Ellroy thrills listeners with insider writing tips

“Peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks, and pimps — hello.”

So began the short talk that novelist James Ellroy, author of “L.A. Confidential,” gave at the Yale Bookstore Friday, as he answered questions and signed copies of his 1987 crime novel “The Black Dahlia.” Ellroy’s visit came as part of the bookstore’s Author Series and coincided with the opening of the Yale Repertory Theater’s first production of “The Black Dahlia,” a stage adaptation of his novel.

The book, which centers around two men and their investigation of the brutal unsolved murder of Elizabeth Short, has been praised as a masterpiece in the genre of crime fiction writing. Like most of Ellroy’s work, it is set in 1940s Los Angeles. Ellroy joked about the corrupt atmosphere in the city.

“L.A.: Come on vacation, leave on probation,” he said.

Ellroy, himelf, was born in Los Angeles, and, following his expulsion from high school and a series of run-ins with the law, he developed a successful writing career. Along with his turbulent youth in and around the streets of Los Angeles, Ellroy cited novelists Dashiell Hammett, James Caan and Don DeLillo as influences in his own work.

Ellroy rattled off his still-growing list of works, starting with “Brown’s Requiem,” and ranging from the four novels in the well-known “L.A. Quartet” series, to his award-winning autobiography, to his most recent works, “American Tabloid” and “The Cold Six Thousand.” Following the recitation, Ellroy assured that his books would leave any reader “reamed, steamed and dry cleaned.”

Referencing Anton Bruckner’s “Ninth Symphony” and promising sexual rewards to those buying his books, the caustic humor and witty verbal style many attribute to Ellroy was on live display during the session, as well as when he chatted with a small group at a Master’s Tea hosted by Jonathan Edwards College on Thursday afternoon.

Ellroy is most widely known for “L.A. Confidential,” the book that led to the major motion picture of the same name. Although the Academy Award-nominated film has widened his audience, Ellroy still refers to the movie’s success as “a felicitous fluke” that he does not expect to duplicate. He also considers the novel to be more meaningful to him than other media.

“I get more from an essay or good magazine piece I have published myself,” he said.

Although he said he never considered moving beyond small-time, first person private eye novels, Ellroy’s work has progressed to sprawling works of historical fiction, spanning entire decades of American history.

Ellroy said each of his works is punctuated with his own unique style, which he said changes with each novel.

“Sometimes the material mandates the style,” he said.

Ellroy’s meticulous method of writing has won him many admirers, including Nick Antosca ’05.

“He is an incredibly distinct voice. The obvious discipline that goes into his writing is inspiring,” Antosca said.

Hartford resident Caroline Hewitt traveled to see Ellroy Friday and said she was enthused by the talk.

“The way he handles language is amazing. It’s like reading jazz; it’s like reading bebop. He is not like anyone else,” she said.

When pressed for advice for aspiring writers, Ellroy told listeners to thwart the conventional advice “write what you know.” Ellroy — who said he was not completely knowledgeable about the topics he explores — said a combination of imagination, research and detailed outlines closes the occasional information gaps for him.

“I’ve never been a private eye. I’ve never assassinated a president,” Ellroy said. “But this is the kind of stuff I like to think about.”

Author James Ellroy shows off a copy of his novel
Carolyn Tan
Author James Ellroy shows off a copy of his novel "The Black Dahlia" at a book signing at the Yale Bookstore Friday. Ellroy displayed the wry wit of his novels as he took questions.

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