Tuesday, August 20, 2013

My interview with Elmore Leonard made me a fan

Macomb Daily file photo/David N. Posavetz

It is a sad day for writers, but also TV fans, readers and students – anyone who has been entertained by the words of Elmore Leonard. The Michigan native and crime novelist,  whose books have launched many Hollywood movie and TV series, died Tuesday morning at his home from complications of a stroke he suffered a few weeks ago.

When I met him three years ago he was two months shy of 85.

It was the inaugural year of the Elmore Leonard Literary Arts and Film Festival and I was granted an interview with the author -- although I don’t think he would have denied anyone a chat provided they were seriously interested in his work. 

Admittedly, I was excited to meet him. 

I considered the menagerie of characters that Leonard created over his nearly six decade writing career. If audiences were not being introduced to them through his books (44-and-counting) or novellas they are discovering them on the big screen. There was always some ambitious director or screenwriter plucking a villain or hero from Leonard’s circus of feisty true-to-life characters. His words inspired almost 30 films and TV movies including “3:10 to Yuma” (based on a shorty story he sold to Dime Western magazine for 2 cents a word). This September, I was hoping to chat with him again about a film debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival that was based on his book. For Leonard’s festival, organizers featured a special showing of the pilot episode for the hit FX Network series, “Justified.” Though not a direct adaptation, at the heart of the TV series that spawned a new generation of Leonard fans, including my son, is Leonard’s beloved character U.S. marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant). 

As excited as I was, I was leery, too. A few people who had met him when he was younger gave me the impression that he was aloof and difficult. So, I went to the interview expecting him to honor his commitment to the festival but nod for a handler to give me the old five-finger warning (meaning you are outta here in five minutes).

Instead it was just him who answered the door.

As luck would have it, he was in the middle of writing. After a cordial greeting he ushered me into his office. It was an area in the great room sectioned off by a wooden desk facing a wall of windows overlooking his garden. On his desk was a burning candle, no doubt trying to mask the smell cigarette smoke, an electric typewriter (not quite an antique but definitely not modern) and a stack of paper. As he showed me later the canary paper bludgeoned by pencil corrections were pages of his new book about U.S. marshal Givens.

Following a quick session with our photographer David Posavetz, which included Leonard offering to pose with Poz, he and I settled into a casual conversation about his career and his family. He is the father of five children, and his son Peter, who lived nearby,  followed in his footsteps, going into advertising before achieving his own success as a novelist in 2008. Elmore was gracious and kind, not only in the manner in which he responded to questions but in carrying the conversation onward. For hours we spoke about writing. I learned that while he drafted a screenplay – it was not fun for him.

At one point during the interview, he saw that I was staring at the sheets of yellow paper strewn across his desk. I was straining to read the straightforward and believable Leonardian dialogue that made him famous.  So, he grabbed one and read the words aloud, like they were all new to him. After reading a sentence or two, he put the paper down and made a correction, then read to the end of the page. “I always write in longhand first,” he told me. “I cross out what I don’t want and then just keep adding to it.” When he felt the page was done, he would complete a polished version. It was done, not on a computer, but on his trusty IBM Wheelwriter electric typewriter. 

When we both needed a moment to stretch, he gave me a quick tour of the kitchen and living room (adorned with photos of his family and works of art). We rounded a corner and entered a small room where his wife was working. Stacked on several shelves in the small room were the books he had published over the years. With one children’s book to my name, I can only imagine how proud he was of his 44 titles. He did not gloat or brag but proceeded to tell me a story about several of them including his newest title at the time, “Djibouti.”

By then I could tell by the shadows on the wall it was time to leave, or invite myself to dinner. Even then, he did not rush me out the door. Instead he eyed his collection of books and picked a stack of titles that he knew my teenage son would enjoy.

My time with Elmore Leonard that afternoon could not have been better. I was inspired. I was entertained and I felt enriched having met him.  

One final note
If there was one Elmore Leonard quote I'll remember it's this -- as I am a vacuum when it comes to interesting facts ...
“Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language.

You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.”

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