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 of 7th June 2010, conducted by phone.
CR: Since we last talked, it occurred to me that you write so much about outlaws and criminals, and you seem to understand them so well, I wanted to ask, did you ever get in trouble with the law or do anything illegal when you were young, or did any of your friends?
EL: No, just a couple of DUIs.
CR: But that would be when you were older, I suppose.
EL: Yeah, right.
CR: Two particular experiences in your childhood seem to come up repeatedly in interviews and one is that 5th grade play about World War I, based on All Quiet on the Western Front, and the other is your playing baseball, and they seem to have been really formative parts of your growing up. So one other question I had about the play was, did it include dialogue as well as action, and did you write lines for your characters?
EL: I don’t remember. I gave a little talk before presenting it. I said this is an American play about American soldiers in the trenches in France during World War I and then I think maybe I described their situation, and that either the coward goes out and is caught in the barbed wire or he goes out to save the good guy who’s caught in the barbed wire, and I can’t remember now which is which.
CR: But you can’t remember any of them speaking to each other or yelling, “Here I am!” or anything like that?
EL: No, uh-uh.
CR: Did you cast it yourself or did your teacher?
EL: I cast it. I made my friends all the main parts.
CR: About baseball, I have a lot of questions about baseball and from what I’ve read of other interviews and books, you were on your high school varsity team, right?
EL: I played first base. I was left handed.
CR: And when did you first get interested in playing baseball?
EL: As a young kid.
CR: Before you moved to Detroit, or was it after?
CR: And was that because your friends all played it and encouraged you?
EL: Yeah, we just played on a vacant lot. There was no organized baseball at that time, and you had to get old enough to play American Legion baseball. That was the first one, and Detroit Sandlot League.
CR: How old would you be for that?
EL: Thirteen, I think 13. We played class D, our school. It was 8th grade, on a team, we got uniforms and played Sandlot and we went right to the championship in class D. We got beat. Our pitcher was out of town and couldn’t make it.
CR: So your first experience in a uniformed team was going all the way to the championship?
EL: Yeah. Class D is the bottom of the Sandlot.
CR: But still, that must have really encouraged you.
EL: Oh, I know what it was. It was freshman year at Catholic Central and it was that baseball game that entered class D and we did very well. I forgot how many games we won but we won every game right up to the last one. We had a good pitcher. That was it. Yeah, we were in high school then and I was a freshman.
CR: Did you play any baseball with your dad when he was home?
EL: We’d play catch once in awhile but not much.
CR: So he didn’t play as a kid?
EL: He played in a league in New Orleans. It was a Sandlot League.
CR: And it was a uniform league, right?
EL: I think so.
CR: Organized. Was he home very long between business trips?
EL: It got so that finally when I was in high school he was home a lot more, yeah.
CR: After he got the office job at General Motors.
CR: But when he was still traveling and setting up dealerships he might be gone for as long as a week and then he’d come home for how long?
EL: Well, it was probably just about as long; he wasn’t on the road all the time, but I don’t remember.
CR: What was it about baseball that really attracted you? Did you have a natural talent? Did you throw well, or bat well?
EL: I was a boy and boys played baseball. I mean the ones who wanted to play baseball. Now, of course, everybody’s forced into playing organized ball and a lot of them don’t want it, a lot of them aren’t very good either. When we played we all wanted to play and we were all pretty good at it.
CR: So you were naturally pretty good at it.
CR: Did you have to practice anything in particular to improve? Did you have to practice certain things to get them right?
EL: I was a first baseman so I read a book, or chapter, or I read something about footwork to make sure I got that right.
CR: So you’d have to train yourself a little bit?
EL: A left hander–that’s the natural position for a left hander, other than the outfield.
CR: With the glove on your right hand, you mean, at first base.
CR: So you could catch from 2nd or 3rd base much more easily than a right-hander.
EL: You don’t have to turn to – I remember, I would get a good first baseman’s mitt and then I would undo it, take all the stuffing out, and get some mattress padding and cut mattress padding into the shape of the mitt, and then stick that in. So there wasn’t a bulge around a pocket. The whole thing was a pocket.
CR: So you would sort of fiddle with the equipment and try to improve it.
EL: Then I’d put a ball in it and tie it up for when I wasn’t playing.
CR: So you were interested in the technical and strategic aspects of the game, it sounds like, as well as just the physical.
EL: Yeah. I couldn’t see very well. I didn’t realize that. I didn’t get glasses until the 2nd year of high school. So when I put the glasses on, I thought, “Oh my God, I can read the blackboard.” I played football too at U of D.
CR: And what position did you play there?
EL: I played center my first year, which was my junior year in high school. My sophomore year we moved within a block of U of D High, which is the Jesuit school, and so I switched from Catholic Central to U of D. And my junior year at U of D I played on the reserves, what they called the Bantams. We played other reserve teams from other schools. And my senior year I tried out for the varsity and I remember one practice before the first game in the afternoon I made three tackles in a row, and the coach said you’re going to start Saturday.
CR: You had two different coaches at that point, baseball and football? Were you still playing baseball?
EL: Yeah, sure. We had two different ones.
CR: And still playing first base?
CR: So do you remember either of your coaches very well?
EL: One was named Madigan, who was the baseball coach. He was also the varsity basketball coach. Bob Tiernan was the football coach, and Tiernan had a place in Montana, Flathead Lake and he would ask certain boys, like five of us would fit in the station wagon. We’d go out there for about a month with him and he asked guys who were on the football team, so I did that my junior year.
CR: Went out to Montana?
EL: Yeah, because he wanted to move me to quarterback, but I played center because I always started when they had the ball. The center always backed up the line and I made a lot of tackles. I only weighed 130 and then the next year he switched me to quarterback–wing quarterback where the quarterback does take the ball from the center sometimes, or maybe up to half the time, and then you hand off.
CR: So you remember both of these coaches pretty well, it sounds like.
EL: Sure. In fact I lived with Tiernan for almost a year my senior year when I was playing quarterback.
CR: You lived with him?
EL: My mother and dad moved to Washington and he said well come live with us.
CR: Why were they moving to Washington?
EL: Well, my dad had something to do with the government then, through General Motors, that he was involved in.
CR: Was it war related?
EL: I don’t know. I suppose. The war was on. I got out of high school in ’43, played football of course in ’42 for my senior year, as quarterback.
CR: So you lived with Tiernan for the year there in Detroit.
CR: Did he have any other players living with him? Did he have kids?
EL: No, no other players. He had two kids. A son and a daughter and I roomed with the son and we got along fine.
CR: Was he about your age?
EL: No, he was younger, much younger.
CR: So tell me about Tiernan. He sounds like a really good guy.
EL: Well, he didn’t talk much. He was kind of gruff. He was what I thought of as a typical coach. He didn’t say many funny things. He was pretty much all business. He went to school in Montana, played football for the University of Montana. I don’t know what he played. I think he was a lineman. But he got pretty fancy as a coach and he wanted us to be sure that we all wore white laces in our football shoes, things like that. My senior year–no, it was my junior year–he got all red uniforms. First time they had new uniforms in a long time, so we all looked good.
CR: Did he teach you any important things about the game, like technique, or strategy?
EL: He would teach basic things like how to turn to hand off and then how to block, things like that. But I liked to tackle so he didn’t have to teach me that.
CR: You like to tackle?
CR: Did you like learning things?
CR: You enjoyed that aspect of it?
CR: And your baseball coach, did you have as close a relationship with him?
EL: No. We didn’t have a good team either. I think we lost more than we won, but we had fun, it was alright.
CR: Does that make you wish you had stayed at Catholic Central?
EL: Well, no. I don’t know if I’d have made the team at Catholic Central because the varsity team at Catholic Central would go on into the American Legion, played American Legion ball. They were good.
CR: So the football team was better than the baseball team at U of D High?
EL: Yes, definitely, although we lost as many as we won.
CR: I can’t remember if I asked you this or not but do you have any memories at all of childhood friendships from before your family settled in Detroit, like from Dallas, or Memphis, or Oklahoma city?
CR: That’s so interesting.
EL: I know. I don’t remember. I must have had friends. Yeah, well in Memphis I did. I had a lot of friends in Memphis.
CR: Do you remember any of them?
EL: [First Name?] Winchester had a pony. He lived down the street and had a pony in a little stable in the back. I’m trying to remember some other names. Leslie Gruber?
CR: And you were in Memphis for a couple of years, right?
EL: I think it was about two and a half because when we moved to Detroit in ’34. I think it was the first part of the year, so that fall of ’33 I spent in a Memphis school.
CR: Was it hard saying good-bye to your friends, do you remember?
EL: Yeah, I didn’t want to leave.
CR: It interests me that you were faced with having to make new friends so many times, every time your family moved in those early years. You must have gotten pretty good at it.
EL: Well, I guess. When we moved up from Memphis, we lived in an apartment hotel, and there were friends of mine living in the building. [First name?] Brandon was one, and some other guys and they would ask me to say certain things like “honey child. I’d say, “Honey chile,” with a southern accent, and I finally got over the southern accent, I don’t know when.
CR: They were interested in your voice.
CR: So you didn’t have any special techniques for making friends? Were you funny, or did you like to tell stories?
EL: I always had a lot of friends and we always got along well.
CR: Do you remember any “first day of school” experiences from those days?
EL: Well I remember the first day at U of D High, I thought, “Oh God, this is going to be tough,” because of what we had to do for homework, and the way the instructor was talking to us, we had to pay attention, and so on. But I got to really like U of D High a lot. In fact, I felt on graduating that I pretty much had my education, and was wondering what am I going to do when I come back from the service? Then I went to U of D and took English and minored in Philosophy just for something to do.
CR: Why did you choose English and Philosophy?
EL: English, obviously, because I wanted to read.
CR: Not so much write, but read.
EL: Yeah. And in high school I had four years of Latin, two years of Greek, so then I didn’t want to take Latin again in college.
CR: But there were other possibilities, right?
EL: Well, History. History was a possibility.
CR: But why minor in Philosophy?
EL: I don’t know. Sounded good I suppose. Rational psychology and things like that, instructors with heavy accents.
CR: So were their voices interesting to you?
EL: Well, it was interesting, but it wasn’t that interesting. But in English at U of D, probably my second year, we were reading I think the romantic poets and we would write papers, and the instructor said, “Listen, why don’t you just come to my office once a week and we’ll talk about this, instead of in the class?” So we did that.
CR: Do you remember that English instructor’s name?
EL: It started with a P.
CR: Was he the same one who encouraged you to enter the writing contest, or was that later?
EL: No, that was the English instructor in my senior year of college. There was also a priest at U of D High, Father Skiffington, and he said, “You could have a future in writing” just from papers that I handed in. But I was always interested in writing even in grade school when we took spelling tests, and the Sister would give the word and then use it in a sentence, or we had to use it in a sentence. I always wrote a pretty interesting sentence using the word. It’d have something to do with a western or the police or something like that.
CR: From other interviews I’ve read and biographies I got the impression that you didn’t really get interested in writing until high school. But it sounds like you were interested in writing as well as reading way back in grade school.
EL: I was, but I didn’t write.
CR: Just whenever you had the opportunity or an assignment, you enjoyed writing it.
CR: This Father Skiffington, was this the one who encouraged you to enter the competition?
EL: No. No, he was in high school, that was in college. I remember the name of the college English instructor was [?Eugene?] Gruwe and he told the class, the writing club at the university, the “Manuscribblers,” was having a contest and anyone who entered would get an automatic B in his course. So I entered twice.
CR: One year and then the next year.
CR: And was he your teacher the next year, your senior year, too?
EL: No, I don’t think he was.
CR: This is interesting to me because I’m trying to get the chronology of some events straight in your high school and college years. When your dad invited you to join him in opening a GM dealership in Las Cruses, New Mexico, were you preparing to leave college to join him?
EL: No, it was once I graduated.
CR: So it was understood he was going to go out and start the dealership and you would graduate and join him.
EL: Uhm hm.
CR: So this was just after you returned from the war and were getting to know him, you said, getting to know him well for the first time.
EL: Right, we played golf together and we would go into the club and have a beer and things like that.
CR: And was he still working at his executive job at General Motors at that time?
EL: Yeah, and then right after that I was still in college when he left and bought a dealership in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
CR: And that’s when he died, when he was in New Mexico.
EL: Six months later.
CR: And that was 1947, right?
EL: I think it was ’48.
CR: So was it just after your dad died that Mr. Gruwe encouraged you to enter the competition?
EL: I don’t know. I think it was before.
CR: You sort of became interested in actually writing and getting people to read your writing at just about the time your dad died, right?
EL: Yeah, I guess so.
CR: Those two things seemed to happen about the same time.
EL: Yeah. He wanted me to come out and work for him once he had this dealership going. And the idea was first, I would go to the Chevrolet dealer’s son’s school, which was in Detroit.
CR: There was a school for dealer’s sons?
EL: Yeah. It was part of the Chevrolet vision.
CR: And what would they teach you there?
EL: I have no idea, I didn’t go. Then when he died my brother-in-law and I tried to hold on to the dealership, because my dad only owned half of it. He was paying, I think, “Motors Holding,” so much a month, for the rest. And then, of course, at that time they were selling cars as fast as they could get them. I thought, yeah, I guess I’ll go to work for them in a dealership and it did not appeal to me at all.
CR: So were you doing it just to please your dad?
EL: I was doing it to please, well, finally, when he died, to please my brother-in-law.
CR: First your dad and then your brother-in-law.
EL: Yeah, because then it would give my brother-in-law something to do.
CR: So this was your older sister’s husband, your brother-in-law.
CR: Do you think that if you had gone out to join your dad with the dealership that you would have ended up becoming a writer?
EL: I don’t know. I really don’t know.
CR: You found the time to start a writing career when you went to work Campbell-Ewald. But do you think you would have found time to do that if you were working with your dad at the dealership?
EL: It’s possible.