Love Me Fierce in Danger: The Life of James Ellroy was published by Bloomsbury in February of this year. I have done a number of publicity events to promote the book, but if you still need persuading then have a read from this extract from the introduction to the biography, and then do yourself a favour, and buy the book!
“James lives life like he was shot out of a cannon,” Helen Knode, his ex-wife, tells me. Of the many women in Ellroy’s life, Helen has come closest to understanding him. Understanding Ellroy, both the scope and the meaning of his extraordinary life, is a task I have spent more than a decade undertaking. I first met Ellroy in person in 2009. I was an unknown PhD candidate back then, and I was amazed at the generosity he extended towards me when there was little I could give him in return. Over the next ten years I stayed in Ellroy’s orbit, authoring three books on his work and hundreds of articles before I had an epiphany: someone needed, hell, I needed, to write James Ellroy’s biography.
In one sense James Ellroy needs no introduction. To be even remotely knowledgeable of twentieth-century American literature or crime fiction is to know Ellroy. With his garish Hawaiian shirts, lanky physique, mesmerizing speaking style, and penchant for barking like a dog, Ellroy makes sure he won’t go unnoticed. However, his distinctive and self-styled Demon Dog persona runs deeper than its physical manifestation. It’s all there in his ferocious competitiveness, tireless work ethic, and prodigious output. His writing has pushed the boundaries of genre, and he has never given up on striving for new literary achievements. This ambition, in part, stems from his struggle with addiction. His mother was a heavy drinker and, after her murder and the death of his father, Ellroy fell into a spiral of alcohol and drug abuse as a young man. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous at the age of twenty-seven and, barring a couple of relapses, has been sober ever since. But the addictive side of his character remains in everything from his unyielding ambition, voracious appetite for women, right down to the copious amounts of coffee he consumes daily.
While remarkable and often inspiring, the story of Ellroy’s life is also tinged with melancholy, and not just by the various traumas he has endured. Rather, Ellroy’s seven decades cover a rapidly vanishing world. He has lived through and profited from the rise and fall of Hollywood and publishing. It would be impossible for another Ellroy to ascend in the same circumstances today, but if society was to become too safe and monotonous it might create the conditions to which a self-styled polemicist like Ellroy could step into the void.
Ellroy is a brilliant reader of people’s thoughts and motivations. As such, he is skilled at giving people what they want, whether it be outrage or empathy, and that sort of talent rarely goes out of style. Humor is present in everything he does. He can take sheer glee from his capacity to offend, and yet he can be equally kind and thoughtful. Ellroy has been so candid to me there were times I was unsure whether he had appointed me as his biographer or executioner, but that is entirely in keeping with his character.
Joyce Carol Oates described Ellroy as “the American Dostoyevsky.” The comparison is not merely a literary one. Ellroy’s extraordinary, harrowing, and inspiring life has been so mythologized, demythologized, and re-mythologized in the public eye, not least by the author himself, that it is difficult to believe that this book is his first full-length biography. All I ask is that, whether you are an admirer or a detractor of Ellroy, take all your preconceptions of him and leave them at the door. Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that, in my view, Ellroy’s life is the great untold story of American literature.
For the multitude of interviews I have conducted with Ellroy’s friends, colleagues, and ex-partners, my subjects seemed relieved to finally give their testimony and part with the history they had witnessed in the life of an author who can be equally dazzling and infuriating. With such an abundance of voices in this story, I have avoided any ham-fisted attempts to psychoanalyze Ellroy. He is not introspective. His character can be deduced through his actions, and as such, I don’t always follow a strict chronology. The structure of the book is broadly sequential, but Ellroy is often juggling a dozen projects and people at once. It is more appropriate to focus on one episode of his life at length, before moving onto another.
I feel I have talked enough about my own hand in the book and can feel Ellroy peering over my shoulder and saying, “Steve, you slimy limey, stop talking about yourself and get to the part about me.”