Sunday, August 19, 2007
Dave Hollander interview with Elmore
Newhouse News Service
A conversation with novelist Elmore Leonard
BYLINE: DAVE HOLLANDER
Elmore Leonard is a master. Cranking out tight, smart and funny novels since 1953, the author of 17 best-sellers including “Get Shorty,” “Maximum Bob” and “The Hot Kid” has a new book out, “Up in Honey’s Room.”
In an interview, the crime novelist tells his secret for writing women so well, stunningly reveals the plot and characters for his next book and says he gets some of his best dialogue watching “Wheel of Fortune.”
Q: You draw women characters so skillfully and with such respect. Sister Lucy in “Bandits,” Jackie Burke in “Rum Punch,” Karen Sisco in “Out of Sight” and now Honey Deal in “Up in Honey’s Room.” This is not to mention your short story collection “When Women Come Out to Dance.” What makes you know women so well?
A: I don’t know what book it was, but perhaps 20 years ago it was reviewed in the Detroit News. The reviewer, her name was Kathy Warbelow, I knew her then. She said that my estimation of women the way the women were used in the book was about on a par with Mickey Spillane’s. And I said, “Well, I don’t believe that at all.” It just isn’t true. Yet if she felt that, then maybe I should work on my women a little bit more.
So since then I’ve made the woman character more important, but not thinking of her as a woman. And that was the trick. Just like I don’t think of a guy as “Oh, he’s a man.” I just think of each one of them as a person. That’s the way I think of the woman. And I think of them like from a large family where she’s had brothers and sisters and she knows how to make her way in any kind of a situation. She knows how to be heard. She’s a nice person, basically. I just start from there.
Q: It also seems like you may have a soft spot for male characters approaching middle age. Any truth to that?
A: They’re even getting older than that. I’m going to be 82 in October. There’d be a tendency to put my main character up there at least 65 or more. But I’ve got to think about what sells.
I don’t have any trouble thinking of a guy in his late 30s or anywhere. I remember those ages.
I think it’s safer to go with older characters now. When Scott Frank wrote the screenplay for “Get Shorty,” he thought, “What is the theme of this book set in Hollywood?” I don’t know what the theme is, I had to wait for him to tell me. He had to read the book, then he tells me what the theme is. I said, “Oh, yeah?” He says the theme of (“Get Shorty”) is older people making it in Hollywood. I don’t know. Also, he wrote “Out of Sight” that George Clooney was in. He directed “The Lookout” that was really good with Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Brick). He’s really good in it. And (Gordon-Levitt) plays just the opposite character of what he is in “Killshot,” which will probably be out in the fall sometime.
Q: You’ve said that in the first 100 pages you audition your characters to “find out if they can talk or not. And if they can’t talk, they’re out.” Yet some stay in for more than one book. How do you know when you’re finished with a character?
A: When I get tired of ‘em. Carl Webster has been in two books and the serial that ran in the The New York Times Magazine. He’s kind of a showoff. I like him for that. He wants to be the most famous lawman in America. He can be a little tiresome, but he’s still on the ball all the time. He’s still going to have the last word in most conversations. I like him. But now I’m working with the bank robber, the Clooney character, Jack Foley. And Jack Foley is easier. He’s fresher in my mind.
Q: You’re bringing Foley back for a new book?
A: Yes, because at the end of “Out of Sight,” he was sent back to prison in Florida to finish 30 years. I didn’t want him to escape again. So I assembled some characters from other books. I took Cundo Rey from “La Brava” a guy I like a lot and threw him in prison with Foley. Cundo Rey is a little hipster who danced go-go but he’s a bad guy. He’s killed people. And Cundo Rey has got a lot of money. He gets a lawyer he’s read about who he can afford. And she gets him 10 years for second-degree murder. He could’ve gotten 25-to-life. But she’s very smart. So Cundo hires her for Foley. And she gets him reduced from 30 years to 30 months. So he’s out. And he’s going to meet another character, Dawn Navarro from “Riding the Rap.” She’s a psychic.
So those three will be the main characters for the book I don’t have a title to yet. I have to get the title while I’m writing the book or else I’m in trouble.
Q: I hear the excitement in your voice but I also know you don’t know how this book is going to end, do you?
A: I have no idea, no.
Q: Is it more fun that way?
A: Yeah, sure. I want to sit down not knowing each day not knowing what’s going to happen or what the scene is and from whose point of view the scene is best told. And you get the sound of that particular character into the scene. But within the scene you could switch off to someone else. You know, just go down four spaces and now somebody else has the point of view.
Q: In the 10th of your now-famous 10 Rules of Writing you stress, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” You often talk about “your sound.” What does “your sound” sound like?
A: It’s very natural. You’re not supposed to be aware of me, since it’s always told from somebody else’s point of view. And that becomes the sound. I can hear my characters all the time, but I can’t see them physically that clearly. I’ll say the guy’s big or he’s small. Cundo Rey is 5-foot-5 and weighs 130 pounds because he’s proud of the fact that he’s weighed 130 pounds his whole life. I don’t say how much Foley weighs or how tall he is because you’re going to have an idea in your mind of the kind of guy he is. Just by the way he talks, you will picture Foley. And I don’t want to mess with your picture of him tell you he’s got long black sideburns or something like that. It might just ruin him for you.
If you read my rules the one about prologues where Steinbeck uses a prologue in which the guy from “Cannery Row” says, “I don’t like the writer telling me what people look like.” I like to figure out what people look like from the way they talk and what they do. And I read that in “Cannery Row” back in like ‘56. And I thought, “Oh great, I don’t have to describe anybody anymore.” You don’t. There are authors who will stop the book to describe the person in detail. It’s not necessary. The person’s attitude is much more important than anything physical about them.
Q: You are universally revered for your ability to write dialogue. In your research process, how much time do you spend just listening to people talk?
A: I don’t. Just automatically I’ll pick up things. You don’t hear that much, where you think, “Oh that’s good. I’m gonna remember that.” Every once in a while you do you hear something. Or you’ll hear something that just sounds strange. For example, watching “Wheel of Fortune” on TV, there are people who are talking and talking and they’re not necessarily well-educated but they’re just talking and reacting to things. Or even on “Jeopardy!”, the way people talk. My books have been a category on “Jeopardy!” a number of times. And at times, the contestants will veer away to keep my category until the very end because they’re not that sure about it.
Q: Why is that?
A: Well, they haven’t read me enough. I’m not that widely read. I’m not read enough to get on The New York Times list, although with “Up in Honey’s Room” I was on it one week. But then my publisher can say “New York Times Best-seller.”
Q: You write longhand, then you type it up on a typewriter. Is it important to see how it looks physically on a page?
A: Definitely. I don’t like to see a whole page of one paragraph. It’s going to look hard to read in the book. So I want to break it up a little bit. I just want to keep my characters talking because my feeling is that nobody’s going to skip dialogue. You’re not going to get tired of dialogue because this is the person. This is who the book is about.
I’m entertaining myself as I’m writing. I’m doing exactly what I want to do. I’m not writing for my editor. I’m not writing to try and please her or any reviewers. I’m writing for myself. When I was at Delacorte, my editor would say, “This book ends awfully abruptly.” And I’d say, “I know, but it’s over. What should I do?” She says, “Well just add a little without changing anything. Just to give it a different feel of an ending.” So I add three pages or I’ll cut two. It still sounds abrupt. Because when it’s over, it’s over.
Q: When asked what your favorite book is, you’ve said “Tishomingo Blues” because you had the most fun writing it. Before that it was “Freaky Deaky.” Why were they so much fun to write?
A: I think because of the characters more than anything else. I had fun with them. I didn’t know what was going to happen and the plot just developed for me. “Freaky Deaky” is probably my favorite, although when I’ll pick up another one to learn about characters I’m working on now, I’ll pick up “Out of Sight” and “Riding the Rap.” And I think, man, this is good too. I like these books.
Q: You may be aware of a recent book called “The Enlightened Bracketologist,” which creates theoretical March Madness-style tournaments for all kinds of things including Elmore Leonard novels. From 32 of your books, “Killshot” won the tournament. What do you make of that?
A: They didn’t have all my books.
Q: You had a brief foray into live music, performing with The Stone Coyotes, who were the basis for the fictional band Odessa in “Be Cool.” How did you like that?
A: I loved it. When I was doing “Be Cool,” I thought I’ve got to listen to some music. I’ve got to get close to some people who make music and find out what they’re about. My researcher and I went around and we talked to big-name music producers. Richie Sambora was one.
Q: You also sat in on the Red Hot Chili Peppers practice sessions.
A: Yes, just as they were getting ready to go to Japan. The bass player, Flea, he had read me. Everybody was very helpful. There wasn’t anybody who wouldn’t talk to us. And then I found The Stone Coyotes at the club in L.A. It’s just a three-piece group man, wife and son. I thought they were terrific. I asked them, “Could I use you in my book?” They didn’t know who I was. So I gave them a few books and they read ‘em. And they came back and said, “Yeah, you can use us.” So I passed the test.
I performed with them a few times in L.A., once in New York and once in Boston. I would read from the book and come to the part where the band is introduced, and then I’d turn around and they would start playing. That worked very well.
Q: You wrote the foreword to the 2001 reissue of “The Professional” by W.C. Heinz. Hemingway called that book “the only good novel about a fighter I’ve ever read.” Why did you want to write the foreword?
A: I liked the book when it came out. It was reviewed in Time magazine, and they gave it kind of a smart-ass review. I thought, “Yeah, but this sounds good.” So I bought the book and read it. Then I wrote to Bill Heinz through his publisher and he wrote back and said, “Boy it’s good to hear from you because you and Hemingway are the only people I’ve heard from outside my friends.”
Then Heinz came to Detroit because he was doing a piece on Gordie Howe. So I spent some time with him, a couple days at least. Went to the hockey game with him. I thought Heinz was a really a good writer. I think some of my rules I got from Heinz. The idea of using just the verb “said” to indicate dialogue. I don’t think he ever used an adverb to modify “said,” which I don’t. He was just a good, simple writer, inspired by Hemingway, as I was in the very beginning before I realized I don’t see any sense of humor (in Hemingway).
I’ve got to find somebody who can be funny has a funny attitude about things. Then I found Richard Bissell. Bissell is terrific. I loved him. He only wrote for a while in the ‘50s, then quit.
Q: You’ve written Westerns, crime fiction, topical fiction like “Pagan Babies” (set in Rwanda), historical fiction like “Cuba Libre,” “The Hot Kid” and now again with “Up in Honey’s Room.” What draws you to choose one situation over another?
A: I don’t know. I’m probably better at writing contemporary situations where the people are today and they’re kind of hip at least some of them are and it just moves. The book moves. “Up in Honey’s Room” really doesn’t move that fast, certainly not the first half of it. It was a difficult book to write because it required so much research. Although I was not here in ‘45, I was in the Pacific, but in ‘46 I came home. And Detroit was Detroit. I remember it then. But there was still so much research. That’s the trouble. When you have to do a lot of research, then you are tempted to use maybe too much.
Q: Will there ever come a day when you’ll get tired of writing about Detroit?
A: Well, I don’t write about it that much now. Because the book I’m writing now is going to move fairly quickly from Glades Correctional Institution in Florida to Venice Beach in California. By page 50 it’ll be in Venice Beach. I researched Venice Beach for the book and I think it’s a great place to set it. I’m going to have fun with this book.
I don’t know how I’m going to keep Jack Foley from robbing a bank. He may have to do one. But he’s got an FBI guy right on his tail who’s going to keep challenging him. He says, “I’m gonna cover you like a blanket. Every day I’m gonna be watching you.” The way the FBI guy is going to do it is he’s going to hire a bunch of gang members. He’ll deport them unless they work for him.
Q: Poor Jack Foley. Where’s Karen Sisco when he needs a good moral dilemma?
A: I may bring her in at the end. But Dawn Navarro, the psychic, she can tell your fortune. She can keep things really going for quite a while