To kick off Elmore Leonard Week, here’s our man Anthony May on interviewing Elmore Leonard in Detroit in 1991. Thanks to Gregg Sutter, Elmore’s researcher, for digging up the photo. This article was originally published in Contrappasso Magazine, issue #2.
GOOD TIME CRIME: TALKING WITH ELMORE LEONARD by ANTHONY MAY
Back in 1991, I had the good fortune to sit down with Elmore Leonard in his Michigan home during the hot summer and lead up to the fourth of July celebrations that would be the first since Operation Desert Storm, quite a big thing around Detroit. I was there to talk to him about his books but he is an intelligent man and sees the connections in things so the conversation moved around. He had just finished the manuscript of Rum Punch and maybe he felt like a chat. In the end we spent quite a few hours together over three days trying to make some connections across the stories, books and films that comprise his long career. He was very generous with his time and opinions and I remain extremely grateful for the access and the insight. A couple of years later, when he was in Sydney, we sat down again and continued the conversation. The interviews that follow record those conversations and, hopefully, give another way into the books that have delighted so many.
The book that was about to come out that summer was Maximum Bob, the story that introduced characters like Judge Bob Gibbs’ wife, who channels a black slave girl who had died one hundred and thirty years before. In the books leading up to this, he had begun to foreground characters who were free and loose in their own way and in ways that were not just due to their involvement in crime. And this was coming to mark a kind of maturity in his writing that began with the shift from the western to the contemporary crime novel and the necessity to deal with what he calls “contemporary scenery”, and, from there, the requirement to take on board contemporary character. He was doing it at a novel a year, a pace he took up in the seventies and kept working at through the nineties.
It had been a long road from his early days as an advertising copywriter in the 1950s when he was writing stories for Argosy, Dime Western and the other short story and western magazines in his spare time. Movies were based on his early stories ‘Three-Ten To Yuma’ (3:10 To Yuma, 1953, D: Delmer Daves) and ‘The Captives’ (The Tall T, 1957, D: Budd Boetticher). He eventually hit the slicks, like Saturday Evening Post, but he had entered the game too late and the time of that style of publishing was coming to an end. He published western novels along with the stories but without the movies to take up the property there was diminishing joy in this field. Fittingly, it was a western film, Hombre (1966, D: Martin Ritt) from Leonard’s 1961 novel, the only novel of his to feature a first person narrator, that allowed him to make a change. The film, starring Paul Newman, Richard Boone and Diane Cilento, was a success, because of Newman, of course, but also because, like a number of big screen westerns of the time, it was a revisionist history of the west. This was something that had been consistent in Leonard’s westerns—not so much rewriting the history of the period as readdressing the idea of character in the west. There were never good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats, good baddies and bad goodies, nor the usual array of stock western characters. There were interesting characters, funny characters, mean characters and ones that slid back and forth. It was his main concern back then and it continues to this day.
The change to the contemporary novel didn’t happen overnight. He published some novels through the sixties and early seventies but it was the movies again that really brought him back into the game. The original screenplay for Joe Kidd (1972, D: John Sturges) was Clint Eastwood’s first film after Dirty Harry (1971, D: Don Siegel). That led to Eastwood requesting another screenplay from Leonard, which turned out to be Mr. Majestyk (1974, D: Richard Fleischer). Eastwood passed on the project (he preferred the idea of an artichoke farmer to a melon grower) but with Charles Bronson in the lead, it was another moneymaker. By the mid-seventies, the novel projects were coming into line once more—52 Pickup (1974), Swag (1976), The Hunted and Unknown Man #89 (1977)—and he was into that one-novel-a-year output cycle. But with rewards this time around. All these novels were being optioned as movies. Alfred Hitchcock picked up Unknown Man #89 and the rights remained with him until he died. Sam Peckinpah had City Primeval (1980) but it never happened. Nonetheless, he had gone from an advertising copywriter who wrote western stories part-time to a novelist who sold every book that he wrote into hardback and into the movies. This was success. Perhaps just as important as the success, this was fun. It’s difficult to read an Elmore Leonard novel and not realize that we’re all having fun, reader and writer alike.
All readers come to the progression of Elmore Leonard’s books at a different point. Thanks to the loan of a paperback from a friend, I’d begun with Glitz (1985) and, like a lot of readers, I began filling in the time between new releases by reading the back catalogue. Publishers know this happens and that’s why there are so many different Elmore Leonard paperback editions of the same book. As he has shifted publication houses over his career, there has been a tendency for publishers to buy the back catalogue and rerelease the older novels knowing that they will still sell. And there is value in picking up the back catalogue that doesn’t just accrue to the publisher and Mr. Leonard.
There is, in the progression of novels since the mid-seventies, a development of style that is particular to Elmore Leonard and intriguing for the reader. When he gets to the contemporary novel, he begins to experiment with ways of telling stories that suit his character-based concerns. As he says in the interviews, he had work to do in moving his storytelling into the present. When you write about the Arizona of one hundred years before, there are not a lot of people around to point out your mistakes, although he was pretty rigorous about using his reference books to keep those stories in line. But when you live and write in nineteen seventies Detroit, Detroit is just outside your door. And so is your reader. So if Temple Street doesn’t cross Woodward Avenue at the right place, people know. And they let you know. And if the young hipsters are using last year’s hipster talk, people know. And they let you know. And so the world of the book has a much more demanding relationship with the world of the reader than it ever had in the western. But it didn’t take him long before he was having fun with it.
The movies of the early seventies had signalled a shift for him. Joe Kidd was about an ex-bounty hunter who was dragged into a brawl between a wealthy landowner and a Mexican revolutionary leader. Mr. Majestyk was about a melon farmer who stood up alongside his Mexican field workers against the mob. Vince Majestyk was a Vietnam veteran but that wasn’t the big thing. He signalled a move for Leonard, to finding his lead characters in everyday roles, characters who might just get caught up in something criminal or generally bad. In 52 Pickup, Harry Mitchell runs a manufacturing plant; in Swag, Ernest Stickley, jr., is a down-on-his-luck cement truck driver before he gets eased into armed robbery; in Unknown Man #89, Jack Ryan is just looking for any old job when he gets taken on as a process server. Ordinary guys get caught up in the grey areas of ethical life and that is the type of thing that Leonard loves.
So piece by piece, the lead characters come into view, along with the modern world in which they live. The nice thing for Leonard is that his focus on the ordinary and the extraordinary cuts both ways. His ordinary folk become revealed as just as wild as the sociopaths and the sociopaths reveal their own concerns with the everyday. This became the Elmore Leonard playground in which we all had fun. At the same time he was shaking off those genre constraints that had shackled his westerns. Moving to the contemporary crime novel, it was inevitable that a certain amount of genre limitation was going to carry over. But the eighties put an end to all of that. In 1980, he published his first book with Arbor House, City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit. His publisher was Don Fine, who had made it clear that the first job of selling Elmore Leonard novels was to sell Elmore Leonard. The title of the book was a play on Leonard’s past as a western storywriter as much as it messed with the idea of the gunfight in the modern day. And the book is full of this type of play. In one scene, Raymond Cruz, the police detective at the centre of the story, manoeuvres a fellow officer into the home of Mr. Sweety, a local club owner, drug dealer and armed robber, to see a photograph of Jesus. The colleague thinks it might be Leon Russell but doesn’t give it much credence as Jesus. No-one but Raymond is surprised that it is a photograph of Jesus. No-one, especially Leonard, actually points out the incongruity of having a photograph of Jesus, as I just did. This is the modern world, Leonard-style—no-one is at that level and no-one tries to explain.
Modern world Detroit, when I was there in the early nineties, was trying to get on its feet. There weren’t many signs of renewal at that stage. There had been the Renaissance Centre that had been built at the end of the seventies and completed in the eighties but was starting to look a little shabby. That’s the site of the George Clooney-Jennifer Lopez bedroom scene in Out Of Sight (1998, D: Steven Soderbergh, screenplay Scott Frank, novel Elmore Leonard) although General Motors had renovated and rebadged the complex by then. There was the people mover, an elevated light rail project, that had opened just a few years before and was designed to get souls around the downtown safely and efficiently. Gregg Sutter, Leonard’s researcher, told me that it was commonly known as the people mugger but I was never clear whether that referred to the pricing or the unachieved ambition of passenger safety. It also had ‘The Fist’, officially known as the ‘Monument to Joe Louis’, I believe, but let’s call a fist a fist. Over seven metres of arm and fist, the arm and fist of Joe ‘Brown Bomber’ Louis, suspended in a pyramid like a battering ram at Hart Plaza. The sculptor, Robert Graham, got it right. Just like Joe Louis, not pretty but very powerful.
So a few things were happening in this tired, divided city, but downtown entertainment tended to be a couple of extremely well-lit streets in Greektown. The jewel in the crown of the renovations was the recently restored Fox Theatre on Woodward Avenue. As a movie buff, I was in awe of the Fox because it was one of the great movie picture palaces of the 1920s. It was the largest on the Fox chain. As a music buff, I was in awe of the Fox because by the 1960s, after the run down of the picture palaces, it became home to the great Motown and other music revues. Most everyone I listened to, growing up, had played here. Gregg Sutter took me to a benefit screening that was to support the renovations that had taken place. I was going to see a brand new 70mm print of Spartacus (1960, D: Stanley Kubrick, starring Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons) but I was totally unprepared for the building. I knew it was big and seated around 5,000 but I didn’t know the lobby was six floors high. I didn’t know that a picture palace was a palace.
So the city, in its immediate pre-Eminem days, was working at change but there were few signs of that change taking hold. At least that’s how it felt when I stopped at a traffic light outside Hudson’s Department Store on Woodward, not yet out of downtown, about ten in the morning, listening to some country music on the radio, and looked to the side to see two police spreading two young black men over their car. The good feeling from the Fox melted into the clichés of an American cop show and I went on to sit down for another session with the man who had himself become one of Detroit’s renewal figures.
There’s a difference between being a writer who lives in Detroit and a Detroit writer. Detroit has well and truly claimed Mr. Leonard as its own, but, then again, so has South Beach, Florida. But this was where he really made his name. Unlike the westerns, where he started too late, Detroit was growing into a new skin just as he was trying to get it all down on paper. The renewal hadn’t started and he was prospecting in some very rough ground for a while there. One of the things that helped move it along was the chance to ride with the Detroit police in 1978. The Detroit News Magazine asked him to do a feature article on the police and he found such an abundance of material that Squad Seven of the Detroit Police Department Homicide Section became his posse for two and a half months. This was the accelerator that brought Detroit into perspective. Seeing Detroit from this angle was to allow him to get under the skin of this city and, very important to Leonard, keep his facts straight.
Riding with Squad Seven did more than give him access to the Detroit demi-monde. It gave him time to study the contemporary scenery that had become so important to him. If the cops made their coffee in a Norelco coffeemaker, he wanted to be sure that he had the right brand of coffeemaker, and if the interview room for the murder squad had gray paint on the walls and not light blue, he wanted to know. It was not about being obsessive. There was something about getting that contemporary scenery right that led to getting those contemporary characters right. He never really articulated it to me in detail but it was there in the books—pay attention to the characters, where they live and what they do. The clues to who they are are all around them but you might not pick it on the first pass. Squad Seven sharpened his eye.
The result of the serious attention he gave to Detroit was returned when he became a figure that the city claimed as its own. He started to crop up on the magazine lists of ‘Most Famous Detroit’ celebrities that all cities run about their homegrown. But, like the local press anywhere, they are always slightly insecure and so it all began after Newsweek (22 April, 1985) ran his picture on the cover when Glitz made the bestseller list. Don Fine was right—sell the man and then you can sell the books. The Newsweek article was very complimentary and passed on the ‘overnight success after twenty years’ rhetoric that had been running for a couple of years. But seeing your face on every newsstand in every place you go, if only for a week, has to play with your head. Leonard had the last laugh when, in the movie of Get Shorty (1995, D: Barry Sonnenfeld, starring John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Rene Russo and Danny DeVito), DeVito’s character is splashed all over the newsstands dressed as Napoleon as publicity for his latest film (another famous shorty). Leonard likes to use what he has and the sensations that come with major fame had to find a way into his work somehow.
Eventually you begin to wonder what doesn’t get into the work, or at least what the filter might be. It certainly isn’t about going out into the world, finding the biggest nut jobs to write about and getting the names of the cars right. There’s something going on in a Leonard novel that brings all this material together—contemporary character, contemporary scenery, contemporary nut job—and, when the story has had its play, we feel that we know more about something. Even if we don’t know what it is. Maybe he doesn’t know either. He is insistent about not having themes (“I don’t have themes”) but pretty tight-lipped about what he does have. He’s a very amiable man but much more attuned to listening to you than revealing things about himself.
It isn’t difficult to get down to one level. He doesn’t work with themes—he works with character. He writes stories that are based on the vagaries of character and the places where those little hiccups of personality take his characters when they get into situations that are not clearly defined in their everyday lives. It’s those grey areas that he likes so much (“Some things that my people do are illegal but not necessarily immoral”). To get at those characters, however, you have to know something about the world that they live in. To get a handle on the first, you have to know about the second. Back in the day, as they say, Leonard would have known a bit about the second. In the fifties, he was an advertising executive in a major city, keen on jazz (“In my car, I have the radio set on a jazz station”) and the jazz clubs that flourished in Detroit, lots of nightlife, lots of drinking, lots of everything. This was the social scene that eventually gave us Motown. All those musicians that they make documentaries about today would have been recruited from the clubs that Leonard would have frequented. It was probably quite a life for a while.
He certainly wasn’t living that life when I met him. He had been a non-drinker for quite some time but, when we met, had recently given up smoking. It took me a while to realise, as we talked across his writing desk with an enormous ceramic ashtray between us, that as much as I was encouraging him to fill my tape with stories, he was encouraging me to fill the ashtray. He had a very nice large house with lovely grounds and a very comfortable room in which to write. Access to the life came from research these days. In part, that’s what riding with Squad Seven had done for him, tuned him into how to research the modern day life. And that’s what Gregg Sutter helped him with.
It would be wrong to overstate the usefulness of having a researcher like Gregg Sutter, and he would be the last person to do that, but it is clear that it helps. Sutter came into the picture around the time of the writing of Split Images (1981). He had met Leonard and written about him earlier for Detroit Monthly magazine. Leonard invited him to do some research on material that went into Split Images. They clearly get along and Sutter’s involvement has grown with each book. Today he runs Leonard’s official website amongst other things. Sutter is an extremely enthusiastic and energetic man. Like Leonard, he is very generous but unlike my time with Leonard which was spent, for the most part, sitting on leather furniture talking back and forth, my time with Sutter was spent in his car riding around Detroit looking at the real locations of where the books were set from Police Headquarters at 1300 Beaubien to Lily’s Bar in Hamtramck. Hamtramck is just north of Poletown and stuck between the intersection of the Chrysler Freeway and the Edsel Ford Freeway. (It’s impossible not to love these Detroit names.) Sutter’s a man who’s always on the move. He even managed to film the punk band playing at Lily’s (the singer was a friend of his) whilst showing me around the place.
The research that Sutter provides is important but, as the interview shows, the sifting process that Leonard puts the material through is more important. He has boxes and boxes of material and, as we looked through them together, it became clear that what he found was triggering more than just memories. Everything is a potential springboard for an idea and that is probably a lot of what separates the researcher from the writer. It begs the question of why Leonard stays with crime but he was very clear on that: “It in itself is exciting so that you can do it low key, be calm and quiet about it.” Being calm and quiet is a lot of what Leonard does. The characters may well be outrageous and the situations that they find themselves in are generally extreme but their reactions normally come from the range of options that most of us experience. A good example is Elvin Crowe, brother to Roland and uncle to Dale, all Leonard familiars from different books. In Maximum Bob, Elvin tracks someone for shooting Roland. When he finds him sitting in a lavatory stall, he shoots him. And the police pick him up. When Elvin finds out that he has shot the wrong man he wants his charge diminished because, well, it was an accident, wasn’t it? No, we don’t go around shooting strangers, but we do feel miffed when we get taken to task for an accident. Leonard gets this and he does it low key.
Low key is very important because you never read a lot of Elmore Leonard in his books. In his now famous rules for writers, he always advocates avoiding those things that let you know that there is someone actually writing the book, like adverbs. It comes back to training. He hears the dialogue as it goes on the page and that is an inordinate strength for any novelist. That’s one of the things that he got from Richard Bissell, the only American novelist since Mark Twain to hold a pilot’s license for the Upper Mississippi. But there’s more to his novels than just dialogue. He has to deal with narrative and, in dealing with narrative, he developed an approach that marks him out amongst modern day writers. By the time of the mid-eighties, he had developed a narrative style that was his own and one that allowed him to experiment with, and sometimes improvise on, character.
By the time that Elmore Leonard had become a bestselling author, you just didn’t read him in his books. He wasn’t there. He’d put those comparisons with the old private eye novels well and truly behind him but they are good for helping us realize what is so special about him. In the old Raymond Chandler novels, the private dick is always in the action, taking you from clue to clue and from scene to scene. It had its benefits. It maintained an intensity and it gave the reader a strong character to lead him or her through the vagaries of the urban underworld. But it was very limiting. You couldn’t get away from that character. Leonard broke that grip without having to move to the overview of a narrator that could calmly direct you from scene to scene. Leonard began to experiment with narrating scenes from the point of view of individual characters but without making it explicit who was doing the narrating. The effect was dynamic. It allowed readers to fathom their own way through the story, intuiting who was colouring the scene as they went along.
There was nothing new about this. Flaubert had been doing it in France over a hundred years before, but Leonard was doing it here and now and with the nut jobs of Detroit and Miami. He doesn’t always use it just to colour scenes and hide his own presence. There is a section in Out Of Sight (1996) where Jack Foley is being driven around the empty Detroit car plants by his buddy, Buddy. Buddy is telling Jack about the time when he worked there. Jack is thinking about the sexy female cop that he had been locked in a car boot with down in Florida. The reveries intercut and, technically as well as aesthetically, it is one of the most marvellous sequences in contemporary popular fiction. On top of that, Steven Soderbergh did a great job of filming the sequence in the movie with George Clooney and Ving Rhames.
When we got around to talking about writers that he admired, Leonard was quick to point out the other Miami master, Charles Willeford. But the interesting thing about Willeford was that he never really did make it and that was important for Leonard. As he says, “My contention is that once you’ve established yourself then you can do anything you want.” There have been some things that he has gone back on. I asked him about writing short fiction again and he said that he couldn’t do that anymore. But he did go back to that. By the mid-nineties, a few short pieces were coming out here and there but, to be fair, that was more along the lines of using fragments and bits and pieces of things that might well have come from other novels that he was writing or scenes with characters from past novels that he had to cut.
He stayed away from writing for the movies and that was a good thing. There’s a lot to be said for a volume of work and one of the nicer things about rereading Elmore Leonard is that development of craft, the way he works so hard to get out of the space between the reader and the story. You can forget, if you are not careful, that it is his imagination that you’re playing around in.
I can only repeat my gratitude for his generosity at the time. Detroit is an interesting city but it is made much more interesting with Elmore Leonard as a guide. I took in the fourth of July celebrations before I left town and as I prepared to drive to Toronto the next day I read the paper with a cup of coffee. There had been a number of incidents amongst the general exuberance of the celebrations. Amongst the arrested was a pair of twins, Cassandra and Cassondra, two teenage girls who were going around causing a bit of mayhem. When they were arrested, they admitted that they only did this sort of thing because they liked to hang with the cops. Maybe I was wrong all along. Maybe in a town like that you just have to look out of the window and write down what you see. Or maybe not.
I would like to acknowledge Noel King for his work on a preliminary edit of these interviews.