From Contrapasso Magazine:
Back in 1991, I had the good fortune to sit down with Elmore Leonard in his Michigan home during the hot summer and lead up to the fourth of July celebrations that would be the first since Operation Desert Storm, quite a big thing around Detroit. I was there to talk to him about his books but he is an intelligent man and sees the connections in things so the conversation moved around. He had just finished the manuscript of Rum Punch and maybe he felt like a chat. In the end we spent quite a few hours together over three days trying to make some connections across the stories, books and films that comprise his long career.
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All readers come to the progression of Elmore Leonard’s books at a different point. Thanks to the loan of a paperback from a friend, I’d begun with Glitz (1985) and, like a lot of readers, I began filling in the time between new releases by reading the back catalogue. Publishers know this happens and that’s why there are so many different Elmore Leonard paperback editions of the same book. As he has shifted publication houses over his career, there has been a tendency for publishers to buy the back catalogue and rerelease the older novels knowing that they will still sell. And there is value in picking up the back catalogue that doesn’t just accrue to the publisher and Mr. Leonard.
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There’s a difference between being a writer who lives in Detroit and a Detroit writer. Detroit has well and truly claimed Mr. Leonard as its own, but, then again, so has South Beach, Florida. But this was where he really made his name. Unlike the westerns, where he started too late, Detroit was growing into a new skin just as he was trying to get it all down on paper. The renewal hadn’t started and he was prospecting in some very rough ground for a while there. One of the things that helped move it along was the chance to ride with the Detroit police in 1978. The Detroit News Magazine asked him to do a feature article on the police and he found such an abundance of material that Squad Seven of the Detroit Police Department Homicide Section became his posse for two and a half months. This was the accelerator that brought Detroit into perspective. Seeing Detroit from this angle was to allow him to get under the skin of this city and, very important to Leonard, keep his facts straight.
Riding with Squad Seven did more than give him access to the Detroit demi-monde. It gave him time to study the contemporary scenery that had become so important to him. If the cops made their coffee in a Norelco coffeemaker, he wanted to be sure that he had the right brand of coffeemaker, and if the interview room for the murder squad had gray paint on the walls and not light blue, he wanted to know. It was not about being obsessive. There was something about getting that contemporary scenery right that led to getting those contemporary characters right. He never really articulated it to me in detail but it was there in the books—pay attention to the characters, where they live and what they do. The clues to who they are are all around them but you might not pick it on the first pass. Squad Seven sharpened his eye.
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Low key is very important because you never read a lot of Elmore Leonard in his books. In his now famous rules for writers, he always advocates avoiding those things that let you know that there is someone actually writing the book, like adverbs. It comes back to training. He hears the dialogue as it goes on the page and that is an inordinate strength for any novelist. That’s one of the things that he got from Richard Bissell, the only American novelist since Mark Twain to hold a pilot’s license for the Upper Mississippi. But there’s more to his novels than just dialogue. He has to deal with narrative and, in dealing with narrative, he developed an approach that marks him out amongst modern day writers. By the time of the mid-eighties, he had developed a narrative style that was his own and one that allowed him to experiment with, and sometimes improvise on, character.
Link to lots more at Contrapasso Magazine and thanks to Barb for the tip.