On Education: James Ellroy enthralls GCC

If anyone worried James Ellroy might dumb down the salty language laced throughout his crime novels for an appearance at Glendale Community College this week, they wouldn't have been disappointed.

Within 90 seconds of taking the stage, the author of "L.A. Confidential" and "The Black Dahlia" had referenced sex, drugs and physical anatomy, a warm-up for the searing commentary on liberals and hipsters that was to follow.

It was a refreshingly unabashed articulation of a unique worldview that has produced one of the most distinctive voices on the local literary scene. In other words, Ellroy was a perfect fit for the Los Angeles Writers Reading Series, some of the best programming currently taking place on the Glendale campus.

Launched in 2009 by adjunct English professors Claire Phillips and Jocelyn Heaney, the series has attracted a number of A-list writers despite a shoestring budget. Past participants have included Janet Fitch, author of "White Oleander," and David Ulin, book critic for the Los Angeles Times.

The mission is to connect students with the process of writing by exposing them to the burgeoning community of professional writers based in Los Angeles, Phillips said.

"We really want to demystify the writing process and also demystify the reading process," Phillips said. "Many of these students have never been to an author reading. This really encourages them to open up and [be] engaged with a larger literary community."

Phillips, a writer herself, said the maturing of the literary scene has made it an exciting time to be reading and writing in Los Angeles.

"L.A. is attractive to voices who are homespun, like Ellroy's, and it is a place where people move to now to participate in a very vibrant community," Phillips said. "We are not here just to write screenplays anymore. We are not here just to milk the industry."

The homegrown Ellroy is best known for his noir-era crime novels, rooted in his own exposure to crime and law enforcement as a young child.

In 1958, when Ellroy was 10 years old, his mother was murdered and dumped in a patch of ivy near El Monte High School. The case was never solved. It was the seminal event of his life, he told the standing-room-only crowd in the Glendale Community College auditorium on Wednesday.

Thereafter, Ellroy got into trouble early and often. He abused drugs and alcohol, and struggled with depression and homelessness.

"On many occasions, the LAPD justifiably kicked my ass, jailed my ass, and ultimately saved my ass by giving me something to write about — the world of crime and social history, the world of policemen," Ellroy said.

He eventually started working as a caddy at local country clubs while he wrote. It took six novels and seven years before he was able to earn a living as a writer. His books begin with handwritten, detailed outlines, some as long as 700 pages, Ellroy said. Classical music, art and history inspire his work.

In order to accurately capture noir and mid-20th century Los Angeles, the writer eschews all modern technology – he has never logged into a computer or owned a cell phone. He doesn't have a television, and only rarely goes to the movies.

His passion also meant personal sacrifices.

"I wanted to write books to the exclusion of everything else," Ellroy said.

If that doesn't get Glendale Community College students reading, maybe the colorful language will.


MEGAN O'NEIL is a former education reporter for Times Community News and current graduate student at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She may be reached at megan.oneil.06@gmail.com.

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