Steven Powell announced that he was writing and releasing the first ever James Ellroy biography Love Me Fierce In Danger on my podcast Tales From The Mall in May of 2022.
And now, a little less than a year later, the book is out, and Steven Powell let me interview him again.
I read Steven Powell’s book quickly and with great interest. The book elucidates the life of my literary hero Mr. Ellroy who I believe is the greatest living English-language author and has written such exciting crime fiction and true crime books as The Black Dahlia, American Tabloid and My Dark Places.
All readers of APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL should buy Steven’s book! It provides fascinating revelations about the life of James and his remarkable parents, Jean & Armand. It is amazing how much new information the biography provides – in clear and eloquent fashion – since Mr. Ellroy himself is already so outspoken about the events of his life. This is a testament to Steven’s rigorous research and his unprecedented access to Mr. Ellroy, his friends, his family, former lovers and former colleagues.
Steven was incredibly candid and generous in our talk, which took place on Sunday, March 12, 2023 via Zoom – he in Liverpool, England, where he works and lives; me in Arizona. Special attention was given to: the 1997 film adaptation of Mr. Ellroy’s 1990 novel LA Confidential; the more recent series of books by Mr. Ellroy known as the second LA Quartet which comprises two completed works (Perfidia, This Storm) and two unfinished, unreleased works; Mr. Ellroy’s romantic relationships & religious beliefs; Steven’s podcast Highbrow Lowbrow; and Steven’s love and knowledge of British cinema.
Enjoy! Thank you for reading, and many thanks to Steven Powell for his time and generosity.
–– Brendan McCauley, Tempe, AZ
Steven! Congratulations on the book. It’s excellent. You are now going to be the person most responsible for bringing people to Ellroy since the late Curtis Hanson did it with the film version of LA Confidential.
Thank you. That’s always been a passion of mine, to be almost evangelical about Ellroy, because he changed my life. The more people who discover his work the better. But I hope everyone buys my book as well! (laughing) There’s a big pay scale difference between him and me! So buy my book as well. Buy 100 copies! (laughing) Because as Ellroy says if you buy 100 copies of this book you get to go to heaven and have unlimited sex with the person of your dreams!
Steven, I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say you are the biggest literary biographer on the planet right now. How has your life changed since the release of Love Me Fierce In Danger?
Well that is a big compliment, thank you very much. The book readings I’ve done so far have been immense, absolutely brilliant. Even people who you think have been dragged there by their husband or something hear the Ellroy story and come out and say, “I was absolutely gripped!” It is wonderful to see that.
But I want to go on record, I’m not a wealthy man or anything. My life hasn’t changed that much. I’m not planning to retire to the Cayman Islands any time soon. I’m probably middle class. I hope that your readers don’t think that I’m hanging out with movie stars or anything like that! My life isn’t like that. It’s probably like most writers’ lives these days.
Shortly after I finished the book I was reading the memoir of Claire Tomalin, who is one of the great biographers here in Britain, and in it she wrote about what biography will do to you: how it will take over your life, how you become obsessed with this person, maybe you fall in love with them, maybe you hate them at times, maybe you’re proud of them, maybe they disappoint you – they will do all of these things. And at the same time you’re testing your family’s patience to the limit because you’ve got this obsession and you’re falling behind in your domestic chores.
And reading that was one of those beautiful moments where you feel like you’ve found a piece of writing that was written for you. And when I first started reading Ellroy as a teenager I felt that connection; that Ellroy had written this stuff for me. And I’m a guy growing up in Northwest England! Very far away from Los Angeles. But the minute I found Ellroy I just knew this guy understood me so it almost feels like Divine Providence that I would get to know him and become his friend and become his biographer and everything. That feels special and I’m eternally grateful for that.
Speaking of Divine Providence, Ellroy often talks about being a religious Protestant Christian. What do you make of Ellroy’s actual religious devotion, beliefs and practices versus the claims that he makes about it?
It’s been quite a wild journey, Ellroy’s religious life. It’s taken him through many denominations, many variations of belief. As a child he was taken to Lutheran church by his mother who herself wasn’t a devout believer. She had many vices, she was very sexually confident, and she didn’t like the restrictions religion tends to put on your sexuality. So Ellroy was taken to church occasionally as a child but I don’t think his mother was a real sincere believer and neither was he.
When you get to some of his problematic years – the homelessness, the breaking and entering – he’s often praying just reflexively. “How am I gonna survive the night? It’s raining and I’m stuck outside.” He’s praying to God because God is all he’s got. He knows that it’s preposterous but he’s like, “Please Lord I won’t do anything naughty if you do this.” And he gets this idea that prayer is kind of a divine contract. And then we break it because we’re sinners.
Then he joins AA which is indeed a Christian organization in its founding. There’s this great dichotomy in those AA meetings he attends in the Seventies in Venice Beach. They’d end with the Lord’s Prayer, they’d celebrate sobriety, they’d celebrate their Higher Power and then they’d go off to these wild sex parties, these hot tub parties. Man, I think Venice Beach in the late Seventies is the one place I’d really like to have been!
Now, in Denver, he’s been attending Episcopalian church. But he was also very taken by a local Salvation Army church because the Salvation Army had really helped him during some of his bad years so he wanted to help them financially in return.
I think he does believe, broadly speaking, in the divine aspects of Christianity. He thinks that there’s a life after this one and he is a sincere believer in that regard. He has become more conservative. We tend to, as humans, become more conservative as we get older. It probably helps that your sex drive begins to disappear so that some of your sins begin to dissipate and it becomes a lot easier to become devout in that regard which has helped him as he’s resumed this unique brand of domesticity he’s got.
To give you one example is when he went to Texas to see convicted murder Gary Graham on death row. Ellroy, the staunch defender of the death penalty, began to doubt Gary Graham’s guilt. He thought there was a miscarriage of justice at stake because Graham’s attorney had been drunk in trial so he hadn’t received an adequate defense. And Ellroy wrote in GQ that he didn’t think he should be executed and he used biblical justification for that. But when I mentioned that to him he’d said, “That was a terrible apostasy! I should have never written that! Gary Graham is garbage! He deserved to die!” and all this. He could be quite manic. He could change opinions very quickly. That was tough for me to get into a narrative because I’d always be worried I’d be contradicted.
Earlier I mentioned Curtis Hanson. Your book documents the dissolution of the relationship between Ellroy and Mr. Hanson, the director of the most famous adaptation of Ellroy’s work, and you mention harsh comments made by Ellroy about Hanson’s work after he died. What is the psychology behind Ellroy’s irritation with Mr. Hanson? What happened to that relationship?
It’s interesting how many people, including myself, felt like some of Ellroy’s words about Hanson’s work were inappropriate. But in his own eyes he was completely logically consistent. He supported the film version of LA Confidential when it came out, support which he broadly maintained despite some mounting irritation with Curtis. Curtis had been ill for several years, and then the moment he died Ellroy dropped any pretense whatsoever. In Ellroy’s eyes, he’s completely consistent. He’s never liked the film and now that Curtis is dead he can’t hurt Curtis’s feelings. But that really struck a sour note with a lot of people, particularly that screening at the Egyptian Theater where friends of Curtis and other people had gone to pay tribute to him and they heard this grossly inappropriate speech from Ellroy about just how bad the movie was.
I think you’re getting into some really complex territory here in terms of who controls the legacy and who controls these characters because Ellroy must know deep down that more people see films than read books these days and that the film is going to have a bigger impact on a larger portion of people therefore. As it does things to his characters that he’s not happy with, and he’s not happy with the performances then he does want to attack it and try to reclaim that narrative.
Now this is quite a change in James’ attitude because for years he was happy to take the money and run. He was just like, “Hollywood doesn’t make many good films as a rule and therefore I have no control so why am I gonna worry about it?” But then he suddenly began to change his opinion on LA Confidential as he was getting older. And on top of that all this time he’s trying to get LA Confidential 2 made! And he’s still working with Brian Helgeland and he’s still trying to get the studios interested but it gets very complicated in terms of studio politics; in terms of the rights to LA Confidential which Warner Bros. have consistently renewed; in terms of these television pilots they’ve made just to renew the property. I think it all ties into Ellroy’s legacy.
But now that I said that I wanna go on record and say that LA Confidential is a great film and I think it’s very different from the novel. It takes a sprawling story and it tells it fairly coherently within a two and a half hour time frame. As much as I respect Curtis Hanson as a director, I think the true genius behind it is Brian Helgeland because he wrote that adaptation. I don’t think Curtis had that much input to the script. That was a Brian Helgeland adaptation.
Ellroy often said, and I’m paraphrasing, “The movie LA Confidential was the best thing to happen to me that I had nothing to do with.”
Helgeland and Hanson sat down with Ellroy before it went into pre-production and they discussed ideas. But I think Ellroy knew that this was more of a courtesy call and he wasn’t going to have much direct input. Hanson and Ellroy got along very well for a while. They were both kind of similar characters. Ellroy’s father had been a Hollywood fixer. Hanson’s uncle Jack Hanson was a real LA character. They were both from that kind of fringe Hollywood lifestyle and they knew a lot about LA.
But then there is this tense moment in the mid-Noughties when people start to talk about LA Confidential 2 and Ellroy had plans to be much more involved from the outset. Hanson started to talk to Ellroy in a way that you don’t talk to Ellroy, he was shooting him down and stuff like that and their friendship began to decline.
Do you think that we’ll ever see any more Hollywood adaptations of Ellroy’s work?
I’m probably more optimistic about it than Ellroy, who has become extremely pessimistic about Hollywood. It’s always a long shot. One of the things I’ve learned is that in Hollywood having a good meeting is an achievement and getting a good movie made is a miracle.
But the producer Clark Peterson told me that he’s still working on Blood’s A Rover, he’s had the option for a while, he keeps renewing it, he’s still working on it, it might possibly happen. I think it’s always unusual with Hollywood because just when you give up hope then suddenly something happens.
I don’t think Ellroy fans should hold their breath, I think they should keep diving into the novels! But we never know. Part of the problem is that Warner Bros is very protective of the rights around [LA Confidential bad guy & recurring Ellroy character] Dudley Smith and that makes other novels hard to adapt.
Right. He continues to write about Dudley Smith in the second LA Quartet. Do you think that we’ll be getting a third book in the second LA Quartet any time soon?
I think so. Ellroy might surprise us all, which he’s done many times, but he sees his current mission as putting out The Enchanters and finishing the Quartet. And at the age of 75, although healthy and sober and in shape, that is certainly quite the task. This Storm had seven different viewpoints and it was massively complicated but from what he told me about the third Quartet novel is that he wanted to make it slightly less complicated with slightly less viewpoints and make it hopefully more accessible. And I think that The Enchanters might be something like a gateway drug towards that.
Perfidia and This Storm certainly divided people. Like I say in my book they’re easy to admire and they’re very easy for critics like me to write about because they’re crammed with references. They’re actually wonderfully rich and resourceful books but I think emotionally that they don’t have that kind of pep to them, and I suspect that the Third LA Quartet novel will be by Ellroy standards shorter and more powerful.
Yes, I believe you said something in Love Me Fierce In Danger to the effect of, “The Second LA Quartet thus far is easier to admire than to love,” and reaction to those books has been lukewarm. And now since This Storm he’s put out two non-Quartet novels: Widespread Panic and soon The Enchanters. Has Ellroy been affected by what people are saying about the second LA Quartet?
I think he has. He told me he stopped reading reviews which was kind of telling in itself, shielding himself from the criticism though he was aware that it is out there. When he talks about those books and the motivations behind them I thought I could have just put a dictaphone on him. I just thought, “This sounds so good!” But my emotional reaction to reading those books was not as strong. He talks about them far better. But obviously when considering my reaction to them I’ve got to ask myself, “How am I changing?” I’m not 20 years old anymore. I’m a less emotional guy. We tend to become a bit more clinical, especially when you work in academia. The danger is you might become too clinical. But I have talked to many many people who feel the same way about those books.
When the lockdown hit it had a huge effect on Ellroy’s life and so he started to write Widespread Panic about Freddy Otash–who he’d had this very ambiguous relationship with when Otash was alive. He didn’t trust him and nothing they did quite panned out the way he thought it would. But Otash is dead now so he can use him however he likes, he can’t be sued, and he suddenly became more and more interested in Fred Otash as a character. Widespread Panic came out to a kind of ambivalent reaction but he had a lot of fun writing it.
He began to think with this new novel The Enchanters that he could write a more serious novel than Widespread Panic and go over some of his old classic themes like Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys. But it was pushing the rest of the Quartet further and further into the distance and I know huge deals have been struck with publishing houses for those four novels. It’s a testament to Ellroy’s clout that he could put everything on hold, get paid advances for this new novel and say, “Hey you’re just gonna have to wait for that.” I happen to know not every editor, publisher was thrilled with that.
Over the course of making this book is there any work of Ellroy’s that you changed your opinion on, good or bad?
I think when I first read Blood’s A Rover I wasn’t bowled over back in 2009. But revisiting it and knowing what a tailspin he’d been through with the relapse, with rehab, with all of these kind of tortured relationships, and seeing how Ellroy had interwoven them into it, I began to think of it as one of his late masterpieces maybe with some flaws, but a very powerful work.
And Ellroy, who is quick to disown previous works, he’s kind of disowned The Cold Six Thousand and certainly disowns all the movies, Ellroy himself said to me, “If the last fifty pages of Blood’s A Rover don’t break your heart, you don’t have one” and I’m beginning to agree with him, I think it is a tremendous novel.
How has your perception of Ellroy changed since you began this project?
In many ways my admiration has grown because there was so much more detail that I came across and that he revealed to me that he’d previously held back about the various traumas in his life, the relapses, the addictions, the sheer horror of homelessness. Think how bad it is to get over one trauma and he had multiple traumas! He really struggled and I think it really informed his art. The fact that he seems to thrive on a certain chaos in his life with women but he uses that to create art that benefits us, that gives us a contentment and a sense of solace in the night that he doesn’t actually feel, I really admire him for that.
But yes, obviously, I came across many cases of friends who had been cut off suddenly or lovers who had been dumped or had their relationship end suddenly who felt hurt by him. I think some of that behavior was definitely coming from trauma. Some of that behavior was coming from a certain arrogance he felt as an artist, that sometimes you get with movie stars or with artists who are dealing with a lot of temptation and who feel they are above monogamy or something like that.
There were times when I was shocked by his behavior but to his credit he didn’t try to hold anything back from me. He was very insistent that I talk to as many people that would want to talk to me and give no-holds-barred accounts. It sometimes made for some difficult conversations because I would report back and say, “This is who I’ve talked to” and if he heard a name he wasn’t so keen on he’d be like, “Oh right!” but there was no censor, no pressure.
I wanted to show the complexity of the man, the good and the bad and these conflicting impulses, the mass of contradictions in him, this promiscuous man who is a devout Christian, the flat-out contradiction there. This great artist who sticks his nose up at most other artists or contemporaries, this guy from this very humble background who became very rich but is constantly in debt because he can’t control his spending – likes being in debt because it means he has to keep working even at the age of 75 when most people are slowing down. I just wanted to show the entire picture of the man and that meant addressing some problematic behavior.
Did he seem interested in and affected by other peoples’ perceptions of him and what people said about him in the things that you would report back?
Yes, he did. There were times when he felt that he’d been badly treated by people and there are two sides to every story. He was often interested in what people had done with their lives: ex-girlfriends, had they gone on to marry, had they had children, what jobs were they doing? I spoke to some remarkable people, Susan Palwick, one of his ex partners was working as an Episcopalian chaplain and because this was the height of Covid she was working in the hospital wards, a very difficult job with all the protective gear that had to be worn and everything. She was a remarkable woman and he was really interested in that. He wanted to know what she’d done with her life.
But he wanted to exorcize a few demons as well. If he felt like he treated someone badly sometimes he’d want me to pass on some sort of apology, perhaps guarded. There was one really touching moment actually when I mentioned a certain ex-partner of his and he was like, “Oh, she was the one who got away. Her song was ‘Image Of A Girl’ by the Safaris.” And I hadn’t heard the song, I played it and I thought it was beautiful. And I mentioned it to her and even played her a little bit and she’d never heard of it! (laughing) She didn’t recall it as their song! It was very interesting to talk to women about a love of their life from 40 years ago. Their responses were very mixed. I think they were conflicted because they did remember some hurtful behavior but they also remembered tremendous generosity and obviously attractiveness.
He is a fantastic judge of character so he could tell very quickly what a woman finds attractive in a guy whether it be the macho type or boyish enthusiasm or the struggling artist or the sensitive type and he seemed to switch on that side of his personality very quickly. He was a tremendously good actor in that sense but I think that’s probably one of the reasons why these relationships were often short lived.
Other than Ellroy was there anyone that you interviewed for the book that you felt you could just release their interview transcripts and that would be a fascinating work on its own?
I was really moved by talking to [late crime novelist and attorney] Andrew Vacchs though he didn’t tell me much and was quite guarded. He must have been 79 or 78 when I spoke to him and a few months later he died. I had no idea he was ill. He was in his office on a Sunday and he told me he could be called away at any moment. He was working triage and if someone was arrested, because he represented youths exclusively and youths are arrested quite a lot in New York City, he was like, “I could be called away at any moment.” Luckily that didn’t happen and we had a good talk. And then I was just shocked when I saw it announced on Twitter that he died. He was like a life force to himself. You don’t think of people like that dying really.
That was a fascinating bit in the book that Andrew Vacchs was the one who hooked Ellroy up with a young person to mentor in a Big Brothers, Big Sisters-type situation.
Yeah, absolutely. And that was the closest Ellroy came to fatherhood and actual interaction with youths. I know it was very important to Ellroy to try it because he had such a traumatic youth himself. He wanted to give something back but when he saw the work that’s involved and how tough it is and given the pressures on his own career I don’t think it was something he could seriously do for any given length of time.
In The Hilliker Curse, James’ second memoir from 2010, Ellroy makes a big deal out of wanting daughters. Was that just a literary flourish?
Yeah, I think it was a mixture of literary flourish and a kind of flight of fancy. I’m childless myself by choice because I don’t think it’s often great for writers. The pressures of parenthood are a real round-the-clock thing. But Ellroy got to that age, he was in his mid-fifties, and he was like, “I’m running out of time. It’s now or never.” He was dating slightly younger women at the time so it was a possibility.
That period when he divorced Helen [Knode, his second wife] was a real tailspin for him. I think what he was reaching for was the stability that Helen had brought into his life, and the love, and he probably somehow misdirected to some sort of yearning for fatherhood which wouldn’t have been good for him and I don’t think he would have excelled in the role, especially when he was actually turning some of that chaotic personal life into Blood’s A Rover. He started to redirect it towards his art again. I don’t think having children was something he seriously considered.
One of the revelations of the book to me was the second breakdown, the second relapse that he had, after he divorced Helen Knode. I knew of his first relapse and breakdown from his own account in The Hilliker Curse. But it was after the events of that book that he relapses again, and actually drinks alcohol instead of just using pharmaceuticals. Was that period of his life a new revelation to you when researching this book?
I knew going in that he’d been through a bit of a tailspin but yes it was a revelation just how bad that relapse was. The first relapse was almost accidental. Big Pharma, antidepressants, that can be a slippery slope. It starts off as a legitimate treatment but it can become frightening.
During that second relapse Helen was still in phone contact with him and she knew he wasn’t himself and she knew something was up, but she said to me, “Never in a million years did I think James would ever start drinking again.” The fact that he started drinking again was really serious. This is a guy who told me if he ever tastes alcohol in food he’ll spit it out. He’d never order a rum cake or anything like that and he was on beer and Budweiser and it was really beginning to affect his relationships, his work, his personality.
But all credit to him because he did go back to AA, he did the work and he did what he needed to get sober. I’m very thankful he did that because I don’t know where he’d be if he hadn’t. One shudders to think just how bad that relapse could have gone because it was pretty bad as it was.
I was fascinated by the portion of the book where James is seeing Erika Schickel. I’m fascinated by the things she says about the relationship. It does seem like it was a crisis of sexual jealousy for Ellroy.
It was such a big story, Ellroy and Erika, in that they’d pursued each other in a way. I think Erika would admit that when she met Ellroy she was stuck in an unhappy marriage and she wanted a way out, but after she met Ellroy she wouldn’t see him again for a year. She saw him exactly a year later. But he’d been playing on her mind that whole time and when Ellroy realized the strong sexual attraction Erika had towards him he probably abused that power a little bit because maybe he was afraid of losing it, and became quite controlling.
But I know Ellroy and Helen feel like Erika pushed him towards that second meltdown. Erika is also haunted by those years and still holds Ellroy in high regard, believe it or not. I was quite taken by the regard she still holds him in because they split up so many times. She said she’d always miss him. No matter how controlling he’d be, she’d always go back to him because of that charisma, because of that vulnerability, which is another thing women sometimes find attractive in men.
I want to be careful what I say here, Brendan, because this is quite sensitive stuff. It’s so hard to talk about. But Erika herself has written her own book about it and I spoke to her at length and everything she told me definitely corresponded to her own account. Also Ellroy didn’t deny any ill-judged behavior. It was tricky. That was a tricky one to write about and a tricky one to talk with Erika about. They certainly were together a lot longer than some of his other tailspin relationships, there was something that was keeping them together at the same time it was destroying them.
After you guested on Tales From The Mall you jumped full throttle into podcasting on your own and made a podcast that I’m a great admirer of: Highbrow Lowbrow. Are you gonna keep doing that?
Yeah, we’re gonna keep doing it. We just had a little hiatus because of the book. The show was based on conversations my co-host Dan Slattery & I would have and people would say, “You guys are pretty entertaining, you should put this on tape” and that’s what we did. It’s about the joy of movies and the joy of friendship and we have tremendous fun doing so–I suspect it will probably continue for a long time.
I’ve learned quite a bit about British cinema from your podcast. If someone said “I need to get a sense of British cinema in five to ten films,” where would you point them?
This Sporting Life, Howard’s End, The Remains Of The Day, some gangster films, probably Get Carter, The Hit. I was struck actually by the American novelist Denis Lehane who’s quite a big fan of British gangster films and says in Britain that they show you the depravity right from the start. You know going in that being a gangster is a horrible life. Whereas in America, in The Godfather and Goodfellas, they usually show you the glamor first so you get seduced by it and then in the second half they show the prison and the murders and everything.
Brits are known for their kind of eccentric sense of humor so I’d probably say the Ealing comedies like The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts And Coronets. That’s a wonderful one, it’s a comedy about mass murder.
I’m a big fan of Peter Greenaway and his art house films. The Draughtsman’s Contract is one of my favorite films. It’s partly a film about a murder in Seventeenth-Century England, it’s also about gardening, art – it’s absolutely crammed with ideas. Also, The Cook The Thief His Wife Her Lover, I’m a big Greenaway fan.
There’s a lot of British directors I don’t like. As much as I like those Kitchen Sink/Angry Young Man dramas I don’t tend to like modern social realism, I don’t like the overly political stuff by Ken Loach. That seems like kinda you know agit-prop. I’m not a big Alan Clarke fan though I think his film Scum is really powerful. It’s set in what we used to call borstals which were young men’s prisons. They’ve closed now. They were hotbeds of brutality and the film is so brutal. It’s got all what you’d expect: rape, bullying, just really intense cruelty. And it’s very powerful, and it’s not subtle. It’s kind of in your face.
It depends what you mean British because I love the James Bond films but they’re also very American, aren’t they? They’re outrageous, they’re colorful, they’re in-your-face, they’ve got a lot of American money but they are quite British.
Do you have plans for another book?
I have lots of ideas and those ideas will coalesce into something particularly special but I’m a little bit wary of talking about it right now. But there will certainly be another book.
I do have a kind of problem in that Love Me Fierce In Danger is hard to top. If I was to do a biography of another author, I can’t think of one whose life would be as gripping as James’. Edward Bunker, maybe.
Sometimes the hardest part was keeping it to myself. It was actually on your podcast Tales From The Mall that I made my first public announcement and I’d kept that bottled up for the longest time. I’d been interviewing Ellroy’s ex-partners and I didn’t want it to be on the internet that this guy’s writing this Ellroy biography. I didn’t want any ex-girlfriends I was going to interview to be spooked by that. So I’m gonna follow that example and be a little tight lipped about what I’m gonna do next.