Elmore Leonard: Writers pay tribute

Elmore Leonard at home in Michigan.
Elmore Leonard at home in Michigan.
(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

Elmore Leonard was a tremendously prolific author, whose long publishing career influenced more writers than we can count. We asked a few of Los Angeles’ favorite writers to share their memories of him.

Joseph Wambaugh, author of the bestselling “Hollywood Station” crime series: I can only say that today another tragedy has befallen Detroit with the loss of favorite son, Elmore Leonard. That star-crossed city can perhaps take a drop of solace in knowing that the entire world of books, and people who read them, share their grief today for our immeasurable loss.

Gary Phillips, crime novelist whose latest book is “The Warlord of Willow Ridge”: Among Elmore Leonard’s sayings was, “It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.”

He was the chain-smoking Zen master who, as far as I could tell, didn’t give a damn about Zen. Yet to achieve a certain state in the writing, the only way to get to what he did was to write and rewrite, do it again and again. Then think about it, throw out some stuff, and do it some more; trying to get to the organic rhythm and pace of the story you want to tell, to let the characters and their quirks take us along, the plot revealed as we go.

“To leave out the part that readers tend to skip,” he also advised.


The weaver of dialogue has left the building. But we have his teachings such as “Stick,” “Raylan,” “Unknown Man #89,” “Forty Lashes Less One” and so on for us to enjoy and learn from time and again.

Richard Lange, author of the acclaimed “Angel Baby”: Elmore Leonard was a hero of mine. He had a clean, direct, verbal style and yet was able to tap into the deep, dark currents swirling just beneath the gleaming facades of modern existence. The best of his books entertained on a surface level while at the same time offering scary glimpses of a savagery that’ll never be bred out of us, the snarls barely caged by our oh-so-white smiles. His famous rules for writing always seemed like shtick to me. He knew lots more than he let on -- about writing, about life -- but, like all smart craftsmen, kept the good stuff to himself. It’s there in the books though. Read them.

Attica Locke, acclaimed author of “The Cutting Season”: While I am well aware that I am walking in his shadow, as are most of us who believe in the crime novel as a piece of social study, as a writer I am most struck by how prolific Leonard was, writing into his 80s! You don’t get that far, or produce that much brilliance, unless you’re having a damn good time. My hope for my own career is to have half as much fun as he did.

Tod Goldberg, author of the short-story collection “Other Resort Cities” as well as the “Burn Notice” books: When I was 9, my older brother Lee left for college, and as a parting gift he gave me a huge stack of crime novels, among them Robert Parker, Donald Westlake and, of course, Elmore Leonard. (In retrospect, it seems like a bad idea to leave a 9-year-old with a bag of murder books, but we were an odd family.)

I devoured them. But the book that stands out in my mind, the one that I’ve always gone back to, is the first Elmore Leonard book I read: “Swag.”

I fear that in the future people will remember Leonard for his 10 Rules of Writing more than his 10 Rules for Success and Happiness (which should have the subtitle: “In Armed Robbery”), which his character Frank Ryan wrote on napkins and adhered to strictly and which, over the years, almost all of Leonard’s anti-heroes did as well.

Some important ones: “Always be polite on the job. Say please and thank you.” “Never say more than is necessary.” “Dress well. Never look suspicious or like a bum.” “Never associate with people known to be in crime.” These aren’t just good ideas for the criminal-minded, they’re a masters class in writing crime fiction.

Elmore Leonard didn’t just create memorable anti-heroes -- he fundamentally altered the way anti-heroes are written, his influence felt obviously in books, but also specifically in film and television; without Elmore Leonard, there’s no “Pulp Fiction,” but there’s also nothing to watch on the USA Network either.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to do a book signing with Elmore Leonard at the Festival of Books. I brought at least a dozen books for him to sign, all of which he did very kindly, and all of which he signed to Tom. I have since spent a great deal of time thinking about changing my name to Tom.

David Kipen, former NEA director of literature and owner of Libros Schmibros bookstore: I’ll always remember seeing Leonard interviewed by Martin Amis for Writers Bloc at the old Doheny Plaza theater. Leonard would be quoting Hemingway or DeLillo or Margaret Atwood or somebody, and all Amis wanted to do was quote Leonard himself right back.

I could go on about Leonard’s economy of language, or his comedy of psychopathy, or some damned thing, but let’s make like Leonard and leave out the parts people skip. Better to note that Leonard lived by the credo, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” or that he told such great stories that movies and TV have mined him for pretty great stuff in each of seven straight decades: “3:10 to Yuma” (the ‘50s), “Hombre” (the ‘60s), “The Moonshine War” (‘70s, and he also wrote the script), “52 Pick-Up” (‘80s), “Get Shorty,” “Jackie Brown” and “Out of Sight” (‘90s), “3:10 to Yuma” -- again! (the aughts), and now “Justified.” Name me another living writer who can say that.

Denise Hamilton, author, most recently, of the crime novel “Damage Control”: In 2005, I reviewed one of Elmore Leonard’s books -- “The Hot Kid” -- for the Los Angeles Times. Set in 1930s Oklahoma, it was a tight, sardonic, colorful, 288-page gem. And I marveled that in his ninth decade and after writing more than 40 books, Elmore Leonard was still turning in brisk, funny and compulsively readable novels.

I especially loved the spare quality of his writing and how he propelled his plots forward with dialogue. Sometimes when I’m stuck on a scene, I’ll still open a Leonard novel for inspiration and to study how he wrote it so funny and fast that it flows like water.

Writers loved Elmore Leonard because he was so amiable and approachable. He didn’t hold court in the officious way some “important” authors did, he chatted WITH people and was genuinely funny in person, not only on the page. He also told scathingly hilarious stories about working in Hollywood. Once at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, Lee and Tod Goldberg and I chatted with him for 20 minutes and he made us laugh so hard that our sides ached. Maybe because he’d been around so long and seen it all, Leonard found humor in almost every situation, and it came out in his prose. For him, life really was a divine comedy.


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