Thursday, May 10, 2007

Honey, Do

Here's that interview with Elmore Leonard by Duane Swierczynski. I love this mention of his old-school writing style.

"I don't use a legal pad. It's an eight-and-a-half-by-11 yellow pad, unlined. It's the same kind of yellow pad they used at the ad agency when I worked, so when I left, I would just go to a print shop and order two thousand pages more. I write everything by hand first. And then it goes on the typewriter. I did get an electric typewriter about 15 years ago. I was afraid of it at first."

Jane Smiley (who I also talked to this year, and is very cool) reviews the book at the LA Times. You can get all the other goodness from Elmore's website including book reviews, a podcast and tour dates.

I had the privilege to speak briefly with the author of Up In Honey's Room over Christmas for a spotlight in Kirkus Reviews. You can see some other outtakes from the interview in this Bookslut column.

You know what? The hell with it. A new novel from Dutch deserves a celebration. Here's the whole interview. (Segments of this interview have appeared in edited form in the above publications. If anybody's bothered by their inclusion here, let me know).

An Interview With Elmore Leonard
by Clayton Moore

Clayton Moore: Thanks for taking my call this morning to talk about Up In Honey’s Room. You’ve been revisiting Carl Webster.

Elmore Leonard: I have. I originally called it Hitler’s Birthday. But when my editor announced to the board at the publisher, there was dead silence. Finally someone said, we can’t call it that. They don’t feel Hitler sells, I think. So my editor said, ‘C’mon, you have good titles. Come up with something better.’ By the time I got into the book, I saw that Hitler’s birthday didn’t apply easily. The German agent who was going to do something on Hitler’s birthday wasn’t going to be as big a deal. I had this girl who was married to him…he was a real Nazi lover. He had come from Germany and was American now but he loved what the Nazis were doing. She married him – Helen thought she could turn him around. But she fails, so she left him.

Then I changed her name to Honey and she really jumped off the page then. I figured that I then had a character I could run with all the way.

CM: It seems like you have the best of all worlds in this series. It started with western elements and brought in gangsters and now you’ve finally gotten Carl Webster to Detroit.

EL: Yeah, you’re right. In fact, I was going to rewrite the serial that was in The Times, but I decided that would just be work. I have a good time writing books and I don’t want it to be work, ever. But they were so restrictive at the Times about how people talk. There are little rules about punctuation and the abbreviation of state names. Even someone using Texas or Oklahoma in a sentence, they abbreviate it because they’re not used to printing fiction in their magazine. So I thought I should do this over again and make it sound more like me and my writing. But I thought, nah, just get going on the next one.

CM: For being a guy who’s written about criminals for a long time, Carl Webster is a real white hat hero.

EL: Yeah. I like to write about the criminals because most of them are either dumb or it’s a guy who’s made a mistake. While he might be trying to go straight, you never know what he’s going to do next because he has that ability to break the law. I kind of like those guys.

This one, I could keep going. But this book, the one in May, is set in 1945. That’s like writing a historical novel, even though I was around then. I was in the Navy, in the Pacific that year, but I was home by the next year.

CM: You and Carl Webster seem to share some background.

EL: Yes, we do. In fact, that’s the island I was on. I was in the Seabees. It was about time I gave that away to one of my characters. I was on that island of Los Negros about six months after it was taken by the First Cavalry so I didn’t see anything. Then we moved to the Philippines around the time the war ended, so I just had to wait out coming home.

CM: You’ve noted that John D. MacDonald said it takes a million words to find your own voice. What do you think you sound like, several million words later?

EL: I think he’s absolutely right. It takes a million words or ten years to get to the point where you’re absolutely sure of how you write and how your voice sounds. I’ve always felt that my voice is signified by the absence of “my voice.” I have my characters and I’m always writing from a character’s point of view. I’m in there but I don’t ever want a reader to be aware of me. I want them to be completely taken by the characters.

CM: How did you start to realize that character was the key to writing the way you wanted to write?

EL: It came when I realized that it would be futile for me to write in a literary way where the author is definitely the voice, where the author has all the words and all the language. I’ve never felt that confident about language. But if that language comes out of my characters then I can handle it.

Of course, there are certain kinds of characters that I have more fun with: black characters or Latinos or characters from the South where their language is a bit more comfortable.

CM: But you’re so affectionate towards your characters that they never stray into parody or caricature.
EL: Right. I do have affection for them, even the bad guys. The poor guys are just dumb. I do like to write about criminals because most of them are either dumb, or it’s a guy who made a mistake. While he might be trying to go straight, you never know what he’s going to do because he always has that ability to break the law. I could never do, for example, a serial killer because I could never find any affection for somebody who just wants to kill people.

CM: Outside of market forces, what draws you to crime novels?

EL: Oh, it was always the market. With westerns, all the pulp magazines were done by the end of the 1950’s. Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post were paying the most for westerns but they were even done. I had one in the Saturday Evening Post in 1956 or 7. That was my goal, just to hit the slick magazines with my westerns. But my agents at the time said my stories were a little too relentless. You don’t have any comic relief in them. I did learn from him to leave the words out and not give too much description.

I was reading Hemingway for inspiration during most of the 1950’s but he didn’t have much of a sense of humor, so I wasn’t inspired that way. But I discovered Richard Bissell, who wrote Seven-and-a-half Cents that became The Pajama Game. He set stories on the Mississippi River, where he was a pilot at one time on towboats. I learned a lot from him.

CM: Funny you should mention rules. I have your rules for writing tacked up next to my desk.

EL: Those rules have gone a long way.

CM: What is the universal appeal of crime fiction?

EL: These stories always appeal because there are obvious good guys and bad guys. There’s also always an ending to the story, unlike literary fiction, where you’re not always sure what the point is. They’ve always been popular in my mind. Ed McBain and I were on Good Morning America and were asked to what we attributed the renewed interest in crime fiction and mysteries. We looked at each other and said, “We thought they were always popular.” We weren’t doing anything differently.

CM: But you always stress that you don’t write mysteries.

EL: You’ve got it. I’ve never considered my books to be mysteries. There’s no mystery to it because the reader always knows what is going on. But there is always a crime, there is always a gun and it always goes off.

CM: You’ve spoken favorably of Stick and Freaky Deaky. Any favorites recently?

EL: I really do like my new book, Up in Honey’s Room. It’s really funny. There was a lot of opportunity for characters to say funny things. I talked to Barry Sonnenfeld during the making of Get Shorty – I said I hope when someone says a funny line that you don’t cut to someone grinning or winking because these people are serious. The fun has to be recognized by the reader. You have to play it straight. He understood that.

CM: One last question and I’ll let you get back to work. What was it like to pitch at Tiger Stadium?

I threw out the first pitch at a Seattle Mariners game. It wasn’t a special occasion but I did get to throw out the first pitch. I practiced for it that morning. I went out in the backyard and measured out sixty feet and I kept throwing at a wire fence to make sure I could accurately throw it in a straight line. Then when you get to the ballpark, they don’t want you messing up the mound, so you’re only 50 feet from home plate.

It was a lot of fun. The first time I ever got on the field, I was with Mike Lupica. He took me down on the field and introduced me to Ernie Harwell and some guys. I told them, for fifty years, I’ve wanted to come down here. Ernie Harwell says, “Why didn’t you just call me?”

1 comment:

Duane Swierczynski said...

Great interview, Clayton. And thanks for the mention!