The Elmore Leonard Interviews, Part 3
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 third part of the interview that took place in Bloomfield Village, MI, 12th August 2009.
CR: Is it generally a good thing when a character in your books makes it personal, the way Frank [Renda] makes it personal with Mr. Majestyk? Or is that…
EL: I think it has to be, don’t you think? I mean he has to feel it’s very important.
CR: Oh, well. Yeah. But when you use the term making it personal, it’s like there’s a — well, think of Raymond Cruz and Clement Mansell in City Primeval, which is one of my favorites, right up there with Killshot. Clement keeps goading Raymond to make…
EL: And he even says, “It’s just you and me,” when he’s sitting in the squad room. “It’s really, it’s only about you and me, nobody else gives a shit about us.”
CR: Right. But there’s something, I feel almost disappointed with Cruz at the end of that book, that he contrives to set up this kind of gunfighter scenario that he remembers from The Gunfighter, and it’s all going to be straightforward and clean and we’re going to draw and so forth. And then he ends up killing Clement because Clement’s reaching for a bottle opener, which to me takes — it’s funny, but it takes all of the, what, the meaning out of it.
EL: Well, how are you going to make it more important? If Clement pulls a gun and he shoots him, he’s got to shoot him. Why does that make it better? If he pulls out this bone handled bottle opener and still shoots him, well, he didn’t know it was a bottle opener, it’s more like the way real life is. It’s more like police work. It’s more like —
CR: But see, I think what happens is that Clement Mansell outsmarts Raymond Cruz. He manages to get Raymond to stop behaving like a professional cop and take it personally. I think of him in contrast to somebody like, Bryan Hurd, who’s the cop hero in Split Images whose girlfriend is killed, Angela Nolan? [. . .] There’s a moment where Eljay, who’s his superior, after Angela’s killed, he’s temped to make it personal and Eljay says, “A good cop knows how to do his job and not fuck up.” And in fact, what happens is that Bryan Hurd manages to get Robbie Daniels on the murder of Walter Kouza, so he does it by the book, he doesn’t take it into his own hands. So to me, there’s a difference there between someone like Raymond Cruz and someone like Bryan Hurd, and Hurd strikes me as much more professional, much more a cop, whereas Raymond turns it into this kind of movie scenario where the two gun slingers are —
EL: That might have been what I was thinking, I mean, and I did, because Raymond Cruz was — “Bryan Hurd” was a name I made up after Swanny says, “You gotta change this guy’s name. ‘Raymond Cruz’ was bought by,” I forgot what studio bought him.
CR: So they bought the rights to the name?
EL: Yeah. Well, when they buy the book, they own everything in it. So Swanny said, “You’ve got to change this guy’s name.” So I went through the book and I changed “Raymond Cruz” to “Bryan Hurd,” but I missed one place in the book, because someone wrote to me and said, “Who’s Raymond Cruz? Who’s Raymond?” And I left it just sort of to see if readers are on their toes.
[. . .]
CR: This is interesting, because if Bryan Hurd is supposed to be Raymond Cruz, it’s almost as though [Cruz] learns how to be a cop [in this book] rather than [remaining] a movie gunslinger. To me, it’s a kind of a cop-out when Raymond lets Clement out of the underground vault, and then lures him to the apartment to stage this kind of gunfight, because to me it says that Raymond hasn’t done his job well enough. He’s been trying to get that murder weapon with Clement by doing everything by the book, but he has to give up and resort to this kind of movie version of gunfighting.
EL: Hmm. Yeah. Well, I should have thought of another way.
CR: No. I think it’s a perfect — it’s a wonderful ending.
CR: I don’t think you should have thought of another way at all.
EL: I like the young girl who is Clement’s girlfriend. [. . .] And then near the end she stands in front of the mirror and talks to herself, and she kind of works herself up a little bit.
[. . .]
CR: Like Teddy Magyk, in Glitz, when he finally says, “I’m going to take care of Vincent Mora.” He stands in front of a mirror and has a conversation with himself while he’s sort of admiring himself in the mirror.
EL: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Teddy Magyk, yeah. He’s the most obvious bad guy. You don’t have to psychoanalyze him at all to find out why.
CR: Has something to do with his mother.
EL: Oh, definitely. Right. Right. Right. He hates his mother.
CR: But he depends on her. He hasn’t left home, he’s still his mommy’s boy.
EL: Yeah, he is.
[. . .]
CR: What was it about Glitz that made it such a big hit? I mean that was your big breakthrough novel, wasn’t it?
CR: The one that pushed you over the top and made you a household name?
CR: I’m surprised LaBrava particularly wasn’t — so it’s just chance that Glitz is the one that did it? There’s no way to predict these things?
EL: It seems to me the two books, Don Fine was the publisher who really pushed me and said he was going to sell me, and he did. And LaBrava I thought was a good book. But it just happened that Glitz . . . it just took another book. Now everyone’s getting on the [Best Seller] list with the really weak stuff, I think.
CR: What do you mean? In what way?
EL: Well, the people who have a million printing and get on the list, you know, up at the top right away, I don’t think they’re very good at all. [. . .]
CR: That’s why I don’t look at books on the Best Seller list anymore. I mean half the time, it’s not stuff — I just find somebody I like and I will just read. But speaking of people we like to read, what’s Ezra Pound doing in Pronto?
EL: I don’t know how he got into it, but I wasn’t reading Ezra Pound before. I started to read Cantos when one of my characters picked it up and didn’t know what the hell it was about, you know, but met Ezra, old Ez.
CR: But you must have heard of The Cantos or you wouldn’t have had Harry Arno pick it up.
EL: Well, sure. Well, yeah of course, I heard of him, but I’d never been able to make any sense of Pound. [Only] little parts.
CR: I’m nowhere near as knowledgeable as Ezra Pound, it’s like you’d have to be Ezra Pound to [read him]. I had the same experience with Finnegans Wake.
EL: Well, yeah. What about Ulysses?
CR: Ulysses I can — no, Ulysses, well of course, you know, I didn’t pick up Ulysses and read it on my own. I read it in class.
EL: But Finnegans Wake is much more obscure.
[. . .]
CR: So you went and read The Cantos because your character —
EL: Well, I didn’t read all of them.
CR: But some you did, obviously.
CR: Because you’ve got [Harry Arno] quoting The Cantos.
EL: Yes. Ones that are less obscure so that as Ezra’s going to the men’s room, [Harry] holds the door open and quotes a couple of lines and Ezra just keeps walking.
CR: Does the figure of Ezra Pound resonate with you, or is he important to you in any way? I mean, why didn’t Harry Arno pick up Shelley or —
EL: Well, because Ezra lived in Italy in that town where — what was the town?
EL: Rapallo, yeah, with his wife and the Germans moved him in with his girlfriend, too. The three of them. That would have been something, wouldn’t it?
CR: Yeah, Harry thinks it must have been something, too. Did you visit that area just before writing the book?
EL: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
CR: And that’s what gave you some of the inspiration for it?
EL: Well, I knew Harry was going to Italy, and a friend of mine, Richard Guindon, used to do a cartoon in the Free Press four times a week, he said, “While you’re over there, would you go to Rapallo please and get me a,” he wanted a particular kind of espresso maker. He said, “You’ll love Rapallo. It’s different, it’s where Italians go.”
CR: And did you like it?
EL: Yes. I did very much. And that’s the only reason. I thought, “Good, I don’t want to go to Rome. I don’t want to set the scenes in Rome. There’s just too much to deal with. I’ll have to pick out a neighborhood and so on.” [. . .]
CR: So is Gregg Sutter still doing your research for you?
EL: Yeah, he wants to go to Djibouti.
CR: Has he been? Not yet?
EL: We’ve got so much Djibouti stuff that I don’t think he needs to go, because he’ll have to stay there for a while to really get a feel for what the — but I think parts of it are like old New Orleans. The French influence in Djibouti, the legionnaires were there for a hundred years before ’77 when it became independent.
CR: This is another feature of your writing that I find really interesting, your interest in facts. I was reading on the website, and I guess Gregg’s in charge of your website, there was something…
EL: Which I’ve never seen.
CR: Oh, you haven’t? You don’t have web access?
EL: I don’t have a computer. Christine does, but neither of us really knows how to work it.
CR: Well, there’s a little paragraph or two describing your progress on Djibouti and he says, “Elmore has reached an impasse with two female characters who are” . . . it sounded as though they’re too busy telling facts and you couldn’t figure out how to get past this block.
EL: Well, I’ve certainly been aware of them, not wanting them to simply give information, to be themselves, and the one, of course, is the documentary film maker, and she’s busy a lot, so she doesn’t have all the lines. So I give her assistant, Xavier, a six-foot-six black man, 72, 73 years old who was a seafarer and he’s been through this area probably 20 times or more. And the other person is the girlfriend, Helene. Helene is the girlfriend of Billy Wynn. Billy Wynn is a billionaire with a yacht, a $2 million sailing yacht–it’s $2 million because of all the equipment he has on it to find out things.
CR: So he’s spying?
EL: No. But he’s sort of working on his own. He wants to be important and he wants to do something important.
CR: Sounds like a lot of Elmore Leonard characters.
EL: And he has a lot of, not operatives, but he has people that he can call anywhere and find out things. So he’s ahead of most of the people in the book outside of maybe the CIA. But there’s only so far one embassy person, a woman who is, she’s a something-something security officer, and she knows what’s going on that my documentary film maker comes to tell her about. She’s ahead of her.
CR: I see.
EL: So they are doing some work. They are paying attention. And Helene is, Billy has put her on the boat, they start out in Marseille, she flies over and gets on the boat, and he’s going to take her around the world, and if she doesn’t complain or get seasick, he might marry her. Well, Helene figures, what the heck, it’s worth a try, and she’s 35 and she looks like she’s in her 20’s, she’s a runway model, but she’s smart enough. Except he only has champagne aboard the yacht and she’s getting smashed every day on champagne and getting tired of it. And then every once in a while, they’ll meet, she and Dara will meet, Dara’s the film maker, they’ll meet in some port and talk, and she’ll tell him about Billy, how Billy reminds her so much of General Jack D. Ripper in — the picture is about an intercontinental bomber that’s on its way…
CR: Oh, Dr. Strangelove.
EL: Dr. Strangelove. And he talks about precious bodily fluids. And you think the guy is a little nuts, and this is all, almost all of it we get from Helene, it’s her point of view of the [guy] but when he does talk, he’s kind of show-off more than anything else. [. . .] But I like this guy. I didn’t know what to make of him at first, but I like him and he’s having a good time, and he is serious though, he gets serious like General Jack D. Ripper. And Helene and Dara talk about the movie. Dara said, “You know, they were all playing a part. You could see them playing a part.” And Helene said, “Yeah, but God, they had so much fun doing it.”
CR: Do you sometimes or regularly find yourself caught in a tension between the desire to provide information and the desire to let characters speak just naturally?
EL: Well, that’s what it’s all about, yeah, really. I’m trying to make, I want this to sell to the movies, too. So I’m aware of that. I’m aware of the visual effects of this. All the way. I’m not trying to write literature. I’m trying to write, what’s the word, something fiction, entertaining fiction, but trying to make it sound as real as possible. That these people are not being funny, but they are. They can’t help it.
CR: In all your books you seem to have a kind of drive to master all the facts. I’m surprised at how often you’ll start writing a book about something that I don’t see anything about previously, well, like Civil War reenactments in Tishomingo Blues, obviously there’s an awful lot of, there’s a lingo, there’s a jargon, there are roles, there are rules. I mean, first of all, you had to get all the Civil War facts straight.
EL: Then I went to reenactments.
CR: And then you went to — or did Gregg go, too?
EL: I went. We both went.
CR: So there’s a whole culture there that you have to —
EL: And these guys talk so seriously about, this fella talking about his role in it, and he’s a Confederate soldier with some outfit. And they never say anything funny. Never. And Robert Taylor recognizes that. These people were serious.
[. . .]
CR: So often I can almost feel this tension on the page between the desire to give the reader enough information to understand what’s at stake and wanting the character to seem natural. I’m thinking of, in Cuba Libre, there is a whole paragraph in which Virgil Webster gives us the lowdown on the armaments and weaponry on the USS Maine. And I’m saying to myself, why is he doing all this? And I think it’s because Elmore Leonard wants us to know all this stuff. And it strikes me, there are so many moments in your books where your excitement over the facts struggles sort of — it creates a problem for your desire to let your characters speak, and I’m wondering, is this an issue with your writing or something you feel you have cautiously address very often?
EL: I’m not aware of it, because I’m always satisfied with the pace, the way–what’s the exposition and what isn’t, you know, and I don’t want to be too expository, definitely.
CR: Could I ask about story and myth and legend, and their relationship to media in general? Like film versions of the Old West which sort of glamorized a century that you said you hate, I think, in one interview. You have no desire to have lived there or in that time period. There’s that wonderful moment at the end of Gunsights when it looks like we’re going to have a shootout at the O.K. Corral, and then all of these Eastern reporters show up with the big box cameras and this Wild West performer comes up and offers Bren Early and Dana Moon parts in his Wild West show.
EL: Mm-hmm. It’s the end of the West.
[. . .]
CR: One of the things I find, as I said earlier, that is really interesting about Killshot is the way it looks as though it’s going to be about Wayne Colson?
CR: Sort of a Jack Ryan, the cool, calm hero?
EL: Yes. And I mean, he’s an ironworker, and that guy, I mean you’ve got to make an ironworker the main character, I thought. He goes up there, they have a drink in the morning and they go up on the iron, and — but she’s smarter than he is and I saw that right away. I thought, “Oh God, why’d she marry this guy?” And so I started to think about that, and then I got into how they get along with each other, what they talk about and so on, and they really like each other, there’s no question about that.
CR: That’s clear. There’s never a question.
EL: And she’s the main character.
CR: But how does she get to be the main character, this is what I find fascinating. When did you know that she was? Can you remember when it seemed to you that she was going to be taking over?
EL: Well, when he left town.
CR: When they run off to Cape Girardeau?
EL: Yeah. And he’s more, when they got to Cape Girardeau, he’s talking about what he can do there, jobs he can do, and he’s into that. He’s got to be working. He’s got to be using his muscle. And she’s thinking about her mother and she’s thinking about other things, and finally she goes back to Detroit and there are the guys. There they are. Bruce Willis wanted to buy the picture. In fact, what studio was it, bought it for him [to play Wayne Colson]? I mean they optioned it, and he called me up and he said, “Why don’t you want me to do it?” I said, “Because you’ll make it your picture. You’ll take over the end of the movie, and I don’t want you to do that. I want her to handle the action.” And he says, “Oh, you ought to be ashamed of yourself,” or something like that. So nothing happened. And the option ran out and that was it, it was mine again. And I don’t understand why my agent, but he was getting old at that time, he was losing his fight, because he could argue them out of — there was nothing signed but they said, “You gave us a verbal agreement that this is our property now.” Well, he could have got out of that. Anyway.
CR: So Bruce had plans to let Wayne continue to be the dominant character?
EL: Yeah. How can he be in the picture and not be the main guy?
CR: Yeah. Right. But Wayne, I mean, when they go to Cape Girardeau, he becomes the “punk,” that is, he becomes the apprentice in the barge profession, which is only tangentially related to ironworking and riveting and skyscrapers and so forth. So he has to sort of start over again and he finds he can’t, he’s too old. And there’s a similar kind of relationship between Armand and Richie, isn’t there? Armand is really the professional who knows how it’s done, and Richie is more like the punk, he’s the one who — all he knows is he likes to shoot and kill people, and have a good time while he’s doing it. And Armand keeps trying to teach him, but he’s almost un-teachable, isn’t he?
EL: Oh, yeah. Definitely.
CR: And this relationship, this sort of professional-apprentice relationship comes up over and over again in other books.
[. . .]
CR: In your own career, were there professionals that took you in-hand or that sort of helped you in that way as an apprentice writer? Or as a professional, do you have younger writers that you have that kind of relationship with?
EL: Well, I talk to my son about writing, and that’s about it. No, I’ve never taught writing. I give talks, I’ll go to U of D High every year and talk to them for two hours, who wants to be a writer, this is my experience. But it’s not, no, I don’t feel I have anything to impart. I wrote my 10 Rules, and I think they’re good rules to follow, and so do a number of writers. Pete Hamill thinks they should be put up on the wall of every city room. I said, “I don’t think of them as for non-fiction.” He said, “They’re good. They’re good for any kind of writing.”
CR: Weren’t there more at one point?
EL: Well, when I did the 10 the first time, in 2000, I was a guest of honor at the mystery writers’ convention. And that afternoon, in the hotel room, I wrote the 10 rules, but didn’t elaborate on them at all. Just bare rules. And so then that evening, I presented them and they didn’t go over too well, I mean nobody laughed that much, and then I came down off the stage and a guy said, “Can I have those?” I said, “Yeah, here,” and so I gave him the sheet of paper.
Then earlier this year, it was offered on, whatever it is, eBay or something–my original 10 rules for sale for $500 bucks, and so my researcher and a lawyer in L.A., who’s probably my biggest fan, they went in together, well anyway, they bought it and they gave it to me.
CR: That was nice of them.
EL: So then, a couple of years later, after — say around 2003 or 2004, the Times asked me to do a column on writers on writing, which is a continuing column about how do I write. And I thought, “Oh, I’ll do the rules again.” So then I elaborated on the rules and then my publisher thought, “These should be published,” but they didn’t do it right. They put it into a — it was a 94-page book with, I think the pages must have been 30-pound weight because it’s so hard to open it and get into it, and it should be almost like a pamphlet. You know? And so, it’s still kicking around. I think they must have reprinted it from time to time.
CR: And you haven’t thought of any other rules along the way that you want to have?
EL: Well — no. You got 10. You have to have 10. I don’t think these are my 11 rules.
CR: Could probably get away with a dozen if you wanted to add a couple of them.
CR: Just to return to Killshot, I’m curious about talking versus listening. You have characters like Wayne and Richie who talk, but aren’t very good at listening. And Armand is quiet. Carmen is — they both have to put up with these talkative people. I mean in general, do you have a kind of feeling about talkative versus silent characters?
EL: Well, it’s just how I see the character at the time when I’m writing the book. Yeah, Richie talks and doesn’t have to make much sense.
CR: Is talking a good thing, generally, or?
EL: Well, all my books are all talking, that’s what they are, they’re talkies.
CR: Or internal talking, too.
[. . .]
CR: I’m interested in Jeopardy in Killshot, I think you mention it in a couple of other books, too, where —
CR: — the answer is in the form of a question.
EL: Wayne gets it right because he went bird hunting in those states. And I heard from the woman who was on Jeopardy and she was so surprised to read about that particular program.
CR: Another important theme in Killshot seems to be signs. You’ve got Armand looking for a sign and the phone call comes from the Mob to go to Detroit to kill Papa, which I think is really, the more I read that book, the more poignant that becomes because he has no father and what sets him down on this road to ruin is his going to Detroit thinking it’s a sign for a change in his life. You have characters all the time who want to change their lives or become a different person.
[. . .]
CR: So she reads signs.
CR: Where did Dawn come from? Did she just appear out of nowhere?
CR: Or is she based on anybody you know?
EL: I love the name, Dawn Navarro. In, yeah, Riding the Rap, but I didn’t think that she had a big enough part in Riding the Rap, so I wanted to use her again in more of a starring role, so that’s how that happened.
[. . .]
CR: But I was wondering, are we supposed to believe she does have psychic powers, or is Rayland Givens correct when he says, “You do just what I do, but you think it’s magic or psychic”?
EL: I don’t know. Because in Riding the Rap, I wasn’t sure. But she’s on the phone with someone and she says, “Turn the light on. I can’t see you.” And I thought, oh, maybe she does. Because I can hear her saying something like that. But I think maybe she has somewhat of a gift, anyway, but knows how to work it, knows how to use it, and has gone to school and so on.
CR: She’s the Reverend Dawn Navarro.
EL: Yeah. Right. And that woman who is the, there was a gifted psychic who was above, who she mentions and that influenced her a lot, forgot the name, but the name I got from this little piece of paper that’s in your pocket or in a shirt pocket —
CR: Oh, Inspected By?
EL: Inspected By.
CR: No, really?
CR: And you just — the name just appealed to you?
EL: It’s a good name.
CR: It is a good name. It’s a great name.
EL: Not Dawn, but whoever the…
CR: So Dawn’s in Road Dogs, and Cundo Rey —
EL: Cundo’s in LaBrava.
CR: — and Jack Foley, right?
CR: And they somehow all get together.
EL: Yeah. Cundo Rey, I saw his name in the International Page, I think it was, of Time Magazine, a guy named Cundo Rey somewhere in a Latin country doing something, and I thought, “God, Cundo Rey, I love it. Gotta use that.” He comes out more in this one.
CR: Hmm. Okay. I’m looking forward to reading it and seeing the DVD of Killshot.
[I rise to leave]
EL: It’s a good interview. Boy, it’s . . . it’s really, I had to think of things I’ve never thought of before. It’s a good interview. Very good.
CR: Thank you.