For the Love of Books (1999)
Posted: 23 July 2007 03:37 PM   [ Ignore ]
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For the Love of Books
115 Celebrated Writers on the Books They Love Most
Ronald B. Shwartz (1999)

Elmore Leonard

(“Without realizing at the time I was looking for someone whose writing didn’t sound like writing . . . Richard Bissell came to the rescue.”)

During the fifties when I was learning to write, I was discouraged by most of the novels I read, their authors so wordy or omniscient, their pages thick with prose.  An exception was Ernest Hemingway, bless his heart, I liked him immediately because there was often a lot of white spaces showing on his pages.  Look at his short stories, “The Killers” and “Hills Like White Elephants.”  Even when there wasn’t much white space showing Hemingway’s prose was easy to read and had a sound all its own, an heroic sound I loved at the time.  I even liked Across the River and into the Trees.

  But it was For Whom the Bell Tolls I think of as having the greatest impression on me.  I read it, re-read it, and, during the early fifties, would open the book at random and read for inspiration, to get the sound.  I began writing westerns because of the terrific market for the genre at that time, the idea being to make money while I learned to write; and I thought of For Whom the Bell Tolls, with all its guns and horses in the mountains, as a sort of western.

  There was a problem though.  Hemingway was so serious about everything; even, we’ve come to learn, about himself.  If your style comes out of your attitude, how you see things, and if I was ever going to develop a style of my own, Papa was the wrong guy to imitate.

  Without realizing it at the time I was looking for someone whose writing didn’t sound like writing, whose prose took on sounds of his characters.  I liked Steinbeck’s sound pretty much; I studied the structure of John O’Hara’s dialogue in short stories; I loved Graham Greene’s attitude. passages that seemed so at ease, offhand, and yet packed with observations; I enjoyed Salinger’s real people, his specificity.  (Later on I learned different ways of using the verb said from Raymond Carver.)  But I didn’t find a writer whose attitude I felt like I shared - whose writing didn’t sound like writing - until I read Richard Bissell.

  You have to understand I was in search of a style that would be most natural for me, one I could handle.  I had learned early on what I was capable of - getting characters to talk - and what I could never in a million years be able to do well enough - write in the classic style of literary authors.

  Bissell came to the rescue.  He’s probably best know for 7 1/2 Cents, out of which came the musical The Pajama Game.  The novel of his that hooked me was High Water.  The story is set on a tow boat pushing eight barge-loads of coal from St. Louis to St. Paul, up the Mississippi on a flood tide.  Listen to Bissell’s sound:

  I get a kick out of your big buddy Grease Cup and his old lady,” says the Ironhat.  “You see him on the boat down here with them two big engines of his you would figure he was quite a big sensible man, but anytime he gets home there in St. Louis the old lady why she has him running around pissing in a tomato can; it sure beats the hell out of me, a man like him with a heavy license like what he has got, leaving some old two-bit girl from out on the edge of town lead him around by the nose.

  Bissell taught me to develop an affection for my characters and not be too hard on them.  Yes, and not to take writing books to seriously.  Bissell wrote in his nonfiction work called My Life on the Mississippi:  Or, Why I Am Not Mark Twain:  “I also lectured to an English class at the University of Dubuque one time and told them how to go about becoming Famous Writers.  This didn’t take very well because they all got married later and settled down on Granview Avenue except one girl who went on to Chicago and got pretty high up at Marshall Fields in the chinaware department.”

  I’ve learned it has to be fun or it isn’t worth doing.

Posted: 23 July 2007 03:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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“On Richard Bissell”
Title: Rediscoveries II
Publisher:: Carroll & Graf, 1988
Edition: First Edition
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 340 pages
Special Notes: “Important Writers select their favorite work of neglected fiction.” ; Chapter on Richard Bissell by Elmore Leonard

Comments–by Elmore Leonard from Rediscoveries II:

I told Bob Nally at lunch in Cape Girardeau that Richard Bissell had influenced my style more than any other writer with the exception of Ernest Hemingway. It’s a fact that I learned to write studying Hemingway, inspired and encouraged by a style that appeared easy to imitate….

About the time I realized Hemingway’s views of life in general and mine weren’t compatible I discovered Richard Bissell and heaved a great sigh of relief. Look–his work said–you can keep it simple, be specific, sound authentic, even ungrammatical if you want, and not act as though your words are cut in stone.

But I discussed Bissell in Cape Girardeau from some gray memory that his work had changed my thinking about writing, giving the idea that I could adapt his style to my sound and within a million words or so have a style of my own.

It wasn’t until I got home and began rereading Bissell that I realized what a profound effect his work has had on mine: not in themes or settings but in the development of the attitude we seem to share about people’ the idea of the author getting down in there with his people, because he likes them, and letting them tell the story. Bissell showed me you could write a book without it looking as if it was written.

… Bissell’s skill in bringing the reader onto that towboat and into the messroom and out on the barges is the book’s strength. But it’s also a good story that builds with the rising water, dangers faced and Duke falling in love with a girl they rescue from the rook of a flooded fishing camp. It’s high adventure told low-key, not the least bit plotty, with Bissell maintaining his riverman’s tone throughout. High Water was published more than fifty years ago but I swear it holds up. A few of the odd expressions might be dated, but for the most part the sound is regional rather than recently archaic.

Elmore Leonard
I have to go with Richard Bissell (1913-1977) as an American writer who is sorely neglected–emphasis on American. He wrote High Water and A Stretch on the River among others, novels set on the Mississippi River. Bissell is the only American writer since Mark Twain, who wasn’t bad either, with a license to pilot river boats. He also wrote 7-1/2 Cents which was adapted as the musical “The Pajama Game.” I learned three-quarters of what I know about writing from reading Richard Bissell, God bless him.

Elmore’s Five Favorite Books
Gregg Sutter
Posted: 07 July 2007 04:08 PM  

All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque. The first book that inspired me to write. I set a play in no man’s land and staged it in my fifth-grade classroom in 1935.

“For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway. Horses and guns. When I was writing Westerns I’d read a few pages to get in the mood. I still read his short stories.

“High Water” by Richard Bissell. By the time I realized Hemingway didn’t have a sense of humor, Bissell came along to help me develop a natural style.

“The Friends of Eddie Coyle” by George V. Higgins. The best crime novel ever written. I read it and learned how to do bad guys.

“Legends of the Fall” by Jim Harrison. This is pure storytelling, a novella in 25,000 words or less, with only one line of dialogue. And the book glows with life.

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