ON KILLSHOT AND DETROIT
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: And it’s interesting that you’ve located yourself around Detroit. Just yesterday, as we were driving around the downtown, I thought your novelistic descriptions of Detroit were almost like a guide book to the city. Streets connect, places are there. Do you find that’s more difficult to do when you are dealing with other cities, with Miami or the New Orleans of Bandits ?
LEONARD: No. It’s not more difficult because I find out what neighborhoods I’m gonna use and I study maps. I was always referring to this particular map when doing Rum Punch and Maximum Bob. West Palm, Palm Beach, Palm Beach Shores.
MAY: You say that you don’t think of yourself in that tradition of Chandler and Hammett but that writing is always located within a city.
LEONARD: But if we had lived in Buffalo, then there’s still crime in Buffalo. I didn’t pick Detroit in particular. Some people think I chose Detroit because it was, at the time, the murder capital of the US and it has a reputation. In the movies they were always sending away to Detroit to get a hit man.
I think you can use any place, any place. In Killshot I was gonna make the Blackbird pure French-Canadian. Then I decided it would be too hard to handle his accent all the way through. So instead of being from Montreal he’s from Toronto and he’s half Ojibway Indian. But the idea for his character came from a documentary I saw probably six or seven years ago. It was done in 1979 about the Mafia in Montreal. The filmmakers would run down the street with their mikes trying to interview Mafia figures, y’know, and in one segment you see these two tough guys coming along and they stop ‘em with their mikes and these are the Dubois brothers. And the Dubois brothers think all the Mafia guys are punks. And they’re really tough guys. No respect for, no fear of the Mafia at all. And I thought, I want one of those Dubois brothers. But I gotta change him in order to handle him for 90,000 words.
MAY: I think it works really well in Killshot. Killshot is one of my personal favourites because I think you hit the tone with the husband and wife humour that’s just terrific. But, before I want to talk about that, I want to ask you about the strategy of having two contrasting baddies, baddies that contrast so greatly as Armand and Ritchie do.
LEONARD: Wayne, the ironworker, was gonna be the main character in Killshot but it was so obvious that I had to change it.
MAY: There was a very good review by Michael Woods in the Times Literary Supplement. It was a review of a number of your books when a whole lot of your paperback books came out in Britain and yet he said that tenderness was a thing you couldn’t do. I thought that in Killshot you actually get round that very well. His review came out in 1985, and by the time you publish Killshot, that relationship between Wayne and Carmen has great tenderness in it.
LEONARD: That was ‘89.
MAY: I liked that stuff was where Wayne goes into his tales of the riverbank, when the ironworker, it’s almost the boy’s aspect. He finds a whole new set of toys on the river and almost a whole new terminology for him.
LEONARD: He likes that big stuff, thousands of tons. When I did his fantasy scenes up on the structure, when he does his fantasy, those are possible ways the story could have developed, directions that the reader might be thinking of. So, as soon as he has fantasized those things, they’re no longer possible. And then the reader might wonder, well what’s gonna happen with him?
MAY: Moving away from your novels for a moment, I’d like to talk about the non-fiction that you’ve written. Can you tell me a little about writing the preface to the book on Detroit? [Balthazar Korab, Detroit: The Renaissance City, 1989].
LEONARD: It took me about three weeks to write two thousand words. Because it’s not something that I had an urge to write. I had no desire to write it. The only reason I did it was because the photographer’s a friend of mine. Then I had to decide, What do I think about Detroit? I had to do some research on its history, and to realise when I think of this city fondly at all it goes back to a time in the 30s and 40s, riding a street car downtown. By the late 50s that was all gone. It had changed completely. It was difficult. I get asked to write non-fiction a lot by magazines and newspapers and I have to explain to them, It’s not what I do. I’m not going to get my sound when I do that. My sound is a non-sound. My sound is the sound of the characters, not me. I don’t want to hear me. I don’t want to see me in there. I don’t know why they don’t understand that in the books I’m not there. I would have to have one of my characters write the piece on Miami or whatever.
MAY: In the case of the book on Detroit, you’re a local celebrity. You’re in a list of things that represent Detroit in this weekend’s Free Press along with the Ford factory. You’re a local identity. You say that Detroit all changed in the 50s. What sort of changes occurred?
LEONARD: The fact that 700,000 people left town and moved out to the suburbs. I think at first because assembly plants moved out. Automotive assembly plants were located all around the country rather than just here. It just became easier to assemble and move around the finished product. I suppose it comes down to foreign competition, especially the Japanese, that the automotive companies here misjudged it. And finally it’s too late. It’s the same thing that’s been happening in large industrial centers all over the United States where worldwide competition beats us in making steel and producing automobiles. We’re not the leaders anymore. Oh, we still produce more cars than anybody but not to the point where we can be cocky about it. I don’t know, everybody doesn’t work in the auto plants but there are the related industries, of course. In Hamtramck, though, there were 40,000 people worked in Dodge-Main in three shifts. That’s a lot. That was probably half the working people in the town. So then they tear that down. Dodge-Main is razed and replaced with a little Cadillac assembly plant that’s full of robotics and it employs maybe 3,000. I don’t know what happened. Best restaurant in downtown Detroit closed last week. London Chop House. It was good. We were there a couple of weeks before it closed. I’d always thought that it was the best restaurant in town. No question about it. I think it just didn’t have the business. People are afraid to go downtown. And I’m sure that you can go there safely. You drive up to the place, somebody takes your car, you walk in, y’know? But they don’t have the lunch trade they used to have because there aren’t as many people in the office buildings downtown. Doubleday bookstore closed on Saturday. There’s nobody downtown. Hudson’s department store and that was it. That was the reason to go downtown. Get on a street car and go down. If you wanted to go to Windsor, just for something to do, you’d ride on the ferry.
MAY: It’s closing down now but what was it like before this? It’s obvious to anyone what downtown Detroit is like now. It’s so easy to experience. You just go down there and there’s no one about. What was it like before the change, back in the 50s?
LEONARD: It was alive. It was a vibrant, big city downtown with a lot of cars and streetcars and buses. In the blocks around Hudson’s department store, it was always crowded. You came up Woodward about three miles from downtown, you came to Grand Boulevard, Fisher Building off to your left a couple of blocks, and five more blocks north of there is where I lived through most of the 30s. And then another ten blocks north of there, in Highland Park, I lived in an apartment building. And then a couple of more miles out to Six Mile Road, when I was going to University of Detroit I lived in an apartment building there by the park. Then two more miles to Eight Mile Road was the next place that I moved when I was married the first time. Followed by Twelve Mile Road. Then we came out to Birmingham in ‘61. That’s from Twelve Mile to Fifteen Mile. Then Joan and I got married in ‘79. I like the city. I used to go to black clubs a lot. That was in the late 40s when I was going to school. I’d go to black dance clubs all the time and some nights I might be the only white guy in there but usually there were a few others. And there was no problem.
MAY: What sort of people used to play there?
LEONARD: Let’s see. There would be small jazz groups up on bandstands behind the bar. In the 40s, when I was in high school, I used to go to Perry Lanes Theatre in the afternoon sometime after school or in the evening to hear the big bands. And they were all black bands in the Paradise. They’d go from the Paradise to the Apollo in New York.
MAY: Do you still listen to jazz?
LEONARD: In my car, I have the radio set on a jazz station.
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.