An Evening with Elmore Leonard

Looking for some fresh inspiration to energize your writing? Keep track of upcoming author appearances at your local bookstore, college or library, and then make it a point to go, regardless of whether you know the writer’s work. Chances are you will learn something about storytelling.

The great Elmore Leonard was in the neighborhood the other evening, speaking at a library a few miles from ours. At age 83, he’s just published his 41st novel, Road Dogs (he’s also the author of three short-story collections and Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, about which there is more below). The review of Road Dogs in The New York Times a couple of days before the event can be summed up in a word: rave.

The format was a Q & A conducted by Mike Lupica, the New York Daily News sports columnist and best-selling young-adult author. In April 1987, Esquire published Lupica’s profile of Leonard, “St. Elmore’s Fire.” The two writers have been friends ever since. For those of us who have read not only everything written by Elmore Leonard, but also everything written about him, most of the stories we listened to that night were familiar. But to hear them straight from the master’s mouth was exciting and inspiring.

Each day Leonard writes from mid-morning until six in the evening at his home in suburban Detroit. He composes by hand, on pads of unlined yellow paper. He types his finished pages, a few at a time—just to see what they look like, he has said. He doesn’t have a computer; in fact, he told us, he doesn’t have a telephone answering machine, either. Neither’s absence hurts his productivity. He’s already more than 100 pages into his next novel, set on the pirate-plagued seas off East Africa.

Lupica pointed to a lesson all of us can take from this. Every time he thinks of shutting down his writing day around four o’clock to play with his kids or do something else, he remembers there’s a guy out in Detroit who’s still going strong and will be for a couple more hours.

The morning of Leonard’s appearance, an article in a local paper quoted him on how he begins his writing day. He pulls down one of his books, opens it up and starts reading. “Any book, any page,” he said, “just to get the rhythm of the prose, the easy style and that certain sound that I don’t want to lose.”

A writers’ workshop colleague with whom I attended the event e-mailed me, “That is GREAT advice for writers. I think we all think deep down that whatever good stuff we’ve gotten on paper must be a fluke. . .we all need to be reminded what our strengths are. It’s easy, especially for new writers, to think they should be sounding like someone else and get pulled away from our strong suit.”

In addition to its easy style, Elmore Leonard’s writing is famous, of course, for its wonderful street-savvy dialogue, spoken by cops, crooks and con men. And it is renown for its wittiness, although, as the author has always said, the characters are dead serious about the things they say that makes us readers laugh.

There were plenty of laughs the other night. Leonard, in his totally unassuming way, would tell a story in answer to Lupica’s prompt. Sometimes he would stumble in recalling a name or location or date, which you might expect of any 83-year-old, to say nothing of many of us a whole lot younger. But every anecdote ended with a perfectly timed punch line.

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing first was published as an article in The New York Times on July 16, 2001, part of a series called “Writers on Writing.” It came out in book form in 2007. After enumerating his 10 commandments, Leonard writes: “My most important rule is the one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

An audience member asked what he meant by “if it sounds like writing.” To which he replied, “That’s easy. [Pause] Upon entering the room. . . .” The place cracked up.

Here’s another example: “After enumerating. . . .”

Alex McNab

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Published in: on May 18, 2009 at 5:25 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. The wonderful evening with Elmore Leonard and Mike Lupica was part of the “Authors on Stage” series sponsored by the New Canaan Library. Over the past 4 years, the Library has hosted over 300 authors. Check out our website for upcoming events.


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