The Elmore Leonard Home Page



The Official
Elmore Leonard Website

Archives

Novels

The Bounty Hunters
The Law at Randado
Escape from Five Shadows
Last Stand at Saber River
Hombre
The Big Bounce
The Moonshine War
Valdez is Coming
Forty Lashes Less One
Mr. Majestyk
Fifty-Two Pickup
Swag
Unknown Man No. 89
The Hunted
The Switch
Gunsights
City Primeval
Gold Coast
Split Images
Cat Chaser
Stick
Labrava
Glitz
Bandits
Touch
Freaky Deaky
Killshot
Get Shorty
Maximum Bob
Rum Punch
Pronto
Riding the Rap
Out of Sight
Cuba Libre
Be Cool
Pagan Babies
Tishomingo Blues
Mr. Paradise
A Coyote’s in the House
The Hot Kid
Comfort to the Enemy
Up in Honey’s Room
Road Dogs
Djibouti
Raylan

Stories

The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard
The Tonto Woman and Other Western Stories
When the Women Come Out to Dance
Trail of the Apache
Apache Medicine
You Never See Apaches…
Red Hell Hits Canyon Diablo
The Colonel’s Lady
Law of the Hunted One
Cavalry Boots
Under the Friar’s Ledge
The Rustlers
Three Ten to Yuma
The Big Hunt
Long Night
The Boy Who Smiled
The Hard Way
The Last Shot
Blood Money
Trouble at Rindo’s Station
Saint with a Six-Gun
The Captives
No Man’s Guns
The Rancher’s Lady
Jugged
Moment of Vengeance
Man with the Iron Arm
The Longest Day of his Life
The Nagual
The Kid
The Treasure of Mungo’s Landing
The Bull Ring at Blisston
Only Good Ones
The Tonto Woman
Hurrah for Captain Early
Karen Makes Out
The Odyssey
Sparks
Hanging Out at the Buena Vista
Fire in the Hole
Chickasaw Charlie Hoke
When the Women Come Out to Dance
Tenkiller
Showdown at Checotah
Louly and Pretty Boy
Chick Killer (2011)
Ice Man

Film and TV

Moment of Vengeance
3:10 to Yuma
The Tall T
Hombre
The Big Bounce (I)
The Moonshine War
Valdez is Coming
Joe Kidd
Mr. Majestyk
High Noon, Part II
Stick
52 Pickup
Desperado
The Rosary Murders
Glitz (TV)
Cat Chaser
Border Shootout
Split Images
Get Shorty
Last Stand at Saber River
Pronto
Touch
Elmore Leonard’s Gold Coast (TV)
Jackie Brown
Maximum Bob
Out of Sight
Karen Sisco
The Big Bounce (II)
Be Cool (2005)
The Ambassador
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Killshot (2009)
Freaky Deaky
The Tonto Woman
Sparks
Justified
Life of Crime

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Elmore Leonard: son of a gun in the family business

Times Online
Ben Macintyre


Elmore Leonard, the Dickens of Detroit, is one of America’s greatest novelists. But who knew he was also the head of a crime-writing dynasty? Our writer meets him and son Peter, whose first thriller is published next month

I have been granted an audience with Detroit’s most famous crime family. The father, at 82, remains the capo di tutti capi, the undisputed boss: he has wiped out so many people in the course of his career, he lost count long ago. But now his 56-year-old son is joining the family business, and has just completed his first job: five dead, including two by means of a bow and arrow, and a cop, blasted into hamburger meat with a pump-action shot gun.

The old man is pleased.

Elmore Leonard, the “Dickens of Detroit”, is America’s greatest living crime novelist. For more than half a century, he has turned out books at the rate of almost one a year: westerns, mystery fiction, but most importantly crime thrillers. He is the master of the genre, the inventor of a distinct fictional universe that is spare, violent, grittily humorous and set, for the most part, in Detroit.

Next month, however, Quiver, the first book written by his son, Peter, is published: it is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a spare, violent and grittily humorous crime novel set, for the most part, in Detroit.

Father and son are sitting in Peter’s neat and comfortable living room in suburban Detroit. Elmore has walked here from his own home, just a few streets away. Both are smiling, yet tense, for it is an odd situation, this passing of the literary baton from one generation to the next.

Elmore has a thin, almost gaunt, face with wispy beard and sharp eyes behind round spectacles; Peter’s, by contrast, is genial and rounded with a small, fair moustache. There is little obvious family resemblance in the flesh, but plenty on the page: the older Leonard’s writing echoes throughout Quiver, in the almost complete absence of adjectives, plot told through dialogue, the slang and the contemporary cultural references.

“There is certainly a Leonard sound, started by Elmore,” says Peter, glancing sideways to where his father is lighting up a Virginia Slim cigarette. “We look at the world with a similar point of view. It’s sarcastic at times. It’s an attitude about life.”

Elmore Leonard, the Dickens of Detroit, is one of America’s greatest novelists. But who knew he was also the head of a crime-writing dynasty? Our writer meets him and son Peter, whose first thriller is published next month
Ben Macintyre

I have been granted an audience with Detroit’s most famous crime family. The father, at 82, remains the capo di tutti capi, the undisputed boss: he has wiped out so many people in the course of his career, he lost count long ago. But now his 56-year-old son is joining the family business, and has just completed his first job: five dead, including two by means of a bow and arrow, and a cop, blasted into hamburger meat with a pump-action shot gun.

The old man is pleased.

Elmore Leonard, the “Dickens of Detroit”, is America’s greatest living crime novelist. For more than half a century, he has turned out books at the rate of almost one a year: westerns, mystery fiction, but most importantly crime thrillers. He is the master of the genre, the inventor of a distinct fictional universe that is spare, violent, grittily humorous and set, for the most part, in Detroit.

Next month, however, Quiver, the first book written by his son, Peter, is published: it is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a spare, violent and grittily humorous crime novel set, for the most part, in Detroit.

Father and son are sitting in Peter’s neat and comfortable living room in suburban Detroit. Elmore has walked here from his own home, just a few streets away. Both are smiling, yet tense, for it is an odd situation, this passing of the literary baton from one generation to the next.

Elmore has a thin, almost gaunt, face with wispy beard and sharp eyes behind round spectacles; Peter’s, by contrast, is genial and rounded with a small, fair moustache. There is little obvious family resemblance in the flesh, but plenty on the page: the older Leonard’s writing echoes throughout Quiver, in the almost complete absence of adjectives, plot told through dialogue, the slang and the contemporary cultural references.

“There is certainly a Leonard sound, started by Elmore,” says Peter, glancing sideways to where his father is lighting up a Virginia Slim cigarette. “We look at the world with a similar point of view. It’s sarcastic at times. It’s an attitude about life.”

Quiver is dedicated “to Elmore” (he addresses his father by his first name, never “Dad”) and Peter is disarmingly frank in acknowledging his debt. “Reading Elmore’s books, I thought they’re so good I can’t ever imagine writing something like this…”

“Peter’s book is good, it’s really very good,” interposes Elmore. And Quiver is good. It’s really very good - with some cracking dialogue, clever plotting and an enjoyably bloody climax. It is just not as good as anything Elmore Leonard might have written, and both of them know it.

It is the unstated but inevitable comparison that hangs over the conversation.

Both men, intriguingly, were advertising copywriters before turning to fiction. In the 1950s, Elmore Leonard was working for a Detroit ad agency, knocking out commercials for Chevrolet, when he started working for pulp western magazines, getting up at 5am to write a few pages, before heading to work. Peter started his own advertising agency in 1979. “I still write copy,” he says “but I’d really like to get out.”

Elmore’s twang interject: “I quit the ad agency in ‘61 and thought: ‘The next six months I’m going to write a book’,” as if urging his son to do just that.

I ask if writing advertisements helped them to write fiction; both deny it. “Writing ads really doesn’t help,” says Peter. “You don’t care, you’re not paid to care. There’s no person in the ad.”

Elmore is nodding vigorously. “The characters have their own personalities…the characters, that’s what I like. We both favour characters…as for plot, the plot just comes along.”

Peter: “Writing is about getting into the head of a character.”

Elmore: “I think of a sound. What do they sound like? If they can’t talk, I can have them shot.”

Peter: “I get attached to certain characters.”

Elmore: “If you’ve got characters that you like, and you can make them talk, then it’s in their hands. They’ll say something that surprises you.” Both men are speaking to me, but I suddenly realise they are actually talking to each other. An unacknowledged father-to-son master-class is in progress. The father is, very gently, telling the son how to do something that he has spent his life perfecting. Both are evidently delighted to be sharing a craft, but there is also a small flicker of competitiveness, beneath the affection.

Peter: “But you make it look so easy.”

Elmore: “I throw away two of three pieces of paper to get one.”

Peter: “I throw away five pieces for every one…”

Elmore “It used to be five for me… it took me years and years to develop. I used to use a lot of adverbs back then.”

Peter [in mock horror]: “What were you thinking of..?”

Famously, Elmore Leonard writes on yellow pads, all day, screwing up what doesn’t work, writing out a final version, putting in incidentals (“I add the cigarettes and drinks later”), then tapping it out on a portable typewriter and handing the result to his daughter to put on a computer. “When Elmore was writing in the basement, I’d go down to see him and in the wastebasket there’d be all these little balls of screwed up yellow paper,” says Peter.

A character in Elmore’s most famous novel Get Shorty remarks: “Do I know how to write down words on a piece of paper? That’s what you do, man, you put down one word after the other as it comes into your head.” Elmore Leonard’s prose reads effortlessly but, in the words of Martin Amis, it “makes Raymond Chandler look clumsy”. He writes of hard men with interior lives; crooks who worry about their mothers and then kill without compunction. He offers no easy moral clues. The violence is so casual that, as the writer Walker Percy once observed, “people get shot in dependent clauses”. In Quiver the carnage is just as extreme, but the build-up to it is slower and the tone less detached. When Peter’s characters are gunned down, one senses, it is more of a wrench.

I ask if they plan to write a book together; the response is simultaneous and emphatic.

“No.” “Absolutely not.” There is a small hiatus of embarrassment, before Elmore adds: “I can’t see myself writing with someone else. Ever.”

To say that Peter is not as good at writing crime thrillers as his father is, of course, unfair. Nobody is as good a crime writer as Elmore Leonard, or as prodigious, and the older man had yet to write some of his best novels by the age of 56, including Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Rum Punch (retitled Jackie Brown when Quentin Tarantino made the film).

By his own calculation he has now written 43 novels, as well as numerous short stories and screenplays and shows little sign of slowing up. “I gotta new book coming out shortly, Road Dogs, it’s a prison expression, ‘bout a coupla convicts.” (He really does talk as he writes: I did not hear him utter an adjective.) “I’m still collecting scenes for the next one. I have to find out what it’s about.” The torrent of words has become part of America’s cultural landscape, extending far beyond the printed word. Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was a homage to the writer. The characters in The Sopranos might have muscled out of the pages of Elmore Leonard.

His fiction has ranged to Florida, Hollywood and even Rwanda, but is at its best in the hard-boiled streets of Detroit, relayed in that city’s terse, grimy argot. “I learnt from Hemingway. He made it look so easy. In the Fifties I would pick up For Whom the Bell Tolls and read a little bit before I wrote.” In his homely jumper, sitting on a suburban sofa, it is hard to imagine Elmore Leonard as a literary lion in the tradition of Hemingway, let alone someone imaginatively at home in a world of loan sharks and hookers, wry and brutal lawmen, illegal guns, alcohol and prison. He doesn’t swear and he doesn’t drink, though a long and intense love affair with the bourbon bottle ended with Alcoholics Anonymous in 1974.

Around the same time, Elmore was divorced from Peter’s mother, Beverly.

Although Peter remembers his father as a cheerful presence growing up, Elmore has since conceded that much of his bonhomie came out of a bottle.

Peter is the second of Elmore’s five children, and in a noisy suburban household, Elmore learnt to write anywhere and everywhere. “I remember when you guys were singing Jimi Hendrix and watching Saturday night football, I still managed to turn out eight pages, in the same room.” Leonard would spend long hours in the Detroit police homicide department, learning about guns, cops and “bad guys”.

Peter, however, as a student in Italy, managed to go one farther: he ended up in an Italian maximum security prison after driving off in a taxi as a youthful prank. Elmore Leonard bailed him out, and then sent a laconic note: “Hard time makes the boy the man.”

Elmore was a hard taskmaster. When his son took his first shaky steps into writing, a short story he showed to his father was returned with the typically acerbic observation that the characters were like “strips of leather drying in the sun”, without believable substance. The son, badly stung, gave up writing for many years (he now says that he lacked the maturity to write well).

In his fifties, Peter tried once more, this time with a foray into screenwriting, but Elmore, despite having written numerous screenplays himself, was again dismissive. “He said to me: ‘Why do you want to be a co-pilot when you could be the pilot?’”

Elmore grins wolfishly, unrepentant at having pushed his son in the right direction.

We sit in Peter’s sunny dining room, eating tuna mayonnaise and tomato mozzarella salad. Elmore declines to eat: “I’m gonna have popcorn later.” Peter is charming and hospitable, but somehow uneasy. I sense that he is caught between respectful homage and a small resentment at his father’s presence, both a blessing and burden, the knowledge that he lives under his father’s shadow but might not be published at all without it. Does he mind being compared to his father? He shrugs, not quite convincingly. “I don’t mind, except when they attack me for it, as some critics have done…” The father with the huge reputation and the set ideas; the aspiring son, in awe of him, wanting to make his own way in a world that his father dominates: it could be a scene from one of Elmore’s own books.

Only once does he betray a desire to escape his father’s legacy, when talking about his completed second book, set in Germany in the 1970s, and the book that he is now writing, set in Rome. “These are more international thrillers.” He pauses. “I’m trying to get out of this little niche.” Fictionally, he needs to get out of Detroit.

I hope he does. He clearly has talent, and however derivative it may feel, Quiver is an impressive debut. But the paternal presence is a hard one to escape from. Perhaps he should take up adjectives.

— Quiver by Peter Leonard, is published by Faber and Faber, £14.99, on October 2Like father, like son

Like father, like son?

Kate was standing at the island counter, eyes swollen from crying, makeup smeared across one of her cheeks, staring at the food: platters of cold cuts and bowls of potato salad, plates of cookies, assorted cheeses and fresh fruit. Owen’s obituary, half a page in the Detroit Free Press, was folded open next to the sink. A line under the photograph said, “Owen McCall, age 49, October 11, 2006.” Everybody had paid their respects and taken off, and now she felt exhausted, drained. She poured a glass of chardonnay and lit a cigarette. She was numb, her mind a blur, still trying to come to grips with what had happened.

— Extracted from Quiver (2008) by Peter Leonard

Honey phoned her sister-in-law Muriel, still living in Harlan County, Kentucky, to tell her she’d left Walter Schoen, calling him Valter, and was on her way to being Honey Deal again. She said to Muriel: “I honestly thought I could turn him around, but the man still acts like a Nazi. I couldn’t budge him.” “You walked out,” Muriel said, “just like that?” “I valked out,” Honey said. I’m free as a bird. You know what else? I won’t have to do my roots every two weeks. Dumb me, I spent a whole year wanting him to think I’m a natural blonde.” “He couldn’t tell other ways you aren’t?”

— Extracted from Up in Honey’s Room (2007) by Elmore Leonard

Literary legacies

Stephen King’s son Joseph had his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, published in 2006 under the pen name Joe Hill. “I didn’t want someone to publish my book because of who my dad was or what my last name was,” he once said. The book won rave reviews, and contracts in 13 countries - and a $1.1 million film deal with Warner Brothers.

Martin Amis has said that his father, Kingsley, took no interest in his work and did not even read the novel that he dedicated to him. In a letter to the poet Philip Larkin in 1979, Amis senior famously said of his son: “Last year he earned £38,000. Little shit.”

Alexander Waugh, son of the satirist Auberon and grandson of the novelist Evelyn, long resisted following in the family footsteps. In a letter to his six-year-old son, he wrote: “Do not let [the Waugh name] browbeat you into thinking you have to become a writer, that it is your destiny or your duty to do so. There is no point in writing unless you have something to say and are determined to say it well.”

When Peter Benchley finished Jaws but couldn’t come up with a name, he appealed to his author father, Nathaniel, who wrote The Off-Islanders (which became the film The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming). The dedicated dad came up with 200 suggestions, including What’s That Noshing On My Leg? The publishers suggested The Jaws of Leviathan and the author shortened it.

image


Recent Posts

Elmore Leonard Forever

Elmore Leonard Podcasts

The Enduring Appeal Of Elmore Leonard and Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens

EPIX® Reimagines ‘Get Shorty’ for Television Produced by MGM Television

The Gregg Sutter Blog

Japanese FU-GO Balloon Bombs in Michigan

The Pontiac Story of Progress & Promise

Tom Morwatts on Growing Up in Detroit

Detroit Punks: Mitch Ryder

Amazon 2015 Pilots Now Online – Including Point of Honor

Even Bank Robbers Decide What Tie To Wear: The Essence Of Elmore Leonard

On Twitter

Elmore learned from Hemingway but decided the man didn’t have a sense of humor. Richard Bissell did. Elmore loved… twitter.com/i/web/status/8…
Working title 4 Up in Honey’s Room was “Hitler’s Birthday.” The publisher nixed it. “Hitler doesn’t sell,” she sai… twitter.com/i/web/status/8…
Richard Edgar Monk’s Detroit backyard @1035 State Fair St in The Switch. I added a squirrel. Elmore would not hav… twitter.com/i/web/status/8…
From the @NME. Elmore’s favorite self description. Forget Dickens of Detroit! Would sure like to find the original… twitter.com/i/web/status/8…
Elmore’s French publisher, @EditionsRivages and Italian, @Einaudieditore do great book covers. Here, Lemmy Caution… twitter.com/i/web/status/8…
@CharlesArdai “we all love Chandler ... We already have Elmore Leonard. We don’t need more imitations of those great men. But a new voice,"
@DavidGrann "The author who consistently makes me laugh is Elmore Leonard...who believed, as he put it, ''the bad guys are the fun guys.''
Whatever you do, don't get the paper lined
The answer: Unlined Canary Yellow Paper, 8 1/2 x 11, 60lb, Offset. The pen, in the last several years, was a Pilot v7.
Over the years, there have been many requests from writers who want to know what paper and pen Elmore used to write.
‘Wonder Woman,’ ‘Guardians 2’ Help Push Movie Ticket Prices to New Record High bit.ly/2uDR36I
TV news anchors question O.J. Simpson's sincerity at his parole hearing bit.ly/2vo9mKS pic.twitter.com/6PeUmXiyU0
Why O.J. Simpson doesn't deserve a second chance in Hollywood #OJSimpsonParole bit.ly/2uGy8ry pic.twitter.com/NikeK7zfRz
O.J. Simpson granted parole after more than 8 years behind bars #OJSimpsonParole bit.ly/2ubQC2M pic.twitter.com/vEwhBI9r0m
Linkin Park Releases New Music Video on the Morning of Chester Bennington’s Death bit.ly/2vFXMKz
.@jimmykimmel pays tribute to Linkin Park's Chester Bennington: "He will be missed terribly" bit.ly/2uE24Fr pic.twitter.com/qa4dne9xiN
'OJ: Made in America' director Ezra Edelman speaks about the parallels between O.J. Simpson and Donald Trump… twitter.com/i/web/status/8…
Why O.J. Simpson Should Never Work in This Town Again bit.ly/2uGy8ry
Chester Bennington's death comes on friend Chris Cornell's birthday bit.ly/2uE2taS pic.twitter.com/o7nqfbscT9
Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda Reacts to Chester Bennington’s Death: ‘Shocked and Heartbroken’ bit.ly/2tjXFmR

7