The Elmore Leonard Interviews, Part 6
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 by phone on 8th January 2010.
CR: I’d like to get a clearer picture of your childhood, and your family members, and I’d like to begin with your dad. He was of Irish extraction. Is that right?
EL: Yeah. His father was killed in an accident in a sugar plantation north of New Orleans when my dad was—I always thought that he was about in sixth grade but he was older than that, I think a few years older. And he was painting at that time, I mean, fine art, his art. He had to quit that and go to work. He quit school and went to work to help support the family. He had, I think, five brothers and sisters.
CR: So, did his dad encourage him to paint?
EL: I don’t know. I have no idea. He never spoke to me about his dad. It was much later that it occurred to me and I wondered about it. He never talked about old times, maybe because the death of his dad hit him and it was at a time when he was developing his interests. I’m not sure. But he didn’t. My mother talked about her family all the time and we would visit them in the summer, drive down from Detroit or even before that, from Memphis, or Oklahoma City, or Dallas.
CR: Do you know what your grandfather did on the plantation? Was he a foreman?
EL: I think he was in charge of it. My researcher, Gregg, has been digging back into my past, I don’t know why, and he sent me a newspaper story about my grandfather’s death, and he was important. I think he ran the place. He was having lunch and somebody said, we’re having trouble here in the plant, and he came into the plant, and something let loose, and hit him, and that was it. This was in the sugar mill, as it was called.
CR: So was your dad born and raised in New Orleans?
CR: But not on the sugar plantation itself?
EL: Oh no, his dad lived in New Orleans, too. My dad used to always call it the “Irish Channel.” That is a section, I guess, of New Orleans. My mother lived, for the most part, on Camp Street above a store that changed. At first, there was a shoe repair. Part of it was her uncle repairing shoes. And in the foreground, in the way I remember seeing it, is a music store where they sold instruments. Louie Prima bought his first horn there.
CR: So how did your dad’s family end up in New Orleans? Did they immigrate a long time ago?
EL: I don’t think so. I think it was probably his great grandfather who came from Ireland. Gregg Sutter’s looking into it but it’s pretty sketchy, the kind of information available. Gregg said, “I think your antecedents left from County Cork, but I can’t find out where they lived”.
CR: In a lot of your books, both in your westerns and the later crime novels, you have an interest in characters who are concerned with feelings and intuitions, who need to talk about them. And most often these are female characters. So I was surprised to hear, last time, about those “telling times” you had with your dad in the evenings early in your life. It’s interesting that it was your dad and not your mom encouraging you to talk about your day, and I’m wondering if you can recall the kinds of things you talked about with your dad. Do you remember any specific events that you talked about or feelings that you had that you shared with him?
EL: No, but I think maybe about that time I kept a diary. And in it I would refer to how many boys got licked in school.
CR: Oh really?
EL: I assume by the teacher. But I was stealing that from a book about a diary that a young boy was writing.
CR: Do you remember who that was?
EL: No, I don’t remember the title.
CR: But you got the idea of writing the diary from reading about a boy keeping a diary?
EL: Yeah. And he would talk about how many boys got licked. So I was stealing that idea.
CR: So you noticed there was quite a bit of corporal punishment there in the schools you were attending?
EL: There really wasn’t. I just used that because of the reference to the other book. I never saw any real corporal punishment. I had nuns for I think all of grade school. And then Jesuits in high school and college. I never saw any corporal punishment.
CR: I ask because in so many of your books there seems to be a focus on this kind of violence and confrontations between characters, especially male characters.
EL: Well, yeah, because it’ll keep the reader reading. It’s excitement. It’s fiction.
CR: I understand that. But there are other ways to keep readers interested and excited. I’m just wondering where that came from in your life.
EL: I didn’t see [that stuff] happen. As a matter of fact, I actually witnessed two fistfights in my life.
CR: In your whole life?
EL: In my whole life. And one was when I was maybe a freshman or sophomore in high school at Catholic Central, which was on a little street behind the archdiocese’s Church. And these two guys were in an alley. They were a year or two older than I, and they were hitting each other with their fists. That I saw, and there was blood, I saw that. I almost had a fight with a guy who told me, “I’m going to see you right after school.” I showed up in this field near the school and he came out and he changed his mind. He was kind of wimpy about it, said “Oh, I don’t want to fight.” And then there was another fight when I was in the Seabees on an island, Los Negros in the Admiralty Islands. But it was at a distance. I didn’t really see it. I didn’t see any detail.
CR: That near-fight you’re talking about when you were in high school, do you remember how you felt about being challenged and having to see this guy after school?
EL: Well, I was nervous about it but I felt, well, I had to do it.
CR: Were you bigger, or was he bigger?
EL: He was bigger than I was.
CR: Sounds like a bully.
EL: No, he wasn’t. He just got mad about something.
CR: Getting back to the “telling times”: I’m wondering if they might have helped prepare you early on in your life to put together a narrative. For instance, if you’re talking about your day, you’re telling the story of your day to your dad.
EL: I wish I had recorded it. But I don’t think—this is the first time it has occurred to me that maybe that kind of information that is audible [?] [was what] I start[ed] to put down [in words]. As I mentioned, the first thing I wrote was a play in fifth grade.
EL: Yeah, that influence.
CR: I went and finally saw the movie. And what I learned from watching it is that you must have gotten that scene you were talking about where the guy goes and saves his comrade on the barbed wire, that you must have gotten it from reading that serialization and not from the movie, because that’s not in the movie.
EL: Oh no. I made that up. Yeah. It was just a “World War I on the Western Front” scene. But I had all of this help from reading at least as much as I read of All Quiet and then seeing the movie a couple of times. It really interested me. I was fascinated by those German soldiers.
CR: Why the German soldiers particularly?
EL: I didn’t think of them necessarily as Germans in the war. I was pretty young. I think the movie came out in 1930. The newspaper, the Detroit Times, had picked it up and included it over I don’t know how long. I read a little bit of it.
CR: During the telling times with your dad, did he ever tell you stuff? Did he share things with you, talk about his day or anything on his mind?
EL: Not that I recall. We have a lot of pictures of my dad and me in Oklahoma City when I was about four.
CR: Oh you do?
EL: I’m all dressed up in a cap and knee socks and he had a cane. I have a lot of pictures of me in a baseball uniform, in a little car that looks like an airplane, sit in it and pedal.
CR: So the telling times, were they mostly before you settled down in Detroit in 1934?
EL: No. The telling times were in Detroit.
CR: They were in Detroit.
EL: After ’34.
CR: Just about the time when you wrote that play for your class. Is that right?
EL: Yeah. You’re right.
CR: Just about the same time. So you’re getting interested in story telling and in play writing about the same time in your life..
EL: I think it was instigated by my mother. I’m not sure. But I can just see her saying, “Why don’t you go tell your dad what you’ve been doing all day?” And then I began to refer to it as telling time.
CR: What was your room like when you were a kid? Can you picture your bedrooms in any of your homes or when you were a teenager?
EL: In Detroit a Murphy bed came down in the living room. That’s where I slept.
CR: So you didn’t have your own room.
EL: No. Then we moved to Highland Park and my sister and I shared a room. She’s six years older. I was still going to grade school and she was in high school. And beyond that she went to college locally, at Marygrove, I think for two years.
CR: What did your dad look like? I saw a photo of him in Challen’s book. But it’s not very clear. Can you describe him?
EL: I look like him.
CR: You do?
EL: Uh-huh. And he had dark hair, combed it straight back and layered it down. Men would do it in the ‘30’s. And he never changed his hairstyle. He’d get a haircut and tell the barber in the General Motors building, “I want a haircut that only you and I know about.”
CR: I just want to be sure about this: your dad must have been encouraged to paint when he was young or he wouldn’t have been so good, even with all his talent. But he had to give it up to go to work when his dad died. So did your dad ever express any frustration over not following his career as a painter?
EL: No. I don’t even remember him referring to his painting.
CR: So he wouldn’t sketch occasionally or paint as a hobby or anything like that?
EL: He took a correspondence course with an accounting firm. He went from art to accounting, then went to Central America, United Fruit, for awhile before he came back to New Orleans.
CR: Did you two ever share any activities together like go to ball games or movies?
EL: Oh yeah. Went with my mother and dad to ball games and also to the movies.
CR: You went to the movies with your parents?
EL: Well, sometimes. If we went downtown, it was always with my parents. That’s where the features were showing. And then there would be entertainment. There would be acts on the stage. Tommy Dorsey and his band and Frank Sinatra. I remember one time [Tommy] said, he was standing at the mic and he said, “I’d like Mr. Sinatra to come out here but I guess he doesn’t want to. He’s made up his own mind.” He made a little few remarks. And I suppose Sinatra left shortly after.
CR: Do you remember what kind of movies your parents liked?
EL: No. I remember I asked my dad who he thought was the best looking actress. And he said—and now I can’t think of her name because I didn’t think she was that good looking at all. I liked Heddy Lamarr. Heddy Lamarr had the best look.
CR: Would you consider your dad a strict disciplinarian or was he pretty easy going?
EL: Easy going. When he would come home, now he’s home and everything is fine. My mother always got into the day to day stuff, punished me in her own way, gave me a slap every once in a while. And I just thought, well, that’s part of it.
CR: So she didn’t say, “Wait ‘til your father gets home”?
EL: Oh no. Never.
CR: So he was away for days or weeks at a time, wasn’t he?
EL: Yeah. I don’t think long weeks. Maybe a week or two. But that was about it. I think mostly it was before the move to Detroit, early ‘30’s.
CR: Right. So he moved on to another higher position in GM and didn’t have to travel so much.?
EL: Yeah. He was on the 14th floor, which I understand is an executive floor. He took a dealership [in] 1948. He took a Chevrolet/ Buick/Oldsmobile dealership in Las Cruces, New Mexico. And six months later he had a heart attack and died. I think the comfort of the surroundings of working in General Motors with all those people around you, how can you screw up? There’s always somebody that’s going to pick up the ball, and I think then to be on his own–and this was really the first time in his life, and he was 46. That’s all.
CR: So when your dad was away, did you miss him a lot or did his absences just become kind of routine after a while?
EL: No. I missed him. We got along very well. And my dad and my mother got along especially well. Always showing affection to one another, kissing and things like that.
CR: Were there any other adult males who played an important role in your life, like uncles or older cousins or anything?
EL: Not very important but I liked my uncles in New Orleans. We would see them when we went down. We’d stay at Bay St Louis, Mississippi, where one of them had a summer home, at least a month. And I would be there with my cousins and we always got along very well. We liked each other and had fun.
CR: These were on your mom’s side of the family, right?
CR: So was she Irish too?
EL: No. Alsatian. She’s German. More German than French.
CR: Is Rivė her maiden name?
CR: And her family lived in New Orleans too.
EL: Yeah. There were two brothers, their wives, and one of them’s mother in law. My dad’s side, we only met them a couple of times and they seemed so different from my mother’s people, who were more recognizable.
CR: More recognizable like–?
EL: Like my dad’s brother in law. I remember, he had a 1936 Oldsmobile parked in front of the house. And the brother in law, I can’t think of his name, came out and ran his hands over the hood and he was wearing just an undershirt. And he ran his hand over the hood and said, “You won’t have any trouble in the mountains with this baby.” It’s the only thing I remember him saying.
CR: So did any of your relatives, grandparents, aunts, uncles, did any of them show any writing talent or artistic talent at all?
EL: No. My mother always wanted to write. But she didn’t write enough. I mean even right up almost to the end. And she was living, well, I don’t know, she might have been still in New Orleans before she moved to Little Rock to be with my sister because the New Orleans place on Camp Street was attracting all kinds of bums hanging around in the little entrance way and breaking bottles.
CR: So just your mom? Not anyone else distantly related, they’re not writing, or painting or musicians or anything like that?
EL: EL: Elsa, the youngest, used to play the accordion.
CR: And that was your mom’s sister?
EL: Mm-hmm. She was married for a while and then was divorced, lived in Atlanta. Played the accordion but was not very good. She didn’t have an ear.
CR: Was the divorce a problem, this being a Catholic family?
EL: Well it wasn’t for her, she used that [to play the] tragic figure.
CR: You write so often about alcohol and alcoholism. Even in your earliest works, I think way before you thought of yourself as having a drinking problem. I’m wondering if you knew men when you were growing up who were alcoholics.
EL: Well, sure, I probably had some but I can’t name them. In westerns they’re always standing at the bar drinking shots.
CR: In one of our interviews you said the character Mary in Pagan Babies was based on your sister, Margaret. Are there any characters that you based on your parents that seem to resemble either one of them?
EL: No. I didn’t base characters on anyone in particular that I can recall. They’re more types. Then the character comes out in whatever they do and the way they think. I don’t go into a narrative of this guy’s problem and how it came about.
CR: No, but you do a really good job of giving us a view of the inside of their minds by the way they talk to themselves.
EL: And I’m using dialogue, which I’ve always liked.
CR: Back to Margaret, who was the one who read to you when you were young. Can you remember any of the kinds of books that she read to you? They must have been pretty elementary.
EL: Well, “The Book House” came in I don’t know how many volumes.
CR: The which?
EL: “The Book House.” There was a series of books that started with the very basic children’s literature and got into well-known children’s literature. I don’t know if it was written actually taking the lines of the original or just telling a story. It kept developing and finally we’d get to Treasure Island, Beowulf and so on.
CR: So your sister is reading you Beowulf?
EL: Well, by then I think, by the time I got to Beowulf I was reading it.
CR: Now your sister was older than you by six years, right?
CR: And then your parents didn’t have any more kids after you came along.
CR: And that’s kind of unusual for a Catholic family. I mean especially in the 1920’s.
EL: Yes. I thought it was.
CR: In Killshot, there’s Lenore, Carmen’s mom and her husband, who fight over the rhythm method of birth control. Was there any tension in your family about having kids or not having kids, having more kids?
EL: No. That was it. They had two and seemed happy with two.
CR: It’s kind of odd that your mom was the writer but your older sister is reading to you. Or did they share the reading?
EL: No. I don’t know if they ever talked about writing or stories. I don’t know what my sister was reading for her own pleasure by the time I got to Don Sturdy [?] and those books, boys books.
CR: What was your mom’s day like? Did she participate in any social activities outside the house, like church related groups?
EL: She joined, I would say in the early ‘40’s, the Delphian Society.
CR: The Delphian Society.
EL: Which is what it sounds like. Culture. And they would be given books to read, all these ladies sitting around, and they would discuss books, and art and different things.
CR: But that wasn’t until the 1940’s?
CR: Can you picture her earlier in your life, like what kinds of things did she do?
EL: Well, she was such a good mom. Always kissing me, and a terrific cook. She learned in New Orleans when she was a girl and cooked all her life.
CR: Were there any other activities she liked besides writing and cooking?
EL: She liked baseball and she liked the movies.
CR: She liked baseball. I bet there weren’t a lot of moms that were that interested in baseball.
EL: No. We’d go to Navin Field and Briggs Stadium and then Tiger Stadium back when it cost $1.10 to sit in the grandstand. Mostly now, it’s reserved seats.
CR: I can picture that. So could we talk about your early school days again for a minute or two?
EL: Yeah. I don’t remember much about the first few years. We were in Oklahoma City and Dallas.
CR: But you were in schools there and in Memphis too, right?
EL: Yeah. I moved to Memphis and I don’t even remember much about school in Memphis. I know I went to Catholic schools.
CR: You did? You went to Catholic schools everywhere you went?
EL: Yeah. But then in ’34 we moved to Detroit and I started in the fourth grade and we had Sister Estelle, who was very mean. And she was dumb. She pronounced Arkansas “Ar-Kansas.” She was always disciplining. “Oh God, Sister Estelle!” we said. And we went “Oh good!” when we went on to fifth grade we wouldn’t have her. Then they moved her up to the fifth grade. We had her for two years.
CR: Was she your fifth grade teacher when you were writing that play?
EL: Yeah. And she allowed me to put it on in the classroom and brought Mother Generosa in to watch.
CR: Even though she was strict with you guys.
CR: Did she punish you, when you say strict?
EL: I probably had to stand in the corner, something like that.
CR: What was your neighborhood like before you moved nearer to the University of Detroit, like when you were walking to Blessed Sacrament.
EL: We lived in an apartment building. And it was sort of a hotel apartment building. There was a dining room there. There was a drugstore. And in the dining room, which we would use very infrequently because my mother was so much better a cook, the entrees were 40 and 60 cents.
CR: That apartment is where you had the Murphy bed that you pulled down?
Q: In that home?
CR: Do you remember the walk to school? What was it like?
EL: Well, sometimes I would walk the alleys all the way.
CR: Oh. Why?
EL: It would have been just west of Woodward Avenue. And I would walk down the alleys and try and kick a stone all the way.
CR: So you would walk by yourself?
EL: Well, earlier my sister would be with me. Or, we would take a streetcar to school.
CR: But why would you want to walk down the alleys particularly?
EL: Well, it was something to do. It’s the stone.
CR: Did you walk with your friends ever or did you meet them at school?
EL: Well, yeah, they would come down and pick me up or we’d go downtown, go down to Hudson’s, go to the toy department.
CR: I remember that.
EL: Oh, that was something.
CR: Hudson’s was a fantastic place to roam around.
EL: Yeah. On a Sunday we could hop on the Windsor Ferry for a nickel and go to Canada.
CR: Was the Boblo Ferry working back then?
EL: Oh yeah. Sure.
CR: I remember that vividly.
EL: I was only on it once. I don’t know why the Boblo Ferry didn’t appeal to me. I think it was mostly for older people because they would dance and, you know.
CR: I remember that. But they had an amusement park on Boblo.
EL: Yeah. I never did that.
EL: I don’t remember getting off and taking any rides.
CR: So sometimes you’d walk to school with your friends.
EL: We walked all over the place. They lived in different areas of Detroit not too far from the school, Blessed Sacrament. And one friend lived on Oak Ridge, which was like a block north. And he lived on the Westside. No, it began with a “C”. At the end of that street was the Detroit Massacre or I forgot what they called it. Big shooting in an apartment building.
CR: Was that a Purple Gang killing?
EL: Yeah. Purple Gang. They were set up to run whiskey. They’d go down to the river when the boats came in with the whiskey and then take it over.
CR: Your books show a really wide range of characters from different ethnic backgrounds and classes. You’ve said that your buddies in school were working class kids and their fathers worked in factories. And you found their working class backgrounds interesting. Is that right?
EL: Well, they were all my friends. I really didn’t know anybody whose dad had an executive position.
CR: But I would think there would be other kids with the same class background as you in a Catholic school, wouldn’t there?
EL: Well, there were. There were some who lived on Boston Boulevard and the next one, which was lined with big homes. And some of them I knew who went to the school because the school was a block away from Boston and Chicago Boulevards. But I didn’t see that they were any different. They were friends of my working class friends. My working class friends I felt were the same as I was.
CR: So there was no class differentiation there in Blessed Sacrament or in University of Detroit High School?
CR: Everyone just mixed together?
CR: Did the Great Depression—speaking of class and the working class—did the Great Depression have any impact on you or your family or your relatives and friends? I don’t see it mentioned anywhere by people who write about you or interview you–they never seem to bring it up.
EL: No, they don’t. They haven’t. The impact I noticed was—it wasn’t an impact, but just seeing the Depression. When we lived in Memphis we were several blocks away from a railroad line. And bums would get off the train and some of them would come by the door and ask for a handout. My mother always made them a big sandwich. And then they would sit outside by the door, side door, and eat the sandwich. I never talked to them though.
CR: But when you moved to Detroit, the Depression was still on, wasn’t it?
EL: Well, about ’34 I suppose. But it wasn’t that obvious to me because once the car plants got going and the unions finally took over, in ’37 I think, by then I don’t think Detroit was in any dire straits.
CR: So none of your friends whose fathers worked in factories got laid off or lost their jobs?
EL: Not that I know of. No.