LIVING IN THE TREMOR OF INTENT

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

 

James Ellroy’s LA: City of Demons premieres Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 10 pm (ET) on Investigation Discovery

2011 started off with a “Bam!” for me when I was asked to join a press corps bus tour of L.A.’s historic crime scenes with none other than the Demon Dog of American Literature himself, James Ellroy.  I was one of two authors on the trip, the other being our very own Allison Brennan.  Allison and I met up at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, had a bite and a schmooze then jumped onto the Demon Dog Bus with two-dozen journalists and the big man himself.

The event was cast as a promotion for Mr. Ellroy’s upcoming television series, James Ellroy’s LA:  City of Demons, which premieres January 19 at 10 pm (ET) on Investigation Discovery.  I feel comfortable repeating this information over and over again, considering our host, in classic James Ellroy form, hammered these words into our skulls as if they were the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner. 

The evening began with his now-trademark greeting, “Hello all you peepers, prowlers, pedophiles, pedants, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps!” and evolved into a raucous journey that became James Ellroy’s personal tour of Hollywood Hell.  “Crime is a gas and a goof and we all are lucky to live through it vicariously,” he said as we rolled into town, circling the levels of Ellroy’s Divine Comedy, stopping to see such sites as the spot where L.A. gangster Mickey Cohen nearly met his end to a failed assassination attempt (just outside the Roxy on the Sunset Strip), the front door stoop where actress Rebecca Schaeffer lost her life to the gunshot of an obsessed fan, and the house where Johnny Stompanato’s heart stopped the blade that was thrust into his chest by fourteen year old Cheryl Crane, Lana Turner’s only child.

All this to the sizzling, up-tempo narration of the L.A. Death Hunter, to the zing in his voice and the twirling gesticulation of his caffeinated limbs. The man’s a fucking dynamo.  A speed-ball.  A master of instantaneous alliteration and onomatopoeia.  And I tell you, he’s on his game. 

The television series (premiering January 19th at 10 pm ET on Investigation Discovery) starts with a “Bam!” as well.  The intro is classic L.A. Noir, with loud, brassy music and tabloid shots of our devilish little city, capping it off with the image of a helicopter fleeing scenes of death and destruction as palm trees burn in the foreground.  It’s a playful, punchy, predatory peek into subterranean shitholes and backyard buffoonery.  I can’t help the alliteration—when you listen to Ellroy it all comes flying out.

As the show’s devious emcee, Ellroy enters scene at full-throttle, opening with, “Welcome to my wildly warped world of murder and malignant mayhem, crime and crazed passion, skanky scandals and scorching skin.  Murder is on our malevolent menu tonight!”

Episode One, called “DEAD WOMEN OWN ME,” takes a look at Ellroy’s transmogrification of his mother, Jean Hilliker (killed when he was just ten years old) with another victim of violent crime, Elizabeth Short (AKA the Black Dahlia).  Ellroy’s mother was sexually assaulted and strangled in a crime that continues to remain unsolved more than fifty years after the fact.  Studying Elizabeth Short’s murder gives Ellroy the opportunity to delve into the unresolved feelings he has towards his mother, whom he had “cursed” by wishing her dead shortly before that fatal night.  Her death influenced everything he did from that point forward, ultimately leading to his career as a crime fiction author.  As he says, the experience left him “tied, died, swept to the side, screwed, blued, tattooed and buffangooed.”

James Ellroy’s LA: City of Demons is vintage Ellroy, in-your-face and pimped with pizzazz. “Viewers are terribly tired of the trailer trash tragedies that caustically contaminate documentary TV,” he says.  “They wantonly want to groove, grok, gravitate and glide toward glamorous crime – and L.A. is where all that shimmering sh…stuff…pervertedly percolates.”  The show is a must-see for anyone interested in the darker history of L.A. and the seamy side of Hollywood. 

However, as good as the show is (I’ve seen the first two episodes) it doesn’t compare to the experience of spending three hours on a haunted bus tour with James Ellroy as your guide.  I got the chance to learn some pretty cool things about the guy who alternately refers to himself as either the “Slick Trick with the Donkey Dick” or the “Death Dog with the Hog Log.” 

I’ll share some of the tidbits I learned.  Of course, this is off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush:

The outline for Ellroy’s latest novel, BLOOD’S A ROVER, was over 400 pages long.

Ellroy had six books published before he was able to quit his job as a golf caddie.

Ellroy was raised as a Lutheran.  Religious elements permeate his work – “In the end they are all stories of redemption,” he says.

Ellroy’s advice to women – be wary and put up a fight.  The ones who fight usually survive.

Authors who inspired Ellroy are  Don Delillo, Joseph Wambaugh, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett.  Authors he’s not particularly fond of are Charles Bukowski, John Fante, William S. Burroughs and Raymond Chandler.

The most important male influence on Ellroy’s life is Ludwig van Beethoven.  “He was a messenger sent directly from God.”

And, finally, the thing that really sticks with me is the way he described himself as “living in the tremor of intent.”  The phrase comes from an Anthony Burgess novel, and Ellroy interprets it as living in a “constant assessment of meaning.”  He observes his world and asks, “What does this mean?  What does that mean?” 

Fortunately, for us, he puts pen to paper and proceeds to answer those questions.  We’ve read the result, and it’s enduring.  If you haven’t read his work yet, then James Ellroy’s LA: City of Demons provides the perfect primer for previewing those perverted perceptions.  You’ll be glad you tuned in.  At Investigation Discovery.  Wednesday, January 19th.  10:00 pm, ET. 

Fan-boy out.

21 thoughts on “LIVING IN THE TREMOR OF INTENT

  1. Chuck

    Dude, way frigging cool! I love Ellroy, but have to shower immediately after reading just a chapter. Of my favorite writers, his voice may be the most distinct.

    I'm jealous!

    See you soon.

  2. Alafair Burke

    That dude's affinity for the term pantie-sniffer if amusing yet baffling. Sounds like you guys had fun.

  3. Grace

    I've tried to read his novels and finally gave it up. I believe he's talented, I can't get past his overuse (in my opinion) of gutter slang etc. I find it takes away rather than adds to his writing. As the old saying goes, an author can't please everybody!

  4. Anonymous

    "living in the tremor of intent". That is so marvelous. Thank you for that on this dreary Friday morning.

    Nice post, Stephen. Glad you and Allison had a great bus ride. and check out Ellroy's rig! Wow. I had no idea he was such a smashing sartorial splendor.

  5. Cyrus Webb

    Totally incredible, Stephen. There are so many great things coming your way, and being in the presence of such greats is only a part of the reward. Keep giving the world great writing and the blessings will continue as well.

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    JD – Amen, brother.

    Chuck – it was a blast just getting to hang around him!

    Debbie – thanks, dear, I appreciate your kind words.

    Alafair – I uncovered a You Tube video that showed Ellroy on book tour–it was titled "Ellroy Offends Everyone!" Had a lot of fun material in it, for sure.

    Grace – He definitely plays it hard-boiled and gritty.

    Anon – thanks for stopping by this morning – wouldn't be the same without hearing your voice. I thought you'd get a kick out of this one.

    Cyrus – thanks so much for stopping by! Your wonderful words mean a great deal to me. And the interview in Conversations Magazine was great–I've had a lot of people comment about it. Thanks again.

    Tim-baby – doin' great! Writing full-time now. Got a feature screenplay assignment, too. It's going to be a rockin' 2011, but I won't have any books out for a while. I plan to write two this year. I just sent a photo of you and me from my signing at the Mystery Bookstore over to Jen Forbus for her collage.

    JT – it was great hanging with Allison, too. We had fun!

  7. Allison Brennan

    I has SUCH a blast with Stephen and of course James Ellroy. (Stephen is truly a kind soul–I don't think he has a mean bone in his body. And he glows when he talks about his family.)

    I blogged about my thoughts at Murder She Writes last week, but I loved reading this blog. We had some of the same thoughts, and some different focuses in what we took away from the experience. But we both caught the Beethoven reference, and that to me showed a far greater depth and humanity to Ellroy than I think he likes to show.

    And I think I swore when I heard Ellroy say he wrote a 400 page outline. I'll stick to my more organic, if disorganized, process.

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Thanks for the sweet words, Allison. And I can say exactly the same thing about you when you talk about your lovely children. It's funny how two crime writers spent most of our time talking about kids. We know our priorities, that's for sure.

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Zoe – yeah, how come I got the grumpy Ellroy? That just ain't fair.

    Katie – thanks for stopping by! I can't wait to read your next chapters.

  10. Rob Gregory Browne

    I've often wondered what Ellroy thinks of the adaptations of LA Confidential and Black Dahlia. The former was magnificent and the latter was possibly one of the biggest haphazard messes I've ever seenโ€”and I'm a Brian De Palma fan.

    Be interesting to hear Ellroy's take.

  11. Jake Nantz

    Just to show that different people love different things, and authors truly can't cover all appetites, I've never read Ellroy (I know, I know, I'm working on it, okay?). And yet, Grace's description of what turned her off is probably the best advertisement Ellroy could have for me to read his stuff.

    Kooky.

    (well, that and the fact that I don't want to meet him one day and get both barrels of the "what the fuck good are you to me?" comment he supposedly reserves for people who've seen the films but not bought the books…)

  12. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Rob – Ellroy concurs with you. We talked about the film adaptations of both novels. However, he said he loved the Black Dahlia film for one reason – it sold a shit load of books for him. He said something like he sold more Black Dahlia novels the first few months after the film came out than he did in fourteen years after the LA Confidential film came out. I'm paraphrasing, but it's close.

    Jake – You know I like the dark stuff, so Ellroy is right up my alley. And I don't think he cares if anyone sees the movies – he only wants you to buy his books.

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