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.
This is the first half of the interview that took place in Bloomfield Village, MI, 29th September 2009.
Some pages of Leonard’s novel-in-progress, Djibouti, are on his desk when I arrive. Leonard begins by expressing his excitement at what he’s doing with the plot. His protagonist, the documentary film-maker Dara, and her assistant, Xavier, are filming and interviewing pirates off the coast of Somalia. After some detailed discussion of the characters and events of the novel, we turn to Leonard’s early westerns.
CR: Could I ask a couple of questions about your earliest work? Why Indians? Your first western stories are focused on Apaches, and Native Americans and aboriginal people seem to come up again and again in your writings either directly or indirectly. You mentioned Franklin de Dios, from Bandits, who’s obviously a really important character to you.
EL: In that book, yeah. Was that San Salvador or Nicaragua?
CR: That was Nicaragua, and he was a Miskito Indian. And there’s Armand Degas–I think he’s one of the best conceived characters you’ve ever created–and others like Nester Soto, from Cat Chaser.
EL: I like those guys.
CR: What is that about?
EL: Well, because I can make them talk in the present tense, for the most part. They know just enough English. Cundo Rey is the big one.
CR: So just the sound of their voices in your head?
CR: But why does that appeal to you?
EL: I don’t know. I remember back in the ’50s when I was writing westerns, short stories for the most part, and my agent in New York said, “Please, no border stuff. They don’t want Mexicans.” And I was dying to do the Mexicans in a lot of border stories.
CR: For the voices, and because the setting reminded you of For Whom the Bell Tolls? I think I read somewhere that you thought the landscape was like Spain.
EL: Yeah, that’s right. And I just thought those border stories were good. But they wanted the kind of stories that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, the serials. Like the movies starring Jimmy Stewart. He played a number of cowboy roles, and I didn’t think he was right at all. Cowboys were all young kids. But that’s what the magazine wanted. That kind of “high plains” stories, not border stories. But I liked Apache Indians and different tribes and they were all down in Arizona and New Mexico.
CR: But it couldn’t have been just the sound of their voices, was it?
EL: I didn’t have Apaches talking that much. They were something else to deal with, but they were bad, as far as we were concerned, and they had their own way of dressing with the band around their head. And they were always stealing horses and raiding settlers, and so on, which they probably had every right to do, but they’re the bad guys in all the movies.
CR: Last time I was here you mentioned All Quiet on the Western Front, which was obviously one of your earliest literary influences, and at a very young age, if you’re talking about writing a play in 5th grade. That’s really precocious.
EL: Yeah, I was very influenced by that. I remember Slim Summerville in the movie eating beans and they were happy, even though there were casualties, without saying they were happy because of the casualties, because there were more cans of beans then for them.
CR: Was there a special scene you were trying to recreate?
CR: Can you describe it?
EL: It seems to me it was the hero going out, crawling under the desks, no man’s land, and getting caught on the wire, and he couldn’t get out. And this other guy, this coward, goes out and saves him. I hope it wasn’t the other way around where he goes out and saves the coward.
CR: You made me go back and read All Quiet on the Western Front because you had talked about this coward. And the only one I found was the corporal, Himmelstoss. Do you remember him?
CR: He was this tight-assed little martinette, back home when the recruits were being trained, and he liked to bully them. But then they went to the front and became hardened veterans. He got sent up after them, and they teased him and humiliated him and he behaved like a coward. He had a scratch on his chin and he pretended he was wounded so he’d be sent back home. But then he redeems himself. He goes out and brings back the body of a friend of the guy telling the story, Paul. So since you had asked me, “Wasn’t there a coward in the play?” it made me think that Himmelstoss was somehow important to you in your reading of All Quiet. You just said, “I hope it’s not the other way around.” Why did you say that?
EL: Because it’s such a better story if the coward goes out there to get him. I know that now, but did I know it then? That’s what interests me.
CR: What made you think of Himmelstoss? In all the episodes to choose from, why was he an important character? It’s as though he almost gave you the idea for the play.
EL: Well, it was probably Lou Ayers who went out and got caught on the wire, and then the guy who rescued him, in my class, was Zenon La Joie. His uncle or something like that was related to Napoleon La Joie, who for a long time was the best second baseman in the majors. But this is back in the ‘teens I think.
CR: So did Zenon La Joie play Himmelstoss?
EL: Maybe, I suppose. And everybody made fun of him. He always had ink around his mouth. That was one reason why I chose him, because everybody made fun of him.
CR: They sort of picked on him.
EL: Yeah, so this is like Himmelstoss, yeah.
CR: So did they bully him?
EL: No, we didn’t have real bullies in our class. But the one black guy I made a German because I didn’t know what to do with him because I was just up from Memphis. I didn’t know any black guys.
CR: Was this the first time you’d met a black person, when you were in school with one?
EL: Oh definitely, definitely in school, yeah. Leo Madison, Leo always had a soggy looking sandwich. On the outside you could see the jelly showing. Terrible looking sandwich, but he just sat there and ate them.
CR: Did the other kids pick on him?
CR: Were there any racist remarks?
EL: No. He was part of our group at school. At least he was around. He didn’t have much to say, though. But my friends who were in the same class, I would see after school or on weekends and so on.
CR: But Zeh-non, is that how you pronounce it? With the accent on the second syllable? Was he part of your group?
CR: But other kids in your group or in the class would tease him because he was so odd?
EL: Yeah. He was always doing something with ink. We all had little bottles of ink in our inkwells, and we had pens that we would dip in to write. It was very difficult.
CR: So when you first started writing were you still using a pen that you would dip in ink?
CR: Just in school.
CR: It’s interesting that Zenon was eating what you were writing with.
EL: Yes, isn’t it?
CR: And got ink on his mouth.
EL: Well, it makes sense. [Himmelstoss] was older—what did you say, he was a corporal?
CR: He was. A lot of the boys knew each other from school and their school teacher sort of brow-beat them into joining up to defend the Fatherland and they all grew to hate him, of course, once they saw what war was really like. But when they were first being trained, Himmelstoss—he was the village butcher or something–would make them do these sadistic things like stand at attention in subfreezing weather without their gloves for half an hour, really horrible stuff.
EL: And made them clean up a big area with brushes while it’s snowing.
CR: Yeah exactly.
EL: I remember that.
CR: And I think just before they left for the front they waylaid him, masked themselves so he wouldn’t recognize them. They beat him. They pulled his pants down and they spanked him, or they beat him with a birch rod or something. And he apparently never found out who did it., After they’d been at the front for several months, he shows up, and he’s a total greenhorn. He has no experience in combat, so his first reaction is to hide and pretend to be wounded. It’s interesting that this struck you because Paul doesn’t spend a lot of time describing it in detail, just that Himmelstoss showed he could overcome his cowardice by retrieving the body of his friend. [. . .]
EL: I don’t know if I ever read the whole book but I certainly remember his treatment of the troops before they went to the front, and that’s probably where I got it. But I saw the movie, of course, and then in ’34 it was serialized in the Detroit Times. And I remember lying on the floor reading the paper, reading the story, but I’m sure I didn’t read the whole thing.
CR: Was this before you saw the movie or after?
EL: After. I think it was after.
CR: So maybe the scene you’re thinking of is a scene in the movie version, not in the book.
EL: Maybe. But it’s such a good idea that they get back at the guy who was so tough on them. I think that’s what must’ve appealed to me,
CR: I want to get back to another person you mentioned who was obviously important to you when you were an adolescent, and that’s Maurice Murray, the guy who hung off the roof. By the way, I also took the time to get a DVD of the movie of The Big Bounce.
EL: The first one.
CR: The first one. And you’re right. It is horrible. Just begin with the theme music.
EL: I remember.
CR: It’s sort of this weird hybridization of Beach Boys and Mantovani Strings, and it’s so incongruous, it is so off key for what is going on in the film that you can’t take any of it seriously. And Ryan O’Neal is completely wrong for Jack Ryan. He tries to look intimidating and comes off as a pool boy. But I’m really fascinated by Maurice Murray. Can you tell me more about him?
EL: Oh, he was a year older than the rest of us. I know when we were around 12 or 13 he was 14 and he was just slightly bigger but he wasn’t a big guy. And he was kind of quiet and I can’t hear him right now. My other friends, the Boisineau boys, Gerard and Jackie Boisineau, they lived in the apartment under the roof.
CR: So they were the other two–you said there was like a gang of four?
EL: There were more than that. Phil Kozinski was one of them, and his dad was a judge in Detroit and Gerard Boisineau was my best friend. They lived two blocks away from Blessed Sacrament, the school was right behind the cathedral, which is still there but the schools are gone. There was the Cathedral, Catholic Central, and then this grade school, and it went to the 12th grade for girls. Eighth grade, the boys had to go somewhere else.
CR: And that’s when you went to the University of Detroit High School.
EL: I went to Catholic Central first because it was right there. Then we moved, because we were living about a mile and a half south of there, toward downtown in an apartment building. And then we moved out to North Lawn, which was one block away from U of D High. And that was the best move I ever made, to go to school there.
CR: But you knew Maurice before you left for high school, is that right? You guys were still at Blessed Sacrament.
EL: Yeah, and then I don’t know what happened to him.
CR: Do you remember how you met? Was it just that you were both in class together?
CR: Did your families know each other?
EL: No. My family didn’t know any of my friends’ families.
CR: Why is that?
EL: Well, they lived so far apart and they were also on a different social level, because my dad was an executive with General Motors and Boisineau’s dad was a construction worker. I remember Girard saying one time, “My dad’s making $300 a month now.” Well, you know what that is.
CR: He was sort of proud of that.
EL: I mean, it wasn’t bad then, but it wasn’t good. I don’t know what Maurice’s dad did.
CR: So what else did you guys do besides hang off the roof?
EL: Well, we had a big field where we would play guns and somebody would have to go out and find the other ones who were hidden and try and shoot them before he was shot. And then we played “hot cooloo,” also called “hot ass.” We played that on the street, on Woodward Avenue, just a couple of blocks north of the Cathedral where somebody would hide a belt–no, there was a belt involved but I don’t know if it was hidden–but at least one guy started out with the belt and had to find the other guys and swat them with the belt before they got back to the goal.
CR: That’s the “hot ass.”
EL: And “cooloo,” I don’t know where that came from.
CR: So it’s like a version of hide and seek, but with a really exaggerated tag.
EL: Yeah, which then I played later with my kids but without the belt. We just played guns, we’d hide somewhere in the house and then go and try and shoot them before you’re found, hunter and hunted.
CR: Have you ever played paintball?
CR: How are your kids right now? I remember last time we talked one of them was working at an ad agency that was not doing well.
EL: Well, that agency folded and so now Peter’s on his fourth book.
CR: Peter’s the one who’s decided to be a writer.
EL: And he’s written two books that were–probably have one here–for . . . I can’t think of the name of the company. They did two and then he gave them his third book, which was better. It was set in Rome where he went to school for a while, but they let him go because evidently he wasn’t selling the way they expected or hoped. Which I think is the best thing that’s ever happened to us, because now his agent is going to take it to other places. Now he’s on his fourth book, which is about a former Nazi concentration camp [guard], a real heavy, real bad guy, but it takes place in the ’70s, and he has designed a Zeppelin, which is going to do something. I don’t know what, I forgot.
CR: I hope it doesn’t blow up.
EL: I hope not.
CR: You have another son, is he still living in Tucson?
CR: Who used to be in a mime troop?
EL: Mime, yeah. We all made fun of him because it was so dumb. They travelled around. Well, first they started here [in Michigan] and his partner was a black guy and they travelled around and put on all these little dumb skits.
CR: You sound like you were really supportive.
EL: Oh, yeah.
CR: But he’s over that now, is that right?
EL: Yeah. Well then he became a sommelier, and he took the test and he went to the next step and then the restaurant closed. So now he’s looking for work, but he’s writing a book.
CR: He’s writing a book too.
EL: Yeah, and he’s been writing it now for a year.
CR: So when all else fails, they know they can write books.
EL: Yeah. They can, at least these two.
CR: Well, they’ve seen dad do it.
EL: Because I made it look easy. As Peter says–this is something he wrote for publicity, “Boy You’re On Your Way” is the name of it–he said he’d come in and see me and I’d be sitting at the desk with my feet on the desk with a T-shirt on that said–I’ve got to find it, ‘cause it’s good [rummaging, then reading] “Elmore in Levis and sandals and a dark blue Nine Inch Nails T-shirt talking enthusiastically about the opening scene of his new book called ‘The Hot Kid.’ Watching my father I thought here’s a guy who really loves what he’s doing and I didn’t. Earlier that afternoon, during my presentation, the VW ad manager had taken my first campaign board and flung it like a Frisbee across the conference room, and I thought that was our best idea,” and so on.
CR: So that must have been a little upsetting to your son when that happened.
EL: Well yeah, I’m sure it was. He was upset. Or do you mean this time, getting fired?
CR: That too.
EL: No, he’s not upset at all. He’s happy about it. They weren’t doing anything for him, nothing. And he’s got Andrew Wylie, my agent in New York, behind him. So he’ll get going.
CR: That’s good. That’s a good start. [. . .]
EL: My dad had just finished the 6th grade when his dad died in an accident, in a sugar plantation accident. Dad wanted me to go to Princeton and become an engineer. I don’t even know if engineering is taught at Princeton. I doubt it. Some math, anyway. So he thought you needed that behind you to make it, because he was in automotive, in General Motors, and that seemed like a good background to him. And he was an artist. He was painting pictures when his dad died and he had to quit doing that and go to work.
CR: His dad died when he was in 6th grade. And he was a painter already?
EL: Yeah, he was a painter. He was painting scenes around New Orleans.
CR: Could I see the pictures? You said you have some.
EL: I’ll show you one after awhile upstairs.
CR: So he had to stop doing that.
EL: Yeah. And I guess finally, he had to go to work early and then he took a correspondence course, and became an accountant. Then he went to Central America working for one of the fruit companies as an accountant, and then came back to New Orleans. During the war, World War I, he joined and was made a 2nd Lieutenant, and then married my mother.
CR: Did he see combat?
EL: No, never left Louisiana or Texas or wherever the camps were. He married my mother in Galveston. And that was it.
CR: Did you have a good close relationship with your father?
EL: No, not with my father but with my mother. My dad was travelling a lot and he didn’t read much. That is, he read the paper and he read the Financial Times, and he read Forbes and those magazines, but didn’t read what I was interested in. But my mother did and she joined the Book of the Month Club in, like, 1940. She was trying to write too, but her stories were so old fashioned they had no chance. Maybe in the ’20s they might’ve, but not in the ’40s or ’50s.
CR: Did she try getting them published?
CR: But they just wouldn’t take them.
CR: As you became more of a professional writer yourself, how did you feel about her writing, what did you think of it?
EL: Well, I didn’t think she had a chance, but she certainly wanted to do it and she didn’t have any guidance and she couldn’t find any guidance. She couldn’t find the kind of story graphs that she wanted to write, that she could have written.
CR: Did she read to you when you were young?
EL: No, my older sister did.
CR: So your mom was the one who really encouraged your interest in books and writing and modeled that for you, I guess. And your dad wanted you to go to Princeton for engineering, but you’ve got that engineering gene, don’t you? I mean here in Djibouti you’ve got all this LNG tanker stuff.
EL: Well, I don’t understand any of it. None of it.
CR: But you must at some level or you wouldn’t know how to put it into your books so persuasively.
EL: I mean that’s what it is, it’s a gas ship that could blow up.
CR: But you seem interested in this stuff.
EL: No. I make excuses. For instance: “You seen a gas ship blow up?” Xavier asks. “My information comes from dah-dah-dah,” says Billy. “But you haven’t,” Xavier said, “actually seen an LNG gas ship set afire.” “Not yet.” So if the information I’m using is wrong, there’s a reason in the story—I can blame the character.
CR: But I seem to recall reading somewhere that you once had a private client as an free-lance advertiser, you wrote gear shift ads for him and, from what I understand, really enjoyed that.
EL: I enjoyed the idea that they would take this car with this Hurst shifter and go out and street race because just before I left Campbell-Ewald, Chevrolet was hot on the quarter mile track and I could write those descriptions, with the right words and “power sliding” and stuff like that.
CR: So it was the power of the drag racing that you really seemed to enjoy. Can you describe your mom and dad’s personalities or temperaments?
EL: My dad was dry, funny. When I was very young we had telling time. He would sit down and then I’d come in and sit next to him or on his lap or somewhere and I’d tell him what I did that day.
CR: And would this be at the end of every day?
EL: Yeah. Telling time.
CR: Before dinner?
EL: Yeah, when he was home. He travelled quite a lot picking out locations for dealerships: General Motors–Buick, Olds, Pontiac.
CR: It sounds like he was warm and affectionate when he was around.
EL: Yeah. But we only got to know each other after I came out of the service; then we would play golf together and go to the bar after and have some beers, and it was fun.
CR: But he died young, right?
CR: Just a few years after you got out of the service.
EL: Right, two years after.
CR: So he didn’t live to see you succeed as a writer.
EL: Didn’t see me write a word.
CR: That must be kind of tough, or do you ever think of it? Maybe it doesn’t occur to you to think of it.
EL: Yeah, I’ve thought of it, but my mother saw it. My mother saw it happen.
CR: Was she proud?
EL: Yes, she had a little shrine in the living room with the books, just the books on display. Everything but the rope, the [velvet] covered rope area roped off.
CR: Your mom is also the one who told you about your secret friend, “Boyee,” and that moment from the first interview has sort of haunted me ever since. You said it was when you were in Oklahoma City, but you don’t remember this yourself. It’s just something you remembered your mother telling you, is that right?
EL: I guess, because no, I don’t remember any scenarios with Boyee, but I must have told her that Boyee and I went somewhere and did something. I had friends. I wasn’t a loner.
CR: I don’t know anything about imaginary friends. I sometimes find myself in situations where I sort of will talk to myself, but the reason [Boyee] has sort of stuck with me for the last several weeks is because I was just looking at Killshotagain to teach it in class and right at the beginning of Killshot, you write, “The Blackbird told himself he was drinking too much because he lived in this hotel and the Silver Dollar was close by, right downstairs.” But the way in which he tells himself this is almost the way in which you would think he’s talking to an imaginary friend, because the very next sentence starts with this imperative, “Try to walk out the door past them. Try to come along Spadina Avenue, see that godamn Silver Dollar sign, hundreds of light bulbs in your face and not be drawn in there.”
EL: Yeah, but he’s talking to himself.
CR: True, but there’s a sense in which when you have your characters talking to themselves I almost feel like they’re having imaginary conversations and they’re making themselves kind of an imaginary friend to bounce things off of.
EL: Well, it’s easier for me than writing in a narrative sense. I want to keep the sound of my characters as much as possible all through, and I don’t want to show myself. I don’t want to use any kind of language that they wouldn’t. But almost 100% of the authors do.
CR: When you’re imagining your character talking to him or herself, though, it’s like you’re listening to an imaginary friend. It’s like you’re listening to these voices in your head. In Paul Challen’s book [Get Dutch] you describe that process as almost like a case of multiple personality: “So once I get into it and I’m the character or both of the characters, or all of them, it’s just a lot of fun and I get it going and try to entertain myself.”
EL: Yeah, it’s got to be fun.
CR: Like you’re all these imaginary characters all in your head at once, and obviously it is a lot of fun.
EL: And it’s not taking it too seriously also.
CR: Well, that really comes across.
EL: I think it’s very evident in this book [Djibouti] that would ordinarily be a very serious book.
CR: It’s hard to avoid being serious, what with terrorists, and Al-Qaeda, and all the rest of it. I brought along Road Dogs, which I really enjoyed. Here you’ve got Dawn Navarro, she’s turning into one of your favorite characters, I think, talking to herself in the mirror.
EL: Oh, yeah. She puts her eye makeup on.
CR: She becomes that cross-dressing pharaoh?
EL: Who was probably gay, she wanted to be a guy, I think.
CR: So she’s talking to herself in the mirror and she’s trying to come up with a good parting line for Jack, when she kills him. A lot of your characters do this, rehearse their parting lines when they’re about to blow someone away. Wayne does it in Killshot where he imagines sneaking up on Armand and Richie Nix. So Dawn is imagining blowing Jack Foley away and she cocks the gun and says, [reading]:
“So long Jack, it’s been fun? a ball? it’s been nice knowing you?” She said, “It’s been niceknowing you.” She said “It was nice taking showers with you.” She was making it hard, trying to think instead of just saying it. How about I love you Jack, but you’re no $6 million dollar man. That wasn’t bad, he’d get it. She said to her image, “Did you ever think you were greedy?” “Not really.” “You ever think of yourself as a cold bitch.” “When I have to be, but I’m never really cold.” “You think, when you’ve put in eight long years living by yourself. . .?” “Poor you.” “Well, it’s true. I waited eight fucking years for something to happen and had to do it myself.” “Poor, poor you.” “Shut up.” “You ready?” “ Let’s go, girl.”
Teddy Magyk, too, he does the same thing when he’s getting ready to blow away Vincent Mora, the cop who put him away in Glitz–he keeps delaying and putting it off, but finally talks to himself in the mirror.
So you’ve got these characters talking to themselves as though they’re talking to an imaginary friend. Here’s Dawn talking to her literal reflection in the mirror. It’s Dawn, but it’s also a part of Dawn that is somebody else.
EL: Yes, it is, yes.
EL: Well, her husband was wrong, he was just kind of there and they tried, in the picture, to show that they were at odds with one another.
CR: They were getting a divorce.
CR: I didn’t think that worked.
EL: It didn’t. It didn’t, because there was no evidence of it. Why are they like this? It’s much better in the book. They’re in love. They fight a little bit, so what. He throws a drink, but then she wants to throw a drink but she doesn’t want to hit the carpet. And he makes a comment about that. And then it’s funny.
CR: It’s hard to see why they want to get back together in the movie. The other thing I noticed was there are things that [the movie makers] need to invent or underline over and over again to provide motivations for characters. For instance, they seem to think we have to understand that Armand Degas hangs with Richie Nix because he feels guilty about his brother being killed. They mention it over and over and over again. “You remind me of my kid brother,” he tells Richie Nix or he has flashbacks to his kid brother getting killed in the hit in Toronto. Did you mean that to come out in the book at all?
CR: So somebody who did the screenwriting, I suppose, or the director decided to really latch on to that as a motivation for Armand. In the book, however, your use of interior monologue makes us understand why he wants to hang out with Richie, and it’s not guilt over his brother. Richie is Armand’s ticket out of this miserable sense of himself that he has. None of that can come through looking at it on the screen: you can’t get in their heads. But overall I didn’t think it was a bad movie.
EL: No, except that Wayne’s there at the end to shoot Armand, which is what Bruce Willis wanted to do. That’s why I wouldn’t give it to him.
CR: Yeah, I don’t like the end. Wayne and Carmen both get in the “Killshot,” unlike the ending in the book.
EL: No, it’s got to be her alone.
CR: And what did you think of making Donna Mulry this young black, sexy girlfriend of Richie’s? Do you remember her in the movie?
EL: Oh, yeah, that was all wrong because in the book you know what she was. She was kind of a cross-eyed blonde with a lot of hair and that’s what she was.
CR: Sort of like his stepmom.
CR: She would buy his clothes for him.
EL: Oh, [the movie] was all wrong, putting him with a good-looking black girl.
CR: Because I guess they couldn’t figure out why we would believe Richie Nix would hang out with this older woman, old enough to be his mother, but that’s so clearly part of his personality in the book. He’s been in foster homes. His stepmom abandoned him and he’s looking for a mom. So I thought that worked really well in the book and they missed all of that in the movie version. And they dropped some of the best lines, like when Armand gets the drop on Richie in the car. “Well,” Armand says, “I shoot people sometimes.” They kept that line, but they dropped Richie’s comeback: “You’re just the guy I’m looking for.” That turns the whole scene, just grabs it and turns it like a glove, turns it inside out in one line. And there’s no sense of humor.
EL: I remember asking the director why he dropped that and he said, “I know.” He said, “That was a mistake,” because he was trying to stay very close to the story.
CR: Have you gotten to the point where you sort of distrust what Hollywood’s going to do with your books?
EL: No. I’m always optimistic. But in this book [Djibouti] they’re talking about Dr. Strangelove and Dara says, “God, I don’t know, I got so tired of these people,” the pirates, I forgot what she said about being their characters.
CR: They’re trying to play a role or something?
EL: And Helene says they’re having fun. They’re all having fun, they love their roles. And that’s why they’re overdoing them. That was it, the overdoing of the dialogue.