James Ellroy: ‘I was 17 and on the loose in LA, and looking for trouble’

Crimewriting legend James Ellroy tells Jane Graham if he could have one last conversation with anyone from his life it would be his mother

When I was 16 I was just a stupid big tall kid with bad acne riding my bicycle around LA. I was 6ft 3in. I had bad posture. I wore glasses. I had a big shock of dark hair. I was thin. I dressed Ivy League – buttoned-down shirts, corduroy pants, saddle shoes. I wanted to be a rich kid. I was going to the library a lot, and reading, and stealing things out of stores, shoplifting books and sneaking into movie theatres.

I grew up very poor on the edge of a wealthy neighbourhood in LA called Hancock Park. There were a great many groovy daughters of privilege. They went to a private school called Marlborough and I spent a lot of time perving on them, afraid to talk to them. I used to go around peeping in windows. I was fixated on Hancock Park because it was affluent and clean, and my dad and I lived in this crummy pad with our beagle dog. She urinated and shit all over the place. When the few friends I did have came over, they’d be hit with the smell, and practically run back home. I love dogs but I wouldn’t let a dog shit on my rug.

My dad was older – it was just him and me – and he was in bad health. He was a bullshitter, one of the world’s biggest liars. He would spin handsome tales of his friendship with Babe Ruth and other sports heroes. When I was a child I undiscerningly believed everything he told me.

As I got older I just shut down on him. He was pathetic. This man with all his gifts, who should have been someone in life, and led a saner life, a more coherent life. I went through a gradual process of disillusionment. He was old and infirm, a big smoker, three packs a day. I was anxious to get away, just be somewhere else on my own.

I think I write well because I loved to read, and that was always my chief means of escape.

I think it’s often specious to point to a single traumatising event, such as my mother’s death. [Geneva Odelia was raped and murdered when James was 10], and say that’s when the die was cast. ‘That’s when he went off the rails.’ Believe me, I was no prize before my mother was killed. I was full of shit. I don’t think I was particularly intelligent – I’ve never scored well on intelligence tests. I think imagination and the will to create are more important than intelligence.

I think I write well because I loved to read, and that was always my chief means of escape. The only thing I did well as a boy was reading – crime stories, detective novels, true crime. Ed McBain. My reading matter changed in the summer when I was 10, in the immediate aftermath of my mother’s death. So I started out reading The Hardy Boys, nice mysteries. But then I became interested in the psychological aspect of crime.

I got kicked out of school for misconduct, then I got kicked out of the army. I did a lot of drugs and drinking. I was immoral. I was sinful and I was lazy. I have a strong religious sense, I knew what I was doing was wrong. I had a strong moral undercurrent running through my body but it was always at war with my selfishness and my desire for what I want right now. You can point to the pathology of drug and drink addiction but it was wrong and I knew it was wrong.

I never blamed anyone else. It was the Sixties, everyone was blaming The Man. ‘You gotta blame The Man.’ I never blamed The Man, I always wanted to BE The Man. I wanted to have the power. I wanted to be the president and have a wife and a dog and some good-looking clothes and a nice big bulletproof limousine that I would be driven around in.


The year James turns 16

• The first Habitat store opens 

• Martin Luther King wins the Nobel Peace Prize

• The Rolling Stones release their debut album

In 1975 I started caddying at the local golf club. And that got me enough money to get myself a cheap pad. I got kicked out of Hillcrest Country Club when I hit the son of a member, and then I went to Bel Air Country Club. And I earned a living. That’s when I started getting the idea for what would become my first novel, Brown’s Requiem. I wanted to be a novelist, at first for all the wrong reasons. I thought a published writer would get a boss pad, groovy threads, lots of girlfriends.

But then I got the idea for the first novel and it took me over. Suddenly it wasn’t about being a big cheese. It was, I have to tell this story. I was sober by then, my head had cleared. I was making friends. I started writing the book on January 29 1979. I wrote it standing up, leaning against my dresser in my hotel room.

1958: The Los Angeles Times reports on the murder of Ellroy's mother, which sparked his obsession with LA's dark underbelly

The 16-year-old me would be surprised how diligent, meticulous, and deliberate I’ve become. How impatient I’ve become with profligate behaviour. I credit three good ass-kickings by the LA Police Department for turning me around. I love the LAPD. They’re a hard-charging, shit-kicking police department. They’ve got a lot of bad press for that but I admire them for it. The last time I mouthed off to a cop he hit me so hard he probably killed all my ancestors. I haven’t stolen a paper clip since then.

Helen Knode has probably been the best influence on my life. She was my second ex-wife for 11 years, then we got back together. I’ve moved to Colorado since I got back with her. She got me to church – I’m a Christian. She’s forbearing, she’s supremely intelligent, much more than I am. She’s published two novels herself. She’s more fair-minded than I am. She has taught me tolerance. I like people from a distance.

If I could have one last conversation with anyone from my life of course it would be my mother. For the life of me I can’t recall her voice. She was from Wisconsin. If you’ve seen Fargo you’ll remember the funny way those people talk in Minnesota. That’s the way people in Wisconsin talk but my mother didn’t talk that way. Or she broke the habit if she ever did talk that way. She was educated. I would be very, very interested to hear her voice. I wonder… you know, people recorded their voices on a record in a booth back then. I wonder if my mother ever did that and if she did, and I heard it, would I recognise her voice? I don’t know.

If I could go back to any time in my life it would be about a month after my father’s death. I was cut loose from the army in Louisiana and I went back to LA. I had $1,500 in my pocket. I broke into the apartment I had lived in with my father, which was locked up because we didn’t pay the rent.

There were three of his uncashed security cheques there, so I forged his name and cashed them at a liquor store. Giving me $1,800. I was 17 and on the loose in LA, and looking for trouble. I was like the mad scientist, heh heh heh. I was free.

James Ellroy’s new novel This Storm is out on May 30 (Cornerstone, £20)