Author Elmore Leonard passed away in his Detroit home the morning of Tuesday, August 20th, 2013, from complications following a stroke he’d suffered a few weeks earlier.
I first learned of his passing from a tweet only a couple of hours after the fact. The news hit me like a sucker punch to the gut.
This was the first time that the news of the death of a celebrity really hit home with me, beyond more than just a momentary ‘oh, that’s too bad’.
Elmore is one of my absolute favorite writers, and has been since the moment I cracked open one of his books. Through his writing, he’s been one of my premiere instructors at the craft.
Probably because I’ve spent dozens of hours in his indirect company, engaging in that strange wood pulp and ink-assisted telepathy we call storytelling.
I first encountered Elmore’s works through their film adaptations: Get Shorty in 1995 — still one of my favorite films of all-time. You can’t ask for a better cast of character actors to bring a comedy-laden crime caper to life: John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Rene Russo, Delroy Lindo, and the late Dennis Farina and James Gandolfini.
If you ask me to recall the events of any specific Christmas over the past twenty years, I’d have to struggle to pull up the details.
Every year, that was, except for 1997, because on that particular Christmas day, I was in a movie theatre soaking up Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, an adaptation of Leonard’s Rum Punch. That was the most perfect combinations of source material and the exact artistic sensibility to bring it to life.
(Not coincidentally, also the specific moment I discovered I have a huge torch for actress Pam Grier, which I still carry to this day — you can keep your Kate Upton, because compared to Pam, at 47 when JB was being shot, Kate looks like she took a savage beating by a pack of rollerblading feral kids wielding ugly sticks.)
I can watch that movie — and Pam — over and over again until the DVD player melts itself into slag.
Did I buy the Official Motion Picture Soundtrack?
Hell, I liked Jackie so much I bought the Official Mirimax Book of the screenplay. If there was a lunchbox with a Thermos, I’d have bought that, too.
In 1998, we got Out of Sight, which is inarguably the best thing Jennifer Lopez has ever done with any of her various entertainment-media related careers.
Much to my shame, I will have to admit it took me a while to get around to really digging into Elmore’s backlist to see where the source material for these great films came from, but when I did, I bought a Lifetime Pass to the EL Fan Club.
Elmore is one of those writers that writers should hate: he makes us all look bad on a consistent basis, and he does it in a very effortlessly prolific manner. Since first being published in 1951, he’s produced just shy of fifty novels, nine screenplays, and numerous short stories, always working within genres: first westerns, then migrating to crime fiction.
His last book, Raylan, was published in 2012. Leonard never stopped writing, releasing seven books in the last ten years. Are you still going to be working that hard when you hit your seventies and eighties?
His novels have been adapted to film twenty-five times, some of them more than once. The current hit FX drama Justified is based on his novella ‘Fire in the Hole’, which introduced U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. A throwback to an older era of loose cannon Wild West justice, Givens is a Stetson hat wearing lawman that isn’t afraid to tell modern day Miami mobsters they’ve got twenty-four hours to get out of town or he’s going to shoot them dead — and then live up to his promise, much to the Marshal Service’s chagrin.
Elmore essentially wrote pulp fiction, and did so unabashedly, without any literary pretensions. His stories do sometimes follow a formula, but after you’ve gotten a few of them under your belt, it’s one that’s difficult to resist — with inventive situations, often freshly taken from recent headlines, you just know Leonard’s protagonists and antagonists are going to dance the dance and each make some equally boneheaded mistakes before meeting head on in the climax — and despite the sense of familiarity, it’s often not the denouement you thought you saw coming.
Despite adhering to genre conventions, Elmore’s characters were far from one-dimensional cops, robbers, gangsters, thugs and assorted lowlifes. Few of them were ever painted black or white, but from a palette of varying shades of grey — at times the good guys might not be so good, and the bad guys not all that bad.
You can, on occasion, when reading his work, find yourself rooting for both sides and dreading the moment when someone is going to have to lose.
Where Elmore always got noted — and where he makes all of us writers turn Hulk green with envy — is with his ear for naturalistic dialogue. The words he puts in his characters’ mouths are exactly the way people in the real life talk: often fragments of sentences, half-finished thoughts. Grammar?
Dutch, as Leonard liked to be called, threw The Elements of Style right out the window, and his stories were so much the better for it. Even his narrative prose has a stream-of-consciousness quality, giving up just the right amount of detail to flesh the characters out without huge sections of self-indulgent exposition — the writer’s equivalent of a look-ma-no-hands showboating wheelie when just getting the story tossed on your front lawn in a nice, neat bundle will suffice.
That wasn’t to say there wasn’t detail, it was just revealed in a very subtle manner: you learned about the characters not through some rote flashback backstory, but in the little things: how they dressed, what they ate, what sort of music they listened to and movies they’d seen. He didn’t spell it out for you in a list, but it was there, waiting.
Possibly my favorite work of his, though, was an essay Elmore wrote titled, simply, ‘Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules to Writing’, and is the most no-nonsense straight-to-the-point collection of advice any aspiring writer can get from a constantly working craftsman who doesn’t wax poetically or romantically about the act.
And it goes a little something like this:
1. NEVER OPEN A BOOK WITH THE WEATHER
” If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. ”
2. AVOID PROLOGUES
” They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. ”
3. NEVER USE A VERB OTHER THAN ‘SAID’ TO CARRY DIALOGUE
” The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ”she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary. ”
4. NEVER USE AN ADVERB TO MODIFY THE VERB ‘SAID’ …
” . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. ”
5. KEEP YOUR EXCLAMATION POINTS UNDER CONTROL
” You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful. ”
6. NEVER USE THE WORDS ‘SUDDENLY’ OR ‘ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE’
” This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points. ”
7. USE REGIONAL DIALECT — PATOIS — SPARINGLY
” Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop.”
8. AVOID DETAILED DESCRIPTIONS OF CHARACTERS
” In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight. ”
9. DON’T GO INTO GREAT DETAIL DESCRIBING PLACES AND THINGS
” Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill. ”
10. TRY TO LEAVE OUT THE PART THAT READERS TEND TO SKIP
” Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing … perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care.
I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.”
Elmore’s best and most cardinal rule, is the most simple:
” If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. ”
I’m getting that tattooed on the back of my hand someday. (Not joking, either.)
You can read the entire unabridged ‘Ten Rules’ piece at the New York Times’ website. And if you’ve never read any of Elmore’s stories, seen any of the films based on them, or Justified, on which Elmore served as Executive Producer and contributed work to himself, you should correct that oversight post-haste.
RIP, Dutch. Thanks for the memories, the stories, the lessons, and the inspiration. You will be sorely missed.