Books In Conversation
STEVE POWELL with Jill Dearman
The Big Somewhere: Essays on James Ellroy's Noir World
James Ellroy's novels and nonfiction are the stuff of obsession. But what kind of an obsessive writer would dedicate his reading, researching and writing time to uncracking the code of the famed L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia author. That writer in question would be a humble and deeply curious British biographer named Steven Powell. Powell is a crime fiction scholar and, in the words of Andrew Pepper, "The authority on James Ellroy." His book James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) was nominated for the HRF Keating Award for Best Biographical / Critical work. He is also the editor of the anthologies Conversations with James Ellroy (University Press of Mississippi, 2012) and The Big Somewhere: Essays on James Ellroy's Noir World (BloomsburyAcademic, 2018). He edited the anthology 100 American Crime Writers (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) and is a member of the Crime Writers Association. He blogs about crime fiction at The Venetian Vase. Below is my interview with Steven Powell, in which he discussed Ellroy at large in the context of his newest book, The Big Somewhere.
Jill Dearman (Rail): How did your obsession with Ellroy begin?
Steven Powell: As a teen, I was a voracious reader of crime novels and thrillers. While on holiday with my parents on the south coast of England, I spotted Ellroy's American Tabloid in a bookshop. I didn't know the name James Ellroy then, but there was something about the cover art, a blurred image of the Kennedy motorcade which looked like it had been adapted from the Zapruder film, that compelled me to buy and read the novel. I was floored by the writing. The characters were brutal but sympathetic; the history was vibrant, alive and real. I started tracking down everything else he had written. It was my wife Diana who persuaded me I should write a thesis on Ellroy. After that it has been a snowball effect. I interviewed Ellroy four times and published all the key interviews of his career in a single anthology. I began a website on my research, turned my thesis into the book James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction, organized the first academic conference on Ellroy's work, and then before you know it people are calling you an expert. But I feel more like a student as I'm still trying to crack the enigma that is James Ellroy, and of course he's still writing books every bit as visceral and infuriatingly ambitious as he was in the 1980s.
Rail: How do you define noir? Can you speak to its many forms—literature, film, photography, painting, etc.?
Powell: I think noir is personal to everyone who recognizes and appreciates its forms, and every time you get close to a definition, it'll wrongfoot you. I can remember how much I loved watching old crime films with my father when I was just a kid. I was probably too young to understand the term "film noir," but Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Cagney would come on the screen sporting fedoras and tommy guns, or Lizabeth Scott would appear with a strapless dress and smoky voice and suddenly I was transported to another world where everything was sexy and dangerous, and it felt like anything could happen. I've had that feeling many times since, and it can be experienced in all of the mediums you've mentioned. So I may see noir in Nighthawks or Vettriano or in the songs of Lana Del Rey and, every time I do, it invariably takes me back to that childhood moment.
Rail: My Dark Places had a huge impact on me; how do you see the thread between Ellroy's fiction and nonfiction as well as his Demon Dog persona?
Powell: Ellroy has been so successful in creating his own mythology that it is difficult to distinguish fact from fiction in his writing. This is never more evident than in My Dark Places where he talks of how his mother's murder led to the transmogrification of Elizabeth Short and Jean Ellroy in his mind. But it would be boring if Ellroy simply wrote up his own life as fiction. He sees events in his life as malleable with historical events. For instance, Ellroy never met Charles Manson, but he did spend time at the L.A. County Jail at the height of the Manson Family's reign of terror. So Manson appears as a character, holed up in the L.A. County Jail, in Ellroy's Killer on the Road, and it is convincing as Ellroy has brought a degree of his own experience to the text. Ellroy works from an emotional, not a literal, history, and it gives him greater latitude to fictionalize. As for the Demon Dog persona, I see that existing as much on the pages of his novels as in the T.V. and print interviews where he first exhibited his trademark wild behaviour to the media. Ellroy has a knack for self-promotion, but at the same time he has undermined his own celebrity by portraying himself as the outsider in publishing and in Hollywood. Whenever you define him, he goes out of his way to break those bonds. I don't think he could have done that if he was just any crime writer, he had to create the Demon Dog persona.
Rail: You dig deeply into the paradoxes of race in the L.A. Quartet. How do you think younger readers who are let's say going to college or starting their adult lives during the uber racist era of Trump and Brexit will receive Ellroy?
Powell: In these angry days of Trump, Brexit, and social media, where a phrase or even a look can go viral and make or break a career, I feel it is increasingly difficult to teach Ellroy because undergraduates and younger readers have been brought up to make instant judgments. A surface reading of Ellroy has plenty to offend, but if you dig deeper, you'll see Ellroy is a contrarian: while his characters might spout racial invective, he sees this as an accurate representation of period dialect and also a casual attribute, not a defining characteristic, of the Ellrovian male. Ellroy approaches his characters, like he does his country: no one is innocent. The paradox is in how the reader may admire the more noble aspects of a characters' personality, while still condemning their inherent bigotry. Some people might feel uncomfortable with the emotions this stirs in them. Ellroy's sees it as his mission to polemicise and provoke.
Rail: Can you put him in historical context?
Powell: Ellroy is indebted to both Hammett and Chandler. He took a lot from Chandler in terms of the structure of his early novels, but more importantly, Hammett gave him his archetypal noir protagonist —the bagman, fixer, detective in hock to the Mob, a guy who would sell his brother for a dime and his soul for a nickel—and the reader will keep rooting for them all the way. That said, for many years Ellroy didn't like the label of crime fiction at all, as he felt he had surpassed it. I think Ellroy has produced some of the greatest American writing of the past fifty years, but there's no need to place him outside the noir canon to reach that conclusion. Noir has served him well as it has for a new generation of writers who have adapted Ellroy's themes into their work. I will put this carefully as I don't want anyone to think I am denying these writers their own voice, but I would say Megan Abbott, Craig McDonald, and David Peace, to name some of the best modern writers, all have an Ellrovian flair to their work.
Rail: Which of his books is your favorite and why?
Powell: The book that resonated with me the most emotionally is The Big Nowhere. It has the most compelling characters Ellroy has ever created: the ambitious but aggrieved Mal Considine, Danny Upshaw running away from his sexuality and trying to redeem himself by cracking an impossible case, and finally the thuggish but empathetic Buzz Meeks. I think it comes down to that darkly romantic contradiction of noir. The individual standing alone, haunted by ghosts from his past and facing an uncertain future, and yet it is a curiously exhilarating worldview.
From a technical viewpoint, The Cold Six Thousand is the text I admire the most. Every plot point, line of dialogue, and narrative device is layered in seamlessly. And yet it is the coldest in tone, and it was the critical drubbing Ellroy received from this novel that sent him on a course of even more radical stylistic experimentation from which, I'm hoping, he'll pull back from soon.