ON RUM PUNCH, AND POINT-OF-VIEW
from ‘Doing What I Do: An Interview With Elmore Leonard’ by Anthony May (Contrappasso #2, December 2012)
Dates: 1st-3rd July, 1991
Location: Elmore Leonard’s home in Birmingham, Michigan. The interview took place in Leonard’s study across his writing desk.
MAY: On dialogue, I came across a piece where crime writers were asked to name their ten favourite books and they had all these lists, and you put down just one book, George V. Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1970). Dialogue is outstanding in that book, and there are a couple of things that I’ve wondered about in relation to that. What does dialogue do that other forms of description can’t? One of the things that I like in your work is the way you extend certain points of view by way of dialogue, you present a character through dialogue, and then you continue it in description, in a very productive way.
LEONARD: Exactly. I don’t know if I mentioned that in the documentary [Mike Dibbs's Elmore Leonard's Criminal Records (1991)], but once I decide the point of view of a scene, then that character’s sound will permeate the narrative, will continue on through, because everything you see in that scene is from that character’s point of view and you won’t know what anybody else is thinking until you come to a place on the page where I’ve skipped down a few spaces and got into someone else’s head. And it could be in the middle of a dialogue situation, a scene, where I do it is beside the point but I won’t mix up points of view. I’m a stickler for that because I think I do so much more with it than most writers. With most writers it’s a case of, here’s the scene and the people are talkin’ and then you’re back into the viewpoint of this omniscient author again. I want to keep it down there. I want to keep it in the story.
I was at a Santa Barbara writers’ conference a couple of weekends ago, and I listened to the students, reading. And they all use adverbs, ‘She sat up abruptly.’ And I tried to explain that those words belong to the author, the writer, and when you hear that word there’s just that little moment where you’re pulled out of the seat. Especially by that sound, that soft L-Y sound. Lee. So often it doesn’t fit with what’s goin’ on, y’know. I mean, if a person sits up in bed, they sit up in bed. You don’t have to tell how they sit up in bed. Especially with what’s goin’ on. In this instance, she sat up in bed ‘cause she hears a pickup truck rumbling by outside very slowly and she knows who it is. So you know how she sat up in bed. And in her mind she’s saying, ‘It’s that fuckin’ pickup truck’. She knows it is. And then there’s another, say, half a page or so of inside the character’s head and the phone rings. She gets out of bed and feels her way over and almost knocks a lamp down. And she passes this stack of self-help books, on the desk, and picks up the phone. And I suggested to the young woman who wrote this, ‘Save the fuckin’ pickup, drop the fuckin’ adverb, and put it with the self-help books and it’ll say a lot more about your character.’ See, it’s little things like that. The contrast works better.
MAY: I think that thing of not having a character working like that ‘I’ point of view all the time, by shifting to third person, the way you use that technique of point of view…
LEONARD: Gets a first person sound.
MAY: Yes, it gives a lot of license to that.
LEONARD: The trouble with first person is that you’re so limited.
MAY: Your mentioning self-help books in that young woman’s writing made me think of what seems a recurrent theme in your writing, the different things people use in order to make sense of their circumstances. Way back in 52 Pickup (1974), the Harry Mitchell character is in this situation and all he has is a set of management techniques by which to understand a kidnap and a killing. He has these management seminars, that’s the only thing he knows to use to help organize himself to get through this.
LEONARD: Yeah well, I don’t remember that in detail, but I remember that there was a parallel between the situation in his plant, with the slow-down, and what was happening in his personal life.
MAY: On that idea of characters who do or don’t fall back on failsafe devices for helping themselves, I really liked that reference in the [documentary] to handwriting analysis where Carmen in Killshot (1989) sorts herself out by straightening up her l’s or something like that.
LEONARD: And I believe that could work. You can change your handwriting and improve your personality or your mental state, your attitude. Because you just tell yourself that this is what you’re doing, that’s half of it, y’know? So when she starts writing upright, she picks herself up. But she won’t [analyse] her mother’s [handwriting] because there’s nothing good to say.
MAY: On point of view and the practice of extending point of view from dialogue into those descriptive passages which follow, I’ve always thought that must be very difficult to translate into film. Have you thought how to get around that or is that just a filmmaker’s problem?
LEONARD: Yes, it’s a filmmaker’s problem and, no, because the thing which makes my stories, my books, the style, and the references that are made using this point of view, are not visual. You lose all that. By the time you take these 359 pages down to 110-120 page script, all of this stuff’s gone. Or, most of it.
One example of really using point of view in this way is in Rum Punch . Max Cherry, the bail bondsman, is on the phone when this black guy comes into his office and I start out with just this much as Max’s point of view:
Monday afternoon, Renee called Max at his office to say she needed twelve hundred and fifty dollars right away and wanted him to bring her a check. Renee was at her gallery in The Gardens Mall on PGA Boulevard. It would take Max a half-hour at least to drive up there.
He said, “Renee, even if I wanted to, I can’t. I’m waiting to hear from a guy. I just spoke to the judge about him.” He had to listen then while she told him she had been trying to get hold of him. “That’s where I was, at court. I got your message on the beeper… I just got back, I haven’t had time… Renee, I’m working for Christ sake.” Max paused, holding the phone to his ear. He looked up to see a black guy in a yellow sport coat standing in his office. A black guy with shiny hair holding a Miami Dolphins athletic bag. Max said, “Renee, listen a minute, okay? I got a kid’s gonna do ten fucking years if I don’t get hold of him and take him in and you want me to… Renee.”
Max replaced the phone.
The black guy said, “Hung up on you, huh? I bet that was your wife.”
The guy smiling at him.
Max came close to saying, yeah, and you know what she said to me? He wanted to. Except that it wouldn’t make sense to tell this guy he didn’t know, had never seen before…
The black guy saying, “There was nobody in the front office, so I walked in. I got some business.”
The phone rang. Max picked it up, pointing to a chair with his other hand and said, “Bail Bonds.” (pp. 11-12)
[There is a slight variation between the manuscript and the published text.]
So I saved what his wife said to him until a little bit later when somebody else comes in. ‘Cause he’s not gonna tell this guy. But now it’s this guy’s point of view.
Ordell heard him say, “It doesn’t matter where you were, Reggie, you missed your hearing. Now I have to… Reg, listen to me, okay?” This Max Cherry speaking in a quieter voice than he used on his wife.
This is now Ordell’s point of view, see.
Talking to her had sounded painful. Ordell placed his athletic bag on an empty desk that faced the one Max Cherry was at and got out a cigarette.
So then there’s all this from Ordell’s point of view (a little description, then Ordell overhearing Max’s conversation):
[Max] could be Eyetalian, except Ordell had never met a bail bondsman wasn’t Jewish. Max was telling the guy now the judge was ready to habitualize him. “That what you want, Reg? Look at ten years instead of six months and probation? I said, ‘Your Honor, Reggie has always been an outstanding client. I know I can find him right now…’“
Ordell, lighting the cigarette, paused as Max paused.
“‘…outstanding on the corner by his house.’“
Listen to him. Doing standup.
“I can have the capias set aside, Reg…” (pp. 12-13)
So you see this exchange, it’s hard to separate ‘outstanding’ and I’ve put it in the wrong place, that’s why you see that. So you’ve got two different things going on at the same time, in that use of point of view.
MAY: Do you try to develop that as a specific technical interest as you write or is it more an intuitive sense of how the writing is working?
LEONARD: It just happens. I come at it and use it. I like the idea of levels of things going on. To try and do that. Then you come to the end of the scene, he wants to bond a guy out. Costs ten thousand dollars, and he says:
[Ordell] stopped and looked back. “I got one other question. What if, I was just thinking, what if before the court date gets here Beaumont gets hit by a car or something and dies? I get the money back, don’t I?”
What he was saying was, he knew he’d get it back. The kind of guy who worked at being cool, but was dying to tell you things about himself. He knew the system, knew the main county lockup was called the Gun Club jail, after the street it was on. He’d served time, knew Louis Gara and drove a Mercedes convertible. What else you want to know? (p. 17)
So now we’re back on Max’s point of view.
More extracts from Anthony May’s Elmore Leonard interviews will appear all week. The complete 65-page interview is available in Contrappasso issue #2, available in Paperback, Kindle Ebook, or other Ebook formats @ Smashwords.