An Interview With James Ellroy, Author of The Enchanters

Get the dirt on the author’s latest crime novel, his writing process, Hollywood secrets, and more.

James Ellroy Interview

James Ellroy was born in Los Angeles. He is the author of several novels including The Enchanters, which goes straight to the tragic heart of 1962 Hollywood with a wild riff on the Marilyn Monroe death myth in an astonishing, behind-the-headlines crime epic.

Kathryn Monaco: The narrator, Freddy Otash, is based on a real person. I’m curious why you wrote him as a rough guy with some redemptive qualities. Was this based on what you researched?

James Ellroy: I knew him, and he was a no-good guy. He was a criminal. He was a crooked police [officer] and a crooked private eye. He ruined a lot of lives when he verified stories for Confidential magazine. He had, at one point, half the gay bathhouses in L.A. hot-wired around the clock — so if he heard celebrity voices, he could rat them out in Confidential.

He had hotel suites hot-wired. So if Gary Cooper, who had a penchant for high school cheerleaders, brought some underage girls over there, he could get the goods. He beat up people. He doped racehorses. He was a bad guy. But he’s partially redeemed. Just until we go into the new book, the sequel.

KM: And why did you choose to write it from his point of view instead of an omniscient narrator?

JE: [In] my preceding book, Widespread Panic, Otash is satirical. This is the tragic Fred Otash. This is the man who confronts the murder of the young girl.

He keeps falling in love with the wrong woman. Constantly. It’s a little based on my life. And he’s a dope fiend and an alcoholic. And he’s a soldier of fortune and he has a history with John F. Kennedy. He got Jack out of the dirt with a call girl. And that’s what he did. He did these big insanely complex surveillance jobs. And so he’s got Marilyn Monroe, he’s got her pad hot-wired, and he’s got spies all over. And we hear some hilarious bug transcripts where Monroe is pontificating and lying about various things.

KM: Did you take into account other people’s fictionalized interpretations of Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys?

JE: No, I read a crappy novel actually written by Michael Cordell. He wrote that 37 years ago. That was no good. And I looked at Joyce Carol Oates’ book. I didn’t buy that she was traumatized. Robert Kennedy never had an affair with her. It would be an exaggeration to say that she had an affair with John F. Kennedy. They met in the summer of 1954. And Jack never spent more than two hours with any woman except presumably his wife.

KM: Does anyone get angry that you’re writing about the Kennedys in this way?

JE: Never. Because it’s fictional. Even if I wrote facts about them and it was inaccurate, they’ve got no legal recourse.

KM: That makes sense. Do you feel like there are any ethical considerations in writing crime fiction based on real people?

JE: No. I think Marilyn Monroe is a monster. Arthur Miller believed she was a monster. I can give you an example. He was her third husband. She dumped Joe DiMaggio, her second husband. While she was going out with Arthur Miller, the great playwright, she was already messing around with Lawrence Olivier on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl.

She had the morals of a snake. She wanted to convert to Judaism to marry Arthur Miller. So she made a big to-do in the media about her conversion and drove the rabbi and [the media] crazy. So people were following the Miller and the Monroe car all over Long Island in June, the week that they got married. And there was a woman journalist who got out of Russia one step ahead of the KGB. And this poor woman who had been persecuted in her own country, [crashes] her car into a tree and dies [in the media frenzy]. I wouldn’t want that on my conscience. Neither would you.

KM: Marilyn is introduced by her death and then it goes back and forth in time. But why did you choose to start with that timeline?

JE: I wanted to open strong because if I had opened on Jimmy Hoffa hiring Freddy to do the bug job, it would’ve gone nowhere for pages and pages. 

Part one is called “Bait Girls” and that’s a reference to both Marilyn Monroe and Gwen Perloff. Freddy’s investigating the kidnapping (or maybe a staged kidnapping) of this young woman, Gwen Perloff. She’s rescued and then he finds out later the same night that Marilyn Monroe has OD’ed. So seasoned Ellroy readers know that it’s really just a matter of time before the plot lines of Marilyn Monroe’s death and Gwen Perloff kidnapping cross. 

KM: Some of these characters are based on real people, and some are not. Carole Landis was a real person, and Gwen Perloff is fictional. Why did you choose certain characters to be real or fake?

JE: I’m out to rewrite history to my own specifications. Because it’s really quite a simple drug overdose or suicide. Freddy told me one thing 30 years ago and told a BBC film crew another. So what I always look for is a paucity of hard facts. I look for the latitude to fictionalize. And I saw that I could write this book from scratch, adhere to [some] facts, and go from there with real-life and fictional characters.

KM: What was your process of writing this book?

JE: I write by hand. I’ve never used a computer. I don’t have a cell phone. I don’t have text messaging. I hire people to type my manuscripts. Helen, who’s my ex-wife and my girlfriend — we lived down the hall from each other, and we have two apartments in the same building — she does my email correspondence. I had an assistant, I fired her.

The outline for The Enchanters was 425 pages. The book is very rigorously compressed because Otash is a man of very bad habits. But he’s a frenetic thinker and he has forensic skills. He’s a proponent of coming into a place and looking at it and making brain inferences that will stand up later, after a period of some months. And everything that Freddy thinks, thought by thought, is elaborated in that outline. It took me eight months to write the book I love. And I’m doing that now with the second big book.

KM: When will the next book be?

JE: A couple of years. I’ll tell you who his buddy is and it’s Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon was running for Governor of California in ’62.

KM: The book is incredibly fast-paced, do you see it as a movie one day?

JE: I’ve written for the movies and I’ve been around the movies. I get a pension now because I wrote movies that didn’t get made for 10 years. So that’s a nice deal to have. And I think somebody will option this, and when they get into the nitty-gritty of it, they’ll see the extent of Freddy’s mental process because the book is probably 60% of him reading files, examining physical evidence, rolling fingerprints, scraping semen samples, vacuuming, [finding] trace elements at a crime scene. That doesn’t really translate particularly well. When you read it, you see how good he is. It’s great book stuff. So it’s not really meant to be a movie.

KM: How do you feel about past adaptations from your books?

JE: They stink. Even L.A. Confidential stinks. I don’t care how many Academy Awards it made. The man who won the Academy Award for writing it is a good friend of mine and he hates it. It doesn’t even make narrative sense. It lost money and just won a lot of awards.

KM: What are you consuming right now? What are you reading or watching that is exciting to you?

JE: I watch boxing. I’m a fanatic. I don’t watch dramatic television and I’ve got some books I’m gonna pick up later. There was a screenwriter novelist, Steve Fisher, who wrote two versions of the novel I Wake Up Screaming, which was made into a movie with Carole Landis. And he wrote some very strange books in the ’50s.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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The Enchanters by James Ellroy
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James Ellroy — Demon Dog of American Letters — goes straight to the tragic heart of 1962 Hollywood with a wild riff on the Marilyn Monroe death myth in an astonishing, behind-the-headlines crime epic. The Enchanters is a transcendent work of American popular fiction. It is James Ellroy at his most crazed, brilliant, provocative, profanely hilarious, and stop-your-heart tender. It is a luminous psychological drama and an unparalleled thrill ride.

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