TIMES MAGAZINE – June 26, 2004
Ginny Dougary

He may be pushing 80, but writers don’t come cooler than Elmore Leonard, with Hollywood players from Tarantino to Malkovich beating a path to his door. Ginny Dougary meets the crime master.

We’re sitting in a darkish room in the back of his home, and Elmore Leonard is dishing the dirt on Hollywood in an appropriately laid-back way. He’s pushing 80 but is most uncreaky and lean in his jeans, sneakers and navy round-necked sweater, inconspicuous spectacles, a glint of dull gold chain around his neck. Leonard is cool. Perhaps not quite as cool as his books – that would be hard – but almost. On the way to his second study, devoted to half a century of works by himself, we walked through the kitchen, passing Christine – his wife – her hair in punky tufts, standing by the sink, chopping and watching an old black-and-white film on a television suspended from the ceiling.

Leonard and I had managed to talk our way through lunch without noticing we’d missed it. Round about tea-time he offered to make me a hot dog. This, I think, was not a serious suggestion but a droll nod to my appreciation of the almost fastidious, connoisseurs’ delight his characters take in their consumption of junk food. Leonard was there, long before Quentin Tarantino had his Pulp Fiction characters, on the way to a hit, marvelling that in Paris a Quarter Pounder McDonald’s is called a Royale.

Freaky Deaky (published in 1988), the author’s own favourite, was the first of his books I read and I can still remember being tickled by this sort of dialogue: bomb squad (soon to transfer to sex crimes unit) cop’s father Art Mankowski, frying hamburgers, asks son Chris, “You want your onion fried or raw?” “I’d rather have a slice of green pepper, if you have any, and the cheese melted over it.” “I think there’s one in there, take a look. Get the cheese, too, the Muenster. Where’d you have it like that?” “It’s the way Phyllis makes ’em,” Chris said. “You put A-1 on it instead of ketchup.” And so on for pages, the precise merits of a particular relish refinement batted back and forth, between observations on marriage, career tips, cartoons and sexual deviancy.

It’s not that that this sort of characterisation hasn’t been done before – Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, which I read many, many years ago, is a blur for me now apart from a scene when one of the baddies demands that his scrambled eggs are served runny, which still seems quite horribly creepy – but what’s special about Leonard is the way he imbues white trash taste, most democratically, with something like the nuance of sophistication.

Before Tarantino came along – the Detroit writer’s number one fan, along with a disparate devotee base of poets, junkies, jailbirds and Martin Amis – the received opinion was that Leonard’s books did not translate well on to the screen, although not for the want of trying. The writer’s personal all-time turkey was, until recently, the 1969 version of The Big Bounce, starring Ryan O’Neal, which he has consistently described as “the second-worst movie ever made”, although a recent remake seems to have surpassed it in awfulness. Even its producer, Stephen Bing, best known as the father of Elizabeth Hurley’s baby, approached Leonard at the launch party to offer his apologies.

Bad Big Bounces aside, there have been some notable cinematic successes in recent years: Steven Soderbergh directing Out of Sight (starring Jennifer Lopez as the cop and George Clooney as the con escapee in that fantastically sexy scene in the boot of a car), Get Shorty and Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, recast from the Leonard novel Rum Punch. Tarantino has still got the rights to Killshot but plans to be on the screen rather than behind it, and is currently filming the sequel to Get Shorty – Be Cool with John Travolta, returning as the Miami mobster Chili Palmer, and Uma Thurman.JJohn Malkovich has the rights to Freaky Deaky and Danny DeVito to Leonard’s last book of short stories, When the Women Come Out to Dance.

Leonard says he doesn’t do scripts any more, not since 1993: “I don’t get any fun out of it,” he says. “And I haIaIve (this drawn out like a southerner) to have fun when I’m writing.”

He tells me that on the set of Be Cool, the director was warned that in order to secure a PG-13 rating you can only get away with saying “f***” twice, and they were already at a count of no fewer than 32 of the offending word. “Really?” was Tarantino’s chilled response, “Well, f*** that” – and everyone agreed the two-f**** exchange was so fabulous it had to go into the actual movie.

There had been a bit of bother behind the scenes, apparently, with Danny DeVito insisting on his rights – from his initial contract – to final approval of Get Shorty’s sequel. Leonard: “And MGM said, ‘We’re not gonna give you the final cut so we’ll just put it on the shelf.’ And everybody who’s involved is yelling at Danny DeVito, saying: ‘God, what are you holding out for?'” Leonard’s agent finally came up with a deal – which was to offer DeVito any of his client’s books the actor fancied, including the opportunity to commission a new work, and a commitment from MGM that it would make the picture. Which is how DeVito came to own When the Women Come Out to Dance and Be Cool will not end up languishing on a shelf.

My favourite tales from Leonard’s considerable store of prima donna lunacy involve Dustin Hoffman. Some years ago, the actor had agreed to star in LaBrava but wanted to fine-tune the script. Once a month for seven months, Leonard would fly from Detroit to New York, as did the director from Los Angeles, to be creative with Hoffman. First of all, the seasoned actor had a problem with the idea that he could be expected to play a man who was in love with a 50-year-old woman. Surely it would be more credible for his character to be entwined with a much younger woman than himself? Leonard duly agreed to go home and rewrite the story.

The next month, Hoffman felt it might be more credible still if the younger woman already had a boyfriend whom she felt compelled to leave because of her uncontrollable attraction to the older man. Leonard agreed once more to make the necessary adjustments.

By the time they meet again, the actor has had a complete change of heart: “Hey, you know, I will fall in love with a 50-year-old woman. I’ve just met Anouk Aimee and she’s terrific.” After a brief discussion on wrinkles (her lack of), the phone rings and – incroyable – it is none other than the French actress herself. Hoffman insists that the writer and the director come to the phone in turn to say a few words. Leonard congratulates her on her performance in A Man and a Woman, to which she replies: “Humphh, zat was 27 years ago.” “Well, I really had no idea what to say,” Leonard shrugs.

All of which nonsense is recounted in the most even tones, with just a hint of “Lord, what fools these mortals be” mischief around Leonard’s eyes. The story moves on, and now the actor has been approached by the makers of Get Shorty to play the lead role. Leonard is in Adelaide on a book tour when he receives a phone call from Hoffman: “You’ve been saying terrible things about me for monthsI and my people have been protecting me from reading your book because they say it’s all about me!” Emboldened by the great distance which lay between him and Hoffman, Leonard replied: “What? You think you’re the only short actor in Hollywood?”

Our day together had started with him phoning the plush hotel he had recommended I stay in, and insisting on driving over to pick me up from his home ten minutes away. I assured him that I’d already booked a cab. “Then cancel it,” he said firmly.

So we drove together through the serene streets of Birmingham, the affluent white Anglo-Saxon suburb of Detroit which has been Leonard’s – rather surprising – home for the past five decades. In my mind’s eye, I still held an image of the writer from an old American Express advertisement: in profile, on a seat, all in black from his tilt-hatted head and shades to his gleaming black-booted toes, gauntly poised for action like Lee Marvin but with an old typewriter, instead of a gun, on his knees. The allure, of course, is that the dude in black has a toughness and an unknowability about him, a whiff of danger even, which suggests that you would be ill-advised to mess with him.

This quality – which the photographer Annie Leibovitz was obviously striving for – chimes in with what one might hope for from the guru of crime fiction. Such a writer’s habitat might be a gothic pile or perhaps a stark but stylish loft in the inner-city, probably not a pleasant neo-Georgian house with shrubs and blossomy pear trees, and inside: chinoiserie, friends’ paintings, willow-sprigged wallpaper, an antique desk, tables covered with many framed photographs of family.

On our drive, Leonard had pointed out a building where one of his middle-aged sons has his own advertising agency – he had worked as a copywriter himself in his twenties – and approaching the substantial mansions and drives of his neighbourhood, gestures to a side road where a daughter lives. Another daughter and son live close by and only one of the five children, Chris, is far away, running hisJrestaurant in Arizona. There are now biblical quantities of grandchildren – as witnessed by the dedication to his first children’s book A Coyote’s In the House (if Leonard pens a kiddie book, can Tarantino’s Disney be far behind?): “Shannon and Megan; Tim, Alex, Max and Kate; Ben, Hillary and Abby; Joe, Nick and Luke; and for my great-grandson, Jack.”

He has said in the past that his children are the reason he has stayed so long in the same place (albeit with regular breaks in Florida, another setting for his books). Today, however, he asks me what more could he want, wafting a hand vaguely towards the french windows, the tree-lined garden beyond with its swimming pool, tennis court (he now watches rather than plays), and population of squirrels, chipmunks and possums. JJ Perhaps it is because he is so prodigiously hardworking – he is never without at least one book on the go – that I sense some disapproval (and Leonard is notably unjudgmental) of writers who squander their time not writing. When I ask him whether he likes the literary scene, for instance, he says: “Yeah, but in small doses, because I think of Joseph Heller right away who was 12 years between books, between the big oneI what was it?”

Catch 22. “Iand the next one. Twelve years! What was he doing? He was having lunch. With his friends. Out in the Hamptons.”

On his desk, which suggests a most unchaotic approach to creativity, there is a neat pile of yellow A4 pages, filled with words, a couple covered in an inky scrawl, and one with a paragraph or two in his typewriter. For The Hot Kid – the book he is working on now – Leonard is returning to his boyhood. He reads the opening line out loud in his steady voice: “Carlos Webster was 15 the day he witnessed the robbery and killing at Deering’s drugstore. This was in the fall of ’21 in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.”

His early years were peripatetic on account of Leonard Snr’s job as an executive in the motor industry – latterly with General Motors in Detroit – picking out dealership locations. Born in New Orleans in 1925, his family moved back and forth from Dallas, Oklahoma City and Memphis before settling in Detroit in 1934, where Leonard Jnr has remained ever since.

We look at a series of black-and-white photographs of a very young Leonard dressed up in different disguises and looking scampish, next door to his rather upright older sister. There are no pictures of his mother here – whom he describes as “a wonderful, thoughtful, non-judgmental woman” – but his father looks exquisitely turned out: “Well, all the men in the Thirties wore suits and hats. I mean, even bank robbers. Particularly bank robbers! Which is what I am covering now.”

There is one outfit of the young Leonard which could be read as a thread between the boy and the man; the imaginative link to a world that still fascinates him. He is dressed in a cap and suit, foot on the step of a curvy-bumpered car, brandishing a gun. It’s a child’s re-enactment of the famous pose struck by Bonnie Parker (as in Bonnie and Clyde). I’m wondering if Leonard himself is The Hot Kid of the title: “No, no, but there is something about that time which affected me. It was said that there were probably 20 bank robbers for every doctor in America then, and I was certainly aware of the desperadoes. I was aware of what was going on with Bonnie and Clyde, and Pretty Boy FloydI It was in the papers all the time.

They were all killed, but the important ones were killed in 1934.”

His sister used to read to him a lot, which got him into reading himself, popular fiction for the most part. His father was always concealed behind the pages of Forbes and Fortune and the newspaper, but he remembers his mother joining the Book of the Month club in 1940.

He was named Elmore after the hero of a book his paternal grandmother was reading at the time his father was born. “It was a formidable name to handle, and tough just to stand up in class and say, ‘I’m Elmore Leonard.’

Oh jeez,” he says, “I wish I had been John or Jim or Jack or Bill. Bill was my favourite.”

He says that he felt very much loved growing up but reckons he wasn’t spoiled because “I got whacked a lot” – this delivered with relish. “By my mother, she was the whacker.” He doesn’t remember being aggrieved by it and – besides – he was a whacker himself as a father – “But I didn’t overdo it.” (This sounds odder than it might since “whack” is Leonard hood-speak for murder.)

Steinbeck was one of his favourite novelists, and he still rates him – quite considerably, judging by the number of admiring references to him in a crisp piece published in 2001 on rules for writing – most of which start with the words “Don’t” (“go into great detail describing places and things”); “Never” (“open a book with weather”, “use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue”, “use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’); and “Avoid” (prologues).

While he makes honourable exceptions for Barry Lopez (on the weather) and Margaret Atwood and Jim Harrison (descriptive writing), Mary McCarthy gets lightly admonished for being a writer who sticks her nose into her prose: “I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ‘she asseverated’ and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.”

I suspect a similar criticism of Martin Amis, although Leonard describes the younger man as his champion: “He has said more good things about me than anyone here.” First of all, he says that he would be unable to write a classic novel in the omniscient voice of the author: “That’s an author who has the language and the more interesting the language, the more literary it becomes. But I don’t have the language. I don’t have all the words like Martin Amis. He uses words I’ve never heard of; ones I’ve never seen on paper.”

For an example, he says: “I questioned him about a word he used – when we were being interviewed together – and it was something similar to ‘plastered’. Like ‘the suit was plastered on to his figure’. It was a building word, a construction word – and my daughter knew it but only because she’s into re-doing houses. I said to him, ‘Do you ever look up words in the dictionary?’ And he said, ‘Yeah. Once in a while.’ And I said, ‘This word. Did you just think up this word?’ And he said, ‘Well, it fit and I thought it went with the paragraph and with the way the paragraph was written, and it went with this particular character, this man.’ And I said, ‘So you didn’t have to look it up, huh?'”

Leonard has always liked stories with a beginning, middle and end. And although after the war he enrolled at the University of Detroit to read English – with heavy doses of the classics – it was the reading he did in his own time that gave him the most pleasure. He particularly disliked a course on the Romantics – Keats and Shelley not really being his bag. What did he think of Shakespeare: “I liked him but I was never attracted to imagery, and he is imagery all over the place,” he says. “I remember saying to Joyce Carol Oates I thought imagery got in the way of story. And she said, ‘Well, so much for Shakespeare.’ But I was thinking of Raymond Chandler, not Shakespeare.”

He wrote a couple of directionless short stories at university, sent them off to magazines and when they were rejected, resolved to narrow his tastes down to a particular genre and become an expert at it. Westerns were his first choice, partly because they were so big in the Fifties: “So I thought, ‘I think I can make it here without too much trouble.'” More rejections came when he wrote without doing any research but as soon as he started exploring Arizona, New Mexico in the 1880s, Apache Indians, the cavalry and cowboys – “What they wore, what they ate, everything – I started to sell immediately.”

He takes out boxes from shelves and opens the lids to show the magazines – pulp fiction, indeed – that would run his stories when he started out for two cents a word – “So I’d get a hundred bucks for a 5,000-short, which was better than the quarterlies who’d give you a free subscription to their magazine, which would normally cost $ 25.”

I had read that he would get up at five in the morning and type for two hours, before heading off to his advertising job – slogans to sell cars; nothing very memorable – and had assumed that since he was married in 1949 (to Beverly Claire Cline), the first of the five children appearing a year later, he had gone into writing the better to support his burgeoning family. But, no, he says, he did it because a full-time fiction writer was what he wanted to be.

He was successful enough at the western – Hombre was chosen as one of the best 25 westerns of all time – but it was crime, when Leonard made the switch, that really paid.

I have rarely met a writer who inhabits his own books as much as Leonard, or who is so unabashed about his enjoyment of them. He says that Tarantino knows his work better than he does, and will often refer to a minor character that the author himself has forgotten. But, frankly, I find this hard to believe. Just about the only time Leonard loses me is when he goes into the plots of some of the 37 novels I haven’t read, which he does quite often and at some length: Glitz, the one that turned him into a cover-boy when it became a New York Times bestseller in ’85; Killshot; Touch; Pronto; Unknown Man Number 89.

Leonard is far stronger, as he says himself, on character than plot – “Most books sell on the strength of the plot. Clancys and Grishams, those are plot-heavy books, but mine are all character.” I love the way he talks about his characters as though they are absolutely alive to him: which is literally true in the case of Chili Palmer, even down to his name, an ex-Mafia employee of an old schoolfriend of Leonard’s who worked as a private investigator in Miami Beach.

He is brilliant at capturing the way people speak and rendering them absolutely believable, and finds it hard to understand why people marvel at the authenticity of his dialogue: “People ask me all the time: ‘Where do you get that dialogue? What do you do?’ And I say, ‘Well, I hear it. Don’t you hear it? Don’t you hear people’s voices?’ So you have a certain type and it’s a caricature to begin with and as you work on it then that person becomes real to you.

“It’s the way that Steinbeck said, ‘I want to know what the person looks like from the way he talks.’ I thought he let me off the hook then back in ’56 or whenever it was. I thought, ‘Oh, thank God, I don’t have to describe people.’ Because what good is it? Some authors go into great detail – how close the eyes are and all that, and it doesn’t matter. Who cares? Because by the time you’ve introduced somebody, the reader’s already picturing that person. You don’t want to louse up the way the reader sees the character.

So let the readers see the person and then you make them talk and somehow it all fits.”

His characters have to earn their right to be in the limelight; if they bore him, they will be dispatched quite ruthlessly. He often rewrites scenes from different characters’ viewpoints before deciding how the story will pan out most effectively. The best character for him is: “A very minor one who might not even have a name. But he finds himself in a very important scene and he talks and I like the sound of him and I have to give him a name and then give him a little more background and he sort of insinuates himself into the plot.”

In the days, a long time ago now, when Leonard drank, he made a point of never drinking while he wrote. But there were far too many days when he wrote hungover. Booze, for him, was tied up with his notion of manliness: being one of the sporty boys, talking the talk, walking the walk: “It made me feel good; gave me a little swagger.”With his love of disguises and outfits, his first wish was to join the marines “because I liked the uniform” but he was rejected on account of his weak eyesight, and had to settle for a sailor suit instead. “Well, I got to like it, too,” he says.

“And I liked being in the Navy and I liked playing the role.” He was posted with a construction battalion to the Admiralty Islands near New Guinea to maintain an airstrip used by fighter planes that went on bombing missions around the Japanese islands. Leonard was in charge of handing out the beer, and once in a while he made a trade with the cooks for a bottle of bourbon – which swiftly became his poison of choice.

The drink, he says, would bring him out: “And then I was less inclined to be passive and not say anything.” That’s how you tended to be? “Yes.

Self-conscious. And then, of course, when I was out of myself I thought I was very funny.” Your friends at that time said you were. “To a degree, definitely. I could overdo it, too.”

I would guess that Leonard is probably still a little shy in company.

Although he is perfectly voluble in our interview, when we go out to dinner that night with Christine, and later on to a jazz club, he says less and less. But then it was hard for him to get a word in edgeways between his wife and me, and by the time it was approaching midnight it had clearly been a long day. I felt quite badly for him when he said, “Please take me home”, particularly since he was the one driving.

He joined AA in 1974, relapsed, and finally quit in 1977 – the year his 28-year first marriage ended. He and Beverly had been part of a heavy drinking country-club set that would meet up four times a week, and holiday together in the Bahamas and Europe – “and it got out of hand”. I say it sounds a bit like Updike territory. “Yes,” he says, “in a way.”

Round about now, Christine walks into the room and starts opening and closing the white shutters of the many windows, quite noisily. Leonard carries on talking, unperturbed, and lights up another of his long menthol cigarettes. We move from drink on to shooting – he practised with a friend from the Florida department of law enforcement, so he could write about the smell and the feel of a gun – to fashion. His books are always great on clothes – the Kangol beret, which he himself wore long before Samuel Jackson, a Joan and David handbag, a brightly coloured do-rag (bandanna favoured by rappers) – but it’s still a bit of a surprise to hear him enthusing about fashion shows: “Yeah, I’ve been to about half a dozen.”

What do you enjoy about them? “These giant women coming down the runway to the disco beat. You know, stomping along. Yeah, I like it.”

He says Christine, of course, wears very good clothes – as she comes into the room again, and it transpires that she is emerging from a state of extreme frock shock. A long and shaggy story ensues involving a wonderful outfit put in the boot of the wrong limousine by a bellhop in New York.

Fortunately, said outfit had been tracked down to the Hamptons and had just this morning arrived on the Leonards’ doorstep. “You know the really weird thing, Ginny,” Christine tells me, gazing over her Jay Jopling specs, “the most unbelievable thing is that I had a premonition about this.”

The dress is, indeed, beautiful – with a little train, delicate random beading on the bodice, and the most unusual fabric. When his wife leaves the room, Leonard turns to me: “I said at the time, ‘It’s just a dress.’

But then later, thinking of her reaction to it, it was considerably more than just a dress to her. It made me think.” And back comes Christine bearing a shocking-pink marabou jacket: “Marabou is really in right now,” she says. “Sonia Rykiel. Probably 15 years old. I just hang on to these things and they come back in style.”

Leonard fell for Christine a few months after his second wife, Joan, had died of cancer. He tells me he and Christine had their first date on June 19 and got married on August 19, and that was 11 years ago. Joan had seemed particularly involved in his books, coming up with the titles for Freaky Deaky and Get Shorty, and the endings of a couple of the others, listening to his pages at the end of each day. I ask him if he misses her a lot, and he says: “Mmmm. No.”

He also says that he was happy and self-sufficient for two years after his first marriage ended, but really he needed to be married. “I really like being married – being with someone you love and who you can talk to andI Christine and I met because she came to do the gardening.” He liked the way she handled her secateurs – and she still insists on dead-heading, while leaving her crew to take on the rest of the garden. Leonard says there’s a pretty fierce boundary war going on right now with their Mormon neighbour over whose shrubs are rightfully abutting whose border.

Writers, in my experience, are considerably less tricky to deal with than actors or pop stars. Even so, Leonard is pretty exceptional. To interview him, I didn’t have to go through an agent, an assistant or a secretary. He does employ a researcher, Gregg Sutter, who has done the initial legwork for him since the early Eighties checking out locations and lining up suitable cops and criminals whom he thinks might interest Leonard. The writer had even dispensed with the intermediary of the publishers’ publicist by asking me to phone him directly, which I did. The first time I tried to get through, he was away in LA on the set of Be Cool and I ended up speaking to Christine who sounded disembodied, like a kooky old lady rather than the vibrant fiftysomething livewire she is in person. Leonard returned my call and didn’t dick around with our arrangements.

I had spent the previous day or so checking out the locations in some of his books, as well as what my excellent driver, Mike, called “The ruins of Americana”: the old city centre of Detroit, with its majestic Thirties hotels, the Hilton, the Cadillac, the Madison-Lenox, the United Artists cinema with its peppermint and tangerine Art Deco facade, all long since empty and abandoned, populated by people standing on street corners with specifically no place to go.

We drove past the overblown, colonnaded mansions of the super-wealthy in the outer suburbs, and the sullen-faced inhabitants and burnt-out crack-shacks of the inner city, where so many buildings have been razed to the ground that it looks oddly pastoral, with great expanses of land returned to meadow. We got lost trying to find Kronk Gym which was built in 1926, with its black-and-white photos of Ali when he was Clay, still used by training boxers, now in the middle of nothingsville but once a thriving area of theatres and restaurants and offices and smart homes. We ate in Nemo’s, “A Detroit Classic”, where the very stupid white whackers in Mr Paradise eat their burgers and drink their beers. And in a completely desolate area, I stumbled upon the Key Club – still open and undergoing renovations, which seemed like a supreme act of optimism – only to discover from the owner that this is where Leonard had chosen to hold his party for the new book.

When I told him about this later, Leonard – you could see – was chuffed. He and Greg, the researcher, had thrown the bash as a thank-you to all the homicide cops and medical examiner’s office for their time and insights. I said that I really felt I was in LeonardLand; even Mike the driver, Irish-American, an alcoholic now singing the praises of AA, full of cracking stories and sharp observations, was beginning to seem like someone the writer had invented. He misunderstood me and thought I was going to attempt to write like him. (As if.) But what he said was spot on: “Don’t write out of the side of your mouth the way those who try to imitate me do.

And don’t try to make tough guys tough because my guys don’t try to be tough; they’re just themselves. I have an affection for them – and that’s the difference. I have an affection for all the people. The bad people – they’re bad, but so what?”

You see, Elmore Leonard doesn’t need to be told to be cool.