Birmingham, Michigan…where’s that? ? Oh. One of those suburbs outta Detroit, eh? So that’s where you live, huh? In a little two-story house, geraniums on the front stoop. I got the picture. Take the cans out once a week, I bet, put ’em out there by the curb. But look, tell me. You got this movie Stick coming out in April, and a new book…Glitz, is it? And you got this TV pilot in the works, and Universal wants a series, any series, and your next book, you’re working on that. So what I gotta know is this. You made the switch yet from the typewriter to the computer?
Elmore Leonard, on the other end of the line, hesitating now, saying, “I haven’t even made the switch to a typewriter yet.” Sounding apologetic.
I’m thinking, Huh? I’m saying, You write in longhand?
He’s saying, “I am not that confident to presume to use a typewriter.”
It’s been over a year now since the world discovered Elmore Leonard and his distinctive novels of suspense. All this time, thirty years maybe, he’s been working out of his den in Birmingham, first churning out Westerns, patiently, unceasingly, waiting for someone to catch on. He wrote Hombre in 1959, but it took two years to sell it; he got $1250. They made it into a movie with Paul Newman; he got $10,000 more. Not bad, but he had four kids. He turned to crime — novels, that is. Still, nobody caught on. Only Hollywood. Moguls saw in his books, structured in scenes and heavy with dialogue, what amounted to prewritten screenplays. They bought his books, possibly even read them. Fiction writers began buying his books, having stumbled upon them somehow, and were astonished by his ear for the spoken word and the real-life feeling he gave his characters.
Still, nobody had caught on.
He considered romance — novels, that is. “I bought some,” he says. “Those historical ones where the women get raped. I thought, Why don’t I just write one of those to make some money? But I couldn’t even read the first five pages. I thought, How can I write what I can’t read?”
Back to crime. Reviewers discovered him.
Still no luck.
Writing in The Village Voice three years ago, Ken Tucker said, “Elmore Leonard strikes me as being the finest thriller writer alive, primarily because he does his best to efface style, and has done this so successfully that few readers know about him at all.”
Which was the point, precisely.
Leonard was not writing a series with the same continuing hero, a guy you got to know and looked forward to encountering again — Travis McGee in John D. MacDonald’s books, or Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer, or Spenser of the Robert B. Parker series. No, Leonard had no such character. One book, the hero is a process server. Another, the guy owns a small Miami motel. In LaBrava, we have a former Secret Service man turned freelance photographer. Moreover, Leonard was writing with an invisible voice. There appears to be no narrator at all: as if a bunch of honest, hard-working guys and a parade of deadbeats had run into each other in Detroit or South Florida and begun talking; as if, by chance, this Elmore Leonard, lurking in the shadows, had turned on his tape recorder, getting it all.
And because he wrote out of Birmingham, he was not going to become anybody’s media hero. Which left Elmore Leonard alone in his den, just grinding ’em out, some of the best unknown fiction in America.
Until 1983. When the world finally caught on.
What strikes you about Leonard’s stories right off is the dialogue, the way he picks up the rhythms of contemporary urban speech. Listen:
In LaBrava, the protagonist finds himself chasing a Cuban refugee who kills people. He hires a Nigerian cabdriver to get some information.
“You saw the driver of the Pontiac.”
“Yes, a Cuban man.”
“What’d he look like?”
“I told you, a Cuban man. That’s what he look like.”
LaBrava wondered if Nigerians told jokes and if they were funny. “Was there anything different about him?”
“My friend, you have to be different to go in there. I told you that already.”
“I apologize.” Maybe they had a sense of humor if you got to know them. “You didn’t by any chance get the license number of the Pontiac.”
Johnbull Obasanjo said, “You have a pen? You have the paper, something to write on when you ask such a question?”
Fucking Nigerian.The guy delivered, though, didn’t he?
Elmore Leonard, known as Dutch, is sitting in his den in Birmingham, ten o’clock in the morning, crisp autumn day. It is very quiet in the house. His pretty, blond wife, Joan, whom he married five years ago, is upstairs sewing. His deaf dog, Emma, a Lhasa apso, barks only when someone coughs. And he himself is quiet, speaking softly, listening carefully — and watchful, always watchful, looking out from behind those big, round glasses.
He does not look like a man familiar with crime, guns, sickies and insouciant Nigerians. Nor does he look like Dutch Leonard, the guy who once pitched for the Washington Senators. More like a history professor: little beard, not a big guy, five eight, five nine, slender, no one you would pick out of a crowd or necessarily even see. But slowly he emerges, a negative in developing fluid, his humor, irony and perception of the absurd. It’s all there in the writing, too.
He says, “What I write is not new or different. I’m getting by, writing at the top of my form. I have found my sound and perfected it.” He pauses. “My sound is the absence of me.”
Leonard peers at his visitor, smiles.
He says, “I can’t write metaphors, I am terrible at writing metaphors. Any time I see an adjective or adverb, I cross it out. The only way I can make a story sound real is to stay out. You must never hear me.”
But listen carefully to his writing: you hear his eye, which is always casting about for life’s little jokes. Like in Glitz, one of the characters staying at a big Atlantic City hotel — the casino and the hotel lit up like radiation twenty-four hours a day — noticing the little card in his suite: “Please turn off the lights when you’re not in the room.”