The Dickens of Detroit

Elmore Leonard talks cops, the Motor City, George Clooney and the worst movie ever made

Novelist Elmore Leonard is a Detroiter and fiercely proud of it. Many of his stories are at least in part based here, and he's always very careful to get his facts straight. Unlike, say, the TV show Detroit 1-8-7, there are no made-up newspapers, street names or colleges. Leonard has lived here for most of his life, and he's traveled the streets at night with the Detroit Police. He does his homework.

Now 85 years old, Leonard lives in Bloomfield Village with his wife, Christine. His house, with its gated, arched driveway, is predictably impressive though not obnoxious, and it's in keeping with the area. His office is airy and sparse, set up for writing with few distractions. There's no computer; Leonard's completely old-school, writing his novels longhand, and then writing them out again using an electric typewriter. He has no desire to learn how to use a computer, explaining that going from a manual typewriter to an electric was a big enough change.

And if you consider it, that's a lot of longhand writing and storytelling. Over his 60-year career, Elmore "Dutch" Leonard has penned 44 novels, 21 of which have been adapted into feature films. He's a master of dialogue, a fact he's very proud of. Watch Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino's superb adaption of Leonard's Rum Punch novel) or Out of Sight (featuring one of George Clooney's best performances as suave bank robber Jack Foley) again, because most of the dialogue you hear is lifted directly from Leonard's pages. He molds his characters carefully, giving them a life and a soul. He is, in short, a master of his craft.

The recipient of three honorary doctorates is also a talkative man, though not entirely warm when faced with a journalist and photographer in his own home — a scheduling snafu led to some confusion and he thought this conversation was to be via phone.

He thinks hard about what he says and reveals only what he wants to and little more, but he's also witty and charming. When he does say something amusing, he'll slightly grin, preferring to drag from a Virginia Slims and move on. He's an animated conversationalist, gesticulates with his arms to accent, sometimes rising distractedly from his chair to retrieve something from a shelf that's unrelated to the interview, or leaf through a pile of papers when caught by a thought or idea. His crossed legs often switch sides quickly. In this context his words and body language say that after six decades of writing, he's lost no passion for his art or desire to work. His most recent novel, Djibouti, was published last fall by HarperCollins.

Metro Times: You moved from New Orleans to Detroit when you were 9 years old?

Elmore Leonard: There were other places first. New Orleans, Dallas, Oklahoma City, back to Dallas, Detroit, Memphis, back to Detroit, all before 1934. My father was with General Motors, and he was with different zonal offices all around the country.

MT: Do you still feel a kinship with New Orleans? Your character Jack Foley (from Out of Sight and Road Dogs) is from there ...

Leonard: Sure. I like New Orleans. If it were some place else, like Duluth, Minn., maybe I wouldn't feel any kind of kinship with it, but New Orleans is a good town. I've done a couple of book tours, but I haven't been back there since Katrina. My cousins live in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Their house was swept away, but they built another one on the spot. They love it there.

MT: I read that you were heavily influenced by Bonnie and Clyde, and also the Detroit Tigers ...

Leonard: There's a picture of me standing in front of a car in 1933 or '34. The picture was taken in Memphis, and I'm standing with my mother and my sister, and I'm at the side of the car but I have my foot on the running board in Bonnie's kind of pose. She had several poses like that where she's in front of the car with her foot on the bumper holding a gun. I'm pointing a pistol at the camera. The influence has to be Bonnie and Clyde, although they weren't nearly as successful or really adept at robbing banks as their publicity has been blown up to suggest. They didn't do a lot. They'd rob little grocery stores and things like that. They were always being chased and they'd always run into a roadblock.

MT: Did that glamorous and charming image of crime influence the legend of your character Jack Foley?

Leonard: Oh, yeah, because I have a character who complains about Willie Sutton [having more fame than his success as a bank robber warrants]. Jack Foley has robbed maybe 100 more banks than Sutton.

MT: What about the Detroit Tigers?

Leonard: I've been watching the Tigers since my mom and dad used to take me to the games a lot back before the war. I went into the service in '43. I went into the Navy, and then I was sent overseas, South Pacific, and I joined a CB outfit, construction battalion. I did that for about a year or so, and then I came home and got a ship. I went down through the canal to Virginia to decommission the ship. That was it, 30 months.

I returned and went to U of D. I had planned to go to Georgetown, but all my friends were going to U of D so I went there. I didn't know what to take. I majored in English because I liked to read. That was the only reason.

MT: What's the genesis of your "Dutch" nickname?

Leonard: There was a pitcher in the American League, Hubert "Dutch" Leonard. I forget who he played for [the Red Sox and the Tigers, in fact]. When I was in high school, he was still pitching but he was in his 40s. He started as a fastball pitcher but as he got older he was throwing knucklers. I was at high school, second year, and a guy said, "I'm gonna start calling you Dutch." It caught on, and it helped because Elmore was a tough one to carry around when I was young. A lot of people would call me Elmer.

MT: You once worked as copywriter in advertising. Did learn anything from that experience?

Leonard: No. I'm always asked that. Did you learn how to write briefly? I don't write briefly. Some of my sentences will go 100 words or more. No, I didn't learn a thing. Especially writing on the Chevrolet account; you had to write kinda cute about the car, the station wagon. "You put youngens in the back," and that kind of thing. I did much better on trucks.

MT: You started out writing Westerns ...

Leonard: Yeah, because of the market. The market for Westerns in the '50s was terrific. There were a couple of dozen pulp magazines still publishing. The best ones were Dime Western by Popular Publications. I started researching the West. Almost all of my stories were set in Arizona in the 1880s. I learned about Apache Indians and got into them. I like them. They were pretty mean. I wrote about 30 short stories in the '50s and five books. Two stories were bought for movies. I wrote eight Western novels altogether. I like Westerns. I may even write another one. I don't know if there's a market, but there's a movie out right now, the Coen brothers remake of True Grit. I started to watch it last night but fell asleep. I can always write another Western.

MT: Does metro Detroit provide you with the perfect backdrop to write crime fiction?

Leonard: Definitely. Especially after The Detroit News asked me if I'd do a piece on the homicide division, Squad Seven. I went down and spent three weeks with them. They would call me when they had a homicide. I would meet them at the scene and watch them investigate. Back to the police headquarters on Beaubien, I would watch them interrogate witnesses and suspects. That was fun. I'd sit in when a guy finally gives up and is confessing, making his statement.

MT: Is that why you're still here?

Leonard: I'm here because this is where I live. There's no reason to move. I thought about going to San Francisco in the '70s, but then I realized that I'd have to learn all the streets, how to get around and all that. It wasn't worth it. I certainly wouldn't live in LA. The traffic is terrible. I was there in '69 when there were a lot of hippies. You could smell the marijuana on the street. It was crowded. Sunset was packed with people, and that was fun.

Seven hundred thousand people shipped out of Detroit when they built the freeways. That was it. Everybody left, and Detroit went from nearly 2 million to where it is now [714,000 in the Census announced last week]. Everybody is still around, they're just out [in the suburbs] somewhere. There was the problem with the auto industry, but that's coming back. There are so many pieces written about Detroit, about how barren it is now with all these empty lots all over the place. The people are still here, they're just out of the city limits. It's gonna come back. It's got to. This is a big, exciting town. We've got the four sports teams here; we've got a great art museum. We've got enough activity here. It's got to come back.

MT: Do you think the Detroit that you presented to the world in books such as City Primeval is accurate?

Leonard: Oh, yeah. When I was researching with the cops, this is what I ran into following them around. This is what was going on. In the mid-'70s, there were more than 700 homicides in the city. Now it's down to 400, which is a lot but still ... That's probably because of the decline in population.

MT: All of your street references and directions are accurate, something that isn't true of Detroit 1-8-7. Have you seen it?

Leonard: I saw the first one. They're having trouble, I understand. I don't know why they called it 1-8-7. I was not familiar with that term, what it meant, and I still don't remember what it means. I went down to their headquarters and I met a lot of the people including the head writer. When I was ready to leave, he said, "I'm gonna have to start reading your work." They should have already started reading my work. It's accurate. It's what it is. I don't know why they didn't read it.

MT: You've placed the Howling Diablos in a couple of your books. Are you a fan?

Leonard: I know about them. I've only seen them on television. I haven't seen them live. I know one of the guys, Johnny Evans. He would play in the bookstore in Birmingham, when they'd have poetry readings. He'd play his sax in the background, which was really weird.

MT: You like to write phonetically and you won't correct the grammar of criminals ...

Leonard: To be authentic with dialogue, definitely. It's always written from the point of view. Scenes are always from someone's point of view, not mine. When you're looking at the scene as a character sees it, it might become ungrammatical. What did I say in my Ten Rules of Writing? When proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go.

MT: When you put out your Ten Rules of Writing, were you worried that you'd give away secrets?

Leonard: There aren't any secrets. I wrote them 10 years ago in Denver when I was the guest of honor at a writer's conference. In my hotel room, I wrote the 10 rules. That afternoon, I recited them. I came down off the stage with two sheets of paper in my hand. A guy came over and said 'Can I have those?' So I gave him the rules. A couple of years later, The New York Times asked me to write a column so I did the rules again. Less than a year after that, we had the rules published. They were printed in China. Ten rules, but a 90-page book. One line per page. It's thick and it's hard to open because of the heavy paper. I don't know why they did that.

MT: How do you set about writing a novel?

Leonard: I don't map out a plot. That's why I had a little trouble with Djibouti. The way I saw it, they will go out on this little 30-foot boat and start shooting. They'd finally meet some pirates and there'd be shooting and so on. But, I didn't want to write it as it happens. So they go out, and then the next chapter, 29 days later, she's back in the hotel looking at footage of Djibouti. Then you can get hold of the whole thing at once as a story. One thing leading to another. The characters that they meet in Djibouti, introduce them and so on. It was around Page 120 when I realized I had to get more of a story in there. It was the same old thing. They were talking to pirates that they liked and were successful, driving around in a Mercedes in town. Then I brought in al-Qaeda. I also brought in an American criminal who had served several years before he goes over, James Russell.

MT: Did you have fun playing with those very current themes, like al-Qaeda and the Middle East unrest?

Leonard: Yeah, I have a lot of fun writing full stop. All my scenes are realistic. Stories set in Detroit are as realistic as I can get them. I try to be very accurate with the attitude of the cops, especially homicide cops. The ones that I've met have a good, dry sense of humor. They're having a good time too.

MT: The character of Dara Barr, an investigative journalist, is particularly admirable in Djibouti. A strong and beautiful woman ...

Leonard: Twenty years ago, someone criticized my women — that they were more in the order of women in Mickey Spillane novels, just there because they're women. I resented that, but I've tried to concentrate more on my female characters and make sure I'm bringing them to life. In Killshot, the husband is an iron worker. He's a very macho guy. Has a drink before he goes up on the iron and walks the narrow strip of metal. I thought, he's gonna be the main character. In the opening of that book, we meet his wife and see the two of them together. I thought, he's not the main character, she is. That's the way it turned out.

MT: With the book that preceded Djibouti, Road Dogs, why did you bring back Jack Foley?

Leonard: George Clooney liked Out of Sight very much, so I thought I'd give him another one. But he still hasn't read it, and he decided that he doesn't want to be another bank robber, so I'll have to find somebody else. I thought George was great as Foley.

MT: When you license one of your stories to be made into a movie, is it tough giving creative control of your stories over to somebody else?

Leonard: Well, it has been in a lot of cases, but some good movies were made — Out of Sight, Jackie Brown and Get Shorty. Those were good pictures and they stayed fairly close to the books. They picked up as much dialogue as they could, and I was very happy with them.

MT: Which ones did you not like so much?

Leonard: The Big Bounce was made twice. The first time, I said, this has got to be the second-worst movie ever made. Ryan O'Neal and Leigh Taylor-Young starred. Then it was made again, and now I know what the worst movie made is. They didn't know what they were doing. They were in Hawaii shooting it, and mine takes place at the top of the thumb in Michigan. I'm always excited to watch the latest one, wondering if I'm going to recognize it or not. I have liked the three most recent ones. Be Cool was not good. The director [George Armitage], he said, "Do you have any advice for me?" I said, I'll tell you the same thing I told Barry Sonnenfeld when he did Get Shorty. I said, when someone delivers a funny line, don't cut away to get any laughs or grins. These people are all serious. Well, the second Travolta movie, he ignored that completely and they all just yack-yacked it up. I thought it was terrible.

MT: You did write screenplays for a while ...

Leonard: I stopped in '93. I did one for Billy Friedkin at Paramount. I finally admitted that I didn't have any fun writing screenplays. Normally it was from a book that I'd already written. My energy went into that. Now I'm sitting here trying to work up a little more interest in the project. That's hard to do. The studio guys always have ideas. What about this, what about that? Backstory — they love backstory. Well, we don't know what she's all about. I say, yes you do. You know all that you need to know about her. You don't have to know when she went to school or if she was married before, any of that. I walked in one time and the guy who was the head of the studio said, "All you did was turn the book into the screenplay." I said, "Yes, that's right." He said, "We wanted to see some new stuff." So why did they buy the book?

MT: With Mr. Majestyk you did your own screenplay ...

Leonard: I was happy with Mr. Majestyk, very happy, because it's still paying residuals and I wrote it in '75. I might get a check tomorrow. You never know what the sale was, but one-quarter of the gross of the sale is what the writer gets. I did that one for Walter Mirisch [the producer]. He and I are good friends. He's got five or more Oscars, behind his desk on a table. He's a good guy. He calls about every two weeks and wonders what I'm doing. I always send him a manuscript. He hasn't made anything in years.

MT: Did you see Karen Sisco, the TV series based on your character in Out of Sight?

Leonard: They didn't get her. They tried different personalities, and they didn't catch it. They didn't find that one that really worked. Finally, they gave up. Jennifer Lopez got it right away.

MT: Stephen King called you the Great American Writer. Is that fair?

Leonard: That was kind of him. I haven't read that much of him. I've read maybe a half-dozen of his books. How many has he written? A hundred or so? He's written far more than I have. He does it so quickly. Does he rewrite? I'm rewriting all the time. It takes me about three pages longhand to get one that I like. Then I type it. I've been doing it like that ever since the beginning. I started with a Royal portable typewriter, and all I was doing was X-ing out lines. I thought, I'm wasting all my time. I should just write it out and if I don't like it, cross it out and keep going. That's finally what I did and what I'm doing now after 60 years. I don't use a computer. My researcher has all the equipment. All the electronic stuff. I call him up and ask him a question, and he tells me immediately the answer. I'd be looking around and trying to read the screen. I'm going to have to learn, a little bit. But there are so many people who have never used a typewriter. I've had this one now for about 20 years. I was reluctant. I used to have a regular old stand up one. This one, you plug it in. I was afraid it would be too sensitive. That's why I put it off for so long. I'd hit the wrong key and there it would be. I worry about dumb things like that, until finally I got the typewriter. Now, it's hard to get ribbons. A lot of good writers still use typewriters.

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