Interview: Elmore Leonard
(My interview with Elmore Leonard can be described as a memorable experience, sitting in his office and looking at that typewriter and trusty old desk while Elmore explained the craft of writing was as good as it gets. He was also a very warm and gentle man who seemed more comfortable in t-shirt and jeans than wearing a suit and tie. He will be missed.)
Elmore Leonard can easily be described as the greatest living American crime writer, yet he is also one of the most humble and gracious authors I’ve ever met. It is hard to imagine that this gentle and quiet man has created a world populated by all sorts of unsavory characters, from corrupt police officers and sadistic criminals to nefarious femmes fatales and tormented heroes. One of the enduring qualities of Leonard’s writing is that he never gives us clear-cut endings, completely evil villains, or completely honorable men and women. Heroes and villains alike are painted in shades of gray. The charm of his books lies not only in his creative plots and interesting characters but also in the way he captures the essences of the wide variety of locales his novels are set in, from the mean streets of Detroit to turn of the century Cuba, the seedier parts of South Florida, and modern day Rwanda.
In 1985 Leonard’s novel Glitz hit the best sellers list. Since then he’s had fifteen novels make it to The New York Times Best Sellers list, including Freaky Deaky (1988), Killshot (1989), Rum Punch (1992), and Pagan Babies (2000). Despite the mass appeal and popularity of Leonard’s works, they have received wide critical and literary acclaim for their vivid characterizations and terse, realistic dialogue.
Before he turned his talents to crime writing, Leonard had been a successful and well respected author of westerns. In 1953, he published his first novel The Bounty Hunters and over the next eight years published five more novels and scores of shorts stories, of which “3:10 to Yuma” (1953), Hombre (1961), “The Captives” (1953, which later became the film The Tall T), and Valdez is Coming (1970) made it to the big screen.
Over the course of his career, Elmore Leonard has won numerous awards. In 1984 he was awarded the Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America for his novel La Brava. He was also nominated for an Edgar for best paperback original in 1979 for The Switch, and for best novel in 1983 for Split Images. In 1992 Leonard was named a Grandmaster of the MWA. In 2006, he received the Cartier Diamond Dagger lifetime achievement award from the Crime Writers’ Association of England for his contribution to the genre.
This fall two film adaptations of Leonard’s works will be released in theaters nationwide—Killshot starring Diane Lane, and a remake of 3:10 to Yuma starring Russell Crowe. His latest novel, Up In Honey’s Room, was just released by William Morrow.
Elmore Leonard lives in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan with his wife Christine
AFG: I know that in your latest book, Up in Honey’s Room, Carl Webster, ‘the hot kid’ from your previous novel reappears. Tell me a little more about the new book.
EL: Yes, Carl is one of the characters, but I think Honey is the real main character. Carl’s dad was in Cuba Libre. (He was on the Maine when it exploded, and he survived.) In The Hot Kid his son, Carl, becomes a federal marshal. That book was set mainly in the early ’30s and ended in ’34. It treated some of the desperados of the time, and I made one up, of course. And then Carl Webster continued in a fourteen part serial I wrote for The New York Times Book Review called Comfort to the Enemy. In the ’40s, there were five hundred camps and three hundred fifty thousand prisoners in this country. The enlisted men had to do farm labor and then non-coms and officers could go out and work if they wanted to. Carl Webster gets to know a couple of Afrika Korps officers—Otto Penzler, the SS major, and the other guy, Jurgen Shrenk, who was just a tank commander but is an important character. At the end of that serial, those two escape and Carl knows that they will be heading for Detroit, because one of them lived in Detroit during the ’30s, when his dad, a Ford engineer, came to town to work. So when Up in Honey’s Room starts, Jurgen and Otto are in Detroit. And we meet Honey who was married to a German sympathizer—a German national who became an American citizen. He looks exactly like Heinrich Himmler, and so he thinks he must have a destiny because Himmler does. (They were born on the same day, he says, in the same hospital in Munich.) He doesn’t know what his destiny could be, but he figures it out during the book. Then Carl Webster comes to Detroit and he meets Honey who will introduce him to her former husband, this very dour German sympathizer. (She used to tell him jokes but he never understood any of them and finally she gave up and divorced him.) But now she, Honey, likes Carl Webster, but his wife, Louly, who we meet in The Hot Kid, killed two guys in that book, which makes Honey somewhat hesitant about going after Louly’s husband. Meanwhile Louly is at a marine air base teaching the marines how to fire machine guns out of the back end of a dive bomber, and Carl hears from her a couple of times throughout the book. She always asks him if he is being good, you know, and he says he doesn’t have time to not be good. But Honey comes along and he is sorely tempted. So that becomes a big part of the book. And the other part is the two escaped Nazis—Will they be caught? When will they contact Vera Mezwa, the Ukrainian spy who is working for the Germans, and her houseman Bohdan? He pretends to be gay—he has a Buster Brown haircut—but he is a cross-dresser, he loves to wear women’s clothes and, you know, if he is good then he can wear her black sequin dress. They have a meeting one night when he could wear the party dress if he wants, but he chooses a gray skirt and sweater and everyone compliments him on the outfit. I mean, even the good guys—even the ones who you accept like the German POW.
You know, I never know really what my book is going to be about until I get into it and start to write it. According to reviewers, this one has less evidence of plot than normally, but I am not heavy on plot anyway. I like to just get the characters going. The plot comes out of their relationship, how they react to one another.
AFG: What’s interesting about a lot of the very good writers such as yourself is that they don’t form a plot before they start writing; they just draw the characters together and see what happens. But do you ever get to a point where you don’t know where the book is going, because you haven’t had a beginning or an end in your mind?
EL: Well, not really. One time I was writing Cuba Libre and George Will called and he said, “I would like to send you forty books, if you would just inscribe them to friends of mine and then ship them back Fed-Ex.” I said, “Sure, I’ll be happy to.” And he said, “What are you working on?” and I told him, Cuba in 1898. And he says, “Ah, crime in Cuba.” And I hung up the phone and it dawned on me; I didn’t have a crime in the book. I had what is going on, you know, but no crime as such. So then I was probably about two hundred pages in and I had to go back and weave a crime story into it.
AFG: One of the things I love about your books is that the villains have a lot of humanity.
EL: Well, I try to make them real, and I have a fondness for all of my characters, even the bad guys who are bad because they are selfish or dumb or lazy. I only had one really evil guy, I thought, and I didn’t care much for him. He was just a bad guy, but he was kind of cute. I mean, his mother was nice to him, you know, but he wasn’t nice to his mother.
AFG: So many of your characters are gangsters and low-lifes and criminals who are so life-like yet you live a quiet suburban life.
EL: Well, I know. I was talking to a guy at the Telluride Film Festival who was working for the festival, and he said, “I did a few years in prison, and I think it is amazing that these guys talk exactly like your characters.” And he wanted to know if I had ever done time. Whenever I hear from anybody who is in prison, they all want to know if I have done time. And this guy at the festival said, “I was in for three years on a drug charge, and I couldn’t convince the court that the marijuana I had was just for my own use.” I said, “Well how much did you have? And he said, “four hundred pounds” [laughs] which would have taken him awhile…yeah?
AFG: Sounds like a lifetime supply, I think. So are any of your books coming to the big screen in the next couple of years?
EL: Killshot directed by John Madden, who did Shakespeare in Love. And then last Friday I was in LA and I saw a remake of 3:10 to Yuma. That was a forty-five hundred-word short story. I got ninety dollars for it from Dime Western Magazine; they paid two cents a word and were one of the bigger paying pulps at that time. I saw the original movie fairly recently and it holds up.
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