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A Quick Chat with James Ellroy: a Dog’s Life in Kansas City

By Scott Reder

Despite the fact that the name James Ellroy is almost synonymous with the city of Los Angeles, most of his books, including the L.A. Quartet, were written on the other side of the country in New York state and Connecticut. That follows the stereotype of an American novelist. A typical writer is supposed to live in a big house in New England while he writes his masterpieces.

Of course, James Ellroy is anything but typical. His mother was murdered when he was ten, and the killer was never caught. He grew up to become a homeless alcoholic and drug abuser who roamed Los Angeles. He broke into houses and sniffed women’s panties, and he spent time in jail for various petty offenses. It took failing health and a brush with insanity to sober him.

Ellroy began caddying and writing. He left L.A. in 1981 for Westchester County, New York. His approach to fiction was no more conventional than his life had been. At a time when most crime fiction is series based, Ellroy dumped his Loyd Hopkins character and invented a new type of noir mystery with the L.A. Quartet. Not satisfied with redefining the crime novel, he turned his attention to rewriting history with American Tabloid.

In the summer of 1995, he made yet another decision that went against the current trends. He and his wife moved to Mission Hills, Kansas, a wealthy suburb of Kansas City.

Despite its name, only part of Kansas City is in Kansas. It is located on the border between the states of Kansas and Missouri. The major metropolitan area is on the Missouri side while the suburbs on the Kansas side are filled with upwardly mobile young people with families who drive minivans and four-wheeled drive sport vehicles.

Kansas City is in the center of the continental U.S., far from the Hollywood entertainment industry on the west coast, and the media and publishing centers of New York on the east coast. It is generally known only for its steaks, barbecue, and its football team. Because of its name, K.C. is always associated with the state of Kansas which is stereotyped as a boring farm state with Wizard of Oz overtones.

It seems odd that Ellroy would move to K.C. The media presents him as a controversial wild man who would seem more at home closer to the ‘hip crowd’ of the coasts while K.C. is the heart of a conservative and slower paced Midwest.

However, Ellroy’s public persona is different from his private life, and he has made a career out of following his own insticts. Living in Mission Hills certainly hasn’t hurt his writing. My Dark Places, his autobiographical account of his mother’s death and his investigation of it with retired L.A. sheriff’s detective Bill Stoner, is the first book Ellroy has written in Kansas City, and it sets a new standard in non-fiction.

The Dog recently answered questions about the town he calls “t6he white trash comfort zone to which I have long aspired”, and about his fans and his favorite sport, boxing.

Scott Reder: Why did you decide to move to Kansas City?

James Ellroy: My mother-in-law lives here. My wife, Helen [Knode], and I came here to visit Helen’s mother before we got married. She was living in Overland Park [another suburb] then. I fell in love with Kansas City. I drove around for about an hour. I told Helen that I wanted to spend the rest of my life here.

SR: What did you like about the city?

JE: It’s peaceful. It’s beautiful. It’s relatively low crime. It’s not a media center. There’s no discernable culture here. It’s a quiet, land locked place right in the middle of America. I feel very comfortable here.

SR: Has anybody hit you with the Wizard of Oz jokes yet?

JE: Yeah. I tell them that I’ve never seen the Wizard of Oz. I tell them that Kansas isn’t flat. I tell them that I live a block and a half from the Missouri border. I go to Fed Ex in Missouri and the dry cleaner in Kansas.

SR: You’ve said before that your fan base in the U.S. is comprised of the media, movie business people, and rock-and-rollers…

JE: Rock-and-roll fuckheads. Gay media mavens. Strange-o’s, weirdo’s. Rock-and-rollers, academics…

SR: Since this area isn’t considered very noteworthy nationally, do you worry that they might start dismissing you or consider you not as stylish?

JE: No. Not as long as the books stay good.

SR: This part of the country is known for being very straight-laced and conservative. You’re known for being controversial, and for an outrageous lecture style. How have the locals responded to you?

JE: I have heard that a couple of our neighbors were quite concerned, because they had read a little bit about me. But Helen and I are very quiet, private people. We don’t throw parties. There’s not a lot of loud noise emanating from this place. And I think they may view us with some amusement. We don’t have kids. We have one car, a sports car. We’re among the few people around here that don’t have a four-by-four.

SR: Or a minivan?

JE: Or a minivan.

SR: Have your book sales in this area increased?

JE: They had to have. George Gurley [book review editor for The Kansas City Star] wrote a wonderful piece on me in the Star about My Dark Places. The book blew out of the Bookstores.

SR: I know you signed a ton of copies for Borders.

JE: Oh, yeah. And I personalized those for Borders. I wrote on that entire print run.

SR: I saw a reading you gave at Borders in early December. My wife, who hasn’t read any of your books, was shocked at your opening riff where you call the audience panty sniffers and perverts, but then she was very impressed when you did your reading and answered questions. Is that your intention to shock the audience and then show them the goods?

JE: I like to perform. And I wasn’t even at my best. I was sick as a dog that day. I get sick once every three years. I was out on a book tour, and I very cruelly got to come home for five hours. Helen just picked me up at the airport. We went directly to Borders. And from there I went back home and got to sleep for an hour then head back on the tour.

But that was that particular day. I enjoy entertaining people, and I like getting off in front of a bunch of people and making them laugh. I’m there to have a good time. Book tours can be deadly boring, and you’d better make them into something. Both for the sake of selling the book and for the sake of your own enjoyment. That’s what it is, more than anything else.

I’m also grateful for the success that I’ve had, and I would be doing this if I were being paid a dollar ninety-eight a book. So, when gratitude fuels you, you can be appreciative of a situation like that and an audience like that. I’m assuming that you’ve been to a bunch of these things. They can be deadly fucking boring.

SR: Yours was definitely the most entertaining I’ve seen.

JE:That’s what I’m there for.

SR: Despite your outrageous behavior during your talk, when you did the signings you spent several minutes with each of your fans. You were very polite. It wasn’t just waiting in line for a smile and a swipe of the pen.

JE: No. That’s the thing. That’s the reason. I owe them a great deal. I have a covenant with them. I’ll keep working hard, and I’ll try to get better and better. If you’re going to come out and see me on a Saturday afternoon, you know, you could be home getting laid. You could be home abusing your kids. You could be going to a movie or something, but you’re coming to see me, and I’m going to give you everything I’ve got.

SR: The people of Kansas City become very attatched to its local celebrities. Would you like to become the literary icon of K.C.?

JE: I would love it. I love Kansas City. I think it’s a good looking city. Bill Stoner came here for five days. We went downtown to Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue, and he said that it was the best looking ghetto he’d ever seen. He couldn’t believe what a good looking city it is. You’ve got the good looking urban sprawl over on the Missouri side. I find Johnson County strangely comforting. It’s like a much more civilized Orange County south of Los Angeles. I was with Helen…we walked out of some shitty restaurant at 119th and Roe or Noll… and there was this big Kansas sky. And I was saying, “Yeah, yeah! Dig it!”.

SR: You’ve left the crime writing behind for rewriting American history in your Underworld USA trilogy. Has moving here helped you put some symbolic distance between Underworld and the L.A. Quartet?

JE: No. I finished the L.A. Quartet in Connecticut in ’91. And then I wrote American Tabloid. As much as I’ve drawn inspiration from Los Angeles’s criminal past, that’s ten percent of it. The other ninety is just consciousness, just my determination to get better and better. To broaden the scope of my books. So I think I could live in Kansas City and write about Dogdick, Delaware or Moosefart, Montana.

SR: So you don’t think that twenty years from now, some critic looking back on your career will be able to say “This was Ellroy’s east coast work” or “This is his Kansas City work”?

JE: Not unless they check the back flap of the book.

SR: Do you ever plan to set a novel in Kansas City?

JE: It’s possible. I can’t conceive of it right now.

SR: I know you’re fascinated with what you call “bad white men” and K.C. had a lot of those back in the thirties with the gangsters and the Kansas City Massacre at Union Station. Do you think any of those types of things might interest you?

JE: Boss Pendergast [a political boss who ran the K.C. Democratic party] is interesting. He never killed anyone. He was a cement contractor. He just ran things. I like that idea.

SR: You’ve said before that you’re appalled by violence, yet you’re a big boxing fan. Boxing is a pretty violent sport. Why does it appeal to you?

JE: I followed it since I was a little kid, and the personalities are outrageous. It’s a microcasm of corruption. It’s one man versus another man with flamboyant personalities. I’ve learned the history over the years, and I’m moved by the fighters themselves. That’s it. I love the chess match aspect of it.

SR: What do you think of Mike Tyson with his rape conviction?

JE: Mike’s a piece of shit. I’ll always refer to him as a piece of shit.

SR: What about Oliver McCall breaking down and crying in the ring?

JE: He’s a well-known psycho. He’s been psycho for a long time. Semi-psycho’ed out. He had to be shoved into the ring during the Lennox Lewis fight. I don’t like Lennox Lewis. I was actually rooting for Oliver McCall. I like his name, The Atomic Bull. That’s a good one.

SR: How about Riddick Bowe joining the Marines and quitting after a week?

JE: I’m not surprised. He’s been slurring his speech more and more, but he’s not so stupid as to stay in the Marine Corps. They do have the coolest uniforms of all the armed services. Wonderful colors.

Copyright © Scott Reder 1997

Scott Reder is a long time Ellroy fan who has the good fortune to live in Kansas City. He can be emailed at <[email protected]>


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