The Dickens of Detroit
Elmore Leonard talks cops, the Motor City, George Clooney and the worst movie ever made
Published: March 30, 2011
Novelist Elmore Leonard is a Detroiter and fiercely proud of it. Many of his stories are at least in part based here, and he's always very careful to get his facts straight. Unlike, say, the TV show Detroit 1-8-7, there are no made-up newspapers, street names or colleges. Leonard has lived here for most of his life, and he's traveled the streets at night with the Detroit Police. He does his homework.
Now 85 years old, Leonard lives in Bloomfield Village with his wife, Christine. His house, with its gated, arched driveway, is predictably impressive though not obnoxious, and it's in keeping with the area. His office is airy and sparse, set up for writing with few distractions. There's no computer; Leonard's completely old-school, writing his novels longhand, and then writing them out again using an electric typewriter. He has no desire to learn how to use a computer, explaining that going from a manual typewriter to an electric was a big enough change.
And if you consider it, that's a lot of longhand writing and storytelling. Over his 60-year career, Elmore "Dutch" Leonard has penned 44 novels, 21 of which have been adapted into feature films. He's a master of dialogue, a fact he's very proud of. Watch Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino's superb adaption of Leonard's Rum Punch novel) or Out of Sight (featuring one of George Clooney's best performances as suave bank robber Jack Foley) again, because most of the dialogue you hear is lifted directly from Leonard's pages. He molds his characters carefully, giving them a life and a soul. He is, in short, a master of his craft.
The recipient of three honorary doctorates is also a talkative man, though not entirely warm when faced with a journalist and photographer in his own home — a scheduling snafu led to some confusion and he thought this conversation was to be via phone.
He thinks hard about what he says and reveals only what he wants to and little more, but he's also witty and charming. When he does say something amusing, he'll slightly grin, preferring to drag from a Virginia Slims and move on. He's an animated conversationalist, gesticulates with his arms to accent, sometimes rising distractedly from his chair to retrieve something from a shelf that's unrelated to the interview, or leaf through a pile of papers when caught by a thought or idea. His crossed legs often switch sides quickly. In this context his words and body language say that after six decades of writing, he's lost no passion for his art or desire to work. His most recent novel, Djibouti, was published last fall by HarperCollins.
Metro Times: You moved from New Orleans to Detroit when you were 9 years old?
Elmore Leonard: There were other places first. New Orleans, Dallas, Oklahoma City, back to Dallas, Detroit, Memphis, back to Detroit, all before 1934. My father was with General Motors, and he was with different zonal offices all around the country.
MT: Do you still feel a kinship with New Orleans? Your character Jack Foley (from Out of Sight and Road Dogs) is from there ...
Leonard: Sure. I like New Orleans. If it were some place else, like Duluth, Minn., maybe I wouldn't feel any kind of kinship with it, but New Orleans is a good town. I've done a couple of book tours, but I haven't been back there since Katrina. My cousins live in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Their house was swept away, but they built another one on the spot. They love it there.
MT: I read that you were heavily influenced by Bonnie and Clyde, and also the Detroit Tigers ...
Leonard: There's a picture of me standing in front of a car in 1933 or '34. The picture was taken in Memphis, and I'm standing with my mother and my sister, and I'm at the side of the car but I have my foot on the running board in Bonnie's kind of pose. She had several poses like that where she's in front of the car with her foot on the bumper holding a gun. I'm pointing a pistol at the camera. The influence has to be Bonnie and Clyde, although they weren't nearly as successful or really adept at robbing banks as their publicity has been blown up to suggest. They didn't do a lot. They'd rob little grocery stores and things like that. They were always being chased and they'd always run into a roadblock.
MT: Did that glamorous and charming image of crime influence the legend of your character Jack Foley?
Leonard: Oh, yeah, because I have a character who complains about Willie Sutton [having more fame than his success as a bank robber warrants]. Jack Foley has robbed maybe 100 more banks than Sutton.
MT: What about the Detroit Tigers?
Leonard: I've been watching the Tigers since my mom and dad used to take me to the games a lot back before the war. I went into the service in '43. I went into the Navy, and then I was sent overseas, South Pacific, and I joined a CB outfit, construction battalion. I did that for about a year or so, and then I came home and got a ship. I went down through the canal to Virginia to decommission the ship. That was it, 30 months.
I returned and went to U of D. I had planned to go to Georgetown, but all my friends were going to U of D so I went there. I didn't know what to take. I majored in English because I liked to read. That was the only reason.
MT: What's the genesis of your "Dutch" nickname?
Leonard: There was a pitcher in the American League, Hubert "Dutch" Leonard. I forget who he played for [the Red Sox and the Tigers, in fact]. When I was in high school, he was still pitching but he was in his 40s. He started as a fastball pitcher but as he got older he was throwing knucklers. I was at high school, second year, and a guy said, "I'm gonna start calling you Dutch." It caught on, and it helped because Elmore was a tough one to carry around when I was young. A lot of people would call me Elmer.
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