Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Elmore Leonard

Incredible. That's the only response I can come up with when I reflect on the hour this morning I got to spend with 20 other grad students at an intimate Q & A with legendary novelist Elmore Leonard.

To call Leonard a veteran writer would be an understatement; He's been at it for 60 years. Leonard began by looking back on his long career, which began in the '50s. He wrote westerns, which were in vogue at the time. In giving a nod to commercialism, he said that when he writes he always has in mind what the public will like, what will sell. It wasn't until the '80s, Leonard said, that he finally made the New York Times bestseller list. He reported that this didn't feel like a big deal, though, as he never read any of the books that made the list, but the achievement pleased him because he knew it would increase his book sales.

He spoke about his influences and how the first writer to profoundly impact him was Hemingway, although he also loves Cormac McCarthy, Pete Dexter, George Higgins and Jane Smiley. He spoke about his writing style, and how he writes a story solely through the eyes of the novel's characters, and that he eschews any writing in which the author's point of view muddies up the pureness of that ideal. Also, he noted that the point of view in a story can sometimes change as he writes a novel, as he realizes a secondary character has become more interesting than the primary one.

When Leonard was asked how he goes about writing from a point of view different from his own, he answered that the key is research, and that the details about the characters and their surroundings give them an authentic voice. Leonard then pointed to the back row, to a closely-cropped, serious looking, solidly built young man named Greg, who looked as if he could serve as Leonard's bodyguard, and could have been easily lifted from the pages of one of Leonard's novels. This was Leonard's research assistant and right-hand-man. At 86, Leonard is still sharp, but the few times he was unsuccessful in conjuring up the name of one of his novel's characters, his assistant would bark out the answer from the back row.

Leonard then addressed how he came up with the ideas for his novels, and said the genesis for many of his them come from photographs. Karen Sisco, one of the characters from "Out of Sight," came from an evocative photo of a female marshal.

I got a chance to ask Leonard about my favorite Elmore Leonard book, "Ten Rules of Writing." He said he originally wrote these rules out on two yellow sheets of paper as part of a speech. After the speech someone asked him for the sheets of paper and Leonard handed them over without a thought. Later, the New York Times asked him to write a column expanding on these rules, so he had to rewrite them. Meanwhile, the original papers were listed for sale, and Leonard had to buy them back for $600! Leonard went on to read us the rules, which are funny simply because they're so basic. He likes to bandy about the word Hooptedoodle, a word that sums up the intent behind his rules and has a sound that conveys its meaning: prose that is descriptive, flowery, extraneous and cluttered and, by definition, not dialogue. Leonard is a proponent of the "show, don't tell" school of writing, and said that he dislikes reading descriptions of what characters look like. He would rather paint of picture of the character with dialogue and action.

Telling us about his writing process, Leonard said he eschews computers. He likes to feel directly connected to his pen and paper, with no computer screen involved. He writes for eight hours each day, and no longer uses outlines for his chapters. He would rather see what his characters do, and that might not be what he originally had in mind. In order to get into the mind of his characters he may rewrite a scene from a different character's point of view. He shared an interesting anecdote about how a critic's accusation that he wrote his female characters in the style of Mickey Spillane led to Leonard taking a closer look how he writes the women in his novels. Because of this introspection, when he writes female characters he now thinks of them as simply as people, rather than women.

Leonard told us that it is said that it takes a million words to develop one's own writing voice. A prolific writer like Elmore has certainly achieved that many times over, leaving us with a distinctive voice in contemporary American literature.

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