The Dickens of Detroit
Elmore Leonard talks cops, the Motor City, George Clooney and the worst movie ever made
Published: March 30, 2011
MT: You once worked as copywriter in advertising. Did learn anything from that experience?
Leonard: No. I'm always asked that. Did you learn how to write briefly? I don't write briefly. Some of my sentences will go 100 words or more. No, I didn't learn a thing. Especially writing on the Chevrolet account; you had to write kinda cute about the car, the station wagon. "You put youngens in the back," and that kind of thing. I did much better on trucks.
MT: You started out writing Westerns ...
Leonard: Yeah, because of the market. The market for Westerns in the '50s was terrific. There were a couple of dozen pulp magazines still publishing. The best ones were Dime Western by Popular Publications. I started researching the West. Almost all of my stories were set in Arizona in the 1880s. I learned about Apache Indians and got into them. I like them. They were pretty mean. I wrote about 30 short stories in the '50s and five books. Two stories were bought for movies. I wrote eight Western novels altogether. I like Westerns. I may even write another one. I don't know if there's a market, but there's a movie out right now, the Coen brothers remake of True Grit. I started to watch it last night but fell asleep. I can always write another Western.
MT: Does metro Detroit provide you with the perfect backdrop to write crime fiction?
Leonard: Definitely. Especially after The Detroit News asked me if I'd do a piece on the homicide division, Squad Seven. I went down and spent three weeks with them. They would call me when they had a homicide. I would meet them at the scene and watch them investigate. Back to the police headquarters on Beaubien, I would watch them interrogate witnesses and suspects. That was fun. I'd sit in when a guy finally gives up and is confessing, making his statement.
MT: Is that why you're still here?
Leonard: I'm here because this is where I live. There's no reason to move. I thought about going to San Francisco in the '70s, but then I realized that I'd have to learn all the streets, how to get around and all that. It wasn't worth it. I certainly wouldn't live in LA. The traffic is terrible. I was there in '69 when there were a lot of hippies. You could smell the marijuana on the street. It was crowded. Sunset was packed with people, and that was fun.
Seven hundred thousand people shipped out of Detroit when they built the freeways. That was it. Everybody left, and Detroit went from nearly 2 million to where it is now [714,000 in the Census announced last week]. Everybody is still around, they're just out [in the suburbs] somewhere. There was the problem with the auto industry, but that's coming back. There are so many pieces written about Detroit, about how barren it is now with all these empty lots all over the place. The people are still here, they're just out of the city limits. It's gonna come back. It's got to. This is a big, exciting town. We've got the four sports teams here; we've got a great art museum. We've got enough activity here. It's got to come back.
MT: Do you think the Detroit that you presented to the world in books such as City Primeval is accurate?
Leonard: Oh, yeah. When I was researching with the cops, this is what I ran into following them around. This is what was going on. In the mid-'70s, there were more than 700 homicides in the city. Now it's down to 400, which is a lot but still ... That's probably because of the decline in population.
MT: All of your street references and directions are accurate, something that isn't true of Detroit 1-8-7. Have you seen it?
Leonard: I saw the first one. They're having trouble, I understand. I don't know why they called it 1-8-7. I was not familiar with that term, what it meant, and I still don't remember what it means. I went down to their headquarters and I met a lot of the people including the head writer. When I was ready to leave, he said, "I'm gonna have to start reading your work." They should have already started reading my work. It's accurate. It's what it is. I don't know why they didn't read it.
MT: You've placed the Howling Diablos in a couple of your books. Are you a fan?
Leonard: I know about them. I've only seen them on television. I haven't seen them live. I know one of the guys, Johnny Evans. He would play in the bookstore in Birmingham, when they'd have poetry readings. He'd play his sax in the background, which was really weird.
MT: You like to write phonetically and you won't correct the grammar of criminals ...
Leonard: To be authentic with dialogue, definitely. It's always written from the point of view. Scenes are always from someone's point of view, not mine. When you're looking at the scene as a character sees it, it might become ungrammatical. What did I say in my Ten Rules of Writing? When proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go.
MT: When you put out your Ten Rules of Writing, were you worried that you'd give away secrets?
Leonard: There aren't any secrets. I wrote them 10 years ago in Denver when I was the guest of honor at a writer's conference. In my hotel room, I wrote the 10 rules. That afternoon, I recited them. I came down off the stage with two sheets of paper in my hand. A guy came over and said 'Can I have those?' So I gave him the rules. A couple of years later, The New York Times asked me to write a column so I did the rules again. Less than a year after that, we had the rules published. They were printed in China. Ten rules, but a 90-page book. One line per page. It's thick and it's hard to open because of the heavy paper. I don't know why they did that.
MT: How do you set about writing a novel?
Leonard: I don't map out a plot. That's why I had a little trouble with Djibouti. The way I saw it, they will go out on this little 30-foot boat and start shooting. They'd finally meet some pirates and there'd be shooting and so on. But, I didn't want to write it as it happens. So they go out, and then the next chapter, 29 days later, she's back in the hotel looking at footage of Djibouti. Then you can get hold of the whole thing at once as a story. One thing leading to another. The characters that they meet in Djibouti, introduce them and so on. It was around Page 120 when I realized I had to get more of a story in there. It was the same old thing. They were talking to pirates that they liked and were successful, driving around in a Mercedes in town. Then I brought in al-Qaeda. I also brought in an American criminal who had served several years before he goes over, James Russell.
> Email Brett Callwood