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A profane and explosive James Ellroy, in conversation with Joseph Wambaugh [Updated]

April 25, 2010 | 10:52 am


Crime writer James Ellroy’s flair for the dramatic and affinity for profanity were in full force in his conversation with author Joseph Wambaugh at a session at Saturday’s Festival of the Books.

After Wambaugh introduced the modern noir author best known for novels such as “L.A. Confidential” and “The Black Dahlia,” Ellroy made his way to the podium where he gave a spirited speech, filled with countless expletives, that included accolades for Wambaugh as a master of the police story and his influence on Ellroy’s writing.

“My debt to Joseph Wambaugh is incalculable,” he proclaimed at one point. It took mere moments for Ellroy to get the audience roaring at unabashed recollections of his time as a social derelict in Los Angeles at roughly the same time Wambaugh was on duty as an LAPD detective sergeant.

Ellroy’s booming voice and dry wit kept the audience entertained, with laughter consistently accentuating the dialogue. Wambaugh started the conversation by asking Ellroy if he had shoplifted a copy of Wambaugh's first nonfiction work from 1973’s “The Onion Field.” Ellroy admitted to stealing it not once but three times and reading it by flashlight while living in a Goodwill drop box on the corner of 5th Street and Western Avenue.

Ellroy also discussed his upcoming television show, “James Ellroy’s L.A.: City of Demons,” scheduled to debut by early next year on Investigation Discovery. Ellroy will host and narrate the show that features Barko, a corrupt, computer-generated LAPD drug-sniffing dog that speaks and sells the drugs he seizes.

In “Blood’s a Rover,” his 2009 novel and final volume of the “Underworld USA Trilogy,” Ellroy explores the dark, undercover aspects of American politics and crime from 1968 to 1972. Addressing why this book breaks with past novels in its portrayal of women by giving them major roles, Ellroy said: “I wanted to conceptually explore the voice of women as revolution.”

Discussion of the novel, which covers the assassination plots of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy Jr., took a turn when Wambaugh asked Ellroy to repeat a comparison he had previously between JFK and Bill Clinton. Ellroy emphatically reiterated that JFK is Clinton minus the media scrutiny and lab results. Insisting that American history tends to romanticize its past, he said: “America was never innocent” and “it’s time to de-mythologize an era.”

After Wambaugh made a correlation between film director Quentin Tarantino’s work and Ellroy’s -- noting that Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” displays an “Ellroy-like love of high parody” -- Wambaugh asked Ellroy if he would want Tarantino to adapt “Blood’s a Rover.”

“Quentin Tarantino is not my ball of rice nor my cup of tea,” he said. He stated his dislike of nihilism and the “high, high pitch” of parody and satire that are prevalent aspects of Tarantino’s work, humorously adding that he, of course, sells and options film rights to his books not to maintain their integrity but because his high-risk lifestyle entails taxes and alimony payments.

Does this final piece of the trilogy break with his past novels by being redemptive in nature? “That redemption is possible, change is imperative, revolution from the inside out is your responsibility,” he said in response.

-- Dima Alzayat

Photo: James Ellroy, left, and Joseph Wambaugh. Credit: Dima Alzayat