Monday, 23 November 2015

Steven Powell on James Ellroy

Today, I'm pleased to welcome Dr Steven Powell to the blog, with a guest post about his new book concerning that controversial but hugely interesting crime writer James Ellroy. I've just received a copy, and I'll be reviewing it here in due course:

"James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction began life as my thesis at the University of Liverpool. After I graduated, Palgrave Macmillan accepted my proposal for a new monograph on Ellroy, and I began to adapt my years of research on Ellroy into book form. There were two elements of James Ellroy's career that I found particularly fascinating. One is referenced in the title of my study: his self-styled 'Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction' persona. I was determined to find out the full extent that Ellroy's literary persona had played in shaping his works. Was it a major factor in his writing or did Ellroy simply call himself the Demon Dog to give a name to his often unhinged performances at book readings and during interviews?

Another aspect of Ellroy’s work that interested me was the gradual evolution of the text in both plotting and prose from character bio’s to outline to first draft to finished novel. I was able to map out this process when I visited the James Ellroy archive at the University of South Carolina several years ago. It's fascinating to read the outline and drafts of The Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz against the published novels and see just how different these works could have been.

Ellroy's literary persona, by contrast, was less visible in the text, although he is fond of recurring dog motifs which could be read as subversive clues to its presence. The Demon Dog moniker, however, was frequently invoked during the hundreds of interviews Ellroy has given throughout his career. I created an inventory of Ellroy interviews, partly so that when I came to talk to Ellroy myself I would know which topics he had already discussed at length and which subjects were overlooked. I interviewed Ellroy four times and then edited the anthology Conversations with James Ellroy for University Press of Mississippi.

Ellroy once said to journalist Ron Hogan 'Every interview I give is a chance to puncture the myth I've created about my work and refine it'. It was quotes like these that helped me to understand the purpose of Ellroy's persona, but there were also events in Ellroy's life which I discuss in James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction as being central to the formulation of the Demon Dog role.

One such incident occurred early in his career. After his first two novels were published, Ellroy moved to New York where he underwent a sudden crisis in his career. He was unable to sell his third novel to a publisher and his agent dropped him as a result. His solution was typically bold and theatrical. The story goes (it may be somewhat apocryphal) that Ellroy marched into the office of editor Otto Penzler and brashly introduced himself as 'the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction.' Penzler was naturally taken aback by this uninvited guest, but he, and legendary agent Nat Sobel, took Ellroy on as a client and essentially rescued his career. If Ellroy hadn’t brandished the Demon Dog name, could his meeting with Penzler have been less successful I wonder?

As I say in the introduction to the book ‘Ellroy is an author at ease with his own sense of celebrity, but, in one of the many contradictory sides of his character, he relishes his self-crafted image as an outsider – too edgy, unpredictable and maverick to ever truly belong to the Hollywood or publishing establishment.’ It is this enigmatic and combative side to Ellroy’s character, I believe, which has complemented some of the most accomplished and controversial crime fiction written over the past thirty years, and why his work will continue to be debated by critics and readers for many years to come. James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction is my offering to this debate."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very very interesting. Thank you for including that, Martin.The books of James Ellroy are not simple reads, and certainly not for the faint hearted or easily offended, but are well worth the work. The plots are complex, and the characters are real, vivid, and stick in the mind (Bud White, anyone?) And the film of LA Confidential was a great example of how to fillet a complex, dense book and then still manage to come out with the soul still alive and the heart intact. Jerry Goldsmith's music was cracking, too! A much, much loved film. Kevin Spacey and Russell Crowe have never been better. But there is much more to Ellroy than 'just' LA Confidential, and his short works and essays are good too. Liz Gilbey