Q+LA Elmore Leonard
Whether in books, film or TV’s Justified, when it comes to cool, clever stories fueled by whip-smart dialogue, nobody does it better by MEGAN ABBOTT
“I was just watching “Cheek to Cheek’ [in Top Hat] on channel 66,” legendary crime novelist Elmore Leonard says over the phone from his home in suburban Detroit. “Astaire and Rogers. They’re not very good dancers, but the songs were wonderful. Except Astaire sings them with his little weak voice.”
Listening to the critique, it’s hard not to see a parallel to Leonard’s own adventures in the screen trade. With some notable exceptions—foremost Steven Soderbergh’s wily, intoxicating Out of Sight—most adaptations of his work have failed to capture his blend of audacious storytelling, true grit and dialogue that twists, snaps and curls in the characters’ mouths. But with Justified, the FX series based on his short story “Fire in the Hole”—and featuring U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, introduced in 1993’s Pronto—Leonard finally has a singer worthy of his hardboiled song. Set in the hollows of Kentucky, the show centers on Givens (Timothy Olyphant) as he wrestles with drug rings, coal-mine feuds and his own itchy trigger finger.
The new novel Raylan, his 45th, emerges as a gift to fans of Leonard’s fiction and the show, the supremely cool eponymous hero navigating a menagerie of lowlifes (where, in classic style, the organ thieves have a slight moral advantage over the coal-company executives). The author happily settled in to discuss his storied career, Tinseltown and the mysteries of inspiration.
Who did you read when you were starting out?
Hemingway, [but] I never cared for the man. I used to read a lot of him till I learned he had no sense of humor.
Did you read many of the hard-boiled masters?
Never read Chandler. Not much Hammett. James M. Cain was an influence way back. Spillane, I haven’t read in 40, 50 years. I remember his first books, thinking, Man, this guy is good. And I met him—good guy. But he remained the same. His books never changed.
While Spillane is often accused of sexism, you seem to love women.
Years ago, a reviewer for the Detroit News said my female characters were like Spillane’s. After that, I paid more attention. I don’t think of them as women. I think of them as a person and go from there. Sometimes female characters start out as the wife or girlfriend, but then I realize, “No, she’s the book,” and she becomes a main character. I surrender the book to her. A few years ago, my researcher gave me this photo: a female marshal in front of Miami’s courthouse—this Colombian drug trial. It was her and another marshal, and she was just standing there with a shotgun, hip cocked and angled, holding it half up. And I thought, She’s a knockout. And she’s a book.
Is a lot of you in Raylan?
I suppose, sure. In a given situation, I just know he’s gonna shoot the guy. But it takes me a lot longer than Raylan to come up with the good lines. It can take days to come up with that scene ender. I spend most of my time on those. But for Raylan, the words just come. Dialogue is easier to me than narrating—[it] has that sound.
Sound seems especially important in your writing. It has such a unique cadence.
I’m not aware of a cadence when writing, but I hear it after. I write in longhand, and that helps. You’re closer to it, and you have to cross things out. You put a line through it, but it’s still there. You might need it. When you erase a line on a computer, it’s gone forever. [Timothy Olyphant] recites the lines just as I wrote them for Raylan. His temperament is exactly the way I wrote him.
You’re happy with Justified?
Oh, I’m so pleased with the show. The dialogue works, and the actors just get it.
Do you work closely with the producers and writers?
I’m not in much contact with them. We get together for appearances sometimes, which is great. I hear the writers wear wristbands: WWED: What Would Elmore Do?
That’s pretty unusual.
Very unusual. Writers—all writers, even screenwriters—like to make their mark. I don’t think many screenwriters can write. They pass as writers. But it’s not like that with this show. When they sent me the first script, I read it and didn’t see a word to change. It was perfect.
The show is referred to all over the place, even by its producers, as a western. Do you consider it a western?
I have never thought of it as a western. The only reason they’ve tagged it as that is the hat. It’s not the hat I described. I pictured it like a businessman’s Stetson—like the marshals arresting Jack Ruby but well worn with a certain shape unique to him. It was just an old worn hat.
When you write Raylan now, do you picture the bigger hat?
No. I’ve never seen a hat like the one on the show. The brim is fairly straight. He doesn’t try to get cute with it. At first I didn’t like it, but I’m getting used to it.
Do you think the creators are more into the western elements than you are—the hat, the music? Raylan seems angrier, more like a classic sheriff.
Angrier, yes. The music, though, is down-home, not western, but with a mean beat. It goes with Kentucky. They shot it in Pennsylvania and now L.A., but they really get the feel of Harlan County. It has the sound, so you feel you’re there. The accents are so good—every one. The dialogue of the locals, it’s just a different sound down there. It takes you to that place.
Justified creator Graham Yost has likened Raylan to the cowboy and detective heroes of old, with their strong moral codes. But he doesn’t have any of the self-righteousness we might associate with that tradition.
I never cared for cowboy heroes or PIs. I’ve never understood PI novels, because I’ve met a few PIs, and they didn’t seem particularly smart. Raylan is not self-righteous. He can’t understand why marijuana isn’t legal—the only people against it have never tried it. Give them a puff, see if they like it.
You’re the master of creating “bad guys” with quirks that utterly charm. In Raylan, Boyd Crowder corrects another character’s poor grammar.
Yeah, Boyd—he’s dumb, but he thinks he’s smart. You know, I just love them all. There’s only one character [I’ve written] I don’t like—in Glitz. The guy killed women under the Atlantic City boardwalk, and he was so nice to his mother, so cloying. He’s the only bad guy I ever wrote.
You did your time working in Hollywood but ended up returning to books.
I quit in 1993. I got so tired of writing and rewriting the script. This producer from Paramount wanted me to do a rewrite on an existing script. The original story was so dumb. I woke up at 5 a.m. in this hotel in L.A. and came up with a story, a way to fix it. Then I had to wait three hours for him to wake up so I could tell him about it. He loved it, but I didn’t have my heart in it. It’s on a shelf. But I got paid for it.
The books are truly your own.
With books, when you put it down, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. My editors don’t tell me what to do. The copy editor has special instructions not to mess with my sentences. I end Raylan with this shower scene with him and a girl. She asks if he remembers the scene from Young Frankenstein when the monster gets it on with the woman [Madeline Kahn], and she starts singing “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.” He asks what made her think of that. She says she doesn’t know. And that’s the end. I was surprised the publisher let me do it. I knew it would be the ending when I wrote it, but I was sure it wouldn’t fly. They didn’t touch it.
I heard you’re not reading many crime novels these days.
I haven’t read much at all in the last year. I used to always have a book on the bedside table. I can’t understand these best-sellers. I got halfway through The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I don’t get it at all. What’s the big thrill? It’s boring.
What are you working on now?
It’s going to be a book about private prisons. I’ve been reading all about them. They’re corrupt, and they don’t work. This one’s going to be south of Palm Springs. Raylan’s out there. A warden, a former marshal, is killed during escape, so Raylan goes. I just went to Palm Springs for the first time, stayed in a house there. It was a knockout. The whole time I kept thinking, I can’t wait to set a book here. My Hollywood agent had me write up a five-pager about it: “A world apart from the desert towns of westerns...the superrich and movie stars.”
You’re hooked? Good.
MEGAN ABBOTT is the Edgar Award–winning author of five crime novels, including The End of Everything, Queenpin and Bury Me Deep. Her newest, Dare Me, will be published in July.