Say the name Elmore Leonard to a crime aficionado and watch his/her face break into an involuntary smile. Writers as diverse as Martin Amis and George Will count themselves as fans, along with at least two generations of crime writers and filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino.
Leonard's books have been adapted to countless films, the best of which surfaced in the past fifteen years: Barry Sonnenfeld's Get Shorty, Tarantino's Jackie Brown (based on Leonard's book Rum Punch), and Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, starring George Clooney as Jack Foley, who has knocked over more banks than he can count.
Road Dogs reunites two of Leonard's most distinctive characters — Jack Foley, the bank robber from Out of Sight (just try not picturing Clooney as you read) and Cundo Rey from LaBrava — as prison inmates who develop an unlikely friendship. After Rey connects Foley with an attorney who gets his sentence reduced from 30 years to 30 months, the lifelong bank robber heads to Venice to await Rey's release and keep an eye on Dawn Navarro, the sexy psychic who last appeared in Riding the Rap and is now Rey's wife.At the age of 83, Leonard has just published his 43rd novel.
The complications that arise are vintage Leonard, consisting of double- and triple-crosses, uncertain allegiances, and, of course, the Elmore Leonard dialogue that goes down as smooth and warm as a glass of aged Scotch.
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Elmore Leonard: Well, I like them a lot. And I knew that they could talk. That's the main thing, that they would have things to say. I wasn't sure about Cundo Rey — I wasn't sure if he was still alive. So I looked it up in LaBrava, and saw that he was shot three times by Joe LaBrava. But Joe LaBrava went on his way, and it doesn't say that Cundo's dead. You assume in that book that he is, but I have the medical guys come and say, "Hey, this one's still alive." They take him to the hospital and he's there for 30 days or so, pretending to be in a coma while he finds out what's going on. Finally he gets out, and goes to the West Coast and is successful as a drug salesman for a while. Buys a couple of houses, so that he has those houses and a place to live. And his girlfriend now, Dawn Navarro, the psychic, is in one of the houses. So you assume, okay, then she's gonna meet Foley and something's going to happen. And that's the book, really. But it turns out that Cundo Rey and Foley are friends. Cundo likes him, he's not going to try and use him for anything. So I was happy about that. I had fun with the three characters — and added a few more, of course.
Bolton: It's interesting that you had to go back to LaBrava to see if Cundo was alive. Did Cundo just randomly pop into your head?
Leonard: Well, I liked him. I remembered him and I thought, Gee, I don't think I did enough with Cundo in that particular book. So I brought him back to life and used him. Because he's a good guy, I mean, he's an interesting character for me. And I had fun with him.
Bolton: You also have Dawn Navarro from Riding the Rap.
Leonard: Uh-huh. And you don't know if she's good or bad. In fact, you don't know if she's really psychic or not. I was never sure, even when she says — I forget who she was talking to on the phone — she says, "Turn the light on, I can't see you." [Laughter] She'll say little things like that. I guess she's psychic enough to get by, because she's fairly successful.
Leonard: Oh, yeah, sure. Well, I did the research for Riding the Rap — her being a psychic, a lot of research was done for that book. And then she meets the widow, Danialle Karmanos. Every once in a while, a charity organization holds a bidding to get your name in one of my books. This has been going on for probably the last six or eight books. So I said, "All right, we'll use whoever wins." AndPeter Karmanos paid $40,000 to get his wife in the book. [Laughter] So I felt I had to give her a bigger part, rather than just mention her.
Bolton: That's a great gift from husband to wife.
Leonard: So then Peter Karmanos bid in another auction, and he won. He only paid five grand that time, so I thought, Well, for five grand he'll be a ghost. [Laughter]
Bolton: Do you know if Peter Karmanos or his wife have read the book?
Leonard: I don't know if they've gotten the book. I didn't send them a review copy. It's not up to me, it's up to the organization, whoever put on the auction. I think they'll be pleased.
Bolton: I think so, too. You have a huge body of work, an amazing number of characters. Do you just pull Dawn and Cundo out of your memory, or do you have a list to keep track of them?
Leonard: I just wait for one of them to pop up. In Road Dogs, I liked those characters and I wanted to use them again. That was the main thing. I'm doing something now which is quite different. I'm writing about what's going on in the Indian Ocean, in the Gulf of Aden, with the pirates.
Bolton: Did you just start writing this?
Leonard: Well, I started in November when it wasn't much.
Leonard: Yeah. Oh, boy. I've got so many papers on my desk and on the floor. Hundreds of references to acts of piracy. I'm 100 pages into my next book, and it opens in Djibouti. Djibouti is this city at the lower end of the Red Sea, just before you go into the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. It's a terrible-looking town. I haven't been there, but I've got an awful lot of material on it.
So Dara, who makes documentary films, is sympathetic to the pirates and wants to shoot them in a movie and explain their problems — how they've lost their fishing grounds, which have been contaminated, and now they have to resort to piracy. And they're all having a good time doing it. Her assistant who's with her, a six-foot-six black guy named Xavier, says, "You're gonna find out these are bad guys." Which she's now, finally, by page 100, finding out. Then, when other pirates attack the Alabama, the American ship, and capture the crew, they're with the pirate gang when they see it on television, on Al Jazeera. The head pirate, who's a nice guy, switches over to CNN so Dara can watch what's going on. And, of course, they're very happy about the pirates having taken over an American ship. Well, you know the story, what finally happened. So that's coming up in the book. I'm not sure what's going to happen, but it's playing itself out in the papers!
Bolton: When you're writing any book, but especially the one you're writing now, do you do any outlining?
Leonard: No. I used to do that, maybe 30 years ago, butI don't want to know what's going to happen. If you take a few days to write an outline, you're just making up scenes that you think will work, that you think will be interesting. But as you write it, other ideas occur — better ideas that have to do with what you're writing. In Road Dogs, I start out with Jack Foley and Cundo Rey in prison together, and Cundo Rey gets a lawyer for him, and I have to go into all that — how the lawyer gets his sentence reduced from 30 years to 30 months. And you think, Okay, these two guys are real buddies.
By page 70 or 80, Foley has moved to Venice and he meets Dawn Navarro, and then you see something else is gonna happen. So then, in that second act, I have to do a little bit of thinking and might make some notes about what's gonna happen. All right, Cundo Rey is gonna show up — and is Cundo Rey suspicious of Foley and Dawn? Things like that. Usually I get to about page 300 in my manuscript, and I know it's going to end pretty soon, within the next 40 or 50 pages, so I start thinking of the end. And then I may have to go back a little bit, to add something, inject a scene that will make the end work. There's always more than one ending, you know.
Leonard: No, it's whatever I want. [Laughter] So, I didn't think, for example, that Dawn should be arrested or shot. I think she's still on the loose. I don't think I'll ever use her again, but she's there if I need her. I could put her in maybe the next book.
Bolton: It's a great insurance policy.
Leonard: Yeah, although I'm not sure how many more I'm going to write. But it's working out, it's fun.
Bolton: Do you ever surprise yourself?
Leonard: All the time.There are always surprises in the books, the things that just happen, without my knowledge. I mean, I wasn't planning ahead. Especially in the one I'm doing now, which I'm calling Djibouti, because Dara's going to call her documentary "Djibouti." And she says, "I don't care if the film has anything to do with Djibouti or not, I like the name." So, in writing that, I'm letting my publisher know I like Djibouti. [Laughter] We're going to use it, see?
Bolton: In a 1998 interview with Martin Amis, you said that your routine was to write every day. You start at 9:30 in the morning and work until 6:00. Is that still your routine?
Leonard: I still work until 6:00, but I get going a little later. I got up at 7:30 this morning and I had every intention of getting on this by 9, 9:30. And it was 11:30, almost noon, before I sat down because there are things to do. Personal things — the phone rings, and so on.
Bolton: People calling you for interviews...
Leonard: Yeah. [Laughter]
Bolton: I was going to ask if you ever run out of ideas for crimes, but I guess you can always look across the ocean at pirates.
Leonard: Yeah, right. And this is something completely new and different for me, to set it in a foreign land. Although, in chapter three or four, Dara's back in New Orleans, in her study, and she's looking at all the material she's got on her computer. So you're looking at the computer and her assistant Xavier comes in. They're looking at the computer and they're watching, say, the pirate skiffs attacking a ship, but they're warded off with fire hoses and not able to board the ship. So we see things like that on the screen while the characters are talking about it in New Orleans. I'll do a lot of that, and then there will be live scenes. They're invited to a leading pirate's home in Eyl. It's a huge place, and he's having a big dinner party for them. They'll talk to different people, and more of the plot will develop. But this, then, will be a live scene. It would be a flashback, but it's not called a flashback, you see, because you're in the Gulf of Aden all the time, in the screen, while sitting at her desk with Xavier and they're discussing what's going on. It sounds complicated, but I think I'm keeping it simple enough that it won't confuse anybody.
Bolton: The only one of your books I can think of that resembles it is Cuba Libre, but that was historical.
Leonard: Exactly. In that book, I thought I was gonna really get into the Battle of San Juan Hill, I thought that was going to be my big moment. And [the characters] just refer to it later, because the story happens before American troops are sent to Cuba.
Bolton: Was that something that surprised you when you wrote it?
Leonard: When I don't do what I thought I intended to do, yeah. But it's funny, George Will called up, because he interviewed me a couple of times. I forget what book it was, he had bought 20 or 30 copies that he was going to send to his friends and he wanted me to sign them first. He said, "What are you working on now?" I said, "The Spanish-American War in Cuba." And he said, "Ah, crime in Cuba." We said goodbye, and I realized, I don't have a crime in this book! [Laughter] So I had to put one in. If George Will expects it, he'll get it.
Bolton: You're justly celebrated for your dialogue. When you're writing dialogue, do you read it out loud, or just hear it in your head?
Leonard: I just hear it.Lines that are funny don't make me laugh until years later. Before I write something new, I'll usually pick up one of my books, doesn't matter which one, and start reading it to get into the rhythm of the prose. I'll be in a scene and hear these people talk, and someone says something and I'll laugh out loud — which I didn't at the time I wrote it. So, at least the material is holding up.
Bolton: That's interesting that you reread your own work to get into the rhythm of it. Do you ever find yourself writing and think, This doesn't sound like Elmore Leonard?
Leonard: Yeah, mm-hmm. [Laughter] The Village Voice did a piece on me called "The Author Vanishes," that said you're not aware of me in my prose. And yet, you are, because of the way it's written. I mean, you know that I'm writing it. I think you can usually tell my book from someone else's. And that's the difference. It's a little more casual. I'm not always looking for the right word because my characters — and it's always from the point of view of a character, whatever scene it is — don't know those words. They don't know literary words. So I can't sound like Martin Amis. I have to sound like me. We were on "Charlie Rose" together and [Charlie] said, "You and Martin Amis, you're friends? You don't write anything alike." I said, "No, I'm not a literary writer. I'm not writing from my own point of view with my own language. I can't do that, I have to use the points of view of my characters. I can't do what Martin does." Martin was waiting in the green room before he came out. Charlie said, "Did you hear what Elmore Leonard said about you?" [Martin] said, "My heart soared like a hawk." Then I find out later, from a friend of his, he uses that a lot, just to be funny. [Laughter]
Leonard: I don't know why, I always think of Freaky Deaky. I picked two characters who had been hippies in the late '60s and into the '70s, who were unsuccessful and who blew up something because of what they felt. I just had fun with those people resenting the fact that some of the "name" hippies were now selling stocks and bonds.
Bolton: Do you have a favorite character?
Leonard: Well, I like Raylen Givens [from Pronto and Riding the Rap], who is a marshal. I can do things with him. And Carl Webster [from The Hot Kid], he was a marshal, too. I always liked marshals, maybe because I started out writing westerns.
Bolton: The Hot Kid felt like a perfect fusion of your best-known genres, westerns and crime.
Leonard: I think it was.
Bolton: I may be imagining this, but it also felt a little more personal, like there were some memories of your own from that time period.
Leonard: Maybe. I remember the dust storm in Oklahoma City that I referred to. I lived in Oklahoma City for a little while. And I'm using New Orleans again in the new book, because I was born there.
Bolton: Are there any writers, past or present, who inspire your style?
Leonard: Hemingway was the first one. I read everything he wrote in the early '50s, when I was starting to write westerns. I would read For Whom the Bell Tolls and I would picture it as a western, with horses and guns, in the mountains in Spain. He had a very formal style, though, especially in that book, when they're all speaking Spanish but he's writing it in English. I like his short stories much better. And then I found a writer named Richard Bissell, who was a pilot on Mississippi river boats and he was very funny without trying too hard. I liked Bissell so much, I think I adapted some of his style. He quit writing by the end of the '50s. He'd written four or five books, that's all. I liked him an awful lot. About the same time I thought Hemingway doesn't have a sense of humor, and I saw a lot of funny things happen in my books that I could do with a straight face, that kind of humor. Hemingway never did that. So I fell away from him, to some extent.
Bolton: They're all great.
Bolton: That's interesting, because there are times when I'm reading McCarthy that I think, "If you gave this a little bit of a funnier spin, this could be Elmore Leonard." [Laughter]
Leonard: They adapted Cuba Libre, but it didn't work. And they were not set on directing it, they just wanted to see if they could write it. We didn't think it really worked, though.
Bolton: That's too bad.
Leonard: Yeah, it could have been great.
Bolton: Are there any other characters you're planning to revisit?
Leonard: No, but I never know. I don't know what I'm going to write after Djibouti. I never know what I'm going to write next. If I'm still writing the book but I'm very near the end, and I begin to think of what I'd like to do next, then I'll know that what I'm writing is in hand. I'll think of an ending and it will be fine. I'm only a hundred pages into Djibouti, so I haven't started to think about anything else yet.
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Chris Bolton co-created the all-ages webcomic Smash, which will soon be published by Candlewick Press, and created the comedy series Wage Slaves. His short story "The Red Room" was published in Portland Noir from Akashic Books.
Books mentioned in this post