A Taste for Life’s Seamy Side (1987)
Posted: 13 April 2008 10:39 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Title:  A Taste for Life’s Seamy Side
Author(s):  Alvin P. Sanoff and Elmore Leonard
Source:  U.S. News & World Report 102 (March 9, 1987)

A taste for life’s seamy side

I want my books to look at reality and my characters to be as lifelike as possible—but with quirks to make them interesting. I learned the importance of that the first time I went to New York as a writer in the mid-‘50s. I was introduced to the fiction editor at the Saturday Evening Post. He had just bought one story and rejected another because my heavy was “made of wood.’ When I said the guy was real, he said: “Real? What is that? You have real people in your living room who might be boring, and you put up with them. But when you meet a boring character in a magazine, you turn the page.’

I have kept that in mind. You can make antagonists more interesting by showing human sides to them: They’re not simply evil. Some criminals, when they’re not committing a crime, are like everybody else. They all have mothers and dads; they all get up in the morning and wonder what they’re going to have for breakfast, and I’m sure bank robbers wonder what they’re going to wear.

I used to plot out a book very carefully, but over theyears I have learned that I can always come up with plot ideas. Plot is less important to me than how characters rub against each other. I like to watch them mixing it up. I have an affection for my characters, even the bad guys. Most of my characters are playing roles; they’re projecting an image. But my main character is pretty much himself, a natural person. He’s a decent guy with flaws who shows up in all my books. I just keep changing his name. He has a lot of my attitudes. He’s not heroic; he’s sort of an observer. He stumbles into something and gets sucked into the action.

Detectives: A “dry, deadpan approach’

Writing about the seamy side is much more interestingthan writing about people sitting in the lounge at the country club. In my book The Switch, there were a couple of country-club scenes, and I had an awful time trying to write dialogue. What do the people talk about?

When I need background color, I sometimes spendtime with the police. I have had good access ever since I did a story about the homicide squad for the Detroit News Sunday magazine in 1978. During the first few days I went through their files, asked a lot of questions about procedure and made a lot of notes. They would call me when they had a homicide. I would appear at the scene and follow them right through. There was a rapport immediately; they trusted me. For two months I kept showing up a few days a week. I would just sit in their squad room. Somebody would come in and say, “What’s Dutch doing here?’ And they’d say: “Leave him alone. He’s listening.’ Of course, these guys would show off a little bit at first; then they’s forget I was there. They would talk normally—sort of like the cops on the TV show “Barney Miller.’ That’s the most realistic cop show I’ve seen. Most detectives are funny guys with this dry, deadpan approach.

I also turn to the police when Ineed help with research on guns. I would call one fellow in particular and say: “Here’s a guy who was a cop in New York and now works for the organization in Florida. He’s kind of an enforcer. What would he have?’ He says: “I think I’ve got the weapon for you. It’s a Smith & Wesson 9-mm.’ I’m insecure if I don’t have a gun I can use in a story. I don’t have any desire to fire guns, but they come in handy in a book.

Emulating Hemingway

I don’t come out of a tradition of privateeyes or superspies. I wasn’t influenced by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I barely read them. Hemingway is the writer who influenced me the most. I studied his style, the way he used dialogue. Concentrating in the ‘50s on For Whom the Bell Tolls helped me write Westerns.

But I didn’t share Hemingway’s serious attitude. I realizedI should loosen up and have a little more fun in the books. When I’m serious, my writing is stiff, like a high-school composition. I have to forget about writing and just think about the characters and the way they sound and maintain that sound from whatever character’s point of view a scene is done.

“I’m not writing for years to come’

I never look back; I’m always looking ahead. I’m a thirdinto a new book about a man and a woman who were radicals in the ‘68-to-‘71 period—bomb planters who ended up serving time. The main character is a member of the Detroit police bomb squad. The woman he’s living with is paranoid that he’s going to lose his hands, so he has put in for a transfer. When she finds out that the only thing open is an assignment in sex crimes, she says: “Sex crimes? Are you going to associate with those perverts and then come home and tell me about your day?’ She throws him out. And his dad days: “You have a lot of trouble with women. What is it about you? You’re not a bad-looking guy.’

I find that I’m using more of what’s going on aroundme—the Contras, former radicals—in my novels. To some extent, I’ve always drawn on the present, whether it’s a reference to a soap opera, a movie or a song. I miss a sense of time in so many books. I was told once that putting such elements in a novel dates it because they won’t mean anything to readers in years to come. But I’m not writing for years to come; I’m writing for next year when another book will be out.

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Posted: 14 April 2008 10:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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amazing find here Robb
thanks ever so much
this from that period
writing freaky deaky
just fit touch in
after bandits
explains
so many
touchstones
think of touch
pivotal periods
facts of writings
acts of publishing

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