This, said aloud as my wife and I got home this morning. She knew immediately that someone had died, because it’s what I always say when I skim the news and stumble across something sad. “Who was it?” she asked.
“Elmore Leonard passed away,” I said. Leonard died on Tuesday following a stroke he had a few weeks ago.
“Is he the cranky one?” she asked. (There are lots of cranky ones in crime fiction).
“No,” I said, genuinely moved for a moment. “He was really gentle. Well-spoken. He was nice.”
I like Elmore Leonard a hell of a lot. He was a great writer, and he was always a good guy to talk to about just about anything.
I first met him in 2000, long before I started interviewing authors. He had come to the Tattered Cover in Denver to promote one of my favorite novels, Pagan Babies. It was the pinnacle of that incredible decade when Leonard managed to produce Rum Punch, Out of Sight, the novels that inspired Justified, not to mention Get Shorty and Be Cool. I don’t remember too much about the encounter except that he laughed out loud when I called Out of Sight a romance novel. He thought that novel had been misinterpreted, and that it was indeed a love story.
“I have a good time writing books, and I don’t want it to be work, ever,” he said during our first interview. He also spoke about his predilection for writing about criminals.
“I like to write about the criminals because most of them are either dumb, or it’s a guy who’s made a mistake,” he said. “While he might be trying to go straight, you never know what he’s going to do next because he has the ability to break the law. I kind of like these guys. I really have affection for them, even the bad guys. The poor guys are just dumb. I could never do, for example, a serial killer, because I could never find any affection for somebody who just wants to kill people.”
I also liked the fact that there was never any pretension in people like Elmore Leonard about why they write in “The Genre.” (Bear in mind, this is a guy who lived to see 3:10 to Yuma, The Big Bounce and 52 Pickup made into movies. Twice. Each.)
“It was always the market,” he told me. “With westerns, all the pulp magazines were done by the end of the 1950’s. Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post were paying the most for westerns, but they were even done. That was my goal, just to hit the slick magazines with my westerns.”
“These stories always appeal because there are obvious good guys and bad guys,” he continued. “There is also always an ending to the story, unlike literary fiction, where you’re not always sure what the point is.”
Crime, yes. Mysteries, not so much. “I never considered my books mysteries,” he said. “There’s no mystery to it. The reader always knows what’s going on. But there is always a crime. There’s always a gun.”
I caught up with him the following year to talk about Road Dogs, the novel that brought back Jack Foley from Out of Sight. It was a good conversation—a lot of talk about prison culture and Jack Foley’s criminal nature.
Then something happened that still makes me smile to remember him. Leonard was on page eight of the novel that would become Djibouti, his second-to-last novel to be published to date, including last year’s Raylan. He gave me the rundown of the plot as he understood it at the time—he never knew the ending when he started a book—and then says, “Hang on, and I’ll read you what I have so far.” And he read me the first chapter of an Elmore Leonard novel, straight from his typewriter.
There will be lots of tributes coming down now, all of which will cover Leonard’s extraordinary career in detail. I’ll be interested to see what his fellow writers have to say. For now, I’m just really glad to have met him, and spoken with him about a lifetime’s worth of great stories.
I’ll leave you with a nice, unguarded moment that Leonard shared with me at the end of one of our conversations.
“I threw out the first pitch at a Seattle Mariners game,” he said. “It wasn’t a special occasion, but I did get to throw out the first pitch. I practiced for it that morning. I went out in the backyard and measured out sixty feet and I kept throwing at a wire fence to make sure I could throw it in a straight line. Then, when you get to the ballpark, they don’t want you messing up the mound, so you’re only 50 feet from home plate.”
“It was a lot of fun,” he remembered. “The first time I ever got on the (Detroit Tigers) field, I was with Mike Lupica. He took me down on the field and introduced me to Ernie Harwell and the guys. I told them, ‘For 50 years, I’ve been wanting to come down here.’ Ernie Harwell says, ‘Why didn’t you call me?’”
Home run, Dutch. Rest easy.
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites, and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.