Elmore Leonard Week: Elmore on Research



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: We were talking earlier about the time before you started working with Gregg Sutter, and the research that you used to do for yourself. Were there any sorts of reference books that were useful or was that done from more contingent sources, like you said about picking up material off MTV? Did you have any books that you would go to like crime reports or things like that? Did they help?

LEONARD: No, just the paper. The first time I did the piece for the Detroit News, ‘Impressions of Murder’ [1978], I had not done any research directly with the police. I had with newspapermen, like the crime reporter who took me to the morgue, a crime reporter who dealt with the cops. But I didn’t get into the details of procedures. I think the only research for the most part that I did outside of using settings around Detroit that I knew of or would visit was going to the library. If you look at my research boxes, you’ll see they are envelopes from the early books up to a box or two boxes for Killshot. I’ll show you what I have.

Elmore Leonard in front of police headquarters in 1978. (Detroit News)

Elmore Leonard in front of Detroit police headquarters in 1978. (Detroit News)

MAY: You’ve got notebooks and rolls of film…

LEONARD: I would never go to all this trouble myself. This one is all full of Bail Bondsman News. These are all newspaper pieces about bail bondsmen. This one, I think this one is a tape of ‘Demonstrations of Machine Guns’ and the voice-over tells what the guy’s firing, its rate of fire, the kind of cartridge it uses and all that. So I went through that one and I picked out maybe six or eight machine guns with a few facts and I described a movie that the character in the book had bought at a gun show. And he shows this to his customers who come from Columbia, Detroit and New York. He shows them this movie, you want an Uzi, you wanna TEC-9 and all that. And he sells them on it, see. He tells them how much. [Skipping through research box] Here’s some material on bounty hunters. Bounty hunters sometimes are hired by bail bondsmen.

MAY: And you get to read books like Gunrunning For Fun And Profit? So Gregg Sutter goes down and gathers all this material for you?

LEONARD: Yeah. These are parts of manuscripts. These are interviews with bail bondsmen. Mike Sandy, he’s the guy in the movie. This is the ATF file. This is the eating area [Looking at floorplan of a mall—a location in Rum Punch]. The food service area in the mall. I have about one, two, three scenes which take place in there. I would have never gone to this trouble before, before I had a researcher.

MAY: Presumably different aspects of this research feed into different things. I mean, some of it’s for detail and some of it’s for visualisation.

LEONARD: Yeah. [Still searching boxes] A letter from Medellín, drug capital of the world. So I took a few facts out of that and I have Ordell, the gun dealer, telling the jack boys—he has some young black guys working for him, in Florida, and they are called jack boys—who knock over street dealers and dope houses that love to go into the salt waters and shoot the place up and steal everything. So he’s got these young 18, 19 year old jack boys working for him and he tells them about the boys down in Medellín who are called pisto-locos, who are that version of the Columbian jack boys, and how many of them get killed each year and how they should be so happy that they were born in America.

MAY: A much healthier business to be in here.

LEONARD: Yeah. So I already know how I’m gonna use that material. This is where I break down the paragraphs once I get into the book just to help me find things when I look back.

MAY: This notebook? Does Chili Palmer come back in Rum Punch?

LEONARD: No, but I was considering that.

MAY: Has this complicated things at all, having this amount of material to draw on, or does it make life so much easier?

LEONARD: Oh, much easier. But I don’t have it all at once. All these things didn’t come until the very end. In fact, I thought all my research was finished then I decided I was gonna have more scenes in this big mall than I had originally. And Gregg Sutter was down there, he had gone down there for some reason, so I said, ‘take me some pictures’ and he called the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms agent, who’s part of the Treasury, and asked him a question, some technical thing that had to do with where I was up to in the book.

MAY: And that produces more stuff?

LEONARD: Yeah, right.

MAY: It seems to be such a different job researching this material from researching the westerns.

LEONARD: Oh, yeah. The westerns, what did I use? I did them with this, The Look of the Old West by Foster Harris. I would use just an old catalogue of westerns. And I used my Arizona Highways. I relied on Arizona Highways for my descriptions. I’d find a canyon or something, the kind I want, and then the caption would tell you what kind of rock it was and so on. It’s better than being there. Because when you’re out there you wouldn’t know if that was one kind of rock or another, you know. So using Arizona Highways, that worked.


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.