Criminal Pleasures: ELMORE LEONARD
An online exclusive interview
Monday, April 21, 2008
By Mark Mordue
Elmore Leonard’s voice arrives like curling smoke. It drifts down the phone line from Detroit and floats around me in Sydney for quite a while. “I was in Australia a few years ago,” Leonard says. Then his story begins to unwind — something about a book festival in Adelaide and landing in New Zealand first and “a journey around the coast” and what I think may have been confusion as to whether he and his then-wife were ever in Australia at all.
By the end of it, I am wondering if this vague gentleman is the same Elmore Leonard whose genre-buckling crime novels paved the way for filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and programs like The Sopranos.
Leonard certainly doesn’t come at you like a literary superstar. But that’s what he is: the acknowledged living master of the crime writing genre, as everyone from Tarantino to fellow authors like Martin Amis and George Pelecanos have confirmed. Apart from their popularity on the lending lists of American prison libraries (and often on best-seller lists), in 2006 Leonard’s books were selected for a Hip-Hop Literacy campaign to help encourage reading in high schools and colleges across the US, all of which indicates he’s still pretty tuned into the street for an old white guy.
I’m expecting him to be a little more mouthy and hard-boiled. Instead he just rolls along, exhibiting a generous propensity for conversation of almost any kind — if with a distinctly laconic aftertaste of a trademark humor in his writing that is equal parts underdog and deadpan bulls-eye.
Not counting his screenplays and short stories, Leonard has produced 43 novels in 54 years, rarely letting the quality slip below entertaining. Among them, he has turned in at least 10 crime genre classics, notably Swag (1976), City Primeval (1980), Stick (1983) La Brava (1983), Glitz (1985), Freaky Deaky (1988), Killshot (1989), Get Shorty (1990), Maximum Bob (1991), Pagan Babies (2000) and Tishomingo Blues (2002). Actually, that’s 11, with other books jostling for inclusion. His latest crime novel, Up in Honey’s Room, came out late last year to mixed reviews. Leonard isn’t feeling battered. He’s halfway through writing a new one.
Eighty-two years of age and still trucking on?
“Listen, I can’t believe it,” he drawls. “And still I think old people are older than me.”