Remembrances
10:15 am
Fri August 23, 2013

Fresh Air Remembers Crime Novelist Elmore Leonard

Prolific crime novelist Elmore Leonard died Tuesday at the age of 87. Leonard was known for crisp dialogue and memorable villains. "The bad guys are the fun guys," he said in a 1983 interview. "The only people I have trouble with are the so-called normal types."

Many of Leonard's books and short stories were adapted to films. Those books include Get Shorty, The Big Bounce and Rum Punch, which became the Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown. His short story "Fire in the Hole" was the basis for the FX TV series Justified.

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

Elmore Leonard, the prolific crime novelist embraced by millions of readers, as well as literary critics and Hollywood producers died Tuesday. He was 87. Leonard was known for crisp dialogue and memorable villains. The bad guys are the fun guys, he said in a 1983 interview. The only people I have trouble with are the so-called normal types.

The New York Times Janet Maslin said Leonard was the most influential, widely imitated crime writer of his era over career that lasted more than 60 years. Many of Leonard's books and short stories were adapted to film, and most recently to television in the FX series "Justified." The film adaptations include "Get Shorty," "The Big Bounce" and "Rum Punch," which became the Quentin Tarantino film "Jackie Brown."

Get Shorty" starred John Travolta as Chili Palmer, a Miami loan shark sent to Los Angeles to collect a gambling debt. In this scene from the film, he visits Harry Zimm, a B movie producer, played by Gene Hackman. Palmer follows Zimm and breaks into the home of the producer's girlfriend, Karen Flores. Here, Palmer tries to muscle the money from Zimm.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GET SHORTY")

JOHN TRAVOLTA: (as Chili Palmer) A marker is like a check, Harry.

GENE HACKMAN: (as Harry Zimm) I know what a marker is.

TRAVOLTA: (as Chili Palmer) And they don't want to deposit yours and have it bounce. That annoys them. And your dear friend Dick Allen's been calling, leaving messages on your machine and you haven't gotten back to him. So he asks me as a favor to look you up. So I follow you here and I see you in the window with the woman. Looks a lot like Karen Flores, the actress from "Grotesque." You're not looking at me, Harry.

HACKMAN: (as Harry Zimm) Why do I have to keep looking at you?

TRAVOLTA: (as Chili Palmer) Because I want you to.

HACKMAN: (as Harry Zimm) So now you gonna get rough, huh? I make good by tomorrow, you gonna break my legs?

TRAVOLTA: (as Chili Palmer) Come on, Harry - Mesas?

HACKMAN: (as Harry Zimm) You tell Dick Allen I'll cover those markers in the next 60 days at the most. If he doesn't like it, then that's his problem. So, you want me to call you a cab?

TRAVOLTA: (as Chili Palmer) So you make movies, huh?

HACKMAN: (as Harry Zimm) I produce feature motion pictures, no TV. You mentioned "Grotesque" before, that happens to be "Grotesque Part II" that Karen Flores was in. She starred in all three of my "Slime Creatures" releases. You may have seen them.

TRAVOLTA: (as Chili Palmer) I got an idea for a movie.

DAVIES: And that's a scene from the 1995 film "Get Shorty." Terry spoke to Elmore Leonard in 1995 and 1999. We'll hear excerpts from both interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Elmore Leonard, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ELMORE LEONARD: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: You write mostly in dialogue.

LEONARD: Yeah.

GROSS: You know, like a lot of crime fiction, there's a lot of interior thought - a lot of like first person, just like thinking, contemplating.

LEONARD: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Very little of that in your novels, it's mostly dialogue. Why have you taken that direction in your writing?

LEONARD: I like dialogue. I've always liked dialogue from the very beginning. When I started 44 years ago, I was influenced by writers who were very strong in dialogue; Hemingway, John O'Hara, Steinbeck, a writer not many people know about, Richard Bissell in the '50s. "Pajama Game" was made from one of his book "7 1/2 Cents." I like dialogue. I like to see that white space on the page and the exchanges of dialogue, rather than those big heavy, heavy paragraphs full of words. Because I remember feeling intimidated back in the, say, in the '40s, when I first started to read popular novels, Book of the Month Club books, I would think, god, there are too many words in this book. And I still think there are too many words in most books. But dialogue appeals to me.

GROSS: When you started writing crime fiction, were their places that you would hang out just to listen?

LEONARD: I would hang out at in Detroit Frank Murphy Hall Justice, which is the criminal courts and watch examinations with little trials rather than the - these are the pre-trial exams to find out whether a crime has been committed or not. And then finally, by 1979 and '80, I was spending time with the Detroit police. I did a piece for the Detroit News on homicide section. That was the first and only piece of journalism I've ever done. It was the kind of piece that may be you'd spend three days with the homicide cops and then spend, take a day to write it and that was it. But I was with them at least three weeks before I even wrote a word and got to know them and they trusted me, and they showed me their case files. I could just sit there in the squad room and listen to them.

GROSS: Now it seems to me you're also particularly interested in colloquialisms and, you know, colorful language inventions that people come up with, little slang words.

LEONARD: Yeah. But you have to be very careful about using slang because expressions come into popularity and go out overnight. I remember back in '68, '69, the bounce was an expression. You probably don't even, you haven't even heard it. But I wrote a book "The Big Bounce" because the bounce seemed to be, you're looking for the bounce, you're looking for a little excitement. And I used that in a title and I thought this was going to be a popular expression and it didn't make it, the bounce. You know, nobody uses it now. I can't rely on slang and I don't. It's the rhythms of speech that I'm mostly interested in.

GROSS: Now in "Get Shorty" - in the novel and in the movie, the character Chili, the character played in the movie by Travolta, is always saying to people who he wants to intimidate, look at me.

LEONARD: Uh-huh.

GROSS: And because the character is so confident, and because he has the power to back up his confidence, people usually get the point when they look at him.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I mean, he does intimidate them.

LEONARD: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Then another character tries that and it doesn't work because he doesn't have the confidence or the power to back it up.

LEONARD: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: How did you think of coming up with that? Was there an idea behind that?

LEONARD: The real Chili Palmer who worked for this friend of mine who was the private eye, once in a while were retained by the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas to call on individuals in South Florida who owed them money. Not to intimidate them, just ask them, are you going to start making payments? Be nice. There wasn't any, no violence ever involved. But my friend, the private investigator, Bill Marshall, he would talk to the guy. And he's a very - Marshall is a very entertaining guy and he would get the guy laughing. But Chili Palmer, who is sitting next to him and he would stare at the guy, just stare and never say a word. Now, he never said look at me - I made that up - but the idea of the intimidation, that stare, I thought I could use that.

GROSS: Well, his model - Chili's model - is actually, don't talk when you don't have to. I mean, his approach is don't tell them what can happen if they don't pay.

LEONARD: Yeah.

GROSS: Just stare at them because anything you tell them isn't going to be as bad as what they can imagine. They can imagine anything far worse than what you could do, so just let their imagination work.

LEONARD: Yeah. and Harry Zimm says to him - Gene Hackman - he says, what do you, you break their legs? And Chili says, what do you mean break their legs? How are they going to pay you if they're in the hospital with their legs broken?

(LAUGHTER)

LEONARD: No, we don't break their legs.

GROSS: Now in your latest novel "Riding the Rap" there's a kind of unusual twist on the hostage story or the kidnapping story.

LEONARD: Yeah.

GROSS: Would you say something about the hustle you came up with for that?

LEONARD: The individual who masterminds this - if that's the word - he had watched the what had been going on in Beirut with the hostages, how they were kept, especially how they were blindfolded and chained or tied up, what they were fed. And he wonders: is there any money in that, is there any money in hostage taking, to do it right? And he thinks yeah, well, look, if you get a guy who has got a lot of money and you blindfold him and he doesn't know where he is and you don't even talk to him for a few days or a week or so and then finally you say, do you want to get out of this? You tell me how you can give me two million bucks. You have to work it out. No ransom notes. Nobody knows this but you. You tell us how you can deliver to us a certain amount of money - a couple million - and we'll let you go. If we don't like the idea, you're dead. So then it's up to the victim, you see. And it sounds good. Of course, in this book the perpetrator wants to be very, very realistic about it. He wants straw mats. He wants the feed them mutton, stale cheese.

(LAUGHTER)

LEONARD: He wants to do it exactly the way they did it in Beirut. He said well, we'll put them in a basement somewhere. And his accomplice says, base - where are you going to find a basement in Florida? No just everything is against him doing it the way he feels is the right way.

GROSS: Do you think you would've made a good criminal? Let's face it, in a lot of ways you have the mind. You know, you say most of your staff isn't from research. You just, you know, sit...

LEONARD: Well...

GROSS: ...sit at your typewriter and think it's up.

LEONARD: Well, I could - yeah, I could think of it but I wouldn't have the nerve. God...

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Are you a confident guy? I mean, you know...

LEONARD: I'm confident about my work, but my work...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Right.

LEONARD: Yeah. That took - even that took about 15 years, you know, to gain confidence in what you do. I couldn't imagine walking into a bank and saying give me all your - not all your money. Give me what money you have on top of that little alarm system that the last bill is lying on. And don't give me any dye pack and don't give me any funny money or money with the serial numbers, you know, listed. If you know enough about it I think you can get away with it. It's - I think bank robbery would be pretty easy, even though nine out of 10 bank robbers are caught. And I think mostly because they tell other people what they do and because they're not really professional about it. They just, they need money for drugs.

GROSS: Now a lot of you guys are talkers and they can talk their way...

LEONARD: They have to be talkers.

GROSS: Yeah. Right. They talk their way into things and out of things. And can you do that?

LEONARD: No.

GROSS: So you couldn't do in real life what your characters do verbally?

LEONARD: Oh no. Never. No. See, the beauty of it in a scene where you end in the scene with a line, with the perfect line, you know? But you're writing a book and you have months to think about it.

GROSS: Right. Now do you like five minutes or two days after the moment has passed think of a good last line you could've said in real life, or do you not think in real life in those terms?

LEONARD: Well, in real life, I'm sitting on a bench at Aspen at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, dead tired. I've come down the mountain. A woman skis down 25, 30 years younger than I am. Puts one boot up on the bench and says, I don't know what's more satisfying, taking off my boots or, and then she used an expression for sleeping with somebody.

GROSS: And you said?

LEONARD: And I said, huh, huh. Like that.

(LAUGHTER)

LEONARD: And that was probably 15 years ago. And I still been, ever since I've been trying to think of - it doesn't even have to be snappy, just something - a decent comeback, you know.

GROSS: You started your fiction career writing Westerns.

LEONARD: Yeah.

GROSS: So tell us about one of the Western heroes you created.

LEONARD: Western heroes. Did I create any...

GROSS: Western characters.

LEONARD: Oh, yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

LEONARD: Hombre. I like that character a lot, which Paul Newman played.

GROSS: In the movie.

LEONARD: In a movie, yeah. Yeah, I thought that was a, I was very proud of that one. And also I liked "Valdez is Coming," which Burt Lancaster did. Burt - "Valdez is Coming" is my favorite Western that I wrote. And at the time when I read it now I can see my style beginning to change into what I'm doing now, really not what I'm doing now, but it began to change. And...

GROSS: More dialog-oriented?

LEONARD: Yeah. A little more dialogue, a little more characters, a little more human, I'm loosening up a little bit, and that's when I finally I learned. Because I had studied Hemingway so closely and learned a lot, but I didn't agree with his attitude about life, about himself. He took everything himself, everything so seriously. And, but your style comes out of your attitude - how you, what kind of a person you are, you know, your personality, how you see things. Are you optimistic? Are you funny? Are you grim? What? This is all out of your attitude. And once I learned that then I had to find other writers to study and imitate.

GROSS: Well, how would you compare your attitude to Hemingway?

LEONARD: Well, I don't see that much, there's that much to take seriously in everyday situations that come up that people worry about and - or people worry about things that might happen, you know, which is a big waste of time. I don't worry.

GROSS: You don't worry?

LEONARD: I don't worry.

GROSS: So this is one of the differences between you and Hemingway, you don't worry about things.

LEONARD: No.

GROSS: Don't brood about things.

LEONARD: Well, we know how seriously he took himself. Right...

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

LEONARD: ...with that shotgun he put in his mouth.

GROSS: Right.

LEONARD: No, I don't see any reason to do that.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Right.

LEONARD: I really - I don't take my work that seriously and I think that's what keeps me loose. If I try to write, if I catch myself trying to write, I'll fall right on my face. I'll see it. If I see in the prose that I'm - boy, look at me writing, I rewrite it. I rewrite it because I don't, because I think it's distracting.

DAVIES: And that's Terry's interview with crime novelist Elmore Leonard who died earlier this week. We'll hear more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and we're listening to Terry speaking with crime novelist Elmore Leonard who died this week at the age of 87. Here's a scene from the 1997 film "Jackie Brown" which was adapted from Leonard's novel "Rum Punch." Here Samuel L. Jackson is trying to get Chris Tucker into the trunk of a car.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JACKIE BROWN")

CHRIS TUCKER: (as Beaumont Livingston) Man, you must be out of your (bleep) mind if you think I'm fixing to get in this dirty ass trunk.

LEONARD: (as Ordell Robbie) We ain't going nowhere but to Korea Town, man. You ain't going to be in here no more than 10 minutes.

TUCKER: (as Beaumont Livingston) Man, I ain't riding in no (bleep) trunk for no minute, man. Why I can't ride up front with you?

SAMUEL L. JACKSON: (as Ordell Robbie) You can't ride up front with me. The surprise element is 90 percent of it.

TUCKER: (as Beaumont Livingston) I'm sorry, man, but I ain't getting in no (beep) trunk.

JACKSON: (as Ordell Robbie) I can't believe you do me like this.

TUCKER: (as Beaumont Livingston) Do you like what? Man, I just ain't climbing...

GROSS: Let me ask you about the screen adaptation of "Rum Punch" which was Quentin Tarantino's movie "Jackie Brown."

LEONARD: In the screen version, now, which I think is the most closely adapted of any of mine that have been made into movies, Quentin's screenplay expanded a little bit on scenes. He took his time with it and he told me that this was what he was going to do, that the first half of the picture is getting to know the characters and then finally we will get them into action.

And I resented the fact that some of the critics said, well, it's too long. Well, too long - it wasn't too long for Quentin and he's the one who's making the picture. This is his movie. You know? It's like a painting, it's like looking at a painting on a wall and it's, oh, well, it's too wide. You ought to cut about two feet off the right-hand side.

Now, I thought the movie was great. I loved it.

GROSS: I loved it too. One of the really nice things about the movie is, you know, the two romantic leads in it are Robert Forster and Pam Grier and, you know, they're both, you know, middle aged. They'd be over the hill by Hollywood standards, right?

LEONARD: Yeah.

GROSS: And there's something just, like, so touching about the relationship of these two really hardboiled people with each other.

LEONARD: Well, that was the idea - that it is a romance. He was going to do a book of mine called "Kill Shot" but then he decided - he called me up and said I've decided to do "Rum Punch" because it's the best woman's part I've seen in a long time. And he had already thought of Robert Forster for the bail bondsman. Didn't mention, though, didn't mention Pam Grier.

And so he must've had her in mind. But he didn't want to spring that on me, I don't think, yet because then just before he went into production he called me up and said I've been afraid to call you for the last year. And I said why, because you're changing the title and you're making the lead a black woman? And he said yeah. I said, well, I like Pam Grier and I like your movies. So go ahead. Do whatever you want.

You know, it's in your hands. I'm not going to make any suggestions?

GROSS: Is there a scene in any of the recent film adaptations of your novels where you particularly like hearing the actor doing lines that are straight out of your book?

LEONARD: Yeah. In "Jackie Brown," when Sam Jackson was trying to get - I forgot who it was - to get into the trunk of the car. And Quentin liked that so much he elaborated on it. The scene is longer in the movie than it is in the book.

GROSS: And how much of that was improvised? How much of it came right out of the book?

LEONARD: Well, I was on the set when they were shooting that scene and they started to improvise and Quentin said, no, do the - stay with the lines as they're written. You can improvise later. And he made sure that the character stayed with his dialogue. Then he would let them try things. And it was the same way with Barry Sonnenfeld in "Get Shorty." The actors had to stay with the words as written.

Because what happens is, when actors begin to make up their own lines they're usually lines that you thought of and discarded as being, you know, trite or too obvious. And it's funny. In story meetings the studio executive will come up with this what he thinks is a great idea and he doesn't realize that in writing a book over a period of six or seven months that you thought of all these ideas. You discarded them.

(LAUGHTER)

LEONARD: And you've come up with what you believe is the best idea to make the story work. You know?

GROSS: Elmore Leonard, thank you very much.

LEONARD: Thank you, Terry.

DAVIES: Elmore Leonard speaking with Terry Gross recorded in 1999. Leonard died Tuesday at the age of 87. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new Edgar Wright comedy "The World's End." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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