Going 10 rounds with combative US writer James Ellroy

Fiachra GIBBONS
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US writer James Ellroy released 'This Storm' this year, which is set after Pearl Harbour

James Ellroy is adamant, as he often is.

"I don't talk about the present or answer any question about the present time under any circumstances. I don't write about it and I don't talk about it," said the writer of "The Black Dahlia" and "LA Confidential".

Two minutes into an interview with AFP in Paris, the veins on his baldpate are bulging, and he is threatening to walk out.

Interviewing Ellroy -- who says he "prefers boxing to culture" -- has long been something of a bare-knuckle sport.

The most pugnacious of American novelists will not broker any parallels between the white supremacists and closet fascists who populate his latest novel, "This Storm", set just after Pearl Harbour, and the rise of the far-right in the US in recent years.

"I am tired of fielding queries asking if I am really writing about America today.

"It's a jackoff. No, I'm not!" an exasperated Ellroy snapped.

- Quoting Mussolini -

He starts his sprawling, multi-stranded story that roams between Mexico and his native Los Angeles at the end of 1941 with a quote from the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini: "Blood alone moves the wheels of history."

"I like the in-your-face quality of quoting Mussolini," Ellroy drawled, his voice so rich you could stand a spoon in it.

"I would hardly call him an admirable human being, but he said something true."

There is no shortage of blood over the 600-plus door-stopping pages of "This Storm".

"I like big stuff," said Ellroy. "It's a statement for me.

"I don't want to be one of these guys like Philip Roth who writes skinnier and skinnier books. I want the big-ass books with big epic vision," he said, in a swipe at the late, great author of "American Pastoral" and "Portnoy's Complaint".

- 'I'm an original' -

"This Storm" is the second book in Ellroy's "Second LA Quartet", which when combined with his "Underworld USA Trilogy" will take in a span of 31 years in the history of his hometown and his country.

Ellroy is already working on the third book of the quartet. "I am 71 and healthy and we will see if I can write the second 'USA Underworld Trilogy' (after that). I will be old."

But the man who first made his name as a crime writer, and whose signature staccato style has loosened out into rich and baroque commentary on the human condition, has no doubts about his own place in the literary canon.

"I have merged the crime novel the historical novel and the political novel. That may be my great achievement," he said.

"I created a new genre. There is no heir, there are no antecedents... I am an original -- they come around once in a while.

"I was not really influenced by anybody. And nobody is going to do what I do."

- 'I ignore the present' -

Ellroy proudly admits to living in the past.

He said he does not read any of his contemporaries and instead sticks to vintage crime fiction from the golden age of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

"I ignore the present day and it is easy to ignore it because I don't have a computer. I write my books by hand and very rarely watch TV, other than for boxing.

"I have always lived in the historical LA of the past. Even when I was a kid in the mid-1950s I would look back.

"My parents had a big closet stacked with Life magazines and I was always looking at pictures of the Japanese internment, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II, government crime committee. It has always been history with me."

You can keep the present, except for the boxers, he said before reeling off a list of his current favourites: the Japanese bantamweight "Naoya Inoue, aka The Monster, Mexico's Canelo Alvarez, Errol Spence JR and the Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk, I like him too."

Naturally, of course, even boxing can "never be as great as it was in the 1970s.

"But even I had hair then," he smiled.