Renowned novelist Elmore Leonard died today at the age of 87, leaving a legacy of acclaimed fiction which made him a bestselling favorite among readers and peers alike. Publishing a remarkable forty-nine novels over a career spanning over sixty years, Leonard became arguably his generation’s most revered thriller writer, and one of the most finely adapted to film and television. With spare, refined style (“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it”, said Leonard in his popular 10 Rules of Writing), he elevated crime fiction by holding true to its distilled roots. In tribute to a life of crafting superb books, we offer a look back at Leonard’s 2009 interview with BNR Editor-in-Chief James Mustich. What follows is a fascinating look at Leonard’s process, and the fondly remembered voice of a genre-defining author. – The Editors
“Let us try to narrow it down,” Martin Amis once began a review. “Elmore Leonard is a literary genius who writes re-readable thrillers.” Leave it to Leonard to make the famously argumentative British novelist so agreeable; indeed, who would argue with Amis’s assessment? Certainly not me, nor, I suspect, the countless other readers who have been engaged, amused, and invariably delighted by the seemingly endless stream of outrageous characters and fantastic plots that flow with seeming ease from Leonard’s pen. Stick, LaBrava, Glitz, Freaky Deaky, Riding the Rap, Out of Sight, Tishomingo Blues — a mere list of titles will bring a smile to the faces of those who?ve sampled the addictive charms of Elmore Leonard.
On May 12, Leonard’s newest book, Road Dogs, was published, and I headed uptown to meet him in the Manhattan office of his publisher, William Morrow. I introduced myself when we bumped into each other at the security desk on the ground floor, and our acquaintance was well along by the time we got into the elevator and ascended to a conference room for an hour-long chat. Despite the fact that he had flown in from his home in Detroit the day before, spent the evening at a jazz club and the morning in the studio with Don Imus and company, the 83-year-old Leonard looked sharp — he was dressed in crisp jeans and a well-cut beige blazer — and exuded a merry alertness. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
James Mustich: Before we talk about Road Dogs, I’d like to ask a few questions about some of your earlier books, or rather about your writing in general.
Elmore Leonard: I’m going to have to remember older books?
JM: No. I’ve just revisited a pile of your books in preparation for this interview, and that provoked some questions beyond the immediate subject of the new one.
JM: Your first novel, The Bounty Hunters, was published in 1953 — fifty-six years and forty-odd books ago. What do you know as a writer that you didn’t know then?
EL: I know not to use adverbs. I know not to clutter up my prose with unnecessary words. What I know is all in my 10 Rules of Writing , which were originally written for Bouchercon. Do you know about Bouchercon?
JM: That’s the mystery convention, right?
EL: Right. Well, I was a guest of honor in 2000, and the afternoon of the ceremony I just jotted down these rules in the hotel room. I thought, “This might be interesting.” Because I thought they were funny, and they are, I think, for the most part — but they’re also accurate. I found out subsequently that if I follow these rules, I don’t mess up. Especially the one about leaving out the parts that readers skip. Usually that’s just a big chunk of type on a page, you know, that has little to do with action or the movement of the plot.
JM: For a writer who has plied his trade in what are conventionally seen as well-defined genres, Westerns and crime, your books aren’t really plot-driven, even though the plots are extremely entertaining.
JM: They’re character-driven, and the characters are very much creatures as of their speaking voices as anything else.
EL: Well, they have to be able to talk!
JM: But it’s more than that; even though your plots are intricate and ingenious, it’s language that’s shaping them because of the prominence of the voices.
EL: Yes, I agree with that.
JM: Did you have that impulse from the beginning? Did your start out writing that way?
EL: In the early ’50s, I was reading for the first time a lot of Westerns. I was reading pulp magazines — I wanted to try and pick up the pulse. Because at that time, the market was wide open: Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, right down through Argosy and different magazines. The better pulp magazines paid two cents a word. I sold to some other ones that I got a penny-and-a-half. For 3:10 to Yuma — a 4,500-word short story — I got ninety-five dollars. Ninety dollars. Then the screen rights, the first time, sold for $4,000; the second time didn’t sell for anything.
JM: They didn’t come back to you?
EL: They got the rights from whoever did it the first time. Columbia, I think. So anyway, two cents a word, there was some overwriting back then. Also, I was imitating Hemingway fairly obviously at times, that kind of not really tragic, but ominous tone: “This is the way it is….” I still admire his short stories, but he didn’t show much of a sense of humor. So I had to move on.
JM: You’ve famously been a very businesslike writer, with a 9-to-5 or 10-to-6 regimen. When did you start that, and do you still maintain that kind of schedule today?
EL: When I was working at an ad agency, which I did through the ’50s — I left in ’61 — I was getting up at 5 a.m., and I’d write for two hours. I was just beginning to write. I didn’t know it beforehand, but I learned I could write two pages, a page an hour. I did it all through the ’50s. I wrote five books and thirty short stories that way. But now it’s a lot harder; it just gets harder. For a while, maybe, it gets easier — you’re relaxed, and you can just write what you want, and it seems to work. But then, you don’t want to sound like you’re imitating yourself, and you don’t want to use the same sorts of situations over and over.
JM: Is it harder throughout the process, or just at the beginning of a book?
EL: No, I think it’s harder all the way. I know that in my first hundred pages, I’m going to at least introduce my characters, and then some will come along. Unexpected characters who come along are the best; they’ll just help you through a plot — as long as you’re not obvious about bringing them in to do that job for you. .
When I was writing Westerns, it was when I was writing Valdez is Coming, I began to see something a little different, that I could get into the character not simply as a hero, but as an individual. That helped me. From then on, I looked more at my characters as human beings, not just this guy wearing a badge, and so on. So I’ve always liked my characters. I have an affection for them, even most of the bad guys, because I see them as human beings, who just get into they situation they’re in because they’re selfish or lazy or mean or whatever.
Along the way — it was probably in the early ’80s — I got a review in Detroit by a woman writer I knew, and she said, “The woman in this book comes off as a Mickey Spillane character; she’s just kind of in there because you need a girl.” I didn’t agree with her, but if she felt that, I thought I’d better work on my women a little bit more. So then again, I’m thinking of the girl not as The Girl in the Book; I’m thinking of her as a human being who is in this situation, and I don’t have to think of her as a woman when I’m writing her lines. Maybe she doesn’t use as many obscenities as a guy — or maybe she uses more.
JM: You spoke about not wanting to repeat yourself.
JM: It’s no surprise then that many of your books explore different milieux. You mix it up with convicts, high divers, a fake priest in Rwanda — and I hear the book you are writing now is about Somali pirates. But you always lace the books with a gritty, even recondite sense of realism. So my question is: how did you become so worldly sitting at your desk for the past five decades, writing these books 9-to-5?
EL: I have an ace researcher.
JM: The same one for a while?
EL: Since the early ’80s. Gregg Sutter. He went to Atlantic City the first time, to research gambling. That was his first job, and he’s been doing it for me ever since. What he comes up with is unbelievable. You should see the stack of material I have on the pirates. I had to finally move a lot of it off my desk and put it on the floor. But I know where everything is.
He’s always coming up with something. Today he sent me a fax about the fact that there are people in London who let the pirates know — by satellite phone — what ships are going to come down through that area, through the Red Sea and down into the Gulf of Aden, where almost all the piracy is going on. They let them know what the ship is, what it’s carrying, and so on.
JM: When you embark on a project like this one, is it because you have a yen to write about pirates, say? Or does Gregg come to you and say there’s a rich field of information on this subject that you can use?
EL: No. I came up with the idea. Because I had written the first chapter of another book, which featured the girl from Out of Sight, Karen Sisco. I thought, “She’s good; I’ll use her again,” and I wrote a scene: she has left the Marshal service, and now she’s working for her dad, who is a private investigator. In a bar, she meets a guy that she knows is a wanted fugitive, and she takes care of that situation — and that’s the first chapter. My agent in Hollywood said, “It’s fine, it works, but why don’t you try to think of something a little different instead of bringing a character back?” Especially since, in Road Dogs, the new book, I had just brought back three. Not because I was lazy about it. Just because I liked those characters.
So in November, I started reading about the pirates, and there was very little. I would get a little stack on my desk every once in a while. But then, as soon as The Alabama, with Captain Phillips, I think his name is, was taken and put in the lifeboat with three pirates, the pirates are all over the place — in all of our papers and so on. At least since then, and perhaps before, there has been action in Hollywood about it, a lot of TV ideas of how to portray what’s going on with the pirates. In fact, Samuel Jackson is making a picture that his company is going to produce, and he has sent somebody to Mombasa to talk to a character that he is going to play — a newsman in East Africa who is investigating — well, I don’t really know what it’s about. I bring it up because almost from the beginning I saw Samuel Jackson in my story, not as a journalist, but as someone working for as the assistant to a woman who is doing documentary films. He is a 6-foot-6, 72-year-old black man who has been a seafarer all his life, and who has been through the gulf there maybe 40 times.
JM: If you’re doing something like this pirate book, or the one set that was set in turn-of-the-century Cuba (Cuba Libré), or The Hot Kid, which was set in Oklahoma during the Depression — how much grounding in the reality do you need to get going? Do you immerse yourself in enormous detail and then take off, or do you start with a character and follow him or her?
EL: I always start with a character. Sometimes, when I’m convinced a certain character will be the main character, but he doesn’t come in until page 30, I say, “Well, I’ve got to do something.” So I write another first chapter that has little — perhaps nothing — to do with the plot, just to introduce him and the kind of person he is.
JM: It’s almost as if the settings are stages onto which you walk your players. They bring their humanity and their voices to start things happening, and the larger contexts — historical, geographical, physical — provide some local interest by don’t really matter so much. With all respect for scale, there’s something in your approach that reminds me of Shakespeare — no matter how outrageous, imaginative, or historical the setting, it’s humanity made vivid by language that is the real story.
EL: I hadn’t thought of that.
JM: It’s not that the books are theatrical, but they’re constructed with a very energetic sense of artifice, in a way. There’s a palpable sense of “Let’s see what happens” in your books that very few writers manage, that kind of aliveness from page to page.
EL: That’s the way I look at it. I say, “Let’s get these people into a situation, and let’s see what happens.” Exactly. For Tishomingo Blues, I said to Gregg, “Find a high diver, a guy who goes off an eighty-foot ladder into 9 feet of water.” He found some, and he and I went down to the Florida panhandle to meet them. They were setting up their show there — they hadn’t finished the ladder. So we got to know these guys right away.
Then I start to write the book: he dives off, and he’s a hero, and the girls are around, and he goes out with a few and has some beers and so on. I thought, “Well, What else does he do? How do I move the story along?” Well, he’s a diver, so he witnesses a murder from up above, and that gets him into the plot.
JM: While your books are marvelously animated by language, they don’t sound like writing. In fact, while it’s not one of the ten rules, the overriding rubric of your approach is “If it sounds like writing . . .”
EL: “. . . rewrite it.”
JM: Could you elaborate on that a little bit, how it works in practice?
EL: If you can imagine a sentence that begins, “Upon entering the room so-and-so observed” — that’s writing. I am always writing from a point of view, and it’s never my own. It can be anybody’s point of view, a minor character, but it will be based — somewhat, at least — on the sound of that character. If you try and make his sound the exclusive sound for that scene, you run into too many apostrophes and so on — just writing words for what they sound like, not the way they’re actually spelled. You run into a lot of problems that way, and your page looks funny. So the first time you meet a character, you will hear what he really sounds like, and from then on I can make him talk a little bit straighter.
JM: Once you’ve given the reader an aural sketch of his sound.
JM: Did you know many convicts before you started writing about them?
EL: No. I’ve talked to a number of them since. I have several letters from convicts who want to know how I know what I know. A fellow I met at the Telluride Film Festival told me, “I did a little time for possession of marijuana,” and he said, “You have it right down, the way they talk and what they talk about, and so on.” He said, “I wondered how you know, if you’ve ever done time.” I said, “No-no, I’ve never . . .”
But you’ll read an article about a particular phase of penal life, say, and you’ll get something out of that. I went to Angola in Louisiana, the state penitentiary, and talked to Wilbert Rideau, who put out the Angolite, which was a good magazine. He was incarcerated when he was 18 years old for murder, following a bank robbery. He finally got out about five years ago, and he’s written to me a couple of times. But you wonder how they get the way they are in prison. You read about it, you can work it out. That’s where the title of the new book comes from, Road Dogs. Two guys who are buddies and watch each other’s back — that’s essentially what “road dogs” are.
JM: To reach back to what I was saying before about your novels, convicts may come with a back story, but when they get out and appear on page one, they’re characters who are free of a web of relationships. Which allows you to place them in motion more easily than you could, say, a family man — someone with ongoing, daily, complicated relationships to other people that would get in the way of whatever plot you want to set spinning.
EL: Right. You don’t want your character to have too many obligations hanging over his head. You want to keep the story as pure as you can, unless an obligation introduces a subplot of some kind.
JM: In the new book, you bring back three characters: Jack Foley from Out of Sight, Cundo Rey from LaBrava, and Dawn Navarro from Riding the Rap. What drew you back to these characters in particular?
EL: I didn’t think I’d done enough with Cundo Rey and Dawn in those earlier books. I liked Cundo Rey a lot. He’s a show-off, he’s a go-go dancer, and all that. And I was never sure if Dawn was actually psychic — but she was psychic enough to say, when she was talking on the phone to somebody, “Why don’t you put the light on? I can’t see you.” So I wonder, is she faking? And I’m not sure.
JM: And Foley?
EL: Because George Clooney played Foley, and I thought it was one of his best pictures — no doubt about it. I thought he’d want to do another one. Well, he hasn’t read it yet, and he’s had it — oh, god, he’s had it probably eight or nine months.
JM: What was it like writing for Foley’s character this time, with Clooney in your head? Was it more difficult than creating the pre-Clooney Foley in the first book?
EL: It worked — because I could hear Clooney. Can’t you hear Clooney?
JM: Oh yes. From start to finish. You found that to be a happy coincidence, rather than being problematic in any way?
EL: Sure. I couldn’t bring back one of my favorite characters, Stick, because Burt Reynolds played him, and if I think of Burt Reynolds as Stick, it won’t work.
JM: So you had these three characters you wanted to bring back: how much plotting did you do beforehand to figure out how you’d bring them together? Or did you just jump in with Foley’s voice, his situaton?
EL: Looking back on it, I might have tried to simplify that beginning part, which explains how Jack’s sentence got reduced and he got out. We talked to a lawyer about it — Gregg was talking to him a lot. The first time I wrote the opening chapters, about how the lawyer gets into it and what the lawyer does, it wasn’t sufficient. The lawyer now tells Gregg it still isn’t as complete as it could be. But I didn’t want to get it more complete; it’s enough. Finally, about page 70, the situation begins with Dawn and Cundo, and the plot gets going.
JM: You had Clooney in your ear, so to speak, for Foley’s voice, but did Cundo’s and Dawn’s voices come right back to you? Or did you go back and look at the other books?
EL: Cundo’s voice came right back. But I wasn’t sure if he was alive. I take a look at LaBrava and said, “Oh, geez, he got shot three times in the CHEST.”
JM: Well, there was a little loophole there to let him come back. You never said he was dead, although most readers probably assumed he was.
EL: Right. He must be — but no one says he’s dead! Those emergency guys saw that he was breathing, and that was it.
JM: You’ve often been praised for having an impeccable ear for speech, but what you put on the page isn’t really a replica of the way people talk.
EL: No, that would bore you to death.
JM: Several months ago I interviewed Richard Price, another novelist acclaimed for his dialogue. Here’s what he said on this subject: “If you really wrote down faithfully what people say, you’d wind up with a bad, really long Andy Warhol movie. You know, those tapes at the Ravenite Club where Gotti and his crew were talking? They go on and on and get nowhere. . . . The trick to dialogue is compression.” Would you agree with that?
EL: Yes. In fact, in 1983, Gregg brought back from his Atlantic City research the 1983 Pennsylvania Crime Commission Report, and in it were a lot of wiretaps. You read it, 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.
JM: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the importance of the sound of prose. You’ve often said that you want your prose to have a certain sound. To me, cadence and prosody are as essential to the sinew of a sentence as grammar and syntax, and it’s largely ignored when people talk about writing, or when they teach literature. I’m interested in the primacy that you place upon it in your writing.
EL: One time, I was on Charlie Rose, and Martin Amis was going to follow me. Charlie said, “What are you doing with Martin Amis? You don’t write the same kind of prose at all.” I said, “No. Martin is a literary writer. He writes Literature. He uses his own voice, and he’s got all the words. He doesn’t have to look anything up.” I asked Martin once, “Do you ever look up a word in a dictionary?” He said, “Well, once in a while.” I’m looking up words all the time to make sure that I’m spelling them correctly.
So I said to Charlie, “He is a literary writer. I don’t do that. I can’t do that. I think my books would be fairly boring if I told the story. So I have to have my characters tell the story.” Then Charlie said, “Let’s get Martin out here.” So he comes in, and Charlie says, “Did you hear what Elmore said about your writing?” Martin said, “My heart soared like a hawk.” Then I found out from that guy who wrote the book about there-is-no-God — I forgot his name. . . .
JM: Christopher Hitchens.
EL: Hitchens, yeah. I met him somewhere, and he said, “Martin is a big fan of yours.” I told him this story. He said, “He uses that all the time — ‘My heart soared like a hawk.'”
JM: Jack Foley uses it in Road Dogs, doesn’t he?
EL: I think he does.
JM: After he and Dawn consummate their acquaintance, I believe.
EL: How many people would catch that?
JM: Well, it was a memorable moment. You have a backlist now of some forty books. Do you ever reread yourself?
EL: I do all the time. Not the whole book. In the morning, I’ll pick up an older book, just to get into the rhythm of it. Because they all have that rhythm that I want to continue.
JM: So you use it as a kind of warm-up exercise?
EL: Yes. And I’m often surprised by something funny — I’ll laugh out loud, when I won’t laugh out loud when I originally write it.
JM: Why do you think that is? Because you’re working when you’re writing, and it’s a different state of mind?
EL: I think so. It might take so long for me to finally get that line, that it’s not a surprise to me when I write it. But when it does come as a surprise later on, I laugh.
JM: There are enough books by now that you must be surprised a lot.
EL: There are certain remarks made by characters that I don’t remember at all. But I must have written them — it’s in the book. [LAUGHS]
JM: Many of your books have been adapted for the screen. Do you find that this has affected how you watch other movies, ones that haven’t been based on a story of yours? Do you study how it’s put together from a writing standpoint, or can you still get lost in a film?
EL: I get lost in it, sure. But reading, that’s different. I’m always reading very slowly, and looking at the paragraph, looking at the punctuation and things like that. Why did he put a colon there? Asking that kind of question.
JM: What do you read? I know that you are a fan of André Dubus, the great short story writer. And Don DeLillo, at least Libra.
EL: Yes. Cormac McCarthy. Pete Dexter.
JM: He has a new book coming out this fall, I think. [Editor’s note: Dexter’s Spooner will be published in September. http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Spooner/Pete-Dexter/e/9780446540728/?itm=1]
EL: He does. I think George Pelecanos is good. And the guy from Boston . . .
EL: No. Parker just has a lot of fun all the way through. I mean the guy who did the movie. Did Eastwood direct it?
JM: Oh, Lehane?
EL: Dennis Lehane. Mystic River. He’s very good.
JM: You’ve often cited Richard Bissell as an influence.
JM: He is best known for his book 7½ Cents, which became the musical Pajama Game. And that’s all I know about him. It’s a name that you don’t often hear brought up. Why was he such an influence?
EL: There was a scene in one — I forget which book. It might even open with it. A guy is standing at the window in a hotel room, and he’s looking out the window, and the woman, who’s in bed, rolls over and looks at him, and she says, “What in the world are you looking at?” And he says, “Saint Louis, Missouri.” I don’t know why that’s so funny. But it’s so real. It’s a little bit more than what the normal person would say, you know, “I’m looking out at the downtown.”
JM: That moment crystallized something for you?
EL: He’s full of those moments, all the way through his books. His 7½ Cents wasn’t the one that appealed to me the most. I liked the ones on the river. I don’t even remember the titles now. But he has the characters on a riverboat, talking to each other, and they’re not trying to be funny — but they’re really funny.
JM: How far along are you in the next novel, the one about the pirates?
EL: Page 138 — a little bit more than a third of the way through. I’m going to call it Djibouti, because I love the sound of that word. People say, “What’s Djibouti?” Or if they know it’s a city, “Where is it?” In the first 138 pages, I’ve probably got the word Djibouti 20 times. And the woman in the book who’s making the documentary, Dara, she’s going to call her documentary Djibouti, too. She says, “I don’t care if there’s no connection. I just love the word, and I’m going to call it Djibouti.” [LAUGHS]
JM: I’ll look forward to enjoying it.
EL: Good. Thanks.