The Dickens of Detroit, Elmore Leonard crafts his characters from shady materials such as self- interest, bad habits and bad luck, writes Mark Mordue
ELMORE Leonard’s voice arrives like curling smoke. It seems to drift down the phone line from Detroit, Michigan, and float around me for quite a while. ‘‘ I was in Australia a few years ago,’’ he says, then his story begins to unwind. Something about a writers festival in Adelaide, landing in New Zealand first, ‘‘ a journey around the coast’’ and what I think may have been confusion as to whether he and his wife were ever in Australia at all.
By the end of it I am wondering if this vague gentleman is the same Leonard whose genrebuckling crime novels paved the way for filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and shows such as The Sopranos .
Leonard doesn’t strike you as a literary superstar. But that’s what he is: the living master of the crime writing genre, as everyone from Tarantino to fellow authors Martin Amis and George Pelecanos have acknowledged.
Apart from their popularity on the lending lists of US prison libraries ( and bestseller lists generally), Leonard’s books were selected for the 2006 Hip- Hop Literacy campaign to encourage reading in high schools and colleges across the US: all of which indicates he’s still pretty switched on to the street on for an old white guy.
I’m expecting him to be hard- boiled. Instead he just rolls along, exhibiting a generous propensity for conversation of almost any kind, although with the distinctly laconic aftertaste of the trademark humour of his writing, which is equal parts underdog and deadpan bullseye.
As well as his screenplays and short stories, Leonard has produced 43 novels in 54 years, rarely letting the quality slip below entertaining. Among them he has turned in at least 10 crime genre classics, notably Swag ( 1976), City Primeval ( 1980), Stick ( 1983) LaBrava ( 1983), Glitz ( 1985), Freaky Deaky ( 1988), Killshot ( 1989), Get Shorty ( 1990), Maximum Bob ( 1991), Pagan Babies ( 2000) and Tishomingo Blues ( 2002). Actually that’s 11, with other books jostling for inclusion. His latest crime novel, Up in Honey’s Room, came out late last year to mixed reviews. Leonard isn’t feeling battered. He’s halfway into writing a new one. Eighty- two years old and still trucking? ‘‘ Listen, I can’t believe it,’’ he drawls. ‘‘ And still I think old people are older than me!’’
Did he get any good books for his last birthday? ‘‘ Nah, I mostly get T- shirts.’’ Besides, Leonard moans, ‘‘ I must get five crime books a week sent to me, people asking me for blurbs.’’ He rarely reads them. He’s too busy writing his own. ‘‘ I don’t know why,’’ he adds mournfully.
The truth is Leonard doesn’t read crime books much. ‘‘ They’re all the same,’’ he says. He’d rather talk T- shirts. ‘‘ I get some good ones from a journalist friend in New York every year for my birthday. Mike Lupica, he’s a [ sports] columnist. He gets me ones with stuff on it like The Dickens of Detroit,’’ Leonard laughs. ‘‘ Which means nothing!’’
The way Leonard says nothing is emphatic, as if any display of ego would be fatal to his literary MO. Last October he released Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing , most of which revolved around the axiom, ‘‘ If it sounds like writing, I cut it out.’’
That’s why he gets uncomfortable when people call him the heir to Raymond Chandler. ‘‘ I was never interested in Raymond Chandler. I like him, but I was never influenced by his writing. I didn’t care for all the similes and metaphors he used that I thought interrupted the story.’’
Along with the sparseness of Ernest Hemingway — ‘‘ all that white space on the page’’ — he cites Richard Bissell as more important. ‘‘ In his books nobody was trying to be funny,’’ Leonard says, ‘‘ but they were all funny because of the way they talked.’’
It’s a distinction that balances Leonard’s work on the line between menace and comedy, something Tarantino took cues from in developing his film dialogue. If Leonard has ever attracted much criticism, it’s for his tendency to put a bunch of interesting people together, see how they talk, and kill anyone who bores him. ‘‘ I’m not known for my plotting,’’ he says, though the gear shifts in a Leonard story accelerate as smoothly as the Chevrolets he once wrote advertising copy about when he was a struggling writer in the 1950s. ‘‘ I was always better at writing about their trucks than their sedans,’’ he responds drolly.
Along with his nickname Dutch, the label the Dickens of Detroit has stuck because of his ability to conjure up so many memorable lowlife characters from that city. He has also written a few books based in Miami and Oklahoma, and in the case of Get Shorty moved the action to Los Angeles with Chili Palmer, the loan shark character that John Travolta made famous.
Leonard has frequently discussed his mystification at the way Hollywood would buy up his books ‘‘ and take everything out of them that was any good’’. Things took a turn for the better with Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty ( 1995), Tarantino’s Jackie Brown ( released in 1997 and based on Rum Punch ) and Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight ( 1998). Get Shorty capitalised on Leonard’s encounters with Hollywood, mixing criminals with filmmakers. It was during the Adelaide trip Leonard tried telling me about that he received a phone call from an unhappy Dustin Hoffman ( with whom Leonard had unsatisfactory dealings). Hoffman had heard he was depicted in Get Shorty and that it was not a favourable caricature. Leonard reputedly shot him down with the riposte, ‘‘ What! You think you’re the only short actor in Hollywood?’’
The author is disdainful of Hollywood’s ‘‘ need to have the star redeem himself’’. Leonard’s characters tend to be made of shadier materials such as self- interest, bad habits and bad luck. ‘‘ I try to make them human,’’ he says. ‘‘ Real, but with something appealing. I like the ones who have been into crime but are now honest, but you don’t know if they might revert. I like homicide cops, too, not that there are that many in my books. I just like their deadpan humour.’’
Lately Leonard’s early career as the pulp author of cowboy tales during the ’ 50s has also been getting a workout with the release of a compendium called The Complete Western Stories (‘‘ thick enough to stop a bullet from a Sharps rifle at 10m,’’ Britain’s The Times Literary Supplement reckoned) and a critically praised film version of his 1953 short story 3.10 to Yuma, which stars Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. ‘‘ It’s a good- looking picture,’’ Leonard says. ‘‘ But of course I did not understand the ( changed) ending.’’
Meanwhile, Killshot , one of Leonard’s best crime books, has been turned into a feature directed by John Madden ( Shakespeare in Love ) and with Tarantino as executive producer. It is due out any day and stars, Leonard says with satisfaction, Mickey Rourke.
Born in 1925, Leonard moved
frequently around the US southwest before his family settled in Detroit when he was 12. He turned to writing cowboy stories because he liked western movies and there was an obvious pulp magazine market. Talking about his career can sometimes veer into a report on what he has been paid per word per story since 1953. Unfortunately, just as Hombre ( 1961) — now regarded as one of the greatest western novels ever written — was coming out, the bottom was falling out of the genre as a glut of television shows flooded the market.
Leonard wouldn’t start on crime until the late ’ 60s. But it’s possible to see his nascent style emerging in the cowboy tales of The Complete Western Stories . His sense of wronged Native Americans and Mexicans also points to a little commented on but strongly anti- racist subtext in all his work. Leonard admits he hadn’t read of any of the stories in the 50 years since he’d written most of them. ‘‘ I went through the galleys ( for The Complete Western Stories ) and I thought, ‘ Jesus, these are not as bad as I thought they would be!’
‘‘ I had studied Hemingway in order to learn how to write,’’ he says. ‘‘ But I had a stiff and righteous sound, I hadn’t loosened up. I still had to develop my own voice. The humour had to get into it.’’
Essentially, that’s the trajectory The Complete Western Stories maps in Leonard’s mastering of character and dialogue, foundations that would set the tonal ground for modern crime writing. For all Leonard’s modesty, his westerns would similarly pave the way for film directors Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah in the ’ 60s, whose wild mix of violence, humour and moral ambiguity was set free by Leonard’s earlier if somewhat more muted vision in print.
Although we’re supposed to be talking about his collection of cowboy stories, it’s a measure of Leonard’s focus on the next thing he is doing that he keeps rhapsodising about his new manuscript ( provisionally titled Road Dogs ) and forgets to promote Up in Honey’s Room at all.
‘‘ I’m bringing back Jack Foley from Out of Sight in the next one,’’ he tells me. ‘‘ George Clooney liked his character in that book and did a good job of playing him in the movie, so I’m hoping he will like him in this one too. I’m also bringing back Dawn Navarro from Riding the Rap , she’s a psychic. And Cundo Rey from LaBrava ! He danced go- go, stole a car, got shot. I had to get it ( LaBrava ) off the shelf to see if he was still alive. He was shot three times in the chest and belly but no one said he was dead so I’ve revived him. They’re all there in the books, hell I might as well use them. And I like them.’’
Whenever writing is the focus of our conversation something in Leonard’s voice accelerates and becomes boyish. In his more generally bemused and understated manner, meanwhile, you sense the survivor. Leonard’s first marriage ended in the mid-’ 70s, about the time he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and started hitting his stride as a great writer. His second wife, Joan Shepard, was a big influence on this renaissance, suggesting book titles, encouraging him to strengthen female characters and making editing suggestions. Her death from cancer in 1993 must have been a blow but Leonard happily remarried within a year to Christine Kent, a master gardener and French teacher 23 years his junior.
He still writes his stories longhand, but will use a typewriter to see how they look before someone ( often one of his daughters) gets them on to a computer. He worries nonetheless that he is slowing down. When he was trying to support a family of five children in the ’ 50s, Leonard would be up at 5am to work on his western stories before heading to the advertising agency. Later, as a full- time writer he developed a 10am to 6pm habit, Monday to Saturday.
‘‘ I can’t stick to that any more,’’ he says. ‘‘ Sometimes I don’t sit down until noon. It gets harder, too, to please myself and keep rewriting. Sometimes I get a bit stiff. It’s important to keep the veins of humour flowing . . . I don’t want to repeat myself. But I do want to maintain a sound in my voice.’’ The Complete Western Stories by Elmore Leonard ( Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $ 32.95).