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'Road Dogs': More Leonard made for Hollywood
1. Visualize Harry Dean Stanton.
Head north out of Detroit on I-75 past 8 Mile Road and you get to Bloomfield Hills, the wealthy suburb where Elmore Leonard lives. Although he was born in New Orleans in 1925, the 83-year-old novelist grew up middle-class and Catholic in Detroit and has lived in the area all his life. In several of his novels, Bloomfield Hills is the scene of home invasions, shootouts and kidnappings.
Leonard writes at an oak table in an airy ground-floor sitting room. The table has a few neat piles of research paper, the yellow legal pads he uses to write longhand and a big ashtray. He and his second wife, Joan, bought this house in 1987. She died of cancer in 1993 and now Leonard lives here with his third wife, Christine. He has four grown children from his first marriage, a dozen grandkids and three great-grandchildren.
Every one of Leonard's books is still in print. Virtually every novel he has written has been sold to Hollywood. This month, he's publishing his 43rd novel, "Road Dogs" (William Morrow: 272 pp., $26.99).
"Road Dogs" is a sequel of sorts to "Out of Sight," which was made into a movie by Steven Soderbergh, starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. In this new book, bank robber Jack Foley (Clooney's character) has been sprung from prison and is living in Venice, Calif., where his life gets complicated by the Cuban gangster who engineered his release, the gangster's femme fatale girlfriend and a vengeful FBI agent.
Like his heroes, Leonard doesn't do pleasantries or small-talk. He sits at his table and discusses the origins of "Road Dogs."
"I like George Clooney," he says. "And I thought, well hell, he'll want to do another one of these."
Leonard has always prospered by looking to Hollywood. Film money bankrolled his career for decades. It's said he always puts an actor's face on his characters when he's writing.
Leonard confirms this, firing up a Virginia Slim Light. "The one I visualize more often than anyone is Harry Dean Stanton. They say he never misses his mark, never ever forgets his lines and always knows what word to hit, which is more than you can say about movie stars."
2. Everybody's in show biz.
"I was always after my mother, 'Why'dja name me Elmore?' It's really hard to go through the first part of your life named Elmore. Finally in high school the guy next to me says, 'I'm going to call you Dutch, after the knuckleball pitcher' " -- the Washington Senators' Emil "Dutch" Leonard.
Outlaws, cowboy movies and Hemingway made Leonard a writer. In a family snapshot from the 1930s, he's the kid holding a toy gun in a dead-on imitation of a famous photograph of Bonnie Parker. After the Navy, college, and starting a family, Leonard worked for a Detroit advertising agency and began writing on the side. He published the first of his six western novels at age 28.
In 1957, one of his stories was made into "3:10 to Yuma." "I got $4,000 for the original," Leonard says. "But I still haven't got the $2,000 they owe me for the remake."
The 1960s were tough for Leonard. He quit his ad agency job to write full-time but ended up doing a lot of freelance work in automotive advertising. TV, Leonard decided, was killing the market for westerns, so he switched to crime novels.
His first, "The Big Bounce," was rejected 84 times. The Hollywood agent who had taken over his career -- an old-school percenter named H. N. Swanson -- was undeterred. Hanging in the room where Leonard writes is a framed photograph of Swanson, jowly and imperious, with a handwritten caption: "I'm gonna make you rich, kiddo!"
That's what he did. In 1969, Swanson scored publishing and movie deals for "The Big Bounce" and a second book, "The Moonshine War," netting Leonard $100,000 and his first screenwriting job. Leonard calls "The Big Bounce," which features a pre-"Love Story" Ryan O'Neal, "the second-worst movie ever made." The first-worst, he says, is the 2004 remake.
3. It takes 10 years or more to find your natural style.
Lured by increasingly fat checks, Leonard began commuting between Detroit and Los Angeles. In 1972, he got his first original screenplay credit for "Joe Kidd," a Clint Eastwood western. He adapted his 1974 novel, "Mr. Majestyk," into a film starring Charles Bronson.
Between movie jobs, Leonard honed his style. He'd always been a lean storyteller with a strong command of conflict and action. Now he found a down-and-dirty model in "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," the 1972 novel by George V. Higgins about Boston low-lifes. It's written almost entirely in terse, foul-mouthed dialogue. Leonard thinks it is the best crime novel ever written.
"It set me free," he says. "I could use profanity freely. Before that I wasn't using it hardly at all. Or sex scenes. Because of my mother!"
4. Face what has to be faced.
Almost everything that's great about Leonard as a writer comes after 1977, the year he divorced his first wife (they had been separated for three years) and, crucially, quit drinking for good.
For a 1984 book of testimonials titled "The Courage to Change: Hope and Help for Alcoholics and Their Families," Leonard contributed a bracing account of his years as a drinker.
"All I had to do was sit at one meeting and listen to the stories to know that I was an alcoholic," he writes. "I admitted it at my first meeting. I opened my mouth and it came to me, 'I'm Dutch, and I'm an alcoholic.' But this was admission before the acceptance."
Still, acceptance came. "I'm doing what I do best," he continues. "I'm doing exactly what I want to do. There is no better situation. I sit and look out the window when I'm writing away, I look out, and I don't believe it. I'm sitting here all by myself, doing this story, getting all excited about it and getting paid for it -- a lot of money."
5. History can work for you.
Sober, Leonard kicked off one of the most amazing second acts in American fiction.
First came a commitment to research. In 1978 he got an assignment from the Detroit News Magazine for a story on Squad 7 of the Detroit Police Homicide Section. His 6,000-word feature, "Impressions of Murder," is a masterwork -- and a core sample of the uncanny voicing and reporting that infuses every book he's written since.
Next, Leonard hired former autoworker Gregg Sutter as a researcher. Sutter, based in L.A., serves up what he calls "a big banquet of data" that enhances the "production values" of Leonard's books. Leonard has never owned a computer. Sutter is better than any computer. He produces exhaustive dossiers, photographs locations and shoots video interviews. He'll find out exactly how to break into a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. All this results in precisely rendered details and characters who sound real and know what they're talking about.
6. If reason doesn't work, get up and kick it in the teeth.
In the early 1980s, Leonard hit his stride with a string of books set mostly in south Florida: " Gold Coast," "Split Images," "Cat Chaser," "Stick," and "LaBrava." Then he was recruited by Sidney Poitier and Walter Mirisch to develop a sequel to "In the Heat of the Night." One idea was to have the movie take place in Atlantic City, so Leonard and his researcher started digging. By the time the studio canceled the project, Leonard had already started his next novel, "Glitz," and set it in Atlantic City and Puerto Rico.
"Glitz" sold more than 200,000 copies in hardcover, and earned its author a million dollars. Leonard made the New York Times bestseller list for the first time.
7. Stop playing a role.
Another movie that never got made led to "Get Shorty." Dustin Hoffman wanted to make a film from "LaBrava," and Hoffman, Mirisch and Leonard embarked on a legendary series of marathon meetings that epitomized Hollywood at its most absurd. "Get Shorty," Leonard's 1990 novel, makes a plot about a loan shark from Brooklyn who becomes a Hollywood player hilariously plausible.
8. Let it happen.
Leonard doesn't do whodunits or morality tales. Much of his fiction involves witty street or shop talk. Often, it's brutally funny.
Here's one favorite:
In "Freaky Deaky," a cop is ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation after an incident in which a drug dealer is killed by a bomb. The cop becomes increasingly exasperated by the evaluator's condescension. When the doctor asks a question he knows the answer to -- how did the drug dealer die? -- the cop says, "We believe the deceased attempted to outrun a substance that explodes at the rate of fifteen thousand feet per second and didn't make it."
9. Keep yourself in suspense.
The working title of Leonard's next novel is "Djibouti" -- the name of the tiny country in the Horn of Africa where 25,000 ships a year ply the sea lanes between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean and Somali pirates have captured ships and scored multimillion-dollar ransoms.
His heroine, a 35-year-old documentary filmmaker from New Orleans named Dara Barr, has been out shooting film of pirates. Al Qaeda operatives are eyeing natural-gas tanker ships as potential weapons of mass destruction, and who's this rich American in a high-tech yacht with his fiancee?
All these characters, including the pirates, converge in post-Katrina New Orleans, where everybody wants to see (or steal) Dara's footage.
In the last few years, Leonard's writing has had an air of -- if not coasting exactly -- than scaled-back ambition. "Road Dogs," superb as it is, feels a bit slight. With "Djibouti," it sounds like Leonard is swinging for the fences.
10. We all answer to a higher power.
In the back of Leonard's house, there's a room where various editions and translations of his books are neatly arranged. Also on display are a couple of signed baseball cards of his namesake, Emil "Dutch" Leonard, along with awards and his 1985 Newsweek cover.
"I wrote all this?" Leonard says.
Genre books are notoriously perishable, but it's a safe bet that Leonard's best work will age pretty much like that of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith and John Le Carre -- gracefully.
Northrop Frye once offered a bracing distinction "between the refined writer too finicky for popular formulas, and the major one who exploits them ruthlessly."
Dutch belongs in the majors.
Espen is a former senior editor at the New Yorker and was editor of Outside magazine from 1999 to 2006.