Friday, September 5, 2008

An Interview with Elmore Leonard

by Jean Henry Mead

Elmore “Dutch” Leonard has always been an avowed reader. “A bookworm, yes,” he said, “beginning with The Bobbsey Twins and The Book House volumes of abridged classics that included everything from Beowulf to Treasure Island. In the fifth grade I read most of All Quiet on the Western Front serialized in the Detroit Times, and I wrote a World War I play that was staged in the classroom, my first piece of writing.”

The first nine years of his life were spent south of the Mason-Dixon line. Born in New Orleans in 1925, the youngest of two children, he lived in Dallas, Oklahoma City, and Memphis before moving to Detroit in 1934, during the World Series. Raised a Catholic, he graduated from Detroit High School and the University of Detroit, both Jesuit institutions where he majored in English and philosophy.

Leonard lusted for full-time writing, and remembered receiving a letter from his agent in 1951, trying to discourage him from quitting his advertising job to freelance. He had concentrated on truck advertising for Chevrolet and, by that time, had a tank full of writing catchy ads.

Getting out of bed each morning at five o’clock, he’d write two pages of fiction before going to work “with the rule that I couldn’t put the water on for coffee until I started writing. I’ve been a disciplined writer every since." While still working for the ad agency, he supplemented his early morning writings by placing a pad of paper in his desk drawer. With the drawer partially open, he’d write fiction on the job.

He first wrote western stories and novels because he liked western films. His novel, Hombre, evolved into a western film starring Paul Newman and earned him a modest $10,000. He then turned full attention to the other side of his genre coin and found that crime pays quite well. Stick and LaBrava made him an overnight sensation, earning him a lot of money, along with the film version of Stick, starring Burt Reynolds, a production he would rather not lay claim to.

“My humor is deadpan,” he said, “not slapstick.” The slightly-built, quiet-spoken novelist had written well all along, and his sudden popularity created some problems, the most serious of which was lack of time to write.

“It’s nice to get fan mail, a few letters a week, and being recognized on the street, but the interviews are wearing me out. I’m asked questions about writing, and about my purpose in the way I write that I’ve never thought of before. And I have to take time to think on the spot and come up with an answer. I’m learning quite a bit about what I do from recent interviews and getting answers too.”

When asked for advice to fledgling writers, he said, “The worst thing a novice can do is to try to sound like a writer. I guess the first thing you have to learn is how not to overwrite.” He also advised fledglings to “write. Don’t talk about it, do it. Read constantly, study the authors you like, pick one and imitate him the way a painter learns fine art by copying the masters. I studied Hemingway, as thousands of other writers have done. I feel that I learned to write westerns by rereading For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

A portrait of Hemingway hangs on the wall of his den, reminding him that he studied the revered novelist’s work for “construction, for what you leave out as well as what you put in.”

Excerpted from my book, MaverickWriters. The rest of the interview may be read at my website:


Ben Small said...

Good post, Jean. I'd always heard that one should not imitate other writers, that one should strive for one's own voice, but imitation is much easier and permits one to grow from a more certain level, so his advice makes sense to me. Thanks for posting this.

Beth Terrell said...

Jean, as I'm sure you know, Elmore Leonard gives some of the best writing advice ever. Thanks so much for sharing this.

Jean Henry Mead said...

You're both very welcome. I posted the interview this week because I'm eyebrow deep in galleys and wasn't sure how it would be received. "Dutch" Leonard not only gives great advice, he's also a great guy!