The Sunday Conversation: Crime novelist James Ellroy

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles-born and -based crime novelist James Ellroy, 62, dissects his lifelong obsession with romantic love leading to his relationship with writer Erika Schickel in "The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women." Ellroy's new memoir hits bookstores on Tuesday.

What is the Hilliker curse?

On the occasion of my 10th birthday in March of 1958, my mother, Jean Hilliker, a 43-year-old alcoholic registered nurse, offered me the opportunity to choose who I wanted to live with — her or my more permissive father. I said my dad. She hit me. I fell off the couch, banged my head on a glass coffee table, recalled the book that I had read in Christmas 1957, a library book about witchcraft and curses written for children. I summoned her dead. Coincidentally, she was murdered three months later.

So the curse was the curse that you inflicted or was it the curse on your own life because of the guilt you felt as a result?

I issued the curse and summoned my mother dead. The issue of the curse is inextricable from my guilt and my five-decade-long search for atonement in women.

Have you ever been in therapy?

Yes. It continues to be a salutary experience.

Why write the book at all, and why write it now?

I believe my life to be wildly groovy and universal in its meaning. I continue to be driven by the phenomenon of myself. I identify more than anyone else on Earth with the greatest artist ever spawned by civilization — Ludwig van Beethoven. And the older I get, the more deeply I look inward and the more I feel myself and my very being as transformative.

In the book you said you think relationships are divinely deigned. So why do you think God has kept you on the hunt for so long?

I don't say the conjunction of men and women is divinely deigned. I say that my union with Erika Schickel is divinely deigned. I have always sought the divine in women; I am worshipful and faithful by nature.

So is this the only relationship that you think is divinely deigned of the ones you wrote about?

Other relationships have felt divinely deigned. Women have seemed to me to be messengers of God. But as my consciousness has expanded, so have the parameters of my belief. I've become that much more acute, much more sterling a judge of character. And there She, with a capital S, is.

In the book, you basically take all the blame for the breakup of your last marriage, to Helen Knode.

That's chiefly because I deserved the blame.

OK, so you sabotaged it by pushing Helen away. So why if your life to that point was about your obsession with women did it turn into a chaste marriage when you found the right person for you?

Because I was impervious to reason, because I was callous and heedlessly male. Because the parameters of my consciousness were constricted at that time. Because some men — and I'm a prime example of this — need a good … kicking to set them straight. And believe me, Helen, [former lovers] Joan and Karen comprised one big … kicking, which set me up for Miss Schickel.

One thing that you've said that I thought was pretty interesting — and you were talking about yourself — was that the overweening desire for love and sex are the result of trauma in ambitious and powerfully driven men. Did you have anyone else in mind?

Beethoven. I'm looking now at the Beethoven bust on my top left bookshelf. It's marble, and there's a big brass scowling Beethoven on the middle shelf. I think about Beethoven a great deal. If you want to identify, go right to the top.

How did his life parallel yours?

I aspire to Beethovian greatness. The worse it got, the more privation, the more love hunger, the more incapacity, the tougher he got and the more visionary his music became, dare I say, as he was stone deaf.

So what do you think is universal about your journey?

It's the sacred merging of men and women. It's the rags-to-riches story. It's the sexual pathology trumped by deep allegiance and love. It is the idea of sex as divine fire. It's the notion that men and women reach out to each other to touch the sublime. And I have spent half a century living this deep … and thinking this deep …, and I got the notion that if I wrote it all down, described my personal journey, it would be a hell of a book.

On a different front, why do you only have your own books on your bookshelves?

I like the idea of containment. I spend a great deal of time alone in the dark. I love the artwork of my books, particularly the Alfred A. Knopf hardcovers and the Vintage paperback reprints. They're so damn good-looking. They're designed by the great Chip Kidd. They offset my Beethoven bookends, and I like to live quietly within my own world. I have a two-bedroom apartment, and it's simplicity and efficacy defined.

I don't have a TV set. I don't have a computer; in fact, I'm computer illiterate. I have a fax machine, a land-line telephone, archival photographs of the old L.A. from my novels and representations of Beethoven, Anton Bruckner, Sergei Rachmaninoff. I have stuffed animals that are realistic-looking that I talk to that I firmly believe have souls. There is nothing in this pad that does not serve to bring me closer to God or get me from point A to point B.

But you do read other writers' books, I assume.

No. I don't read, I don't go to movies, I don't watch television. I only listen to classical music. I brood, I spend time with Erika Schickel. I drive from my pad to Erika's pad. I do interviews. I go out on book tours. I sleep or attempt to. That's what I do.

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