Guest Column: Elmore Leonard’s Justified Hit
by Elmore Leonard
Names are important to me when I’m writing a book. If I give someone the wrong name, he might not talk when he’s supposed to, or be comfortable with himself. In Bandits, I called the main character Frank Matisse and he almost refused to talk. I changed him to Jack Delaney and I couldn’t shut him up.
Sometimes I might debate for days what to name a character: Bill or Bob or Billy Bob? Then other times a name will just float down from the heavens and a character is born instantly. Such was the case when I met Raylan.
It was at a book distributor convention sponsored by Western Merchandisers in Amarillo, Texas, on a Saturday in June 1991. I was the guest speaker at a sales conference luncheon. I remember standing between a Ninja Turtle and a Miss Texas from a few years back. Don’t ask me why. But what I remember most is the young man sitting next to me on the dais during lunch.
He introduced himself. “Hello, Mr. Leonard. My name’s Raylan Davis.”
I didn’t even hear the last name, I just heard “Raylan” and knew I wanted to use it. I asked him, “How would you like to be the star of my next book?”
We talked about names. I had a tough time with Elmore as a kid and got the nickname “Dutch” by the time I was in high school. Raylan’s first name was Jon, but everybody called him Raylan; at school, it always brought him unwanted attention, but that didn’t stop him from using it.
I saw Raylan as a good guy, naturally, while Raylan Davis was hoping I’d make him a bad guy. I saw Raylan as laid-back, usually soft-spoken, the type who’d be under estimated by the bad guys, ultimately at their own peril. I knew from the beginning that if Raylan pulled his sidearm, he’d use it.
So I set Raylan in action in Pronto (1993). By this time, I had added a last name, Givens. Raylan Givens, U.S. Deputy Marshal.
Sure enough, as the story gets going, Raylan is underestimated by good and bad guys alike. But by the end of the book, everybody is taking him seriously.
I didn’t want to leave Raylan just yet so I put him in my next book, Riding the Rap (1995). There he really blossomed as a character.
In early 2001, I was thinking about writing a few stories for a collection, When the Women Come Out to Dance (2002). I wondered what Raylan was doing, so I wrote a story called “Fire in the Hole” (2001) to find out. I thought, “Let’s send Raylan home to Harlan County, Kentucky, where he dug coal as a young man.” I brought in neo-Nazi skinheads and a former coal-miner buddy—now a white-power extremist—Boyd Crowder.
I moved on to another U.S. marshal from an earlier time, Carl Webster, and wrote three books for him. But I never forgot Raylan Givens.
Then about a year ago I got a script in the mail from Sony called Untitled Elmore Leonard Project. It was a pilot for a TV series based on Raylan and “Fire in the Hole.” There have been other TV series made from my books, so I was cautiously optimistic. But the creator and head writer, Graham Yost, knew exactly what he was doing, having worked as writer, producer and director on shows like Boomtown and Band of Brothers and the new HBO miniseries The Pacific.
Seeing the pilot confirmed the good feelings I had when I read Graham’s script. Tim Olyphant stepped into Raylan’s boots and brought this character to life instantly. He’s maybe a little smoother than the book Raylan; he wears a different hat, but he is totally the same guy.
FX liked the pilot, too, and ordered 12 more installments. Everyone is excited about the show and making it a big success. But now the tricky part: Good intentions aside, how do you maintain my sound and attitude over all those episodes?
I got my answer when I met Graham and the writers in the Justified writers’ room in Santa Monica last January. Graham wasted no time saying that this is “an Elmore Leonard show.”
And indeed it is.
Graham gave all his writers blue wristbands with the initials “W.W.E.D.—What Would Elmore Do?” They are constantly passing my books around, studying my sound and my characters. That was a good sign.
I left that writers’ room inspired to write another Raylan story for later on. I’d take a look around Harlan County, maybe Stinking Creek, and come up with the kind of situations for a guy like Raylan, ideas I’ll spring on the writers for Season 2. Everyone seems certain Justified will be picked up for another season.
This is the most excited I’ve ever been about a TV show. I look forward to watching each episode.
I owe it all to Raylan.
Justified debuted on March 16. Raylan Davis was watching—it was his 45th birthday.