisfying for me, emotionally and intellectually," says the author. "And the derivation of all this, of course, was my mother's death."
After American Tabloid's 1995 release, Ellroy received a lot of attention for moving beyond the crime-fiction genre, but it wasn't his only transformation. Like its predecessor, The Cold Six Thousand is deliberately written in a clipped, staccato prose style that reflects the bluntness of the characters and their deeds. "When you write novels of violent intrigue, you don't want a refined language," Ellroy explains. "You want refined characters, but you want a violent, coarse language."
James Ellroy may very well be the master of the bookstore promotional reading. Many authors treat the activity as a chore driven by commercial necessities, and exhibit a correspondingly ho-hum attitude. Not the Demon Dog. Riveting and surreal, Ellroy's readings feel like religious revivals. As the author says coolly, "I have an obligation to my readers, to God, to my wife, to my dog, and to my publisher, to perform well."
When Ellroy arrives next month to read from The Cold Six Thousand, loyal fans will be waiting like literary groupies. They will not be disappointed, for Ellroy's mythical persona is fueled by his extraordinary stories, be they real or imagined.
Willamette Week: More than most authors, you display a great deal of showmanship at your readings. How do you approach making them engrossing and fun?
James Ellroy: There's some keys to this. One is you read short rather than long. You read the same thing at all your readings so that you can groove it, read it for better and better dramatic emphasis, and so you that you can share eye contact with people.
I have an obligation to my readers, to God, to my wife, to my dog, and to my publisher, to perform well. Also you can go out and enjoy a book tour or you can treat it as an ordeal, and I'd rather enjoy it.
The Cold Six Thousand and its predecessor, American Tabloid, offer a blend of fiction and history. There's a long precedent for this in literature, but it's still a tricky endeavor. How do you approach the process? How would you respond, for example, if someone formed his or her opinion about the Kennedy assassination with the help of American Tabloid?
I would tell them that of course it's fiction, and I would tell them that Pete Bondurant and Ward Littell are fictional characters.
Beyond that, I never reveal exactly what's real and what's not in books. I'm going for that cohesive verisimilitude. If I can give you a complex and dramatically plausible, psychologically sound human interest structure to great public events, then I've rewritten history to my own specifications.
If you found Bondurant and Littell and Tedrow's stories and the whole family scenes with Tedrow and the story of their relationships with these women plausible, then I've successfully rewritten history, even though you, the critic, know damn well that most of this stuff didn't happen. And toward that end, I never reveal exactly what is real and what is not in these books.
In Clandestine you essentially used fiction to solve your mother's murder, for which a killer was never found. Considering how American Tabloid and now The Cold Six Thousand dramatize the men behind the Kennedy and King assassinations, could you descibe your continuing penchant for solving the unsolvable?
The secret of motive and character, explicated, is the 'why' behind great and usually unfathomable human events. There's the irony within: If we were to find out today who killed Jack Kennedy and why, plumb the specific motivations down to the most minute degree, get all the details, really the full shot, it would be in many ways irrelevant. We'd still have what we have here in the United States. And that would be that.
Now, that said, it's emotionally, tremendously satisfying for me, intellectually as well, to rewrite history to my own specifications (as I've stated) and to solve unsolvable crimes, and to provide motive and character development and give you my 'why'. And there derivation of all of this, of course, was my mother's death.
I interviewed a jazz musician recently who said that, when listening to other people's music, he could only enjoy it if he could figure out what was being done. Is it the same for you?
I can only be moved in literature by a master, and them I'm always figuring out what he's doing. I bring to it my knowledge of the craft, which is a conscious knowledge, because I'm always plumbed: What the fuck does all this mean, and how do you do it?
Two main characters from American Tabloid carry through to The Cold Six Thousand. As in most of your books, characters like Ward Littell, Wayne Tedrow and Pete Bondurant are largely symbols: the skeptic, the idealist, the pragmatist. But through the course of 500 and 700-page books, respectively, they also undergo certain changes. How did you balance these twin necessities?
These guys, as in American Tabloid, are afraid for their lives. They understand the extent to which now the life has run them and they have not run the life. And so in The Cold Six Thousand, they're largely trying to get out of trouble, rather than get into trouble. Bondurant becomes, in the course of The Cold Six Thousand, a fully sympathetic character. He's the guy who gets out of it relatively intact, because he's the only one of these guys who knows how to love. Women are tremendously moved by him and men identify with him because he's such unbridled American masculinity. There's also the disjuncture that he lives at, being a French Protestant *migr* out to liberate Cuba. The guy is all over the map politically and emotionally as well.
And ironically it's Ward Littell who has more of a progressive political and moral conscience, yet he winds up tragically embroiled in these terrible historical events.
Yeah, it's ironic that every bit of his idealism, everything he has tried to do to influence good, has backfired on him.
In American Tabloid the main character, Kemper Boyd, was ambitious and driven, while in The Cold Six Thousand Wayne Tedrow is much more of a passive passenger to history. Why the change?
He's an observer. He's a voyeur, a watcher. Of course his horrible Oedipal drama is what fuels the entire book. His misguided act of mercy with Wendell Durfee fuels the entire book. His racism is largely his self-hatred. And he understands the extent to which he's his father's son. And, man oh man, at the end of the book the world is just too small for the two of them.
So often the amazing paradox of this series is the way you create sympathy for characters who perpetrate the worst atrocities of Twentieth Century America.
Absolutely. Wayne Tedrow's racism is his self-hatred. Yet when you anatomize racism here, when you make its origins somewhat empathetic, you of course fuck with the reader. You understand how he got there. Largely this comes down to the dynamic of morality in literature, which is largely expositing the consequences of a moral act, and karmic price that the perpetrators pay for having inflicted them.
In other words, particularly in light of the weight of history your characters are viewed in more than simple black and white terms.
You're absolutely right. I made a conscious decision after the L.A. Quartet books not write crime fiction. This is my second big historical novel. These guys are riding the whirlwind of history and boy do they pay.
In addition to genre, with this series your actual writing style changed too, with very short, blunt sentences.
It was a conscious decision that I made to write this book in a language that was a direct representation of the violence of the story and of the inner and outer lives of the characters. It's also a deliberately coarse and vulgar style. When you write novels of violent intrigue you don't want a refined language. You want refined characters and you want a sophisticated deployment of language, but you want a violent, coarse language, and that's what I did here. It's also a style that is calculated to propel the reader into the book and through the book, and if possible force the reader to read the book in fewer rather than many sittings.
The story of your mother's murder and its effect on you are well documented, particularly with respect to the role it plays in your books. But The Cold Six Thousand is really more about fathers and sons. Is this a matter of working out issues with your father just as previous books did so with your mother?
That's not it at all. It's simply a conscious decision to do what's best for the book. In creating a young character, rather than a middle-aged character like Bondurant and Littell, with Tedrow I wanted to chart his personal drama, and take him up to that act of final vengeance, perpetrated by a woman.
Working fictional stories within the framework of these famous political events, how do you negotiate the mood of the times with the desired mood of your stories?
It's the arc of human drama mixed with the arc of history. That's it entirely. It's there, and everything peaks: Littell's suicide, Bondurant's final surrender, and going home to Barb, too exhausted to do anything else. That's the only place he wants to be. And you know Wayne Tedrow's taking over.
Yes, one does sense that if he appears in the next book Wayne Tedrow will not be a passive character anymore.
He will appear [in the next novel], and he has transformed himself through his hatred. He has become his father.
So he's witnessed history, and taken life into his own hands, but at a cost.
Yeah. They asked F. Scott Fizgerald once, 'Gee Scott, you were there in Paris in the '20s, what was it like,' with Gertrude Stein and all this happy horseshit. He said, 'The price was high.' And that's what it is with Tedrow.
It's funny you mention Fitzgerald, because I was actually thinking of The Great Gatsby as a comparable case to The Cold Six Thousand of the lead character being a somewhat passive observer for a lot of the book.
That's a very good analogy. That's exactly what he is. Wayne is outside looking in, and he learns.
That said, Tedrow's certainly volatile, and will act violently at the drop of a hat.
You're talking today from the Watergate Hotel. Might the famous events there find their way into the final chapter of your trilogy?
You're the second person today to bring that up. I'm actually going to stop short of Watergate, and for several reasons. One, most of those guys are still alive so I can't use them as fictional characters. Secondly, Watergate bores me. The scandal has been done to death. It just isn't a climactic event for me. It isn't the event for me that it was for America as a whole.
But presumably there's still a lot from Nixon years that would make great fodder for one of your books.
Absolutely. Latin American imperialism in the Nixon administration will be a theme, because the mob is getting ready to plant their casinos down there.
The Cold Six Thousand
by James Ellroy
(Knopf, 711 pages, $26.95)
James Ellroy will be appearing in Portland on June 12, sponsored by Twenty-third Avenue Books and Cinema 21. Call Twenty-third Avenue Books at 224-6203 for
"If we were to find out today who killed Jack Kennedy and why, plumb the specific motivations down to the most minute degree, get all the details, really the full shot, it would be in many ways irrelevant."