ELMORE LEONARD & the Sound Of Writing

About twenty years ago I flew to Michigan to do a story on Elmore Leonard, the crime writer Time magazine had called the “Dickens of Detroit” and Newsweek labeled “the best American writer of crime fiction alive, possibly the best we’ve ever had.”  Leonard lived in an exclusive suburb called Bloomfield Village and some of his neighbors were professional basketball players and heart surgeons. I remember him smiling at the television as he listened to the ramblings of the loquacious boxing promoter Don King. It wasn’t what King was saying that made Leonard happy, but the way he said it. “Man, listen to the rhythm of those words,” he said as I joined him in his living room.

It was the sound that impressed Elmore Leonard. Just as it’s the sound that impresses critics who extol the virtues of his books. The sound of Elmore Leonard is the sound of the street, the sound of the hustler and the con man, the drinker and the drunkard, the cop and the killer. It’s the sound of people talking and dealing in Detroit, New Orleans, and South Florida. Listen as Leonard described the lower end of Miami Beach: “the neighborhood taken over by junkies, muggers, cutthroats, queers…Cubans off the boat-lift, Haitians who had swum ashore when their boats broke to pieces, old-time New York Jews once the backbone, eyeing each other with nothing remotely in common, not even the English language. The vampires came out at night and the old people triple-locked their doors and waited for morning. Ass-end of Miami Beach down here.”

And what did these “vampires” talk about? “Shooting a woman and understanding a woman are two entirely different things,” says one of his bad guys in Killshot. “If I notched my gunbutt you’d get splinters running your hand on it, you dink,” says another in Gold Coast.

Part of the enjoyment of reading Leonard is catching his one-liners: “’If the man was any dumber you’d have to water him twice a week’.”  Or: “He was like something stuck to the bottom of your shoe you couldn’t get rid of, like his chewing gum.”

“The New York Times has said that my books are about decent men in trouble,” Leonard said. “I suppose that’s as good a description as any. I don’t analyze my work other than to know that the good guy is not always good or he has weaknesses, and the bad guy can behave normally at times. The only premise I begin with is that my characters are human beings and I’m going to treat them honestly, despite their inclinations—not approving of those who commit criminal acts, but rather accepting the fact impersonally, without making moral judgments.”

Leonard was a champion of the blue collar worker. He described men who were as handy with a thirty-pound impact wrench as with a hammer and saw. Like he wrote of one of his heroes, the photographer and ex-Secret Service man Joe La Brava, in La Brava, Leonard was attracted to street life. “It was a strange feeling, he was at home, knew the people; saw more outcast faces and attitudes than he would ever be able to record, people who showed him their essence behind all kinds of poses.”

He wrote knowingly of towing barges and building skyscrapers, of wiring explosives to cars and how many incisions were needed to embalm a body. His books detailed his fascination with guns, comparing Belgian FN-FAL’s to AK-47s, or discussing how to convert an AR-15 Colt into an M-16. His good guys often walked the edge between ambivalence and temptation; and his bad guys were not without ambition: some wanted to con millions from their employers; others wanted to rob a bank in every state of the union except Alaska.

A prolific writer who wrote in long hand and never used a computer, Leonard’s novels have been translated into sixteen languages including Czech, Greek, and Hebrew. All of his work is still in print, and more than 30 of his stories have been made into movies for either television or features.

A former heavy drinker and a member of A.A., it was his personal battle with alcohol which led to the disintegration of his first marriage after 27 years. In 1977 he took his last drink and married for the second time to Joan Shepherd in 1979. When she died of lung cancer in 1992, Leonard, acknowledging that he “needed to be married,” found the woman who would become his third wife in his backyard. She was Christine Kent, who was in charge of the gardening crew that took care of his flower beds. He was taken by her knowledge of movies and books and eight months after his second wife’s passing they were married.

Leonard brought Christine to my house in June 1995 when I invited them to join an “O.J.” dinner my wife and I planned. This was during the O.J. Simpson trial and my wife was pretty into it.  She’s a woman who doesn’t normally watch much television, but this trial altered her routine and I’d often find her sitting in front of the TV talking back to the lawyers or witnesses.  We’d see Lawrence Schiller and Dominick Dunne at the trial—Schiller wrote Simpson’s I Want To Tell You book and would later write his own best-selling book about the trial; Dunne covered it for Vanity Fair—and since I knew both of them, I suggested we invite them for dinner, include Elmore Leonard since he made his living writing about bad guys, and see what we might learn of what was going on behind-the-scenes. When all three accepted I mentioned it to Diane Keaton when we spoke and she invited herself. “I want to hear what they have to say,” she said.

The dinner was entertaining and enlightening. Both Schiller and Dunne were 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.

“Early on I got a good idea of what I could do and what I couldn’t. 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 felt he had to lose himself in the story and not think of what he was doing as writing. “I don’t want the reader to be aware of me as the writer,” he said.

“If I sell 150,000 hardcover and a million-one in paperback, that’s about it,” he told us. “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 happiest 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.”

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