“On my 10th birthday,” James Ellroy began, “my mother Jean Hilliker hit me with a book I had read on spells and witchcraft. After that, I summoned her dead. Three months later she was murdered and it is a crime which remains unsolved to this very day. It’s a burden of guilt that I have carried for a half century. My mother, from the hereafter, mediates my relationships with women. Her death induced in me a tremendous curiosity for all things criminal. I had to go out and write.”
And write he did.
Dining with James Ellroy summons a conversation only found in novels written by James Ellroy. An austere staccato drove the narrative through all three courses, his dialogue came forth in great bursts in each of the three cities, and like in MUCH of his writing over the years, the discussion took several surprising turns.
With that opening line seared into us, The Luncheon Society began its three city odyssey with alpha dog crime writer James Ellroy. Seated next to James throughout was Erika Schickel, the woman who is central to his life and perhaps the key that unlocks The Hilliker Curse, his memoir on how his mother’s grisly death drove the tenor of his relationship with women.
Erika is also a friend of The Luncheon Society who has joined in the past. She also helped organize a wonderful gathering with her father, Richard Schickel, who is one of the best film writers in the industry earlier this year.
No slouch to the printed or spoken word, Erika published a knock-out memoir several years back titled, You’re Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom, a self portrait of post-hipster life on the suburban plain. She also wrote a well-received play a decade earlier titled Wild Amerika, a “meditation on mating, monogamy, and motherhood – from a Darwinist point of view.” She is now hard at work on a follow up to her earlier book, tentatively titled “Adult Supervision.”
We gathered at Manhattan’s Prime House and then at San Francisco’s Palio D’Asti, before landing at our old Los Angeles haunt, The Napa Valley Grille, located at the foot of UCLA. In Manhattan, we were thankful for the help of our old friend Laura Galloway, who moderated the luncheon, as we continue to grow our footprint in that locale. After moderating the San Francisco luncheon, I stumbled across a video of Erika interviewing James on a variety of subjects and quickly concluded that might be a wise way to tee up our Los Angeles dinner. It worked.
This excerpt tees up the book rather well
James Ellroy has become, through sheer effort, native talent and vision, the premier writer of the American hard-boiled novel. With L.A. Confidential, and The Black Dahlia, and Blood’s A Rover, he reinvigorated the genre after it stumbled through a fallow period. His creative energies are on the upswing at an age when both Hammett and Chandler were in the final stages of being devoured by their own demons. With Ellroy, time and focus are on his side; he has a series of projects on the flight line that will take him into his mid 80’s. Next for Ellroy is a Los Angeles quartet that will begin in December 1941. When added to the totality of his work, his historical novels will cover two generations of Southern California’s seamier side.
If you want to understand the underbelly of Los Angeles, you’ve got to wade through its filth. James Ellroy completed the fieldwork for his novels by the age of 30. By his own unsparing estimate, he was arrested dozens of times by the LAPD for a Whitman’s Sampler of petty crimes. He had wallowed in and eventually beat back several addictions before he began to write in earnest. Within time, he built a dark alternative universe of Los Angeles and America, which lived and breathed along the freeway exits we all try to avoid.
Few can introduce themselves with the following: “Good evening peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps. I’m James Ellroy, the demon dog American literature, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right.… I’m the author of 18 books. Masterpieces all; they precede all my future masterpieces. These books will leave you reamed, steamed and dry-cleaned, tie-dyed, swept to the side, true-blued, tattooed… These books are for the whole …family, if the name of your family is the Manson family.”
Brown’s Requiem and Clandestine soon begat the Lloyd Hopkin’s Trilogy and Killer on the Road. Within a short period of time, Ellroy completed the LA Quartet, which cemented his literary reputation by the early 1990’s with The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, and White Jazz. His writing resonates with tales of bad men who fall hard for strong women.
Ellroy’s transition from serial delinquent into a hard core law-and-order advocate makes sense when you observe the arc of his first thirty years against the backdrop of the following thirty. Bookended by the hellish childhood tragedy of a neglectful father and a murdered mother, Ellroy’s stern parent was the LAPD as they endlessly processed him through their system. LAPD Chiefs Parker through Beck were more than bland civil servants but were elevated into hallowed family members; they represented the group that kicked his life into gear. He bleeds LAPD blue and the only time the conversation teetered on edge surrounded his opinions on crime and punishment.
However, the seminal event of his life remains the grisly death of his mother, whose lifeless body was found on an access road in El Monte by little leaguers and their coaches in 1958. Ellroy has mined this territory before. 16 years ago, Ellroy teamed up with Bill Stoner, a retired and decorated Los Angeles County Sheriff’s homicide detective, to see if they could solve the cold case. Ellroy published My Dark Places which detailed their efforts and was published to acclaim but they concluded that those involved were probably long dead.
If the latter was a forensic investigation into his mother’s death, The Hilliker Curse is a guided tour into its emotional aftermath.
Lifting the Hilliker Curse. Ellroy writes of his mother, “I owe her for every true thing that I am. I must remove the malediction I have placed on her and on myself,” and in The Hilliker Curse, he narrates his quest for “atonement in women.”
The book jacket prepares the reader for a wild ride. “The Hilliker Curse, “is a predator’s confession, a treatise of guilt and on the power of malediction, and above all, a cri de Coeur. James Ellroy unsparingly describes his shattered childhood, his delinquent teens, his writing life, his love affairs and marriages, a nervous breakdown and the beginning of a relationship with an extraordinary woman who may just be the long-sought Her. It is a layered narrative of time and place, emotion and insight, sexuality and spiritual quest. And all of it is reported with gut-wrenching and heart-rending candor.”
And it does.
“I’d like to meet the man who invented sex and see what he’s working on now.” Irrespective of his public persona, there is a fierce and determined work ethic that drives the man. Ellroy does not want to turn into one of those writers who produce thinner and thinner volumes of work long after they should have given up their craft. As for “The Long Sought Her,” James and Erika appear at first as polar opposites; Schickel is liberal, omnivorously cultured, and well-schooled, while Ellroy is determinedly conservative, eschews the world around him, and graduated from the school of hard knocks. Regardless of the ingredients, it works for them and that should be good enough for us all.
As for James Ellroy, he remains the preeminent E-ticket ride in American literature.
The Luncheon Society ™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Boston. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.