STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The writer James Ellroy has finished a trilogy that re-imagines the 1960s. In Ellroy's world, every conspiracy theory you ever heard about that decade was true. J.F.K. really was killed by the mob. Martin Luther King's assassination was linked to the head of the FBI.
Mr. JAMES ELLROY (Author): I get to rewrite American history to my own specification, assassinate political leaders, suffer nervous breakdowns, have a blast, use the grooviest drugs of the era, and no one gets hurt and they pay me.
INSKEEP: The author of crime novels like "L.A. Confidential" went on to write three historical novels. This last one, "Blood's a Rover" is the story of corrupt cops and gangsters. They're observed by a low rent private eye named Don Krutchield. He makes his living staring into women's windows or planting bugs in hotel rooms, as in this passage read by the author.
Mr. ELLROY: (Reading) Chapter 11: Miami, 8/8/68. Bug work, the wires, the pliers, the screwdrivers, the drills, the mounts, the baseboard dust, butter fingers, sweaty hands on gnat sized devices.
INSKEEP: The private eye stands in for James Ellroy himself, obsessingly unearthing secrets of a distant decade.
Mr. ELLROY: I am 61 years old. I know I don't look it. It's radio. But I'm astoundingly tall and fit and virile. And I lived through the era and I sensed history be bopping in the margins all around me, even though I had an unimaginably dim social sense. Years later, a theme came to me after I'd written numerous police novels, and here it is: the private nightmare of public policy, the human infrastructure of great public events, the small lives, the love affairs, eclipsed by the big tidal wave of history.
INSKEEP: The private nightmare of public policy, what do you mean by that?
Mr. ELLROY: Who breaks legs and implements public policy at the lowest possible levels, suffers crises of conscious over this? Who are the guys who are doing bad things in the name of authority who suddenly meet women who rewire their heads for the good?
INSKEEP: Well, let me come back. You said that in the 1960s you were not very socially adept, but that all this history was happening around you and you kind of absorbed it by osmosis. What were you doing in the 1960s?
Mr. ELLROY: I was drinking. I was using drugs. I was peeping. I was prowling. I was reading in public libraries.
INSKEEP: And I can't help but notice that one of the characters at the center of this novel, Don Crutchfield, who we heard about in the introduction, is also an obsessive peeping Tom who tries to turn that obsessiveness into something productive.
Mr. ELLROY: Yes, and he does. And he tails one woman, a woman named Joan Rosenklien(ph) throughout the bulk of "Blood's a Rover" and I was in love with a woman named Joan up in San Francisco and she dumped my mangy ass. And the book is dedicated to her. Don Crutchfield is also a real life private eye.
Mr. ELLROY: People don't know this, yeah.
INSKEEP: Who is he?
Mr. ELLROY: Don Crutchfield runs Don Crutchfield Associates. He was a wheel man back in the '60s. He was one of the guys who, as I portrayed in "Blood's a Rover," would hang out at a gas station in West Hollywood, wait for calls from divorce lawyers to tail cheating wives and spouses in hotrod cars, kick in the door, and get pictures so the fool in flagrante.
INSKEEP: Now you're giving us a sense of how it is that you write a book. You begin with real people.
Mr. ELLROY: Um-hum.
INSKEEP: Some of them are quite famous, President Kennedy or any number of other people. When you plotted out these three giant novels did you end up with diagrams of characters or did you simply have it all in your head?
Mr. ELLROY: The outline for "Blood's a Rover" is 397 pages.
INSKEEP: The outline?
Mr. ELLROY: Yes, just the outline, which is why the book is so dense and so flawlessly structured: a book where everything furthers the plot, where every response is calculated, where the ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch is ceaseless.
INSKEEP: That's one of the reasons that I wanted you to read that passage at the beginning of the interview about the bug work, the wires, the pliers, the screwdrivers.
Mr. ELLROY: Yes.
INSKEEP: You've boiled it down. It's not even complete sentences sometimes.
Mr. ELLROY: Yes. No, no, and it's syncopated. You got that right at the beginning.
Mr. ELLROY: I saw the bug work. Oh, Mr. Inskeep wants me to read this because it's syncopated.
INSKEEP: And that's what you're going for. You want it to be rhythmic?
Mr. ELLROY: Yes.
INSKEEP: Hmm. So are you writing for a particular audience or reader or just to get these things out of your head?
Mr. ELLROY: I am writing for God. I am writing for people who are thrilled by history and all its shifting momentousness. I write for Lugwig van Beethoven, the most unfathomable genius that civilization has ever created.
INSKEEP: You say that you write for God.
Mr. ELLROY: Yes.
INSKEEP: What do you mean by that?
Mr. ELLROY: Well, I'm a devout believer and I have a wonderful, wonderful gift, and I know that I did not cultivate it or actualize it on my own.
INSKEEP: I can imagine a person who considers themselves to be devout or faithful or church-going delving into this book and seeing the tremendous amount of violence that is depicted here.
Mr. ELLROY: Yes, yes.
INSKEEP: And asking if there is some contradiction between your belief and the kinds of people that you portray.
Mr. ELLROY: There is a constant referencing of spiritual belief, religion; Don Crutchfield's Lutheranism. These are deep, deep, deep, deep, extremely self-absorbed people, who are constantly thinking about what stuff means. And so it's there. And as Raymond Chandler once said, all great crime stories are stories of redemption. And more than anything else, "Blood's a Rover" is about the tenuous and compromised redemption inherent in belief.
INSKEEP: James Ellroy is the author of "Blood's a Rover." Mr. Ellroy, thanks very much.
Mr. ELLROY: Mr. Inskeep, a great pleasure.
INSKEEP: And when you check the news today at npr.org, you can also listen to Ellroy reading from the novel
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer.
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