It was a dreary, rainy Tuesday in my little corner of paradise and as I sat down to write something clever (well, almost clever) for this week’s column, I saw on the Internet that Elmore Leonard had passed away. In the words of Mr. Taggart from Blazing Saddles, “I am depressed.”
When I’m depressed it usually helps to speak in Blazing Saddles quotes ... but it didn’t seem to be working for me this time. Normally I would have fallen back on a particularly funny quote from George Carlin or Rodney Dangerfield but my heart just wasn’t in it this time.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with his name ... you really should be. Elmore Leonard was a novelist, a screen writer and a great American. To say that Elmore Leonard was a writer is like saying that Joe Montana was a football player or that The Beatles were a band Paul McCartney was in before Wings ... the description just falls a bit short.
Stephen King, a guy who knows a little something about writing novels, described Leonard as “the great American novelist.” That’s kind of like Tiger Woods calling someone a pretty good golfer. Elmore Leonard was a writer’s writer; nobody used the language quite like he did.
Mr. Leonard had that rare ability to write as if he were sitting there telling you the story. He was famous for telling wannabe novelists (not that I would know anything about that…) that “if it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”
Nobody could write “cool” the way Elmore Leonard wrote “cool.” His novels were filled with fascinating but flawed heroes and interesting and eloquent bad guys who were all very cool and very American. If the world feels a little warmer today, don’t blame climate change; America just isn’t quite as cool a place without the creator of characters like Chili Palmer, Raylan Givens or Boyd Crowder.
Famous crime novelist James Lee Burke (like assassins, some authors need three names to sound famous) said of Leonard, “...he could was able to write social satire disguised as a crime novel, or he could write a crime novel disguised as social satire.” How cool is that?
Maybe if I used my middle name I could get quoted saying something as literary as that ... no way. Who am I kidding? I make a living using words like freakin’ and poop ... I don’t see many literary quotes in my future.
I think I liked Elmore Leonard because, like his characters, was a real American. He joined the Navy as a teenager (a common theme among great writers) and served during World War II. After the war he got a degree in English and started a career writing copy for advertisements.
For years he got up early to work on his novels before heading off to the office to write copy for ads all day. He started off writing Westerns and sold his first story, “Trail of the Apache” in 1951 to a magazine for a whopping 2 cents a word, so he kept his day job but he also kept getting up early every morning and writing Westerns before work.
He went on to write several successful Westerns like The Bounty Hunter and then Hombre, later made into a Paul Newman movie, and “3:10 to Yuma,” which was made into a Glen Ford movie, then remade into a Russell Crowe movie. Mr. Leonard was finally able to quit his day job and write full time.
When asked about the secret to writing a best selling novel was Mr. Leonard answered, “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip....” Do you see why I loved this guy? He was a sailor, a working stiff and a smart aleck ... who wouldn’t love a guy like that?
They say he sat down at his desk at 10AM every day, sparked up a cigarette and wrote out each page long hand on a legal pad. When he finished a page he would rewrite it on an electric typewriter then read it to see if he liked it. On a good day he would write five pages; but he did that every day until he had a stroke about ten days ago.
Elmore Leonard died at age 87 on Aug. 20, 2013 ... that night there was a rare blue moon. I’m feeling pretty blue myself ... maybe the moon was an Elmore Leonard fan, too. How cool is that?
Rick Seley is an award-winning humor columnist.