Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Elmore Leonard

What all the journos and critics are saying about Elmore Leonard, who died yesterday, is true: no other crime writer could match his deadpan dialogue, subtle humor, and prose as simple and unadorned as a churchkey—the hardest kind to write.

But Dutch was also a generous and thoughtful man, a Good Guy—a rarity among writers, who tend to be neurotic, self-obsessed and, frankly, uncharitable.

When I flew to Detroit to interview him around 1980 or 1981, he was well known to Western and mystery fans but not yet nationally famous. I told him I'd rent a car at the airport and drive out to his suburban home, but he wouldn't hear of it. "I'll pick you up," he said, "and take you back."

And so he did in his brand-new Saab sports car, though the drive took nearly an hour each way and the plane was late getting in.

I captured our interview on a little cassette recorder, for as a deaf journalist I couldn't trust the accuracy of my lipreading. Several times during the two-hour-long talk, he stopped and said, "Play it back. Let's make sure the thing is picking up everything." Only one other author I interviewed—Susan Cheever—displayed that kind of concern.

He insisted I stay to lunch, a nice spread his wife, Joan, provided. During that time we talked about book reviewing, and he expressed concern that he was writing the kind of piece newspaper editors appreciated. At the time he was still putting food on the table with book reviews, and it wasn't until a few years later that the celebrity the movies made from his novels finally freed him from nickel-and-diming.

"It takes all day to do a book review," he observed. "Six hours of reading, an hour of writing, two hours of rewriting. All for seventy-five bucks."

If he spent more time rewriting than he did writing, that probably helps explain why he was so good.

At about 1 p.m. by my watch he said it was time to take me back to the airport. My plane didn't leave until 4 or so. Ah, he's finally tired of this, I thought, and wants to get rid of me. I didn't blame him. He'd spent most of the day on the interview and needed to get back to writing.

"Your watch is on Chicago time," he said with a smile. "We're on Eastern time."

I made the plane. I wouldn't have if Dutch hadn't been so gracious.

On using real names for fictional characters

Many of the imaginary characters in my Steve Martinez novels bear the names of people I knew in high school. Instead of riffling through phone books looking for likely names, I just pull down my 1958 Evanston Township High School yearbook and find my characters in the class listings.

Of course the real people have nothing in common with the fictional characters, just the names.

For me this method of naming is not only convenient but also an aide-memoire—it helps forestall those vexing moments of trying to remember who was called what.

There are other good reasons, and you'll find them in this droll Op-Ed piece from today's New York Times.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Cover shot

Today I visited Bonanza Falls on the Iron River near Silver City in Ontonagon County, Michigan, the prototype for my mystery novels' Porcupine County. A photographer and her model were at work at the base of the falls, and here they are.

The left half of the photograph would make a fetching cover shot for the jacket of a whodunit, wouldn't it? Just put the title above the model and the author's name below, and that's all one needs.

In fact, had the model been wearing early19th century pioneer dress, she'd have been perfect for the jacket of Hang Fire, my latest novel.

Click on the photo for a larger and more detailed version.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


One of the tasks of the fifth Steve Martinez novel (if I ever finish it) will be for Steve, born Native American but adopted as an infant and raised in white culture, to confront his Lakota biological heritage in dramatic fashion.

Lately I've been trying to figure out how to do this, and perhaps a good setting would be the Ojibwe powwow hosted by the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians every year on the southern shore of the lake near Watersmeet, Michigan. That's in Gogebic County, the bailiwick just south of Steve's jurisdiction in the fictional Porcupine County (really Ontonagon County).

And so I attended the 2013 powwow last weekend. It was deeply fascinating, primarily because it is intended as a gathering for Native Americans, not itinerant tourists. No admission is charged. (Non-Native Americans are welcome all the same.)

The people who dance are largely believers in traditional Indian religions. The music is drumming and the songs are in Ojibwemowin, the language of the Anishinabe, better known to whites as Ojibwe or Chippewas. Assimilated Native Americans from all over "Indian country" in the Midwest also attend, presumably to socialize with friends but also, I suspect, to tap their spiritual roots.

The participants show extreme pride in not only the colorful ceremonial dress of Woodland and Plains Indians, but also in their long history of military service to an ungrateful country that has lied to and cheated them from the very beginning. I don't yet know how Steve is going to approach this kind of devotion or what effect it will have on him, but much will depend on what he sees as well as what he experiences.

To that end I took a camera along on my visit and videotaped some of the dancing. The result follows:

Monday, August 5, 2013

Here's the flyer that's going out to the bulletin boards all over Upper Michigan's Ontonagon County, the prototype for my novels' Porcupine County. Click on the flyer for a larger and more readable version.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Lumberjack Steam Train

I do not ordinarily care for roadside attractions, especially in the middle of nowhere. But when last week I found myself in Rhinelander in rural north central Wisconsin, it seemed only appropriate for a rail buff with a small boy's heart to drive the 30 miles east on U.S. 8 to Laona and ride the "Lumberjack Steam Train."

This turned out to be a surprisingly interesting operation. The locomotive is a superbly rebuilt coal-fired 1916 Vulcan 2-6-2 Prairie, a rarely seen type still running. The destination, a lumber company camp converted into a fascinating living history museum, captivated me as well as the families it was designed for.

Although the ride is only fifteen minutes long and covers barely two miles of ground, the cars are well-kept antiques, and one of them is an open air carriage converted from an outside braced wooden boxcar—perfect for someone learning to take and process video with a digital camera.

And so here's my maiden effort at moviemaking. (There's plenty of railroading sound, and there are subtitles, although I still have to learn how to add narration.) Click on HD and then Full Screen for best effect.

If you go: Rides to the logging camp start at 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday (closed Sundays), rain or shine. There are three other departures: one at noon, the next at 1 p.m., and the last at 2 p.m. Return trips are at 11:20 a.m., 12:20 p.m., 1:20 p.m., 2:45 p.m. and 4 p.m. Tickets are adults, $21; children 4-12, $9. Discounts are available for seniors, families and groups.