Hitting the Books

Solid research keeps Elmore Leonard's pages turning.

Beginning writers are often told to "write what you know." Unfortunately, they generally won't get very far if that's all they do. But combining talent and imagination with solid research into what they don't know can carry their work far beyond their back yards.

Take Elmore Leonard, for instance. He grew up in the South and then settled in Detroit after World War II and college. When, in the 1950s, he began writing pulp Westerns set in Arizona, he didn't know beans about the locale. So he did his research, something he learned under the tutelage of the Jesuits who ran his high school.

He didn't even have to visit. An excellent source of information was the venerable Arizona Highways. Leonard says it provided most of the facts and color he needed to make his stories come alive in the high desert and mountains. "Even if I'd been right there in the canyon, I couldn't have identified that cactus" as well as the photo caption did, he recalls.

His dedication eventually paid off handsomely. After a decade during which he wrote novels and stories in his spare time while paying the bills as an advertising copywriter, his Westerns were selling well enough to keep his growing family fed.

Fleeing the land of gray flannel suits, he turned to full-time book writing. Some of these Westerns were the first of more than 20 of his novels to be turned into films. Hombre with Paul Newman and Richard Boone, Valdez Is Coming with Burt Lancaster and 3:10 to Yuma with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin are among the best.

Nearly 40 novels after he sold his first short story to Argosy magazine in 1951, "Dutch" Leonard is still doing research, although no longer for Westerns. That market dried up decades ago, when television began bringing the Ponderosa and Dodge City to America's living rooms, and the once-popular pulp Western magazines rode off into the sunset. Casting about for a more viable market, Leonard turned to crime. His first crime novel was 52 Pick Up, in 1974. Cat Chaser in 1982 finally made him an "overnight success"--after 23 previous books. By 1985, he had reached the New York Times best seller list and the cover of Newsweek.

It was in these novels that he began developing the snappy, urban dialogue that critics still praise for its realism. Leonard has occasion to chuckle at that description. "The funny thing is, the reviewer will say, 'This dialogue is right on the money,' and it might be a couple of convicts talking," he says. "And you wonder, well, how does he know?"

But those in the know approve. Leonard said one man who had done three years for possession of marijuana told him that his convict and ex-con characters talk just like they're supposed to. He often hears from incarcerated men who want to know if he's done time. He hasn't; it's the research. For Pagan Babies, for instance, he researched character Debby Dewey's life and dialogue by visiting a South Florida women's correctional institution and talking with 15 of the inmates.

His research goes far beyond appropriate dialogue. For Be Cool, in which Chili Palmer, who first appeared in Get Shorty, decides to become a music producer, Leonard did in-depth research on the music business. He interviewed industry moguls, appeared at L.A.'s Viper Room with the Stone Coyotes, whose music he used in the book, and, as a finishing touch, had Aerosmith over to his Detroit home for a pool party, where he picked their brains.

In all his books, Leonard's main strength is his characters. Perhaps his characterizations are so dead-on because he has a soft spot for his bad guys. He believes in second chances. "I don't think that criminals are just bad guys that sneer all the time or are obnoxious or hard to get along with," he explains. "I feel sorry for them. They really want the same thing we all do. They want to be happy, they want to get along. I try to treat them, to think of them as human beings before I think of them as criminals."

He doesn't work with an outline or any preconceived notion of how the story should proceed. Instead, he lets the characters drive the action, making them up as he goes along and getting to know them intimately in the course of the writing. For one thing, if "they don't have the right name, they won't talk," he says. "I don't know why that is, but it's just a fact." (Chili Palmer, for instance, is the real name of an acquaintance.) Then Leonard, as the author, stays out of the way and lets the characters reveal the story and each other through dialogue and their own points of view.

Not until Barry Sonnenfeld turned Get Shorty, with John Travolta, Renee Russo, Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito, into celluloid was Leonard happy with any of the films made from his work. Previous directors didn't catch on to the Leonardesque dialogue, and so no one had "picked up on the attitude, the sound of the books," says Leonard. But Sonnenfeld did and used it to keep the story moving. Leonard says Quentin Tarantino, who did Jackie Brown (an adaptation of the novel Rum Punch) and Steven Sodderberg, who directed Out of Sight, both followed in Sonnenfeld's footsteps. Consequently, these three films please Leonard the most.

His newest book, Tishomingo Blues, will be out on January 29. With the film rights already purchased by Filmfour Ltd., and for which Leonard is a named producer with approval of director, cast and screenwriter, Tishomingo Blues promises to be another entertaining crime romp. He describes it this way: "A high diver, the Dixie Mafia, gangsters from Detroit and women with their own agendas all get involved in a Civil War battle re-enactment in Mississippi."

The research for this one must have been a blast.

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