For Elmore Leonard, Crime Pays
That’s Leonard. The first time he saw the West was after he had written four books and thirty short stories set in the West.
He started writing pulp westerns in 1950. Two cents a word, a hundred dollars maximum. “I subscribed to Arizona Highways,” he says. “The pictures told me what everything was, what kind of cactus was growing up through the shale. And I researched a lot of Apaches, cavalry and guns. Apaches, cavalry and guns were big then.”
Leonard had grown up everywhere, but not out West. His father had scouted locations for new General Motors dealerships, taking the family from New Orleans to Dallas to Oklahoma City, back to Dallas to Memphis and finally to Detroit in 1935, where the family settled in. Elmore was ten.
“In the fifth grade, I wrote a play,” he says, “a World War I play. I used the rows of desks as barbed wire.” That effort, a short story in high school and two in college were the extent of his literary efforts. “Except I knew I wanted to tell stories,” he says. “In grade school, I used to tell movies. I’d get with friends and tell Captain Blood and anything Errol Flynn was in.”
By 1950, he had served in the Navy during World War II, had graduated from the University of Detroit, degree in English, had married his first wife and was working as an office boy for the Campbell-Ewald Advertising Agency. And he still wanted to tell stories.
“I started selling to Argosy magazine,” he says. “I’d get up at five in the morning and write two pages, quit at seven, go to work. At first, I’d get up, put on the water for the coffee, start reading the paper, not getting anything done. So I made a rule. I had to start writing before I put the water on.”
In 1953, he wrote his first book, The Bounty Hunters, put out by Houghton Mifflin and Ballantine. This was the first book, and one of many stories, that he wrote between five a.m. and seven a.m. And in a drawer: “I’d go to work, put my hand in the drawer of my desk and write,” he says.
As for the ad copy, that was more of a problem. He couldn’t bring himself “to do all that cute writing,” he says. “So what I did was, I specialized in trucks.”
In 1958, he got an idea for a book. In his mind, he saw just one scene. All those Westerns where the bad guy is holed up and the good guy approaches with a white flag. Makes a deal, walks away, problem solved. “That never happens in real life,” Leonard says, “the guy with the flag just walking away.”
The book became Hombre. The scene has the bad guy, Richard Boone, making the deal, and Paul Newman saying: “I’ve got a question. How you going to get down the hill?” And Newman shooting him. The first of the Leonard ironies, the twists. “What I don’t understand is that so many popular writers don’t have a sense of humor,” he says. “Harold Robbins, Judith Krantz. They’re so serious. I can’t read any of them.”
Not long after completing Hombre in 1959, Leonard quit his job at Campbell-Ewald. “I took my profit sharing and ran,” he says. “With four kids at the time, it was quite a decision to go on my own. But I’d been dying to since the early Fifties.”
Leonard still could not afford to write fiction full time for four more years. Through a friend, he got freelance work writing educational films for Encyclopaedia Britannica. One thousand dollars for a twenty-five-minute social-studies film. He wrote films on the French and Indian Wars, settlers of the Mississippi Valley, Julius Caesar and the Danube. One film was called “Boy of Spain.” “I took my family to Spain for that one,” he says, “my one attempt at real research.” Small smile. “It was the only one they rejected.”
In 1965, Fox bought the rights to Hombre, and Leonard decided he could afford to get back to novels. His fiction from the Fifties had done well. A 1953 story that appeared in Dime Western, called 3:10 to Yuma, had been sold to Columbia and starred Glenn Ford. The Tall T, from an Argosy novelette, had also gone to Columbia, starred Randolph Scott and Richard Boone.
He spent the next year writing The Big Bounce. It was his first crime novel: the market for Westerns was drying up. When he finished the book, he sent it off to his New York agent, Marguerite Harper. Halfway through reading it, she was hospitalized. She sent the manuscript to H.N. Swanson, the legendary Los Angeles agent (Hemingway, Faulkner, among others), who had made the movie sales of Leonard’s earlier work.
Leonard recalls: “Swanie called me and said, ‘Did you write this, kiddo?’ I said I had. ‘Well, I’m going to make you rich.’ ” Leonard pauses. “We got eighty-four rejections in the next three months.”
Eventually, the book was sold as a Gold Medal original, with Warner Brothers buying the rights. The picture starred Ryan O’Neal and Leigh Taylor-Young. “I went to see it in New York,” says Leonard. “Got to the movie theater fifteen minutes late. I’m sitting there watching it when the woman in front of me says to her husband, ‘This is the worst picture I’ve ever seen in my life.’ The three of us got up and walked out.”
Over the next fifteen years, Leonard wrote sixteen books. Twelve were sold to Hollywood; two were optioned. He also wrote three original screenplays and two teleplays. Leonard was obviously onto something. The problem was, book sales were only mediocre.
“Everything Dutch wrote sold to Hollywood,” Swanson notes. “As for his books, well, you can’t sell something till it’s in your hands. I can’t mold a writer. I didn’t tell Faulkner what to write, or Hemingway, or James M. Cain what to write. A writer is like a cook. He puts some ingredients on the stove, lets it simmer, takes it off. I think it took Dutch a while to figure out the proper mix of ingredients.”
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