Elmore Leonard (1925-2013)

20 Aug
August 20, 2013

A master departs.

It isn’t that he merely took a blowtorch to all the affectations and pretenses of genre fiction.  No, he made the lines between genre and literary fiction ridiculous and arbitrary for all time.  Fuck your categorizations:  This guy did some of the best writing in the last half of the Twentieth Century.  He leaves behind narratives that make us think harder about the human condition, not to mention all of our presumptions about how our society actually functions — or doesn’t.

I met him once.  I was a newspaper reporter, and so proud of that simple fact that I never wanted to ever be seen “going civilian,” fawning on celebrities or artists or political leaders or whoever.  Good journalists, Mencken said, can write about cats and kings.  The day’s assignment  – and the personages you encounter — shall not adulterate the requisite mixture of detached interest and dry, professional disdain.  Observe everything, admire nothing.

But a couple decades ago,  I was at an awards luncheon that happened to be honoring Mr. Leonard and his career.  And with exactly one book of narrative non-fiction under my belt, I violated all professional creed to walk across a ballroom, thrust a right hand at Elmore Leonard and then babble out a string of rapture and flattery that left him very little to say other than, “Thank you.  That’s really kind .”  Having no second thought in my twenty-something head, I retreated, knowing that I had not merely gone civilian, I had gone moron.

Reading him in the years since, one crafted narrative after the next, I’ve often winced in memory of  that early performance, wishing that I had thought of something — anything — clever to say to this man who so clearly understood the wit that can come from human conversation.  And, yeah, there are times when I wished I had just stayed in my luncheon seat and chewed on the rubber chicken with the rest of the scribblers.

Today, though, I’m glad for the moment.  Not that he would have wanted it, or been at all comfortable enduring it, but this guy was entitled to have damn near every other writer babbling praise in his ear.  When you write like Elmore Leonard for as long as Elmore Leonard, you deserve to be reminded every now and then just how well you did your job and how much your work truly mattered.

 

 

 

 

54 replies
  1. TRON says:

    Great post, and great to see Leonard getting some of the more ‘literary’ (for want of a better word) respect from his peers. Not that he’s ever lacked kudos: when your fans range from Martin Amis to death row inmates you’re clearly doing something right.

    As a non-American, I’ve always thought of Leonard as a primer to the US and its culture/history. His novels cover everything from urban decay and the death of industry (I’ve always imagined his rendering of 1970s Detroit is pitch perfect, the emergence of Florida as sun-soaked seediness, Cuba and US military incursions into Latin America, Hollywood, Blues, Jazz, Religion/Evangelism, Immigration, Prison/Law Enforcement… which obviously crosses over into a lot of what you’ve covered on The Wire and elsewhere. In 100 years time people that want to know what the 20th century was like, how people talked and what they talked about, they could do a hell of a lot worse than read Elmore Leonard. And they’re funny as hell too.

    Reply
  2. Ben Merliss says:

    Are there any other crime fiction writers you admire and whose works you would recommend?

    Reply
  3. Bryan C says:

    Would love to see your response to the guys in this article http://www.wired.com/underwire/2013/09/gangs-of-social-media/all/ saying that The Wire is becoming a bit dated in the fact that gangs aren’t as sophisticated today due to a number of reasons with a big one being social media.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      I have no response. The Wire is what it is. Evaluating it as a document about the up-to-date dynamics of drug gangs, I can’t muster much interest. Our intentions and purpose were decidedly elsewhere.

      Reply
    • Bryan C says:

      Since I kind of came off as an asshole in my original comment, I do want to clarify that I wasn’t trying to imply that new trends in urban gangs somehow takes away from the story The Wire was trying to tell. Listening to your interviews you still seem like you’re a city crime beat guy at heart. I guess I was just trying to get a response from you on how new trends are affecting drug organizations.

      Reply
      • David Simon says:

        Lately, judging from my projects, I’ve been more of a New Orleans culture guy at heart, or a Recon Marine guy at heart. Been working on scripts where I’ve needed to be an OSS-CIA-Cold War kind of guy. The Wire was a story told at a particular moment, for a particular purpose. I make no claim to being continuously attentive to telecommunication trends in the drug culture. I can say that the Baltimore corners are still pretty much what they were, and that the stakes of the game are the same, and the tragedy no less. That doesn’t change. But social media’s role in gang communications is not of notable interest to me at this moment. Not that it shouldn’t interest others. I’m just not focused on that particularism.

        Reply
  4. Amy Goodwin says:

    Not for posting.
    I hope you are well. Miss reading your posts. I did an interview yesterday with your pal, Richard Deitsch from SI. I asked him a question based on something you said at your talk at Berkeley. I thought you might enjoy hearing it. (It is actually a debate between Richard and a guy on Fox Sports 1 College Football, Clay Travis.) It is actually the second question I asked…around 4.37

    http://www.blogtalkradio.com/agoodwin25/2013/09/24/richard-deitsch-vs-clay-travis

    Best regards, Amy G.

    Reply
  5. 21stcenturypoet says:

    Hi David,

    As you mentioned Mencken, I thought you would enjoy this as much as I did (though I imagine you might have already been tipped to it):

    http://21stcenturytheater.wordpress.com/2013/09/07/rare-recording-of-controversialist-journalist-and-american-literary-social-critic-h-l-mencken/

    I quoted the most salient bits, but it is a pleasure to listen to the man. As Steely Dan said, “those days are gone forever, over a long time ago…oh yeah…” Although, in some ways, la plus ca change…

    You also may be tempted to send his words about restauranteurs to a certain friend of yours.

    Good stuff.

    ~ Aloha

    Reply
  6. Mike Siesel says:

    Dutch was a master of dialogue and I truly enjoy a couple of dozen of his novels. Thanks for remembering him.

    Reply
  7. leslie says:

    Mr. Simon, I only wish I had “gone moron” as you did when I stood chatting with Steve Goodman. Aged 17 at a local bar, too much to drink, seemingly raised by Mencken, well I can’t even recall it without a sick feeling. I would guess anyone in your position or Leonard’s would prefer your moron to mine. Pens “City Of New Orleans” in his fucking twenties and I’m, god my stomach hurts just thinking about it!

    Reply
  8. seymour says:

    The first one I read was the switch. I was in my late teens and picked it up at the local library. Great book, very underrated. Then I went on a sort of binge where I read pretty much I could get my hands on.

    Next I read Stick, Swag and a bunch of others. I just liked the way he wrote, and this was before the internet so I had no idea how much everyone else loved him.

    Leonard’s favourite was Freaky Deaky, and that’s a great book. I also like Rum Punch…..there’s so many classics.

    My favourite? Probably Riding the Rap, or Killshot.

    Reply
  9. Brendan says:

    “F-ck your categorizations.”

    Why do you have to curse so much? Your over-reliance on tough-guy vernacular diminshes your credibility as a gadlfy.

    We get it, Simon…you know how to use the F-word. 9th grade ended a long time ago.

    I know, I know….it’s a Bal’more thing. Only Bal’more residents can properly use the word for emphasis.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      I’ll venture to suggest that I just don’t see any particular words as being more problematic or vulgar or provocative than others. Whatever obscenity actually concerns me isn’t really a function of vocabulary. This is how I talk, and write, and think. Also, I work for HBO, a premium cable outlet that by contract requires me to use at least one profanity every eighty-five words, so you can’t imagine how much regret I sincerely fucking feel in always being obliged to disappoint so many of the world’s most refined and particular assholes.

      Reply
      • Brendan says:

        I guess money and praise are powerful liberators.

        Reply
        • David Simon says:

          Brendan, if you really hold a few so-called naughty words to be the prize, then your liberation theology is for shit. I cursed more as a poor police reporter, believe me. And so did all the other human beings around me.

          Ideas can be obscene. Actions and events can surely be so.

          Except on rare occasions — dinners with grandparents, funerals, religious liturgies — words themselves are a ridiculous and meaningless venue for the metrics of decorum.

          Reply
          • Brendan says:

            I respectfully disagree with your last sentence. Maybe this is true within the walls of a gritty homicide division or a newsroom – where “argument is sport”. But you seem to know when to appropriately bite your tongue when compulsory – Piers Morgan Live – so why can’t you exert the same restraint in your writing? To me, you seem like a conflicted man. Born and raised in prosperous Montgomery County, sitting comfortably atop the pyramid in two failing, morally-corrupt municipalities; yet your words and writing style demand that you be paired with societal warts.

            Why don’t you also speak in double-negatives like so many of your fictional characters?

            Reply
            • David Simon says:

              You misunderstand me. I agree with a biting of the tongue at funerals or at dinner with grandmother. I measure the possible offense in the format against the added emphasis of what I believe to be a well-placed and emphatic profaning. To me, in most situations, profanity is punctuation and rhythm and emphasis. That’s all I see it as.

              If using it in the wrong moment would greatly offend, then okay, no. Otherwise, I feel no need for what you call restraint. Restraint to me in those situations is merely bad editing.

              Reply
              • seymour says:

                People get too sensitive about words. A few years ago, I was studying journalism. Always on the look-out for stories, etc, I sent an email to a University Linguistics’ professor asking (a tad bluntly, I admit) why the word cunt was deemed so offensive.

                The ensuing shit-storm was something to behold. I was literally told I would be thrown off the course if I misbehaved again. I seriously couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was forced into a meeting to justify why I dared even ask the question in the first place, I had to apologise, etc.

                In the end I chose not to.

                A really great book on the power of words to offend is “the Language wars – by Henry Hitchings”.

                I highly recommend it.

                Reply
                • seymour says:

                  BTW – If you’re a fan of Deadwood, David Milch, he has given some insightful interviews about why the profanity in Deadwood is totally appropriate for the time and place.

                  Reply
              • chocolateboy says:

                > I agree with a biting of the tongue at funerals

                I don’t give a fuck about swearing, but — for the record — this IS a funeral…

                Reply
                • David Simon says:

                  Actually, it is no such thing.

                  It isn’t a funeral. You dress up for a funeral. You attend with other grieving friends and family. It is often in a house of worship and involves religious ritual. Decorum is at a premium.

                  This isn’t even a eulogy. Those are delivered at funerals.

                  This is a written appreciation of another writer’s work in light of his death, appearing on the internet, distinct from funerals, eulogies, memorial services, wakes or shivas. To imply even a remote connection is hyperbolic.

                  Reply
      • Stefan Lorenzutti says:

        I’m in no position to comment on David Simon’s contractual obligations re: dockside harmonizing. Even so: I’d like to douse his “fuck your categorizations” with a cooler of Gatorade, on account of it being one of the more effectively-deployed “obscenities” (not obscene in my book, but we’ll use the designation as shorthand for “words that might knock over a teapot or two in some china shops”) you’re likely to come across; it is, in fact, worth savoring and repeating out loud, too.

        The implied criticism is that Simon curses lazily, arbitrarily, which strikes me as being considerably off the mark: there is nothing, nothing at all lazy or knee-jerk about Simon’s writing or thinking. Provocative? Yes. Intellectually feisty, like you get with an Art Spiegelman or Maurice Sendak? Of course and God bless. But never knee-jerk, never “lob a brickbat with your eyes closed and see what happens.” And that’s one of the reasons I read this page with interest. Simon holds himself to an almost analogue standard: be precise, don’t you dare be sloppy, even and especially if we’re online and sloppiness is a mere unchecked keystroke away. Act as if this is going down onto chiseled tablets. In an age of smack-a-keyboard and press post, Simon is the guy who seems to revise with vigor before posting—spirited revision being one of the things that separates rugged writing from soap-box yawping. You won’t ever see a Simon dispatch, regardless of length or subject, being used to wrap fish at tomorrow’s dawn market.

        So you can rest assured that when he says “fuck” he means it; and that his decision to use that word, instead of all the other words or phrases at his disposal (“to heck with” is a fine shiv but sometimes you need a full-fledged lance) was deliberate, informed, and pegged to all sorts of craft-conscious things—like cadence, like the physical weight and presence of words—that have nothing to do with cursing merely for kicks.

        Reply
    • First Lt L Diablo says:

      Yeah Brendan, fuck off. Prick.

      Btw: David, your flattery of EL seems deserving to you but keep in mind some of us feel that way about you (and I hope that doesn’t mean we’ve “gone moron”) so maybe you can ease the fuck up on us when we dare to compliment you. Prick ;)

      Reply
  10. Stefan Lorenzutti says:

    A writer. Teller of tales. A CB radio of an eavesdropping, omniscient author, picking up plots and louche banter in soundproofed back rooms and town cars, rackety pool halls and betting parlors, and transcribing the details directly onto the pages of whole books. Good ones, that—like Swag and Glitz and Out of Sight and Mr. Paradise—pulsed with elan and mellow insight. Leonard’s people thought fast (meatheads excepted), so Leonard wrote fast. His characters jawed and operated, defended and defrauded. They cracked jokes and skulls and ice into cocktail glasses while spreading wit and waggishness and sangfroid and jism from spine to spine, all the way down a plank bookshelf holding up a half-century’s worth of novels. A real Bayeux Tapestry for the last five or six mad, mad, mad, mad and captivating decades of Late Holocene scheming and dreaming.

    Reply
  11. Yojimbo says:

    The touch of the hand though. You have that. And it means something. To both parties. I think fame, in the generous, understands that, and forgives the clumsy urgency of admiration.

    Reply
  12. Carlos says:

    First/foremost, I regret not having ever read anything by Mr. Leonard. But the regret/shame is lessened somewhat knowing that I will soon, probably starting with Stick.
    Last year in October in Paris on a Sunday I was unaware that an admired master was at Shakespeare and Company. Missed him.
    Three weeks ago my wife Diana and I were in Galicia with friends from Badalona and my sister tells me that el maestro is in Asturias in Aviles. Close but no way to time travel back a day and be there to hear/see him. Then Spanish press writes about a continuing trip to Barcelona and a nearby town, and I fantasize about finding el mestre having a coffee or a caña at a bar in Llavaneres or Vilassar or Badalona, places close to our hearts. But no señor.
    Then yesterday our dear friend Pep (of Badalona) goes to his office in Barcelona and comes down to the bar for a second and a short rest and, there he is, the master with his hat and discreet shirt. And Pep thanks you for our pleasure with Treme and The Wire, the pleasure we’ve intensely shared, my sister Ana, Lali and Pep, Diana and I, and knowing Pep, I’m sure he expressed gratitude with no babble and just shortly mentioned how he’s considered things in common between Baltimore and Badalona.
    Good that it was him. I might not have been able to avoid babbling and saying something like ‘I love Bubbles’. Nah, I wouldn’t have babbled either, just shown in wide open eyes how much your work matters to us. Diana says we’re on the right track for something as magical as this to happen. Gracias David.

    Reply
  13. Bones says:

    While the fiction I gravitate to can be described as “genre” and mystery, I’ve been keen on reading Mr. Leonard since Justified and Out of Sight. I know, I know, the books are almost always better, but I would think it’s better late than never. I will look at Stick, Mr. Simon.

    R.I.P. Mr. Leonard.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with going up to someone you admire and saying that and thanking them for their work. Anything other than that goes overboard.

    Reply
  14. buzzkill says:

    Did the man ever write an extraneous word?

    Thanks for writing this, thanks for noting his passing. Writers are so important.

    I liked Stick the best too. It makes me laugh out loud. He could write pretty much anything well.

    I was a moron when I met you (and Ms Lippman). It goes with the fan territory. I don’t know why it feels so weird to thank people for touching you somehow, but it sure does.

    Reply
  15. Edward Copeland says:

    Short, wonderful appreciation of a true master.

    Reply
  16. David J. Loehr says:

    I was also lucky to meet Mr. Leonard once. It was at a book signing event, so there was a built-in excuse to talk. But there wasn’t a big crowd, so there was no pressure to hurry. He was generous with his time and seemed amused that we all wanted to ask questions, tell him favorite books or films, whatever it was each of us said. I have no idea what I said, for what it’s worth.

    Think it’s time to reread some books now.

    Reply
  17. Amy Goodwin says:

    “It’s like seeing someone for the first time. Like you could be passing on the street and you look at each other. For a few seconds there is this kind of recognition. Like you both know something. And the next moment the person is gone, and it is too late to do anything about it. And you always remember it because it was there and you let it go. And you always think to yourself what if I’d stopped? What if I’d said something? What if…what if…It may only happen a few times in your life.” Out Of Sight – The Movie based on the book by Elmore Leonard

    Reply
  18. Mark Forman says:

    Truly one of the greats. We’re all entitled to break from the “cool” protocol every now and again to have our fanboy moment.

    Reply
  19. Whateley says:

    Which was your favorite?

    Reply
  20. boot-cheese-3000 says:

    Wow, I guess there is a thing to meeting your heroes: either you’re disappointed in the fact that they aren’t who you thought they were or you make a complete braying jackass of yourself. Don’t worry Davey Bwoy, it happens to all of us at some point or another, I know it has to me a few times.

    Man that sucks. Elmore Leonard wrote “Rum Punch” which inspired Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown”. He will truly be missed. A king amongst writers and journalists.

    Rest In Power.

    Reply
  21. TCinLA says:

    You can’t go wrong following these:

    Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing:

    1. Never open a book with weather.
    2. Avoid prologues.
    3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
    4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
    5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
    6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
    7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
    8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
    9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
    10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

    My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

    If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

    Reply
  22. TCinLA says:

    I read everything he ever wrote and learned everything I know as a writer by doing so. Nothing he did was less than great. I even learned how to put a pithy quote in the right place in non-fiction from him.

    I too once met him, he was at the late lamented Mysterious Bookshop in LA 20 years ago on tour, and I got to talk to him about how he wrote and produced a book a year. While he was on tour for the current book, he’d outline the next one, then when the tour was over go home and write it, then while it was in the publication process he’d come up with the idea for the next one and start the process over. He said “write every day, it’s like playing the piano.” He was right.

    I think I’m going to go look through my shelf of Leonard and read something again.

    Reply
  23. Will Rausch says:

    I hope to one day meet and fawn over Jennifer Rubin. When you write fiction like Rubin’s Right Turn blog for as long as Rubin – not to mention with such steadfast obedience to avoiding all-things factual – you deserve to be reminded just how well you distort the truth.

    Reply
  24. Kevin Stevens says:

    “Look at me.”

    Was there ever a more concise threat?

    Reply

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