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 executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.