The Elmore Leonard Interviews, Part 1
Crimeculture is delighted to be able to offer substantial extracts from a series of interviews that Professor Charles Rzepka conducted with Elmore Leonard in 2009-10. There were four separate interviews, arranged here in nine parts. Read the Introduction to the Elmore Leonard Interviews.
In Bloomfield Village, MI, 12th August 2009, I arrive at the front door and Elmore Leonard welcomes me into the living room of the house, which he uses as his study. He is working on his next book, Djibouti.
EL: Well, first I write longhand. Like that [points to loose sheets], and then I reached page 200 [of Djibouti] about five minutes ago.
CR: Well, congratulations.
EL: Thank you. It’s a big, big step. It’s so hard to get to 200, and then 200 to 300 goes pretty fast.
CR: You’ve got everything sort of set up at this point or . . .?
EL: Once I get to this point, I have a pretty good idea up until the ending, and I’ve been fooling even with the ending, which I never do. I’ve never done it before. I mean [with] things that are set. I don’t know if it makes sense to [do so] at this point, but Dara [the protagonist] says, “We missed shooting the movie, whatever happened?” in the book.
CR: She’s the one making the documentary [about Djibouti and the Somali pirates]?
EL: Yeah. And her assistant, Xavier, says [consults the MS], . . . no, he says, “We missed shooting the movie,” all this that went on. And she says, “If it’s the kind of movie you honestly don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know what to shoot.” He says, “You go back and set it up.” She says, “’Then it isn’t real,’ Dara said, ‘I only shoot reality.’”
So that could be an ending, although I think the ending will be more about wanting to go back to Djibouti, because Dara’s fascinated by Djibouti. I mean it’s a horrible place, but she loves it. She can do an entire documentary on just the native quarter.
CR: I want to get back to this book eventually because, first of all, I find it interesting that your protagonist is a woman documentary filmmaker, and I can’t remember a book where a woman is the major protagonist. Except for, I guess, Karen Sisco –although that’s really Jack Foley’s book.
CR: Well, that’s true, because Carmen starts out not looking like the protagonist. It looks like a book set up for a sort of mano a mano faceoff —
EL: It was.
CR: — between Wayne and —
EL: He’s an ironworker, so he’s got to be the hero.
CR: He’s named after John Wayne, too, which is…
EL: Is he, was he?
CR: I think you said he was. Could we just begin earlier [in your life] and —
EL: Yes. Yeah. Start anywhere you want.
CR: As I think I told you, I’m interested in your Catholic education and background. And I understand that you went to Catholic parochial schools and University of Detroit High School and the University of Detroit. Is that right?
CR: Did any of this begin before you moved to Detroit –your Catholic education?
EL: Well, I suppose it did. It must have started in Memphis, when I was probably in the . . . , well, I was in the first grade here when we were in Detroit for a very short time before we moved to Memphis. So then, I must have been in, say, second and third grade in Memphis, and I’m sure it was a Catholic school, and I don’t remember the name of it. Then, we came back to Detroit and I was in the fourth grade at Blessed Sacrament, which was about a mile from the house. The cathedral . . . it’s a big cathedral onWoodward Avenue. So I was always a good Catholic, and it seems to me that when I was in about the eighth grade I thought of becoming a brother. Once. I mean for a very short time, because I saw pictures of their seminary, and they were playing baseball and I thought, oh, ah, you know this could be fun.
CR: Which seminary was it?
EL: I don’t remember, but I think it was Holy Cross Fathers. Or Brothers. It was just a picture, pictures in a book. But then about the same year or the next year I discovered girls, so they . . . .
CR: Sort of cancelled that idea?
CR: Do you remember anything of your Catholic experiences at that early stage [before settling in Detroit]?
EL: No. It was finally when we came here [to Detroit] and I was in the fourth grade, certainly by the fifth grade, [when] I was in the choir and I had the nicest looking cassock and surplice, because my mother had it made. And [the others] were given leftover cassocks and surplices. So I had a very neat one, and we sang and that was it.
CR: Did you sing a particular part, or at that age were you too young?
EL: No, we were just, we marched in and lined up in a line. We did all the usual songs.
CR: So you were at Blessed Sacrament through grade school and then?
EL: And then I went right next door to Catholic Central, ninth grade. Catholic Central isn’t there anymore. Well, neither is Blessed Sacrament. And they were all Basilians, from Canada. Then we moved out towards Seven Mile Road and a block from U of D High, and I switched over in my sophomore year. And there was quite a difference in the feeling of the school, the fact that they were a little more serious about it.
CR: The Jesuits are, aren’t they?
CR: Intellectually more.
EL: But they’re also, they have more things to talk about if you want to get into that.
CR: Like what kinds of things?
EL: Well I mean they’re interested in stories, or they might even start reading a book to you in class. Michael Strogoff [by Jules Verne] was one. But in the fifth grade was when I first started to write and I wrote a play, influenced by All Quiet on the Western Front. I had seen the movie, and the book was published in the Detroit Times at that time, and I started to read it for the first time. I’m sure I didn’t read the whole thing. But then I wrote a play and we put it on in the classroom with the World War I scene with the desks as “No-Man’s-Land,” the Germans over there, and the Americans on this side, and somebody gets caught under a desk and somebody goes and saves him. I can’t remember, there was a coward in it. I don’t know if the coward was who was saved or did the saving. I hope he was the one who did the saving to redeem himself, if I was that far ahead.
CR: So you were encouraged by a teacher to write the play?
EL: No, not until high school was I ever encouraged. No.
CR: Didn’t you [once] say you had a Jesuit teacher who encouraged you and thought you could be a writer?
CR: And who was that?
EL: I can hear and I can see him, but I can’t . . . I know he was in California later and did make a reference to me after some publicity that I had received about a book then. He spoke up [when I was in high school], he thought I had a chance of making it.
CR: What made him think that?
EL: Just compositions that I wrote, class papers. Then when I was at U of D I did pretty well on tests and the instructor said, “Why don’t you just come to my office instead of coming to class and we’ll discuss different works,” and at that time it was the, I forgot what poets in England, before Byron and Shelley, just before them.
CR: Sam Johnson, Thomas Gray, those poets? Or you mean the early Romantics like William Blake, Wordsworth?
EL: Early Romantic. But then also, though, in there for him I was reading Plato’s Republic.
CR: Do you remember being particularly interested in Plato?
EL: No. I thought Aristotle was the one, because the Jesuits liked [him] so much. What is at Boston U, an order?
CR: It originally was a Methodist Seminary —
CR: — back in the nineteenth century, and then it went secular, I forgot when, 1870s or ‘80s. So it still has a school of theology, which is where Martin Luther King got his doctorate. It’s no longer Methodist per se, and the University itself is entirely secularized. Didn’t you say you had a grandchild who went there?
EL: Alex. Alex Leonard. He designed this [points to T-shirt he’s wearing].
CR: So is he a graphic artist?
EL: Yeah. He has a job as a graphic artist, he’s the only one I know in the family working right now. 
CR: You don’t consider yourself working?
EL: Well, I don’t, no I never use that word.
CR: I see.
EL: But my son Peter, Alex’s dad, had an agency with two partners, and Volkswagen and Audi, almost everything they did except the national ads. Then the clients took the work away from them. They were going to try somebody else. They had left Detroit and now they’re wherever they were, and they’ve decided to use some more local people. So my son had . . . they had eight people in their employ, and they’re all immediately out of a job. And my son-in-law worked for them and my oldest one, my daughter, whose birthday is today, she’s 59, she worked for them. And then another son who was at Campbell-Ewald while doing Chevrolet stuff, he was let go, lost his house and went to Atlanta to live with her sister, in a very big house.
CR: Well all those closings and bankruptcies must be really devastating to this region right now.
EL: Yeah. Terrible.
CR: You mentioned Michael Strogoff — this was influential?
EL: No. It was just something that was read to us.
CR: Oh, I see.
EL: In our classes, we had pretty good discussions about things, and I took four years of Latin and two years of Greek, and we had good teachers who would reference a certain use of the word in a clause from something else from an important work in Latin, say, and he’d give us that, and we thought maybe he was just showing off, but he’d give us a page and the line and things like that.
CR: I see. You mentioned Aristotle: were you influenced by the Nicomachean Ethics?
EL: No. I don’t remember anything, I don’t know anything about Aristotle now. I possibly did back in the late ‘40s.
CR: Could I ask, I want to get back to your Latin eventually, I’m fascinated by this aspect of your education, but how did you lapse from Catholicism? I mean how did you get away from it?
EL: When I joined AA, where the direct line you have is to your higher power, and I thought, well, we don’t need all the rubrics and all the things and the smoke and the goings on. I’ve always thought it was overdone, I didn’t know why [there were] all these vestments and so on historically. Well finally, when they turned around, when the priest turned around [to face the congregation] everything changed. A lot of people left, a lot of priests left.
CR: That’s an important theme in Touch isn’t it, the dissatisfaction of a lot of traditional Catholics with these changes out of the Second Vatican Council? There was somebody leading a whole group of militant conservative Catholics in Touch.
EL: Oh, exactly. Who loved the Latin masses, [didn’t] like guitarmasses. They were very strong about that, the traditional. I forgot the Archbishop’s name who was in that movement keeping the old styles.
CR: So you were pretty devout up to like the late ‘70s if we’re talking about AA?
EL: Well AA I joined in ’77. Finally I saw the part of it that I understood and I didn’t fall off [the wagon] anymore, that was the thing, because in the early ‘70s or mid ‘70s I would go [abroad] on business, I mean to write a screenplay, go to Marrakech, talk to some actors, and went to Tel Aviv twice, once to write a screenplay, and another time to research a book the next year. And that was, I think ’74-75, and I got in with an Israeli who had been in the [Six Day] War, and who always carried a pistol with him when he thought he was ever going to meet an Arab. Didn’t trust them. Zohar Bar Am.
CR: And this affected your Catholicism?
EL: Well the fact that I felt freer, and I was going to mass, not mass, but to receive communion almost every morning through the ‘50s and ‘60s before going to work. It was me and a half-dozen old ladies.
CR: So you’d get up and you’d write, and then you’d go to mass, and then you’d go to work?
CR: That’s a pretty rigorous morning schedule.
EL: I’d just go to take five minutes to receive communion and come out.
CR: So that must have been a radical change in your life [in the 70s]?
EL: I didn’t think of it as a radical change. It was just sort of an awakening [to the fact] that I don’t really need all this, and where are all these people, if this is Christ’s body and blood, where is everybody? So like now, I wake up in the morning and I think about–it’s the 12th step really about handing yourself over to your higher power and not worrying about this, leave it up to him, whatever he wants to do. Whatever he wants to do with me.
CR: But you’re a strong believer in free will as well, right?
EL: Oh yes, of course, that’s not an excuse. Good things aren’t necessarily going to happen to you, you’re just equipped to handle anything that does happen. And it’s not that important.
CR: You have a character, Ben Webster, who is Carl Webster’s grandson in a short story you wrote called Tenkiller, and at one point a character asks him about his fundamentalist childhood, he says he was a fundamentalist Baptist because Carl was into Jesus, and his friend says, “So what are you now?” [and] he says, “I’m closest to a Unitarian.” Does Unitarian Universalism resonate at all with you?
EL: Hmm-mm. At that moment, I thought that it was a good idea.
CR: Sounded like he’s the closest to what you understand to be Unitarian.
EL: Yeah. Because when I did use Carl Webster then as the hero of a couple of books, I did him entirely differently than his father. Who was having trouble with women, and they were leaving him.
CR: Or dying.
EL: Or dying. Yeah.
CR: It’s an interesting story. So could we talk about some of the more Catholic books that you’ve [written], like Touch.
EL: Yeah, based on a real person who I wrote a movie about, The Man Who Has Everything, to recruit brothers for the Franciscans, and he, the fellow I was working for, Bill Dineen, was in Brazil doing one for the PIME fathers, Pontifical Institute for Mission Extension, and came across this guy, this Juvenal. And he brought him up to Detroit, got permission to use him in the movie. He was 30 years old, but he looked 18 and he was just a free spirit, really a good guy, and he never really questioned you or what you were saying, or doing, or he never tried to argue with you, he’d just laugh and say, “Just take it easy.” I think he was the Franciscan in his attitude, the way I saw it at the time. He even let a friend of mine use his brown robes one time when we went to the beer store to buy some beer.
CR: So he had a real sense of humor?
EL: Yeah. And he would come home for a while, I mean a visit, and he would leave his coat at the airport when he went back home, when he went back to Brazil. And he had an influence on my life, I mean as far as being relaxed about what you believe and how you see it, what’s important, your attitude, when you’re in an attitude of a negative kind, think about it and is this helping you at all? Do you have to be this way?
CR: So Touch you wrote in 1977, but it wasn’t published for 10 years?
EL: I don’t know if it was that long.
CR: But there was a long period there right?
EL: There was. Yeah.
CR: Did the real person named Juvenal go on a talk show or was that part of the fictionalized version?
EL: No he didn’t. And he died two years ago.
CR: Was the talk show host based on Howard Cosell?
EL: No. He’s based on somebody though.
CR: The two other books I was interested in were Bandits and Pagan Babies, which both seem to have more of a focus on issues of Catholicism and organized religion, more invested in these questions of doctrine and faith and so forth than many of your other books.
EL: Yeah, that’s right.
CR: [The sense of] touch in general is something that I notice coming up again and again, people touching, particularly [at] tender moments, of course, but also the miraculous aspect [in Touch]. Even inOut of Sight, when Foley and Sisco are locked in the trunk together, touch seems to be important. Then the first time they’re making love, she says, “You like taking risks,” touching his face with her hand, and then [she] kisses [him]. Something about the sense of touch seems important to you. Does that sound right?
EL: I suppose it is. Yeah. It’s one of those things that it’s so important to touch someone. But I didn’t say [to myself], “I better get some touching in.”
CR: No, I wouldn’t suggest that at all. I just wonder if when I say this back to you it sounds familiar to you?
EL: Yeah. It is.
CR: You have a character that I find fascinating in Pagan Babies,Chantal, who’s the victim of the Rwanda massacre. She loses her arm, and there’s a moment at the end where she’s using the [healed] stump to [hold] a bottle of Johnnie Walker [against her side], and knowing she’d be using it this way again and again. It’s also in the tenderer moments with Terry Dunn: he strokes the end of her amputated arm, and that too struck me as having to do with this importance of touch.
EL: I think yeah, right, the fact that he would touch her arm and caress it. But you know, in the end, she’s willing to now go back to him, but before that, she was going to go [to] this other guy who was curious about him and she’s ready to go either way, because she’s a survivor.
CR: Right. Mary Pat is a real surprise character in that book.
CR: She’s sort of a sleeper and then she turns out to actually speak common sense and speak truth to Terry Dunn and say, “What the heck are you doing?”
EL: When I began to write her, I felt, well, she won’t understand at all what he’s doing, she won’t want to understand it, and she’s going to be tough, and I thought why? Why not just make her a sympathetic character? I think smoking entered into that too, the fact that she smoked.
CR: Which was a surprise.
CR: She didn’t seem from the outside to be that kind of person. In the late ‘70s early ‘80s it seems to me there’s a topic that comes up over and over again: it’s the person inside another person.
CR: In Split Images, there’s a moment where Angela Nolan tells Bryan Hurd there’s another person inside Robbie Daniels. And Bryan even thinks this about Robbie Daniels, “There’s a guy with a sword born a hundred years too late inside Robbie Daniels,” and this comes up several times. I’m wondering, do you see people that way in general?
EL: No, but I think about people and their personalities, and what’s the real personality? What’s the real person talking? Because most often than not, at least certainly in a crowd, you’re trying to entertain a little bit, you want to be funny, or critical, or something, but you want to know, well, who’s the real person here who’s talking? Now that was the thing about Juvenal: he was always real.
CR: There aren’t many people like that.
EL: I don’t think so.
CR: Could I ask about, to go back to your Catholicism in your childhood, was your family very devout, your father and your mom?
EL: No. Well we went to mass every Sunday. Yeah. But no, they weren’t especially devout. On Good Friday we would go to the Stations [of the Cross] and things like that, but there wasn’t any aspect of the religion that my mother was [stuck on], and certainly not my dad, although he went to mass every Sunday. But in the early part of my first marriage, we would say the Rosary Novenas all the time for things.
CR: Was this your first wife’s influence more, or…
EL: Well no more than mine, but I believed it, and often it worked.
CR: You seem to have become more devout than [your parents] at some point.
CR: And your your sister, did she become more devout than your parents?
EL: No, she didn’t.
[. . .]
CR: When you were in grade school did you have friends who were not Catholics, or were all of your friends Catholic?
EL: Well the neighborhood friends weren’t. They couldn’t have been Catholic, because I don’t remember them going to the same school I did. I remember in Oklahoma City I had an imagined friend who I called “Boyee,” and I was always talking to Boyee, and talking about him and all. My mother would tell me about it [in later years].
CR: This was when you were in preschool?
CR: What kinds of conversations did you have with Boyee?
EL: I don’t know.
CR: Your mom just told you you did?
EL: Yeah. And I was always talking to him.
CR: Did you have close friends that you remember when you were in grade school that were important influences?
EL: I would say good friends. At Blessed Sacrament, having just come up from Memphis, I had friends from working families and the [father] was [working] on the line somewheres, and they were very close friends of mine. We were together all the time playing baseball and football, and going on trips. I mean we’d hitchhike up north, not far, to pick strawberries or something like that.
CR: Is that where you became familiar with migrant workers?
EL: No, it was later. Just reading about them. What’s his name, Chavez?
CR: Cesar Chavez?
EL: Cesar, yeah. Reading his works.
EL: Right. And I wrote another one, it was [for] a producer who wanted a [movie about the] migrant labor problem, and so I wrote about 100 pages. I forgot what I called it, but then I sent it to him and he said, “Oh, this isn’t what I want.” And I was [describing] a real migrant worker strike, they’re lined up along the road and the car of the boss comes flying by, and doesn’t care if he gets close to anybody or not. There was a lot of stuff. So I just took those 100 pages and hung them out for parts and used, I think, some of it in Mr. Majestyk.
CR: There’s an element of migrant worker culture in the Big Bounce, right?
EL: The opening. Yeah.
CR: Jack Ryan comes up with the migrant bus. Then he gets in a fight with —
EL: In the baseball game, he got in a fight with this, what, crew chief or someone?
CR: That’s right, with the baseball bat. They’ve got it on camera. Someone was shooting a documentary in that book.
EL: And that picture, that was done twice as a movie. The first one with Ryan O’Neal and Leigh Taylor-Young, I said this has got to be at least the second worst movie ever made. Condemned by the Legion of Decency, which would be maybe a PG today, not even an R. And then it was made again about, I don’t know, five years ago set in Hawaii and it made no sense at all. When I said, well, the first one’s at least the second worst movie ever made, now I know what the worst one is because no one in the picture looked like he knew what he was doing, or why he was there.
CR: I’m wondering if part of the problem is that in movies, [viewers] don’t get all that free indirect discourse or interior monologue [that’s in your books], where you have the character thinking. It’s not just seeing from the point of view of a character, it’s thinking in character. You often have characters saying, “I wonder what it’s like to be that person or tothink like that person,” and you get that in your books, I think, in a way that movies can’t really convey.
EL: I think in my earlier work I did a lot more thinking, character thinking, which I got from Hemingway. Lately, I’m not doing that so much. Every once in a while, I’ll think, “he thought, I thought,” that’s a little awkward, isn’t it? Think of it a different way.
CR: Well I like the way your voice just blends in with the character. You don’t even have to say he thought anymore, you just —
EL: Yeah. Right. I never think of myself sitting away from what’s going on and writing. I’m there, I’m right in there. Always.
CR: You say in your books or in interviews your characters are kids, and even in the books you’ll have characters say other characters are kids, or they’re behaving like kids. Your most explosive, intense scenes seem to come from schoolyards, bullies bullying other kids in the playground. Do these scenes come from memories of your own childhood?
EL: Well I imagine, but I think of the way characters act as either childish or childlike, and there’s quite a difference. Childish is selfish and childlike is open and honest, and wanting to learn.
[ . . .]
1 Detroit was in the middle of a major recession at the time of this interview.