ELMORE LEONARD: TEN RULES
Elmore “Dutch” Leonard was born on October 11, 1925 in New Orleans. During World War II, Leonard served in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1943-46. (Vision problems kept Leonard out of the marines, with whom he’d tried to enlist.)
Following his military service, Leonard studied at the University of Detroit, graduating in 1950 and launching a 17-year career in advertising.
Leonard published his first piece of fiction — a Western short story — in Argosy in 1953 (he scored a $1,250 advance for his 1961 Western novel, Hombre; so he was a long while quitting his day job to write fiction fulltime).
After a long run writing Western novels and short stories — and faced with the decline of the genre he’d made his name in — Leonard shifted to crime fiction in 1969 with the release of the paperback original The Big Bounce. That novel’s publication followed a reported 84 rejections.
His crime novels drew critical praise for their taught, clean prose and ear-true dialogue, but his audience didn’t really begin to grow until the 1980s. Leonard’s ’83 release, LaBrava, earned an Edgar Award. In 1985, Newsweek published a cover story on Leonard, declaring him “the best American writer of crime fiction alive.”
On his way to that success, Leonard quit drinking in the 1977. He endured the break-up of his long, first marriage to his college sweetheart (the couple wed in 1949) and struggled with a middling screenwriting career (among his screen credits is an ill-advised TV-movie sequel to High Noon that starred Lee Majors).
In the late 1970s, “Dutch” (the nickname is a nod to a Washington Senators’ pitcher) began to hit his stride with Detroit- and Miami-based crime novels such as Stick, Swag and The Switch.
Leonard’s 1985 novel, Glitz, hit the best-seller lists and sat there for sixteen weeks — Leonard’s breakout book had finally arrived after 32 years as a published author.
Elmore Leonard was interviewed in conjunction with the publication of a slim little book entitled, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. The interview was conducted the day after Leonard celebrated his 82nd birthday.
Let me start off by wishing you a happy birthday.
Oh, thanks, that was yesterday. I got a lot of calls, too.
Did you do anything grand for the day?
I tried to work, but I don’t think I wrote anything down. Maybe a line. The phone would ring. So then my family — we all went out to dinner last night and that was it.
Are you one of these writers who feels a driven need to write every day?
No, I don’t feel driven, but when I’m writing a book I definitely want to write every day, because if you miss a day, you forget. You’ve got to keep it with you. You’ve got to keep it going all the time in your head.
There are writers who claim they get knocked off stride for a week or so, and then the book dies on them.
Oh yeah. If you are away from it for a week it will take more than a week to get back to it.
Do you practice the Hemingway technique of re-reading what you’ve written every day to kick-start the writing process?
Yeah, or in the morning, before I’ll start out, I’ll read from an older book. One that I like. I like ’em all, but I’ll read something just to get the sound back that I want. The attitude. Then I’m off. Once I start to write, then I’m into it. I get lost and the time just flies by. That’s the beauty of this work. I look at the clock and it’s three o’clock in the afternoon and I say, “Good, I’ve got three more hours.” You know — after fifty years.
Is there still an excitement for you when a book comes out? You’ve had this extraordinary run. Not to say you’d be jaded about it, but…
My last two or three books, I’ve gone back into the 1930s or 1940s, beginning with the serial in the New York Times. That was a different pace. I was experiencing different things then in the research. Memories. I was in the service at that time — in the forties. So many things came back to me, like food rationing…gas rationing. That kind of stuff. That was interesting. I’m glad to get back to the contemporary. I like to keep my books fresh — references to what’s going on today.
I interviewed a lot of crime writers immediately after September 11, 2001 and the terrorist attacks. They all said they were having a hard time writing anything contemporary or relevant in the wake of those events. It swamped their ability to write and seemed to shrink the importance of what they were writing. Several subsequently began to write books set in pre-911 eras. Was any of that sentiment factoring into your decision for your own writing trips back into the 1930s or ’40s?
No, no I hadn’t thought of that. There are writers of course who have used it — working it (the attacks) into a plot.
The novel you’re writing now is going to bring back Foley from Out of Sight?
Yeah. In fact, I’m bringing back three characters from three different books. Right away, I thought well, “Foley, definitely. I’m going to do Foley because George Clooney likes Foley.”
That’s a compelling reason to do it…
And Foley is easy to write for me because I know him pretty well, now. So then I brought another character in, Dawn Navarro, who is a psychic. I brought her in out of Riding the Rap and then Cundo Rey. Cundo Rey is a character in LaBrava. He was a very smalltime hustler and a Go-Go dancer. He was just a hip little guy. I was hoping that he was still alive. I didn’t remember.
So you had to go back and revisit your own book?
Yes, I had to look it up. He got shot, three times, in the chest. And I thought, “Oh my God.” But Joe LaBrava shot him and then immediately left. He knows he’s dead. But he wasn’t.
You had some wiggle room…
Yes, the emergency guys picked him up and see, “My God, he’s bleeding, he’s bleeding.” He’s still alive. So they rush him to the hospital and he’s in a coma. He extends the coma — pretends to be in a coma longer than he is — to find out where he is and what’s going on. Then he has one of the guys working in the hospital who was also Cuban, also in the boatlift — the Mariel boatlift — sneak him out. Then he goes to L.A. and gets into dealing drugs to people in the movie business. He makes a lot of money, but then he’s arrested but they’re not sure they can convict him in California. So they send him back to Florida where there’s a detainer on him on a homicide. He gets a very good lawyer and he’s out in seven-and-a-half years.
Now Foley, he’s back in prison, so he’s talking to Cundo Rey. Foley is facing thirty years. He doesn’t think he’s going to make it — this is terrible. Cundo Rey says, “Hey, I’ll get you my lawyer,” who is a young woman — very very savvy…knows what she’s doing. She gets Foley’s conviction reduced from thirty years to thirty months. And so they both get out about the same time and go out to Venice, California where the story then will take place.
And that will be an ’08 release. Let’s talk about the book coming out now — Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing. The rules have been around for a while. What was the catalyst to put them out in book form now?
My researcher is the one who kept pushing me.
Greg Sutter. Yeah. He’s been getting stuff for me for, say, 25 years. He said, “It’s time to have these rules published because people are using them all the time…referring to them.
They are all over the Internet…
Yeah. We proposed it my editor at HarperCollins and she thought it was a great idea so we did it. We have it illustrated (by Joe Ciardiello).
It’s a slim little book. Were you under pressure to throw in another ten rules?
(Laughing) No, we got 95 pages out of 10 rules.
That’s not bad at all. You see, this started in the year 2000. I was guest of honor at Bouchercon. That afternoon in the hotel in Denver, I wrote up these 10 rules. They’re in much different form. Then, when I came down off the stage, a guy approached me and said, “Can I have those?” These two pieces of yellow paper… I said, “Sure, here,” and handed them to him.
Hell of a collectible…
Well then, a few years later, The New York Times asked me if I would do something for their column Writers on Writing. I made up the 10 rules again and put them in an order that I thought was right. I also made reference to different writers who wouldn’t need my rules. For example the rule about don’t describe your characters in detail. I said, “Hell, Margaret Atwood can do it all she wants because she’s good at it.”
It’s funny, because the two sheets of paper all of the sudden appeared for sale at a bookstore on the Internet. My researcher who was just looking around happened to see them the day that they were offered. A friend of his was a lawyer in L.A. and he told him about it and bought them immediately. Then Greg said to the lawyer, “I was going to get them.” The lawyer said, “We’ll both put in to buy them.” They got this page-and-a-half, at most, for six-hundred bucks. If the guy had waited until the rules book came out…
He’d have had a five-figure collectible…
I know! My researcher has for years been trying to get me to save all my papers because I write everything in longhand.
I would think universities would be all over you to donate those manuscripts.
I tried saving the longhand sheets but it’s not a perfect sheet. It’s mostly just crossed out. There’s more crossed out than is there. That’s why I started doing it longhand because it’s so hard to x-out things on a typewriter.
This might be too precious a question, but I’m wondering if the rules and your instinctive commitment to them — even if you hadn’t formalized them or written them down — shape you as a writer? I’m trying to chicken and egg it a little…
When I started out, I thought they’re kind of tongue-in-cheek. But then the more I looked at them I realized “No, they’re not.”
A lot of people certainly don’t read them that way.
The way I wrote the rules seven years ago, I say, “Forty-nine years ago last month, I sold my first story. Since then I’ve come up with 10 rules for success and happiness in writing fiction. One: try to leave out the passages that readers tend to skip. It’s the ones you spend the most time on. Number two: Never open a book with weather.” That is number one, now.
You mention exclamation points and that you only get to use two for about every 100,000 words. I think it’s a great rule.
Two or three.
Two or three. I was at a book conference recently and I picked up the paperback Three-Ten to Yuma and other stories. I started reading the very first story, “Calvary Boots.” By my count, you’ve got about 11 exclamation points in that story which can’t be more than four or five thousand words long.
Don’t tell anybody! When those stories came out again, ones that I wrote in the 1950s, I hadn’t read them in more than 50 years.
I wondered if you have a real strong temptation to go through and kind of massage ’em.
No. No, I had to leave them alone because this is what they sounded like.
I also wondered if editors had inserted some of those exclamation points.
Maybe. I had adverbs in there, too… “ly”-adverbs. That’s the worst sin of all.
You praise some contemporary writers in the book, but also, obviously, Steinbeck and Hemingway are prominently mentioned. Are there writers working today whom you admire for having tight, clean economical prose?
There was one I learned a lot from in the fifties and that was Richard Bissell. He’s probably very hard to find right now, but I loved his books set on the Mississippi River. He was a pilot. “7 1/2 Cents” became The Pajama Game. Then he wrote a book, Say Darling, about the making of the play. I learned more from him than I did from Hemingway. Because Hemingway I learned a lot from, I know. But he didn’t have a sense of humor.
I’ve seen you remark on that before, and I’ve heard a lot of people say that, I see some humor in some of the early stories and novels. A Moveable Feast is funny in places, though it’s a nasty kind of funny…very mean humor in that one.
I was giving a talk and someone said, “What do you mean he doesn’t have a sense of humor?” I said, “What are you going to tell me about? Sordo’s stand on the hill (in For Whom the Bell Tolls)? Because that’s very ironic what he’s yelling at and so on.
Which of Hemingway’s works do you admire? In terms of the novels I’d guess For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Yeah. And of course I couldn’t wait to read The Old Man and the Sea when that came out. I was working at an ad agency and I remember getting the issue of Life Magazine at the cigar store downstairs in the General Motors Building and running back up to my office and starting to read it right then. I was really in love with his prose at that time. I still have his Forty-Nine short stories on my desk. And I can look at those at any time. Some of those are really terrific.
I notice there are no Faulkner references in the 10 Rules of Writing.
No, I’ve never been able to read him.
Hemingway remarked, “Writing is architecture, not interior design.” That sounds like something you would subscribe to as an axiom. You say in the Rules that if something reads like “writing” you have to strike it. It sounds from your description of your hand-written drafts that’s still something you do quite a lot of.
Oh yeah. If it sounds like writing, re-write it. Someone will ask me, “What do you mean by that?” And I say, “Upon entering the room…”
There you go. Knocks you right out to the story.
That’s it. It’s the way we were taught to write in school, with the dependent clause first.
I guess what you’re saying is a key to good writing is unlearning formal writing, first.
You wrote an introduction to George V. Higgins The Friends of Eddie Coyle a few years back. In that introduction, you quote Higgins as saying “Writing can’t be taught.” Do you subscribe to that notion? Is it an innate skill?
My son just got a two-book deal at St. Martin’s. He started writing fiction two or three years ago, maybe. He started out writing screenplays because he figured that would be the fast buck. I said, “You’re crazy — you’ve got to be out there if you’re going to be a screenwriter. You should be out there because all of the people who went to film school, that the screenwriter went to film school with, they’re studio executives and they’re buying the stuff.” Then he started to write a book. All of his friends and his sons loved it. They told him, “This is great. This is bound to sell.”
Then I read it, and I said, “Who’s the main character?” He said, so-and-so is. The woman.” I said, “Well, she doesn’t come off as the main character to me.” So he sent it to my agent in New York, Wylie, and they gave it to eight different publishers and they all said the same thing: “Who’s the main character?” So now he listens to me. He’s really into it. He’s older — he’s in his fifties. I said, “Why didn’t you start earlier?” He said, “I didn’t want to.”
Is he going to publish under the name “Leonard?”
Oh yeah, Peter Leonard. Sure. They just made a deal for him in England with Faber. He’s really into it now. He’s got his own company — an ad agency. He’s got two partners and he’s just trying to write his way out of it the same way I did back in ’61.
There’s much said now of the death of midlist authors, and the death of book reviewing, and the computer monitoring of sales and the effect of that on writers who don’t sell great numbers of books. What would your advice be to someone just going out into the market as a beginning author? I mean, you’re above and outside much of this because of your level of prominence and your readership…
But I don’t sell nearly as many books as…
…As I would think?
(Laughing) Yeah. If I sell 100,000 hardcover, that’s good.
That is a hell of a lot, still.
It is, it is, but there are people who their first printing is 800,000 copies or two-million.
That guy, James Patterson, he’ll have three books sometimes on the list. But you know that the other guy whose name is printed much smaller on the cover than his (Patterson’s) is doing all the work.
Patterson has more or less become his own corporate brand now.
And his chapters are never more than three pages.
If that. Do you still regard The Friends of Eddie Coyle as the best crime novel ever written?
You’ve had this extraordinarily long career…do you think a career like yours can be replicated in today’s market?
I think the reason that I’m still going is that I didn’t really hit the big time until the mid-eighties. But I started in the 1950s.
You more than paid your dues.
Yes. By the time I got on the Times list, boy, I had a backlist, you know? And that was great. Then the backlist gets bought by whomever is publishing me.
You finally get your money back on those early works?
That’s right — everything…everything. Even the short stories that I got two-cents a word for. Like Three-Ten to Yuma I got ninety bucks. I sold the screen rights for $4,000. The publisher of Dime Western could take twenty-five percent of a film sale and he did because the pulps were starting to go out of business then.
All the magazines…there were so many magazines that would publish short stories in the 1950s. You’d aim for the Saturay Evening Post and Colliers. Then you’d come down through Argosy, and then the pulps. There were a couple of dozen pulps, at least.
What’d you think of the new Yuma film?
I liked it. It looked good. The ending made no sense at all… But on the whole, the reviews have been good.
Ever get the itch to write another western novel?
If they were to pay as much as crime novels do, yeah, I could do one.
I was Googling you earlier today and I came across an item that for the first time in years, Halloween costume rentals of western outfits are up. They attribute the spike to the new Yuma film.
There’s another use of Yuma in Cuba, where they call America “La Yuma.” And individuals from the United States are referred to as “Yuma.” And this is because of that movie that was released in the 1970s in Havana, because Castro wouldn’t allow the picture to show originally.
Did you find yourself watching Deadwood on HBO?
No, I never got into that. The language amazed me.
You’ve often cited movies as an early influence on your writing. Do you still find films you can enjoy? So many seem to be put together by committee and test-audience…
As many as I’ve sold and have been made from my work, there have only been a few good films. I think it’s mostly luck that good movies are made because there seem to be so many people in the business, studio people, who are just trying to wreck things. There’s that joke about the two agents who are out in the desert. They’re dying of thirst. Finally, they come to this well. “Oh, here’s water we can drink.” And the one says, “Wait, let’s piss in it, first.”
Are you comfortable with gauging or trying to characterize your own influence on crime writing?
I really don’t know what that is. I hear good things from George Pelecanos and some others. My editor will tell me more and more books are sounding like mine and that I’ve opened the door for a certain type of writers. It’s funny though, because when I’m sent a manuscript by the publishers, there’ll be a reference to the fact that this guy supposedly sounds like me. I don’t see it at all.