[NOTE: This is from a feature I did for the now-defunct Northwest Airlines WorldTraveler Magazine, back in 2001. For my last story at the Detroit News as a full-time feature writer, in 1999, I interviewed Elmore Leonard at his home -- and stayed three hours, talking about everything. We stayed in touch, and I did some research on stand-up comedy for his novel, Pagan Babies. He was one of a kind, and a simply fantastic story teller, in many forms. He made it look easy -- but it isn't. Trust me. Hope you like this.]
Readers and critics all gush about crime novelist Elmore Leonard’s dialogue, and rightly so.
Take this scene from his most recent novel, Pagan Babies, in which a former convict tries her hand at stand-up comedy. “‘Hi, I’m Debbie Dewey,’” she says to the audience. “‘Or, eight nine five, three two nine… That was my Department of Corrections number while I was down most of three years for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. True story. I was visiting my mom in Florida and happened to run into my ex-husband… with a Buick Riviera.’
“She paused, getting a pretty good response,” Leonard writes, “and said, ‘It was a rental, but it did the job.’”
Or try the first scene of Leonard’s best-seller, Be Cool, in which a character named Tommy Athens describes a band called Road Kill to Chili Palmer, the protagonist of both Get Shorty and Be Cool. “It used to be a hair band,” Athens says. “Now they do post-metal funk with a ska kick.”
That’s not the something you learn in a writers workshop. You can’t coach what Leonard does. But contrary to popular opinion, the most important element of Leonard’s 36 novels — 14 of which became best-sellers, 33 he’s sold to Hollywood — is not sparkling dialogue nor even fast-paced plots but original, engaging characters. Leonard, 75, goes to great lengths to create compelling characters, but once he’s made them, he lets them do whatever comes naturally to their addled brains, like a cast of Frankensteins let loose — and Leonard’s usually as surprised by the results as his readers are. And that helps to explain why Leonard — Dutch to his friends — is so much fun to read.
“Dutch always says your first duty is not to bore people, and that’s true, of course,” says Leonard’s friend and fellow best-seller Carl Hiaasen. “He makes it fun, and he keeps the characters interesting to an extent other writers can’t.”
WALK THE TALK
Leonard’s characters talk the way people really talk, not the way most writers imagine they do, because he carefully researches the kind of people he plans to write about before trying to describe how they speak and act. To prepare for Pagan Babies, a novel about a man posing as a priest in Rwanda and the female comic he meets back in Michigan, Leonard and his researcher Greg Sutter studied the divergent worlds of the civil wars in Africa and stand-up comedy in the U.S. Then Leonard wrestled for weeks with the first fifty pages of the novel, trying to decide if Terry, the male lead, really was a priest, and how successful Debby was going to be as a stand-up comic. Once he got a bead on his characters, however, he ripped through the next two hundred pages without looking back. And he never had any idea how things were going to turn out for them until he started writing the final pages himself.
Leonard makes no secret of his approach. Heck, he spells it all out on the fourth page of Be Cool, when filmmaker Chili Palmer — played by John Travolta in the movie version — tells Hollywood everyman Tommy Athens that great dialogue “‘…has to have an edge, an attitude. So you have to know your characters, I mean intimately, what they have for breakfast, what kind of shoes they wear… Once you know who they are they let you know what the story is.’”
“He could tell Tommy didn’t know what he was talking about.
“‘What I’m saying, I don’t think of a plot and then put characters in it. I start with different characters and see where they take me.’ He watched Tommy nod his head a few times.”
Like Chili Palmer, Elmore Leonard believes you have to see the characters walk before you can hear them talk. And what characters he creates. South Africa’s Nobel Prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer once said she never meets average Americans in American fiction, only white-collar professionals having mid-life crises in psychiatrist offices. But you meet them in Leonard’s novels like Out of Sight, Gold Coast and 52-Pick Up, the latter of which focuses on the owner of an auto parts supplier who’s dodging bombs set by a psychotic union representative.
Leonard has set ten of his 36 novels in Detroit, where he has lived since his family moved there when he was a ten-year-old in 1934. Using Detroit for a backdrop gives Leonard’s stories an earthiness novels set on the New York-LA axis often lack. “People often ask me, ‘Why do you still live here?’” he says. “I don’t know. I could be happy anywhere. If I wasn’t the ‘Dickens of Detroit,’ I’d be the ‘Balzac of Buffalo.’ But I like it here. My family’s here, my friends are here. We go out to the backyard, and I have everything I want. I think readers feel it’s okay for me to show Detroit [in an honest way], because I live here. If an outsider did it, I’d take exception to it, too. It’s done with affection, same with my characters.”
And as for Leonard’s characters, they tend to be very funny, although they’re usually unaware of it. “These people aren’t trying to be funny, they’re serious,” he says. “More often than not, they’re just dumb. But I write about them with affection, even the bad guys. Mostly, I feel sorry for them.”
“Dutch is a guy who has not written a cardboard character in his life — and doesn’t know how to,” Hiaasen says. “That’s about the highest compliment I can pay. He’s never written a character that didn’t surprise me.”
Leonard builds his characters from the ground up, going so far as to try dozens of names until the tumblers in the combination lock click, and the character opens up to him.
“I’m not thinking of a name that will appeal to a reader, but a name so that, just by hearing it, I know them,” he says. “Jack Delany is a hotel burgler, but Frank Matisse is not a hotel burgler.” And this is how you get phony priest Father Terry Dunn, felon turned comic Debbie Dewey, and cigarette smuggler Johnny Pajonny — names that evoke an image the second you hear them, names you can’t forget long after you put the book down.
Once Leonard understands the characters, he says, hearing them speak isn’t so difficult, and his famously adept dialogue starts pouring out. Knowing so much about them allows Leonard to let them speak for themselves, without putting words in their mouths.
“I can hear them speak,” he says, “even if my readers can’t.”
TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.
Of course, Leonard’s readers can hear his characters speak after the books are made into movies, which almost half of them have been. But due to the magic — or madness — of Hollywood, Leonard’s fans don’t always hear the same characters Leonard created.
“When they’re turning one of my books into a movie, they rarely ask the writer’s advice, and when they do, they never take it,” Leonard laments. “Some of my fans ask me if it hurts to see them ruin my book. But I say, they didn’t ruin my book, they just made a bad movie out of it. The book’s still there. They can’t touch it — thank God.
“But on ‘Get Shorty,’ [director] Barry Sonnenfeld came over a few times and asked me if I had any suggestions. I couldn’t believe it! What a novel idea, asking the book writer his opinion. The whole thing was completely satisfying — and it’s amazing how many doors that movie opened up for me doing research for Be Cool, about the music business.”
IMPATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
It doesn’t take long after Leonard’s characters start talking before they get themselves into trouble, trouble as surprising to the readers as it is to the author.
“I have no idea where the story’s going, nor any idea how it’s going to end,” he admits. “I just start it. I don’t want to know how it ends. It’s more fun to make it up. Writers who make outlines have a hard time finishing, because all your enthusiasm went into your outline. How do you get it back?”
Leonard is just as impatient as the typical reader, too. He says he’s a slow reader, taking in maybe 200 words a minute, so he doesn’t “feel an obligation to finish a book just because I started it. I start a lot of books, but I can always see places to cut. Most writers use too many words.”
To keep his readers, and himself, from getting bored, Leonard long ago pledged to cut out all the stuff readers skip — the long descriptions, the endless asides, the tedious flashbacks. As a result, Leonard seems to have as much fun writing his novels as his fans do reading them.
His life hasn’t always been so much fun. Ask him the low point of his life, and he doesn’t miss a beat. “January 24, 1977,” he says, “at 9:30 in the morning, my last drink. Scotch and Vernor’s. I was even trying to hide what I was doing from myself.” Leonard stopped cold turkey, leaving the rest of his life to enjoy his success.
Ask him his high point, and again, he doesn’t flinch. “Right now,” he says. “Writing’s the most satisfying thing I can think of doing — especially knowing I’m the only one I have to please. I’m having an awfully good time.”
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FOURTH AND LONG SCHEDULE OF EXCERPTS, REVIEWS, INTERVIEWS, STORIES AND EVENTS:
(Initial list — more soon)
My next book, “Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football,” will be published by Simon & Schuster on September 3, 2013. It can be pre-ordered now on this very website, johnubacon.com, on the home page.
I’ll have updates on the book tour events, the schedule of excerpts and radio and TV appearances very soon, but here are the first events, with more information to come. To attend, feel free to contact these organizations to reserve your spot. We WILL have books available for all at all these stops, even those that pre-date the publication date.
-Tuesday, August 20, lunchtime: Columbus, Ohio, Rotary Club, lunchtime.
-Monday, August 26, 5:30 p.m.: UM Alumni Club of Chicago, at the Diag Bar.
-Friday, September 6, 6 p.m.: Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor.
-Tuesday, September 10, 6 p.m.: UM Alumni Club of Grand Rapids, at the Louis Benton Steakhouse.
EXCERPTS, REVIEWS, INTERVIEWS AND STORIES
Friday, August 16:
The Wall Street Journal: excerpt on how Penn State kept their team together
Tuesday, August 20:
Columbus Rotary Club — full house, sold out.
Thursday, August 22:
Excerpt on Penn State for Yahoosports.com
Friday, August 23:
MGoBlog.com: Excerpt on Michigan’s Marching Band, and the Alabama game
Elevenwarriors.com: Excerpt on Urban Meyer, behind the scenes.
Sippinonpurple.com: Excerpt on Pat Fitzgerald, behind the scenes.
Monday, August 26:
UM Club of Chicago at the Diag bar, 5:30, book speech and signing
Tuesday, September 3:(Times to come)
Later that week, interviews with: WTKA-Ann Arbor-Detroit, WGN-Chicago, WBEZ-Chicago Public Radio, and more.
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On Sunday mornings, from the start of football season to the end of March Madness, I co-host “Off the Field” with the legendary Jamie Morris on WTKA from 10-11 a.m. And yes, there will be a quiz, so “stop what you’re doing, and listen!”
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