July 31, 2008KR BlogReadingWriting

Talk The Way You Write, Write the Way You Talk

The documentary, James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction, is an overview of Ellroy’s career straight from the author’s mouth. While its attention to LA crime history and Ellroy’s past reveals much about his work’s intentions and motivations, writers will find it valuable for insights into Ellroy’s composition and use of language.

Sitting in his home office, Ellroy says that his compressed, telegraphic prose came from the demand of an agent who needed a novel shortened. Ellroy shortened the novel, but not by cutting plot. He shortened sentences.
Here’s an excerpt from White Jazz, the beginning of Chapter Two:

Rockabye Reuben Ruiz: “This is the tits. I could get used to this.”

The Embassy Hotel: parlor, bedrooms, TV. Nine floors up, suite service: food and boozed.

Ruiz belting Scotch, half-assed restless. Sanderline Johnson watching cartoons, slack-jawed.

Junior practicing quick draws.

Try some talk. “Hey, Reuben.”

Popping mock jabs: “Hey, Lieutenant.”

“Hey, Reuben. Did Mickey C. try to infringe on your contract?”

“He what you call strongly suggested my manager let him buy in. He sent the Vecchio brothers out to talk to him, then he punked out when Luis told them, ???Hey, kill me, ’cause I ain’t signin’ no release form.’ You want my opinion? Mickey ain’t go the stones for strongarm no more.”

“But you’ve got the cojones to snitch.”

Jabs, hooks. “I got a brother deserted the army, maybe lookin’ at Federal time. I got three bouts boming up at the Olympic, which Welles Noonan can fuck up with subpoenas. My family’s what you call from a long line of thieves, what you call trouble prone, so I sorta like making friends in what you might call the law-enforcement community.”

“Do you think Noonan has good stuff on Mickey?”

“No, Lieutenant, I don’t.”

“Call me Dave.”

“I’ll call you Lieutenant, ’cause I got enough friends in the law-enforcement community.”

The compression, like the shadow boxing, punches. The use of colons to introduce speech brings playwriting to mind. Action is relayed in fragments that could function as stage directions. Only human speech is given space to stretch, the luxury of complete sentences.

The documentary attests that Ellroy, too, is a talker. On screen, his speech shares much with his writing’s cadence and dated lingo. (E.g. “Here it is, hepcats!”) At first, I thought this due to his reading from a script of his own writing. Now I doubt that: when Ellroy interacts with fans at a booksigning near the documentary’s end, he speaks in the same manner. He even improvises long inscriptions for fans’ books, speaking the inscription aloud as he writes!