All downhill from here?

By Becky Toyne

Saturday afternoon.


A grey couch is tucked in a quiet corner of Canada’s largest literary festival, next to a wall of windows.

Outside, an autumnal, cloudy view of Lake Ontario.

Festival-goers with tickets in hand stride with purpose along the corridor that links three theatres filled with authors and audiences. Around the corner, the festival bookstore hums with quiet commerce.

The flip-flip of pages as books are signed to fans waiting in line.

On the couch, Becky, with time to kill between events, rests her feet, gathers her thoughts, hydrates.

An IFOA staff member, walkie-talkie in hand, ID badge around the neck, wanders over.

– Becky! How’s your Festival so far?

– Hi! Pretty good, pretty good.

– Were you at the ECW party last night?

– I was. I exercised massive restraint though and left while it was still hopping. This festival-run is young but I am not as young as I used to be. A girl’s gotta get some sleep and pace herself, you know? This is only day three of eleven.

– I hear ya!

– Did you get a chance to see any of the James Ellroy event last night?

– Nope, but I heard good things.

– Oh man, it was so good I’m actually disappointed.

IFOA staffer raises inquisitive eyebrow.

– Because it’s probably all going to be downhill from here on in.

– But the festival’s only just started!

– I know. It’s a total bummer.


© Tom Bilenkey

– But what about Karl Ove Knausgaard tonight? Are you going?

– I am. And I’m super excited. I think it’s going to be great. But Knausgaard’s whole thing is that he’s dark and brooding and his books are about disappointment and shame. Also love. And hiding beer in a ditch. But quite a lot about disappointment and shame. Plus the point of the My Struggle cycle is that it’s about the ordinary life of an ordinary man with ordinary neuroses, so he needs to be a bit careful with this whole international literary rock star thing he’s been catapulted into. He has to not become too rock star-y. So I think the interview will be great, but it will also be very serious.

Now: James Ellroy. He writes about some deep, dark, hardboiled s___, but he’s all Hollywood about it. And he’s a performer. He attacked the event like it was a show. He had all these memorized “bits” that he did. He walked straight up to the podium and addressed us all as “people, prowlers, predators, panty sniffers, pederasts and pimps” and told us he would welcome our “most invasive personal questions,” which from a guy with a back story like Ellroy’s is a pretty enticing offer. Some very well known Canadian crime writers were in the audience, which made it feel like he’s a god of the genre and all his disciples had come to see him. He talked about the first time he heard Beethoven in 1960 and how it changed his life, how he’s learned more from classical music than from any writer he’s ever read, how he likes to “lie in the dark, brood and yearn.” Oh, and he also recited Dylan Thomas out of nowhere. He made us laugh. He made us feel very grave. Sometimes literary events can make you feel like you want to take a nap. James Ellroy made everybody feel very, very awake. Way to sprint out of the starting blocks, IFOA.

– Well, I’m sorry I missed it. I’ll listen to the recording when the Festival’s over.

– Do it!

– But really, you don’t think anything else is going to be better than James Ellroy?

– Well, I was really excited to see Roxane Gay, but then she cancelled because she broke her foot. Which is ironic really, because I said to her publicist way back in June that I was going to kiss her feet when she was here, because An Untamed State left me like a bowl of jelly it was so darn good.

– Should I read it?

– You must! It’s the most profoundly affecting, all-consuming thing. But be warned that you won’t find the experience “fun,” and that you will also be needing a giant box of Kleenex.

– She’ll be back. We’ll reschedule her. You can kiss her feet then.

– I should probably state for the record that I wasn’t actually going to kiss her feet. I don’t want the festival to take out a restraining order…

– Noted.

– Oh shoot, is that the time? I have to go and see an event with Marianne Ihlen. She was Leonard Cohen’s muse, y’know. See you later!


Sunday afternoon.


An IFOA 35 crest hovers on a Farrow and Ball-ish wallpapered wall.

Becky and other festival-goers browse the Festival bookstore.

ENTER IFOA STAFFER. Walkie-talkie in hand. ID badge around neck.

– Morning, Becky, back again.

– No rest for the wicked.

– How many events are you planning to get to?

– *counts* Including the ones I’ve already done: 22.

– That’s a lot of events to be going to if it’s all downhill from here on in.

– Well, I may have altered my position on that.

The inquisitive eyebrow again.


© Tom Bilenkey

– Knausgaard was brilliant. There wasn’t an empty seat in the house. Sheila Heti asked such smart, reverential questions. He gave very long, thoughtful answers. The event had a slight awkwardness to it that was perfect for the subject matter and wasn’t actually awkward. There was an obvious affection between the two people on stage. The audience seemed to be a bit nervous, which was weird. They laughed when things weren’t funny, almost as if they felt compelled to fill any silence. If the audience is a bit nervous that means they’re all feeling quite reverential too. There aren’t too many authors who inspire that collective feeling in a room.

Knausgaard said he’d always thought of My Struggle as a parenthesis in his writing life. A parenthesis! Do you know how bonkers that is?! It’s 3,500 pages long and has made him crazy famous! It just goes to show. Sometimes you just need to not over think things and you’ll end up doing your best work of all. Hope for everybody!

– So things might not all be heading downhill after all?

– It seems not, no. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m pretty tired already though. How many more days are there to go?

Becky Toyne is a books columnist, editor and publicist based in Toronto. She is a regular contributor to CBC Radio One and Open Book: Toronto, as well as an IFOA Delegate.

Recap: James Ellroy in conversation with Linwood Barclay

By Janet Somerville

The candlelit café tables of the Brigantine Room were crowded and it was standing room only on Friday night for noir novelist James Ellroy’s conversation with thriller writer Linwood Barclay. Barclay wisely kept his introduction simple, noting Ellroy would read from Perfidia, the first volume of the second L.A. Quartet, “a story of war, romance and an astonishingly detailed homicide investigation.” Ellroy sashayed up to the mic, encouraging the applause by raising his hands like a preacher, and, in an amusing schtick, announced that after he read the prologue and chapter two in Kay Lake’s voice and chatted with Linwood about the book, he would “welcome the most invasively over-personal questions that every one of you peepers, prowlers, pederasts, pedants, panty-sniffers, pimps and punks has for me, your foul owl with the death growl.” The room, full of acolytes, ignited in laughter.

© Jennifer Carroll

© Jennifer Carroll

Before he read from the novel, in order to set the tone, Ellroy referenced poems by T.S. Eliot and Anne Sexton, words that he quoted by heart. First, from “Four Quartets:” “In my beginning is my end… and in my end is my beginning.” Next from “With Mercy for the Greedy:”

“My friend, my friend, I was born

doing reference work in sin, and born

confessing it. This is what poems are:

with mercy

for the greedy,

they are the tongue’s wrangle,

the world’s pottage, the rat’s star.”

And then, he invoked himself in the mystery: “Tonight I’m your rat and I’ll hitch you to my star.” Perfidia begins on December 6th, 1941, the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, and continues in real time for the next 23 days, at its heart, “the grave injustice of Japanese internment.”

Ellroy spoke and read in well-paced rhythm. He made the weight of every word count. His performance, for surely that is what it was, was hypnotic, and the audience was soon under his spell, a co-conspirator, as he weaved his siren tale.

Barclay suggested that “unless you’re a Glenn Miller fan, perfidia may not be a term you connect with, but its lyrics, at least these ones, contribute to the novel’s theme: ‘While the gods of love look down and laugh / At what romantic fools we mortals be.’” Ellroy added, “Perfidia, the novel, is history as yearning. And, it also means betrayal. Graham Greene made a career and a life out of betrayal, right?” Then he sweetly sang the opening bars of the song, “To you, my heart cries out Perfidia / For I found you, the love of my life / In somebody else’s arms.”

The genesis of Ellroy’s book? Early in 2008 “I was looking out my office window, wondering why women kept divorcing me and why I didn’t have a girlfriend. Then, I had a flash of Japanese heading to an internment camp in a military vehicle, the grave injustice of that, but also a vision of the murder of a Japanese American family in the hours before the Pearl Harbour attack.” He re-read seven of his novels to refamiliarize himself with the characters and decided to make Kay Lake a protagonist, because she was his “favourite female character. I’ve lusted after her for 30 years. It’s a narcissistic and onanistic love and I stand indicted.”

Because Perfidia includes characters who were people of the time, like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Jack Kennedy, Barclay asked, “is there any sense of responsibility to the people who are real that you are writing about?” Ellroy responded, “I will do what I damn well please. If my human dramas are plausible or convincing, if they are morally sound, I will make you believe them.” Noting the two driving events in Ellroy’s life as “the murder of your mom when you were 10 and the Black Dahlia case,” Barclay coaxed the response from him that “my mother hot-wired me to history and I’ve been making hay ever since. I love to lie in the dark, brood and yearn. I am a yearning motherfucker and I wear it well.” Wondering further if contentment was an enemy of creativity, Ellroy noted, “for every traumatic moment there are probably 35 days of joyous time spent in libraries researching.” As a kid he was happy there, reading James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald. The last novel that Ellroy loved was Watergate by Thomas Mallon, “a breathtaking and heartbreaking book.”Ellroy, Perfidia

Prompting comments about his style of tight, staccato sentences, Barclay asked, “why does that appeal to you?” Ellroy said, “Content dictates style. I love the American idiom in all its forms. I’m here to exalt in its language. I love profanity. I love Yiddish. I love Black hep-cat jive jazz patois. I love alliteration. In my world all hard “c” words should be spelled with a k-k-k.” As for process, Ellroy always begins with a detailed outline that runs hundreds of pages long and makes sure that everything connects: “I block print in capitals. That’s how I’ve written everything. I have a typist who can read my handwriting. I edit constantly. I want to write huge books that are word perfect. I am out to create seamless verisimilitude. I rewrite history to suit my own needs. It’s benign megalomania.” What makes an Ellroy novel? Well, according to the man himself, “historical shit, sexual shit, booze and dope shit, racial shit, hilarious cop shit and internecine police intrigue.”

Ellroy was careful to note that “Perfidia isn’t meant to refract anything contemporaneous. I’ve never had a cell phone. I don’t have a television. I go to the store. I talk to people on my landline phone. I’ve absented myself from the world as it is.” When Barclay suggested “it must be great to not be part of this maelstrom,” Ellroy responded, “I’m appalled by it. I’m a solitary being. I live to an uncommon degree in my imagination, but I am not delusional. I have enough anxiety as it is.” Anxiety that he sometimes assuages in his red-walled music room decorated with framed Deutsche Grammophon LP covers, sitting in an Eames chair, facing his Beethoven shrine, the music by “the most inexplicable genius” blasting.

When asked by someone in the audience about the connection between substance abuse and the creative life, Ellroy, who refers to himself as a sober alcoholic, was quick to implore, “You better get sober, Jack, or you won’t have any creativity.” And, his final words in response to the age-old question, why write? Borrowed ones from Dylan Thomas, recited passionately, in full plaintive song:

In my craft or sullen art

Exercised in the still night

When only the moon rages

And the lovers abed

With all their griefs in their arms,

I labour by singing light

Not for ambition or bread

Or the strut and trade of charms

Or by the ivory stages

But for the common wages

Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart

From the raging moon I write

On these spindrift pages

Nor for the towering dead

With their nightingales and psalms

But for the lovers, their arms

Round the griefs of the ages,

Who pay no praise or wages

Nor heed my craft or art.

The audience roared to its feet in celebration of James Ellroy, L.A. noir’s acknowledged bad-ass master, sporting his Mr. Rogers camel-coloured cardigan. Oh, what a night. A wondrous ride with the demon dog.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.