When a colleague mentioned that he didn’t like writing dialogue, and that he was burned out on writing in general, I recommended Elmore Leonard.
Leonard, who died in 2013, lives on mostly in video form. You don’t see his 45 novels and three short story collections on bookstore shelves anymore, though, in fairness, you don’t see many bookstores anywhere anymore.
His novels remain plentiful in used bookshops, and his first editions are prized among mystery collectors. A master of commercial fiction, he started out in advertising, writing westerns because he loved reading them as a youngster. Many of his early westerns were sold for feature film development, and all of Leonard’s work fit the conventions of the western genre: a competent, unassuming man of few words goes up against bad guys who want what they should not have, in a fascinating, occasionally scenic but almost always morally ambiguous setting. Often his bad guys come in pairs: an annoying motor-mouth who pretends to sophistication or superiority, and a bigger, taciturn “heavy” who is just as smart as the motormouth, but cannot step out of the fast-talker’s shadow. Along the way the hero meets women who are fallen, or who may be just as competent as him, or devious as the bad guys, but needs him somehow.
Leonard’s work featured skillful, heart-stopping, character-driven suspense. Within the first few pages his heroes did something unexpected, uncalled for, or, in later works, outrageously scary, but came out on top. Later, the bad guys would box the hero into an even bigger dilemma, and our hero would always remain calm while making use of unique skills to save the day.
If Leonard’s heroes had a flaw, or a problem, it was women (children and siblings were mostly absent from his stories). Leonard’s heroes rarely had satisfying, long-term relations with women. Either the women bested him at his own game, or left him for mercilessly practical reasons. As a writer, Leonard was less misogynistic than James Elroy, Lawrence Bloch or that crude dude of hard-boiled detective melodrama, Mickey Spillane. Perhaps because he married, and divorced, three times. his heroes began and ended as loners. Women were delightful distractions who appealed to his hero’s sense of honor and moral duty. They were well worth rescuing, but, ultimately, not to be trusted, or relied upon for anything resembling a long-term relationship.
Called “Dutch” by those who knew him (from the nickname of a baseball player), Leonard’s early westerns are worth reading because they transcend their genre. But he soon left the historic west for more modern “mean-streeters.” These gritty, grim and sarcastically funny good vs. evil tales examined the Detroit criminal underworld (best portrayed in 52 Pickup) and then, as Leonard became more successful and could spend his winters elsewhere, moved to South Florida, Italy and vacation destination cities in the U.S. (Glitz, set in Atlantic City, became his first best seller). The writer who soon became a popular Hollywood screenwriter satirized the film industry in Get Shorty, in which Chili Palmer, a Miami mobster, goes west to collect a debt, and discovers that the criminal skillset isn’t that much different from that of the Hollywood producer. After that book became a popular movie, Leonard said in an interview that he no longer “owned” any of his fictional characters: they were all sold, in one way or another, to film and television production companies.
Leonard’s take on the criminal world is best reproduced in the cable-TV series Justified. Inspired by a single Leonard short story, Justified is an epic back story in the life of US Marshall Raylan Givens, a recurring character in several Leonard novels, and contains most of the tropes that make Leonard so much fun to read. Bad guys tend to be stupider, more colorful or far more menacing than you can imagine. Anything that can go wrong does so in marvelously unexpected ways. Women reveal moments of spunky grit, but still need the fearless Raylan to save them.
And the dialogue is wonderful. Leonard’s bad guys aren’t just motormouths: they are as desperate to reveal their inner, twisted souls through language as they are to pull off a scam. At its best, Leonard’s knowing, wise-cracking, wacky-but-true dialogue rises to a comic menace: you laugh at what they say, revel in their raconteur swagger but also cringe at their obvious menace. The over-the-top conversations in The Sopranos series, as well as films of director and screenwriter Quentin Tarantino show Leonard’s deep influence, which Tarentino acknowledges in Jackie Brown, his film of Leonard’s novel, Rum Punch.
Leonard became an inspiration to me when my best efforts at science fiction were too frequently rejected. I was a journalist covering Atlantic City working on a macronovel about the casino industry when Leonard’s Glitz came out. This fish-out-of-water, mano-e-mano, testosterone head-butt detective story set in and around the Boardwalk is far from Leonard’s best, but it arrived at a time when the only American legal gambling town east of Las Vegas was coming into its own. It not only was a best seller (becoming what the publishing industry calls a “break-out” book), it was one more pop culture success at a time when the wall between “high culture” (opera, artisanal music, fine art) and “low culture” (rock and pop music, graffiti art, Star Wars space opera, “serious” films about comic book superheros) began to fall. In interviews, Leonard was described as a writer for those who wanted a great thriller. He was quoted as saying that if he wrote anything that was meaningful or literary, he made sure to cut it out of the final draft.
Like most sweeping statements, this wasn’t quite true. Leonard wrote one attempt at literature, a morality tale about an innocent who could heal by touching people. Called Touch, it questioned the value and meaning of the miraculous. It had a chase scene or too, but was considered unpublishable until Glitz broke out. The book was filmed and but it tends not to be discussed by Leonard fans.
Glitz sent a film crew to Atlantic City. While Louis Malle’s Atlantic City remains the most revealing film treatment of the desperate characters haunting the former Queen of Resorts, the movie, starring Jimmy Smitts, reveled in the city’s stark, visual contrast: the bright, spangled casino rising over a mere block from run-down slums. Not in any way a great or lasting film, but it did make people in town feel that they had turned a corner. Legalized gambling was good for the city, they believed. Best sellers were being written about our town! Movies were being made on the Boardwalk! We can see ourselves as others see us!
I read just about everything Leonard wrote and, when my first novel came out, I had a chance to meet him, and give him a copy. Leonard was polite and pleasant. I found out later he had just kicked a long alcohol addiction and was in reasonably good spirits. He was yet another example of the American Dream: good work piling up to elevate its author to the lofty peak of cultural significance.
Of course, there is only one way to go after this, and that’s down. Leonard never wrote an unreadable book, but some are repetitive. Long after he need a series character to sell books, he wrote sequels to sequels. Books that did well as films had their stories and characters taken places they did not especially need to go. What was, in the earlier books, a fresh reworking of the Western genre in modern settings became restive attempts to find new ways to tell the same story.
But that story was still enjoyable, regardless of how much meaning Leonard may have trimmed from it.
Though I recommended Get Shorty rather quickly, I added a caveat. In general, I hesitate to recommend books or writers because of that embarrassing moment that many of us have experienced: when we finally open a book that our friend/neighbor/boss/co-worker/teacher/professor said was the greatest thing ever, and, after a paragraph, we can’t stand it. We put the book DOWN and are left with an uneasy feeling: either there is something wrong with us for finding this not to our liking, or there is something wrong with the person who recommended it.
The truth is that there is nothing wrong with anyone. How we discover important works of art is always mysterious and littered with refuse. Even in a “greatest hits” literature course, you have moments when you understand that our appreciation has a lot to do with what brings us to the work. You see this most often in contemporary art, which tends to respond to a very narrow set of cultural norms. The artists may be the source of the works, but the norms that give the works value are set by critics, gallery dealers and collectors. The wall between the museum going public, and contemporary art, is no longer as high as it once was, but you can still hear some people saying, after they shake their heads at a non-figurative painting, “My three-year-old kid could do that.”
It’s important for anyone who reads and writes to find your own precedents. It is possible to write great stuff no matter what you have, or have not, read.
As many in the Circle may note, it is entirely possible to write great stuff without reading, much less knowing about, great stuff that others have read.
What to do, then, when writing ceases to be a joy? This happens sooner or later to just about everything about which we feel strongly. Our feelings stop feeling, and we think we’re done, finished, toast, overcooked, washed up, sold down the river.
It is possible that some people’s writing career will end with this despairing sigh. Most of us who run dry find the well filling soon enough. We come back to our work refreshed and energetic, with more possibilities and pages to discover.