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The Curse Chasing James Ellroy

Audio

Aired 9/21/10

James Ellroy, the eccentric writer of hard-boiled crime fiction, joins us to talk about his new memoir. The author of "L.A. Confidential," "The Black Dhalia," and "American Tabloid" writes about his search for the right woman and the curse he's lived with for 50 years.

James Ellroy's latest memoir, "The Hilliker Curse."

Above: James Ellroy's latest memoir, "The Hilliker Curse."

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Many readers got to know the work of writer James Ellroy through his L.A. Quartet, a series of crime novels set in Los Angeles in the 1940s and ‘50s. But readers began to know the writer James Ellroy through his hip and irreverent interviews and his first memoir, the bestseller "My Dark Places." In it, he re-investigates the murder of his mother Jean back in 1958, and traces his own journey out of addiction and his redemption through writing. Now, a new memoir reveals more about the demons that have haunted James Ellroy and the real and imaginary women who have sustained him. The new book is called "The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women." It’s a pleasure to welcome James Ellroy to These Days. Good morning, James.

JAMES ELLROY (Author): Good morning, Maureen. How are you?

CAVANAUGH: I’m doing fine. How are you?

ELLROY: I’m splendid, thank you.

CAVANAUGH: We – I want to tell you that we are inviting our listeners to join the conversation, so if you have a question for James Ellroy, please give us a call. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. James, what is the Hilliker curse of the title?

ELLROY: On the occasion of my tenth birthday, in March of 1958, my mother, who was a 43 year old alcoholic registered nurse, divorced from my father for two and a half years, sat me down and said, sonny, you’re a young man now, you can choose. Live with your dad, live with me. I said my dad. She gave me a whack on the beak. I fell off a coffee table, hit my head on a glass – hit – fell off a couch, hit my head on a glass coffee table, gouged my head, blood all over the place. She hit me again, then she pulled back from it. I had read a book at Christmas of ’57 about witchcraft, spells and curses, and I summoned my mother dead. Coincidentally, she was murdered three months later.

CAVANAUGH: And, of course, her last name was Hilliker, her maiden name.

ELLROY: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: And so that’s why this is “The Hilliker Curse.”

ELLROY: Yeah, yeah. She divorced my dad and rightfully so, in ’55, and went back to Hilliker.

CAVANAUGH: Now was that an unusual action by your mother?

ELLROY: The renouncing of her male surname?

CAVANAUGH: No, I mean hitting you.

ELLROY: She very rarely hit me. She was drunk. She thought I would say, oh, mother, I would rather live with you. She was mistaken.

CAVANAUGH: Now this area of your mother’s death, you’ve spoken very publicly for a long time about it. And, in fact, in your book, in your memoir, you describe a reading in Sacramento as the six thousandth public performance of my dead mother act.

ELLROY: That’s the language of hardboiled.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

ELLROY: By that I mean I’ve talked about this a great deal…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

ELLROY: …which doesn’t detract from its dramatic power, its dramatic viability, but it is an important story because it’s a story larger than me, larger than my autobiography. It encompasses the issue of misogynistic violence. So I am happy to honor my mother in that context.

CAVANAUGH: Does it in any way mitigate or perhaps diffuse the impact of this on your life by making this whole incident so public?

ELLROY: It does but I have always had a buoyant will to be happy. I’m a happy man. I have always sought happiness. And, very obviously, your mother was not murdered. And if it happens to you, you’re presented with a series of choices. Succumb or surmount are the two main ones. I decided to surmount. I have often written, and I write in “The Hilliker Curse,” that the fount of my will was and is the ability to exploit misfortune. I have the options of doing nothing or doing everything. I can honor my mother in print. I can describe the extent to which her death has mediated my relationships with women and so I choose to do what I do best, which is write.

CAVANAUGH: Now your mother’s murderer was never found. You tell us in your new book, “The Hilliker Curse,” that you never really thought you’d find the killer even though you did reopen an investigation for your book “My Dark Places.” Does it matter to you anymore who the killer was?

ELLROY: No, it does not. The killer is irrelevant. He knew my mother for ten minutes, excuse me. His memories are brutal and they are suspect. I will not know my mother until we lock – lock eyes on a cloud in the next world. And he’s dead, he’s not killing other women. There is no imminent thought. It will never be solved.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with writer James Ellroy. His most recent book is “The Hilliker Curse.” And we’re taking your calls if you’d like to join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727. James, what, I wonder, did you want to write this book or did you, in some way, feel that you had to?

ELLROY: I wanted to write the book. I wanted to tell the story because I wanted to explore the phenomenon of women in my life and I thought it was a universal theme that would take me away from solipsism and undue self-absorption. There is an art to writing memoir and it’s this: If you have a universal point to tell, if you have a larger issue to explicate. My girlfriend, the love of my life, the woman to whom the book is dedicated, Erika Schickel, who I meet near the end of the book, this odd, non sequitur happy ending, is writing a second memoir now. Her first memoir was about motherhood. She’s currently divorced. Her book has a universal meaning and intent. It takes it out of the arena of yet another self-absorbed person vomiting up the detritus of their life.

CAVANAUGH: Right, and the universal aspect of this book is its subtitle: My Pursuit of Women. What do you think, James, fuels this fascination, this preoccupation, that you write about with women? It seems that it’s a lot more than sexual.

ELLROY: There is a funny joke out of the 1950s. It’s quintessential. I want to find the guy who invented sex and ask him what he’s working on now. You know, you laugh. Yes, many people laugh. Younger people do not. And it’s just that big. I am 62. I’m in very good health, quite vital. And I feel like a 20-year-old. I am constantly confounded by the holy and sacred conjunction of men and women. I’ve always dwelled on it. And, lo and behold, later in life I meet Erika Schickel.

CAVANAUGH: But in this book, it’s – your eye towards women is not just sexual. You want to have fantasy relationships with women that you see on the street or you meet on a plane or you have a casual conversation with.

ELLROY: I was always looking for an image that described the woman’s morality, her probity, and I thought that if I saw it, I would know it and the woman and I would be conjoined. I made a lot of mistakes between Ms. Schickel and I but that’s okay.

CAVANAUGH: Now, in the very juxtaposition of the title and the subtitle, “The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women,” what do you say this book says about how your mother’s murder has affected your relationships with women?

ELLROY: After my mother died, I went to live with my dad. He had girlfriends but he kept them separate from me. And I grew up in a time of privation, limited dialogue on sex. I was a peeper and a prowler and a panty sniffer and I grew up obsessed and what better thing to be obsessed with than the holy conjunction of men and women.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, getting back to your career, because – and you talk about your career in this book, too, and we follow you as a fledgling writer and then in your time in New York when your books were really starting to become very popular and you were very popular as well. You – And we follow you through your marriage – your two marriages, and then you talk about your crackup in 2001 during…

ELLROY: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …the book tour. And, James, you know, I was reading that and I thought, you know, on the surface, here’s a man who has everything he ever wanted.

ELLROY: Yeah, umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: He has a relationship, he has a fabulous career, success. Why do you think it was at that time that the nervous breakdown happened?

ELLROY: I had been working way too hard for twenty-odd years. I had put myself through a great deal of physical stress, and I had neglected Helen Knode, my second wife, in order to assert myself to achieve the career in a totally masculine fashion.

CAVANAUGH: And is that why you say now you are a Hilliker instead of an Ellroy?

ELLROY: That’s why I say now I’m a Hilliker instead of an Ellroy.

CAVANAUGH: What have you learned from giving up that masculine bent on success?

ELLROY: If one looks at my preceding novel, “Blood’s a Rover,” it’s the story of a young boy, who’s lost his mother, falling into a matriarchy of female revolutionaries and the two women, who are designated by first name only, are the two major predecessors of Erika Schickel. I might add also, parenthetically, that they are frankly not the woman that she is. However, they were dramatically exploitable at the moment. I don’t think exploitable is too strong a verb. The fount of my will, a quote from “The Hilliker Curse,” was and is the ability to exploit misfortune. If you are handed a sandwich full of dog excrement—since we can’t…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

ELLROY: …say the word on the air—you have an opportunity to throw the sandwich away, build yourself a nice ham sandwich, eat it, and go forth. I have the opportunity to exploit my own past and turn it into art or heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

ELLROY: …end up doing the boo-hoo on Jerry Springer.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ELLROY: I have never for a moment felt victimized by any of this. I – One of the nicest things my second ex-wife, still good friend, Helen Knode, said to me is, it’s astonishing because—and you know this as a woman—the fallback mode for most men is self-pity. And Helen once said, you’re immune to self-pity.

CAVANAUGH: How are you now?

ELLROY: I feel great. Erika’s taking a snooze on the couch.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

ELLROY: We’re here in Claremont, in Berkeley. I’m on a book tour. I’m talking to you. Life’s a gas. I’m going to England in two weeks. And what a gas.

CAVANAUGH: It sounds good.

ELLROY: It feels good.

CAVANAUGH: Now I read, however, though, you don’t keep up much with the modern world. I mean, you – no internet, no TV. What’s that about?

ELLROY: No TV, no internet, no cell phone. I like to be alone. I drive to Ms. Schickel’s pad and back. I spend time with Ms. Schickel. I brood, you know from having read the book.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

ELLROY: I spend a lot of time in the dark, thinking.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ELLROY: And it’s a gas.

CAVANAUGH: Tell everybody about spending time in the dark thinking.

ELLROY: I talk to God. I think. I think about Erika. I talk to Beethoven a great deal, which is odd because he’s dead.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

ELLROY: And I don’t speak German and he doesn’t speak English. But c'est la guerre.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, in the book, you talk a lot about your fascination with a number of different women, and one of them is the opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter. She has been a fantasy figure for you. You’ve never met. Now I wonder – I was just wondering after I read this book, have you heard from her since this book was published?

ELLROY: I was in Sweden last year, and the Anne Sofie von Otter thing died about 20 years ago…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay.

ELLROY: …why mince words? But Ms. von Otter, sent me, through her husband…

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

ELLROY: …a Leder CD with a nice note in no way flirtatious. Yeah…

CAVANAUGH: You wouldn’t…

ELLROY: …Erika keeps the CD at her place and frequently imposes the hex of the tiger woman upon it.

CAVANAUGH: Because you wouldn’t know it was 20 years ago from reading this book.

ELLROY: Well, I wrote the book contemporaneously so there are two Ellroys. There’s the older man commenting on his younger life, and the younger man commenting more immediately on his current life.

CAVANAUGH: Now one link you have kept through the years with Jean Hilliker, your mother, is a love of classical music.

ELLROY: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: It runs through the book, “The Hilliker Curse.” We were just talking about the fact that, you know, no TV, no cell phone, no internet. Is classical music another way you’ve distanced yourself from popular culture, do you think?

ELLROY: Classical music is popular culture.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

ELLROY: And there is an immediacy of the music from 1800, the advent of Beethoven, into the 1930s, the cessation of Rachmaninoff and Bartok, that is deeply romantic and popular in form.

CAVANAUGH: So it’s not a way of distancing yourself, it’s a love in and of itself.

ELLROY: It’s a love in and of itself, yes.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, many people who read “My Dark Places” might’ve finished that book and said to themselves, you know, Ellroy did it. He pulled himself up from a really bad start and a really bad struggle with addiction and he started to write and he’s become a success and he’s okay now. And we read this book and we find out, well, maybe he wasn’t okay and so…

ELLROY: Yeah, it’s a long, long journey and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.

CAVANAUGH: Right now.

ELLROY: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about, does writing still redeem you, though, or is – you need something else?

ELLROY: Well, I need Erika Schickel.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

ELLROY: I have wanted a deep, passionate human love all my life. It took me a while to find it. It’s not that I’m the smartest guy that ever walked down the pike. You know, I only learn the hard way.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

ELLROY: And it took some beatings. I’m happy to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Now you sound, in talking about Erika and talking about your life now, that you are maybe one of life’s deepest romantics. Do you feel, yourself, that way?

ELLROY: I’m a deep romantic. Ms. Schickel is a deep romantic. We come out of Beethoven.

CAVANAUGH: The 19th century romantic composers, that’s your base.

ELLROY: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Now I saw in an interview that you’re presently working on a series of novels that are based even farther back in history than the L.A. Quartet, the ‘40s and ‘50s.

ELLROY: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Can you tell us a little bit about that?

ELLROY: Yeah, I’m writing the second L.A. Quartet and it takes place in L.A. during World War II.

CAVANAUGH: I see, so it’s just before you started your first L.A. Quartet.

ELLROY: Correct.

CAVANAUGH: And what is left to say about L.A.?

ELLROY: I’ll think of something.

CAVANAUGH: Good answer. And you’re thinking about it right now.

ELLROY: That’s correct.

CAVANAUGH: Now one of the things, after reading your two memoirs, you also said in an interview that I read, if I could abolish one concept from the parlance, it would be closure.

ELLROY: Right.

CAVANAUGH: What’s wrong with closure?

ELLROY: There is no closure. My mother and I continue. The relationship continues to mutate and I live a highly inward life, a highly imaginative life, and she exists within me.

CAVANAUGH: Having – Living such a highly internal life in your dark room at night with the people in your head and with the phone calls that you make, as you describe in “The Hilliker Curse”…

ELLROY: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …and the phone calls you receive, you must look at modern life, as we were just talking about a minute ago. I’d like you to expand on a little bit of it, with the internet, with Twitter, with this constant access to the outer world, you must look at that as if you’re on another planet.

ELLROY: I am very vexed by the modern world. I drive through affluent peaceful neighborhoods from my pad to Ms. Schickel’s pad, I avoid billboards for depraved TV shows, vampires biting necks, stupid looking augmented women, teenage boys bombed on weed, comedies, and even though I live in Los Angeles, I attempt to curb my excess to urbanism.

CAVANAUGH: And yet you are known as a very, very hip sort of on top of it, gritty novelist. And where does that come from if you just suppress these outside influences?

ELLROY: It comes from my imagination. I was born to relive history and to rewrite it to my own specifications.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, James, there’ve been some reviews that I’ve read about “The Hilliker Curse” and some reviewers, I would imagine most of whom don’t know you personally, have opined on whether or not your relationship with Erika is going to continue. I wonder what your reaction is to that?

ELLROY: My reaction and Ms. Schickel’s is unprintable or unvoiceable on the air. Ms. Schickel and I continue to flourish. What I think this phenomenon explicates, the review attention so far, is that people do not believe in love. We live in an ironical, offhanded, hip society, and the idea that deep, personal, physical, passionate love exists, that it is most often found later in life and that it takes a good many ass-kickings first is difficult for a lot of reviewers to comprehend.

CAVANAUGH: Was that a surprise to you? Reading that? Reading that reaction?

ELLROY: No, it was not a surprise. Erika, in fact, predicted the reaction.

CAVANAUGH: And so when a reader finishes “The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women,” what would you like the reader to take away from, as you say, sort of a universal theme that is snaked through a very personal story?

ELLROY: The theme itself, that the desire for human love is unquentionable (sic) – is unquenchable, excuse me, and that every once in a while you just get lucky.

CAVANAUGH: And that’s what’s happened to you.

ELLROY: Oh, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: James Ellroy, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today.

ELLROY: Thank you, Ms. Cavanaugh.

CAVANAUGH: James Ellroy is, of course, a renowned writer. His newest book is his second memoir, “The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women.” If you would like to comment on anything that you’ve heard, please go online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, a conversation with musician and composer Gunther Schuller. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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