Fiction Book of the Month - Q&A with James Ellroy
"L.A. was the World War II homefront hot spot. Why write about any other place?"
James Ellroy, author of LA Confidential and The Black Dahlia, returns to L.A in Perfidia but at a very different time. It is December 6, 1941 and any lasting hopes for peace are shattered when Japanese squadrons bomb Pearl Harbor. Soon after, fear and anger grips the city and the internment of Japanese Americans begins. When a Japanese family is found brutally murdered, William H Parker begins an investigation that threatens to tear the Los Angeles police force apart.
Here Ellroy explains the significance of the novel's title, why he returned to familiar characters from previous novels and how writing in longhand helps him to connect with the eras within his books.
What is the significance of the title, Perfidia?
Perfidia is a three-fold title. It denotes a circa 1940 big-band tune – melancholy and plaintive. The word itself means “betrayal” in Spanish. Lastly, Perfidia describes the state of divided loyalties and dispersed romantic emotion that characterize the four protagonists of this book.
You’ve returned to some iconic characters from the L.A. Quartet—Dudley Smith, Kay Lake, Lee Blanchard, Bucky Bleichert, and more. What drew you back to them? And how are they different in Perfidia, which is set five years before the first book of the Quartet?
My grand design in returning to characters from The L.A. Quartet and The Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy is to create a seamless novelistic history that spans 1941 to 1972. I wanted to again live with characters from the first two bodies of work and make them come alive more deeply and complexly. Size and scope are essential to me. Perfidia and the next three volumes in this series will combine with the first two bodies of work to form a massive literary document.
The novel is set against the historical backdrop of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Why that moment?
Because Pearl Harbor forced Los Angeles and America at large into the seismic change caused by war, war, war. WAR was on everyone’s minds; WAR informs the actions of the protagonists and all the minor characters in this book. Perfidia is both a murder story and a war story – and the two are inextricable once those bombs hit Pearl Harbor.
The novel takes place in real time, over 23 days. Why did you choose that framework?
Per real time: L.A. reeled, roiled, rocked, riffed and ripped ‘round the clock that month! WE WERE AT WAR! Why sleep when you could live passionately? Perfidia is a novel of tortured morality, desperate sexuality, great chemical abuse, political debate, and patriotic fervor running at an off-the-charts pace.
All of these dramatic elements are compressed to pressure-cooker dimension in Perfidia. People read novels out of a desire to uproot themselves and live in passionately depicted imaginary worlds. My goal in Perfidia was to make those 23 days come alive and abduct readers from their lives today and make them live those 23 days on my megalomaniacal dance card.
This is another book set in Los Angeles. What is about you and that city?
L.A.: Come on vacation, go home on probation. L.A. is a life sentence for me; it’s where I go when women divorce me; I need to live here in order to scrounge movie moolah to pay off my numerous ex-wives! Get it? I’m from L.A. I’m obsessed with L.A. because I’m from here. My parents hatched me in a cool locale; geography is destiny – and I simply got lucky in that regard. L.A. played into the design of The Second L.A. Quartet, in that it was a coastal city and port city with a high sabotage risk; in that it housed the largest Japanese-American aggregation in the United States at that time. It was also the film capital of the world, with the swingingest niteclubs and the gassiest women on earth. Get it? L.A. was the World War II homefront hot spot. Why write about any other place?
Is it true you still write in longhand? Sounds like you must go through a lot of pencils. Why that route? Especially in a world where almost everyone writes on a computer.
Yes, I write exclusively in longhand; I am computer illiterate, have never used a computer, tapped onto the internet, sent an email or a text message, and have never used a cell phone. I will do anything to simplify my life and to render the digital world, in specific, and the general technologically depraved world irrelevant. I try rigorously to live in period, so that I might write my period-set novels with that much more emotional solvency. Perfidia is the result of my astoundingly focused and circumscribed 1941-set imagination. Why live now when you can live then?
Intrigued? Read an extract from Ellroy's Perfidia here.
Los Angeles, December 6, 1941. Last hopes for peace are shattered when Japanese squadrons bomb Pearl Harbor. War fever and race hate grip the city and the internment of Japanese Americans begins. When a Japanese family is found brutally murdered, three men and one woman are summoned.