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.

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