Author Lorenzo Carcaterra reflects on the life of his friend, the legendary writer Elmore Leonard.
Photo: Everett Collection | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013
Elmore Leonard died this week at the age of 87, the result of a stroke suffered three weeks ago. The day the stroke hit, Leonard was doing what he had been doing since 1951—the year he sold his first short story, a western, to Argosy Magazine—writing. He was working on his 46th novel, Blue Dreams.
Leonard, known as “Dutch” to his friends—a nickname he lifted from a Washington Senators baseball pitcher who shared the same last name—came out of the world of advertising, writing copy during the day and getting up before the sun rose to write two pages of a novel every morning. He would finish one page before he allowed himself a taste of that first cup of coffee. Those early westerns set the tone of what was to come—sharp dialogue; terse, spot-on descriptive scenes; characters who spoke real dialogue; gritty men and women working their way out of hard corners in a world without give. Two of those westerns are classics: 3:10 to Yuma and Hombre.
Soon enough, Leonard had published dozens of short stories and six western novels, but it still didn’t bring in enough money to support a family that would grow to include five children and a mortgage. He had been fired from his advertising job. He had been asked to write copy for a print ad for a Ford truck. After much thought, Leonard wrote, “It never breaks. You just get tired of looking at the son of a bitch.”
Low on money but rich with a talent few writers who put words to paper possess, Leonard got lucky and latched on to the legendary Hollywood agent, H.N. Swanson. He was an agent who could have easily been a character in a Leonard novel—tough, un-bending, honorable, and who excelled at what he did. Swanson was the one who told F. Scott Fitzgerald that he had written a great book, but it had a shitty title—Trimalchio in West Egg—“That wouldn’t have sold eight books,” Swanson told me many years ago. “Scott was a smart man. He changed the title. He called it The Great Gatsby.”
His advice to Leonard also proved valuable. “He was just a pup when I read his westerns,” Swanson told me. “I told him to forget the cowboy stuff and write stories with women in them. He did and I made him a millionaire.”
Leonard had told me that story years earlier when I first met him. “Swanny asked me if I liked girls,” Leonard said. “I told him I did and he said give me a book with a girl in it, make it contemporary, and send it to me. A year later I sent him my first non-western novel.”
That was The Big Bounce, a book so good that Hollywood made not one but two bad movies inspired by it. From that day to the day the stroke hit, Leonard never stopped—putting felt tip to paper—writing novels, screenplays, and short stories that turned the world of crime fiction on its head and forced the literary crowd to concede that Leonard not only belonged in their company, but more than that, he deserved to be at the head of the line. The heroes were flawed: loan sharks (Get Shorty), ex-cons (Stick), and one take-no-prisoner U.S. Marshal—Raylan Givens, featured in Riding the Rap, Pronto, Raylan, and the short story, “Fire in the Hole,” which inspired the hit FX series, Justified.
Leonard referred to his characters as “my guys,” wrote dialogue as real and as sharp as a slap to the face, and never ventured into heavy descriptions of clouds or passing scenery (“the parts the readers skip”), always moving the story forward, keeping it going through the actions of the characters he loved to bring to life.
It was an honor to have known Elmore Leonard. He was low-key, reserved, and wickedly funny with a sly, deadpan delivery. He loved baseball and movies (of the many adaptations of his books to screen, he favored Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and the TV series, Justified). When he saw the Ryan O’Neal film version of The Big Bounce, he called it “the second worst movie [he’d] ever seen.” Years later, when he saw the re-make of that same movie, he said, “Now I’ve seen the worst.”
He wrote feature films for Clint Eastwood (Joe Kidd) and Charles Bronson (Mr. Majestyk), and a book a year, every year, for no other reason other than “it was fun.”
He was the writer other writers always made a point to read. The late George V. Higgins (The Friends of Eddie Coyle) once told me it was Leonard who initially had the audacity to start a chapter in the middle of a conversation. “I had never read that before,” Higgins said. “It was amazing.”
Leonard smiled when I relayed the story to him. “Really?” he said. “I thought I lifted that bit from George. Either way, it works.”
He had a favorite actor, one he wrote many of his characters with in mind—Richard Boone of Have Gun, Will Travel fame. “He had the look and the attitude,” Leonard said. “And he could say the words and have you believe them.”
To many, Elmore Leonard will be remembered as one of the masters of crime fiction. But he was more than that. Much more. He was one of the best writers this country has ever produced. The late great writer Harry Crews once said, “No writer, I don’t give a shit who it is, wants a fucking adjective before his name—crime writer, horror writer, comedy writer. Fuck all that. You are a writer, period. You either deliver the goods or you don’t.”
Elmore Leonard was a friend. He was a father. A grandfather. A great-grandfather.
And he delivered the goods.
Delivered them better than any writer worthy of the name.
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