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Tue August 20, 2013
Books News & Features

Elmore Leonard, The 'Dickens Of Detroit,' Dies At 87

Originally published on Tue August 20, 2013 3:22 pm

The writer Elmore Leonard has died. He was 87 years old and had recently suffered a stroke.

For decades, Leonard — working at the very top of his profession as a crime writer — had been widely acclaimed, and universally read. He published 46 novels, which resulted in countless movie and TV adaptations, including the movies Out of Sight and Get Shorty and the TV series Justified.

Leonard lived in Bloomfield Village, just outside Detroit, and in his library, he kept a copy of every book he ever wrote. Most of them are about robbery and mayhem, people chasing after bags of money, but he started as a Western writer, with Bounty Hunter in 1953. He wrote the first draft by hand — he never stopped doing that — using canary yellow pads that a local printer always made for him:

"And I've been using this paper ever since I left the ad agency where they used these pads," Leonard said in a 2010 interview.

Even before Bounty Hunter, Leonard had been an advertising man, a copywriter on the Chevrolet account. He was born in New Orleans, where his father worked for General Motors. They moved to Detroit in 1934. Then high school, the U.S. Navy, the war. Back from the South Pacific, he enrolled in the University of Detroit, studied English, then went off to work for the Campbell Ewald agency.

At home early mornings, he wrote short stories on that yellow paper. He even wrote on the job, on a pad hidden in his desk drawer. He sold Western stories to magazines, for two cents a word at first. All along he was aiming for Hollywood — and in 1957 his story "3:10 to Yuma" became a movie; it's been made twice. In 1960 he left his job at the agency, left the Westerns behind for crime novels.

"People ask me about my dialogue, I say, 'Don't you hear people talking?' That's all I do," he said in that same interview. And that could have been Leonard's secret, all this time. That could be why the writer and critic Martin Amis once called him "a literary genius who writes rereadable thrillers." Leonard listened to his characters talking; he tried to figure out what they might do next. Wrote it on his pad, typed it up, and there's the book.

The crime novelist Megan Abbott says Leonard's novels work for other writers, and for the guy who just needs to kill two hours on a plane. "These are sort of dense, rich characters," she says. "The language just sparkles and pops; there's this sort of complexity to it, embedded in each of the characters ... there's something we can all take from it."

Leonard once published, very helpfully, his 10 Rules of Writing, including maxims like "Never open a book with weather" and "Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip." To which he added one extra bit of process: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

He liked the way a couple of his films turned out on-screen, and for 1995's Get Shorty, he got to be on the set and advise the director. "I said when these guys say something funny you don't cut away to get laughs like that, because they're serious, they're all serious," he said.

One of Leonard's favorite characters, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, ended up on his own TV series, called Justified. "There's one scene ... when I was adapting that for the pilot of TV series, I literally just transcribed it," says executive producer Graham Yost. The scene is a confrontation outside a house in Harlan County, Ky., between Raylan Givens and one of the bad guys, who has a shotgun:

"Raylan just says, you know, 'Can you rack a load before I put a hole through you? I'm going to give you a choice here, but this is how it's going to go down if you chose the wrong way.' I just thought that would be a fantastic main character for a TV series."

About Elmore Leonard's life work — it's easy to picture him sitting at his table with coffee and a cigarette, looking out at the backyard, listening to his characters, pleased by the TV show and the movies, and all his well-worn books in libraries, and especially the millions of 50-cent paperbacks in the used-book stores.

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Transcript

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Crime writer Elmore Leonard has died from complications of a stroke he suffered several weeks ago. He was 87. For decades, Leonard worked at the top of his profession, both widely read and widely praised by critics. He published 46 novels and his work was adapted for the movies "Get Shorty," "3:10 to Yuma," "Jackie Brown," and the TV series "Justified."

NPR's Noah Adams has this remembrance.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: In the spring of 2010, I went to visit Elmore Leonard in Bloomfield Village, outside Detroit. On his library shelves he had a copy of every book he ever wrote. Most of them about robbery and mayhem, people chasing after bags of money. But he started as a Western writer.

ELMORE LEONARD: This is the first book I wrote.

ADAMS: "Bounty Hunters." Oh, I liked it. Read the exposition there at the bottom.

LEONARD: (Reading) A novel by Elmore Leonard. About a time when an Apache scalp would bring 500 pesos in Mexico.

ADAMS: That novel, "Bounty Hunter," that was 1953. He wrote the first draft by hand, never stopped doing that, using canary yellow pads that a local printer always made for him.

LEONARD: And I've been using this paper ever since I left the ad agency where they used these pads.

ADAMS: Elmore Leonard had been an advertising man, a copywriter on the Chevrolet account. He was born in New Orleans. His father worked for GM. They moved to Detroit in 1934, then high school, the Navy, the war. Elmore went to the University of Detroit, studied English, then off to work for Campbell Ewald.

At home in the early mornings, he wrote short stories on that yellow paper. Even wrote on the job, on a pad hidden in his desk drawer. He sold Western stories to magazines, two cents a word at first. All along he was aiming for Hollywood and in 1957 his story "3:10 to Yuma" became a movie - it's been made twice. In 1960, he left his job at the agency, left the Westerns behind for crime novels.

LEONARD: People ask me about my dialogue. I say don't you hear people talking, that's all I do.

(Reading) I suppose you want cash. Of course, I can't go to the bank and draw that much. Then we'll forget it. Lourdes waited while the woman thought about it, smoking her Virginia Slim. If I give you close to 20,000 in cash today, right now, you still want to forget it? You have that much in the house? My getaway money, Mrs. Mahmoud said, in case I ever have to leave in a hurry.

ADAMS: This could be Elmore Leonard's secret all this time. This could be why the writer and critic Martin Amis once called him a literary genius who writes re-readable thrillers. He listens to his characters talking, tries to figure out what they might do next, writes it on his pad, types it up and there is the book.

The crime novelist Megan Abbott says Leonard works for other writers and for the guy who just needs to kill two hours on a plane.

MEGAN ABBOTT: These are sort of dense, rich characters, the language just sparkles and pops, there is this sort of complexity to it, embedded in each of the characters. So I think there is sort of - there's something we can all take from it.

ADAMS: Elmore Leonard once published, very helpfully, his "Ten Rules of Writing." Number one is never open a book with weather. Number two, never use a word other than said to carry dialogue. Five is keep your exclamation points under control. Number six, never use the words suddenly or all hell broke lose. Number eight, avoid detailed descriptions of characters. The last one is try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

And Leonard adds: If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GET SHORTY")

JOHN TRAVOLTA: (as Chili Palmer) Where you been Harry?

GENE HACKMAN: (as Harry Zimm) Have we met? I don't recall.

TRAVOLTA: (as Chili Palmer) We just did. I told you my name is Chili Palmer.

HACKMAN: (as Harry Zimm) You're in pictures, right? Did you ever stop to think what would happen if I had a heart attack?

TRAVOLTA: (as Chili Palmer) Look at me, Harry.

HACKMAN: (as Harry Zimm) I'm looking at you.

TRAVOLTA: (as Chili Palmer) I want you to keep looking right here.

HACKMAN: (as Harry Zimm) Well, that's what I'm doing.

ADAMS: Gene Hackman, John Travolta, the "Get Shorty" movie from 1995. It's from Elmore Leonard's book. He liked the way a couple of his films turned out on the screen. And for this one, he got to be on the set and advise the director.

LEONARD: I said, when these guys say something funny, you don't cut away to get laughs like that, because they're serious. They're all serious.

ADAMS: One of Elmore Leonard's favorite characters, Deputy U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens, ended up with on his own TV series called "Justified." Producer Graham Yost.

GRAHAM YOST: There's one scene in the novella that, when I was adapting that for the pilot of the TV series, I literally just transcribed it.

ADAMS: It's a confrontation outside a house in Harlan County, Kentucky, between Raylan Givens and one of the bad guys who has a shotgun.

YOST: Raylan just says, you know, can you rack a load before I put a hole through you? You know, I'm going to give you a choice here but this is how it's going to go down if you chose the wrong way.

ADAMS: And at that point, his gun is still on his hip, right?

YOST: Yeah, it's still on his hip. He doesn't pull it 'cause he says I only pull my gun if I'm going to shoot and I shoot to kill.

ADAMS: Graham Yost, producer of the TV series "Justified."

About Elmore Leonard's life work, it's easy to picture him sitting at his table with coffee and a cigarette, looking out at the backyard, listening to his characters, pleased by the TV show and movies and all his well-worn books in libraries, and especially the millions of 50 cent paperbacks in the used bookstores.

Noah Adams, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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