The dinner was entertaining and enlightening. Both Schiller and Dunne are captivating guests, sharing stories about their lives as investigative journalists and about their insights into the Simpson trial. Leonard and Keaton were happy to listen to what was being said, and I knew that Dutch was filing away the stories for future use in his fiction. He also told us about his early years breaking in as a writer.
“Publishers have always liked my work,” Leonard said, “but were unable to sell it because it didn’t fit neatly into a category. At least that’s what they told me. That my work was sort of a hybrid. Not literary, but not pure thriller either; because the people in the story are noticeably more important than the plot. The publishers kept insisting that if they couldn’t label my books, or if I didn’t have a continuing character, they couldn’t sell them.”
This might explain why Leonard kicked around from publisher to publisher since 1953, from Houghton Mifflin to Doubleday to Dell, Ballantine, Bantam, Fawcett Gold Medal, Dodd Mead, Avon, Arbor House, William Morrow, Mysterious Press. He settled down with Delacorte, feeling “more comfortable than I’ve even been” with them.
“Early on I got a good idea of what I could do and what I couldn’t,” Leonard said when discussing his writing. “Based on that, I try to move the story with as much dialogue as possible and concentrate on the characters. I don’t write effectively in the traditional manner of narrative writing, in telling a story with language, with my words. I don’t have enough words to do that, so in lieu of that I approach it from the standpoint of the characters. I’m not sure of my ability to describe what’s going on; to me it’s more interesting to let the characters do it—that way, you not only find out what’s going on, but you also learn something about the character. You’re doing two things at once. I’m not good at imagery, similes, and metaphors. If they’re not good they’re very, very distracting. I said that to Joyce Carol Oates once and she said, ‘Well, so much for Shakespeare.’ But Raymond Chandler’s tarantula on a piece of angel food cake—that kind of metaphor distracts you from the story. You’re picturing the metaphor and you are away from the story.”
To maintain his “sound” for the 400 or so manuscript pages that comprise a Leonard novel, he feels he has to lose himself in the story and not think of what he’s doing as writing. “I don’t want the reader to be aware of me as the writer,” he says. “The Village Voice a few years ago said I did this so successfully no one knew who I was.”
Of course since 1985, a lot of people know who Leonard is. Especially collectors. First editions of his first three novels: The Bounty Hunters, The Law at Randado, and Escape from Five Shadows sell between $2,500—$6,500. The first edition paperback of Hombre sells for $1250. The Moonshine War goes for $1,000, Fifty-Two Pickup for $750. Unknown Man 89, The Gold Coast, and The Switch are listed over $500 on the AbeBooks website. In other words—collecting Elmore Leonard is a better investment than most stocks. And as long as he is able (he’s 82 now) he appears at bookstores and signs. His next book, called Road Dogs, will be published in June 2009. “Jack Foley’s back,” Leonard told me, “but we can’t get Clooney to read it.”
“If I sell 150,000 hardcover and a million-one in paperback, that’s about it,” he reflects. “I probably reached my peak unless I come up with a real good idea, a story that is just so smashing that everyone will have to read it. Something that hasn’t been done. But I’m the most happy right now than I’ve ever been. I haven’t compromised much. I’ve stayed with what I wanted to do. And I try to make each book better.”