I woke up to the sad news that Elmore Leonard, our most famous Detroit-based writer, has died. He was 87 years old but I thought that guy would go on forever. There was never anything old about him and I doubt I’m the only one who felt that way, but I admit I haven’t seen him in person for almost 20 years.
There was a brief time in the eighties and nineties when I was actively involved with Detroit writers, both professionally and socially, and a few of those times I was lucky enough to be in the same places at the same time as the man everyone called “Dutch”. What I saw was someone who liked being among us but wasn’t comfortable with our notion that he was somehow above us. He liked talking about writing but when the talk turned to his own successes he stopped it dead. He had a wicked sense of humor but it was low-key and dry–like the humor in his books. He was soft-spoken and not huge in either stature or ego. Once, when someone got all high-falutin’ and rhapsodic about the “art” of writing, he rolled his eyes, shook his head and wandered off.
I interviewed him a couple of times on the telephone when I was writing a book column for a suburban newspaper chain. He talked about getting up at 5 AM to write for a couple of hours when he worked for an Detroit ad agency, doing it religiously because that’s what he had to do in order to get the writing done. Just get the writing done. Was it work? Of course it was, but he made it fun. He loved his characters and they served him well.
He was prolific and had no problem crossing genres. He wrote pulp fiction, westerns and short stories early on, until he finally settled mainly on crime novels. He took a stab at screenplays but novels always called him back. He was a master at dialogue, letting his characters move the story along in short, explosive bursts. He got them.
“Touch” is my favorite Elmore Leonard novel. I interviewed Leonard when it came out in 1987 and this is how he described the book: “A former Franciscan monk turned faith-healer falls in love with a former baton-twirler turned rock record promoter and finds himself in the clutches of the religious fringe.”
So what’s not to like? But the backstory is that it languished for 10 years, waiting to see the light of day. Bantam initially bought it and kept trying to fit it into specific genres and then, according to Leonard, “when they got desperate they tried to fit it into genres that didn’t exist.” Finally Leonard got it back and he was famous enough by then that genre didn’t matter. Arbor House brought it out in hardcover. (The movie version with Christopher Walken came out 10 years later, in 1997, but I didn’t see it. And probably won’t.)
But about that time I called him “Dutch”: I did it to get his attention at a gathering and as soon as it came out of my mouth I knew that it sounded as dumb as it did coming out of the mouths of a dozen other people who didn’t know him that well, either, but thought it was cool to call him by his nickname. I never did it again. Not even here.
- Leonard Quote One: “Write the book the way it should be written, then give it to somebody to put in the commas and shit.”
- Leonard Quote Two: “I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.”
- Leonard Quote Three: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
RIP Elmore “Dutch” Leonard. You done good.