It's justified

Elmore Leonard talks about characters and writing pads

Feb 23, 2011 at 12:00 am

Elmore Leonard is notepads deep into writing a new novel — his 362nd, or something like that — tentatively titled Raylan. It will chronicle the further adventures of his character, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, masterfully portrayed by Timothy Olyphant on the hit FX series Justified.

On its face, this would appear to be one of the greatest cross-promotions in television history. Givens, as fans of Justified (10 p.m. Wednesdays) and Dutch Leonard know, first appeared in a Leonard novella called Fire in the Hole 10 years ago. Now that Raylan has become the pivotal figure in a first-rate primetime drama, one of America's most celebrated crime novelists is crafting a book of the same name. The master of Motown menace, would never stoop to such crass commercialism, would he?

"Oh, no!" Leonard exclaims from his Bloomfield Village home. "I've had the idea, because I've written two Raylan books before. And I like him. He's easy to write, because he's always got something unusual to say and he's easy to get along with. So I was happy to jump in, and I thought, 'Well, hell, write another book!' And if the series continues, then they can use what they want."

Although the show's credits list the 85-year-old Leonard as an executive producer, his actual involvement is minimal. He's freed up to "write another book," and with his lightning-fast creative powers he began Raylan around Christmastime and plans to finish it by March's end. And yes, he still eschews the wonders of modern technology to write all his works longhand, on legal pads. Well, not quite legal pads.

"I have them made," he says, a concession to his success. "They're yellow pads, unlined, 8-1/2-by-11. I get them from a printer. I get 63 pages to a pad, 50 pads. That lasts a year, maybe a little more. I use a lot of yellow pads because that's what we used at Campbell-Ewald (the metro Detroit ad agency where his writing career flourished), and they were always unlined."

Leonard's impact on the series, however, is undeniable.

"You've heard the writing staff all wore this little wristband saying, 'What Would Elmore Do?'" he asks with a chuckle. "They have read all of my stuff, and they're trying to keep it sounding like my work, which I think is great. But they can do whatever they want. And just to satisfy me, once in a while they will throw something in. A scene or two of mine."

This season's first episode was titled "The Moonshine War," paying homage to one of his '60s novels. However, while he may not be writing the scripts, nobody in contemporary fiction conjures up dialogue quite like Leonard, and Justified creator Graham Yost (whose father, Elwy, was a legendary movie host for decades on Canadian TV in Windsor) takes great pains to stay true to his offbeat rhythms. One of the many marvelous things about Justified is its aural contrasts: While the backwoods criminal community of Harlan, Ky., and his personal life careen wildly and loudly around him, Olyphant's Stetson-wearing Raylan Givens rarely speaks above a measured, breeze-cool whisper.

Now scratching the surface of its second season, Justified also ennobles itself by its uncanny ability, every week, to include at least one scene you swear you've never seen on TV before. With the gun-battle death of drug kingpin Bo Crowder at the end of last season, Givens now must fight challenges from other organizations eager to take control, most notably the dysfunctional family headed by matriarch Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale, Secretariat). In tonight's episode, Mags' son, Doyle (Joseph Lyle Taylor) — who also happens to be the local law in the region — takes surprising measures to break up a gunfight between Givens and two OxyContin dealers.

The role of Mags is a prime example of the freedom Yost and company feel to take liberties with his work, Leonard says. "They go all different ways," he explains. "I had a man who owns all the marijuana fields in that area of southeast Kentucky, and they cast this woman. And it works! She's great. They have their own ideas, things they want to do, and they do it so well."

While he won't come right out and say it, Leonard, who has been highly critical of some previous film and TV adaptations of his books, seems happier about the treatment Raylan Givens is receiving than any of his other characters. "Like Karen Sisco (which died a quick, 10-episode death on ABC in 2003-'04), they couldn't decide on her personality, what she was like. They would try her different ways in the first six episodes, and they didn't land on any particular one that they liked, and so it went off the air. I don't know why they didn't just stay closer to the book (Out of Sight). But I'm very happy with this show."

So is the real Raylan, he understands, who watches the series from his home in Texas. "Yes, there is a Raylan," Leonard says. "I gave a luncheon speech maybe 20 years ago in Amarillo, Texas, to a group of book distributors, and the guy who introduced me said, 'Hello, I'm Raylan.' I said, 'Raylan? Geez, I've got to use that name!' That's really a good name. And you can only spell it one way."