Remembering Elmore Leonard, Part 1

ELBooksBy now you surely know that Elmore Leonard—author of 45 novels (many made into movies and TV shows, both good and bad), numerous short stories collected in three volumes, and his famous 10 Rules of Writing—died at age 87 on August 20, about three weeks after suffering a stroke while at his desk working on novel 46, Blue Dreams.

Leonard, who lived in Detroit or its suburbs for all but his early years, began his professional storytelling career writing Western short stories and novels. When that market dried up, he turned to writing contemporary crime novels populated by ”pretty much low-lifers, just trying to make a score one way or another,” he told Publishers Weekly in 1983. His genius lay in what he called his “sound,” both in dialogue and narration. He often used the word “cadence” when describing it. And that sound frequently contained humor, although, as Leonard always pointed out, the characters in the scene, both speaker and listener, were dead serious.

“His writing seems effortless, and sometimes people think that it is,” George Pelecanos, the Washington, D.C.-based crime novelist, told The Washington Post in 2008. “Sometimes you’ll hear people say, ‘I read an Elmore Leonard book, and I just don’t get what the fuss is about.’ You just try it sometime. Try it, buddy. Nobody’s been able to duplicate it.”

On May 18, 2009 I published a post here on the Fairfield Writer’s Blog (FWB) about Leonard’s visit to the nearby New Canaan Library, where he was interviewed in an “Authors on Stage” event by his close friend, sportswriter and young-adult-bestseller writer Mike Lupica. When I spoke to Leonard afterward and told him that I was working on my first novel set in the world of a certain type of tough guy, he asked me a question about my characters: “Are they mean enough?” Not a day of composing at the computer goes by without recalling hearing him say that.

My Leonard library includes all of his books, beginning with a Bantam paperback of 1953’s The Bounty Hunters, through the Avon paperbacks of such Detroit and Miami 1970s and ’80s crime classics as 52 Pick-Up, Stick and LaBrava with their wonderful photographic still-life covers, to a shelf of hardcovers starting with Glitz and running through the Morrow hardcover of 2012’s Raylan.

It includes, as well, a couple of short critical studies and a small limited-edition signed 1990 hardcover from Lord John Press titled Notebooks. This last includes notes and expense tallies from a 1974 trip he made by car from Detroit to Los Angeles (Travel Tip: “3. Go as fast as you can through Kansas. Or, if you are less than halfway, consider going back and around it”) and 43 pages of character sketches, scene summaries, dialogue passages and random notes for his 1990 novel, Bandits. Finally, I have a huge file of three decades’ worth of Leonard clippings—profiles, interviews, reviews and more.

Elmore Leonard was renown for how his characters talked. A quote from a 1980s review in the Boston Globe that appeared in the paperback edition of Swag read, “He has a wonderful ear for the way the kind of people you’d never want to meet talk.” He was a wonderful talker himself. And he was a delight to meet. Author Denise Hamilton, writing in the Los Angeles Times after he died, said, “Writers loved Elmore Leonard because he was so amiable and approachable. He didn’t hold court in the officious way so many ‘important’ authors did, he chatted with people and was genuinely funny in person, not only on the page.”

In celebration of the work and life of a great American writer, this extended post of the Fairfield Writer’s Blog offers quotes mined from my Elmore Leonard file, as well as a few selected comments from the many post-mortem tributes written about him. In Part 1, the focus is how he wrote. Part 2, to be posted in a few weeks, will focus on his life as a working writer. Meantime, blogger Alex Belth has gathered the first sentences of every Elmore Leonard novel here.

Style. “I have a very straightforward, economic style. The writing is lean, with no unnecessary words. I take ordinary people and put them in unordinary situations and see how they work themselves out. I introduce characters as I go along; the story comes out of how they act and interact.”—Detroit Free Press, 1982

“Your style comes out of your attitude, what kind of person you are. Your personality. How you see things. Are you optimistic? Are you funny? Are you grim? What? This is all out of your attitude. . . .I don’t see that there’s that much to take seriously in everyday situations that come up, that people worry about. People worry about things that might happen, you know, which is a big waste of time. I don’t worry. . . .I don’t take my work that seriously, and I think that’s what keeps me loose. If I try to write—if I catch myself trying to write—I’ll fall on my face. I’ll see it. If I can see in the prose, ‘Boy, look at me writing,’ I’ll rewrite it. Because I think it’s distracting.”—to Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” 1995

“The style is naturalistic, I suppose; it avoids images and purple passages. . . .I stick to the third person and wrote only one [novel] in the first person, Hombre; a minor character tells the story. But I like to use different points of view; so first person is too restrictive.”—The Armchair Detective, Summer 1983

“His flair is hard to borrow, because so much of it depends on what he did not write, not what he did. . . There was great elegance to his elision.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times, 2013

“He gave you just enough detail to set a scene or sketch a character, and let your imagination do the rest.”— Matt Zoller Seitz, New York magazine

Point of View & Sound. “Once I decide the point of view of a scene, then that character’s sound will permeate the narrative, will continue on through, because everything you see in that scene is from that character’s point of view and you won’t know what anybody else is thinking until you come to a place on the page where I’ve skipped down a few spaces and got into someone else’s head.”—Contrappasso Magazine (Australia), 1991

“When I’m serious, my writing is stiff, like a high-school composition. I have to forget about writing and just think about the characters and the way they sound. . . .” —U.S. News & World Report, 1987

Outlines. “When I’m writing the book, I know I’ll think of an ending. . . .[When] I finally get into page 300, approaching the end, then I may have to go back just a little bit to set something up. . . .But I know it’s going to work. I’m confident, always, that my book is going to work. . . .Forty years ago I was probably outlining a whole book. Now, I don’t want to know what’s going to happen. It’s only in page 100 to page 200 [that] is the tough part of the book, how you keep it moving, moving ahead with the characters that you like, getting them to do certain things that’ll be entertaining, and then in that last part, getting it going a little faster and have a big finish.” Crimeculture Q&A with Charles Rzepka, 2010

One reason not to outline at the start: “For the next six months you’re going to have good ideas, better ideas.—Crime Fiction Academy Master Class, 2012

Dialogue. “Whenever anyone mentions my dialogue, that it sounds so true, I say to the person, ‘Don’t you hear things in your head, don’t you hear people talking?’ That’s all it is. Use that, if you’ve got it.”—Crime Fiction Academy Master Class, 2012

“The dialogue in my novels is mostly made up. It isn’t the words that are authentic, but rather, the rhythm of the way people talk.”—The New York Times, 1983

“I think of the character’s attitude, and how that character would say a line.”—Writer’s Digest, 1982

“A line of dialogue is not clear enough if you need to explain how it’s said.”— Esquire, April 2005

Characters. “I usually identify with the main character. The way his mind works is the way mine does, and what’s important and what isn’t important to him is the same for me.”—VICE Magazine, 2009

“I want my books to look at reality and my characters to be as lifelike as possible—but with quirks to make them interesting.”—U.S. News & World Report, 1987

“You can make antagonists more interesting by showing human sides to them. They’re not simply evil. Some criminals, when they’re not committing a crime, are like everybody else.”—U.S. News & World Report, 1987

“I don’t try to get into the psychology of the guy’s makeup. That doesn’t interest me, and I don’t think it interests the reader. Also, it’s too much work.”—The New York Times Magazine, 1984

“Names are important. Names are everything. Once I get the right name, I’ve got the character. Or once I know the character well enough to give them the right name. . .well, maybe that’s the way it works.”—Writer’s Digest, 1982

“He was more comfortable writing characters of color than any white writer you can name.”— Matt Zoller Seitz, New York magazine

“These crime novels about felons and schmos are actually uplifting.”—Joan Acocella,, 2013

Women characters. “I was autographing books and a woman came up to me in the store and criticized me for the way I handle woman characters. She said that I had a sort of chauvinistic attitude toward them. I said, ‘Well, which ones do you have in mind?’ She said, ‘The women in Stick.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? The female lead is an investment counselor!’ She said, ‘Well, I mean the other ones. The girl friends [of the criminals].’ I said, ‘Well, what kind of woman do you imagine would be attracted to these guys? You’ve got to consider that they pair off with their own kind.’ ”—Xavier Review 1987

“I always spend a little more time with my woman characters, making sure they’re important to the story. . .and they’re not just there to follow the guy along.”— Author Learning Center Videos, 2011

First Drafts. “Before I start to write I’ll open one of the books and just start reading so that I get into the rhythm of it again. I’m sitting there cold in front of my desk and I’ll read something and I’ll laugh because I’m surprised by it. When I was working on a line, it was just a process of work.” —VICE Magazine, 2009

[He wrote first drafts by hand on unlined yellow paper] “Some of my longhand is barely decipherable, because I’m writing just as fast as I think about it, as the characters talk back and forth. I’ll probably throw away four sheets to get one. That seems to work for me. The rewriting is done as I’m writing. Once I get through a scene, and I don’t know what will come next, I type it and try to clean up the presentation. I always hope for about four or five pages by the end of the day. The next day I rewrite it, pick at it, and add things, because it is too spare the first time I write it. I add in a cigarette or a drink, or something going on.”, 2009

Rewriting. “I revise as I do it. I don’t go all the way to the end and then try to rewrite. When I get to the last page, it’s done.” —Crime Fiction Academy Master Class, 2012

Genre. “A genre has a form. It has some rules. It’s great when you’re starting.”—New York Daily News Magazine, 1985

Theme. “I generally don’t begin thinking of a book with the theme. Later, a reviewer tells me what the theme is.”—Detroit Free Press, 1982

Perseverance. “The writer has to have patience, the perseverance to just sit there alone and grind it out. And if it’s not worth doing that, then he doesn’t want to write.” —Writer’s Digest, 1982

Rewards. “It is the most satisfying thing I can think of, to write a scene and have it come out the way I want. Or be surprised and have it come out even better than I thought.”—Writer’s Digest, 1982

The 10 rules of writing. “The rules. . .are full of exceptions. . . .In other words: Don’t do these things, unless you’re good at them. Then go ahead. Which is actually, in itself, not terrible advice. Leonard’s rules are not so much rules for writing well as they are pointers for how you might avoid writing badly.”—David Haglund,, 2013

“His famous rules for writing always seemed like shtick to me. He knew lots more than he let on—about writing, about life—but, like all smart craftsmen, kept the good stuff to himself. It’s there in the books though. Read them.—Richard Lange, Los Angeles Times, 2013

The end. “I probably won’t quit until I just quit everything—quit my life—because it’s all I know how to do. And it’s fun.”—Associated Press story, upon learning he’ll get the National Book Foundation’s lifetime achievement award, Autumn, 2012

—Alex McNab

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I found the comment about women characters particularly interesting. I hadn’t thought about the fact that a gangster’s girlfriend probably wouldn’t be an independent business woman. Makes sense, though/

  2. Pronto was the first Elmore Leonard book I read, and its still my favourite.

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