Elmore Leonard answers my questions

Last week, Elmore Leonard answered reader questions at the Barnes & Noble Center Stage, a message board thread in which prominent writers are given an opportunity to interact with fans. I’ve read a lot about Leonard’s approach to writing, thoughts on writers, and so on that it took me a little while to think of unique questions I wanted to ask. I came up with two sets of five and ended up with all of them answered (even if #9 – which is #4 of Conversation #2 – didn’t really get answered specifically, ‘no’ is still an answer).

You can visit the link above or read the following transcript. I’ve put my original questions in italics, Elmore’s responses in boldface type, and my commentary in [brackets].

Hi Elmore,

I’ve been reading your work since I was fifteen (I’m thirty now) and my friends and family always know when you have a new book coming out soon because I won’t shut up about it. Out of Sight is one of my favorite stories and I wrote an analysis about it for my final examinations to earn my MFA in Creative Writing last spring. I have a few questions for you and I appreciate the time you’re taking to answer my and other peoples’ questions.

1. I enjoy the way you introduce unique, distinct characters and then let them play with each other as the story develops (Tishomingo Blues comes to mind right away).  I wonder if, in your writing process, you first have an idea of events within the story or if you prefer to start with an idea for a character(s)? If you’ve tried both of these approaches, why do you find one more successful than the other?

— The way I approach it, I always start with characters and  then fit them into a situation or place, like a town in Mississippi for example  I usually have an occupation for a character.  Like in Tishomingo Blues, Dennis is the high diver goes who dives off an 80 foot ladder into a 20 foot wide pool that is 9 feet deep. Up on his perch, Dennis witnesses a murder down at the base. So then I think about more characters and give them names and backgrounds.

[This response doesn’t surprise me but his approach amazes me. He places such trust in his characters to push the story forward, it’s so bold.]

2. Your supporting characters are fun to read about. When you’re creating characters like The Mutt in Pagan Babies, Glenn in Get Shorty, and Arlen in Tishomingo Blues, what helps you create someone who’s memorable and compelling without stealing focus from your main story? Do you have plans for a new short story collection featuring supporting characters? You spoiled me with the tale of Chickasaw Charlie in When the Women Come Out to Dance.

— I don’t want to create an obvious character.  I want an interesting one who the reader will want to know about.  Often they are cast against the obvious type.

— I don’t really write short stories unless someone, like Otto Penzler, asks me.

[He’s talking about building a natural intrigue in his characters, a sort of something that makes the reader compelled of their own accord to learn more about them. In essence, he’s talking about character charisma. For a guy who cut his teeth delivering short story after short story to the western dime digests for twenty years, I suppose I’d want to move on to something new, too.]

3. Given your enjoyment of the film adaptations of Get Shorty and Out of Sight, did the thought of seeing satisfying film sequels spur you at all to write Be Cool and Road Dogs? If not, what compelled you to re-visit Chili and Foley?

— Definitely Chili.  I though for sure they’d want another one.  Too bad the sequel was such a terrible movie.  Road Dogs, I don’t think of it so much as a sequel.  I just liked the characters so I used them again.  But if George Clooney wants to play the part, I’m all for it.

[Part of me was afraid this would be perceived as a rude question, like I’m implying he made a cash grab. I’m glad he didn’t take it that way because I was genuinely curious. His glib answer about the film adaptation of Be Cool is unabashed and appreciated. Out of Sight is one of my favorite stories, both in novel and film versions, and I’d love to see Road Dogs turned into a film, too.]

4. I’m a big fan of listening to your work as an audio book on road trips (I think George Guidall reading Cuba Libre is particularly excellent). What level of involvement do you usually have in these presentations? What is your favorite audio presentation of one of your books? Do you ever listen to audio books for your own reading pleasure?

— None.

— Never listened to any.

— Never.

[I can’t say I’m too surprised, but I really, really like audio books. I “read” more audio books in 2007 than I read in print and I enjoy an excellent audio presentation. I thought Elmore might enjoy them, but I can also see him not taking to this form of technology.]

5. Will we see you in Minnesota any time soon? :smileyhappy:

I wouldn’t mind going to Minneapolis again, but  I have no plans.

[Bummer. Good thing my wife bought me an autographed copy of one of his books in a Minneapolis used bookstore a week ago. But that story is for another blog post. One which will appear here next week, in fact…]

Conversation #2:

Hi Elmore,

Thank you for answering my questions yesterday and everyone’s questions this week, I appreciate it. I came up with a few more, if you’ll indulge me.

1. Where do you like to write and at what time of day? Do you write every day or have some sort of ritualistic behavior when it comes to sitting down to write? How much of your writing time is spent researching or reviewing Gregg’s research?

— In the living room all day, 10-6

— Yes

–I try to read a page or so of a previous book, it could be an old one, just to get in the rhythm of the writing.

—  I’m not sure what percentage of my time, but I always read the pages he sends me.

[Wow, that’s commitment! Yeah, he’s a professional writer so really, he gets to write for eight hours a day. I’m trying to hold myself to two hours a day, five days a week, this summer and I’m envious. I really like the idea of reading from one’s previous works to get the blood flowing, and he does so without thinking of editing. That can be difficult for me because I see so many chances to improve a story. I also like how he makes research a part of his writing time. “Writing time” isn’t all writing (though for me, maybe it should be more writing than it currently is) and I don’t think it should be; it’s also research, reading, editing, and so on.]

2. I’ve read that your Ten Rules of Writing began as a tongue-in-cheek presentation for a speech before revising them for the New York Times. And yet, I wonder which of these rules have been part of your arsenal for the longest? Do you have any particular instances in your writing career when you can identify when a writing rule first manifested for you? Is there one in particular you wish more writers followed?

— “Try to leave out the parts that people tend to skip” and “If it sounds like writing I rewrite it.”

— I think most of the rules came from reading other writers, those that use “suddenly” and “all hell broke loose.”

— That they would use “”said” when indicating dialog and not modify it with an adverb.

[Since Elmore’s Ten Rules of Writing originally appeared in the New York Times in 2001 just three days after I turned twenty-two, I have never used any word other than “said” for dialogue. I’ve since learned two other beloved writers of mine, Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, say the exact same thing. I’ve put myself in good company. I’ve also become hyper-aware of “suddenly” throughout the years and I think the leaving out “the parts that people tend to skip” is probably the one thing an aspiring writer should wrap their head around pretty quickly if they want to succeed.]

3. Who did you read when you were first starting out and how did they influence or inspire your work? Who specifically do you recommend an apsiring fiction writer read today and why?

— Hemingway.

— By being very spare in his writing, not overdoing it.

— Cormac McCarthy because he knows how to write.

[I enjoy Hemingway but I don’t read enough Hemingway. I enjoy McCarthy but I don’t read enough McCarthy. I enjoy Leonard but I don’t read enough Leonard. Do you see a pattern developing?]

4. What’s the one question you’re never asked by your fans or in interviews that you wish someone would ask? Of course, you’re welcome to answer that question here, as well. 🙂

— None comes to mind.

[I based this question off the question Stephen King asked Amy Tan and which gave him inspired direction for his memoir on craft, On Writing. It’s my one wild card in the bunch and I’m not surprised he didn’t have an answer off the top of his head, though it’s a bummer, too. Maybe some day I’ll have to come up with the question instead of asking the subject to do my work for me.]

5. What can you tell us about your upcoming novel, Djibouti?

— A documentary film maker is investigating the Somali pirates with a sympathetic point of view and soon finds out that that maybe Al Queda is involved.

[This isn’t Elmore’s first fictitious visit to Africa (Pagan Babies) and it’s clear this topical subject has his full attention. His last few books have returned to characters he’s already written about and I believe he’s excited to explore this new territory. I’m excited to read it.]

There you have it, a conversation between me and Elmore Leonard, separated by a few hours in time and a few hundred miles in distance but a conversation all the same.


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