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Getting Elmore

[whitespace] Elmore Leonard Dutch Treat: Hard-boiled novelist Elmore 'Butch' Leonard took his nickname from a fabled knuckle-ball pitcher for the long-gone Washington Senators.

Photo by Linda Chen

The author of 'Get Shorty' and 'Rum Punch' talks about Westerns, Quentin Tarantino and hard-boiled patter

By Richard von Busack

THE NEW MOVIE Jackie Brown gave crime novelist Elmore Leonard the sort of screen adaptation that proves there's more to his work than just pace and gunfire. According to Leonard, director Quentin Tarantino told him, "I've read Rum Punch [the novel that became Jackie Brown] more closely than I've ever read a book."

As loosely transformed as Jackie Brown is, one can still see that Tarantino pegged Leonard's work perfectly: it's not about crime, but about conversation.

"If a character can't talk, he gets demoted. Then he's taken out of the book or shot," claims Leonard, who speaks Tuesday (Jan. 27) at San Jose State University.

The kind of respect Tarantino gave Leonard hasn't always been accorded the author of Get Shorty and Cat Chaser. Leonard remembers actor Patrick McGoohan approaching him on the set of the 1970 film The Moonshine War ("A great script, a terrible movie") and asking, "What's it like to have your lines fucked?"

LEONARD GREW UP in New Orleans, on Carrolton Avenue. When he was older, his parents moved him to Detroit, and that's where he's remained ever since, except for some excursions to Florida now and then. He took his nickname, "Dutch," from Washington Senators knuckle baller "Dutch" Leonard. He is typically laconic about his experiences as a navy seabee in WWII: "Nothing happened to me. I got tattooed but never shot."

In the 1950s, Leonard worked as a copywriter in Motor City. He used to do his own writing between 5 and 7am, turning out Western pulps at two cents a word. (He does the math for me: "Five thousand words, one hundred dollars. That was more money in the fifties.") His cowboy stories included the source novels for the movies 3:10 to Yuma, The Tall T and Hombre.

As for his day job, Leonard, in typically staccato style, recalls, "I was writing Chevrolet ads. You had to write cute. I was OK with truck ads. I quit in 1961, and then I made a mistake: I bought a new home. Then I had to do some freelance work." Today, he works 9:30am to 6pm, writing his novels in longhand: "I've gone from a 29-cent Scripto to a $150 Montblanc. If I produce four, five pages, it's a good day."

Detroit is the birthplace of the efficiency expert. Maybe this is why Leonard looks at writing in terms of economy of time and money: "I won't read a book that starts with a description of the weather. I don't read books over 300 pages, though I'll make an exception for Don Delillo."

Leonard switched from Westerns to urban crime stories in the late '60s. I wonder if the change of approach had to do with the tremendous shocks Detroit was going through in the late '60s, with the Wild West suddenly bursting up through the pavement right in his city. But Leonard, more of a pragmatist than I, says that the real problem was that the market for Westerns had dried up.

"There will always be an audience for Westerns," he adds. "Lonesome Dove was popular, and it's the best Western ever made. The problem is that in movies now, the explosions are so much bigger than six guns."

It's probably hopeless to try to unravel the strings that make Leonard's novels so compelling. Certainly the lack of exposition renders the stories and characters starker while still setting a stage cleanly and sparely. "I loved Hemingway," Leonard says, "but in time, I realized I didn't share his attitude or take things as seriously."

People talk about how hard-boiled Leonard's writing is, but they don't mention how funny he can be. Mostly, his stories contrast the lack of flash in really dangerous men with the blustering of second-tier criminals. Threats are better off left unspoken, observes Get Shorty's Chili Palmer, that nobleman in a field of leg breakers.

Leonard follows the spirit of that Dashiell Hammett line "The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter." He's taken the observation to heart; Leonard writes popular fiction, but his work isn't cheap.

Elmore Leonard speaks Tuesday (Jan. 27) at 7pm at Morris Dailey Auditorium, San Jose State University. Admission is free. He will sign copies of his books at 5pm at the Spartan Bookstore. The event is sponsored by the SJSU Center for Literary Arts and the Silicon Valley Forum of the Commonwealth Club of California. (408/924-4302)

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From the January 22-28, 1998 issue of Metro.

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