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Grit on wry: A dinner with Elmore and Peter Leonard

By Ann O'Neill, CNN
updated 2:10 PM EDT, Fri April 6, 2012
Peter Leonard listens in his family room while his father, Elmore, smokes and talks about writing.
Peter Leonard listens in his family room while his father, Elmore, smokes and talks about writing.
John Nowak/CNN
  • Authors Elmore and Peter Leonard love to talk about writing over dinner
  • Elmore Leonard 86, is known for his spare prose and quirky characters
  • Leonard's 60-year-old son, Peter, has just finished his fourth novel
  • Elmore's 45th book is a best seller; Peter's book is due out May 15

Editor's note: Elmore Leonard died Tuesday at 87. This story first published in April 2012.

Birmingham, Michigan (CNN) -- People who write about crime for a living have a curious appetite when it comes to dinner conversation. As they pass the potatoes, they dwell on the unsavory details of hookers and pimps, junkies and bookies, crime scenes and corpses.

An invitation to dine with novelists Elmore and Peter Leonard promised healthy servings of grit on wry -- and a rare opportunity to learn how these masters of crime fiction spin it into gold. Oh, the stories they told.

Peter talked about the first crime scene he witnessed while shadowing Detroit's homicide cops: The death car -- shattered windshield, blood-spattered seats, scattered bullet casings -- was still there. But the driver was gone, already on the way to his maker. In his place, propped upright on the driver's seat, the cops left an empty down vest.

When it was Elmore's turn his tale had a twist, as most of his stories do. A photographer in Florida borrowed a wheelchair and headed to the beach to snap pictures. "So a guy walks up and says 'Hey, you got a camera? Let me see it.' He says, 'I think I'll take this,' and walks away. And the guy gets out of the wheelchair, bangs him on the cement and that's that, see?"

The stories are shared nightly at Peter's supper table. Elmore is a fixture now that his marriage to this third wife, Christine, is kaput. "I'm getting a divorce," he said in the same tone he'd use to tell you he's getting a haircut. There's not a hint of anger or regret. That's that, see?

Earning a seat at this noir version of the Algonquin round table requires telling your stories, too. If Elmore and Peter Leonard learned about murder by riding along with Detroit's finest, I got my education in courtrooms from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, covering trials for big city newspapers.

I recited some of my favorite ripped-from-the-headlines tales: The Green Widow hired a hit man to kill her husband, and then another to bump off the original as the cops closed in. It could have gone on forever, but her ill-gotten inheritance ran dry. When the cops finally came, her pet parrot squawked insults while detectives searched the house for clues. After that case came the Menendi, as the tennis-playing, parent-killing Menendez brothers were known among jaded trial watchers; the Rampart police corruption scandal; the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping drama; the Casey Anthony media circus, and so on.

I saved the best, the saga of the bulletproof reporter, for last. A .45-caliber bullet fired by a man in a love triangle passed through another person and ricocheted off two buildings before bouncing off me.

Elmore Leonard has written 45 books, and some have been turned into movies or TV shows.
Elmore Leonard has written 45 books, and some have been turned into movies or TV shows.
John Nowak/CNN

"You were shot? Where?" Elmore asked, perking up with interest.

"In the arm," I replied, meeting his eyes and warming in his returned smile before giving the more predictable answer. "In San Francisco."

The Leonards soaked up my stories. But I had come for something, too. I was looking for a key to their kingdom. Where does it come from, this ability to steal scenes from life and weave them into darkly comic tales? Are some people just born with magical creative Cuisinarts in their brains?

The Leonards say there's no big mystery to writing fiction. You simply have to want to do it more than anything else on earth. It has to be an undeniable part of you.

You have to crave it.

"He's jazz"

Elmore wrote on nights and weekends, at first in his basement. Peter sat with his kids and wrote while they did their homework. Family dinners always fueled their conversations and inspired them.

Elmore, who is 86, first wrote Westerns. Hollywood discovered one of his stories and made it into a movie, "3:10 to Yuma." Twice. When Westerns went out of style, he turned to crime -- the fictional variety. He created some of popular fiction's most memorable tough guys: trigger happy federal marshal Raylan Givens, streetwise Hollywood wannabe Chili Palmer and smooth talking bank robber Jack Foley. They made him famous.

Elmore Leonard's official web site

"Fire in the Hole," a story featuring Givens, was turned into the FX network's hit series "Justified." It led to the novel, "Raylan," his latest entry on the best seller list.

Peter, who just turned 60, is the family's rising star. He is gaining a following. His newest novel, "All He Saw Was the Girl," is due out on May 15.

Father and son have supported and critiqued each other for years. As far as they're concerned, writers help other writers. An invitation into their world is a rare treat, perhaps even a life altering experience.

Dinner was set for 6 p.m. on a Tuesday in early March at Peter's rambling house in a settled, comfortable neighborhood outside Detroit. Elmore waited in the kitchen in a cloud of smoke, firing up one Virginia Slim after another while Peter cooked a perfect chicken dinner.

It was an intimate version of the Leonard literary road show. For the past couple of years, father and son have traveled together to book fairs, where they joke and banter with each other in front of an audience. They don't seem to be rivals, exactly, but Elmore likes to ask Peter how many books he has published, rubbing it in just a little. (The score: 45 to 4.)

Peter Leonard's official web site

Since his third marriage ended, Elmore Leonard is a regular dinner guest at Peter's.
Since his third marriage ended, Elmore Leonard is a regular dinner guest at Peter's.
John Nowak/CNN

On this night, Elmore sat back, sipping wine and listening to the way his visitor talked. Once in a while, he'd let out a chuckle, repeat a word that appealed to him, or interject a clever one liner.

Peter got the conversation rolling by explaining that he writes outlines while Elmore likes to wing it, which at a public appearance can wreak havoc on the best laid plans.

"He's jazz," I suggested, and Elmore liked the sound of that.

"Write down a little note to me, put it down on the bottom," he said, pointing at my notebook: "He's jazz, send this to Elmore."

What other writers, living or dead, should we invite to the table?

The Leonards entertained this notion and arrived at a list of six, all short story writers or newspapermen who became successful novelists. Ernest Hemingway, Philip Roth and Raymond Carver made Peter's list, along with more obscure treasures such as Richard Pike Bissell and the elder Andre Dubus on Elmore's.

Topping Elmore's list was Pete Dexter, who won a National Book Award in 1988 for his dark novel "Paris Trout." He explained Dexter's appeal. "He's a good writer with his own style."

Dexter toiled for many years as a newspaper columnist and once wrote about two guys who found a human head inside a bag on a city street. (Elmore's idea of a great way to start a book.) I worked with Dexter in my cub reporter days, which is to say he'd stroll into the newsroom and everyone else would gape in awe and then go home chuckling. True story: On a slow news day in Philadelphia, Dexter stabbed a skittering cockroach with scissors, flipped the hapless bug up and cut it in half, midair.

"He's ninja," Peter said, admiration in his voice.

"Yeah, that's ninja," Elmore agreed, smiling and nodding.

"Ninja" is a popular phrase in the Leonard household. In the novel "Trust Me," Peter wrote: "Megan had known some bull-----ers in her life, but Bobby took it to a whole new level. Christ, he was ninja."

The word "ninja" jumped out at me again as I watched an episode of "Justified" a couple of nights after our dinner. "I got mad ninja skills, buddy," Raylan Givens told a colleague, who asked, "Yeah, you know karate?"

"And two other Japanese words," Raylan responded.

I'm left to wonder if some night, when I'm home watching "Justified," I'll hear one of the characters say, "He's jazz."

"Practice falling down"

Elmore never lets himself get in the way of a good story. The narrator is almost invisible as characters move from scene to scene, cracking wise while they do stupid, violent things.

He is the master of quirky, well-drawn characters, snappy dialogue, clever plot twists and a narrative style so spare it reads like haiku. Its simple beauty can put a bullet through your heart.

He thinks most crooks are dumb, and that dumb is funny. He likes a good caper and the violence seems to be almost incidental, more like an occupational hazard.

Elmore Leonard works out of his home office, writing stories by hand. He doesn't use a computer.
Elmore Leonard works out of his home office, writing stories by hand. He doesn't use a computer.
John Nowak/CNN

And, he thinks most books have "too many words in them." It's a point he made in his famous essay "Ten Rules of Writing," which was turned into a very short book. It includes tips such as: Don't open with the weather; avoid adverbs; leave out the parts readers skip over. A bonus 11th rule: If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.

A snippet from "Raylan" displays the character-driven lines that make his books so adaptable to film and television. Our hero is challenged to a fight at a coal company meeting.

'"I'll meet you out here after, you want,' Raylan said. 'Practice falling down till I get here.'"

Elmore Leonard answers questions about "Raylan"

There's never been a shortage of snappy dialogue at home. When he was 20, Peter went out drinking with friends in Rome and got busted for stealing a taxicab. He spent a week in an Italian jail.

"Hard time makes the boy the man," Elmore said afterward, and it felt to Peter like dad was writing a line in a story.

Elmore has been writing for more than 60 years. He supported his family by churning out lines that sold Chevy trucks, all the while saving his best for himself. He'd get up at 5 each morning and write until 7 before heading off to the day job at an ad agency. He quit that day job in 1961.

He muddled on a bit before reading George V. Higgins and "The Friends of Eddie Coyle." The story was almost all dialogue, and everybody swore. It was an epiphany.

"I read it and I changed my style somewhat," he said. "Just somewhat. I started to use expletives where they belonged. I started to open my scenes with dialogue. Higgins set me free."

Not everyone was pleased. "My mother said. 'Why are you using all of these bad words?' I said, 'I don't use them. These are my people using them. I can't help it.'"

He tuned his ear for gritty dialogue with Detroit's Squad 7, the homicide cops. His 1978 piece for the Sunday magazine of The Detroit News stands the test of time.

Read Elmore Leonard's "Impressions of Murder"

Once he could walk the walk and talk the talk, he gained a loyal following. John Travolta, Gene Hackman and George Clooney lined up to play his characters because they got all the great lines. Aerosmith came over on a Sunday afternoon to swim in Elmore's pool while in town for a concert and about the same time "Be Cool" was filming. Peter's wife, Julie, remembers them as being very thin, very pale and dressed in leather.

"I served them non-alcoholic beer," Elmore said. "They were all in recovery."

Growing up with a writer in the house gave Peter the muse.

"I used to sit and watch Elmore when I was a kid, actually all through my life, and I would see him in different stages," Peter said. As a boy of 10, "I'd go down in the basement and see my dad on a Saturday morning. And there he was at his desk in a cinder block room and it was like a prison cell."

A few years later, an excited Elmore emerged from the basement with big news.

"I was in the kitchen and my dad came up and said, 'I'm gonna make my run.' I said, 'What's that mean, Dad?' And you said, 'You know, I'm gonna make my run. I'm going for it. I'm going to quit my advertising job and I'm gonna make my run.'"

Some 40 years later, Peter decided to make his run, too.

"Strips of leather"

Peter's road was longer, bumpier, rutted by his father's huge footprints.

Just out of college, pumped up by a creative writing class, Peter showed his dad a six-page story. He was looking for some strokes, and a couple of suggestions. But the critique he got back was almost as long as the story, and it wasn't very encouraging.

Peter Leonard fires up a Virginia Slim bummed from his 86-year-old father, Elmore Leonard.
Peter Leonard fires up a Virginia Slim bummed from his 86-year-old father, Elmore Leonard.
John Nowak/CNN

"Your characters are like strips of leather drying in the sun," Elmore wrote. "They all look and sound the same."

Did the criticism sting? You bet.

Did it have a chilling effect?

"Only for 27 years," Peter said.

His own epiphany came when he stopped by to see his dad at the end of a tense, soul sucking day of pitching ads to the suits. Elmore was hard at work in his office -- only it didn't look like work. His desk overlooked the pool, and he wore jeans, sandals and a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt. That's the life, Peter thought.

He spent more time writing, devoting his weekends, getting so immersed that he didn't take a break to go swimming at his dad's with Aerosmith.

"You have to find out if you can do it," he said. "There was a leap there, a leap of faith that I could do this."

Peter and Elmore Leonard want their visitor to take that leap, too, demanding to know why I hadn't written a book yet.

Why not, indeed? Was it fear? Laziness? The day job? All of the above?

"You want to, don't you?" Peter cajoled.

"You have the voice. Just do it," Elmore said.

Old newspaper hacks are fond of saying they wish they had a dollar for every time someone said, "You should write a book." The spare change could buy a tank of gas or a round of drinks.

Most of us get in the game with the dream of writing The Great American Novel but never do. So maybe it was time to think about the big picture. Why settle for a round when you can buy the whole bottle of Jack?

When Elmore Leonard says, "You've got to write a book," well, better listen up.

The next step requires a thick hide. Elmore's first crime book, "The Big Bounce," was rejected 84 times. Peter's first effort, "Invasion," had 37 characters and no hero, and so it also found no publisher. He followed up with "Quiver," which came out in 2005.

"Boy, you're on your way," Elmore told him.

Elmore Leonard interviews his son about writing

"Elmore said to me many years ago, don't throw anything away. 'Never throw anything away,'" Peter said. "And he was right." Peter gutted and rewrote "Invasion;" it became "Trust Me," his second novel.

A couple of years ago, Peter turned to writing books full time -- even though a friend suggested that it might be like Michael Jordan's son trying to break into the NBA.

"Thanks for your support," Peter replied.

The arrest in Rome during his college years became the fodder for the opening scenes in his latest book, "All He Saw Was the Girl." At dinner, Peter recalled the experience in detail, right down to the shadows playing on the floor as he woke up behind bars.

"I remember that state between sleeping and wakefulness where you think, 'Did that really happen?' I opened my eyes and the morning sun is coming through the barred window and there's this distorted pattern on the floor. I thought, 'Oh boy, oh baby, I'm in trouble now.' ... 'Oh my God, this is really bad, but wow, what a situation this is. I gotta use this some day.'"

It's what sets writers apart from other people, the notion that life is a story ripe for plunder.

You can't make this stuff up.

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