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 half of the interview that took place by phone on 8th January 2010.
CR: Speaking of the ‘30s and the ‘20’s, you know that photo of you in front of your family car with the toy gun?
CR: It’s a real well known one because it keeps popping up in the writings about you. I think it’s in Paul Challen’s book. And it says that there’s Margaret and your mom with you and then there’s an older woman who seems—
EL: I don’t know who she is.
CR: You don’t know who she is? She’s not a relative?
CR: Was it a picture taken in Detroit?
CR: It was in Memphis.
EL: Yeah. ’36, back when Bonnie and Clyde got killed. That’s why I was holding the gun like that.
CR: Yeah. You said you were modeling yourself on the picture of Bonnie Parker?
CR: And how old were you then in Memphis?
EL: I was 11, I think.
CR: In Memphis? But I thought Memphis was before you moved to Detroit.
EL: You’re right. We moved to Detroit in ’34.
CR: So you would have been, what, eight or nine?
EL: I must have known about Bonnie and Clyde.
CR: Well, sure.
EL: I had to.
CR: When did they get killed?
EL: I think ’36. Maybe it was ’34.
CR: Maybe it was ’34. It’d be worth looking up I guess. It’s kind of an interesting choice thinking about that picture of Bonnie Parker, because there were so many gangsters to choose from back then. Why her or not Clyde?
EL: Well, I found out since then, of course, that they were very inept. They really didn’t know what they were doing. They always had cops chasing them. They would knock over a little grocery store or something like that. Even Dillinger made fun of them. He looked down at them.
CR: But when you were that age, what was it about Bonnie?
EL: It was the gun. I remember in a railroad station, it must have been Memphis, we were just standing, waiting, I was supposed to board. And a man pushed his coat back with his right hand and I saw a pistol holstered on his hip. And it made me nervous. I was surprised it did.
CR: So this was earlier than the photo we’re talking about?
EL: I think it was probably about the same time.
CR: And so he pushed his coat back and showed his gun.
EL: I think he just pushed his coat back, I think, I don’t know why. But not to show his gun.
CR: Oh I see. And there it was.
CR: That’s interesting that it made you nervous, but it sounds as though from an early age you were fascinated by guns.
EL: Yeah. I know.
CR: What’s with that?
EL: But then to see a real one out in life, maybe that was it. There really are guns around, I thought.
CR: So you had built up this kind of fascination in your imagination with guns and then all of a sudden there it is in real life.
EL: I probably assumed this was a bad guy. He was probably a railroad cop.
CR: Do you remember who was taking the photograph of you with your gun? Was it your dad?
EL: No. Let’s see. In Memphis I think it must have been my mother.
CR: But your mom’s in the photograph.
EL: Well then there are some photographs we had of her mother and dad with us.
CR: Do you think the older woman could be her mom?
EL: No. Definitely not. No, her mom was a tiny little grandmother.
CR: Yeah. And this woman is pretty tall.
CR: So you don’t remember who is taking the photograph?
EL: No. I don’t.
CR: So could it be your dad?
EL: I doubt it. To me it looked like it was during the day. He would have been at work.
CR: Unless it was Sunday or something like that.
EL: We have pictures in Oklahoma City and he was on the road doing something and got into a car accident and came home and was in the hospital. He was in the hospital away from us for a few days and then came home. He might have had a broken leg, but he used a cane for just a little while. I have pictures of my dad and me posing around the house in Oklahoma City and he had the cane.
CR: Could we talk about your friends for a little while, your childhood friends like Maurice Murray?
EL: The guy who hung from the roof. He was a year older than the rest of us.
CR: How did he and your other friends, especially your best friend—you said your best friend was Gerard Boiseneau How did they react to your love of writing? This is when you guys are like 12 or 13 years old.
EL: But I wasn’t really writing then. I just wrote the one thing.
CR: You just wrote the play?
EL: The World War I scene with Gerard, I think he was Captain Hayes. I just made that name up. And he was the star.
CR: He was in your fifth grade play?
EL: Yeah. He wasn’t the star because he didn’t go out to get hung up on the line. That was Jack Griffin. Jack Griffin was saved by Zenon [LaJoie].
CR: The guy who put the blue ink on his mouth. Is that right?
EL: I think. I’m hoping that’s the way I wrote it.
CR: So tell me about Jack.
EL: Jack Griffin. He was a good friend.
CR: So these are friends of yours that went back to just moving to Detroit, making your first friends there at Blessed Sacrament, right?
EL: Uh-huh. Yeah.
CR: And what about Jack?
EL: Jack Griffin. He was a good friend. We played all the sports together. And Gerard was probably my best friend.
CR: What made him your best friend?
EL: I don’t know. We just got along. We went over to his house for pancakes. I remember coming home and saying, “You won’t believe it! I had eight pancakes!” My mother, the way she cooked, if she fixed a pancake you couldn’t eat eight. I could have maybe three at the most.
CR: Have you stayed in touch with Gerard or Jack?
EL: Gerard died a few years ago. He had retired. He was working at the Detroit News in the ad department and he left there and they went up to Empire, Michigan, which is about in the middle of the state. I don’t know why. And then a few years later he died. But I just saw his wife last winter, when I went up to Traverse City to sign books and talk. We gave a talk at the Opera House, something we had just kind of put together.
CR: So at the time you were friends with Maurice and Jack and Gerard and Gerard’s brother, Jack, in grade school and junior high school or middle school, you really weren’t interested in writing?
EL: No. Koscinski was a really good friend. His dad was a judge.
CR: So it wasn’t until high school that you became interested in writing and reading serious books?
EL: I was reading. I don’t know. I might have written something in high school for the paper but I don’t remember what it was.
CR: I think I have something that I got from David Sailer, the archivist at the University of Detroit High School It’s almost a little joke story called “Dicky.” Do you remember it?
EL: Is that about a bird?
CR: Yeah. It’s signed “Dutch Leonard” and it was published in The Cub, the literary magazine. Do you remember it at all? I think it might almost be the first story you ever wrote.
EL: It probably was. You don’t find out that it was a bird until the end. You think it was a person.
CR: Do you remember any other stories from high school, that you wrote in high school?
EL: I didn’t write any.
CR: You didn’t?
EL: No. I didn’t write anything until I graduated, went away in the Navy, and then came home to U of D and our English instructor—I don’t know what year it was. It must have been about the third year, he said, “If anyone enters this contest, the Manuscribblers contest,” which was for a writers’ club, “you’ll get a B in English.” I didn’t know any of them. But I entered and I came in among the top ten.
CR: That’s great.
EL: It was judged by a woman in Detroit who was a literary agent. I thought, well there can’t be a literary agent in Detroit, but she was worth about that, much I think. And the next year I entered it again. But that particular story was pretty much in the second person. It’s all “you” all the way through. I don’t know why. I probably didn’t know any better.
CR: Do you still have those stories?
CR: Do you remember what they were about?
EL: I remember the first one was called “The Kitchen Inquisition.” It was about a chef who was very short and always needed help. And I don’t recall what the outcome was. And then the second one was kind of a love story. A guy was in love with this girl. They’re both very young. And he comes to her house for a party and he finds out it’s her engagement party. She’s engaged to somebody else. And they end up in the closet necking. And upstairs they just fall on her bed and they’re kissing and having a good time. And that is a true story.
CR: It is? Where did you hear it from?
EL: I was the guy.
CR: Oh. I see. And this was the story you wrote in the second person?
CR: You would have been writing that after reading Hemingway, right?
EL: Let’s see. Got into him in the ‘50’s.
CR: But didn’t you start reading Hemingway back in the early ‘40’s?
EL: I probably started then, yeah. I was.
CR: Because he uses that all over the place, that second person. He’s got Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls talking to himself in the second person.
EL: Yeah. In my earlier stuff I think I had a lot of people talk to themselves. I pretty much got over that.
CR: Well, I don’t know. You do it really well. You do it very well. I don’t know why you think you need to get over it.
EL: Well, I don’t know. I just don’t feel as comfortable writing getting into the guy’s head. There are other ways to do it. Whenever I have a problem, [say], someone hangs up the phone and has just been told she’s in trouble for some reason or another, then do I write the narrative as what she thinks of it, why she’s in trouble, or have her discuss it with somebody?
CR: But sometimes people don’t want to discuss this stuff.
CR: And there might be really good reasons.
EL: But you can always do it as—if she were to talk to so and so about this, so and so might bring up, “Yeah but,” and so on.
CR: Yeah. But sometimes if it’s too much dialogue it starts to look implausible, looks like . . . people don’t talk that much.
EL: Yeah. But everybody’s talking.
CR: Not in my life.
EL: In Freaky Deaky this guy is paid a lot of money to go into the swimming pool and take a bomb. And he wonders, wait a minute, can I take that money? He’s not really on active duty now. So he imagines calling his friend who is on the bomb squad with him and he says, “What do you think, this kind of a situation?” And his friend says, “Well, that’s a gray area”. Cops love gray areas. And they can make up their own mind about how to handle a situation. It isn’t necessarily legal. So in the gray area he’s given the option to keep the money. I think it’s more interesting to do it that way.
CR: To do it as dialogue?
EL: With somebody else.
CR: Just to turn to another topic, were you always good in sports like baseball and football?
EL: Yeah. I was good enough. I always made the team in high school. Before that we played all the time, not organized ball but in grade school we always went to a lot nearby, we played baseball, we played football and so on. So then when I got to high school I knew how to play. And the team wasn’t that good in high school, but I was good.
CR: Did you ever read any sports stories? Did you get into reading sports stories when you were a kid?
EL: No. I don’t think so.
CR: Did you ever think of writing any sports stories?
EL: No. I thought about it. I thought why don’t you write a sports book? Guy who’s in sports. It seems to me that it’s been done too much and I don’t know. Especially with movies made of it. You can see the guy pitching and you can see he doesn’t have an arm.
CR: Yeah. That’s hard to fake. Although you have lots of sports types in your books. Some of them are sort of has-beens like Chickasaw Charlie Hoke.
CR: He’s really interesting. I think partially because he’s such a phoney baloney.
CR: But he’s got something there. He can’t control his pitches but can sure throw them fast.
EL: He might have thrown at the guy. On purpose.
CR: Do you remember talking to me about that imaginary friend of yours that your mom told you about?
CR: Boyee. I don’t know exactly and of course you don’t either know exactly how it was spelled, but B-O-Y-E-E is an Irish name I found out. It’s not common but by the 1920’s there were Boyee families that had settled in just a few states, including Oklahoma, in Blaine.
EL: Is that right?
CR: Yeah. And there weren’t any in Louisiana or Tennessee or Michigan, other places you lived. But I don’t suppose you recall anyone named Boyee.
EL: No. That’s interesting to know.
CR: I wonder if you may have overheard it when you were living in Oklahoma. You said it was in Oklahoma City that your mom said you had this imaginary friend?
CR: Was there any celebration or awareness of your Irish ancestry when you were growing up?
EL: No. Nothing was made of it. It was all on my mother’s side.
CR: So that would be the German, the Alsatian side.
CR: And was there much of that sort of ethnic heritage that you were aware of?
EL: Well, they weren’t talking about old times but they loved to sit around the table. They loved to sit around the table and drink wine and talk.
CR: She and your relatives? And they drank wine, not beer?
EL: They probably started with beer and then turned to wine at the table.
CR: Because I associate German heritage with beer.
EL: No. My uncle, my favorite uncle was Uncle “Brother.” They called him “brother.”
CR: Was this your mom’s brother?
CR: And was he older than she?
EL: No. She was the oldest.
CR: She was the oldest and how many kids were in her family?
EL: Five. Two brothers. One was Emile. The other one.
CR: And the other one you can’t think of the name?
EL: No. Starts with an A. A German name with an A.
CR: But he was Uncle Brother?
CR: And what was special about him?
EL: He was funny. He told stories. He told a lot of different stories.
CR: Like what kind?
EL: What happened to him in his work tuning organs. They were in the organ business and they would go to movie theaters–they all had organs. They would go to movie theaters and tune the organs. Also they would go to Carville, the leper infirmary, once a year.
CR: Well, there’s some kind of musicality there on your mom’s side of the family.
EL: There was.
CR: Did they play organ too?
EL: No. Well, they played it enough to tune it. Then the business was taken over when Brother and Emil died the same year. I think maybe in their–if not ‘50’s then not much more than ‘60’s. The son, David, took over and Virginia’s husband, Elwin. They would go to Carville except that David would always feel sick. “I don’t feel good this morning.” Because he didn’t want to go to Carville, to see the lepers. So I used that in a book.
CR: In Bandits?
EL: Jack Delaney.
CR: Right. That was an interesting book and sort of different from what you usually write.
CR: So are you still making progress going through all of your old writing and your photographs and stuff?
EL: Manuscripts and boxes of publicity.
CR: You had some unpublished stories you had your daughter typing up.
EL: I have I think twelve. I didn’t think I had that many.
EL: I thought maybe three.
CR: I’d love to see them. I wish you could send them to me.
EL: Well, all right. I will.
EL: They never sold of course.
CR: That doesn’t make any difference to me.
EL: That’s all the better, isn’t it?
CR: Well, in a way it is. There’s part of me that says, “Oh boy, not many people, if any people besides you have read these.” But the reason I’m asking you all these questions about your childhood is because I want to know more about what went into your decisions to become a writer and what things–like telling times or your mom’s writing–had an influence on you, if not immediately, eventually. I’m especially interested in one of the stories called “Arma Verumque Cano.” When I talked to you on the phone before Christmas you told me you were surprised to be rediscovering a lot of your early writing, stuff that you had forgotten all about. So I’m wondering if you were surprised to find yourself quoting the opening line of Virgil’s Aeneid in the story’s title, after you told me that you couldn’t recall him or his poem having any influence on you. Because here’s a story that takes the first line for its title. What’s the story about?
EL: I don’t remember.
CR: So you didn’t read it again?
EL: I did and I still don’t remember.
CR: Well, Virgil’s sure not having any influence on you now.
EL: No. No.