Crime writing king Elmore Leonard has written 53 books, 20 of which have been purchased or adapted by Hollywood, including "Get Shorty," "Out of Sight" and "Jackie Brown."
amNewYork spoke with Leonard, who will be signing copies of his 45th novel, "Raylan," the basis of the FX series "Justified," at Barnes & Noble Upper East Side on Wednesday.
Your latest book, Raylan, describes an organ transplant nurse who steals people's kidneys and sells them back to her "donors." We had an international kidney selling scandal in New York a few years ago: Did that inspire your plot?
I must have read about it before I suggested it to Justified. It's been used before. But what I really remembered was the funeral parlor scam - I'm quite sure it was in New York - where the guy took all the body parts from the corpses and sold them before he burned them up.
Fans have asked me to ask you how you do your research.
I've had the same researcher since 1979. He lives in Los Angeles and I just tell him an idea I have for a book and he gets me more than I need. He's helping me now on my next book, Sweetmary. (cq) It's about private prisons and an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agent who gets a cut for putting people away. They're trying to pass a new law in Arizona that "certain people" need to carry ID on 'em so this ICE agent is picking up (American) Indians. A private prison gets $100 a day (per prisoner)! They're making money!
Do you deliberately cast social justice issues as backdrops in your plots?
I'm not conscious of it, but when it occurs to me that things are wrong, I put them in. Mining companies (among the villains in Raylan) treat people just terrible. They let the mine waste fall down into the valleys and on to people's homes and they don't care about miners. Then the companies declare bankruptcy and move on, leaving the miners without jobs. I've voted Democratic since Kennedy. And probably before that, but I'm living amidst all these Republicans (in Bloomfield Hills, MI).
But your characters sure use guns a lot. Do you own one?
I have no use for a gun. But when I need to learn about one, I go to the police headquarters in Detroit at 1300 Beaubien St. The firearms examiners on the sixth floor just open up the glass case for me. In 1979, the Detroit News asked me to do feature called "Impressions of Murder," and I spent three or four weeks with the homicide unit. They introduced me to Squad Seven and I'd go up every day and watch them work. They were all funny. They know I'm writing books and that I just want them to be factual.
What kind of things do you like to do when you're in New York?
I leave that up to the New Yorkers! One of my best friends works at the Daily News. What's his name? He's a columnist there. . . .(Long back and forth ensues in which the interviewer ticks off the names of Daily News columnists until the name "Mike Lupica" is greeted with enthusiasm.) Yeah! He interviewed me for Esquire 20 years back. He sends me tennis shoes all the time. Whenever he buys a pair for himself, he buys one for me, too - the kind with a big "N" on the side. They're good tennis shoes, too.
Why is it that in the detective/suspense genre, the male protagonists are always sexually irresistible to every female character they encounter?
My character falls in love with someone! He's not just foolin' around. I don't do that Micky Spillane kind of stuff. I make my women real characters, real people - sometimes even the main character.
Speaking of character - even though you're 86, you still have a very youthful writing voice. How do you keep your writing young?
I listen! I keep track of words that are popular. "Cool" is used constantly, but I'm just starting to use it. Also, I see humor in almost everything (including aging). I wrote a short story for a Sunday supplement about people in a retirement home. She has six months to live and is wearing a chic looking thing on her bald head. He doesn't have a lot of time, either, but every day he gets dressed up in a suit and tie and goes around to see the ladies. Finally, he says to her, "why don't I go get my medicines and move in here with you?" She says, "OK - but we're not going to do anything the first night you're here." When I first started, I was imitating Hemingway, but Hemingway doesn't have a funny bone in his body. He kept trying to be the stud - and he killed himself at age 61. It's not easy to be funny, but I think of funny things a lot. I'm having a little trouble, right now, putting words down, but you have to keep challenging yourself, you have to keep thinking of new scenes. Even though I've probably already written them all.
The good and the evil typically get their rewards and punishments by the end of your books. Are you answering a demand of the genre's formula or do you believe we all truly reap what we sow?
I want the good guy to win! My books are conventional in that way, but sometimes the good guy gets killed, too (and another character takes over). You have to have good and evil in a book: That's what literature is. There's not always justice in life. But it doesn't bother me. Nothing bothers me. I have fun writing and I just want to get this book (Sweetmary) finished. I'm rewriting constantly: it takes three to four pages to get one clear page. I write it all in long hand. I type it the first time - I use a Selectric - and then I give it to my daughter, who's been doing my typing for years. I don't use a computer.
You don't sound like a very tortured writer.
For half my life, I took communion every morning. I'd be there with a bunch of ladies. But for the past 35 years, I've been in AA. I got my higher power right there: I didn't need all the rubrics and customs. I don't go to meetings anymore, but I still think about AA: I know what got me straightened out. I always went to men's meetings, because women talk too much: "So I got up this morning and I felt. . . ." The men's meetings were much quicker.
Which character reincarnated onscreen is your favorite?
Raylan! He (actor Timothy Olyphant) carries a gun and knows how to use it. He's easy going, and doesn't believe in all the rules he has to follow. He always has the right line to finish a scene. On the show, they've got eight writers writing and they're writing all the time. I finish a book, I send it to them, and they fill in what they want. I don't worry if it's going to be good or bad, but on Justified, it continues to be good. I dedicated my book to (Olyphant) and Graham (Justified's executive producer Graham Yost)! That particular character I've been using on and off forever. He's my guy. I know I can make him work. I'm going to put him in my new book, despite my agent's point of view. He wants to sell a movie and thinks there's been too much Raylan on TV. I want to sell a movie, too! But God knows we've sold enough.
If you go: Elmore Leonard is signing at Barnes & Noble Upper East Side on Wednesday at 7 p.m., 150 E. 86th St., 212-369-2180, FREE.