Crime writer James Ellroy made his reputation with the L.A. Quartet, an epic set of four novels which included the film-inspiring L.A. Confidential. Now, Ellroy is at work on a prequel quartet, which takes place during World War II. The second book in the series, This Storm, is published by Knopf on June 4 and is another satisfyingly hard-boiled, and sprawling, tale. “I despise the minimal, I despise the small, the picayune,” says Ellroy, “and that’s why I write these big books.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why did you decide to write a second L.A. Quartet?
JAMES ELLROY: I had a synaptic flash. Now, it’s eleven years ago, it was in ’08. I was single then, and I was living in Los Angeles, and I had an apartment on the edge of Hollywood. On a rainy Saturday night, I was looking out southbound, and it came to me. I had a flash, and it was a flash of forlorn-looking Japanese in an army transport bus. They were handcuffed and they were being driven up a snowy mountain road in the winter of ’42 to the Manzanar internment camp. In microseconds, I had conceived the second L.A. Quartet, characters from the original L.A. Quartet and the Underworld USA Trilogy transposed to Los Angeles during World War II as significantly younger people. The first book would be called Perfidia, and it would be the story of the murder of four members of a Japanese family in L.A. the day before Pearl Harbour, and the second book would be a continuation of the story of Perfidia, and the story of Fifth Column hi-jinks, and Nazis, and Commies, and all sorts of bad people in Mexico, in L.A. And I swear, Mr. Collis, all this came to me in seconds, and I knew I would call it the Second L.A. Quartet.
The book deals with a lot with Mexico, with racism — subjects which are in the headlines more now than ever. But this was all conceived before the political events of the last couple of years?
Oh, yeah. I never thought about politics. Nothing in This Storm is meant to represent anything, except the events of This Storm. I don’t have a computer. I don’t go on the internet. I don’t watch television, except for boxing. I don’t know how to stream. I don’t read the newspapers. If I go to the airport, I bring a book to read while I’m sitting, waiting for the flight. One of the most maddening things is to go on some high-profile TV show, and think you’re going to be able to talk about the book that you wrote, a book that — in my case — derives from my fixation on America’s past, and have somebody bring up the present, and have to tell them for the twelve thousandth time, “It’s not about anything, it’s not about anything today, I’m not commenting on anything today.”
This book, it’s simply a result of this obsession of mine with history, which goes back to when I was seven and eight-years-old and living with my divorced mother, and she had a big stack of Life magazines going back to the War. As a little kid, I’m always looking at the pictures, and reading the stories, and going, Oh, this government committee; Oh, gas rationing; Oh, Japanese internment; Oh, Hitler invades Russia. Oh, what’s it mean? Concentration camps, look at this; Oh, victory parade on Wilshire Boulevard. Oh, movie stars’ bond rallies. That’s where it comes from.
What was it like, re-reading your earlier books in preparation to write This Storm?
I saw how much I’ve improved, especially as a stylist. I saw how much the language has evolved. I saw how much I’ve honed the craft, because language means a great deal to me. I admire the scope of the books, and the ambition of the books, and I was anxious to get through reading through those books and doing the work in hand, because I always push forward. I always say, ‘Well, you know what? Perfidia, that’s great, but now I’ve got to write This Storm, and now I have to move on to the third book in the series.
The supporting characters in This Storm include Orson Welles. How did you come to include him?
I’ve never liked his movies and I’ve never liked him, particularly. And so, I know that Welles, for instance, actually did go on a goodwill junket for FDR, and I saw that the dates jibed, when I read my researcher’s crib sheets on this book and I saw that I could use him. He’s a major player in This Storm, and there’s also a hilarious scene, if you might recall, from Perfidia, where he and Bette Davis and his illegitimate daughter, go to see a second-run performance of Citizen Kane, and Dudley Smith (a fictitious character and high-ranking cop who features in both the original and the new L.A. Quartet) is furious, because he wants to go f— Bette Davis. You know, I’d be pissed off if I got dragged to some shitty movie when I wanted to f— Bette Davis. And so would you!
There are people who say Citizen Kane is quite a good movie.
I never liked it. I always thought it was a lot of hooey. Call me unenlightened. Many have!