04.09.12

The Elmore Leonard Interview

The prolific writer’s books have inspired dozens of films—from 3:10 To Yuma to Get Shorty—as well as the hit FX show Justified. He talks to Allen Barra about actors who botched his characters.

In his famous 10 Rules of Writing, Elmore Leonard advises aspiring authors to “try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” For decades now, no American writer has been better at taking his own advice. Leonard is the author of nearly 60 works of fiction—about one for every year he has been a professional. He has seen more than 20 of them adapted into films and written nine screenplays himself.

From his home in Michigan, Leonard talked about the success of the FX series Justified (which was developed from two novels and a short story, all centered on Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens), his new bestselling novel, Raylan (which extends the fictional life of the marshal beyond the small screen), which actors botched his characters, and which ones nailed them.

Most critics call you things like “the dean of American crime writers.” But I’m wondering if you consider that pigeonholing. Do you mind being called a crime writer?

“Crime writer” is fine. There’s always a crime in my books.

It’s been written that you are a descendant of—I’ll just pick two names that have been tossed around—Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Would you agree?

No, not at all. I never thought my books were like theirs, or that I wrote anything like them except to the degree that we all did interesting things with dialogue. If I had to pick anyone from that period who I resembled, it’s probably James M. Cain, whose style was leaner—more terse—than other writers of that period. 

The truth is that the writers who most influenced me weren’t people categorized as crime writers. I’d say I learned more from John O’Hara, who isn’t much read today but whose short stories I really admired, and Hemingway, who I think has lasted pretty good.

Speaking of Hemingway, I remember years ago I compared your rules of writing with Hemingway’s. He said, “Always get the weather right.”  You told me that your first rule was “Don’t open a book with the weather.”

And I never have.

You didn’t even begin writing crime novels until 20 years after you started writing professionally. 

More than that. I began writing crime in 1974, and I was writing pulp Westerns back in 1951. I was trying to sell something to the Saturday Evening Post because they paid very well for that kind of stuff, more than the pulp magazines. I never really caught on with them. They told me my characters were “too relentless” and that they had “no redeeming moments.” Well, that was certainly true. I really couldn’t argue with them about that. I finally sold one story to them in 1956, I think. It must have been more redeeming than my other stories. 

Unlike most Western writers, you never did much on cowboys, did you?

Most of my research was on Apaches. I love Apaches. Paul Newman’s character in Hombre was an Apache, and I think he was one of the first Apache heroes in a movie that was otherwise about white people. I also read a lot about the cavalry. But I never had too much interest in rounding up the cattle and stuff like that.

You did the stories that 3:10 to Yuma (with Glenn Ford) and The Tall T (with Randolph Scott) were based on, but would you say that Hombre with Paul Newman was your first big success?

Well, it was a big success. I don’t know how much of it was my success. I think it was the first Western where a lot of people noticed that I had a style. I was always a fan of realism in Westerns, and Hombre had a gritty, realistic feel to it. 

I thought Hombre retained a lot of the feel of your novel. One realistic scene in Hombre gave Westerns a real jolt. Do you know which scene I mean?

I can guess. It was the first scene I wrote in the novel, with Richard Boone and Paul Newman on a hill outside the mineshaft?

Yeah, I love that scene. Martin Balsam and Diane Cilento and all the good people are holed up in a shack at the top of the hill. Richard Boone walks up to tell them that his gang has them surrounded, and they’re going to have to give up the money if they want to get out alive. Any more questions? Newman aims his rifle through the window and says … 

(With a laugh) “I gotta a question. How you gonna get back down that hill?” And shoots him with that big Sharp’s rifle. Man, I tried to reverse decades of nonsense in Westerns with that scene. You’ve got a chance to get out alive and all you have to do is shoot the bad guy and you don’t do it? Why wouldn’t you do it? Because you’re on the honor system?

By the way, I loved Richard Boone in that movie, and also in The Tall T. He was the first actor who ever spoke my lines exactly the way I wrote them. I always wished I’d gotten to meet him, but I never did.

What other actors did you like playing your characters? 

Well, I thought The Tall T worked well because Budd Boetticher was the director and he knew how to make a no-nonsense Western. Also, Richard Boone was in that one, too. Delmer Daves did a good job with 3:10 to Yuma. The only thing I didn’t like is that they changed the ending when Glenn Ford lets Van Heflin take him to jail. I don’t like it when they soften a character like that.

When I first heard that Travolta was going to play Chili, I said, “Are you kidding? Is that the guy in those talking baby movies?”

What about the remake with Russell Crowe—did you have anything to do with that?

They never consulted me. They said they were going to call, but they never did.

What about Hombre and Joe Kidd. How were Newman and Eastwood?

Newman was good in Hombre. Clint Eastwood was good in Joe Kidd, but I’m not a big fan of the movie. My problem wasn’t with Eastwood. It was with the director, John Sturges. He had made some good Westerns like The Magnificent Seven, but he thought my bad guy in Joe Kidd should be a good guy.

What about Mr. Majestic, the Charles Bronson vehicle? Did you like that?

It made a pile of money. I liked that.

About some of the more recent ones, Steven Soderbergh seemed respectful of your novel when he filmed Out of Sight.

Yes, and it had a good cast. [George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Ving Rhames, and Albert Brooks.]

You were very much quoted on the subject of Stick with Burt Reynolds. Here’s a quote—I can’t remember now if you said it to me in an interview years ago or someone else, but I wrote it down. You said: “Bernard Malamud didn’t leave his apartment for three weeks after The Natural opened, so I’m thinking maybe I should enter a Trappist monastery.”  What went wrong on that one? Was Burt Reynolds not right for the lead?

First, let me say that I thought Burt was pretty good in the movie—Burt the actor. He was the best thing about the movie. It was Burt the director who got it wrong. I’ll just say this: they didn’t do my script, and it wasn’t my novel. I couldn’t stand that all the actors were acting like the material was supposed to be funny.

I guess the most successful was Get Shorty. How did John Travolta fit your idea of Chili Palmer?

When I first heard that Travolta was going to play Chili, I said, “Are you kidding? Is that the guy in those talking baby movies? If we have final approval, he’s out.” Then I saw Pulp Fiction and said, “Oh, my God, he’s the guy.” Then he didn’t want to do it, but Quentin Tarantino talked him into it. He told me that he told Travolta, “This guy is you. You get to act in this one.” And he did, and he was great. He said the lines right. He had the eyes right.

And now, there’s Justified, which to a lot of us seems to be the ultimate Elmore Leonard. That surprised me a bit because, you know, Miami, Detroit, maybe New Orleans—that’s Elmore Leonard territory. But how did you get to Harlan County, Kentucky?

I wrote two books about Raylan before the series [Riding the Rap and Pronto]. Raylan was assigned to Miami, and he made his reputation telling this mob killer, Tommy Bucks, that he had 24 hours to get out of town. With five minutes left, Rayland meets Bucks in an open-air restaurant and kills him in a shootout. The gunfight gave Raylan a reputation which has followed him all the way back home to Harlan, where he got sent until things cooled off. I guess you could say he’s been exiled …

To hell! I love it that the actors all seem so much like people from Harlan County.

You have to remember that places like Harlan County are where the bosses in Miami and Detroit get a lot of their product from, the stuff they sell in the cities, and that some of these backwoods places are among the biggest drug-producing centers in the country.

Where did you go for your background on Harlan County?

I was very moved by Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA, about the Brookside strike, where 180 coal miners and their wives fought a huge coal company, risked everything and paid a hard price for basic rights.

Isn’t that where the term “gun thugs,” which is used so often in Justified, started?

Yes. Miners who were working under killer conditions were shot at while picketing. That’s where the term came from. I also found good material in a 1967 book called Stinking Creek, about Knox County, Kentucky. It’s a heartbreaking book with photos of the people who lived there. And judging from the pictures, it’s a hard place to live. It’s aptly named, but like Harlan County, people call it home.

And you seem to be a big fan of the actors in the show, particularly Timothy Olyphant, who plays U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, who gets exiled back to Harlan County … Is that right, did I use the right word? Exiled? That’s sort of what happens.

I think their accents are perfect. Timothy is so good-looking I had my apprehensions about him. But when I saw him in the pilot, I thought he was perfect. Walton Goggins [who plays Boyd Crowder, Raylan’s dope-dealing doppelganger] is younger than the Boyd I created [in the story Fire in the Hole], but that’s OK. He is Boyd. And I really like Natalie Zea, who plays Winona.

You killed off Boyd in the story, but they not only brought him back, you brought him back in your new novel, Raylan.

I didn’t exactly bring him back from the dead. I just decided that the bullet missed his heart.

Why did you feel compelled to write another novel about Raylan? I’m not complaining. I love the show and I love the books. But it has kind of a strange effect. It’s like the two Raylans exist in parallel universes, and the same things don’t always happen in both TV and the literary worlds.

They made me an executive producer on the show, and executive producers don’t’ really do anything. I thought, “How can I sit here and collect money and not do anything?” So I wrote a book, Raylan. I didn’t want to interfere with the writers. I gave it to them and told them to take what they wanted. Someone said that when Graham Yost [the show’s creator] read it, he said, “Strip it and hang it up for parts.”

So the show didn’t much follow your story lines?

They changed one of my characters, and that worked, too. I had a man who was the marijuana king in western Kentucky. They turned the characters into a woman [Mags Bennett]. Margo Martindale was great and won an Emmy.

Someone told me they wear bracelets with the initials “WWED”? What does that mean?

(Laughing) It stands for “What Would Elmore Do?”