Author Q&A: James Ellroy

This Storm (William Heinemann, £20/Audible, £27.29)

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Torrential rainstorms hit Los Angeles in January 1942, unearthing a body in Griffith Park. This incident is the catalyst for an explosive, expansive epic covering corruption, war profiteering, rogue cops and criminality on a grand scale. This Storm is the first novel in five years from Ellroy, probably the world’s most distinctive crime writer.

This Storm and Perfidia before it are the first two parts of your new LA Quartet. They are also prequels to your original LA Quartet. Are there any particular problems you found with this complex configuration?
Not problems per se. They were challenges. Once I’d conceived these four books I had to go back to my previous work, look at the characters and track their ages back to how old they would have been during the Second World War. As for research, I don’t like doing it. I hire people to put the necessary notes together.

But don’t you feel constrained writing about characters your readers already know are in it for the long haul? In short, you’re limited to who you can kill off.
That is the big restriction right there. In This Storm you see Dudley Smith, the key villain of the original LA Quartet, as a Los Angeles police officer and army intelligence officer in Mexico during the war. You see that he’s a psychopathic killer and always has been but you always know he’ll stick around. We never get to know his secrets because we’re never in his mind or his soul in the later books he appears in – The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz – but this time we are. And it’s not a pretty place. Nevertheless, readers are seduced by Dudley Smith’s savoir-faire and good looks.

When you’re deep into writing one of your ultra-complex novels can you switch off at the end of your working day?
I can and, in large part, that’s because of the outline. If anyone’s wondering how I can write books with such scope and such detail it’s because I spend nine and 10 months to plan. If you put together the period looking at historical perspective, the love affairs, character arcs, the police investigations, the incidents then you have a big, powerful document there. And that document is ever buttressing my sense that this book is inviolate dramatically and logically, and that is what allows me to write improvisationally in the individual scenes. The superstructure for the overall story is so strong. So, a lot of times, I’m relieved to put it down at the end of the day and go out to dinner or take a nap.

Historically there have been major stylistic leaps between your novels yet Perfidia and This Storm seem quite similar. Have you reached a prose style you’re content with?
What I did realise was I’d taken extreme concision as far as it could go and the pivotal novel when it comes to extreme concision is The Cold Six Thousand. That is written in the third person and reflects the absolute madness of the American 1960s. But as tightly constructed and exposited as any of my books are there are no devices stopping you knowing where you are at all times. The thought processes of all persons are clearly explicated.

So how would you answer charges that your fiction is impenetrable?
It’s not. It is densely patterned, densely structured and certainly not for everyone. You have to concentrate or you’ll miss something. And I’m imposing a dynamic beneath all of this and that dynamic is I want the reader to be so captivated by the stories, so obsessed with the characters that they will put down their regular lives for the amount of time it takes to read the book. Ideally they will be constrained by the book and forced to read the book in longer increments than they would normally read fiction. My books are really exercises in the art of reading and that they sell as well as they do is astounding to me and I’m nothing but grateful.

What precisely do you hope your readers will get from This Storm?
I want to transport readers back in time and make them live history as intensely as I live it and as intensely as I put it on the page. I want to give readers the gift that was first given to me as a young boy discovering the world, and that gift was the past. I was always looking back to a golden age of America and LA. When I was living with my parents, before they divorced when I was seven years of age, they had a big closet that was filled with stacks of Life magazines and I remember looking at the pictures. Oh yeah, Pearl Harbour attack. Oh yeah, Japanese internment. Oh yeah, crime commission. Oh yeah, gangsters. And that was over
60 years ago.

“This storm, this savaging disaster” is a line that occurs several times throughout this book. Is that taken from a poem?
It’s an interpolation, a fiction. There is a letter WH Auden wrote to his friend Christopher Isherwood and I remember taking a look at it years ago and he used “this savaging disaster”, which, to me, felt incomplete. I wanted a title for this book that reflected my themes, reflected LA in winter and reflected the Pacific coast and I came up with the words “this storm”, which I felt I’d seen somewhere previously. In the book I attribute “this storm, this savaging disaster” to Auden even though he didn’t write that complete line.

A previous work of yours, Blood’s A Rover, concludes in 1972, which is as contemporary as your fiction gets. You must surely be tempted to fictionalise the political exploits of more modern America, looking at people like Clinton, Obama, the Bush dynasty, Trump even.
No. Blood’s A Rover is the chronological end to my career.

This renowned and wilful detachment from current affairs you have is becoming more appealing to me as I age.
Oh yeah [laughs]! You just want to sit in your croft with your woman and your dog and scratch your balls, take a nap, read. I know.

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