Authors: Elmore Leonard
What I do find, and my father Kingsley Amis used to find, is that when you come up against some difficulty, some mechanism in the novel that isn't working, it fills you with despair and you think, “I'm not going to be able to get around this.” Then you look back at what you've done, and you find you already have a mechanism in place to get you through this. A minor character, say, who's well placed to get the information across that you need to put across. I always used to think (and he agreed) that, thank God writing is much more of an unconscious process than many people think.
I think the guy in the street thinks that the novelist, first of all, decides on his subject, what should be addressed; then he thinks of his theme and his plot and then jots down the various characters that will illustrate these various themes. That sounds like a description of writer's block to me. I think you're in a very bad way when that happens. Vladimir Nabokov, when he spoke about
, refers to the “first throb” of
going through him, and I recognize that feeling. All it is is your next book. It's the next thing that's there for you to write. Now, do you settle down and map out your plots? I suspect you don't.
No, I don't. I start with a character. Let's say I want to write a book about a bail bondsman or a process server or a bank robber and a woman federal marshal. And they meet and something happens. That's as much of an idea as I begin with. And then I see him in a situation, and I begin writing it and one thing leads to another. By page 100, roughly, I should have my characters assembled. I should know my characters because they've sort of auditioned in the opening scenes, and I can find out if they can talk or not. And if they can't talk, they're out. Or they get a minor role.
But in every book there's a minor character
who comes along and pushes his way into the plot. He's just needed to give some information, but all of a sudden he comes to life for me. Maybe it's the way he says it. He might not even have a name the first time he appears. The second time he has a name. The third time he has a few more lines, and away he goes, and he becomes a plot turn in the book.
When I was writing
, I was about 250 pages into it and George Will called up and said, “I want to send out forty of your books” â this was the previous book [
Out of Sight
] â “at Christmastime. May I send them to you and a list of names to inscribe?” I said, “Of course.” He said, “What are you doing now?” I said, “I'm doing Cuba a hundred years ago.” And he said, “Oh, crime in Cuba.” And he hung up the phone. And I thought, “I don't have a crime in this book.” And I'm 250 pages into it. [Laughter] It was a crime that this guy was running guns to Cuba, but that's not what I really write about. Where's the bag of money that everybody wants? I didn't have it. So, then I started weaving it into the narrative. I didn't have to go back far, and I was on my way.
I admire the fluidity of your process because it's meant to be a rule in the highbrow novel that the characters have no free will at all.
E.M. Forster said he used to line up his characters before beginning a novel, and he would say, “Right, no larks.” [Laughter] And Nabokov, when this was quoted to him, he looked aghast, and he said, “My characters cringe when I come near them.” He said, “I've seen whole avenues of imagined trees lose their leaves with terror at my approach.” [Laughter]
Let's talk about
, which is an amazing departure in my view. When I was reading it, I had to keep turning to the front cover to check that it was a book by you. How did it get started? I gather that you've been wanting to write this book for thirty years. It has a kind of charge of long-suppressed desire.
In 1957, I borrowed a book from a friend called
The Splendid Little War
. It was a picture book, a coffee-table book of photographs of the Spanish-American War â photographs of the
, before and after; photographs of the troops on San Juan Hill; newspaper headlines leading up to the war; a lot of shots of Havana. I was writing Westerns at the time, and I thought, I could drop a cowboy into this place and get away with it. But I didn't. A couple of years ago, I was trying to think of a sequel to
. And I was trying to work Chili Palmer into the dress business. I don't
know why except that I love runway shows. I gave up on that. And I saw that book again,
The Splendid Little War
, because I hadn't returned it to my friend in '57. And I thought, “I'm going to do that.” Yeah, the time has come. So, I did.
In a famous essay, Tom Wolfe said that the writers were missing all the real stories that were out there. And that they spent too much time searching for inspiration and should spend ninety-five percent of their time sweating over research. The result was a tremendously readable book,
The Bonfire of the Vanities
. Now you, sir, have a full-time researcher.
Yes, Gregg Sutter. He can answer any of your questions that I don't know.
Were you inspired by the research he put into this book?
He got me everything I needed to know. I asked him to see if he could find out how much it cost to transport horses from Arizona to East Texas and then to Havana. And he did. He found a cattle company that had been in business over
100 years ago and was shipping cattle then. He found an old ledger book and copied it and faxed it to me.
Among the differences from your earlier books, this book is more discursive, less dialogue-driven and, till the end, less action-driven. Toward the end, you get a familiar Leonard scenario where there's a chunk of money sitting around, and various people are after it and you're pretty confident that it's going to go to the least-undeserving people present. And it's not hard-bitten; it's a much more romantic book than we're used to from you. Could your Westerns have had such romance?
No. In my Westerns there was little romance except in
Valdez Is Coming
, which is my favorite of the Westerns. No, I just wanted to make this a romantic adventure story.
And there's a kind of political romanticism, too. You've always sided with the underdog, imaginatively; one can sense that. And who could be more of an underdog than a criminal? And your criminals have always been rather implausibly likable and gentle creatures. What is your view about crime in America?
I don't have a view about crime in America. There isn't anything I can say that would be interesting at all. When I'm fashioning my bad guys, though (and sometimes a good guy has had a criminal past and then he can go either way; to me, he's the best kind of character to have), I don't think of them as bad guys. I just think of them as, for the most part, normal people who get up in the morning and they wonder what they're going to have for breakfast, and they sneeze, and they wonder if they should call their mother, and then they rob a bank. Because that's the way they are. Except for real hard-core guys.
The really bad guys.
Yeah, the really bad guys....
Before we end, I'd just like to ask you about why you keep writing. I just read my father's collected letters, which are going to be published in a year or two. It was with some dread that I realized that the writer's life never pauses. You can never sit back and rest on what you've done. You are driven on remorselessly by something, whether it's dedication or desire to defeat time. What is it that
drives you? Is it just pure enjoyment that makes you settle down every morning to carry out this other life that you live?
It's the most satisfying thing I can imagine doing. To write that scene and then read it and it works. I love the sound of it. There's nothing better than that. The notoriety that comes later doesn't compare to the doing of it. I've been doing it for almost forty-seven years, and I'm still trying to make it better. Even though I know my limitations; I know what I can't do. I know that if I tried to write, say, as an omniscient author, it would be so mediocre.
can do more forms of writing than I can, including essays. My essay would sound, at best, like a college paper.
Well, why isn't there a Martin Amis Day? Because January 16, 1998, was Elmore Leonard Day in the state of Michigan, and it seems that here, in Los Angeles, it's been Elmore Leonard Day for the last decade. [Laughter]
Martin Amis is the author of many novels â including Money: A Suicide Note; London Fields; and Night Train â and many works of nonfiction, including a collection of essays and criticism, The War Against ClichÃ©, in which may be found other interesting observations on the work of Elmore Leonard.
has written more than three dozen books during his highly successful writing career, including the national bestsellers
. Many of his novels have been made into movies, including
Out of Sight
Valdez Is Coming
(as Quentin Tarantino's
). He has been named Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America and lives in Bloomfield Village, Michigan, with his wife.
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Books by Elmore Leonard
The Bounty Hunters
The Law at Randado
Escape from Five Shadows
Last Stand at Saber River
The Big Bounce
The Moonshine War
Valdez Is Coming
Forty Lashes Less One
Unknown Man #89
Riding the Rap
Out of Sight
The Tonto Woman and Other Western Stories
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
. Copyright Â© 1990 by Elmore Leonard, Inc. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the nonexclusive, nontransferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books.
EPub Edition Â© NOVEMBER 2002 ISBN 9780061807381
First HarperTorch paperback printing: June 2002
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