Writers Dreaming:  Elmore Leonard (1993)
Posted: 23 February 2008 07:18 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Writer’s Dreaming by Naomi Epel
Publisher:  New York: Carol Southern Books, 1993

Elmore Leonard


I dream a lot.  I’ll get up to go to the bathroom at four in the morning and I’ll have a dream in my mind but by the time I come back it’s gone.  I’ll bet I dream every night and then lose it.

For years I remember dreaming that I feel down a very steep, narrow flight of stairs.  I would hold back, try to hold back, as I was about to hit.  I don’t think I ever hit, but holding back took a strenuous effort.  It seemed to take something out of me.  But it was never a hit.

This was in the sixties and seventies before my writing became well known.

In the eighties, I remember dreaming several times of climbing a rickety ladder.  Not a real ladder but a ladder that had been formed out of driftwood or scrap lumber.  None of the rungs matched and some were very loose.  I tried to climb that a few times.  I fell a lot but I kept climbing.  I hung on.  And then I’d get up into an area where there would be some vines and bushes.  That was later.  Now I wasn’t falling anymore, I was climbing up.  I thought, Boy, finally!

I always assume that my dreams are so obvious.  I wanted to prevent failure.  That’s what these dreams were about.  But I don’t know.  I was never holding back.  I was never writing down.  I was doing the best I could.  Always.  I continue that.  I try to do better all the time.

The other recurring dream I used to have was all of sudden being naked in public.  It might be in a church, or on a street corner.  There’d be bright sunlight, people around.  No one was really looking at me.  And then I’d realize where I was.  And that I just had to go walk from wherever I was over to some doorway.  Or, for example, in the church I’d be in the front pew.  I simply had to walk across the aisle and get out.  That’s all.  Just do it.  Try not to pay any attention to anyone who was staring at me.  Just get it done.

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Posted: 23 February 2008 07:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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In another recurring dream I would find myself back at the ad agency where I had worked from 1949 to 1961.  In this dream it was always my first day back and I was standing in the hall with someone who had hired me.  Several other people were there, too.  They were showing me my office when a guy I had worked with before walked by real fast.  He was the link with the past.  I would see him and I’d say “Chuck!” or “Charlie!”  And he’d say “Catch you later.  See ya later.”  He was off to a meeting.  He’d always run by.  In one of the dreams I remember that the office that they were giving me was huge, but the walls were lined with shelves filled with canned goods.  And in the middle of the office was a wooden school desk with a pen – the type where the top raises up and you keep your books inside – and I would think, “Oh my God.  I’m going to be here forever!  I’ve failed and I’m back.”

It wasn’t until the eighties that I finally left – this is what I do – I write novels.  I’m always going to write novels.  And I’m successful enough at it that I’m not going to have to go back to ad writing.

I sold my first story in August, forty years ago.  A novel that appeared in the December issue of ARGUS (ARGOSY) magazine.  I got $1,000 for it.  And between the time that I wrote it, sold it, and it came out, I had written several more stories.  When the story appeared, an agent, Marguerite Harper, contacted me.  She represented me until ’66, when she died.  She sold everything that I wrote.  Most of it went to pulp magazines, but she was aiming everything at the THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, where I had no business being.  I didn’t write their kind of stories at all.  Mine were all westerns.  I didn’t have enough blue sky or comic relief in my westerns, but she was selling them.  I remember one time, probably in very early 1952, I said, Why don’t you critique my work and then we’ll get fewer rejections.  I’ll fix the story before you send it out.  She said, “You learn how to write and I’ll sell it.”  I was very anxious to do it full time.  Especially after the first sale, a thousand bucks!

The next four or five sold immediately to the pulps for a hundred bucks – short stories, two cents a word.  I wasn’t making that much money, only about $250 a month.

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Posted: 23 February 2008 07:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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It would’ve been possible to hammer out one a week at a hundred dollars a week – which would’ve been more than I was making – but I was warned by her and by an editor at POPULAR PUBLICATIONS, Don’t do it.  You’ll become a hack.  You’ll hat to turn these out to make a living.  The quality will suffer and you will not have really learned how to write.  You will not have reached your potential.  I think what they meant was you will not have developed a style, a natural style.  So I stayed on until ’61.  Finally I quit because my profit sharing in the company came due.  It was my first opportunity to quit with some money.  Not much, eleven, twelve thousand bucks.  At that same time we bought another house, and that money went into the down payment.  So I did a lot of freelance writing, advertising writing, industrial movies, things like that for the next five years until HOMBRE sold to Fox.  That gave me enough to write a book and I wrote THE BIG BOUNCE.  It was rejected by everybody until I rewrote it and the film rights sold.  It was a terrible movie but it got me going again.

Success seems like a kind of fluke to me.  It’s not based on merit, since not everyone has the same opportunities.  For me, it was just something that happened.  I was in the right place at the right time.  In 1985 I became and overnight success after thirty years.  Everybody liked that idea and played with it.  I didn’t think that I would ever have a best-seller.  I never thought my writing was either good enough or bad enough to make the list.  I didn’t write the right kind of book.  Of course now there are more and more crime books getting on the list.

Humor came in as I discovered my style – the most natural way for me to write.  I had been studying and imitating Hemingway when I realized that your style comes out of your attitude, how you see things.  And I didn’t share Hemingway’s attitude at all.  I didn’t take myself or life as seriously as he did.

When you begin to read Hemingway he makes it look so easy.  There’s a lot of white space on his pages.  You see the lines of dialogue, the page running vertical rather than horizontal.  You see all that white space and you say, Whoa, that looks easy.  I should be able to do that.  I know how people talk.  And then you realize that it isn’t nearly as easy as it looks.  Because there’s a lot in between the lines that he didn’t say.  Like in his short story, “Hills Like White Elephants”:  you know everything about these two people and he hasn’t told you anything.  She’s going to go get an abortion or she isn’t, you don’t know.  So you study and see ways to do that.  See ways to describe people.  You don’t describe in detail all the features but just perhaps something that stands out. 

And then I found other writers to be inspired by – not crime writers as it turns out.  I was never inspired by Chandler, Hammett or those guys who are responsible for most of the people writing in the field today – the first-person style with all the similes and metaphors.

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Posted: 23 February 2008 07:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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I was inspired by a writer by the name of Richard Bissell who in the fifties wrote SEVEN AND A HALF CENTS, which was turned into the musical THE PYJAMA (Pajama) GAME.  He was a pilot on the Mississippi River.  When I was researching KILLSHOT I reread a lot of Richard Bissell’s work and then it really hit me how much he had influenced me.

Early in the morning things will come to me.  I’ll make up with ideas, specific plot ideas, scenes.  Sometimes, as I wake up in that half sleep, I’ll have ideas that I think are great and then, as I come fully awake, I realize they just don’t work at all.  Or I’ll wake up with scene ideas that don’t necessarily fit.  Not ideas that I feel are worth writing down.  I’ll only write something down if I see it as the answer to something that I’ve been having a problem with.  And that does happen.

I don’t believe in writer’s block.  I don’t know what that is.  There are just certain little areas that I know I’m going to get through. It’s just a matter of finding a way.

I try not to think at all at night.  From six P.M. on I try not to think about my work.  I don’t want to.  I want to let my unconscious work on it.  And then in the morning I wake u and look and think, Okay, where am I?  What’s going on?  Do I have any ideas?  And usually I do.  Very very often what was a problem at six o’clock, having worked all day, gets solved over night.

From four o’clock on, if it has been a difficult day, I’m probably getting kind of tired.  If it was a great day, if I just swung through and did six, seven, eight pages, then I’m not tired.  I have to fight with something a little bit more before I’ll throw it aside and say it’s not going to work.  It always happens in expository scenes.  This is when I, as the author, would normally describe where the person comes from, how she grew up and so on.  But that’s not my style.  That’s not the way I write a book.  I write a book in scenes, always from somebody’s point of view.  So when I get into the exposition I have to think of a way to dramatize it.  I have to think of way where someone in the book, if not the person herself, could tll where she came from and why and so on.  That is the hard part.

There was one scene in GET SHORTY that took me days, and I don’t know why.  There’s a scene where the older producer, Harry, and Karen are in bed.  She hears something downstairs.  Finally, after about eight pages, Harry admits he hears it too and goes down to find out who turned on the television set.  It’s his scene.  You follow him down the stairs and he walks into the den.  The lights go on and there’s a guy sitting behind the desk waiting for him.  I do this scene for another ten pages, and then go to Karen upstairs, who’s now outside the bedroom.  She’s got a Lakers T-shirt on and she’s standing by the railing looking down into the front hall, listening.  Every once in a while she hears Harry’s voice.  She tries to interpret what a line means out of context and decides that Harry is not talking to one of her friends who might be pulling a joke.  But it’s not a burglar or someone to be afraid of, not the way Harry’s talking to this person.  So then this is where I want to say something about Karen.  I’ve got Karen all alone standing here by the top of the stairs.  Now this is the place to fill in some of her background.  And what do you say?  Well, Karen was born such and such a place and she came out to Hollywood to be a movie star, da da dad a.  No.  How do you get into her background?  What is she to Harry?  Things like that.  I worked on it and worked on it and it just sounded trite – until I used something that he said in bed to her.  She says, “Do you hear that, Harry?” at whatever the sound is downstairs, and he says, “Maybe it’s only the wind.”  Now she recalls saying that once before.  It was a line that she objected to from one of her movies.  She had worked for him as the female lead in his horror movies – because she was a great screamer.  In the movie there’s a noise – the monster is tearing shingles off the roof with his bare hands to get to them – and she says to the hero, with her eyes raised, “Maybe it’s only the wind.”  She had been in the same house, down in the study reading the script, when she said to Harry, “You’ve got to be kidding.  Come on, I’m not going to say that.”  And this is what she thinks about at the top of the stairs.  She thinks about why the line works.  She said, “Everybody’s going to laugh,” and he’d said, “Right.  That’s good.  Nervous laughter.  Let ‘em get a little of that out of their system.”  It’s all bullshit but it’s what he tells her and it does begin to explain their relationship – how she first auditioned for him and so on.  See?

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Posted: 23 February 2008 07:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I went back and rewrote the scene again and again over a period of a month.  I kept going back and I’d get tired of it!  Retyping that one page to get to the point where I had to do something different.  Actually, I’ll only retype something to make it readable: otherwise I’m writing in the margins and between the lines.  My daughter, who does my typing, can read my writing and so it doesn’t have to be perfect.  I write in longhand and then I put it on my typewriter.  I bought the typewriter, and Olympia manual, secondhand in about 1975 for $120.  I like the sound of it.  And I like to type, and as long as I can get ribbons I’ll keep using it.  I think I can get through with the next book without ever having touched a word processor.  I don’t like the sound of the word processor.  It’s like hitting wood or plastic.  It doesn’t have the ring. 

Anyway, I think I finally made the scene work.  Those are the kinds of things that I wake up thinking about in the morning.  Sometimes, more often than not, I have the solution to it.  I wake up knowing how to work it out.

END

Writer’s Dreaming by Naomi Epel
Publisher:  New York: Carol Southern Books, 1993

Elmore Leonard

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Posted: 23 February 2008 07:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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You can tell Mr. Leonard did not write this.  Too many damn exclamation points.  ARGUS magazine?  PYJAMA?

Anyway, I always enjoy listening to the master.

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