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MeeVee Interview: Five Questions with James Ellroy

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Murder by the Book, CourtTV’s new miniseries, asks five of America’s most famous crime authors to talk about the true-crime cases that resonate for them. Future episodes will feature Michael Connelly (The Poet, The Concrete Blonde), Jonathan Kellerman (Gone, When the Bough Breaks), Faye Kellerman (False Prophet, The Ritual Bath) and Lisa Scottoline (Dirty Blonde, Moment of Truth); the pilot features James Ellroy.

Best known for the novels L.A. Confidential and American Tabloid, Ellroy is a unique figure in crime fiction; many people — including Ellroy himself — will tell you he’s transcended it. Ellroy’s life and work were irrevocably shaped by the 1958 murder of his mother, Jean Hilliker Ellroy — a murder that remains unsolved. Ellroy’s fascination with murder shaped his fiction (including The Black Dahlia, recently brought to the big screen by Brian DePalma) and his non-fiction, including his memoir My Dark Places. Ellroy is the subject of the premiere episode of Murder by the Book — and, he says, it’s also the last time he’ll speak publicly about his mother’s death. Charming and blunt, polite and brash, and not without a certain rough-hewn poetry, Ellroy spoke with MeeVee from New York. 

How did you come to be involved with Murder by the Book?
I was approached a year and a half ago about this program. I said I'd do it if I get to script my own episode, I’m on-camera for the entirety of the program, I get to narrate it — and if I can do my own mother’s murder case. 

James EllroyDo you think that was part-and-parcel of the producer’s interest – that you might talk about the Hilliker murder?
I did not think that; I thought they might ask me to do an episode on the Black Dahlia murder case since I’d written a novel on the Black Dahlia murder case. The novel was a direct result of my fascination with, and bereavement over my mother and her death — but they were happy to make the concessions in the end.

What was the experience like on-set? Did you have a lot of input?

The production team — Ron Kirk, David Cargill, and Brian Coghlin — are easily the best documentarians I’ve ever worked with. They were very amenable to my ideas, they had ideas of their own, and we all wanted a coherent, dark, essentially pessimistic piece that avoided the clichés of television crime reporting.

You wrote about your mother's murder in My Dark Places. You’ve explored it through fiction with The Black Dahlia. You’ve talked about it in numerous interviews, including this one. In Murder by the Book, you say explicitly that this is the last time you will address the case in a public forum. Why?
I’m enjoying talking to you now, but underneath it all, it’s deadening. Virtually every piece ever written about me brings to light again the story of my mother’s murder. It’s not like I wake up every morning and go, “Boo hoo hoo, my mom was whacked; boo hoo hoo hoo.” She haunts me in odd and unfathomable ways. She’s… there. The show [Murder by the Book] airs Monday night. Then it's over. 

Are you interested in working in narrative television at some point, or are you just focusing on more books?
I'm writing [the third book in the trilogy that includes American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand] as fast as I can; I’d be writing right now if I wasn’t talking to you. HBO has them. Any motion picture that gets made — let alone a successful and good one from a novel — is a fluke. Every once in a while, you get lucky. I’m not holding my breath. [But] I have cashed the HBO check.

It’s hard to imagine James Ellroy, remote in hand with a cold beverage watching TV. Do you watch any television?
I’ll watch boxing on television; I’m a big boxing fan. But I don’t have a television set; I don’t have a DVD player or CD player; I don’t have a cell phone; I don’t have a computer. I don’t read the newspapers or go to films; I ignore the culture. I’m not being disingenuous — I live in a vacuum. And it enhances the concentration I need to write my books. [I] lie in the dark and talk with women who aren’t in the room with me, night after night… It can be frightening, and it can be very moving.

By James Rocchi

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