Author Elmore Leonard is living proof that there are exceptions to F. Scott Fitzgerald's line about American lives having no second acts. As Leonard has gotten older, he's gained literary celebrity and indirect Hollywood clout, all by following the path he was on all along. Born in New Orleans in 1925, Leonard found a permanent home and a permanent nickname, "Dutch," upon moving to Detroit in 1934. After serving in WWII, he began writing Westerns, turning out novels and short stories like "3:10 To Yuma" while working for an ad agency and, later, Encyclopedia Britannica Films. In the mid-'60s, as the market for Westerns waned, Leonard switched to crime fiction with The Big Bounce. In the following years, he alternated writing screenplays and novels, sometimes adapting his own work. In the early '80s, Leonard began to receive mainstream recognition for pairing humor and inimitable dialogue with convincingly gritty crimescapes; the combination carried over well into films like Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, and Out Of Sight. Leonard's latest novel, Tishomingo Blues, features a high diver, a Detroit con artist, roughneck Southern criminals, and a Civil War reenactment. In all likelihood, only Leonard could make such disparate elements work together, even if–as he explains in a recent interview with The Onion A.V. Club–he simply makes it up as he goes along.
The Onion: You used to write two hours each day before going to work?
Elmore Leonard: That was back in the '50s.
O: What's your schedule like now?
EL: Now it's 9:30 or 10 a.m. until 6.
O: That's just steady writing?
EL: Yeah, but back then I could write a page an hour. Now I can't. I write maybe four pages a day. Five is a real good day, in eight hours.
O: Why do you think that is?
EL: Because it gets harder. You don't want to repeat yourself, and you're trying to make it better. Back 50 years ago, I didn't know any better. You could write a page an hour.
O: What was it like making the transition from Westerns to crime in the '60s?
EL: I had to make a transition, because the Western market was gone, because of television. I felt I was through with Westerns anyway, even though I did three more. The last one was in '79, called Gunsights. I used to refer to that as if it were full of outtakes from the other Westerns.
O: Though it's one of your contemporary Detroit novels, City Primeval, which follows it, is still very much a Western, isn't it?
EL: It is. It's an Eastern Western, and it's the only Western I ever wrote, Eastern or Western, that has the showdown at the end where they're facing each other and they're gonna go for their guns. I never did that in any of my stories, because if you want to shoot somebody, you don't meet them in the street and somebody counts to three.
O: A lot of readers see City Primeval as a turning point for your writing. Would you agree?
EL: I think the turning point was in the '70s, with Unknown Man No. 89 and Fifty-Two Pickup and those. That's when I finally got the confidence to let it go and have some fun with it. Before that, in the Westerns especially, there's no humor at all. There's no irony to speak of, and that's all the humor is. It's my humor. Because all these guys are serious. They can be funny, but they're serious when they deliver their lines. It's just that they're kind of out of context with what they're talking about.
O: Do you think you always had that humor, or is it something you kind of aged into?
EL: No, I think I've always had it, but I learned… I studied Hemingway so closely, everything that he wrote, and I feel that I learned to write from him. But eventually I didn't detect a sense of humor with the man, and I had to look elsewhere.
O: You've said that one of your secrets is that you leave out the stuff that people skip. What's your litmus test for that?
EL: Well, I think it's mostly a lengthy description. With certain writers, you want to read it because they know how to write, but 90 percent of the writers… They start describing something, and you see them trying to write and become perhaps even poetic, and I think it's a waste of time. I go back to Hemingway: What did he describe? What did he describe in a person? Very little. And then you get to John Steinbeck, with his… My first rule is, never open a book with weather, what it's doing outside. Second, don't open a book with a prologue, because you're wasting time. Most prologues, especially in fiction, are about the backstory, and you can put backstory in any time you want. But in Steinbeck's prologue to Sweet Thursday... I went back to that, because I remembered that for certain chapters—well, actually, two out of maybe 30—he labeled those chapters "Hooptedoodle." He warns you in his prologue, "This is where I'm really gonna do some writing, and you can skip it if you want, because I've put it aside so it won't get in the way of the story." He also has a character in his prologue from Cannery Row saying, "I don't want to read the writer's description of a person. I don't want the writer telling me what somebody looks like. I want to figure it out from the way he talks and the way he is." I've always remembered that. In fact, it's not so much memory. I thought that I made it up. I had forgotten that I read that in his prologue in '54 or '55. I want my books to be very readable. I want you to start reading and be pulled into the story and not be aware of me. So that's in my rules. I try to show rather than tell, though the literary writer has a tendency to tell. He's telling the whole thing from his point of view. He's the omniscient author, and he's telling it all because he has the language. Martin Amis has the language, Margaret Atwood has the language, Philip Roth has the language. I don't, so I have to have my character tell you what's going on.
O: You tend to let your characters describe each other, too.
EL: Right. That's important, because it not only describes the characters to some degree, but it also tells what the one describing thinks of him. Even weather, for that matter. If somebody looks out the window in my book, he has an attitude about the weather.
O: Do you think your work as an advertising copywriter helped you…
O: Not at all?
EL: Not at all. Before I got a job as a copywriter, I was with an agency. I had already written and sold about 10 short stories and a book. And I knew what kind of sound I wanted to develop, but that takes a while. It takes 10 or 15 years to get confidence in the style that you want to develop. I saw Hemingway doing it, and I see other writers doing it. I was impressed by John O'Hara's dialogue, and I would learn from and imitate as many as I could. I think that's the best way to learn: to just read and imitate for a while, until you finally get your own voice.
O: You've had luck with getting that voice into film adaptations.
EL: The problem is that you take a 350-page manuscript and bring it down to a 110- or 120-page shooting script, and you've lost a lot of good stuff. But then Barry Sonnenfeld came along with Get Shorty, and he saw how to do it.
O: The dialogue is basically written for them with your books.
EL: But they're more interested in plot in Hollywood than they are in character. All my books are character-driven. The story comes out of the characters. I don't even know what my book is about until I get about 100 pages in.
O: What do you think is the most common misconception about criminals?
EL: That they sound like and always talk and act like criminals. I think they're only criminals when they're committing a crime. The guy who devotes his life to crime and eventually ends up in prison, I think he'll have a certain sound that you can't miss. I hear from convicts, and they want to know how I know what they know—how I get into their head. You just learn from documentaries, or books about prison life, or a feature story in the newspaper about particular prisons. I've visited prisons. Angola in Louisiana, I went through there and talked to convicts. But you make it up. And then the reviewer says, "Boy, he's got it dead-on. He's got that dialogue exactly the way they talk, but how does he know?" You can get by with it.
O: When your work broke through in the '80s, was it a relief to have respectability at last?
EL: Yeah. Well, it surprised me. And I was fortunate that I had stuck to what I wanted to do. Because in '66, '67, when we sent out my first non-Western, The Big Bounce, it was rejected by everybody. Everyone in Hollywood rejected it. Anyone who cared to say anything said, "Well, it's a downer. There's nobody you'd like to associate with." The main character is a former burglar and a migrant worker. In the movie, of course, he turns out to be a returned Vietnam War vet.
O: Your books touch on a lot of social and racial issues. But have you ever written a book with an agenda?
EL: No. It just comes out in the characters' attitudes. And they talk about movies and they talk about music, because that's what we do.
O: Do you ever find there's a subject you want to cover, or is that incidental to your work?
EL: There's a time I want to do, and I probably will in my next book, and that's the 1930s. I was impressed by the '30s. I was 5 to 10 years old. In the mid-'30s, I was living in Oklahoma, Texas, and Memphis before coming to Detroit. This was the period of all these desperadoes that were robbing banks: Bonnie and Clyde, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd. And they were all heroes. The banks were all foreclosing on everyone's homes and farms and everything. I want to develop a famous Oklahoma lawman out of the '30s and see what I can do with him. I'll use a lot of what I remember, of course, and do a lot of research. On songs… Every once in a while, I'll start whistling or singing a song from that period or the '40s, and I'll wonder, "How do I know all the words to that song, yet I don't know the words to current songs?" Except with Be Cool, I had to get back into rock 'n' roll. I shouldn't say "get back into." I heard it all when my kids were teenagers. Now they go from 36 to 51, and they're still playing a lot of that music. I heard it all, but I didn't really sit down and listen to it until I had to get into it seriously, when I was writing Be Cool.
O: Did you find something you liked?
EL: A lot. Sure. And I like heavy metal. I like the real '70s rock 'n' roll: Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, and those. Aerosmith I met, and I asked them, "Do you want to be in the book?" And they said, "Sure."
O: How does your arrangement with researcher Gregg Sutter work?
EL: Gregg now lives in L.A., because he moved there to research Be Cool. He's been working for me since 1980 or '81 and getting me everything I need. I'll spend some time with the police when he's not around, but for the most part, he gets 99 percent of it. Like I'll say, "Find me a bail bondsman in Palm Beach County." So he'll talk to a few bail bondsmen, pick one out who's willing to cooperate, and spend a couple of days with the guy and learn what he does. And then I'll go down and spend a day with the guy and see where he lives and works, and what kind of guns he has, and so on. Although I'm not going to use that bail bondsman. I'm going to drop my character into the job.
O: In the early '70s, you used to write books and develop movies simultaneously. Are you happy to have left that process behind?
EL: I am. I'm not going to ever write another movie, because it's just work. You're an employee, and you do what you're told and you get your money. I did that for about 15 years, and it did support the book writing. But I don't want to work that way. I don't know why anyone would want to be a screenwriter. If they don't like what you write, they just say, "Get another writer. They're a dime a dozen." There are 8,000 members of the writer's guild. You can imagine how many are working at any given time.
O: How did it occur to you that a Civil War reenactment would be a good place to set Tishomingo Blues?
EL: Well, I just stumbled on the reenactment as I was nosing around trying to find out what the book would be about. I started with the high diver, and I don't know why. I was still writing the last book, Pagan Babies, near the end, when I thought of a high diver. So then my researcher and I found out where they were putting up their ladder and getting ready to perform. As soon as I finished Pagan Babies, we visited them in Panama City, Florida, and learned all about high divers. And I thought, "This guy could be a good main character." But I had to have some crime in the book. I read a lot about the Dixie Mafia—not an organized criminal organization at all, but just guys who get into big crime in the South. I think it's more a term that the press uses than they do, although they probably like it. Then I thought, "I gotta bring a guy down from Detroit, so I'll feel at home with someone." Then I started reading about the Civil War reenactment, and went to a couple of reenactments, and decided, "Well, why not put it all together and see if it comes out?" With Tishomingo Blues, I started with the title, because I heard a guy singing it here in a club, probably 10 years ago or more. I referred to the song in Freaky Deaky, but I wanted to do more with it. I wanted to use it as a title. And there's a Tishomingo County in Mississippi, so that was that. That gave me the location, but Tishomingo County is bare land, for the most part. So I moved it west, over to Tunica, which is just south of Memphis, a place where there could be a lot of crime, and that was that.
O: You've written a lot of books over the years. Are there any you'd like forgotten?
EL: No. There are a couple where I went with the wrong main character. In Pronto, I went with the character who, when I was writing it, was my age, 67. When he got about 100 pages in, he was in character, but I lost interest in him, because he was getting hard to get along with. He was drinking again, and it all added to the plot, but I didn't care that much for the guy anymore. I had to bring another character on, who wasn't introduced until page 40, this guy Raylan Givens, the federal marshal in Kentucky. I could write a book about him any time. I made him a lot more important and opened the next book, Riding The Rap, with Raylan. So I gave him his due.
O: I take it that you don't work from a tight outline.
EL: I don't have even a loose outline. I just make it up as I go along. E.L. Doctorow says you write the book to find out what it's about. I sure agree with that. He says it's like following your headlights driving at night down a country road. You can't see where you're going, but you get there.