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 second part of the interview that took place in Bloomfield Village, MI, 12th August 2009.
CR: There are books that you’ve written that are not immediately in series, but that sort of hook onto books that come before, and that seem to be autobiographical in the sense in which you’re going back to times in history that are important to you, personally. Like the series where you take Virgil Webster from Cuba Libre, and spin him into the father of Carl in The Hot Kid, and then, in the novel that you serialized in The New York Times as Comfort to the Enemy, you follow Carl as he’s trying to capture World War II spies. The series ends with Up in Honey’s Room. Those last three books trace a kind of a trajectory that corresponds to your early childhood and your teen years, and your war experiences, too, in the Seabees.
EL: Yeah. I did the war experience with the Seabees, but of course elaborated on it and made [Carl] a hero with the Japanese still on the island.
CR: Is there any motivation there to want to revisit these scenes, [a sense] that they’re important to you, or that there [is] anything in that period of your life that you’re trying to process, or reexamine? Because it does make a kind of coherent arc.
EL: Yeah. Well, I didn’t think my participation in the war was very exciting at all. I was with a Seabee outfit on an island, and for part of it, I worked in the store and I sold them shaving cream, and stuff, and a native would come in and he’d want to some “lap lap,” which is just a mattress cover. I’d give him a mattress cover and he’d give me a couple of, what were they called, “cat eyes” which they got out of the ocean. I don’t know what a cat eye is. It’s like a half a marble. But I think I’ve only written a couple of scenes where a character was part of that Seabee experience, but then gets involved in combat action.
CR: Doesn’t Carl say they told him the island was safe and then he shows up and he gets shot in the rear end or something?
EL: Yeah. Supposed to have been secured and it wasn’t.
CR: Is Carl important to you as a character, or are your characters all equally important?
EL: He became important, and I would have changed his name if I had known [that] when I wrote “Carl.” I would have given him a different name.
CR: “Carl” doesn’t appeal to you?
EL: “Carl,” I don’t know why.
CR: I read that Raylan Givens is going to be a character in a TV series coming up [Justified]. They’re very similar.
EL: Yeah. They are.
CR: But they’re also distinct, I think. I see Raylan as much more accessible, and he’s got better manners. In fact, he’s the one who says at one point something about his mother teaching him, when he was a boy and his family was being terrorized by the mining goons, the thugs, his mother says to them, “You can’t come in my house without my permission.” Which struck me particularly, because that’s what really ticks Carmen off in Killshot, when Armand and Richie walk into her house without permission. Is that something that you remember from when you were a kid?
EL: I must. It seemed important certainly when I was writing [Fire in the Hole], and they beat him up, they knock him down, and they walk in, they don’t find anybody. In Fire in the Hole Raylan goes to Kentucky, Hazard, I think, to investigate a white supremacist who he used to dig coal with at one time, an old buddy who has gone the wrong way. And I had fun with that one, and so the first episode is Fire in the Hole and what happens in that story. I said [to the producers], I think they should call the whole series Fire in the Hole: it’s something that’s unexpected that’s going to happen. They want to call it Law Man. Well that’s pretty thin, that’s pretty weak.
CR: Kind of prosaic. Talk about a vanilla title.
EL: Yes. It’s terrible. Sony came up with that, and they’re just — they’re timid. I think a lot of TV people are timid: they don’t want to really expose themselves.
CR: Well they’re worried about the bottom line aren’t they?
EL: Well they have to be worried about that, but the titles don’t mean anything. The Wire, what does The Wire mean?
CR: I think it means the listening devices, right?
EL: Well that’s what I thought, but I have friends working on that and they’re good writers, too.
CR: As long as we’re talking about characters like Carl and Raylan, to get back to Jack Ryan: there’s an introduction to the edition [of The Big Bounce] I have where you say, all of your male leads, even in the Westerns, resemble Jack Ryan in that “they have much the same basic attitude about their own existence what’s important and what isn’t.” Is that still true?
[. . .]
CR: You use the word “existence” in that description, “the same basic attitude about their own existence,” and “existence” is a kind of weighty word.
EL: Yeah. It’s a simple word and yet it does have weight to it, doesn’t it?
CR: It does. I mean it’s not like “the same attitude towards themselves” or “same attitude towards their life.”
EL: It’s Being.
CR: Yeah. It leads me to want to go back again to this question of your education and Catholicism. When you were at the University of Detroit you majored in English and philosophy: were there particular writers or philosophers that influenced you?
CR: Or a school of philosophy?
EL: I took a metaphysics course, about Being, and what else? not Being.
CR: Being and Nothingness?
CR: Well [Jean-Paul] Sartre wrote Being and Nothingness. Did you read anything by Sartre?
EL: Yeah. I read a couple books at least, and I liked him a lot.
CR: Did you read any Heidegger?
CR: Well I focused on the word “existence” because so much of what you write resonates with existentialism, and I was curious.
EL: I’ve never understood that word. I said, “What does ‘existentialism’ mean?” And I’ve never gotten a clear understanding of it, I don’t know why.
CR: I think so much of what you write indicates that you understand it at a level that’s so fundamental you don’t even think about it. Just to take an example: everyone who writes about you points out that For Whom the Bell Tolls is a really important book, and you even say Hemingway is one of the most important influences on your writing.
CR: People interested in existentialism point to someone like Hemingway, or someone like Robert Jordan as an existential hero. I think what they mean is that these are heroes that don’t first sign up for some kind of metaphysical doctrine, or some kind of belief system, and then behave in a way that conforms to these rules or this belief system. Rather they look at how they behave and discover what they believe. [. . .] This is where I think we get to that [notion of] the person inside as opposed to the person outside. The person outside is constantly conforming to some standard or rule that isn’t part of him or her. Does that . . . ?
EL: That makes sense. Yeah.
CR: It seems to me that all your heroes are that kind of person, that is, very unhappy [when] conforming to some sense of duty that is imposed from without, [that] doesn’t correspond to the way they feel or the way they even take pleasure in their own existence.
EL: Well, the cop who might cut corners, say.
CR: Right. Or take Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway makes the point that both sides do horrible things. There’s that long extended story that Pilar tells about the villagers who killed —
EL: Went off the cliff.
CR: — I mean it’s horrifying, and at the same time you have the Fascists doing the same kinds of things with their bombings in Guernica and so forth, but all Robert Jordan wants to do is blow up the fucking bridge, [. . .] that is his whole existence. He’s tied up with what he knows he’s good at doing, and that comes out for me–I’m talking too much here, but —
EL: That’s, no, that’s good.
CR: — I’m responding to that over and over again in your work. To the degree that I could label it philosophically, I’d say it’s existential.
EL: Yeah. But I don’t even know why I do, why I write him a certain way.
CR: All the better for me.
EL: Yes. Right. But also, Richard Bissell was a major influence in the ‘50s, a bigger influence than Hemingway, although there are parts of Hemingway’s short stories that I read that I, oh God, he nails it.
CR: I agree. Hemingway’s short stories are phenomenal. Do you have any favorites?
EL: In Up in Michigan this woman who works in a little joint, a restaurant maybe, is kind of attracted to this guy, and finally lets him take her out onto the wharf somewhere at night and he makes love to her in a very rough way. She remembers “it,” he [Hemingway] used the construction “it” like, the hair on his arms, I forget how the “it” goes in it, but the hair on his arms, she was attracted to that in some way, but it was the “it” that made it all, in a string of maybe three of those things, made it sound like something sexual.
CR: And at the same time it sounds like it’s something impersonal, like something happening to them. “It” rather than she’s doing this or he’s doing that. Do you know that story from In Our Time called “Soldier’s Home”?
EL: I remember that name yeah.
CR: The soldier, I think his name is Krebs.
CR: He comes back from the first World War, and he’s terribly depressed because he’s not allowed to tell anyone the truth. All they want to hear are these glory tales about heroism and the noble cause and all of that. And that’s all the story’s about, how he comes home and finds himself a stranger in his own country. The Killers is another of his stories that I really enjoy.
EL: Where it’s all the point of view of the kid who’s sitting in the diner and doesn’t understand what’s going on.
CR: Doesn’t understand, and the fighter is in his room lying on the bed just waiting for it to happen.
EL: They found him, yeah.
CR: And the gangsters, they’re like Abbott and Costello, they’re like vaudevillians.
EL: I thought they were great, though. I’m talking about the guy [who]’s going to serve them. What they don’t have, because they’re not open yet.
CR: Yeah. Then there’s a shot of, I’m using film terms, I’m not a film person at all, but there’s a point of view moment, isn’t there? where you’re looking at them through the serving door?
EL: Yes. Right. The cook’s back there.
CR: Like it’s framed. The cook’s looking at them.
EL: Yeah. [. . .] That was a movie. Burt Lancaster.
CR: One of my favorite actors. Another is Robert Mitchum, whom I think if he were still alive should have been cast as Armand Degas.
EL: Oh, of course, rather than Mickey Rourke.
CR: A hefty Robert Mitchum with slick black hair and slightly tight suit, I think he’d be great. Could we continue this conversation about existentialism a little bit?
CR: Because it seems to me that part of what’s existential about your heroes is that they have a certain kind of talent, but they also manage to cultivate it [. . .], and they take pleasure in doing the things they’re good at and getting better at doing them so that it’s not that they’re just natural–what’s natural becomes like second nature to them. [. . .] It reminds me of an interview you had, with Lawrence Grobel. You were talking about your writing and I think you said, “I’m serious about writing, but I know what it is. I’m a serious writer, but I don’t take it seriously. I don’t stew over it, I try and relax and swing with it.” Which is jazz talk; I mean it’s what jazz musicians do after they’ve been in the shed. They come out with this acquired skill.
EL: Yeah. I didn’t make that relationship. Huh.
CR: But it seems to me, that that’s all over [your work]. What I want to make is a big grand statement and say all your books are about writing. They’re all about folks who want to get better at what they’re naturally talented at doing, and they don’t want to be interfered with. They don’t want to think about what other people think about what they’re doing, they want to just get in the groove and swing, become better and better at what they’re natural at. That, to me, is existential.
EL: Hmm. Wow. When I sit down to write, I didn’t this morning, but ordinarily I’ll look at it in an older book just to get the sound of it, just the feel of it, and then that’ll help me start instead of just starting to write, because I can waste an awful lot of time just writing down without a point of view just what is going on in the scene, instead of taking somebody with maybe an attitude, but at least take a point of view and get us into it that way. Because I did learn from George Higgins, in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, how to get in right away, get in and then tell the reader where they are and so on. I had an editor who was, well he ran the company, and he really made me, he’s the one who really got me first in front of the readers, and he’d say, “Well where are they? I don’t even know where they are and they’re talking.” I said, “Well take it easy, you know it’ll be revealed.”
CR: Be patient.
EL: Yeah. Be patient.
CR: So you sometimes find yourself just moving into a work not really latched onto a point of view yet, you’re just trying to get the stuff out.
EL: It’s always a point of view, but whose point of view is the important thing.
CR: Do you find yourself writing and then falling into a point of view and saying, this must be a character?
EL: Well it’s always a character, but sometimes I start writing not knowing, not realizing, this is not the way I write, I got to get a point of view here and I’ll start over from a point of view, an angle, an attitude.
EL: Attitudes to me are so important, you’ve got to give your characters attitudes, or else who are they, they’re just sitting there.
CR: So the personality has something to do with attitude?
EL: Yes. Yeah. A real personality or one that he likes to play with, one that he likes to show people, to give people an idea of who he is which isn’t right. I mean which isn’t true.
CR: But sometimes your characters seem more preoccupied with how other people see their attitude than with just being…
CR: Well take Richie Nix for instance; there’s a guy who is preoccupied with, you know, he wants to rob a bank in every state of the union, but fuck Alaska, it’s the 49th, so he can outdo Billy the Kid. He’s got this conscious preoccupation with himself, and when I’m reading your books there’s always a warning flag that goes up when that happens, where a character’s too busy thinking himself into movie scenes, or thinking himself into another role and not swinging with it, not just sort of being there in the moment doing what he does best and what he’s trained and worked at to make himself that way. This seems to come up over and over again.
EL: Well, if it’s true, I hope I don’t start thinking about that, you know?
CR: Pretend I’m not here.
CR: I wanted to ask you about plot, getting back to the sort of technical aspects. You say you hate plots, or you’re not interested in them, per se.
CR: But to get back to Jack Ryan and The Big Bounce, there was an introduction to the 1989 edition where you described [receiving] 84 rejections in three months [for that book]. How did you survive that? Eight-four rejections, three months…
EL: Well, it was, I hadn’t read the book again. And this guy, my agent…
CR: On the wall there?
EL: Yeah, Swanny. He’s, I forgot what it says, it’s up — what did he say? Oh, “I’m going to make you rich, kiddo.”
CR: It sounds like a line from a movie.
EL: Well, it could be, yeah. But he had been handling me indirectly. My New York agent, and the first time I spoke to him, he sold all the Westerns and some of the Western movies up to that time, and then he called me up and he said, “Did you write this, kiddo?” It was The Big Bounce, and I said, “Yes, of course I wrote it.” And he says, “Well, kiddo, I’m going to make you rich.” And he got the 84 rejections.
CR: So he’s busy sending it out. You weren’t sitting here taking it out of one envelope and sticking it in another?
EL: No. And he was showing most of them to filmmakers, so that’s where the 84 comes in. Maybe there were a dozen publishers, you know, and he did get 105 rejections for — he didn’t list them all, but he said 105 for the one Hitchcock finally bought, I forgot which one it was. And then he decided, as he wrote the screenplay, no, it wasn’t going to work for him. [. . .]
CR: In your introduction to the ’89 edition [of The Big Bounce], you say that you think it was rejected because it needed a plot, so there’s an example where — you often say that you’re not concerned with plot, but here’s an example where you weren’t concerned enough with the plot. I mean, how did that get away from you? Was it just…
EL: I’m never that concerned with plot. I think, God, if I ever had a great idea, you know, for a plot, I’m hoping it’s this one, Djibouti.
CR: The one you’re working on now?
CR: I just want to ask you, if you’re not thinking about plot, how come your books have such great symmetries? For instance, in Glitz you’ve got Vincent Mora mugged coming out of the grocery store, and a bottle of wine breaks and he’s covered with wine and, in the end, he’s mugged again coming out of a grocery store. Or in Killshot, Armand gets the drop on Richie because he left his Browning automatic under the front seat. Then at the end of Killshot, Carmen gets the drop on Armand because Wayne left the shotgun under the bed by accident.
CR: So there’s some kind of symmetry there, right?
EL: Well, evidently, I thought of that as I was writing. I might have had to put the shotgun under the bed, later. I don’t remember…
CR: You mean you were trying to think of how to get her out of the situation?
EL: Yeah. Yeah.
CR: So you back up and say, “Let’s have a moment here where Wayne leaves the shotgun, or moves it under the bed”?
EL: I might have. I don’t remember. But that’s how you make the plot work. You take a little from here or you take from back here and put it up in the front so that you’ve got a setup now. [. . .] I never worry about the book. When I’m writing the book, I know I’ll think of an ending. I’ll have a choice of endings the way I finally get into page 300, approaching the end, and then I may have to go back just a little bit to set something up and so on. But I know it’s going to work. I’m confident, always, that my book’s going to work.
CR: And does that come with experience?
EL: Yeah. Exactly.
CR: Because it’s worked so many times before?
EL: Because 40 years ago I was probably outlining a whole book. Now, I don’t want to know what’s going to happen. It’s only in the page 100 to page 200 is the tough part of the book, how you keep it moving and moving ahead with characters that you like, getting them to do certain things, that’ll be entertaining, and then in that last part, kind of get it going a little faster and then have a big finish.
CR: Yeah, I can see that. So, the middle part is the toughest?
EL: Yeah. Definitely. Sub-plots are perhaps introduced and you might come up with another character, too, who is going to save your day, who’s very important. And that’s the best kind to have. There was a guy in Bandits–he’s just a dumb guy that was hired by the bad guys–Franklin de Dios.
CR: The Miskito Indian?
EL: Yes. And he has a strange name and he talks kind of funny and he meets, Jack Delaney, runs into him in the bathroom, and Franklin thinks he’s going to be shot. And he says, “You want my shoes?” Do you remember? Because he always takes the other guy’s shoes if he’s going to shoot them. And then Delaney uses the guy and turns him, he tells him, “You’re being wasted by these people. What is this?” And finally, Franklin shoots the bad guy in the end.
CR: He must have been an important character to you because you remember him so vividly.
EL: And he came out of nowhere.
CR: So he was just there sort of hanging on, lurking, he was lurking and then…
EL: I gave him a name. Once you give the character a name, because maybe he was just talking before, he was by his car in front of a restaurant talking to somebody else and then you finally at the end of that scene you say, “And his name was Franklin de Dios,” which means, “Remember this guy.”
[. . .]