Remembering Elmore Leonard, Part 2

The envelope, bearing a Royal Oak, Michigan postmark dated April 17, 1985, had the return address, in Birmingham, Michigan 48009, printed sideways along the left edge of its front. A careful slit across the top spread open to reveal a single sheet of unlined yellow papELNwswker folded into thirds. Below the date, the pica-sized typed text—four paragraphs in all, filling up the entire page—began with “Dear Alex, [new line] GUNSIGHTS is a Western.” At the bottom of the page: “Take care,” beneath which, in black ink, sat the legible signature. “Elmore Leonard,” its only flourish a large loop at the top of the capital “L.” I’m looking at the envelope and letter as I write this a few weeks after Elmore Leonard died on August 20 at age 87 after suffering a stroke while at his desk working on his next novel, Blue Dreams.

In celebration of a great American writer, this second part of an extended post of the Fairfield Writer’s Blog focuses on Elmore Leonard’s life as a working writer. Scroll down to read Part 1, on how he wrote.

I had written to Leonard care of his publisher at the time, Arbor House, on March 8 of 1985, after finishing his 23rd novel, Glitz. “It is the 11th one of your novels that I’ve read in the past two years, and I enjoyed it as much as any of the others,” I wrote. My letter asked him about his previous novels that I had not read. I wondered which were Westerns and which were contemporary crime dramas, and which might be coming back into print. The news was good, he said: “By the end of the year everything of mine that’s been published will be in print again.”

All these years later, there is at least one missing piece to my almost-complete Leonard collection, the short story “The Treasure of Mungo’s Landing.” It is contained in the paperback version of The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard. First published in True Adventures magazine in June 1958, it surfaced from pulp limbo only after the publication of the hardcover edition of TCWS , the version I have.

Here, now, in the inimitable voice of the author himself and others, an anecdotal portrait of the evolution of a writer’s career:

Early days. Leonard was born in New Orleans and spent his early childhood in southern and southwestern states such as Tennessee and Oklahoma—while his father, who worked for General Motors, scouted locations for new car dealerships—before the family eventually settled in Detroit when Elmore was 10. Leonard revisited this period in The Hot Kid, Comfort to the Enemy and Up in Honey’s Room.

“I knew I wanted to tell stories. In grade school, I used to tell movies. I’d get with friends and tell ‘Captain Blood’ and anything Errol Flynn was in.”—Rolling Stone, 1985

“Then I read a serial version of All Quiet on the Western Front in the Detroit Times. I must have loved it because I wrote a World War I play that was put on in our fifth-grade classroom, using the desks as No Man’s Land.”—People magazine, 1984

“I was in high school and needed a nickname.”—The New York Times, 2013 [For the rest of his life, his friends called him “Dutch,” after 1930s major-league knuckleball pitcher Emil “Dutch” Leonard of the Washington Senators and other teams.]

“I joined the Navy in ’43 and ended up as a storekeeper’s mate with a SeaBee unit in New Guinea and the Admiralty Islands. We maintained airstrips for Aussie and U.S. Navy fighters. The closest I came to action was when some Jap[anese] airplanes dropped eight-pound antipersonnel bombs near us. The only other adventure was when I was stateside [in Seattle at age 19] and got a tattoo. It says ‘Dutch’ on my left shoulder, in script, the Palmer method. Cost a dollar. Red and blue ink, but the red has faded.—People magazine, 1984 & Xavier Review, 1987

“When I was at the University of Detroit [after the war on the GI Bill, I] entered a short story in a contest sponsored by the Manuscribblers, a school creative writing club. Didn’t win. Entered again when I was a senior (didn’t write a thing in between) and placed second or third. I was graduated in ’50. In ’51, I began in earnest to write and sell.”— The Armchair Detective 1983

Western years. “I chose the genre because there were 25 magazines you could aim at selling to.”— Crime Fiction Academy Master Class 2012

Also, “I chose Westerns because I liked Western movies. From the time I was a kid I liked them. Movies like “The Plainsman” with Gary Cooper in 1936 up through “My Darling Clementine” and “Red River” in the late forties.”— Introduction, The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, 2004

“I wrote my first Western short story without having done any research at all, sent it directly to pulp magazines, and it got rejected.” So, in addition to subscribing to Arizona Highways magazine, he read such books as “On the Border with Crook, The Truth About Geronimo and The Look of the Old West [by Foster Harris], which describes everything about cowboys—everything you always wanted to know about saddles and horses and guns, even the kind of coffee they drank. I still, every once in a while, look at The Look of the West.”—Film Comment, 1998

“Trail of the Apache,” a 35-page, seven-chapter “novelette,” was the first story he had published, in Argosy in December 1951. He was paid $1,000. The better pulp magazines paid two cents a word. “The story [‘3:10 to Yuma,’ twice made into movies] was in Dime Western, 4,500 words. I got ninety dollars for it. The editor insisted I rewrite one of the scenes and do two revisions on my descriptions of the train. He said, ‘You can do it better. You’re not using all your senses. It’s not just a walk by the locomotive. What’s the train doing? How does it smell? Is there steam?’ He made me work for my ninety bucks, which was good.”—Film Comment, 1998

“I got only $5,000 for the movie, with Glenn Ford, but in the fifties that was OK.”—The Guardian, 1993

“I was trying to sell something to The Saturday Evening Post because they paid very well. . .more than the pulp magazines. I never really caught on with them. They told me my characters were ‘too relentless’ and that they had ‘no redeeming moments.’ Well, that certainly was true. I really couldn’t argue with them about that. I finally sold one story to them in 1956, I think. [‘Moment of Vengeance,’ April 21, 1956.] It must have been more redeeming than my other stories.”— thedailybeast.com, 2012

Because he was working a fulltime job as an advertising copywriter at Campbell-Ewald in Detroit, “I realized I was going to have to get up at five in the morning if I wanted to write fiction. It took a while, the alarm would go off and I’d roll over. Finally I started to get up and go into the living room and sit at the coffee table with a yellow pad and try to write two pages. I made a rule that I had to get something down on paper before I could put the water on for the coffee. Know where you’re going and then put the water on. That seemed to work because I did it for most of the fifties.”—Introduction, The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, 2004

“Leonard wrote advertising copy for Chevrolet trucks. Then, too, he would go out to do research, use his ear. He would ask: what’s the best thing about this truck? One driver replied: ‘You don’t wear that sonofabitch out, you just get tired of looking at it and buy a new one.’ Leonard proposed the line for an ad campaign; Chevrolet was not prepared for such authenticity.”—Newsweek cover story, April 22, 1985

He also worked on his fiction at the office: “I’d put my arm in the drawer and have the tablet in there and I’d just start writing and if somebody came in I’d stop writing and close the drawer.”—Introduction, The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, 2004

“Never, in thirty short stories and eight novels, did I stage a fast-draw shootout in the street, the way practically every Western movie ends. Later I developed ways of having the violence happen more unexpectedly and low-key. ‘And he shot him.’ ”—Film Comment, 1998

Drought. Leonard wrote Hombre, his fifth Western novel, in late 1959 and sold it in January 1961 for $1,250. Hombre was later selected as one of the 25 best Western novels ever written. The print market for Westerns was drying up as TV became saturated with them. In 1960, after 10 years on the job, he took his $11,500 in profit sharing from Campbell-Ewald with the intention of writing fiction fulltime. Instead, the family bought a house. He sold a story, “Only the Good Ones,” about a character named Bob Valdez to the Western Writers of America anthology Western Roundup in 1961. Then he stopped writing fiction for five years. Instead, he freelanced, including writing education films for Encyclopedia Britannica on such topics as the French and Indian Wars, Julius Caesar and pioneer settlers along the Mississippi. One script was called “Boy of Spain. “I took my family to Spain for that one, my one attempt at real research. It was the only one they rejected.”—Rolling Stone, 1985

Leonard kept one freelance advertising job, for Hurst shifters. “He says that if you had a hot rod in Detroit in 1963, you had to have a Hurst shifter or you were nowhere. Which is where Leonard was: . . .‘The years 1961 to 1966 were the low point, definitely. . . .I had probably resigned myself to writing again sometime, but never full time.’ ”—Esquire, 1987

“Finally Hombre did sell [to Hollywood]—for only ten thousand bucks—but that got me writing fiction again, no more freelance of any kind.”— Film Comment, 1998

Six years after writing “Only the Good Ones,” in seven weeks he expanded it into the novel Valdez is Coming, published in 1970, with the movie version starring Burt Lancaster coming in 1971. “Valdez is Coming is my favorite Western of the ones I wrote. Now when I read it, I can see my style beginning to change. A little more dialogue. The characters are a little more human. I’m loosening up a little bit. That’s what I finally learned.”—to Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” 1995

“It’s pretty much a perfect book, there’s not a word out of place. I re-read [Valdez is Coming] often just to get inspiration and to see how it’s done, and how it should be done.”—George Pelecanos, The Wall Street Journal, 2013

Turning to crime. “My first novel with a contemporary setting, The Big Bounce [published in 1968], was rejected by publishers and film producers eighty-four times in all, editors calling the book a ‘downer,’ void of sympathetic characters—the same ones I’m writing about thirty years later.”—“Introduction,” The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, Owl Books edition, 2000

The Moonshine War (1969) [started as] a nine-and-a-half page outline called ‘The Broke-Leg War.’ . . .Mr. Majestyk (1974). . .became a novel after the movie. . . .I had part of another book I had written for a producer who was looking for a migrant worker story. . .eighty or ninety pages, called Picket Line. . . .I hung it up for parts and used most of it in the novelization of Mr. Majestyk.”—Film Comment, 1998

“. . .197[4]. . .I started doing crime with Fifty-Two Pickup.”—Writer’s Digest, 1997

In 1984, LaBrava won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel, beating out, among others, John LeCarre’s The Little Drummer Girl.  “Glitz, published in 1985, was his 23rd novel and the breakthrough that flew to the top of the best-seller fiction lists and put him on the cover of Newsweek (above).”—Front-page obituary, The New York Times, 2013

Glitz “ ‘began when [movie producer] Walter Mirisch asked me if I wanted to do a sequel to “In the Heat of the Night.” ’ ” [That led to lots of research about the Philadelphia mob’s penetration of Atlantic City, including] “reports of a Pennsylvania crime commission  which contained long runs of wiretapped dialogue with various hoodlums.”—New York Daily News Magazine, 1985

“You read [the wiretaps], and it’s just one cliché after another. And since you’ve got to make these guys individuals in a novel, you can’t go by that. I think that good dialogue is made up to sound realistic, but it isn’t that real at all. And you can’t go on forever with it. You’ve got things said. There’s a topic sentence somewhere, and you’ve got to put that down.”—The Barnes & Noble Review, 2009

“[Inmates] write to me and want to know if I’ve done time. I met a guy at Telluride who had done a few years in Colorado for selling marijuana. He said, ‘God, you’ve got it right down, the way these inmates talk.’ He said, ‘In my trial, I maintained that the marijuana was for my own use.’ And I said, ‘Well, how much did you have?’ and he said, ‘400 pounds.’ ”—VICE Magazine, 2009

“. . .I just feel more secure in a situation [in a book] where I know a gun can go off at any time if things get boring.”—The New York Times Magazine, 1984

Influences. “I was impressed by John O’Hara’s dialogue, and I would learn from and imitate [it]. I think that’s the best way to learn: just to read an imitate for a while, until you finally get your own voice.—The Onion A.V. Club, 2002

“. . . [I]n John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday. . .a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: ‘I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . .figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that.’ ”—Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, No. 2, 2001

“I’ve always liked Hemingway. I can still read Hemingway’s short stories and enjoy them. . . .In the fifties. . .I was reading For Whom the Bell Tolls, reading it every day before I started to write—because I thought of the story as sort of a Western; they’re in the mountains with horses and guns. But once I realized he didn’t have a sense of humor, or at least show it in his books, then I had to find someone else.”— F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference Award, youtube.com interview from Montgomery College (Md.), 2008

“There was a writer by the name of Richard Bissell. . .He wrote books set on the Mississippi River, where he was a pilot, he was a towboat pilot. . .He had such a natural style. There was humor on his towboats, guys talking. But it was never forced and he wasn’t trying to be funny. . . .I thought, that’s the way to do it.”— F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference Award, youtube.com interview from Montgomery College (Md.), 2008

“. . . The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972). . .I think it’s the best crime book ever written.”—VICE Magazine, 2009

“What I learned from George Higgins was to relax, not be so rigid in trying to make the prose sound like writing, to be more aware of the rhythms of coarse speech and the use of obscenities.”—“Introduction,” The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, Owl Books edition, 2000

“George Higgins [also] taught me that it was okay to jump into the middle of a scene and let the reader catch up.”—GQ, 1984

“I had an editor who’d. . .say, ‘Well, where are the [characters]? I don’t even know where they are and they’re talking.’ I said, ‘Well, take it easy, you know it’ll be revealed. Be patient.’ ”—Crimeculture Q&A with Charles Rzepka, 2010

“Higgins’ agent at the time of Eddie Coyle read the manuscript, told him it was unsalable and dropped him. Let this be an inspiration to beginning writers discouraged by one rejection after another. If you believe you know what you’re doing, you have to give publishers time to catch up and catch on.”—“Introduction,” The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, Owl Books edition, 2000

A road not taken. At one point, when his crime books were not selling enough, Leonard considered writing romance novels. “I bought some. . . .I thought, Why don’t I just write one of these to make some money? But I could’nt even read the first five pages. I thought, How can I write what I can’t read?”—Rolling Stone, 1985

Two turning points. “I joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1974, and on January 21, 1977, at 9 in the morning, I had my last drink.”—The New York Times Magazine, 1984

“[It’s] an amazing thing, after thirty-two years, to know I can get better. . . .I have so much more confidence in my work. . . .I look forward to working in the morning, something I didn’t used to do. . . .I sit and look out the window when I’m writing away, I look out, and I don’t believe it. I’m sitting here all by myself, doing this story, getting all excited about it and getting paid for it. . . .”—The Courage to Change, 1987

“At the preliminary examination in Recorder’s Court, the defense counsel cross-examined the doorman of the pad. . . .‘Was anyone else present in the room?’ ‘Yeah, that one sitting over there.’ The defense attorney looked around. ‘You’re indicating the gentleman in the first row with the beard and the polka dot necktie?’ ‘That’s the one,’ the doorman said. He was pointing at me.”—“Squad 7: Impressions of Murder,” Detroit News Sunday Magazine, November 12, 1978

“I spent most of three months sitting around squad rooms in Detroit listening to cops.”—Newsweek, 1985

“We’re kind of prejudiced around here about Dutch’s article and book. He got on paper the way we talk and act every day,”—Detroit felony homicide detective Dixie Davies in Gregg Sutter’s article “Dutch,” Monthly Detroit, 1980

“[‘Squad 7: Impressions of Murder’] was the first and only piece of journalism I’ve ever done.”—NPR’s “Fresh Air,”1995

Getting it right. Gregg Sutter’s piece on Leonard for Monthly Detroit was published in October. “In January of 1981, I received a phone call from Dutch. . . He asked me if I wanted to do some research for him on his new book. I said sure. Split Images was a good book to get started on [as Leonard’s full-time researcher and, later, website-master as well]. . . . At our first meeting, Dutch said: “Let’s take the Detroit cop down to Palm Beach.”—Gregg Sutter in The Armchair Detective, Winter 1986 (first of two part-article)

“Sutter’s research fills a box for each book. What cops do each day, books on prison culture and slang. The boxes are kept in the basement. Inside, there’s a regular schoolboy’s notebook, 80 pages. It’s the ‘skinny’ for each book, or [Leonard’s] essential notes. These are filled with possible character names, addresses of banks that get robbed, snippets of dialogue, and facts like the population of Miami and the number of autopsies performed each year in Detroit.”—The Washington Post, 2008

“What Dutch is looking for in research is a series of ‘triggers’ that inspire scenes or characters. . . .My job was to go after the bigger picture, in search of hidden triggers. Dutch would then shop the material very discriminately for a single fact, a gesture, or a backdrop; once he had it he’d be off and running.”—Gregg Sutter in The Armchair Detective, 1986

Adventures & Misadventures in Hollywood. “I love writing books. I wrote movies for money.”—Film Comment, 1998

“Joe Kidd” (1973) was the only screenplay Leonard wrote, that got made into a movie, that was not also a novel. “[Clint] Eastwood [the film’s star] is the easiest guy in the world to get along with. I don’t recall him changing that much. . . .The only time I can recall him saying anything was for the scene where Joe Kidd is confronted by an armed faction, near the end of the second act. Eastwood said, ‘Shouldn’t I have my gun out when I say that?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t think you need to have your gun out.’ Eastwood said, ‘But my character has not been presented as a gunfighter.’ He turned to [director John] Sturges, ‘Don’t you think I need my gun out?’ Sturgis said, ‘No. . . .” Eastwood said, ‘Why not?’ Sturgis said, ‘Because the audience knows who you are—they’ve seen all your pictures.’ But when the picture was made, Eastwood did have his gun out.”—Film Comment, 1998

The last property bought by Alfred Hitchcock was [Leonard’s 1977 novel] Unknown Man No. 89—American Film, 1984

Leonard wrote the screenplay for “Stick,” starring and directed by Burt Reynolds (1983), from his novel of the same name. “In Leonard’s library hangs the movie poster. . . .The words on the poster say, THE ONLY THING HE COULDN’T DO IS STICK TO THE RULES. Leonard crossed out rules and inserted a new word: script.”—Rolling Stone, 1985

Dustin Hoffman expressed interest in playing the lead role in Leonard’s screenplay of his 1983 novel LaBrava, to be directed by Martin Scorcese. “By the summer of 1984, Leonard was publicly describing the rewriting experience as ‘laborious,’ and when Hoffman told Leonard, ‘You’ll be paid retroactively,’ Leonard’s agent told the writer, ‘They’ll never make this picture.’. . . .By 1986, Hoffman was gone.”—vulture.com, 2013

[A decade later, Leonard was]  “in Australia, on a book tour supporting Get Shorty. . . .[The] phone in the hotel room rings. It’s Dustin Hoffman. He’s really ticked off. He says the pompous, diminutive character [Martin Weir, later played in the movie by Danny DeVito] for which the book is named is so obviously a dead ringer for him that ‘everybody’s going to know this is me.’ Leonard said, ‘Oh, I don’t know, Dustin. There are a lot of short actors in Hollywood.’ ”—Washington Post, 2013

Whence the name of the protagonist in both Get Shorty and Be Cool? “[Leonard] had a Miami friend who works for a private investigator [named Bill Marshall], a Brooklyn Puerto Rican named Chili Palmer.”—New York Daily News Magazine, 1985

“When I first heard that [John] Travolta was going to play Chili, I said, ‘Are you kidding? Is that the guy in those talking baby movies?’ . . .Then I saw ‘Pulp Fiction’ and said, ‘Oh, my God, he’s the guy.’ . . .[A]nd he was great. He said the lines right. He had the eyes right.”—thedailybeast.com, 2012

“[I]n early June 1996, [Quentin Tarantino] called again. He said, ‘I’ve been afraid to call you for the last year.’ I said, ‘Why? Because you’ve changed the title and you’re starring a black woman in the lead?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Do what you want. You’re the filmmaker, you’re going to do what you want anyway.’ . . .I trusted Quentin and felt certain the film would work.”—Film Comment, 1998 about the movie “Jackie Brown,” a Leonard favorite, starring Pam Grier from the novel Rum Punch

“They made me an executive producer on the [TV] show [“Justified”], and executive producers don’t really do anything. I thought, ‘How can I sit here and collect money and not do anything?’ So I wrote a book, Raylan [2012]. I didn’t want to interfere with the writers. I gave it to them and told them to take what they wanted.”— thedailybeast.com, 2012

Role model. “To say that Mr. Leonard lacks pretension does not quite get it. He is scary normal, friendly in an absent way.”—The New York Times, 2005

“He was the guy that a lot of us in my generation wanted to be. We wanted to be as good as him and, beyond the content itself, we wanted to have his career. I mean, to write good books that were popular and to have his longevity, to be in the game as long as he was and to be as good as he was. . . .Sometimes you meet your idol and you’re disappointed, but I wasn’t disappointed at all. He was a gentleman and very gracious to a young writer, me.”—George Pelecanos in The Wall Street Journal, 2013

“Just before going onstage [at the 2010 Tucson Festival of Books] we thumbed through a program listing all the esteemed authors, of which he was easily the best known and, he told me, the one who had won no prestigious fellowships and few awards. ‘Most of these writers don’t write for a living,’ he said. ‘They write for tenure. Or for The New York Times. Or to get invited to conferences like this. When you write to make the rent or send your kids to school, you learn how to write without a lot of nonsense.’ When he repeated something like that onstage, the room rocked with laughter and applause. In his 80s, Elmore had become the kind of star who could tweak his hosts and be loved for it.”— Scott Simon on NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday,” 2013

“We would go to libraries and bookstores and I would be lucky enough to interview him, and sometimes he’d start off slow, telling stories about his stories, and then he’d start getting laughs, and then he was the hot kid all over again.”—Mike Lupica in the New York Daily News, 2013

A few more thoughts on writing. “My handwriting goes up, which I’m happy to hear is a good thing. Hemingway’s went down something awful, like a waterfall.”—“How I Write” in GQ, 2000, with a black-and-white photo of him holding up two handwritten manuscript pages

The fictional precursor to Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing are his character Frank Ryan’s “ten rules for success and happiness” in the novel originally published in paperback under the title Ryan’s Rules. Frank is a used-car salesman at Red Bowers Chevrolet in Detroit. He convinces Ernest “Stick” Stickley Jr.—a car thief—to become his partner in armed robbery. Examples: “2. Never say more than is necessary. . . .4. Dress well. Never look suspicious or like a bum. . . . .10. Never associate with people known to be in crime.”—Swag, 1976

“There are a couple [of books] where I went with the wrong main character. In Pronto, I went with the character [Harry Arno] who, when I was writing it, was my age, 67. When he got about 100 pages in. . .I lost interest in him, because he was getting hard to get along with. . . .I didn’t care that much for the guy anymore. I had to bring another character on, who wasn’t introduced until page 40, this guy Raylan Givens, the federal marshal in Kentucky. I could write a book about him any time. I made him a lot more important and opened the next book, Riding the Rap, with Raylan. So I gave him his due.”—The Onion A.V. Club, 2002

“You’ve got to give your characters attitudes, or else. . .they’re just sitting there.”— Detroit Free Press, 1982

“A New Yorker editor used to ask me for stories, and I’d say, ‘I don’t do your kind of stories.’ My stories have endings.”—thenewyorker.com, 2013. [The magazine did publish a Leonard story, “Riding the Rap,” on June 27, 1994; it was the first chapter of the forthcoming novel of the same name.]

“I believe it takes at least ten years for a writer to reach the point that he knows what he’s doing.”—VICE Magazine, 2009

“Write every day. Write all the time. . . .You’ve got to write. That’s it.”— F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference Award, youtube.com interview from Montgomery College (Md.), 2008

Endings. “My favorite ending was in Get Shorty. It’s a [Chili Palmer] line, that character is trying to rewrite the screenplay. And he’s gotten to the end of it, and the last line is, ‘F—-n’ endings, man, they weren’t as easy as they looked.’ ”—Joint interview with Donald E. Westlake in On Writing (a publication of the Writer’s Guild of America East), 2007

The future. The Bounty Hunters, from 1953, was Elmore Leonard’s first novel. It told the story of good guy Dave Flynn, a contract scout for the U.S. Calvary, trying to beat Curt Lazair, an outlaw bounty hunter hoping to earn 500 pesos for a scalp, to the renegade Mibres Apache Soldado and bring him in.

In its July/August 2012 issue, The Atlantic published “Ice Man.” It is an early version of an early chapter of Blue Dreams, Its protagonist is Victor, a Mimbreno Apache bullrider who has just won first place, $4,000 and a new saddle at the All-Indian National Rodeo in Palm Springs. His antagonist is Darryl Harris, a federal agent in Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At the time of his death, Leonard had made the decision to bring his good guy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (hero of Pronto, Riding the Rap and the hit TV series “Justified”) into the story. A few weeks later, Elmore Leonard’s son Peter, a crime novelist himself, told the BBC that he had spoken with family members and researcher Gregg Sutter about his finishing the book.

So at the end, had Elmore Leonard’s storytelling come full circle? We’ll know only if and when the unfinished Blue Dreams is published.—Alex McNab

 

 

 

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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, thenewyorker.com, 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.”goodreads.com, 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, slate.com, 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

Watch & Listen: Authors Online

Warning: the following may be hazardous to your writing habits.

We aspiring writers who live in Fairfield County, Connecticut, are fortunate. With the center of publishing only 50 miles away in Manhattan; with vibrant public libraries and their energetic events coordinators in almost every community; with fine chain and independent bookstores within easy driving distance; and with several universities featuring creative writing programs and commitments to cultural outreach close by, we have a steady schedule of author appearances to attend for education and inspiration. As I reported in my previous post, for example, bestselling writers Dennis Lehane and Peter Abrahams shared their wisdom with us in person less than 24 hours apart. Like Western pioneers on the Santa Fe Trail arriving at Bent’s Fort, authors on the book-tour trail find our area a welcoming stopover.

But what if you cannot get to an author talk? Or if you live in a place far from that book-tour trail? How can you sit face-to-face with a National Book Award winner, a Pulitzer Prize winner, a bestselling crime writer, a unique-voiced memoirist? That’s why the Internet and YouTube were invented, of course.

Herewith an annotated index of a baker’s dozen links to a random sampling of author talks online. And I’m not referring to someone’s latest appearance on “Today” or “Charlie Rose.”

A caveat: I have watched only a few of these. Thus, I cannot promise you they all impart ready-to-use writing advice. Nor can I promise that these are the best available videos of each writer. My purpose is simply to show that, if you are looking for inspiring sights and sounds from one of your favorites, you may be able to find it. So here’s the list, in alphabetical order, except for Ian McEwan in the anchor-leg spot, the reason for which will be apparent.

Michael Cunningham. The Pulitzer Prize winner for The Hours, from the fabled Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Louise Erdrich. The new National Book Award for Fiction winner (The Road House) on Well Read.

Elizabeth Gilbert. Her famous 2009 lecture on creativity at the TED conference.

Mary Karr. The poet and memoirist (The Liar’s Club, et al.) from the Writer’s Symposium By The Sea at Point Loma Nazarene University.

Barbara Kingsolver. Thoughts on libraries and on being a writer from the author, most recently, of Flight Behavior, from Minnesota Public Radio.

Elmore Leonard. The now-87-year-old crime master on his writing schedule and process, one of several short segments from AuthorLearningCenter. Given his lofty spot in my pantheon of writing heroes, I also recommend his recent acceptance speech at the National Book Awards (scroll down), where he received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. (I skipped over Martin Amis’ introduction; Leonard gets his medal and takes the mic at roughly the 6:30 mark).

Laura Lippman. Her illustrated master-class lecture—on how she does it—at the Crime Fiction Academy.

Alice Munro with Diane Anthill. The short-story genius with the British novelist and editor, plus a moderator, at the International Festival of Authors in Canada. There is a much longer, biographical interview with Munro at TVO.

Richard Price. How to capture the sound of the streets in dialogue is one of several segments in this presentation at Big Think. Other writing experts at this repository of no-frills, in-their-own-words videos include, Margaret Atwood, Anne Lamott, Tom Perrotta, Salman Rushdie, The New Yorker Editor David Remnick, Robert McKee (the screenwriting guru) and Gay Talese.

Gay Talese. Take an author-guided tour of his English-basement “writing bunker” in his East Side of Manhattan brownstone via The New Yorker.

Kurt Vonnegut. Listen to him enumerate, in this clip, his famous instructions on how to write a story .

Tom Wolfe. Oscar Coral’s 72-minute documentary, “Tom Wolfe Gets Back to Blood,” on the 81-year-old white-suited wonder’s reporting and writing of his new novel. (This on-demand viewing may require registration and perhaps a fee.)

Ian McEwan. In a video produced by his publisher for the Anchor paperback release of his novel Solar in 2011, McEwan offers “Advice for Aspiring Writers.”

Now, having proffered this list, I urge you, before clicking on the Play arrow of any of the above, to read the first comment beneath the McEwan video, posted by someone named Lucian O’Rourke. It reads:

Aspiring writers: stop watching YouTube!—Alex McNab