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.
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.