Ten years ago, I sold my first crime novel to Otto Penzler, founder of Mysterious Press and a doyen of New York publishers. Otto discovered James Elroy, among others. Otto, my then-agent and I met for a quick celebratory toast, which turned into a drunk of epic proportions that ended with me feeling my way down Sixth Avenue at 4 a.m., hand over hand against the plate glass windows. I was so thoroughly and uncompromisingly soused that I missed a breakfast meeting with a CEO (actually, I made the meeting but he told me I was drunk, which was true, and walked out. At least it was at the legendary Algonquin, although these days writers stay at the Carlisle).
That missed breakfast probably cost me a great deal of money, but I didn’t care at the time because I was certain I was on my way to massive riches as an author and getting stupid drunk seemed like a very authorly thing to do. I didn’t get rich writing, but I still don’t regret the evening, because I got to spend eight hours listening to Otto spin stories about famous authors—Sue Grafton, Patricia Cornwall, Larry Block, and of course, his friend Dutch, whom the world knows as Elmore Leonard. By then there were four of us, since the bartender had locked the bar, pulled an ashtray out from under the bar, and was pouring for free.
One of the Dutch Leonard stories I remember was this:
Otto once said to Leonard, “You know, what’s so great about your stuff is that you get the dialogue just right. Your Hispanic gangbangers sound just like Hispanic gangbangers.”
Leonard replied, “How do you know? Do you know a lot of Hispanic gangbangers?”
Otto thought for a moment and shook his head.
Leonard smiled and said, “Me neither.”
Elmore Leonard’s characters sounded like they should sound, and acted like they should act. They didn’t charge recklessly into blazing guns or make noble dying speeches or concoct brilliant schemes that required impeccable timing. They said “Oh shit” when it was time to say “Oh shit.”
They were true–average people at best, since he believed criminals were in the main not rocket scientists. They found themselves between a rock and hard place because their bad decisions had put them there. Still we cared for them, for Chili and Jackie and John. Jackie Brown (Rum Punch) is a stewardess reduced to smuggling to make ends meet, a once beautiful woman who’s slowly sliding down the ladder. We may never have been beautiful or climbed the ladder in the first place, but Leonard shows us just enough to make us understand that had we done so, this could be happening to us. It’s magic stuff, that, to make readers identify with imperfect characters with whom they have little in common.
That’s not the only magic Leonard pulls off. Humor is the high wire act of writing. Few try it because it’s almost impossible to do. Leonard was a master. In Get Shorty, Chili Palmer goes to Hollywood to recover a script. There ends up being a tug of war over the script between various parties. At one level it’s a crime story—somebody took it, who’s got it? At another level it’s a gentle and poignant reminder that even second rate hoods like Chili have dreams, too. But at its core, the book is really a sly sendup of the movie business, even though the movie business was “berry, berry good” to Dutch. Nineteen of his stories and books were made into movies. Even as we try to follow the twisting plot and hope Chili pulls it out, it’s impossible not to also laugh out loud as the faux tough guys of Hollywood try to out-tough the real tough guys from Miami. (Also, as I remember, the script in question keeps getting passed around, people fight over it, but no one actually ever reads it.)
But Leonard will mostly be remembered as a stylist, which is especially ironic since he worked very hard to avoid what is usually considered style. He often spoke about writing out the parts people skip and once said something to the effect, “Whenever I find myself admiring one of my sentences, I immediately go back and rewrite it.” Not many writers have the discipline to do that. Most of us, whether we admit it or not, write prose to be admired. We want people (really others writers or very pretty young women) to point out our great lines and ooh and aah over them. And as a result, we fail at what we set out to do—tell the story.
Leonard believed that writing should be invisible, that if the writing made the reader think about the writer rather than the story, he’d failed. He wasn’t the only great writer of the ’50s and early ’60s to write invisibly. There were Charles Williford and John D. MacDonald and others I probably don’t know. Perhaps it came from writing for magazines, which Kurt Vonnegut has pointed out were the TV channels of the day. But Leonard did it so well for so long that we will probably always associate spare prose, stories carried mostly by dialogue, and clumsy characters who bumble into situations so absurd that they weave a drunken line between comedy and tragedy as “Elmore Leonard” territory.
That’s it, really. I could write about his private life, and for some reason us readers are fascinated with the lives of writers, but I probably know a hundred authors and not a single one leads a fascinating life. Leonard didn’t. He had a day job for awhile, was married several times, had some substance issues, and lived in a posh suburb north of Detroit. The truth is, except for Beryl Markham, authors are pretty boring people. They sit in a room all day and make stuff up. Nothing exciting about that.
Until someone gets it right, like Dutch did, and you open the book. Then the excitement starts.