August 22, 2013 | by Jonathan Segura
Elmore Leonard died this week. This is terribly sad news. It’s terribly sad when the world loses someone fantastically gifted who also, through some cosmic fluke, is not a dick. Elmore Leonard was not a dick. He was nice. He wrote something like a book a year, and even the crap ones were better than most of what passes for decent fiction these days. And he was one cool motherfucker.
We hung out one afternoon in October 2010 at his house in the suburbs north of Detroit. I was interviewing him for a story just before his ninety-millionth novel, Djibouti, was about to hit. He wore this black sweater with a scraggly beard and smoked cigarette after cigarette in his office, just talking. His daughter was in the other room futzing with this chair that was in the process of getting reupholstered. Gregg Sutter, Elmore’s longtime research man, floated in and out of the room a couple times, and Elmore sat there at his desk doing his third or fourth interview of the day—late in the day now—an eighty-five-year-old guy talking about how he’s got the best job in the world and why would he ever want to stop doing that? Apparently he didn’t. Sutter said recently that Elmore was banging away at his next book up until he had a stroke a couple weeks ago.
Back then, we talked about a bunch of stuff. The usual chaff about his writing process (longhand, then typewriter), his aversion to all that social media junk, what he was writing now. (Stacked uneasily on a chair nearby was a stack of material about mountaintop removal that Gregg had dug up; it would become fodder for his last novel, Raylan.) He’d just unboxed his first cell phone. He smoked and talked dismissively about his atrial fibrillation and how “you can get a stroke easily with it” and so he took a couple pills for it every day and had bloodwork done every week or so. This was a serene, cool man much more like the smiley bemused grandpa pictured in his current official author photo. Previous versions featured a scowly guy rocking lavender-shaded sunglasses and a the-fuck-you-looking-at puss. I can’t imagine meeting that guy, after having met this guy.
If you haven’t read an Elmore Leonard novel, now would be a good time to do that. I normally tell people to start with The Hot Kid, which merges the two genres he owned: westerns and crime. But it’s not “vintage” Elmore Leonard, in that it takes place over a few years instead of a much more compressed few days or weeks, and it isn’t strictly about a few people in a hard situation making mostly bad choices. Vintage Elmore Leonard is that: some characters and a problem that only gets bigger, and it’s all powered by some of the best dialogue you’ll ever read. Really. Here’s a line from a random page in Mr. Paradise, where a bad dude is setting up a job with some other bad dudes:
“What we’ll be doing isn’t exactly show business. You walk in where I tell you the guy will be, shoot him or throw him out a window and collect the balance, your twenty grand each. What I have to do for half that much is find you the job. I can’t advertise, can I? Like I’m one of those personal injury fuckheads. I can’t appeal to the little housewife whose husband beats her up every time he gets drunk. And she can’t run an ad in the Help Wanted. So I have to deal with people who shoot each other.”
So pick up Mr. Paradise, too, because you’re going to want to know how that plays out. Remember Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown? Go buy Rum Punch. The movie’s based on it. As is a film festival’s worth of others (3:10 to Yuma has been adapted twice). Plus that TV show Justified. The thing about an Elmore Leonard novel that’s proven to be pretty much irresistible to Hollywood is that it’s just so goddamned effortless and fun, and, good lord, the characters can talk. You never get the sense Elmore’s trying to convince you how bad-ass these guys are or that he’s straining to pull it all together. The stories just roll on, and when someone important gets shot the book doesn’t slow down to put a big ol’ exclamation point on what just went down. It happens in like two lines in the middle of a chapter and then the characters move on.
I came to Elmore late. My agent at the time, who was shit, said I should read him. It would be helpful, she thought. Turns out that was the one thing she was ever right about. I assume a lot of agents and editors tell their writers to read Elmore. You learn a hell of a lot more about writing by reading Road Dogs than you do Madame Bovary. Or at least I did. Stuff about not wasting the reader’s time, and focusing on what is important to the story rather than on indulging in that frilly shit writers love to indulge in. Why use one word when you can use ten super special ones, right? Wrong.
So it was that when I lined up the interview with Elmore, I pulled that douchebag maneuver I am somewhat ashamed of admitting having done, but it’s something everyone does, so what the hell: I took a copy of my novel with me to give to him. I signed it, and, after the interview was over, we had this really awkward moment where I mumbled something about Iwrotethisandhereitisandmaybeyoucanfindthetimetoreaditbutmaybenotwhateverit’salright. And Elmore, because, again, motherfucker is cool, he opened it up to the first page and actually! Started! Reading! The! Book! And he said, “This starts pretty good.”
Which is very likely something he said to the dozens of a-holes who showed up at his house or his readings or at the restaurants he liked to go to and said, “Hey, I wrote this book and you should read it.” But the thing is, whether or not he meant it, it seemed real. “This starts pretty good.” Then he set it on his desk and motioned that I should follow him. Which I did, out of his office and around the corner and down the hall into another, smaller room lined with bookshelves sagging under the weight of Elmore Leonard novels from every corner of the globe: international versions, translations, hardcovers, paperbacks, airport special mass market editions. Piles and piles and piles of them. There was a fax machine in there that looked broken.
“This is where I do business,” he said. Soon he grabbed a yellowed old slab of scratchy, glued-together pages from the shelf and handed it over. He did this with all the care a minimum-wage deli guy does when he reaches into the cooler to grab your pastrami. It was a copy of his first book. “First edition. 1953, I think,” he said. “I weighed 165 then. Now I weigh like 142.”
Dude for real talked like that.
There was a table behind him, and on top of it was a pile of would-be covers for Djibouti. Some are designs he liked but his publisher hated, some are designs his publisher liked and he hated. The one they landed on he wasn’t so hot on. But, whatever: let the publisher fuck up the cover. He wrote the words on the pages inside. The ones your kids’ll be reading.
Jonathan Segura is the author of Occupational Hazards (Simon & Schuster, 2008) and has written for GQ and NPR. His work is anthologized in The Best American Sports Writing of 2013 edited by J. R. Moehringer. He is the senior editor of digital media at Publishers Weekly.