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Monday, October 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Destination: the mind of James Ellroy

Seattle Times staff reporter

We gave James Ellroy the third degree.

No hot lights or phone-book thumpings. We didn't have to lean on the outrageous author of "L.A. Confidential" and other crime greats to spill it long-distance about his new paperback collection, "Destination: Morgue!: L.A. Tales" (Vintage, $13.95). Or to spill it about pretty much anything. His destination Wednesday is Seattle, for a noon book signing at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St., and a reading and signing at 7 p.m., Bailey-Coy Books, 414 Broadway E.

Q: You canceled your stop here for "The Cold Six Thousand" in 2001 because of illness. How are you now?

A: It was exhaustion. Four months of constant travel and no sleep. You'd be fried, too.

Q: Are you going to continue that story (which began with "American Tabloid")?

A: I'm writing the sequel now. Covers 1968 to 1972. The third novel will be the conclusion. That book, people love that book, people hate that book, chiefly because of the style.

Q: It does polarize people. The rhythm, the repetition. And your style is getting even more so in "Destination: Morgue!"

A: I love the American idiom. I love American language. I love racial invective. I love Yiddish. I love hipster patois. I love slang. I love profanity.

And you read "The Cold Six Thousand." It is a novel largely about the insanity of history. And there's a demonic thrust to the language with the repetition of phrase, the shorter rather than longer paragraphs, the racial invective in the actual text, the occasional bouts of alliteration, the spelling things that appear with hard c's with hard k's.

Q: "Morgue" is previously published essays and three new crime tales.

A: What "Destination: Morgue!" is, is an Ellroy primer. It's got all my obsessions: murdered women, dogs, boxing, scandal-rag journalism, the death penalty, unsolved murders of women. And there's overlay there. The piece on the Stephanie Gorman case from '65 — nonfiction — lays into the fiction novella "Hot-Prowl Rape-O." Each of the three novellas features a sex killer from L.A.'s 1950s. There's also an essay on scandal-rag journalism followed by a short story narrated by a scandal-rag writer. So the entire volume is full of overlay.

Q: Can we sum up your riff on Robert Blake, aka "Little Sleazer"?

A: I would like to see him go to trial pretty soon. It's been 3-½ years. He knows he can't cop out because he'll do jail time up to his death. I never liked him as an actor. I thought he was a bad Perry Smith in "In Cold Blood." But everybody thought he was brilliant.

Q: On racial invective, you wade in with the same disregard for sensitivity as Quentin Tarantino.

A: But my stuff all makes narrative sense and everything. I think he's a bad writer and a bad film director. Even "Pulp Fiction" was just bad, right-off-the-top-of-his-head writing with little cultural references. The only film of his I liked was "Jackie Brown," which was very formalized and staid compared to his other films.

Q: You'd written about your twisted youth before, and I'm still astonished with what you own up to. Examples: high-school Nazism, stalking, drugs, theft. Translation: I wouldn't own up to it.

A: You know, more than anything else, those two pieces, "Where I Get My Weird [Expletive]" and "My Life as a Creep," were solicited. Art Cooper, the boss of GQ, asked me to write those pieces. I was able to expand on themes that I had first started in "My Dark Places," my memoir.

Q: Why? Is it expiation? Is it weird-ass street cred?

A: You know what? I think it's sort of a howl that I went through what I went through and got to be who I am and do what I do.

Q: And you pull out of all that a kind of inspiration for the young jerks of today.

A: Yeah, and that's exactly what I was, a [jerk]. And that moment that I describe at the end of "My Life as a Creep," where I watch this woman, Joan, reach for a cigarette, and her blouse gaps and I see her breast in profile ...

Q: That's when you knew your life had to change.

A: I mean really, it just went through me like a knife. I knew. I was in love with her, and she had this doofus boyfriend that I saw through. He was a punk. And she was pretty much paying the bills and playing muse. And she was lovely. And I saw her breast all of a sudden and realized, "You ain't going to get [expletive] unless you change your life."

Q: So what's your life like now that you're in your mid-50s? You're married.

A: Yeah. I live in the Monterey Peninsula in California. No children. I have a dog named Margaret, a bull terrier, a Spuds McKenzie dog. I'm a dog worshiper. I love dogs.

Q: "Stephanie" in "Destination: Morgue!" like "My Dark Places," shows that real mysteries don't always wrap up.

A: Yeah. I think it's a haunting ending to that piece. And it's a great story, and she was a great child, you know, contemporary of mine. She was a year younger. She lived four miles away and one high school over. Very different from me — WASP lowlife.

Q: The kind of girl you would have stalked.

A: Yeah!

Q: But you show that "closure" is absurd.

A: "My Dark Places," the whole book is a treatise on unknowability. The investigation, it goes nowhere. Especially part one there, where I detail the original 1958 investigation into my mother's death. They meet a [expletive] load of people, they get a [expletive] load of information, it's all misinformation, it goes nowhere, they don't know [expletive].

Q: I want to read this passage of yours to you — which is probably kind of rude.

A: No, I like it.

Q: "I attribute my survival to the seldom-sought presence of Almighty God. Skeptics and inclusionists might scoff at this. They can kiss my [expletive] ass." People who only know your hard-boiled stuff might be surprised at your strong religious convictions.

A: I had a Christian upbringing of sorts, Lutheran. I don't go to church. I can't say I'm a Christian. I am a dog worshiper. I really feel close to God around dogs. And I just have a belief. It's there, and take it or leave it.

You know, I despise sordidness and minimalism. I hate Bukowski and William Burroughs and Jim Thompson, and — Who else are they always bringing up? — Hunter Thompson. I hate that kind of writing, I hate to be compared to these guys, because look at the hugeness of my work. Look at the formalism. Look at the layering. Look at the plot structure. Look at the complexity.

Q: They're finally making a movie out of "The Black Dahlia."

A: Brian De Palma's directing. Wonderful design cast ... De Palma? Ehhhhh. And then the actors? Ehhhhh. Josh Hartnett as Bucky Bleichert. He's too pretty to live. And this stupid kid actress, Scarlett Johansson as Kay Lake — and she's about 20 years old. She's a little young, a little short in the tooth. She is the woman that comes between the two men that are the boxer cops.

Q: How did the "L.A. Confidential" movie affect your life?

A: Took me to a much bigger level of literary celebrity. Sold a lot of copies of that book and all the other books, and gave me another readership, a much larger readership. I like being outrageous. For instance, when I sign an "L.A. Confidential" poster, I always write [expletive] on the poster with an arrow pointing to Kevin Spacey. [He describes other raunchy poster defacements, and a blistering modification to a JFK calendar.]

I heard it ended up on eBay. I'm not out to have a bad time. I'm a great reader of my own [expletive]. I love to perform.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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