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Criminal Pleasures: ELMORE LEONARD

Essentially that’s the trajectory The Complete Western Stories maps in Leonard’s mastering of character and dialogue — foundations that would, in part, set the tone for modern crime writing. For all of Leonard’s modesty, his Westerns would similarly pave the way for film directors Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, whose wild mix of violence, humor and moral ambiguity was set free by Leonard’s earlier, if somewhat more muted vision in print.

Although we’re supposed to be talking about his collection of cowboy stories, it’s a measure of Leonard’s focus on the next thing he is doing that he keeps rhapsodizing over his current manuscript (provisionally titled Road Dogs) and forgets to promote Up in Honey’s Room at all.

“I’m bringing back Jack Foley from Out of Sight in the next one,” he says. “George Clooney liked his character in that book, and did a good job him in the movie, so I’m hoping he will like him in this one, too. I’m also bringing back Dawn Navarro from Riding the Rap — she’s a psychic. And Cundo Ray from La Brava. He danced go-go, stole a car, got shot. … I had to get [La Brava] off the shelf to see if he was still alive. He was shot three times in the chest and belly, but no one said he was dead, so I’ve revived him. They’re all there in the books. Hell, I might as well use them. And I like them.”

Whenever writing is the focus of our conversation, something in Leonard’s voice accelerates and becomes boyish. In his more generally bemused and understated manner, you sense the survivor. Leonard’s first marriage ended in the mid-Seventies, around the same time he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and started hitting his stride as a great writer. His second wife, Joan Shepard, was a major influence on this renaissance, suggesting book titles, encouraging him to strengthen female characters and making editing suggestions. Her death from cancer in 1993 was undoubtedly difficult, but Leonard happily remarried within a year to Christine Kent, a master gardener and French teacher 23 years his junior.

He still writes his stories longhand — same as always — and uses a typewriter to see how they look before someone (often one of his daughters) gets them on to a computer. He nonetheless worries he is slowing down. Back when he was trying to support a family of five children in the Fifties, Leonard would be up at 5 a.m. to work on his cowboy stories before heading off to the advertising agency. Later, as a full-time writer, he developed a 10 till 6 o'clock habit, Monday through Saturday.

“Yeah, a lot of those cowboy stories were written in the early morning. I can’t stick to that anymore,” he says. “Sometimes I don’t sit down until noon. It gets harder to please myself, too, and keep rewriting. Sometimes I get a bit stiff. It’s important to keep the veins of humor flowing. ... I don’t want to repeat myself,” he says with surprising urgency. “But I do want to maintain a sound in my voice.”


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