Elmore Leonard Is the Man
Let’s just say this: Elmore Leonard, now going on 84 years old, is still cranking out perfectly detailed, thrilling, and hilarious stories of criminals at a pace that’s hard to believe.
Jun 2 2009, 12:00am
Photos by Richard Kern We won’t waste much time on an intro here because you should already know who this guy is. Let’s just say this: Elmore Leonard, now going on 84 years old, is still cranking out perfectly detailed, thrilling, and hilarious stories of criminals at a pace that’s hard to believe. He writes dialogue so well you’d think it’s transcribed from real conversations, and he knows more about how to craft a living, breathing character out of thin air than God (or any other higher power—more on that later).
We recently sat with him in his hotel room in midtown New York City, where he was taking a short break from the tour to promote Road Dogs, his new novel. It brings together three previously existing Leonard characters—Jack Foley, Cundo Rey, and Dawn Navarro—in typically powder-keg fashion in Venice Beach, California. As with everything he’s done, it’s compulsively readable and 100 percent entertaining.
Vice: I just finished Road Dogs last night. I read it straight through. It took about ten hours.
Elmore Leonard: That’s the way to do it, so that you can remember what’s going on in it.
I really like the way you set up these situations that seem like they’re going to be traditional thriller devices, but then you explode them almost immediately. Like when Jack Foley first arrives in California and meets Dawn Navarro, there’s already been this tension set up of whether they’ll have sex or not.
And in someone else’s book, that would be stretched out for a long time. But you cut right to the chase and have them in bed together at their first meeting.
I remember my editor, while I was writing the book, said, “I don’t think they should get that serious about each other within a couple of hours.” I told him, “Don’t worry, it will work OK.”
It seemed very real the way you wrote it.
It works in this book because he’s not going to wait until the third date or something to kiss her. He’s just out of prison.
Yeah, he’s not about to wait. And then there’s the character of Danialle, when Jack and Dawn are supposed to be running this con on her. I expected that to be a long, suspenseful thread through the entire book but, bang, a few pages later you have her saying that she knew it was all a hoax and that she didn’t mind.
That character is named Danialle Karmanos because her husband paid $40,000 in an auction for me to use his wife’s name. I’ve been doing that for I don’t know how many books—fund-raising events where they’ll have an auction at different schools: “Do you want to be in my next book?”
Oh, so Danialle Karmanos is named after a real person? That’s funny.
Yeah! Karmanos is a cancer center, a big, big cancer-research and treatment center in Detroit. Her husband wanted to be in the book too, so he got into another auction and only had to pay $5,000 to win. But I gave him a lesser part.
Yeah, that character is a corpse!
He’s dead. [laughs]
Do you let them know what their role in the book is going to be, or do they just find out when it’s released?
I don’t tell anybody anything.
I’ve heard about how you start with characters rather than with plot.
Yeah, well, characters in a situation. Like, Foley is going to get out of prison and so is Cundo Rey, who I used in my book La Brava in the early 80s. I liked Cundo Rey. He was in that older book, but it wasn’t a real starring role. So I wanted to bring him back. I thought I could do a lot with him.
I figured he was dead at the end of La Brava.
I was afraid he was too. I remember looking it up in the book like, “God, I hope he’s alive.” He was shot in the chest three times. But he made it!
I guess so. Do you do character sketches or do you just drop them straight into situations?
Well, these three—Foley, Cundo, and Dawn—I knew. Clooney played Foley in Out of Sight and I was hoping that he would want to do it again, but he hasn’t read it yet.
It seems to me like it’s begging to be a movie.
It is. And so the three characters, I knew them. I didn’t have to worry about dreaming up anything for them outside of just plot. And I don’t put a lot of time in on my plots. I like to make it up as I go along. No outline at all. You’ll meet practically everybody who is going to be in the book in the first 100 pages. And then, for the second act, I have to do a little figuring about fitting in a subplot and what’s going to happen next. In the third act, which I usually get to in my manuscript around page 300—my books are mostly 350 pages or so—I think of the ending.
Literally making it up as you go along. Is that a process you developed over the course of your career, or has it always been that way for you?
I’ve been doing it like that for 30 years.
Does it ever feel like a high-wire act, not knowing where you’re going to go?
No. I don’t worry about it. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But if I like the characters, I know it’s going to be fine. I’ll know that I’m going to have fun with them, and that’s the main thing. The writing has to be fun or else forget it.
It must be fun for you, since you’re always writing.
I’m writing a book right now. It’s called Djibouti. It has to do with the Somalian pirates.
A documentary filmmaker, a woman, 35, starts reading about them in the paper and decides she wants to do a film on them. She has made three films so far that have won awards. Katrina—she lives in New Orleans so she walked out the door and shot Katrina—and she did one on white supremacists called… I forgot what it was called.
So this character in your new book is based on this documentary filmmaker?
No, this is all my character.
She’s a totally fictitious character? The way you’re referring to her, I would have thought she was a real person.
I know. That’s because they become real to me. By the end of the book, I wonder, “What are they doing now?”
So she brings her assistant, who is a 72-year-old six-foot-six black guy who was a seafarer. He’s been around the world 50 times. He’s been through these waters, down through the Red Sea into the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, around the Horn of Africa—East Africa. That’s where all the pirates are operating. In the book I even have the latest important move that they made on the American ship where they had the captain in that enclosed lifeboat and then the three snipers shot the three pirates—one shot each.
Yeah, that was incredible shooting.
They weren’t that far away. The life raft was on a line to this destroyer. The snipers were in the back of the destroyer and I think they had their rifles somehow in a gyroscope so that they would stay level.
But three head shots from a huge boat bobbing in the sea to a small life raft in the dark… it’s pretty impressive, gyroscope or not.
Three shots and that was it.
I kind of love those pirates.
Well, that’s what she thinks too. She loves them. She has complete sympathy for them because their fishing grounds are being messed up with toxic waste. They also were getting a lot of competition from big companies from China and Japan that were sending fishermen there. So they turned to hijacking ships and asking for a lot of money. Ransom.
And your main character feels for them.
In the very first chapter, she lands in Djibouti. Her assistant is there. He’s already leased a boat for them—a 30-foot trawler. That night, he’s showing her around Djibouti, which is a real mess. They run into a pirate, who is in town to have some fun. He’s got a Mercedes and he takes it for a ride. He’s not just your everyday pirate. He’s got some background and a lot of money. Homes around Somalia. She’s also met another guy on the plane from Paris. He goes around talking to pirates, trying to convince them that this won’t end well.
Trying to talk them out of the path they’ve chosen.
Right. And he’s Saudi… I think he’s Saudi. He went to Oxford and he affects more of a British way. He’s a cool guy. His name is Ari but everyone at school called him Harry. Idris is the name of the pirate leader. And then there are other people involved. There’s a guy called Billy Wynn who’s on a $2 million yacht with a girl that he likes a lot, but he’s giving her a test. They go around the world and if she doesn’t complain or get sick, he might marry her. He’s fun. He’s a little strange.
It’s really interesting how you’re talking about the book that you’re writing now, but it sounds like you’re just telling me about real people that you know. You’re like, “I think he’s a Saudi.”
I’ve been into this book now all this year. Road Dogs I wrote at least a year ago.
Your pace is incredible.
I like to write books, so…
It’s just what you do.
That’s what I do. I don’t take time off in between for any particular reason. I mean, if I do then maybe I’m just thinking of the next one.
A lot of writers will do something like three books in ten years—or even less.
Well, they go out to lunch and all that. They talk about it with their friends.
Instead of working. So one of my favorite scenes in Road Dogs is when Little Jimmy goes to confession. It’s hilarious, with great comedic timing. And then at the end he says, “Anything I did to get God pissed off at me is forgiven,” because he said ten Hail Marys and ten Our Fathers. You were raised Catholic. Does that reflect the way that you feel about it too?
Ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys was just—that was just rote. That’s what you usually got! I mean, what could you do that would require a Rosary or something?
Sometimes you kind of want to go in there and see if you can get 20 or something.
[laughs] I don’t know what it would take. I haven’t been to confession in, God, how long… I haven’t been to mass in probably 20 years. But I was in AA, you see. I’m still part of that because it worked. I haven’t had a drink since ’77.
And AA is quasi-religious.
Higher power. That’s what keeps you straight. The higher power isn’t defined necessarily as God, but because I was brought up Catholic, it’s easy for me to do it that way.
And you go right directly to God in AA. You don’t fool around with the saints.
Do you still attend meetings?
No, I haven’t gone to a meeting in quite a while. The last time I went, the same guys were there and they were all telling the same stories. In my new book, a person who is in AA asks Dara—that’s the documentary filmmaker—if she wants to do a documentary on AA. He tells her that there are these drunkologues where they stand up and tell these harrowing stories. Like the one where the guy all of a sudden realized he was going the wrong way on a turnpike—
I’ve heard that very story more than a couple of times in AA meetings.
[laughs] Sure, I’ll bet you that every group has heard that one. But Dara says, “I don’t think I’m good enough to just have someone telling a story rather than showing it.” She can’t show it. How are you going to shoot the guy going the wrong way?
Dramatic re-creation? Just kidding.
Yeah. Then it’s not a documentary.
How do you feel about the cliché of all writers being drunks?
In the meetings that I’ve gone to, I’ve never met another writer. But that doesn’t mean anything because in my area there are only one or two others that you’ve ever heard of. Maybe it’s because you’re alone, because you’re by yourself writing and you need… I don’t know what you need.
The solitude seems to get to some people.
It’s like, I gave up smoking once for 30 days and I wrote 30 pages. And then I started smoking again, and in the next 30 days I wrote 100.
I don’t meet many people your age who still smoke.
What have I got to lose? [laughs] And I know people who quit smoking and then their lives went to hell. They got sick and, you know…
Everybody has to have something. If it’s going to be cigarettes, so be it. Are there any of your characters who you personally identify with more than others?
I usually identify with the main character. The way his mind works is the way mine does, and what’s important and what isn’t important to him is the same for me. But I like all my characters. I spend time with them and I get to know enough about them so that I don’t have to describe them psychically in any detail unless there’s something, a little something, that catches your eye.
That’s one of your 10 Rules of Writing, correct? Don’t overdescribe characters.
Yeah, right. Which I got from Steinbeck.
Right. I like your first rule: Never open with a description of the weather.
And leave out the parts that people tend to skip.
And if it sounds like writing—
Rewrite it. You know them.
I do. Can you tell me what’s so interesting to you about criminals?
There are all kinds of stories I can tell about a criminal. Has he done time and now he’s out and he seems like a good guy? And there’s that opportunity for him to go back into crime at any time. That’s always up in the air. I like that. But really, I write crime because it’s popular.
And you wrote Westerns when they were popular.
Very popular. There were probably 15 magazines you could sell to anytime you wanted. Pulp magazines paying two cents a word. Like 3:10 to Yuma. Twice it’s been a movie and I got $90 for the story—4,500 words.
Do you get anything from the movies?
First time I got $4,000. Second time I didn’t get anything.
The ending of the remake was pretty different from your story. Does that make you unhappy?
Well, it’s just dumb. In the new one, he shoots his own guys—
That was insane.
And then he gets on the train and whistles for his horse! I don’t know what that means. I have no idea. Is the horse going to follow him all the way across Arizona?
Running alongside the train. Are there any new upcoming adaptations of your work?
My character Rayland Givens and his stories are being made into a pilot by Sony for the FX network.
That character wears a very particular kind of gentleman’s Stetson hat. It’s very small, and it’s well worn. Now, he has been done once before. It was a movie for TV. And they got the wrong hat. I don’t know why they got the wrong hat.
How hard can it be? Who is playing Givens this time around?
A guy named Olyphant. You know him?
Timothy Olyphant. He was on the HBO series Deadwood. He’s really good. I hope they get the hat right this time.
I don’t know why they can’t just find an old hat.
You’re probably tired of hearing about how great your dialogue is, but I’m just going to say it here once more because it really is the best.
I write dialogue because I don’t want to have to describe things myself. I like point of view, and the points of view change. It’s always how a character sees whatever is going on. The weather, even. In one of my books, a guy is having trouble and he walks out on the beach and he looks up at the sky and it’s raining and he just yells out, “Fuck!” And that’s my weather description, see?
It’s perfect. “Fuck.” Do you speak your dialogue out loud while you’re writing it?
No. Nor do I laugh until years later, when I’m warming up by reading my old books. Before I start to write I’ll open one of the books and just start reading so that I get into the rhythm of it again. I’m sitting there cold in front of my desk, and I’ll read something and I’ll laugh because I’m surprised by it. When I was working on a line, it was just a process of work. It wasn’t something that just came out.
Do you have a particular place where you like to write?
I write in the living room.
Longhand at first. All the creating is longhand and then I type during the day as I go along. But I get to my desk later now than I used to. I get there at 10:30 or 11 o’clock and I used to always be there by 9. And before, when I was still working at an ad agency, I’d get up at 5.
That takes some serious dedication.
I had to start writing before I could put the water on for coffee.
Oh my God.
It took about three months to start getting up at 5 when the alarm went off.
For the first three months you’d just smack the snooze button.
Yeah, and roll over. But finally I started to get up. During the 50s, I wrote five books and 30 short stories in the dawn.
You’ve employed a researcher for a while now.
Greg Sutter. He’s been working for me since at least ’83.
Is Greg working on the Somalian-pirate book now?
Yes. We’ve got so much stuff. I’ve got stacks and stacks on my desk and on the floor. When we started in November there wasn’t that much to really look for.
And it’s become a huge story since then.
Huge! Now everybody wants to make a movie about it and there are a bunch of TV movies—my agent in Hollywood says—that they want to get into.
Is Greg also the person who’s responsible for helping you to keep up with gang and criminal lingo?
Do you stay in contact with any of the criminals who figure into your research?
I hear from them. They write to me and want to know if I’ve done time. I met a guy at Telluride who had done a few years in Colorado for selling marijuana. He said, “God, you’ve got it right down, the way these inmates talk.” But where I usually get it from is an article where somebody will say a specific line.
And that line leads to something.
Right. But yeah, this guy in Colorado, he said, “In my trial, I maintained that the marijuana was for my own use.” And I said, “Well, how much did you have?” and he said, “400 pounds.”
Sure, personal use. Are you friends with any ex-cons?
No. Well, there is one guy. I’m not sure what he’s in for, but he’s done over 20 years and he’s getting out soon. It was a federal offense. He’s from Detroit. He had a plan once. Down by the naval armory on the Detroit River there was a submarine anchored forever. His idea was to steal it. But where are you going to go with a submarine, you know? [laughs]
That’s a lot of scrap metal.
And then they moved the submarine. He thinks they found out about his plot.
You guys are pen pals?
He writes to me and sometimes I’ll answer his letters. He’s just kind of subversive.
Yeah. He’s a socialist.
So stealing the submarine would have been a statement of some sort.
What do you think of the distinction in the publishing industry between genre writing and so-called literature?
I think most serious writing is boring. But one time I was on Charlie Rose with Martin Amis—
Amis has been a big champion of your work.
Yeah. And Amis was waiting. I was on first. Charlie said, “What are you doing here with Martin Amis?” I said, “Well, we’re friends and he’s interviewed me in front of 1,000 people. I should have been interviewing him, but I wouldn’t know what to ask him.” As a literary writer, he’s using his voice all the way through because he has all the words and he knows how to put them together. But that doesn’t appeal to me. I like the characters. I’m in the characters’ heads all the time.
I agree with you that serious writing can be boring.
I guess that’s kind of a dumb statement—
But I don’t take it at face value. I know what you mean.
There’s not much that I can read in my genre either. They’re all the same. They have a favorite character, a lead character, who runs through all the books. I couldn’t do that. I started to do it at one time. I was going to do a series based in Detroit Homicide. My publisher liked the idea. And so, in City Primeval, Lieutenant Raymond Cruz is in Squad 7. Then, in the next book, I do Raymond Cruz again. My agent said, “You’ve got to change this guy’s name, because they bought one—but what if they don’t like this one? Then we can’t sell it to anybody else because they own Raymond Cruz.” So I changed his name to Brian Heard in the second one. And that was it for the homicide cops.
It’s such a commitment for a writer to do a series like that, like the Bourne books or all the Pelecanos books with recurring characters. It’s like a relationship.
I was corresponding with John D. MacDonald and he was on his 28th Travis McGee book. He said, “I don’t think I can do another one.”
“I’m starting to hate this fucking guy.”
As it turned out, he didn’t have to. He went to one of the big hospitals in the north to have a bypass and he didn’t come out.
He had a cosmic reprieve from Travis McGee. There’s a funny part in Road Dogs where Lou tells Jack Foley, “The publishing business isn’t about writing. It’s about selling books.”
Well… [laughs] it is. It took me nearly 30 years to get on the Times list. I was getting good reviews but then—which book was it—maybe Unknown Man #89 was reviewed in the Sunday Times book-review section and it was like the guy had just discovered me. But I’d been writing for 30 years.
I have a lot of fans, there’s no question about that, but I don’t have a million fans, like James Patterson.
Who doesn’t even write his own books…
He always has that help. He probably thinks up part of the plot, and yet his name is on there, and he gets all the credit and he gets all the money. If his first printing is a million, then he gets, what? Five million dollars? Something like that.
Let’s be realistic, though. You have a lot of very dedicated fans. If it’s the kind of writing that’s meant for a certain reader, they can’t just read one Elmore Leonard book and then stop.
You’ve said a lot of times that your first big inspiration was Hemingway.
For Whom the Bell Tolls. I used to open up that one up anywhere before I started to write. I looked at it as a Western in Spain in the mountains with horses and guns. But he did lack a sense of humor.
It’s true. Hemingway is not known for his laughs.
And I was dying to say dry things. Then I found Richard Bissell—
The Pajama Game, right?
Exactly. 7 1/2 Cents was his book that became Pajama Game. But the ones that he set on the Mississippi River, where he was a pilot, those are what taught me a lot. They weren’t trying to be funny, but they were. They were about uneducated people on a towboat, and they just said funny things. Got into discussions about things that were ridiculous, almost. There’s a line, might be in the opening of one of his books. It’s in a hotel room early in the morning and the guy’s looking out the window and the girl on the bed rolls over and looks at him and she says, “What in the world are you looking at?” And he says, “St. Louis, Missouri.” I thought that was a great line!
I don’t know why.
It’s really good.
It’s the “Missouri,” I think, maybe, that makes it.
It’s similar to the line that comes up a couple of times in Out of Sight from Three Days of the Condor—that kind of pithy bedroom talk.
Oh yeah. Uh-huh.
Detroit has been a big part of your life. You’ve lived there since you were young and you’ve set many of your books there. What is it like for you to witness its decline? There’s so much unemployment there, and the car industry is dying.
When I was doing car ads, I was reading car magazines. It wasn’t what I was interested in, but I read them because of my job. There were always complaints in these magazines that Detroit wasn’t keeping up. They were still making these big boats, you know? And finally it caught up with them. I was writing Chevrolet ads, but I was driving a Fiat.
When was this?
In the 50s. It was 1961 when I left the agency. But then we bought a house and my profit sharing, which was like $11,500, was enough, I felt, to live on for at least six months and write a book—
But then you bought a house and there goes that.
Yeah. So I started doing a lot of freelance stuff. I wrote a bunch of history and geography movies for Encyclopædia Britannica.
Like educational films for schools?
I wonder if I saw any of those in elementary school. They were definitely still showing us film strips from the 60s when I was in school in the early 80s. Could you just crank those out?
First I would have to talk to an authority on the subject. That was always fun. I did things like the settlement of the Mississippi Valley, the French and Indian War…
Did any of that stuff ever lead to ideas for stories?
I just want to talk a little bit about other writers. You’re the top of the crime genre. Who do you think is carrying on the tradition for a younger generation?
I like Pelecanos and I like Dennis Lehane. He wrote a blurb for Road Dogs. I was surprised—I didn’t know he was that into it.
How could he not be?
A few years back I was the guest of honor at Bouchercon, which is a big assembly of mystery and crime writers. There were hundreds of writers there, but I only knew two of their names. I don’t write or read mysteries.
Do you pay much attention to your reviews?
I read one recently where the woman who was writing said, “Well, he uses all of these F-words.”
It’s not you, it’s your characters.
I don’t, but they do! She thought that Road Dogs was the same old thing, like she always knew what was going to happen. Well, if she did, she knew more than I did. When I got to the part where [major character name] is shot—everybody is surprised by it…
I didn’t see it coming in quite that way. But wait, do you want me to leave that detail out of the interview? Do you care if big plot points are spoiled for potential readers?
No. I don’t know. It’s more about how I tell it or how I write it. It’s not the fact of it. I don’t know how you might couch it without just saying he’s shot. In the chest.
From a Walther with a silencer across a table at point-blank range?
You got a really good review in the New York Times for this one.
Janet Maslin. That was a beauty. Great review.
You mentioned how Lehane blurbed your new book. That reminded me of how you blurbed some of the books of Charles Willeford, one of the best and most underappreciated crime novelists. Do you have any memories of him?
He died shortly after I met him. In fact, the day I met him, which was down in the Florida Keys at some kind of a meeting, he had a portable dialysis machine, and he’s drinking whiskey and smoking and having a time. But have you read The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George Higgins?
I haven’t. Should I?
I think it’s the best crime book ever written. It takes place in Boston. They’re in and out of Massachusetts prisons. The main character is a guy who sells guns. He always has to come up with fresh guns for these guys who rob banks. And how they rob banks is they take the manager of the bank out of his house early in the morning. They break in and the guy comes down to breakfast and they’re sitting there.
A good plan.
Higgins’s dialogue was great. Very, very good. He wrote three books like that and then he got into monologues. His books would run for pages and pages of someone talking.
What did you think of that?
I didn’t care for it.
Was Higgins an underappreciated writer too, like Willeford?
Yeah. Absolutely. And nowadays I don’t think George Pelecanos has ever been on a list in the Times. I don’t remember seeing him.
I would have thought he would have been by now.
He should be. Cormac McCarthy—of course he’s on the list now—but he wasn’t for a long time.
So do you like his writing?
I do too, but it seems like in a lot of ways he’s the opposite of what you write and talk about liking. His language is usually very dense and artful rather than terse and direct. Like in Blood Meridian, for example.
Blood Meridian is one I still haven’t read and I don’t know why.
You definitely should! I have a question here that I have to ask for my father-in-law. You’re his favorite writer. He calls you “the man.” He was in love with Karen Sisco and wants to know if she’s ever coming back.
I don’t know if she will. She’s mentioned in Road Dogs. I was thinking of bringing her back at one point and I wrote the first chapter of a book where she has left the US Marshals service and was working for her dad, who is a private investigator. She’s in a bar and she’s waiting for her dad to meet her. She’s in South Florida. And she starts talking to a guy and she just has this feeling that this guy is a wanted offender. Just something about him, you know? And she ends up shooting him.
I sent it to my agent in Hollywood, who said, “Yeah it works, it’s fine. But why don’t you think of something else that you haven’t done before, with none of your characters?” So I got into the piracy book.
I bet my father-in-law would like to strangle that agent. I noticed while we’ve been talking that you smoke Virginia Slims. That’s what your character Dawn Navarro smoked too.
Yeah. And that’s what the girl in Mister Paradise smoked. She was smoking Virginia Slims and then I started.
The women in your books are always great. A lot of your dialogue between men and women reminds me of stuff like Tracy and Hepburn.
There’s that part in Road Dogs where Dawn is trying to get Jack to tell her something. She thinks she has him under hypnosis. He goes along with it. Then he turns his head and lets her know he hasn’t been hypnotized and she says, “Well, aren’t you a tricky motherfucker?”