Books In Conversation
Steven Powell with Jill Dearman
Love Me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy
Steven Powell takes a deep dive into the self-proclaimed “demon dog of crime fiction” in his new biography, Love me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy. As fellow noir aficionados, Steven Powell and I began corresponding several years back, and have shared many a high spirited and meta to the meta conversation about the ins and outs of the genre. When it comes to James Ellroy, he is the go-to expert who plays sleuth to the inventor of many an L.A. sleuth. He is the editor of Conversations with James Ellroy (2012) and The Big Somewhere: Essays on James Ellroy's Noir World (2018), and lives in Liverpool, UK. The same obsessive thread that runs through all of Ellroy’s work, also weaves kinetically through Powell’s prose. In this latest book, he reveals nuances of the epic writer’s life and process that only an Ellroy expert can.
Jill Dearman (Rail): Why write and publish this bio now? I too am a great Ellroy fan, but he is as always, a controversial subject!
Steven Powell: Why not? One of the great ironies of Ellroy’s life and career is that despite his massive success and hunger for publicity, many gaps in his life-story remain. With Ellroy there are elements of his story people know very little about or misconceptions about things assumed to public knowledge, including the lives of his parents, murder of his mother etc. As I say in the introduction to Love Me Fierce in Danger, Ellroy’s life is “the great untold story of American literature.” I wanted to tell that tantalizingly hidden story, and as someone who has spent more time studying his life than anyone else, I can tell you that I was frequently surprised by how deep Ellroy’s connections were to some of the key figures of Hollywood and New York publishing over the past four decades. I think the readers will be as well. The fact that he is controversial is a good selling point. Ellroy detests conformity so his controversial statements, which are often just performative, are designed to set him apart from everyone else.
Rail: Tell us about your process. How does one even begin to take on a brilliant writer known for barking like a dog? I’m kidding, of course, but please break down the process.
Powell: I’ve written three previous books on Ellroy so I was pretty well grounded in his world. But Ellroy said to me near the start of this process, “take everything you thought you knew about me and leave it at the door.” The interviews were crucial. I spoke to every friend, family member, colleague and partner of Ellroy who would agree to talk. Finding people often required detective work. If I was looking for a person who knew Ellroy at school and may have changed their name by marriage or if they were pursuing a career as an artist, I would have to check marriage records and electoral registers to find them. If I wanted to talk to a celebrity, they would be easy to locate, but then I’d have to get past their lawyers, managers, and agents. The most difficult interview to set up was with the attorney and author, and Ellroy’s one-time friend, Andrew Vachss, as he had this elaborate security system in place due to his work as a sex crimes prosecutor. I spoke to Vachss only a few months before he died. He was a remarkable man.
Of course, having Ellroy’s blessing often landed me the interview. Lockdown helped as people were at home and usually eager to share their memories, and it gave me more time to write. It was then a case of merging the interviews with the documented research. I wrote a good portion of the book with Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata playing in the background. Ellroy is a Beethoven fanatic, and the emotional range of the piece, from jubilation to dark meditation, seemed like the perfect soundtrack to Ellroy’s life. I took inspiration from Helen Knode (Ellroy’s second wife and true love). She said to me, “James lives life like he was shot out of cannon.” That lends itself well to narrative and pacing. He’s not some Salinger-type recluse. Ellroy’s life has been wild.
Rail: The most haunting parts of the book for me were the background of Ellroy’s mother, Jean Hilliker Ellroy. Ellroy’s memoir, My Dark Places, shed so much light on the torment he experienced trying to find answers to his mother’s murder; is it still emotional for him to talk about?
Powell: Yes, and he doesn’t talk about it much. The trick is to let him talk about something else, and it will spark a memory about his mother. How often in our day to day lives are we reminded of our parents unexpectedly… hearing a piece of music they liked for instance. Even the most casual aside can be quite revealing. Ellroy is always observing, always analyzing. He’s a good reader of people’s motivations. My job was to be like him. Be a sponge to his feelings about his mother as and when those feelings emerged.
Rail: I had never before heard about Jean Ellroy’s self-induced abortion in her youth. Given the overturning of Roe vs. Wade in the USA, it seems as if we are back in an era where women without money and connections must risk their lives in dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. There was also a period where she slept in the same bed with a female nursing colleague. To me it read as pretty queer, though one can never know. How connected did you feel to Jean while writing? Did she haunt you?
Powell: Jean haunts me still. The relationship with a nursing colleague was very intriguing, but I think her true loves were men. Men who invariably let her down. Through my research on Jean, I was able to discover the identity of her first husband—real estate heir Easton Ewing Spaulding. Jean’s self-induced abortion was heartrending but an all-too-common feature of our history. There’s the famous L.P. Hartley line: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” My fear is the opposite is now true. We are reverting to the mistakes of the past.
Rail: Ellroy’s years with his father Armand, who died when the author was 17, read as quite poignant. Armand lucked into a gig escorting Rita Hayworth, but after his Hollywood glory days ended, his life and health went downhill. How much do you think Ellroy’s raw ambition springs from his father’s failures?
Powell: It’s a huge motivator as anyone would fear going back to the squalor and poverty that was Armand’s existence at the time of his death. Ellroy struggled a lot in his youth, and his situation markedly declined after his father’s death. But once he embraced sobriety, he became unstoppable. Even now in his seventies, and financially secure, Ellroy is relentless in his ambition to write increasingly complex and groundbreaking historical crime fiction. Even his flaws seem to motivate him. Ellroy has been indulgent in his spending, and I spoke to one ex-partner who thought Ellroy always liked to be one book deal behind his spending as it meant he had to keep writing.
Rail: It was exciting to read about Ellroy’s writing process. In real life he may love to make a scene, but on the page he sure can write one! Would you speak to how he manages to pull off so many tour de force crime novels?
Powell: He is one of the greatest outliners in American literature. Every novel is outlined precisely, scene by scene, so that the outline reads like a first draft, running into hundreds of pages. He allows room for improvisation but believes in the inviolability of his outline. He never gets writers’ block because he’s never staring at an empty page. His outline tells him exactly what he needs to do next. He has researchers who compile factsheets for him on the historical period he is focused on. He wants his fiction to be fully conversant with actual events, so he is scrupulous not to write himself into historical error. That’s how he made many readers believe that American Tabloid was the inside scoop on the Kennedy assassination when, in fact, it was just a virtuoso piece of novel writing. It’s an extraordinary writing process. My only qualm is that some of the recent novels read as overly planned, as the books increasingly resemble well-oiled machines that quash his creativity.
Rail: A lot of time is spent on his relationships—both romantic and platonic. It seems like he’s found a certain peace now. How do you see the present day Ellroy?
Powell: He is more content now that he’s back with Helen Knode than he has been in years. Except for his literary ambition of course, which is as restless as ever! Yes, this book is about relationships. And I spoke to plenty of Ellroy’s longtime friends who found themselves cut-off prematurely over minor slights. His romantic relationships tended to go in the opposite direction. He’d rush towards engagement/marriage before he’d truly got to know his partner and the relationship would come unstuck. That said, most of the people I talked to, even if they had parted with Ellroy on difficult terms, were incredibly grateful that he had been a part of their life. He's a remarkably generous man and a truly unforgettable presence. His relationship issues can be traced back to the numerous traumas which few of us, thankfully, will ever experience with the same intensity as he did. But he has overcome them to find peace. If I was talking to someone who knew Ellroy well in the 1970s, I always had to bear in mind that Ellroy isn’t that person anymore. In the same way, I’m a very different character to who I was in the ’90s. A biographer’s job is to show the evolution of his subject over the decades. As Armand was born at the tail-end of the nineteenth century, and I spent a lot of time on the lives of Ellroy’s parents, this book is the story of the Ellroy family with the events of the twentieth and early twenty-first century—everything from the Vietnam War to the Tate-LaBianca Murders to the Trump Presidency—as the backdrop.
Rail: Now that this book is done, what’s next for you?
Powell: I tend to juggle half-a-dozen ideas and then one of them breaks through. Before this book, I wanted to write something on Film Noir but was struggling to find the right angle. Then it dawned on me to write a biography of the King of Noir, James Ellroy! So, I’d like to write fiction, perhaps another biography, and keep up the Ellroy scholarship. I feel that this book is my introduction to the world, and having set the stakes so high, I’ve got to do something bigger and better. Perhaps I’m more like Ellroy than I realized!