James Ellroy On Writing The Hilliker Curse

Next month Knopf will publish James Ellroy’s new memoir The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women. This is Ellroy’s first memoir since his acclaimed My Dark Places in 1996. Read what the legendary crime writer has to say about love, sex, and the shadow of his mother’s murder.

Q: The Hilliker Curse is very different from your previous memoir My Dark Places. What inspired you to write this part of your story now?

A: My Dark Places dealt with my mother’s 1958 murder, and was her biography and my autobiography, couched in the narrative of my unsuccessful hunt for her killer. Years later, I realized that the more profound story was my mother’s influence upon my wildly passionate quest for “atonement in women”.

Q: The subtitle “My Pursuit of Women” might lead some people to assume that this is a book chronicling your “conquests,” so to speak, but it isn’t that at all. It’s a deeply personal account of your lifelong search to find The One. Was it difficult for you to reveal so much about yourself?

A: I enjoy the process of self-revelation, because I consider my life to be universal in its moral import, and—why mince words?—a deep journey worthy of the memoir form. Here’s something most memoirists are afraid to admit: that writing about yourself is fun—if your narrative supersedes the personal and enters a metaphysical realm.

Q: “So women will love me.” That’s how The Hilliker Curse begins and ends. Tell us more about what you mean by that?

A: I’m a romantic. I believe that life is a sacred and all-consuming adventure. And what is more consuming than the holy conjunction of men and women? My own consuming fire was fanned from the embers of my mother’s horrible death. The overweening desire for love and sex are often the manifestation of trauma in ambitious and powerfully driven men—and I am certainly an example of that.

Q: You write that you felt responsible for your mother’s death, that you felt you had issued a “curse” on her one night after she had hit you. That’s a heavy burden for a 10 year-old to bear. When did you come to realize that Jean Hilliker’s death was not your fault?

A: At some ambiguous point I consciously realized that I did not cause my mother’s death—yet she remained a mediating and often definitive force in my relationships with women. It’s my need to protect women that Jean Hilliker most surely defines. I specifically need to protect women from misogynistic men—which is a big burden to bear.

Q: The Curse also seems to refer to the long shadow that your mother and her death cast over you and your relationships with women. Would you say that you were searching for Jean Hilliker in other women or were you running from her?

A: It was both running from and to Jean Hilliker as I chased surrogates for her. I was looking for the best aspects of her character; I was looking for a single woman who embodied romanticism in all its turbulence, psychic struggle and aching need for transcendence—which is why Beethoven—the father of musical romanticism—plays such a strong role in this book.

Q: You describe a very dark period in your life after the death of your parents, when you lived a reckless life almost didn’t survive. What was it that helped pull you out?

A: Faith saved me—pure and simple. I wanted to write novels, I wanted women—or, more properly, one woman—and I have always seen the construction of men and women as divinely deigned.

Q: Fans of your fiction will notice that you’ve drawn heavily from your own life at times. Is writing a way to work through difficult experiences?

A: For me, writing fiction is 10% pure autobiography, 20% reconstruction of that autobiography, and 70% the melding of the above into a non-self-absorbed, fully self-removed and universally true moral whole.

Q: Another difficult time chronicled in this memoir is a nervous breakdown you suffered during the tour for The Cold Six Thousand. Did this event mark a major turning point for you?

A: My nervous breakdown resurrected my faith to new heights—and got me in a great deal of woman trouble. In a nutshell: it was what I required to overcome all my inbred obstacle of self, initiate confrontation with the phenomenon of women in my life, and to write the books I’ve written since then. My crack-up was, in the end, a godsend.

Q: Many of your novels contain quite graphic scenes of violence, yet you write that you can’t endure depictions of violence against women. Why is writing about violent men different and why do you think you are inured to it?

A: My male characters are looking for women to capitulate to—because they, by dint of their femininity, offer up a world of softness, self-sacrifice and probity that the male world is incapable of delivering. I’m not inured to the depictions of violence—but it is always a sole vehicle to bring men to self-knowledge—and to some stupendous woman.

Q: One quote that reappears throughout The Hilliker Curse is by Doris Lessing: “marriage is sex and courage.” What particular meaning does this phrase hold for you?

A: Fidelity, allegiance, a shared ferocity and wild-ass lust for life conjoined in the marriage bed—and a domesticity that runs subordinate to passion!!!!!

Q: The ultimate heroine of your memoir is Erika. Is there anything new we should know about your relationship since you finished writing the book?

A: Erika Schickel and I passionately and devotedly continue. She has earned her place as Her, She, The Other.

Q: Has The Curse at last been broken?

A: The Curse is now much more of a blessing than a malediction. Now Jean Hilliker will be transposed against a different time and place—and will be rechanneled into fiction.