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sarah hampson: the interview

In The Hilliker Curse, author James Ellroy writes about how his work and life have been shaped by his difficult relationship with his mother and by her murder in 1958.

"I would be in the dark if I could be," says his low, rumbling voice.

Ah, yes. Of course. This is James Ellroy, the Los-Angeles-based author best known for his crime fiction, L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia, The Cold Six Thousand and The Big Nowhere, to name a few. In his new memoir, The Hilliker Curse, a sequel to My Dark Places in 1996, he admits a habit of whispering to women on the phone in a darkened room.

The memoir's subtitle? My Pursuit of Women.

Not to worry though. In the end, he finds The One, Erika Schickel, a mother of two daughters, writer and comedienne, to whom the book is dedicated. He pried her away from her marriage to be with him.

There's a creepiness to his conversation: urgent declarations and sighs. His staggering ego never ruins an exchange. It's book talk like phone sex.

"Well, there's this, Miss Hampson," he begins when I ask if Ms. Schickel, who is 15 years his junior, read the book before it was published. He uses the formality of the honorific to suggest a mock respect, more pedantic than polite. At least that's how it seems. "Everyone in this lifetime on the path to true love, and the few of us who are lucky to have found it, preceded the finding with a great many romantic misadventures."

Before Ms. Schickel - he uses an honorific for her, too - there were others. "The numbers don't matter," he writes at the start of the book. "It's not a body count, a scratch-pad list or a boast."

But we soon know there were lots. Two ex-wives. A failed engagement. Hookers. Girlfriends. One night stands. A babysitter who gave him a blow job. Private school girls peeped. Women glimpsed through bathroom doors left ajar; in the audience at book readings; on airplanes. Girls whose houses he would break into as a young man in order to steal their underwear.

Before them all was his mother, Jean Hilliker Ellroy, the original Her, as he calls her in this work, whose memory has driven much of his writing.

As anyone who has followed the wild career ride of Mr. Ellroy knows - one-time pill-popper, alcoholic, petty thief and golf caddy - the death of his mother when he was 10 has been inextricably woven into the life of this ribald 61-year-old, both on the page and off.

His parents had a difficult divorce. His mother drank: She got "bourbon-bombed," he writes in his trademark rat-a-tat-tat writing style. "I hated her because I wanted her in unspeakable ways," he writes about his burgeoning sexual drive in The Hilliker Curse. And one day after she, in a drunken state, hit him, he wished her dead. Three months later, she was murdered. The case was never solved. "Of course, I caused her death," he writes lugubriously.

The melodrama is vintage Ellroy. That one event should have such a profound influence is tragic, I say, lobbing some faux sympathy his way.

"Ah, yes." There's a sigh.

I ask him why he once said that his mother's death was "a gift."

"I can't go back and undo it," he tells me in a voice like slow-pouring liquid. "I can access it, reassess it, poke at it, dissect it, examine it, see where it takes me," he carries on in a sort of orgiastic semantic build-up. "Exploit it," he finishes in a dramatic flourish.

Again, vintage Ellroy. He's all bombastic contradiction. "I feel reverent and respectful towards the women I describe in this book, and I wanted to honour them," he says soothingly when I mention how odd it is that in a book about his relationships, there's little sex.

"I despise sleaziness in any way, shape, manner or form," he intones darkly.

"Are you playing with me, Mr. Ellroy?" I retort, slapping him with some of his own ironic decorum. In TV appearances and at lecterns, he has been accused of "creeping out America" with his profanity-laced monologues.

"No," he murmurs into the phone. "If I creep people out, it's because I'm a loudmouth. It's an act … and you'll note that, yes, The Hilliker Curse is memoir, but it's also an autobiographical essay written by a very, very skilled novelist who writes in a hard-boiled form. It's the language of hard boil. And it's what PCers have yet to figure out. Yes, I'm a Christian. Yes, I'm a Tory. Yes, I use phrases like 'Divorce your fruit husband and marry me.'" He believes he is sympathetic in the book as a "love-starved reckless man" who feels compelled to save women in atonement for his mother's death.

So language makes him seem creepy?

"It's the deployment of language." He groans in satisfaction over his own perceived cleverness. "It's keeping the reader off balance with depictions of all my crazy shit as a young man and the thoughtful ruminations upon those actions forty years hence." Some people "may not get that I'm a very nice person with a raucous performance side and a somewhat menacing visage. I'm a big man, imposing. And what I want I tend to get. But I'm out to serve God."


He sees himself as a great romantic. In the book, he mentions his skills at wooing; sending flowers, notes, having deep, soulful phone conversations.

"I track the precedence of romanticism back to Beethoven...And who knows where Beethoven ends and James Ellroy begins. I think about Beethoven constantly. As a male metaphor for transcendence, what else is there? The worse it got for him, the more deaf he became, the more visionary his music, the greater expansion of his form." He lets out a low growl. "Beethoven," he sighs.

But many would be offended by his depiction of women in The Hilliker Curse. They seem only useful to him for how they orbit and contain his ego.

"Well, oh my Lord, the tenderness of that book," he chides me playfully. "And the feminism, and the respect for women, the reverence, the chivalric code and the constant assessment of the female persona that has always shaped my sex drive. I would think that would warm feminist hearts."

He met Ms. Schickel after he had conceived the book, and he finished it less than a year into their relationship. Are they still together?

"Oh yes, Ms. Schickel and I not only continue, we flourish." He takes a deep breath. "Erika Schickel is explicable," he continues. "Her conjuring of me with greater persistence, acuity than I had conjured her or that I had ever conjured any woman, ever, points to the consummate dimension of this union."

But how he writes about Her - she is the Red Goddess, tall and flame-haired like his mother - surely puts pressure on the relationship. As a woman, one feels a little worried for her, given his conviction that he had found The One several times before in his life.

"Miss Hampson, Ericka Schickel does not fold before pressure," he says in a menacing drawl. "Nor do I. Bring it on."

I thank him. He thanks me. "You are very, very gracious," he says. "Best interview for The Hilliker Curse."

"Write me a love letter," I joke.

"Now, stop Miss Hampson. We're both taken," he says seductively, meaning I think that he figures we're both enamored of each other's phone banter. "There you go."

There you go, yes.