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 of 7th June 2010, conducted by phone.
CR: I want to change the subject here if that’s okay. In your novels that deal with Catholic issues and characters like Touch and Bandits, you seem to show an awareness of what they called the Social Gospel or Liberation Theology back in the ’60s in the Catholic Church. Was that movement important to you then as a practicing Catholic?
EL: When we opened the windows or the doors?
CR: I’m thinking of Archbishop Romero who was killed in South America. In Bandits you seem to be aware of all the tension there with the need to keep Catholic institutions going in the face of this government oppression.
EL: Well I was certainly aware of it and of the Maryknoll Sisters. Several of them were killed.
CR: So you were familiar with the so-called Liberation Theology, the idea that the mission of the church is to help poor people and fight against the unfair political situations and economic situations?
EL: Yes, of course I was aware of that, and I was aware that it seemed to me that the bishops, at least in the Latin American countries, were all on the wrong side. Yeah, I was aware of that.
CR: So you were in favor of helping in that way.
CR: This leads me to another question. Did Jesus, the character or the personality of Jesus, interest you when you were a child or a young man?
EL: It certainly did later on. I’m not sure at what age I began to think of that. I think most of it was just seeing prayers as being kind of rote, but then the idea of Him as you get to know Him, and things like love one another, that became more important than anything else.
CR: And his caring for the poor people, and the humble, the historical version of Jesus that supports this theology that I’m talking about, and His standing up to government oppression, or imperialism his talking about giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what’s God’s, that sort of thing was also important?
CR: Do you remember at what stage in life you became interested in that character, Jesus’ personality or as a person?
EL: I think it was probably, when did we open the doors and the windows, in the ’60s.
CR: Yeah, that was the Second Vatican Council in the ’60s wasn’t it, ’62 or ’63?
EL: It was the ’50s because I remember talking about it in the ’50s at Campbell-Ewald, where I worked, but I don’t remember exactly. I left there in ’61.
CR: So maybe you remember it from 1960? I’m trying to think of when John Paul became Pope and called the Second Vatican Council, that was a big turning point. I believe that was in the ’60s but there may have been some of that kind of talk going on earlier.
EL: Well all the time in high school I would get to school a half hour earlier to go to Mass first. And then we’d have breakfast and go to class. And then after I graduated I continued. While I was working at Campbell-Ewald I’d go have communion first and then go to work.
CR: I think the last time I interviewed you, you mentioned that you and Christine had recently attended a Jazz Mass, is that right?
EL: I’ve been before.
CR: Do you still attend Mass regularly and take the sacraments?
EL: No, I don’t. I fell off of the daily going to Mass. Going to AA all of a sudden I saw another spiritual route and it worked–well, it worked after four years–which was the personal relationship with God, and it worked. There wasn’t anything spooky about it at all.
EL: Oh, really?
CR: Well, it does when I think about it in connection with that period in your life when you’re struggling with alcoholism and going to AA, and that’s just when that book was written wasn’t it, the late ’70s I think.
CR: And there’s even a clinic in there, for alcoholics as I recall, that seems to have been based on your personal experiences.
EL: Yeah. But the clinic where Juvenal was working though, it’s where you stayed. You’d go and stay for eight weeks or whatever, longer than that.
CR: And dry out.
EL: Yeah. And I went. I didn’t go there for my own personal reasons but I knew about it. I went to research it for Juvenal.
CR: But you must have heard of it from your experiences in AA.
CR: When we talked about Jazz last time, you said that you liked it a lot. I think you still do don’t you?
CR: And I remember in one of your early stories, I think the protagonist is in a jazz club, and in one of our previous interviews you were talking about going on dates to jazz clubs and jazz bars and it was the late 1940s.
EL: It was in the ’40s. I’d go to black clubs and my date was always reluctant.
CR: What did you like about black clubs particularly?
CR: You said that you liked Basie a lot.
EL: Yeah, I still do.
CR: And Dave Brubeck?
CR: Were you aware of Miles Davis and Gill Evans back in the ’50s?
EL: Probably I was aware of Davis but not Gill Evans, no.
CR: So you were aware of Miles Davis and the cool sound?
EL: Yeah, sure. And I liked that black trumpet player whose cheeks bulged out.
CR: Oh, Dizzy Gillespie.
EL: Dizzy Gillespie. I remember one time listening to him at an outdoor place, and I was just listening to him and I wanted to go home and write, because of the beat, not what it was about.
CR: One reason I asked is because that movement with Miles Davis and Gill Evans, particularly, was associated with what they called the “Birth of the Cool,” and the word “cool” appears in your writings, associated with a certain kind of mental state. Does the word “cool” have a particular meaning for you?
EL: It’s just used so much that I remember when I was dropping somebody off in L.A. and she said, “You can let me off on the corner is cool,” and I used that in a book. But it was just good. “It’s a good thing to be dropped off on that corner. It’s close enough to where I’m going.” Anything that’s just good that works is cool. You don’t have to be cool. It’s beyond cool.
CR: If it works.
CR: Do you associate the word with jazz at all?
EL: To some extent, yeah, but just the way it’s used by everybody. It’s not used as necessarily as something that’s “really cool.”
CR: So you use it in like a more serious sense than just “that’s okay”?
EL: In a conversational sense.
CR: When you were writing Being Cool, about the recording industry, it was an important term. Doesn’t your female protagonist, doesn’t she write a song called Be Cool? And the rap singer picks up on it and does a rap on being cool?
EL: Yeah, well I’m referred to in the business as a cool writer. The coolest, and it’s not because I’m trying to be cool, it’s just because I’m trying to be straight. I’m just trying to put it down the way it is, the way I see it, no affectation over writing. That’s what it means to me.
CR: So it’s like doing something efficiently.
CR: I see. No wasted movement.
CR: I understand that. That makes a lot of sense because I think that’s sort of what Miles Davis and Gill Evans were looking for when they were reacting against all of the really fancy flourishing of bop, because their sound or Brubeck’s sound is minimal and efficient and simple in a way. Not simplistic.
EL: “Take Five”.
CR: Like “Take Five” or “Blue Rondo Ala Turk”.
EL: And then the drums come in. The piano follows the drums and I think that’s cool.
CR: I do too. I really want to explore that concept a little more and get a better idea of how you see it. I have a couple of other questions and I think they’re all relatively short, but depending on what you make of them they might take longer. I want to ask you about drinking contests.
EL: Oh, yeah, sure at the end of the book.
CR: Where the lieutenant drinks the tizwin
CR: Were you ever in any drinking contests?
EL: No. I think the only kind of contest would be chug-a-lug in high school.
CR: So you were drinking in high school.
EL: Oh, yes. Everybody was.
CR: That is illegal, you know. So, you weren’t being entirely straight with me when I asked you if you’d ever done anything illegal.
EL: Oh, well, I didn’t get caught.
CR: That’s not what I was asking, if you were ever arrested. I’m asking did you ever do anything illegal?
EL: Oh, hell, we would go out to Eastwood Gardens where I first saw Richard Himber or Hal Kemp or one of those, but what’s his name, the singer who’s retired now, nice looking short fellow.
CR: When was this?
EL: This was back in ’42, ’43. And we all had fake I.D.s. Eastwood was on the north side of Eight Mile Road, so we’re out of Detroit. It was Eight Mile and Mound Road I think.
CR: Oh, I know that area really well.
EL: Well that’s where Eastwood Gardens was and it was part of, what do you call it with the rides?
CR: An amusement park.
CR: Was it a club?
EL: No, it was just a big, I think it was outside.
CR: And it had rides.
EL: Big bands. And we’d sit at the bar. I was there with my date.
CR: With your fake I.D.
EL: With our fake I.D.s.
CR: This was in high school.
EL: Yeah. We were 16 and 17 years old and we order, oh I think I had rye and ginger ale and later on I switched to bourbon. Early Times.
CR: It sounds like what a lot of high school students used to do, or still do, or even worse now. Now that you understand what I’m asking about, are there any other activities like that?
EL: Uh-uh. Like what?
CR: I don’t know. I shoplifted something once.
EL: Oh, I did too, one time. I left that out. It was a catcher’s mitt, a guy on a team, he was our catcher and didn’t have a mitt. We went to Neisner’s, a dollar store, and it was a buck ten. And I put it under my raincoat on a nice sunny day and walked out with it. That’s the only thing I stole.
CR: The reason I was asking about the drinking competitions is first, because they appear more often that you’d expect in some of your stories, but also I think Challen says that you learned to drink hard in the Navy and I was wondering if that’s where you may have gotten into some drinking contests.
EL: No. In the Philippines the beer wasn’t any good. They said you only drink whiskey and only certain kinds, only certain makes. And that’s what we did. We would go to walk out of the base and go around the bay from Manila, go in there and sit down and get a bottle and drink it.
CR: It seems like good training for later problems.
EL: Yeah, but when I was on Los Negros in the Admiralties, I passed out beer. So there was always a lot of beer around.
CR: Other questions. Did you read any Sherlock Holmes when you were a kid?
CR: Did you enjoy them?
EL: Yeah, very much.
CR: Do you remember about what age?
EL: Well certainly high school.
CR: What did you like about them?
EL: I liked the writing. I liked the fact that he was so clever at coming up with clues and I just liked them, but I liked all the Sherlock Holmeses, the ones on TV, the one who’s kind of a smart aleck, a little bit maybe slightly gay.
CR: Which one? Oh, Jeremy Brett?
EL: Might be.
CR: Yeah, he was very good. Did you like any of the technical stuff, like Sherlock Holmes testing a reagent for hemoglobin when we meet him the first time in A Study in Scarlet. He’s in the laboratory.
EL: No, that didn’t interest me.
CR: You mentioned reading Beowulf as part of your juvenile book club. Do you remember that?
CR: What did you like about Beowulf?
EL: Well he fought this monster Grendel and I did get Beowulf later, I mean like say ten years ago, and tried to read it then and it didn’t help any.
CR: It didn’t appeal to you, the second time around?
EL: Yeah, right. And there was a movie I just saw part of and that didn’t appeal to me at all.
CR: So another topic. In “Forty Lashes Less One” I think you make a long distance running an important part of the plot, and it’s in “Trail of the Apache,” too. Were you a long distance runner yourself?
EL: No, I didn’t like to run. I only ran when we were made to run in practice, football practice.
CR: So where did that come from, in “Forty Lashes Less One”?
EL: I don’t know. I just thought it was a good idea.
CR: The dream that you told me you started having when you began to write, that falling down stairs dream, can you remember whether you are facing upstairs or downstairs?
EL: Facing down, a narrow, steep stairway. Walls on both sides all the way down.
CR: And where do you think you’re going in the dream, do you know?
EL: I don’t know. I had no idea where I was going. One time I was chasing someone. This was a later dream, across rooftops, and then this figure he dropped down to another roof but he was out of sight. And then I thought I’ve got to get off this roof quick. I looked over to the left to look down and it was about three stories. I said, well, do it, and I jumped and I hit hard but I was okay.
CR: And this happened later in your career, after the recurring falling down stairs dream?
EL: After I finished falling down stairs, right.
CR: So you finished the falling down stairs dreams and then you had this dream–was this one time?
EL: Yeah, I had to jump but it didn’t injure me.
CR: But you landed okay and you didn’t wake up screaming or anything like that.
CR: And was it just that one time you had that dream?
EL: That particular dream, although I did have other dreams where I had to jump off something and I’d think I don’t want to do this but I’d do it and I’d hit and it hurt my feet for a moment, but I was never injured, never.
CR: And do you think these dreams started about, when would you say? Would these be like in the ’60s, when you began writing your crime fiction?
EL: Yeah, definitely.
CR: That’s very interesting.
EL: If it fits, if it relates, yes.
CR: Do you keep a dream journal?
CR: Too bad. What are your dreams like now, do you remember?
EL: I don’t dream as much, or I don’t remember them.
CR: Final question: after you got back from the war did you read any war novels like Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, or books by James Jones?
EL: The Naked and the Dead, sure.
CR: Did you like it particularly?
EL: Yeah, I liked him. I was surprised, though, that it was more literary than I expected.
CR: Did you read James Jones at all?
EL: Yeah, I didn’t think he was any good.
CR: What didn’t you like about him?
EL: His sentences were awkward. There was another writer, he wasn’t a war writer but he did write big about the war. James Jones and he were friends.
CR: What was his name?
EL: Irwin Shaw. It was a big World War II novel, The Young Lions, and I remember a German officer who was one of the important characters. He and his squad were running from a house to somewhere else and American paratroopers were coming down. And one of the paratroopers is hanging upside down in a tree with his machine gun and he says to this German officer, “Drop your weapon you’re my prisoner you son of a bitch.” And the German says, “Oh, God, if I could have a dozen like you” and then shoots him. He also wrote good short stories, “Girls in Their Summer Dresses.” “A Sailor Off the Bremen” was another short story.
CR: Well, our hour is up and I want to thank you very much for making the time available, as usual. By the way, did you find the ending to that Justified story you were working on?
EL: Oh, no, I haven’t reached there yet.
CR: Well good luck with that, and also on your trip to L.A. Thanks again, Elmore.
CR: I really appreciate it.
EL: Thanks, Chuck.