Elmore Leonard talks about his career as a novelist whose work is a reliable source of material for Hollywood
Elmore Leonard makes crime pay
The veteran crime writer Elmore Leonard never seems to go out of fashion. At 85, he has a new novel, Djibouti, out now, and his most recent project, the television series Justified, shown on the US channel FX, has survived its first successful season to be recommissioned - no small feat in the brutal world of American TV drama. ("No other TV show I've been involved with has run for more than six instalments," Leonard notes ruefully.)
He didn't write the scripts, but they were based on two of his novels, Pronto and Riding the Rap, and a short story called Down in the Hole, which was used for the pilot. Justified stars Timothy Olyphant as US Marshal Raylan Givens, and Leonard likes it so much that in his next novel he's going to revive the character to tie in with it: "There'll be three different women as antagonists whom he sort of falls in love with or at least is interested in a way which complicates his position in the story."
More than 20 of Leonard's inimitable novels and stories have been turned into films, among them Get Shorty,Out of Sight,Hombre and Rum Punch (which Quentin Tarantino filmed as Jackie Brown). Some have even been done twice like 3.10 to Yuma, which Leonard wrote in 1953 and was filmed first in 1956 with Glenn Ford, then again three years ago with Russell Crowe. "I like them both," says Leonard, "but I didn't care for the ending of the second one. I didn't understand it."
Born in New Orleans in 1925, the son of a General Motors site locator, Leonard joined the navy after university, then wrote fiction in his spare time while he worked as a copywriter on advertisements and educational films about such subjects as air pollution and building highways.
He didn't enjoy this day job: "I wanted to get out, but I had to wait seven years for my profit-share in the company to come through. So I would get up at 5am and work until 7. At that time I could do around a page an hour because I didn't know any better. Nowadays, I start at 10am and go on until 6pm. I skip lunch, just have some peanuts or something. Time still flies by. If I ever don't feel like writing I say to myself: 'Just sit down and start and you'll feel like it in a minute or so.'"
He never finds it a chore?
"No. There are parts that are difficult, when I'm stumped and think: Now what happens? But I walk away from it for a few minutes - maybe answer the phone, something like that - then I come back to my paper and there it is. I write in longhand, then I put it on a typewriter. I don't have any of the modern electronics.'
The western was the most popular genre when he was starting out. "There were a couple dozen pulp magazines and the better ones paid two cents a word, so I aimed for those," he said.
His first novel, The Bounty Hunters, appeared in 1953, but the popularity of westerns soon waned because of a superfluity of poor-quality television shows. "There were about 30 on during prime time," Leonard remembers, "and I didn't like any of them because they all ended the same way, with two guys meeting in the main street and drawing their guns, which probably never happened." The writing on the wall was telling him to switch to crime stories instead. So he did.
Leonard thinks the appeal of his books to filmmakers is not only their focus on snappy dialogue but the way they come pre-structured as a series of scenes. His trademark lean style, which Martin Amis has called "a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities", was something he worked hard to achieve. His pride in it is reflected in his Ten Rules of Writing, originally published in The New York Times and then in book form earlier this year. "Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip" is one of them. "If it sounds like writing, rewrite it" is another. A particular bugbear of Leonard's is "hooptedoodle", the word John Steinbeck coined for show-offy, "literary" writing that impedes the progress of a story.
"The Rules have become kind of popular," says Leonard, sounding vaguely surprised. "I wrote them in 2000, in a single afternoon, when I was guest of honour at a writer's conference. I was laughing at them, and then I thought: Actually, I believe in them, they're true. I don't use words that might impress. I only use words that my characters would use as I'm mostly writing from their point of view. There's not a lot of me talking."
Elmore's son, Peter, is a writer too - of thrillers that stand comparison with his father's. Are the pair competitive? "We talk about our books, but I don't feel we're competing. He thinks he should get more into story than I do. I never know what my books are going to be about. I start by assembling a bunch of characters who all have a problem of some kind or another. It seems to work out, but it's not really plotting. I'm not concerned that much with plot. I just like to see the characters interacting. I have fun that way."
I wonder if he has a favourite among his 47 novels. Or are they like children he loves equally?
"I like 'em all," he says. "I'm always surprised when a critic says, 'This one's much better than the last five.' I think: Why? Because to me they're all about the same."
10 Rules of Writing is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Justified - Season 1 is out on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
The best of Elmore Leonard
Filmed in 1967 with Paul Newman, Leonard's best-known western is the story of John Russell, raised as an Apache and on his way to live as a white man when the stagecoach he's travelling on is hijacked by outlaws.
La Brava (1984)
Joe La Brava is a photographer in Miami who gets drawn into an extortion plot involving a formerly glamorous movie queen he had a crush on when he was younger. It won the Edgar Award for Best Novel.
Freaky Deaky (1988)
One of Leonard's personal favourites, this is the story of three former revolutionaries, now out of prison and looking to put their skills to good use.
Out of Sight (1996)
Beautifully paced (and beautifully adapted as a film by Steven Soderbergh a few years later), this tracks the unlikely romance between an ex-con hustler, Jack Foley, and Karen Cisco, a federal marshal.