Legendary crime novelist Elmore Leonard, who wrote thousands upon thousands of the most beautifully shaped sentences and digressive dialogue riffs I’ve ever read in my life and who incidentally influenced the living shit out of me, has ascended and is now hanging out with Dennis Farina. A stroke took him down. He was 87. A Detroit guy through and through. Well, a Bloomfield Hills guy. **
Leonard wrote and wrote and wrote for…what, sixty-five years straight? He never stopped working and enjoyed a brilliant hot streak during the ’80s and ’90s. And he boiled the bullshit out of his prose each and every time he put pen to paper. And he was nice enough to talk with me on the phone a few times during my reporting days with Entertainment Weekly and People and the L.A. Times Syndicate. He didn’t even hiccup when I called him “Dutch” a couple of times.
Hollywood paid Leonard a lot of dough for adaptations of his books over the decades, but only three movies got it half-right: Get Shorty, Out Of Sight and Jackie Brown, the latter an adaptation of Leonard’s “Rum Punch.” Oh, and the 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma. So that’s four. Well, three and a half. 3:10 to Yuma was good (I just got the Criterion Bluray) but not that great, c’mon.
Not as good but not too bad were Mr. Majestyk, the Charles Bronson flick, and Valdez Is Coming with Burt Lancaster. The absolute worst bumfuck adaptation of a Leonard novel or a short story? Stick, the Burt Reynplds film — hands down, no contest. Followed by Killshot with Diane Lane and Mickey Rourke. Be Cool, in which John Travolta revived his (i.e., Leonard’s) Chili Palmer character, mostly suffered alongside Get Shorty, its smarter and wiser older brother.
I started reading Leonard in the early ’80s. “La Brava” might have been the first. My first thought was, “Wow, this guy really knows how to cut the fat out and get right down to it, and at the same time make the asshole characters sound like real assholes and his heroes sound genuinely wise and knowing and occasionally funny in a dry, sardonic sort of way.”
The only time I met Leonard in person was at a book-signing thing at a Venice bookstore in the spring of 1988. My then pregnant ex-wife Maggie and I went with a copy of “Freaky Deaky.” We asked him to sign it for “Jeff, Maggie and Jett.” Leonard realized right away who (or more precisely where) Jett was at the time.
Leonard’s famous N.Y. Times piece about writing tips included the following:
“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, perpetrating hooptedoodle, 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.
“My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.
“Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.” Yes! Yes!
** Bloomfield Hills “consistently ranks as one of the top five wealthiest cities in the United States…the median income for a family is over $200,000…in 2000, 49% of residential property in Bloomfield Hills had a value of over $1,000,000.” — from Wiki page.