James Ellroy appeared at The Writer’s Center on Saturday night, in conjunction with George Mason University’s Fall for the Book Festival.
It was probably one of the most fun literary events I’ve been to in a long time.
Ellroy is certainly bigger than life, a factor made even more prominent by the fact that he is actually a big tall person. His presence literally fills the room. And when he talks, he has a loud, booming voice that modulates and riffs through the words like singing, like a sermon.
He believes, at his core, that he is doing God’s work. And who are we to argue? It’s that level of conviction that makes him such a compelling literary figure. If you know his backstory–his mother was murdered when he was a child and the murder has never been (“will never be,” in his own words) solved–it’s easy to understand his fascination both with the macabre underbelly of shiny Americana and with an unflinching ability to expose it to the harsh light of day.
And he has a charisma about him that is really difficult to ignore. The audience who came to see him were huge fans, voracious readers of his work, and knew his books inside and out. During the Q&A session that followed, Ellroy expounded on everything from the innerworkings and motivations of characters in LA Confidential to which Anne Sexton quotes are his favorite (confidential to DB: he started his talk out with “I was born doing reference work in sin;” could not help but think of you).
Although he has a big personality and a big sense of his legacy, he is also utterly approachable and a man of the people. He enjoyed “bullshitting” with the folks who came to get their books signed and, I felt, sincerely wanted to know what they thought of the event, of his new book, etc.
He also shared a fifteen minute diatribe on his loathing for the “internet invaders” who are threatening the supremacy of the printed word.
I wonder if America’s growing fascination with all things tabloid and scandalous is connected to Ellroy’s growing fame–did one feed the other? Or is this symptomatic of something else changing in American culture?
Ellroy claims that the murder of his mother exposed him to the reality that there are “two Americas.” The surface one, the one we live in, and a second, shadow America, where powerbrokers, politicians, and money circulate and determine the long-term path we’re on.