Seitz on Elmore Leonard: His Books Were Tough, But His Heart Was Warm

LOS ANGELES - MAY 24: Author Elmore Leonard poses during a portrait session prior to a reading and signing of his latest novel
Author Elmore Leonard poses during a portrait session prior to a reading and signing of his latest novel “Up In Honey’s Room” on May 24, 2007 at Book Soup in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Vince Bucci/Getty Images

Elmore Leonard knew how to start a story.

My first Leonard novel was Glitz. I opened the paperback on a whim in the college bookstore where I worked as a clerk. It started, “The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.”  Forty-five minutes later, my boss poked me in the shoulder and said, “Get back to work.”

That’s how you do it.

Leonard died at 87, not long after suffering a stroke. He was spare, direct, and funny. He didn’t waste your time or his. “I leave out the parts people skip,” he said.

Leonard was prolific: 46 books, seven screenplays, two teleplays. He was catnip to TV and film producers looking for material; nearly two dozen of his novels and short stories became movies or shows, including Justified, Get Shorty, Be Cool, 52 Pick-Up (also adapted as The Ambassador), Mr. Majestyk, Hombre, The Tall T, Jackie Brown, 3:10 to Yuma (two versions) … hell, just look up his CV, like you need to. You’ve read him. You’ve seen the films and TV shows by people who consumed his work and on some level wanted to be him. Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown — based on Leonard’s novel Rum Punch — is his warmest film partly because it’s a love letter to two people, Pam Grier and Elmore Leonard. Tarantino didn’t just adapt him for one movie, he learned a lot about dialogue from reading him. So, it would appear, did the Coen Brothers, and Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad, and everyone who ever wrote for The Wire — many of them crime novelists who couldn’t help but be influenced by Leonard, because you can’t not be; that’d be like trying to write a musical without being influenced by Stephen Sondheim, or act without being influenced by Marlon Brando, or sing torch songs without being influenced by Billie Holliday or Frank Sinatra. Leonard was the Man, and always will be. Anybody in the last four, maybe five decades who has tried to write colorful but believable crime fiction with characters who behave realistically and don’t sound phony has either studied Leonard, or failed because they should have studied him more.

What kind of a badass masters the Western novel in the sixties, sticks with it as the market for Westerns collapses, then reads his colleague George V. Higgins’s novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle and thinks, I’ll do this instead, and does it, masterfully, for over 40 years? The Elmore Leonard kind of badass: affable, confident, cool.

I’ve always assumed that most of his leading men were based on Elmore Leonard, or Elmore Leonard’s fantasy of Elmore Leonard. Novelists do that kind of thing all the time, and the result is often embarrassing, but it never was with Leonard, because even his coolest cats were unquestionably, often achingly human, and sometimes you got the sense that they held things back because they didn’t want to get hurt.

“I guess I got sensitive about my hair a few years ago,” bail bondsman Max Cherry confesses to the title character in the film Jackie Brown, which is surprisingly faithful to Rum Punch. “It started falling out, so I did something about it,” he says. “How’d you feel about that?” she says. He says, “I feel fine with it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have done it. I did it to feel better about myself, and, you know, I do. I look in the mirror. Looks like me.”

He wrote notes and first drafts on yellow legal pads. He rewrote on a typewriter. He was as much a journalist as a novelist. He was Raymond Chandler divided by Ernest Hemingway, with a splash of Studs Terkel, and some kind of wry, understated wiseass quality that only Elmore Leonard had. (He once said that he used to read Hemingway a lot, until he figured out Hemingway had no sense of humor.)

He was more comfortable writing characters of color than any white writer you can name. (Maurice “Snoopy” Miller, calmly reacting to a tense stand-off in Get Shorty: “You know, in a situation like this, there’s a high potentiality for the common motherfucker to bitch out.”) And he wrote the realest women in crime fiction ever. “I know I’m better than what I’ve been doing all these years, walking around in fuck-me pumps and a tank-top, waiting until it was time to scream,” says Karen the actress in Get Shorty. “Years ago, a reviewer for the Detroit News said my female characters were like Spillane’s,” he told the Los Angeles Times Magazine last year. “After that, I paid more attention. I don’t think of them as women. I think of them as a person and go from there.” He told a New York Times interviewer, “I came up with what I think is a different approach to crime fiction, in that the emphasis is on the characters and not the plot.” Sounds easier than it probably was, but you’d never know that from reading Leonard’s prose.

His books were tough, but his heart was warm. He liked people. He felt for them. He was able to see through their eyes, no matter how naive or cruel or dumb or scared they were. He didn’t seem to believe in evil, only in stupidity: meaning, you have to be stupid, or stupidly selfish, to be evil. Most of his villains are pathetic and deluded. He never wrote a Hannibal Lecter or Tom Ripley. No masterminds, no puppet masters, no Corleone-style crime lords. His criminals were criminals because they were too dumb or greedy to do anything else, or because they’d fallen into crime a long time ago and never got out. Maybe they were lazy. Maybe they had bad luck. Whatever the explanation, Leonard understood it, even if he didn’t condone it. He believed in free will, but he also had compassion. He got it.

I’ll go ahead and call him a humanist, even though Leonard wouldn’t be caught dead using that word, because that’s what he was.

What a remarkable man. What a great talent. As Martin Amis once said, he is “the nearest America has to a national writer.”

He was a master of characterization and dialogue who understood that the two things were connected — that books were boring if everyone in them talked the same way. He gave you just enough detail to set a scene or sketch a character, and let your imagination do the rest. And you could tell from how he wrote that he really listened to people.

Here’s Tavalera in Leonard’s Cuba Libre, calmly responding to a man who implicitly insulted him for being born in Africa. “You say about me for your companions to hear, He’s from Africa. The same as saying, What does he know of anything? I admit it, I was born there — why not? — in the penal colony at Velez de la Gomera, where my father was superintendent. And I returned to Africa with the Guardia, to Melilla during the war, with the Iqar’ayen Rifs. Of course you know that war. But let me ask you something. Can you imagine what it’s like to cut off a man’s hands? To put out his eyes with a bayonet? To bury a man alive in the sand?”

Here’s Jill in LaBrava, telling the hero LaBrava why she won’t file a sexual battery complaint against a man who abused her. “I sign a complaint, I know damn well what’ll happen. Get crossed-examined at the hearing — didn’t I invite him over? Offer him a drink? I end up looking like a part time hooker and Mr. America walks. Bullshit.”

Here’s Leonard on writer’s block: “I don’t believe in writer’s block or waiting for inspiration. If you’re a writer, you sit down and write.”

Seitz on Elmore Leonard: 1925–2013