The NS Interview: James Ellroy, author

“If you’re an atheist when you’re my age, you don’t know shit”

Did you ever plan your life?
Not until I started writing books. Then I planned it down to the most meticulous detail.

In terms of the kind of books you wrote?
Yes - it was a covenant of consciousness that I made with God, with my readers and with myself to write better books. And to plot and plan, and outline and detail more assiduously.

Your trilogy "Underworld USA", depicting the era from 1958 to 1972, seems relentlessly dark.
I see nothing bleak in the trilogy. I think it's suffused with love, self-sacrifice and the presence of God. I despise squalor, I despise rock'n'roll.
I despise nihilism.

Is paranoia a leitmotif of that period?
I don't know the era well enough because I was bombed throughout most of it.

So, in the best tradition, you don't remember much of the 1960s?
I remember history going round and swirling around the margin of my consciousness, but I was too self-absorbed to pay too much attention to it. I wanted to follow girls around and read crime novels.

So why did you choose to write about this period?
It takes many years of looking backwards for me to come to a historical place, and then my first instinct is to exploit it dramatically. The overriding themes in [the trilogy] are change and redemption. That may not be emblematic of the 1960s or 1970s, but I'm not a scholar.

Do your characters linger in your mind when you have finished a book?
Once I write a book I move on. I am just that efficacious a thinker.

You have been criticised for your portrayal of the left in your work. Is that fair?
I don't know anything about the left. I write from a right-wing perspective. I'm an authoritarian, a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant American born mid-century. Any woman who goes with me has to get used to my Tory views and most of them find them vexing. Life's funny that way.

Are you a Tory in the classical sense?
Yes. I'm a moralist. A religious person.

But one doesn't have to be a Tory, or religious, to be a moralist.
I think atheists miss the point. I don't grant atheism and agnosticism the same moral quality that I give to people who pursue the religious or spiritual way of life.

So, as an atheist, I can't live a moral life?
If you are still an atheist when you get to my age, you don't know shit. I hope you change.

What has driven your religious commitment?
I have personally felt God in the room with me on numerous occasions. And if you've experienced it, you know. And if you haven't, you don't. I have.

Will I recognise it when I feel it?
I hope you do. And it doesn't have to be as dramatic as it happened to me.

What made it so dramatic?
This is going too far afield and getting too contentious. You're getting on my nerves.

Do you vote?
No. I don't like the question. I don't answer questions pertaining to America today. I don't write about America today. I would never criticise my country or any of its actions within a foreign county.

So you don't have a view of contemporary American culture?
I deliberately isolate myself. I'm not being disingenuous. I don't have a computer, I don't have a cellphone, I don't have a BlackBerry, I don't go to movies, read books or watch television. I limit my exposure to imagery. I don't watch the news.

Is it a way of protecting your imagination?
It's a way of allaying anxiety, which I'm prone to in any event. Knowing what's current means next to nothing to me. I don't look at book bestseller lists except to gauge my own position.

Do you find it easy to insulate yourself?
I do, because I have an assistant. I'm not a wealthy man - I pay alimony, I pay taxes. But this woman goes to the store for me. I don't have to do anything.

Apart from writing, what do you do?
I have a girlfriend that I spend time with. I have a few other friends, not many. I talk to them on the telephone. I see them very occasionally. I lie in the dark and think.

Is there anything you would like to forget?
No. I've had a lovely, long life. I want it to go on for another 35 years.

Are we all doomed?
No, I'm entirely optimistic.

Defining moments

1948 Born Lee Earle Ellroy in California
1958 His mother is murdered; he moves in with his father
1965 Father dies after a stroke. He becomes homeless for the first time, living in parks and on charity bins; turns to drink and drugs
1981 Publishes first novel, Brown's Requiem
1990 The novel LA Confidential appears
2009 Blood's a Rover, the third part of the "Underworld USA" trilogy
2010 Publishes memoir, The Hilliker Curse

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis