Elmore Leonard’s Rogues’ Gallery
Posted: 30 June 2007 07:14 PM   [ Ignore ]
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ELMORE LEONARD’S ROGUES’ GALLERY

New York Times

Date: December 30, 1984, Sunday, Late City Final Edition Section 6; Page 20, Column 3; Magazine Desk
Byline: By Ben Yagoda
Lead:
Ben Yagoda is articles editor of Philadelphia Magazine.

SOMETHING ODD HAS HAPPENED TO BIRmingham, Mich. Once an unprepossessing satellite 15 miles north of Detroit, Birmingham has become an upscale suburban nexus - its broad main street a collection of trendy boutiques and gourmet takeout places that would be out of place in Detroit, its outlying highways a repository for ad agencies and financial service firms. All of a sudden, it is chic.

‘‘But,’’ says Elmore Leonard as he gets out of his Saab turbo after finally finding a parking space on Woodward Avenue, ‘‘there’s not one drugstore downtown anymore.’’
Text:

Lesson: No success story is pure success.

It’s a lesson the 59-year-old Leonard knows. After 30 years of hard labor on the edges of literary and cinematic respectability, Leonard (who has lived in the Birmingham area all the while) has become a phenomenon. Since the publication of ‘‘Stick’’ in 1983, his crime novels - grippingly true-to-life tales of double- cross and redemption, with a murky morality that seems to suit the times - have won him a growing cadre of fans, a sheaf of effusive raves and more movie assignments than he has time to complete. Yet Leonard thinks it would be nice if more people didn’t misunderstand what he was doing. For example, although his most recent book, ‘‘LaBrava,’’ won an Edgar Award as the best mystery novel for 1983, Leonard says that he doesn’t write mysteries. Nor does he have any desire to.

‘‘All these people looking for a puzzle,’’ he says. ‘‘God.’‘

He doesn’t write Raymond Chandler-style detective stories, either. He hasn’t read Chandler or Dashiell Hammett in 40 years, and he doesn’t think he’s ever read a Ross Macdonald mystery. Not long ago, a magazine sent a photographer to Birmingham to take his picture. ‘‘He wanted to use a smoke machine,’’ Leonard says. ‘‘I talked him out of that, but he still brought a trench coat for me to wear. Luckily, it didn’t have epaulets or a belt.’’ Even Burt Reynolds misunderstands him. Reynolds has directed and starred in the movie version of ‘‘Stick,’’ from Leonard’s screenplay, and the author is not pleased with the result; the film, after several delays, is now scheduled to be released in the spring. ‘‘It’s very, very theatrical,’’ Leonard says. ‘‘I do everything in my power to make my writing not look like writing, and when it appears on the screen you see all these actors acting all over the place.’‘

The movie’s advertising slogan is: ‘‘The only thing he couldn’t do was stick to the rules.’’ In the poster for the movie hanging in Leonard’s den, the word ‘‘rules’’ is covered by a piece of paper on which is written the word ‘‘script.’‘

This resistance to easy categorization is a problem. ‘‘Somebody’s got to find a way to describe the experience of reading a Dutch Leonard novel,’’ says Irwyn Applebaum. As associate publisher of Bantam Books, which by the end of 1985 will have rereleased seven of Leonard’s early western novels and two of his later crime novels, Applebaum has given the matter some thought. ‘’ ‘Glitz’ is a completely unpackageable book,’’ he says of Leonard’s newest, due out in March. ‘‘There’s nothing there to hang your hat on.’’ Fortunately (or unfortunately), ‘‘Glitz,’’ to be published in hardcover by Arbor House, will not be Bantam’s problem. In November, Warner Books bought the paperback rights for $450,000 plus bonuses.

One can appreciate the plight of Leonard’s publishers. His reviews have always been eminently quotable and have recently gotten better than that (’‘. . . about as good as the form allows,’’ said a previewer in The New York Times Book Review of ‘‘LaBrava’‘), but when it comes to mass-market success, like that of such thriller-writers as Robert Ludlum and Ken Follett, reviews have always been far less important than tried-and-true ingredi ents. Leonard’s crime novels - 15 of his 23 books - are nothing if not chancy. The heroes, no superstars, are frayed around the edges, usually divorced, often cops or ex-cops, just trying to make their way. And while everyone agrees that Leonard writes crackling good dialogue, publishing experts are hard-pressed to recall the last time crackling good dialogue carried a book to the best-seller list.

Leonard’s plots do not help matters. A typical tale, populated by lower- depths denizens pursuing treacherous (and occasionally unintelligible) scams, has a lot in common with Hamlet’s view of the earth. It could be described as ‘‘a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.’‘

Where his westerns followed sturdy, linear progressions, since he turned to contemporary stories his plots have gradually devolved into smoky improvisations grouped around a set of reliable elements. A number of more or less seedy characters are in a more or less seedy locale (often Detroit but more and more frequently south Florida), their attention focused, prototypically, on a suitcase full of money. (The amount of money seems to be immaterial - it ranges from something over $12,000 in ‘‘Glitz’’ to $2.2 million in ‘‘Cat Chaser.’‘) Eventually, the elements congeal into a taut climax, but for the first two-thirds or so of the book, the characters, the reader and, it turns out, the author simmer on the low burner and, in Huckleberry Finn style, ‘‘swap juices,’’ trying to figure out what’s going on.

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Posted: 30 June 2007 07:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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‘Glitz’’ is typical Leonard. It begins with a clear-cut premise: A psychopathic ex-con wants revenge on the Miami Beach cop who put him away. And it ends with a violent denouement. But it’s hard to sum up what happens in between. The cop becomes involved with the mob, an Atlantic City casino, a psychic in Puerto Rico and a lounge pianist he finds himself falling in love with. The ex- con lurks in the shadows, waiting to make his move. People get beaten up; money changes hands. It’s all luridly entertaining, but there’s not much to hang an ad campaign on.

But all that may not matter anymore. After a long, arduous process, Elmore Leonard has finally become a bankable name. ‘‘LaBrava’’ sold 425,000 copies in paperback, flirting with the best-seller list; ‘‘Glitz,’’ to be published in March with the support of a $100,000 advertising campaign and status as a dual selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, is expected to make the list. And every one of Leonard’s older books, many of them out of print since they were first published, has recently been rereleased or soon will be.

There is still more activity in Hollywood, whose options, advances and screenplay assignments supported him during the lean years. Besides ‘‘Stick,’’ Leonard has recently written screenplays for ‘‘Glitz’’ and ‘‘LaBrava’‘; he flew to New York in November for a meeting about ‘‘LaBrava’’ with Dustin Hoffman. So far Leonard has gotten $350,000 for the rights to and screenplay for ‘‘Stick,’’ $400,000 for ‘‘LaBrava’’ and $450,000 for ‘‘Glitz.’’ And at least five of his other novels are in some stage of film production.

Now he’s branching out into one more medium. ‘‘Six or seven weeks ago I was in Hollywood talking with the studio about the ‘Glitz’ screenplay,’’ Leonard says. ‘‘Somebody took me to see David Gerber, the TV producer. He and I started talking about cop shows. I thought it was a social conversation, but a week later I got a contract to develop a pilot for a cop series. Gerber said, ‘Where do you want to set it?’ I said, ‘New Orleans’ - I had already decided to set my next novel there and I wanted to go down for some more research. He said, ‘That’s a downer - it’s just a you-all city. How about Seattle?’ I said, ‘I don’t want to go to Seattle.’ We set it in New Orleans. They’re hoping to show a pilot to the network by April. It can get on the air next fall.’‘


Leonard chuckles. ‘‘These days,’’ he says, ‘‘I could sell my letters to my mother.’’ LEONARD - WEARING A navy blue cotton shirt, a tan shetland sweater, a tweed sportcoat, blue jeans, cowboy boots and his trademark Kangol cap - steps into the Midtown Cafe, the hottest spot in Birmingham. With his slight frame, his full beard and glasses, he could be pegged - but for the boots - as a professor at Wayne State University.

At night, the trendies are five-deep at the bar, Leonard is saying, but now, with the midafternoon light streaming through the plate-glass windows, the place is half empty. Leonard orders broiled shark steak and a ginger ale, and while he’s waiting a slender young man with the same tortoise-shell horn-rimmed glasses Leonard wears comes to sit down by his table. It’s his son, Chris, who manages the Midtown. (Three of Leonard’s four other children, who range in age from 18 to 34, also live in Birmingham; so do his three grandchildren.)

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Posted: 30 June 2007 07:18 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Having lived in Birmingham almost half his life, Leonard may be trying to make up for a youth spent following his father around the country, as he was transferred from city to city by General Motors. Elmore got to Detroit by the age of 10. In high school, he played football and baseball and was dubbed Dutch, after the Washington Senators’ knuckleballer. At 5 feet 9, 132 pounds (he’s 148 today), Leonard was too small to play either sport at the University of Detroit, where he enrolled after serving in the Pacific in the Navy during World War II, and his interests turned literary.

It didn’t seem possible to make a living just as a writer, especially with a new family, so after he graduated in 1950 Leonard took a job with Campbell-Ewald, a Detroit ad agency, resolving to write in his spare time.

‘‘I decided to pick a genre,’’ he says, lighting one of a never-ending series of True cigarettes. ‘‘It was either crime or westerns. I picked westerns.’‘

He started out with short stories, and sold everything he wrote - mostly to the then-thriving pulps. He sold his first novel, ‘‘The Bounty Hunters,’’ in 1953, and published four more books in the next eight years.

‘‘My agent and editors would discourage me from trying to write full time,’’ Leonard says. ‘‘They said, ‘Don’t have to write. You’ll become a hack, writing under a bunch of different names. Do it at your leisure, and do it right.’ ‘’ So he stayed at Campbell-Ewald, mostly writing copy on the Chevrolet account.

Sheriffs from 5 to 7 A.M., Chevys from 9 to 5 - it was a hard lot, but Leonard stuck it out for 10 years. In 1961, a company profit-sharing plan came due, and he quit, planning to become a full-time author. He found, however, that he had even less time to write; the expenses of raising five children forced him back into freelance advertising work and commercial scriptwriting. Finally, in 1967, his novel ‘‘Hombre’’ was sold to 20th Century Fox for $10,000, giving Leonard the financial cushion he needed to get going again.

But what would he write? ‘‘With westerns, I felt I wasn’t using everything I knew,’’ Leonard says. ‘‘I was in second gear; I wasn’t using what was going on around me.’’ Besides, the western market was beginning to dry up. For his next book, therefore, he essayed a contemporary story. It was called ‘‘The Big Bounce,’’ and it was about a guy who wanted to be a ballplayer but couldn’t hit the curve ball, who wanted to be in the army but was 4-F, and who comes up with a surefire moneymaking scam. Elmore Leonard was finally in Elmore Leonard territory.

‘‘My New York agent took sick,’’ Leonard says, ‘‘and while she was in the hospital she sent the mansucript to H. N. Swanson, the agent who had always handled my books in Hollywood. Swanie called me up and asked if I was the one who had written the book. When I said yes, he said, ‘Kiddo, I’m going to make you rich.’ He got 84 rejections in the next three months. But it was finally published and made into a movie with Ryan O’Neal and Leigh Taylor-Young. A terrible, terrible picture.’’ AT A WINDOW TABLE AT the Midtown this day, as it happens, sits Dennis Wholey, the host of LateNight America, a national Public Broadcasting System talk show broadcast from Detroit. Wholey is an author as well, having just published ‘‘The Courage to Change,’’ a book of conversations with alcoholics - one of whom is Elmore Leonard.

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Posted: 30 June 2007 07:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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The 1970’s was a momentous decade for Leonard, not least because of his discovery that he was not a heavy social drinker, but an alcoholic. ‘‘I joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1974, and on Jan. 21, 1977, at 9 in the morning, I had my last drink.

‘‘Now, I have absolutely no desire for booze. I used to have a personality problem - I thought that if I wasn’t drinking I’d be bored. Since I quit, I’m never bored. Never.’‘

Leonard says he isn’t sure how much of a part the drinking played, but, also in the 70’s, his marriage of nearly three decades was breaking up. He moved out of the house to an apartment in 1974, was divorced in 1977 and in 1979 married a Birmingham woman, whom he had met at the local country club.

Professionally, things were changing, too. Thanks to the contacts of his agent, Swanie - who represented F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, John O’Hara, James M. Cain and innumerable other luminaries; a man to whom the words ‘‘the legendary’’ are attached like a barnacle - Leonard suddenly had entree in Hollywood. True, most of his scripts never made it to the screen, and those that did - ‘‘The Moonshine War,’’ ‘‘Joe Kidd,’’ ‘‘Mr. Majestyk’’ and ‘‘High Noon, Part Two: The Return of Will Kane’’ (a made-for-television movie) - were less than masterpieces. But neither being produced nor scaling the artistic heights is a prerequisite to a successful screenwriting career, and that is exactly what Leonard had.

Living on the West Coast usually is a prerequisite, but Leonard never seriously considered moving. ‘‘L.A. is all right,’’ he says, ‘‘but I wouldn’t want to get that involved in the business. That’s all they talk about out there. I should be on my own, working on my stories. The screenplays I did were just a matter of trying to make money; it was work, that’s all.’‘

It was good work, netting Leonard enough money to support the writing he really cared about. After two lapses back into westerns in the early 1970’s, he returned to the contemporary crime novel in 1974, with ‘‘Fifty- Two Pickup.’’ Unfortunately, even though critics were starting to notice Leonard, the public was still relatively uninterested. In 1978, Leonard parted ways with his hard-cover publisher, Delacorte; his next three novels were published as paperback originals.

It was 1980. Leonard was a busy screenwriter, but in what he thought of as his real craft - fiction - his success was marginal.

Donald I. Fine to the rescue. Fine, who had bought two Leonard westerns when he was with Dell paperbacks in the 1950’s, had since founded Arbor House, a hard- cover publishing company, and had never stopped reading - or admiring - Elmore Leonard. Fine says: ‘‘I called Dutch and said, ‘Listen, you can afford to go straight. I’ll pay you less than what you’ve been getting, but I’ll get across to readers and reviewers how good you are. We’ll create a whole Elmore Leonard reputation.’ ‘’

He accomplished exactly what he promised. For each Leonard novel that came out, Fine would first call up influential reviewers, then send them the manuscript, then the bound galleys and the finished book, each time with a personal letter. He solicited blurbs, including one from John D. MacDonald, author of the Travis McGee mystery-story series, who had experienced a similar ‘‘discovery’’ in the early 70’s. MacDonald’s first response was: ‘‘Who is Elmore Leonard?’’ (It was a line Fine liked so much that he based a whole advertising campaign around it.) His second response was to write a testimonial so glowing that it seemed radioactive: ‘‘Leonard can really write. He is astonishingly good. He doesn’t cheat the reader. He gives full value.’‘

The strategy worked. Although the first Arbor House books sold only about 15,000 copies, the momentum grew, and the adulation that greeted ‘‘LaBrava’ in 1983 - together with the publicity generated by the Burt Reynolds film of ‘‘Stick’ - transferred Leonard from the purgatory reserved for cult figures to the hallowed land of ‘‘discovered’’ novelist. LEONARD’S RECENT success tends to support the idea that if you are good enough for long enough, you will eventually be recognized. ‘‘He gives as much serious fun per word as anyone around,’’ a Times reviewer wrote.

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Posted: 30 June 2007 07:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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A large part of the fun is talk. Leonard says he learned the importance of dialogue from Hemingway, whom he counts as his principal literary mentor (ahead of - not surprisingly - James M. Cain and - surprisingly - Mark Harris and Richard Bissell, two offbeat novelists from the 1950’s from whom Leonard presumably learned something about irreverence and humor). His characters’ speech is indeed wonderful - funny, profane and compelling. John Leonard, reviewing ‘‘Cat Chaser’’ in The Times, said Leonard ‘‘is better at dialogue than anybody else on the block I can think of except Philip Roth.’‘

Leonard claims no special technique for rendering the way people talk, other than simply listening to what goes on around him. When a documentary about West Virginia coal miners comes on television, for example, he’ll pull out his notebook. And wherever he is, he’ll remember any line that somehow rings true.

He takes a more systematic approach to researching his stories. To get the local color right, he employs a research assistant to do preliminary groundwork and make initial contacts, and then he follows the researcher’s footsteps. To get police procedure and current criminal habits, he maintains good contacts with police forces in those cities where his stories are set. He says, however, that he simply invents most of the (often ingeniously elaborate) criminal scams his two-bit schemers stake their lives on.

While the details are credible, the sequence of a Leonard plot is haphazard, a tendency the author acknowledges. ‘‘When I start a book,’’ Leonard says, ‘‘I have no idea how it’s going to end. I really don’t know what’s going to happen more than a chapter or two ahead. The characters audition in their opening scene - I listen to them, see how they sound. The plots develop on their own. If I’m curious enough to turn the pages, I figure it’ll have the same effect on readers.’‘

Leonard’s own literary voice is stripped-down and clean - again, more like Hemingway than the occasionally overwrought prose of a Raymond Chandler. ‘‘I never, never do images or metaphors,’’ he once told an interviewer. ‘‘The second reason is that they slow everything down. The first reason is that I’m no good at them, and I don’t do what I don’t do well.’‘

He’s even more of an innovator when it comes to the moral arena of crime fiction. Despite his protests, Leonard really is in the tradition of Chandler, Hammett and Ross Macdonald, but where he differs from those progenitors is in rejecting their clear-cut and often simplistic notions of good and evil. In his essay ‘‘The Simple Art of Murder,’’ Chandler defined the classic American private eye: ‘‘He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. . . . He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. . . . He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.’‘

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Posted: 30 June 2007 07:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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It is a powerful conception, and every one of Chandler’s heirs, from Macdonald to Robert B. Parker, and not excluding Mickey Spillane, has followed it to a greater or lesser degree. Whether they are showing their disgust and contempt for sham and pettiness, or agonizing about their own fallen character, American private eyes are sentimentalists with overdeveloped superegos. Leonard’s view of the world goes one step beyond, to the acceptance of ambiguity.

Some aficionados justifiably consider his best work to be his novels of the 1970’s, such as ‘‘Fifty-Two Pickup,’’ ‘‘Swag’’ and ‘‘The Switch,’’ which have no heroes. In ‘‘Swag,’’ for example, a car thief named Ernest Stickley (to reappear in ‘‘Stick’‘) and a used-car salesman named Frank Ryan join forces in an armed-robbery career. It works - until they get carried way with their success and break their own rules. They’re certainly not the good guys, but they’re not that bad, either. What’s important in these stories is the caper, the scheme, the revenge. Morality rarely if ever comes into question; everyone is implicated to some degree.

Leonard’s recent books are more conventional, in that they are governed by the sensibility of a detective-like hero (’‘basically the same guy,’’ says Leonard). But there is a difference - the hero has passed the stage of moral outrage. The car thief Stick, the Secret Service agent-turned-photographer Joe LaBrava, the Miami police lieutenant Vincent Mora (in ‘‘Glitz’‘) all have been around the block more than a few times, made their peace with the world, come to a loose constructionist position regarding other people’s virtue. What the Leonard hero is interested in now is staying alive, preferably with the girl and the suitcase full of money in his possession. Leonard’s heroes are so unobtrusive, in fact, that they occasionally fade from the scene: In ‘‘Split Images,’’ Detective Bryan Hurd’s idea of a good time is to sit on the beach and read National Geographic magazine. Leonard acknowledges this tendency, too: ‘‘The hero in one of my books is more an observer than anything else. Every once in a while I realize that this guy is the hero - he’s got to do something.’‘

With the focus diverted from the hero, it is free to be dispersed to the other characters. And that is where Leonard truly shines. He has created a gallery of compelling, off-the- wall villains unequalled in American crime fiction, precisely because he pays such generous attention to them. The proof of his empathy is his inclination - more and more pronounced in recent books - to go unflinchingly into his villain’s head and write absolutely convincing scenes from that point of view.

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Posted: 30 June 2007 07:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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How does he do it? Leonard shrugs. ‘‘I put myself in his place,’’ he says. ‘‘He doesn’t think he’s doing an evil thing. I try to see the antagonist at another time - when he sneezes, say. I see convicts sitting around talking about a baseball game. I see them as kids. All villains have mothers.

‘‘I don’t try to go into the psychology of the guy’s makeup. That doesn’t interest me, and I don’t think it interests the reader. Also, it’s too much work.’’ IT’S TIME TO LEAVE

the Midtown. Leonard’s

wife has just returned from picking up her mother, who lives 50 miles away, and he’s anxious to see Joan - he’s missed her.

In the car, he says that the recent glory and riches haven’t really changed his life. He still wears tweed sportcoats, jeans and Kangol caps. ‘‘I’ve had an apartment in Freeport and a place in Florida for a while,’’ he says, ‘‘and there’s really nothing else I want.’‘

In the evenings, he and Joan watch television or go to the movies or read. The current authors he most enjoys are Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jayne Anne Phillips and Jim Harrison.

Dutch Leonard, in fact, is easy to please. All he asks is to sit at his desk and write from 9:30 till 6, five days a week (and sometimes on weekends), just as he’s done since 1967. ‘‘I’ve worked harder than ever before in the last three years, trying to make it better,’’ he says. ‘‘I feel I’ve just started, at the age when I should be over the hill going down.’‘

Although he strives to improve his novels - particularly, these days, in the amount of first-hand research he puts into them - he has no desire to write a different kind of book. ‘‘In ‘LaBrava,’ I could have developed a couple of characters, left out the extortion scheme,’’ Leonard says. ‘‘It would have been O.K. But I can say everything I want to say, describe the people I’m interested in, within the framework of a story. Besides, I just feel more secure in a situation where I know a gun can go off at any time if things get boring.’‘

No, you wouldn’t expect Dutch Leonard to change anything about this life in order to fit somebody else’s conception of what he should be doing. Take his eyeglasses. They’re the same kind he’s worn for 30 years - plain, round tortoise-shell frames, a la Clark Kent. When they went out of style, Leonard didn’t switch to metal rims. Now, for what it’s worth, they’re back in.

‘‘What’s most satisfying is that I’ve persisted in developing my way of writing,’’ he says as he turns into his driveway. ‘‘I didn’t have to write to order. I wrote exactly how I wanted to write. Now I have readers.’‘

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