Thursday, September 16, 2010

James Ellroy

On  a recent evening, crime writer James Ellroy gave a reading at Book Court in Brooklyn to promote his new memoir, The Hilliker Curse. Ellroy's hard-boiled, labyrinthine novels about the shady side of 1950s Los Angeles, particularly the police force, made him a bestselling author. He once said that his books were resistant to adaptation, but a few attempts have been made. L.A. Confidential, adapted in 1997, is the best-known and most praised of the films made from his work.

Tall and hulking, with a pink polo shirt and a shaved head, Ellroy lit into the bookstore crowd like a deadpan preacher. He started by offering a deal: buy one thousand copies of his book, and you can have sex with anyone you want. Buy two thousand copies, and you can have sex with anyone you want and still get into Heaven. Buy three thousand copies, and you can have sex with anyone you want and get into Heaven, and Brooklyn will become the center of the universe.

He read some excerpts from his book. One concerned a trip to see his cousins in the Midwest when he was a child growing up in Southern California. Another concerned a woman he would later mysteriously refer back to several times as "the woman I had the conversation with in 2009."

After reading, he turned to the audience for questions. A man in the front row asked whether he had read a recent New York Times story about the FBI investigation of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., which was a subject of Ellroy's recent novel Blood's a Rover.

Ellroy said that he didn't really keep up with culture and didn't read much. As with many comments he made, the audience didn't seem sure how seriously to take this. One man asked how, if he never read, he had been able to recite snippets of poetry earlier in the reading. Ellroy said that he liked poetry and had "a very small repertoire of a dozen poems."

Someone asked about his influences and he mentioned classical composers, especially Beethoven. The curse of Beethoven's deafness made him rise to the occasion, he said.

Someone asked what he thought about his books being adapted into movies. He claimed it was a simple decision. "Money is the gift that no one ever returns," he said. "A size large always fits."

At one point he commented on a small dog a man in the audience had brought. He asked the dog's name. The man said it was Ralph. Ellroy said Ralph was giving him a "Hitler salute" with his paw. He offered Ralph  a job on a new show he was starring in on the Discovery Channel. "I'll give you a million dollars for free, Ralph. You kick a hundred g's back to your master and keep the rest."

Someone asked if he had ever committed a crime, and he replied that he had committed many, and been to jail many times. This was during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Ellroy was an alcoholic and drug addict living on the streets of Los Angeles, before he became a published writer.

After the questions, Ellroy stood signing books. One of those in line was the man walking Ralph. Ellroy leaned down and scratched Ralph's ears.

"I'll bet this guy eats anything."

"He ate an olive earlier today."

"Oh," Ellroy said. "So he's a vegan now?"