Crime novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard died on 20/8/2013 at the age of 87.
This conversation was first broadcast on 2/9/09.
Ramona Koval: Today the writer who is regarded as an American national treasure, Elmore Leonard. At the age of 83 he’s published his 42nd novel, Road Dogs. He’s been described by Canadian literary grand dame Margaret Attwood as ‘the maestro’. In the 1950s Elmore Leonard started out writing westerns, some of which became movies. When the western market dried up in the early 1970s he turned to crime fiction. He’s a master of street lingo, whether he’s writing about black rap crooks or Latino drug lords or neo-Nazi hoods, and he takes us into the world of crime which is a complex moral landscape at the same time as being immensely entertaining.
One of his basic rules for writing (I love this one) is ‘Leave out the parts people will skip anyway, starting with descriptions of the weather and scenery’ and ‘If it sounds like writing, re-write it’, and we’ll get to more of those later.
In Road Dogs, his new book, we meet three characters from previous novels: Jack Foley the handsome legendary bank robber from Out of Sight, as played by George Clooney in the film; Cundo Ray, the Cuban hustler from LaBrava; and Dawn Nevarro, the con artist and supposed psychic from Riding the Rap.
Foley has been serving time in prison with Cundo, they’re ‘road dogs’, they watch each other’s backs. Cundo, who has access to money, hires a lawyer who wins Jack’s freedom. He travels to Venice, Los Angeles, where Cundo’s lover Dawn and his partner Little Jimmy are keeping an eye on Cundo’s money and properties. Cundo himself is obsessed with whether sexy Dawn has been faithful to him during his eight years in prison. There’s also Lou Adams the FBI man who’s stalking Foley, determined to arrest him and write a book about him.
Elmore Leonard joins us now from his home in Detroit, Michigan. Welcome to The Book Show Elmore Leonard.
Elmore Leonard: Thank you. You just about told the whole story.
Ramona Koval: I didn’t tell the important bits though.
Elmore Leonard: No, you didn’t.
Ramona Koval: You must be the only industry left in Detroit now.
Elmore Leonard: Well, I guess I’m one of them, yes. We’re struggling along. General Motors declared bankruptcy and I don’t know what happens, but I think they’ll come back.
Ramona Koval: Now, you’re an owner, aren’t you? You’re one of the 60% public ownership in General Motors.
Elmore Leonard: I don’t have any stock in GM, no.
Ramona Koval: But public money went into it.
Elmore Leonard: I suppose, sure.
Ramona Koval: ‘Road dogs’, that’s the relationship that Jack and Cundo have in the prison, they protect each other, but clearly what goes on in prison doesn’t necessarily work outside. In this book would it be right to say you’re interested in the idea of male friendships?
Elmore Leonard: That’s what was told to me. I never know what my theme is. Usually it’s a screen writer who tells me because they seem so interested in themes. But in reviews I see that it’s about male friendship, yes, it’s about loyalty, people on the verge of giving up any sense of loyalty that they had. And I guess that’s what it’s about, yes.
Ramona Koval: So for you it’s just about telling another bit of a story that you’ve been telling for a long time?
Elmore Leonard: From the characters’ point of view, always, yes.
Ramona Koval: So do you feel as if you’ve written one huge novel over the years when these characters come back and forward and mix with each other, they haven’t met each other in previous novels and they’re meeting each other now?
Elmore Leonard: I don’t think I’ve written the big one yet, because these are somewhat small ideas that develop, and they develop into scenes from the different points of view of the characters, but it’s definitely character driven and you’re in favour of one over another, and it’s what’s happening that really makes my books, not the end, not whatever the payoff is. I’ve had a couple of editors tell me, ‘Your book ends awfully abruptly,’ and that’s practically any book. I say, ‘I know, but it’s over.’ And once an editor said, ‘Why don’t you just let it coast a little bit and then turn it off?’ Which I did, I added three pages and took out two, and it wasn’t that much different.
Ramona Koval: So you talked about screen people telling you what the subject matter is, but your characters here, they seem to be movie buffs, they watch cops and robbers movies, don’t they.
Elmore Leonard: Yes, they watch all kinds. In the book I’m writing right now they’re talking about Dr Strangelove because one of the characters is an extremely rich man, he’s very serious the way he talks to his girlfriend, and his girlfriend thinks of him in Dr Strangelove, Sterling Hayden, and then there are a couple of other references to movies also, because I think people are interested in movies, they go to movies, and then to see a reference in a book I think can be interesting, they remember it.
Ramona Koval: Is the book you’re writing now the one that has to do with Indian Ocean pirates?
Elmore Leonard: Yes, exactly. I started researching it last November when not much was going on, but then it built up quickly, and then when the American ship a few weeks ago was high-jacked, then it was all over the press here. But before that it wasn’t a story that interested many people.
Ramona Koval: Why did it interest you?
Elmore Leonard: I don’t know, I just saw…I liked the idea that the pirates in the beginning were looked upon with sympathy, they had been rooted out of their fishing grounds, toxic waste dumped in, things like that, and they had to resort of piracy. This is not rational of course but still it did arouse sympathy in some people. So I have a woman who’s a filmmaker who does the little films…she does films about things, about people…anyway, she wants to shoot the pirates and get their story and develop it into a movie. She’s out there looking for people to interview and she’s already met a pirate when they landed…she lands in Djibouti which is the south end of the Red Sea, and that evening she meets one of the pirates in his Mercedes. He owns several homes, because they’re making a lot of money. So she’s intrigued with these people, and this guy is kind of show-off but that’s all right, he’s having fun. And she meets the other characters as they come along, and now where we are is what’s going on right now. And some suspicions that something much bigger is going to happen.
Ramona Koval: And so Dr Strangelove comes into that somehow.
Elmore Leonard: Because of the way one of the characters, Billy, he’s a billionaire sailing around the world with his girlfriend, the way he reacts, unlike Sterling Hayden who played General Ripper…
Ramona Koval: That is a ripper name for a general, isn’t it.
Elmore Leonard: Yes, it’s perfect. And…
Ramona Koval: Back to this book Road Dogs and this idea that people quote movies, they’re great fans of Al Pacino in Scarface, aren’t they.
Elmore Leonard: Yes, indeed.
Ramona Koval: And they know the lines. Do they want to be Tony Montana?
Elmore Leonard: Yes, they do, especially they guy who handles Cundo Rey’s finances while he was in prison.
Ramona Koval: Little Jimmy.
Elmore Leonard: Little Jimmy, yes.
Ramona Koval: And they quote that line, ‘All I’ve got in this world are my balls and my word. I don’t break them for anybody.’ But what about your own experience about being in the film world and seeing your books made into movies? I don’t think that’s been such a pleasure for you.
Elmore Leonard: No, not usually. But I would say there’s been at least five good ones. I think I’ve sold about 20 properties to Hollywood, and I’m very optimistic so I expect a good movie to come out of this and often it doesn’t. Well, that’s the way it is. I just accept that. It’s just part of the business. But I still remain optimistic, and I think this would be a terrific movie with George playing it.
Ramona Koval: Your language is fantastic and you have such a reputation for being masterful in the way you tell these stories. You capture the rhythms and even the grammar of the way everybody speaks. I notice that, just things like the word ‘if’ you don’t use. ‘If I go over there, then you’re not going to thank me for what I do’ might be…they say, ‘I go over there, you won’t thank me for what I do’. What is it about losing that ‘if’ that makes it so real?
Elmore Leonard: I think it just is a delay. It’s just the way I think these people speak. But you’re right though, almost always no matter who it is, in other books I always leave out the ‘if’.
Ramona Koval: Is that because you know people who talk like that or..?
Elmore Leonard: Yes, of course, that’s the way I hear it in my head. I hear all these people talking, that’s the way I hear it. I suppose certain characters in this particular book…there’s a half Saudi, half English who went to school at Oxford, and he does put on that Brit way of talking but doesn’t overdo it, and I think he would use all of his words and say ‘if’ if that ever comes up and it probably will.
Ramona Koval: So you do hear them in your head. Do you do the voices, do you speak them aloud?
Elmore Leonard: Not aloud, no.
Ramona Koval: You’ve got some fantastic rules for writing that you wrote in an essay a while ago. Could we talk about them?
Elmore Leonard: Yes.
Ramona Koval: I love this first rule of writing because I so agree with it, as they say in the current demotic; ‘Never open a book with weather.’ When I see a book opening with weather, my heart sinks. Why is it that you shouldn’t start talking about weather?
Elmore Leonard: You open the book, you want to get into the characters, you want to get into the story, and I think weather…I think the author might tend to really play it and overdo the weather at a time when some characters should appear.
Ramona Koval: That’s right, it’s sort of like setting the scene or the overture or something. We’re not in an opera here. But you say if you happen to be Barry Lopez it’s okay to talk about the weather because of course he writes about the natural world so masterfully, so apparently he can do all the weather reporting he wants to.
Elmore Leonard: You know, in Arctic Dreams he talks about snow and ice constantly and yet it doesn’t bother you at all because he knows his subject, he knows the ground and he’s so good at it.
Ramona Koval: What about the second rule; ‘Avoid prologues’?
Elmore Leonard: Well, whenever I see a prologue, open a book, I have to hesitate and say, ‘Do I want to read this book or not? Do I have to read the prologue?’ I don’t like prologues, and I say it’s back story, it can go nearly anywhere. So get into the book, and then if you have to do a prologue about something that happened to somebody 50 years ago, then do it.
Ramona Koval: In your book Comfort to the Enemy, which came out in the same year here as Road Dogs, you’ve actually got three Elmore Leonard stories, and the first one I suppose is a prologue to the second which is a prologue to the third, but you’ve got a sweep of history in what happens to some characters there. So with your prologue you actually turned it into a story.
Elmore Leonard: Yes. If I ever did write a prologue I’d just call it ‘chapter one’.
Ramona Koval: That’s right, very sensible. What about number three; ‘Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue’. Not ‘stated’, not ‘declared’, not ‘exclaimed’?
Elmore Leonard: If you’re not going to use ‘said’ you’re going to tend to use a verb that describes how he’s saying it, ‘gruffly’ or ‘chortled’…
Ramona Koval: I don’t think any of your characters ever chortled!
Elmore Leonard: No, I don’t think so either, they wouldn’t.
Ramona Koval: No, they’d shoot you before they chortled.
Elmore Leonard: Yes, you’re right. But you know, you see that word, he chortled. It’s just easier, it makes more sense to stay with ‘said’ if you’ve developed your character properly and you know who he is and what frame of mind he would be in at this time, so you don’t need that. Same way with using exclamation points; I say you’re allowed three per 100,000 words because you can overdo exclaimers.
Ramona Koval: I know. Some people use them to keep them cheerful, I think, but I’m not sure it works. Just back to ‘said’ though, you say never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’. So you’re not allowed to say, ‘He admonished gravely.’
Elmore Leonard: Yes, because who does the adverb belong to? It belongs to the writer, and he’s telling you this and I want to remain invisible, I don’t want you to be aware of the writer, I want you to be in the mix of what’s going on in the book. So that’s why all the scenes are written from a character’s point of view, what he sees, not what I see.
Ramona Koval: Yes, and in fact I suppose if you’ve got the sound of each character right you shouldn’t have to say who said what because that should be obvious who was saying it from the way they said it.
Elmore Leonard: That might be true, but you throw in the ‘he said’ ‘she said’ for a beat because you need…in a place where you need…not for identification but just a very slight pause before you get to the next line, the response.
Ramona Koval: So the pause for who? The pause for the reader to pause or for the action to pause?
Elmore Leonard: No, for the reader to pause.
Ramona Koval: How do you know when the reader should pause?
Elmore Leonard: I’m telling you.
Ramona Koval: I know you’re telling me, I want to know how you know!
Elmore Leonard: I mean I’m telling the reader because if you throw in, ‘Are you going to go or not?’ ‘No, I’m not going,’ he said…and the ‘he said’ is just for a little pause before you get to her next line…if you feel it’s important. Otherwise, don’t use it, just let them talk it through.
Ramona Koval: You say never use the word ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke lose’. Why is that? Although you say that this rule doesn’t require an explanation.
Elmore Leonard: Well, it’s used a lot by writers. You see ‘suddenly’ with some writers all over the place. But there are better ways to do it.
Ramona Koval: So it’s a lazy thing to do.
Elmore Leonard: Yes.
Ramona Koval: Unless a bomb blows up in your face, most things aren’t that sudden.
Elmore Leonard: No, you’re right.
Ramona Koval: Rule number seven; ‘Use regional dialect patois sparingly.’ Is that because most of your readers aren’t going to understand that?
Elmore Leonard: I think when you try to make them understand it you’ll misspell words and you’ll use a lot of apostrophes and it will look funny, the page, the lines of dialogue, they will look kind of decorative, and I think you don’t want to do that. I think you want to keep it simple, but you indicate…Cundo might say, ‘That’s all right with me,’ and it’s ‘that’s’ which is all I would do with him at any given scene because that’s all you need, just an indication that he has an accent.
Ramona Koval: Number eight is ‘Avoid detailed descriptions of characters’ and this is something that Steinbeck taught you, I guess. Tell me about that.
Elmore Leonard: In Sweet Thursday there is a prologue, of all things, but in the prologue he has one of his characters from Cannery Row talking and he says, ‘I don’t like a lot of descriptions of people, I like to figure out what they look like from the way they sound, from the way they’re talking. I don’t want some guy telling me what these people look like.’ And I thought good, I don’t have to describe people any more. But I like to describe just maybe something or other, but there’s no hurry, you don’t have to suddenly stop (suddenly!)…
Ramona Koval: Cut that ‘suddenly’ out!
Elmore Leonard: …and as the character walks in tell what he looks like. You can sprinkle it around if it’s important, if what he looks like is important. Sometimes I don’t describe any people at all.
Ramona Koval: And when you do describe it I guess it does a job. In Road Dogs you’ve described sexy Dawn, ‘she opens the door in a baby-doll robe in silky peach and high heels.’ Dawn is actually playing a part, isn’t she, so I guess we really need to know. She’s doing a kind of obvious vamp role, isn’t she.
Elmore Leonard: Well, we’re not sure yet. But we’ll find out in about five minutes.
Ramona Koval: But the baby-doll peach robe and high heels answering the door, I think we get the message, don’t we.
Elmore Leonard: That’s later on, that’s not the first time I describe her.
Ramona Koval: No, that’s right, but when you do, we know, we’re getting a message, that’s what I’m saying. You’re doing more things, not just describing how someone is looking, you’re actually giving us more information about the character.
Elmore Leonard: Right.
Ramona Koval: You say ‘Don’t go into great detail describing places’ and things, so the landscapes aren’t obvious either. Do you get to the heart of the action, the heart of the character when you don’t have to set things up all the time?
Elmore Leonard: You do have to set it up, you do. You don’t have to set it up all at once, but yes, you have to give an idea of where they are and what it looks like. But if you’re not really good at it, don’t try too hard, just try and do it in as few words as possible, and then something very good can come out of it.
Ramona Koval: Number ten is a gorgeous rule, ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip’.
Elmore Leonard: Usually those are thick paragraphs full of descriptions, or something or a character thinking about something that we already know about, or going into having…being emotional about something that has happened or is about to happen that we’re aware of because we know this character.
Ramona Koval: Just with this idea in mind, you’ve got a paragraph here in Road Dogs which actually if you said, look, there’s a grocery list in this book, you’d say, well, that sounds boring, but it actually isn’t boring. You’ve got Foley getting out of jail and…can I read a bit to you, even though you wrote it?
Elmore Leonard: Yes, of course.
Ramona Koval: ‘Foley drove along Lincoln Boulevard until the sign ‘Ross Dress for Less’ lured him to the lot behind the store. He used his pre-paid credit card to buy new clothes, the first time in more than ten years; three pairs of faded Levis, white t-shirts and briefs, tennis shoes, sweat socks, a green cotton sweater, an off-white drip-dry sports coat, limp, no shape to it, for $69, then had to pick out some dark t-shirts and a couple of dark t-shirts and a couple of silky black sports shirts to wear with the coat. He drove up Lincoln to Ralph’s Supermarket and bought bathroom supplies, shampoo, a skin cleaner, a pair of flip-flops, in the habit of wearing them in the shower at Glades. He bought four bottles of Jack Daniels, fifths, a case of Dos Equis he remembered he liked, six bottles of red from Australia, six rib-eye steaks, Wheaties and bananas, a sack of oranges, apples, cheese, popcorn, milk, French bread and real butter.’
Now, why is that not boring?
Elmore Leonard: I don’t know.
Ramona Koval: Why is it there? What do you think it does?
Elmore Leonard: It’s all pretty simple stuff, so we learn a little bit about him and what would satisfy him. I think the bread and butter perhaps more than anything else or maybe some wine. He’s a fairly simple guy.
Ramona Koval: But this idea of the coat which is limp with no shape to it, what does that tell us?
Elmore Leonard: It costs $69 too.
Ramona Koval: So it was a bargain. Elmore Leonard, you started out writing westerns. What drew you to those?
Elmore Leonard: The market. All up through the ‘50s, westerns you could sell to almost everybody, Saturday Evening Post and Colliers and men’s magazines, and then down into the pulps, there were a dozen pulp magazines that were still publishing, Dime Western, Ten-Story Western, Zane Grey’s Western, and the better ones all paid 2c a word. A 5,000-word story was $100. In ‘51, ‘52 and so on $100 was pretty good.
And then I wrote 3.10 to Yuma in ‘53 and it was 4,500 words so I got $90 for it, and then about a year later I sold to…I think it was Warner Bros, and they paid $4,000 because it just came from a pulp magazine. But two movies have been made from that.
Ramona Koval: So that’s over 50 years ago, Elmore, and you still remember what they were paying you per word.
Elmore Leonard: It’s very important to remember that, yes.
Ramona Koval: You recommend getting straight to the action and not mucking around with explanatory paragraphs about how people are feeling and what they’re looking like and all of that. If you’re being paid 2c a word, isn’t the tendency to write long rather than write short?
Elmore Leonard: Well, it’s just easier to write, say, 5,000 words. You know how many pages it fills up, 20-and-a-half pages, and you go like that. That’s to you a sense of story length, beginning, middle and end, and that was a very popular length for the pulps. Or you could write 12,000 words and so on.
Ramona Koval: You obviously had to look after your family and you had to support yourself, so how did you hone it down when the economics of it were arguing to write longer?
Elmore Leonard: Because you’d probably get rejected if you were filling it with words that might be obvious. But they don’t count the words, I think they just go by pages. But I worked very hard at that time; I’d get up at five in the morning all through the ‘50s and work for two hours before going to work. At that time I could do a page in an hour because I didn’t know any better. And I wrote an awful lot of stuff that way, five books, and I think 30-odd short stories, and they all sold. So I was doing fine, but then I quit my job in ‘61…
Ramona Koval: What was your job?
Elmore Leonard: I was writing Chevrolet ads, passenger car and truck. There was very, very little television at that time. It was all print.
Ramona Koval: Do you remember any of those ads? Were they catchy? Anything we’d remember?
Elmore Leonard: No.
Ramona Koval: So you started writing your novels full time from that time?
Elmore Leonard: Well, no, because I took the profit sharing and we put it in a house. It was like $11,000 and we bought a new house. It wasn’t new, you know, but it was new to us. And we went for a much smaller house, so that then I had to go out and freelance, I had to find work, and I did about a dozen history and geography films for Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, and that kept me busy for about a year and a half. And then I got a couple of ad accounts, and then finally I sold Hombre to 20th Century Fox and they only paid $10,000 but I quit my freelance work and went back to writing books.
Ramona Koval: One of the characters in Road Dogs says the publishing industry isn’t about writing, it’s about selling books. Do you believe that too?
Elmore Leonard: Sure.
Ramona Koval: And yet your writing is so admired.
Elmore Leonard: Yes, but I don’t sell nearly as many books as people at the top of, say, the New York Times list who are there every time they come out with a book and sometimes five times a year or more, writing with somebody else…
Ramona Koval: You mean ghosted autobiographies?
Elmore Leonard: No, no, like Patterson. Patterson writes I don’t know how many books a year…
Ramona Koval: Some of these guys are dead though.
Elmore Leonard: Well, he isn’t. I mean, his first printing is a million-and-a-quarter, something like that. My first printing might be 100,000.
Ramona Koval: So do you still have ambitions to hit the big time?
Elmore Leonard: Well, I’m on the bestseller list for the New York Times right now and I will be for another week, and we don’t know from then on. We won’t know until Wednesday two weeks from now if I’ll be on the list or not. But I’ve been on the list, so they can put on the cover of any of my books ‘New York Times bestseller’, and that’s really all I need.
Ramona Koval: I don’t think you have to worry about your success, Elmore Leonard, I think you’re immensely successful no matter what the exact figure is that you’re selling.
Elmore Leonard: Well, I sell a little over 100,000.
Ramona Koval: Well, I’m sure this book will do well for you. It’s called Road Dogs and it’s published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. Elmore Leonard, thank you so much for being on The Book Show today.
Elmore Leonard: Thank you, I enjoyed it.