In the 56 years Detroit native Elmore Leonard has been writing, he has developed all kinds of rules about his craft. At a recent event in Ann Arbor, he told the audience with his characteristic deadpan wit, “I leave out everything people skip over.”
Another rule, which he follows religiously, is that he makes himself invisible. “I let my characters speak for themselves,” he said.
And speak they do. Leonard, 83, author of "Get Shorty" and "Be Cool," is considered one of the best writers in any genre at using dialogue to move a story. “Dialogue was the easiest thing for me,” he said. “It was really fun for me to hear people talking.”
In his latest book “Road Dogs,” Leonard uses only a short introduction to set the stage, and then the characters are on their own. The book is something of a Leonard reunion, with three characters from his previous books meeting up for no good. There’s gentleman bank robber Joe Foley, who was portrayed by George Clooney in the film version of “Out of Sight;” Cuban gangster Cundo Rey from “La Brava;” and finally, the gorgeous and dangerous Dawn Navarro, from “Riding the Rap." Rey and Foley become friends in prison, and Foley, who is released early, waits for Cundo’s release by “watching over” Dawn, who has become the wealthy Rey’s arm candy. Conspiracy and scams are not far behind.
You don’t have to read too many Leonard novels to know the characters aren’t always what they seem and that at least one (may be all) will end up on the short end of the stick.
It took awhile, but now Leonard’s son Peter is following his father’s path. Peter Leonard has just published his second mystery, “Trust Me,” which to, his credit, features many of the elements that have made his father’s books so successful.
Peter Leonard said his father, whom he often slips into calling “Elmore,” always told him he should be a writer, “but he told that to all my brothers and sisters.”
He recalls sending his father a six-page, short story shortly after college. “I got back three pages of commentary,” he said. “One comment was that my characters are like strips of leather drying in the sun. They are all alike. But that isn’t what kept me from writing. I had a great advertising career and a family.”
Peter Leonard knows there will be no race to catch up with father, who has written more than 40 books. On a recent trip together to the Tucson Book Festival, the younger Leonard looked at his father going over the long list books he had written. He forgets exactly what he said to his father, but he remembers the answer: “You better get going.”
Peter Leonard’s second book has the ring of one of his father’s classic novels. There is a con-woman, a bad-ass criminal she hangs with and a group of slapstick thugs who make a robbery go wrong. Bodies fly, allegiances get cloudy and the pages almost turn themselves.
While Peter Leonard toiled as the head of his own ad agency, he would visit his father in his Birmingham home. “He was having fun,” he said. “He’d be in his office, which was his living room, and he would be having fun.”
The elder Leonard remembers his own working at ad agency days, when he would have a hand in his desk drawer surreptitiously writing Western short stories.
Peter Leonard learned his lesson. He started writing screenplays, but his father gave him some simple advice: “You have to be out there.” So he turned one of his screenplays into his first novel, “Quiver.”
Elmore Leonard has legions of fans that turn out for his infrequent events. Many of them were drawn to Leonard’s work because of its Detroit connection, and they stayed fans when his books took them to Hollywood or Miami.
Lansing resident and Michigan Court of Appeals Judge William Whitbeck has read each of the Leonard’s recent books, and he said if he could ask a question of Elmore Leonard, he’d want to know where he gets his dialogue. “He can write a real pageturner and you want to know what happens,” Whitbeck said. Whitbeck may have a professional interest in the answer, since he has his own debut mystery coming out next year.
East Lansing resident Tom Plasman, who was in Ann Arbor last Thursday for the Leonard’s event, has read about half of Elmore Leonard’s books. “You become part of the story and he doesn’t gild the lily,” he said. “When somebody is hit in his book, I hit the floor.”
Plasman also likes Elmore Leonard’s characters for their audacity, pointing out Chili Palmer (played by John Travolta in screen adaptations of the books) of “Get Shorty” and “Be Cool.”
When Leonard was asked recently about what the real Chili Palmer was doing (he borrowed the name), he quickly responded. “He sued me,” Leonard said. “It cost me $40,000.” Leonard writes just like he talks. He uses no excess of words.
The Leonards routinely banter about things as simple as research. Peter Leonard does most of his research online, and he knows his dad hasn’t discovered the Internet.
“I don’t need it. I have Gregg [Sutter],” Elmore Leonard said, referring to his fulltime researcher of 30 years.
Elmore Leonard & Peter Leonard
p.m. Thursday, June 4 Schuler
Books & Music, Eastwood Towne Center FREE, tickets
required.Unlimited tickets available, but only first 100 will be seated
(517) 316-7495 www.schulerbooks.com