Elmore Leonard: The Dickens of Detroit

Elmore Leonard, writer of Get Shorty, has long been Hollywood's favourite author. Sholto Byrnes meets the implausibly modest doyen of American crime fiction
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On a tidy, leather-bound desk in the drawing-room of a gracious suburban house in Bloomville Village, Michigan, stands a neat pile of yellow lined paper. Having reached the 300-page mark, one of the world's great crime writers has to decide "who shoots whom" in the closing chapters of his next novel.

On a tidy, leather-bound desk in the drawing-room of a gracious suburban house in Bloomville Village, Michigan, stands a neat pile of yellow lined paper. Having reached the 300-page mark, one of the world's great crime writers has to decide "who shoots whom" in the closing chapters of his next novel.

Elmore Leonard, once called "the Dickens of Detroit", is a man who has been writing stylish pulp fiction since before Quentin Tarantino was even born, let alone had the idea to make a film of that title. "Who shoots whom" is a pretty crucial point in his stories, peopled as they are by sleazeball hustlers, halfwitted hitmen, lowlifes out to make a buck any-old-how, cops ground down by the daily grime, and most of them familiar with, if not always packing, a Beretta or a Glock.

Yet, after 39 novels, many of which have been turned into movies, including Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Jackie Brown (the last directed by Tarantino, whose association with the writer began as a teenager, when he stole one of Leonard's novels from a bookshop), he still claims not to know what's going to happen when he puts pen to paper. "It's much more fun not to know," he says. "And then to make things up on the spot. I haven't outlined in 30 years or more. When you're plotting, you don't know who the people are, you don't know if they're going to be quirky or odd. So you just have to wait and see how they come out. And get them to talk, that's the main thing."

Fortunately, when I meet Leonard he has decided who's going to shoot whom. So, in his immaculate home, among the antique Chinese tables and framed pictures, the quiet whirr of a mower tending to the lawn of one his neighbours ("All bank managers and executives," says the taxi driver) drifting over the blue of his swimming-pool, Elmore Leonard tells me a tale that belongs not in pristine, polite Bloomville Village, but in the cheap world of the Thirties gangster. This is how The Hot Kid is going to end.

"The two are sitting at a table with the woman they're holding, and here's 'the Blackbird', who is a professional killer from Canada, and this guy called Richie Nicks. He's a bigmouth who wants to rob a bank in every state except Alaska, and he's done about nine." Why not Alaska, I ask. "Well, it's just too cold, heh heh. He probably doesn't know why it's a state. They're talking about a guy they've read about who weighs 1,100lb and has to go to the bathroom in the tub and things like that. And Richie Nicks is driving them nuts, the way he's talking, and he's chewing bubble gum, and he blows a big bubble, and the Blackbird takes out his automatic and he shoots him right through the bubble."

At times like this, Leonard talks just as he writes. Everyday details are raised from banality by their very realistic placing in extraordinary situations. His gunmen don't spend their whole time relishing the crimes they are about to commit, like egomaniac Bond villains. They discuss news stories, types of clothes and cars, hairstyles, and food (the last a trick that Tarantino famously borrowed for the discussion about burgers in Pulp Fiction). Sentences are generally short and snappy, and if they're not, they pile up in the haphazard way that they do in normal speech, not in a grandiose maze of sub-clauses. To the initiate, Leonard's decidedly unliterary style can take some getting used to. But, as he says: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. If proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can't allow what we learnt in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative."

It's that intravenous directness that has gained Leonard a cult following, and led Martin Amis to describe this lean, drily spoken 79-year-old as "a literary genius". (The admiration is not entirely two-way. Although Leonard respects the younger author, he confesses that he has only been able to finish one of Amis's novels. "Well, they are wordy," he explains.)

Born in 1925, Leonard's early years were spent in Dallas, Oklahoma City and Memphis, before his family moved to Detroit when he was nine. The "desperadoes" of the time, Bonnie and Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd, captured his imagination. "There were more bank robbers than doctors in Oklahoma," he says, "and some of them, like Pretty Boy Floyd, were folk heroes because they were said to have given away a lot of money."

After reading English at university and war service in the Navy, he became a copywriter for Chevrolet's advertising department. He found the job unfulfilling ("I couldn't wait to get out," he recalls), and rose at 5am to write fiction, based at that time on Westerns rather than crime. Married in 1949 to his first wife, Beverly, with whom he had five children, Leonard began to sell stories to magazines at two cents a word, and gave up the day job as soon as he could.

Hollywood was swift to pick up on his spare, dialogue-driven work, with 3:10 to Yuma appearing in 1957, and The Tall T, starring Randolph Scott, in the same year. Sixteen others were to follow. By the 1960s, however, he reckoned that the market for Westerns had dried up. "I got into crime because I knew it could sell. And that's my purpose, to write as well as I can and to sell and make money."

Leonard is given to making remarks like this, downplaying his achievements as a writer and tapping into the image of the pulp author typing away to earn the dollars for his next pack of smokes. "I'm never sure of what my theme is," he says at one point. "I have to wait for Scott Frank, the screenwriter who's done two of mine, to read the book. Then he reads it again, and then he tells me what the theme is. And I say, 'Oh yuh?'. Heh heh heh. I'm just telling the story."

When I ask him at what age he had pitched his first children's book, A Coyote's in the House, which has just been published, he replies: "I thought children of 12, or even 10, because I probably write at a 5th- or 6th-grade level anyway, in my use of words." This sounds like implausible modesty, but then he continues: "Hemingway wrote on a 6th-grade level. He was my main influence in the Forties and Fifties, because he made it look easy. But then you try to copy him, and you find you can get the sound, but you can't get into that spare style. That takes some doing." *

* Even if he is coy about it, there is, of course, great skill to writing as Leonard does. And he works by strict rules, which can be found on his website: "Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle" (the last a term for extraneous descriptive passages coined by Steinbeck). Rule 3 reads: "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue". "You don't laugh a line of dialogue," he explains, "you say it." And Rule 4: "Never use an adverb to modify the verb 'said'..." "For me it weakens it, it distracts the reader. It makes you work harder to use just 'said'." Rule 5: "Keep your exclamation marks under control." "You're allowed two or three," concedes Leonard.

"I'll tell you where I got the 'he says' from: Bill Heinz wrote The Professional in 1956 or 57, and he was reviewed in Time magazine and really dumped on. I bought the book and read it, and I thought it was terrific. The simplicity of the Hemingway-type style - he really pulled it off. And I wrote to him, the first and only writer that I don't know that I've written to, to tell him how much I liked the book."

Leonard hands me his copy of The Professional, which I open out of politeness. I see an exclamation mark. When I turn the page, I see another. Heinz doesn't keep to his rule on the exclamation mark, I say. "Oh, that's a shame." But Leonard isn't bothered. He tells me another story. "I remember one time I was at a party in LA and I met George Axelrod, who had written the screenplay for The Manchurian Candidate, and I said, 'I just finished a book and I didn't use any exclamation marks'. And he said, 'You're allowed one'."

Leonard always strives for invisibility as an author, which is why he warns against "hooptedoodle" ("You get so tired of people showing off," he says, "they come to a part of the book where they can describe something and they'll spend all day describing the waves coming in"); although he advises that those with a facility for imagery and who like the sound of their own voice need not seek this invisibility. So, does he not like the sound of his own voice? "If I were to write from my point of view, I think it would be mediocre at best." That's a very humble statement. "I write what I can write."

Writing what he can write has brought Leonard this large house, the simple pleasures of which he increasingly prefers. He smokes, doesn't drink (he gave up 27 years ago), and stays at home with his third wife, Christine, whom he met in 1993 after the death of his second wife. Most of the on-location research for his books is done by a younger man, Greg Sutter, whose photograph Leonard points out to me in a small study crammed with first editions of his books, awards from crime-fiction associations, and stacks of the magazines that he started off contributing to.

"Around three years ago, Greg lost about 70lb," Leonard tells me, beginning a story of no obvious relevance. "He met a girl at a computer store, and she began flirting with him and asking him a lot of questions. And, ah, he found out after a while she didn't know as much as he did, but they were having fun, throwing back and forth, and then went outside, and had a soda, and went over to her car, which was like, a 75 Mercedes, and he gave her a little peck to say goodbye - he'd got her phone number - and she grabs him and gives him a big kiss on the mouth.

"So then I call Michael, my agent, to get the names of some restaurants, because Greg always picks dumb places, cheap places. Then, a couple of days later, I said to Greg, 'So, did you go out to dinner?', and he says, 'No, we didn't make it'. He went to pick her up and that was it. And they've been together for about two years."

He recounts this rather personal tale of Greg's just as though he were a character in one of his books, with all the detail included: they don't have a drink, they have a soda; she doesn't just have a car, it's a 75 Mercedes; he has lost about 70lb. Greg has been established as a minor character in the Elmore Leonard story.

Leonard's writing has also involved him in a curious relationship with film - semi-symbiotic, because his stories are so in demand for script treatments, and semi-parasitical, because he thinks that most of the treatments that have reached the big screen are no good. He regards the 1969 version of The Big Bounce, starring Ryan O'Neal, as "the second worst movie ever made". The more recent version, with Owen Wilson and Morgan Freeman, receives an even harsher verdict. Of the 1969 version, he says: "There must be a movie that's worse than this one, but I don't know what it is. Well, now I know! It's the remake. Heh heh heh."

I ask if this irritates him. "Well, there's a certain look to movies that I don't imagine when I'm picturing my stories. I'm more apt to think of them in black and white and with actors, not movie stars. But people want movie stars, and the studio has to make money. So there you are."

The most successful version of one of Leonard's books was Get Shorty in 1995, with John Travolta, Danny DeVito and Gene Hackman. At the premiere, the then head of MGM studios, Frank Mancuso Jr, asked Leonard if he could write a sequel. The result, Be Cool, has finished filming and is expected to be released early next year. Travolta's renaissance as a leading man, however, slowed the project down. "It was three years after we sent him the manuscript, and he still hadn't read it. That was about seven or eight movies ago, because he's made a lot and they're never any good."

Did he see Battlefield Earth, Travolta's film of the L Ron Hubbard book? "Oh, god, that was awful." We return to his conversation with Travolta. "So I said, 'Have you read it?', and he said, 'No, I just bought a 707'. So we have to talk about his 707 instead of the story."

In the two films, Travolta plays Chili Palmer, a loan-collector who gets mixed up in a world of low-budget horror films, drug deals and bad debts. Leonard met the real-life Chili Palmer, who used to be in the Mafia, through an old college friend who was a private investigator in Florida. The pair travelled to Puerto Rico together to research Leonard's novel Cuba Libre. When he uses the names of actual people, does he ask their permission? "No, I just use them." What if they object? "Well, I've been sued twice. Chili Palmer sued me, of all people." Wasn't he happy with his character? "He was, he was very happy. But he's very ill, he needs the money. Four times I've given him $10,000, but he wants more."

Leonard's on safer ground when he mentions actors who are favourites of his. In Maximum Bob, two characters remark of another: "Doesn't he look like Harry Dean Stanton?" Leonard admits that he was trying to get Stanton cast if the novel was made into a film. And in A Coyote's in the House, he actually includes Stanton in the story. "He's the least likely looking actor," says Leonard, "but he never misses his line. I see him in all my books, he's so natural." You're drawn to him on screen, I say, because he's almost an absence. He agrees. And for Elmore Leonard, the "invisible" author whose characters live through him and are set free by him, I can see that there would be no greater compliment.

"I don't judge in my books," he says. "I don't have to have the antagonist get shot or the protagonist win. It's just how it comes out. I'm just telling a story."