Pulp fiction and crime author icon Elmore Leonard talks candidly about the new FX series Justified, the characters that are always with him, and his golden rule of writing.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
Many people populate a one-on-one conversation with Elmore Leonard. Speaking to him from his home outside Detroit, it’s clear that as beguiling a conversationalist as he is, as keen and sincere a listener, he is always at least a little bit somewhere else, with the menagerie of characters he’s created over a boundlessly prolific, nearly six decade writing career.
Leonard is, essentially, always writing. Not in a distracted, disconnected way. He just kind of strolls, like some effortlessly smooth Jazz Age tap dancer, between the world that is real, where you are, and the dozens of other places he’s created over the years – first in longhand and then on an IBM Wheelwriter electric typewriter.
Hollywood has always liked “Dutch” – a nickname he’s had since childhood (he didn’t like Elmore and so stuck with Dutch). His first adaptation for the short story “3:10 to Yuma” (which he originally sold to Dime Western magazine for 90 bucks) hit theaters in 1957 and starred Glenn Ford. For his part, Leonard has mostly liked Hollywood back, but struggled at times with screenwriting, which he doesn’t feel he’s that great at, and directors and producers that have bungled his work.
Whatever hassles he’s had with moviedom, he’s had vastly more success – Get Shorty and Out of Sight (both from screenplays by Scott Frank) to name a couple. He’s easily one of the top five most adapted pulp authors in the history of film, and that’s counting the likes of Agatha Christie and James M. Cain.
Now, at the age of 84, he is enjoying a new small screen success with the FX series Justified. It’s sort of a new-era Rockford Files, with brainy, extremely Leonardian dialogue. The series is not a direct adaptation, but it centers Leonard’s character Raylen Givens, a U.S. Marshal reassigned from Miami to his poverty-stricken childhood home in Eastern Kentucky. He’s the main character in both the novella Fire in the Hole, upon which the Justified pilot was based, and the novel Riding the Rap, a sequel to his novel Pronto, in which Givens also appears.
During an expansive conversation with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site, Leonard spoke about everything from why all writers are in it for the money to why it’s hard for him to get “his sound” in screenplays to how all of those characters in his head, waiting impatiently for a next act, can be maddening.
Photo: © 2010 FX
Timothy Olyphant (l) in Justified.
(Read more about the legendary career of Elmore Leonard in the Summer 2010 issue of Written By.)
You’ve had good and bad experiences with your work being adapted. What are your feelings about what’s being done with Justified?
I love it. I think they’ve got my sound down and they’re running with it. Did you hear about the little bracelets they wear?
No, I didn’t.
They’re rubber and on them – I think it’s kind of raised lettering – is written “W.W.E.D.?” – “What Would Elmore Do?” They’re trying to stay in my mind, you know, and write offbeat lines and hard lines and do what I do, and I think it’s great.
Apparently, the bracelets are working.
I think so.
They used Fire in the Hole as the pilot, and they’re using parts from a couple of other books that Raylen Givens is in. They’re not [direct adaptations] though, because they fool with it and set it up in a different way, but it works.
[Givens] was in Pronto and Riding the Rap… There’s a girl in Riding the Rap who’s in another book, the last book [Road Dogs], Dawn Navarro. I wanted to keep her out of it, at least for the time being because I might do another book with her.
You keep all these characters alive in a kind of constellation in your mind, don’t you?
Yeah, sure. I finish a book and wonder what they’re doing now, like they’re mannequins left in some position, waiting to be moved.
When you started writing Westerns, you discovered early the importance of the details of reality for cowboys and Indians, rather than the TV stereotypes out at the time. You really set to researching New Mexico, Arizona, American Indian history…
The kind of guns they used, the clothes, yeah. I researched Apaches primarily and cowboys; cowboys and cavalry for the most part in Arizona. There was a lot of stuff written about them at the time. There were serials in the Saturday Evening Post and Colliers about the cavalry fighting the Apaches. I liked the Apaches. I thought they were really bad. They didn’t wear feathers, they just had long hair and a band around their head. I liked that.
Not your typical TV Indian.
All the TV [Westerns], at least for the first year, ended with a gunfight in the street. I read in the research that that would rarely ever happen. If you wanted to shoot someone, you just walk into the saloon and shoot ‘em, you know?
So it’s a case of the truth being more interesting?
You tend to start off a new book with a character and a basic situation and then just go from there without any outline or notion of the end. What do you think that approach has given your writing that a more pre-planned approach would not?
I found early on that when you think of a scene that you might subsequently use, when you finally get to the point of using it, you’re kind of stuck with it. Then you think about it again and you say, “Well, jeez, I’m not doing this right. It could be a lot more fun and interesting.”
When the ideas occur as you’re writing, as you’re going along, it just works better. You don’t have to belabor some idea that you had a couple months before.
But what do you do then when you’re stumped, when you’re cold in the moment? I don’t know, maybe you don’t get stumped.
No, I do. I’ll think of a way to do the scene that will lead me out of it and leave me a way to not have to explain what’s in the guy’s mind at this particular moment. That’s when I’m usually stopped, when I’m asking, “Okay, what’s his attitude right now?”
The best thing to do is get away from that. Maybe he imagines a conversation with somebody where he describes his problem.
[But usually] within the first 100 pages I know who my characters are. Then there’s always a new character who’ll slip in later on, and I’ll say, “Oh God, I’ve gotta give him a name. I like this guy, he’s important.”
Then something else happens in the story, a subplot maybe.
So they just come and prove to you what their voice is or what their thing is?
Yeah, they’re kind of auditioned in the first scenes that they appear in. [For example], a guy owns a casino hotel, and he’s got a lot of money, and I think he’s one of the main characters. Then he talks to a guy that he hired to run all the gambling action in the casino. The first time the two of them are together, I see that I like this guy Jackie Garbo [from 1985’s Glitz] better than the guy who owns the casino. So he’s kind of pushed off.
Point being, you cannot limit yourself by your plans?
That’s the idea, right.
Has writing gotten harder or easier over all these years?
It’s gotten a little harder. It takes me longer. It could be my age, too, but it took me a year to write my latest book, Djibouti [which centers on East African pirates and Al Qaeda]. I had more research and more studying to do, with the help of my researcher [Gregg Sutter]. I couldn’t see my desk for almost a year. But it was worth it because I like the book.
You’ve said that you’ve approached writing both with a desire to write and to make as much money doing it as you could. Do you think that kind of honest, unpretentious attitude toward writing has helped you be a better, more productive writer?
Oh, definitely. All writers are in it for the money. What other reason is there?
But what about the notion of the starving artist, not selling out?
Samuel Johnson once said that anyone who would not write for money is a fool. You know? From the horse’s mouth, that’s why we’re doing it, but still attempting to do it as well as we can and not sacrificing our voice. I’m not going to write like some guy who’s making a lot more money than I am just because he is.
Frankly, it’s not that important. The story is the important thing and then go for the money.
Are there any perils to writing with money in mind?
I’m not writing with money in mind. I’m making the writing as good as I can. I’m at my limit. I can’t do it any better. Every once and a while I’ll think I can and I’ll try a different thing, but I’m at my limit.
You’ve also said that screenwriting is work to you, because you feel like an employee. Is there any aspect of it that has taught you something about writing in general, or is it just a chore?
It was a chore [mostly] because you’ve got several bosses. You’re not just writing for yourself. I write for myself. I’m the only one I have to please. When I have to please a producer and a director and so on, then I’m just taking in writing, doing what they want me to do.
There was a time when I had to do it, ‘cuz I needed the money. I wasn’t very proud of the pictures, but it was just something I had to do. There was no way to talk [executives] into anything. You’d have a story conference on a Friday afternoon, and they’d give all this stuff, all their ideas, [and] you’d go back to your hotel room, sit there looking at the wall and writing it, and then Monday you’d meet ‘em again, and they’d forgotten all the bullshit they’d told you Friday.
Your golden rule of writing has been to write in a way that does not feel like writing. Do you have any addendums to that philosophy, and do you feel it applies to screenwriting?
I don’t know. That’s something I did have trouble with when screenwriting because when I’m writing a scene, it’s always from a character’s point of view; it’s how he reacts to what’s happening. The other people in the scene will tell him all sorts of things, but it’s him and his mind that’s driving the scene…
That’s the way I write. I can switch viewpoints as well to characters I like or who have something to say, but I’m never in it. I don’t use any words that might be more appropriate if I were writing as a literary writer. I don’t use any words that my characters don’t know.
I want to keep that sound, their sound.
How much of your mental time and energy is consumed by thinking about these characters and these stories? It seems like it’s a pretty big chunk.
Well, yeah, sure. Once I know who my characters are, I see them all the time. I’m with them all the time. I quit work at six o’clock, and I take a shower and try to forget ‘em, but I don’t.
No, I can’t.
Does it ever get maddening?
Well, my wife will say, “God! Who are you now?” I never use their language, but she will see an attitude that isn’t mine.