Author Elmore Leonard at his home in Bloomfield Village, Mich.
Author Elmore Leonard at his home in Bloomfield Village, Mich. Noah Adams/NPR
For six decades, Elmore Leonard has been sitting at his writing desk, first in Detroit, then in the suburbs, creating robberies and murders for books and movies. Hollywood has tried many times to translate Leonard's work from page to screen: Get Shorty, Out of Sight, two versions of 3:10 to Yuma. Leonard has written several screenplays too, and worked on the recent, short-lived ABC television series Karen Sisco.
Tonight, another television network — FX this time — takes a shot at bringing Elmore's World to life. Leonard himself is an executive producer of Justified, but he says there are a whole bunch of those, and he doesn't have script approval.
But Leonard's happy. He's met the writers, and they're keeping their source close at hand.
"They said, 'We all have this little plastic bracelet on that says WWED — What Would Elmore Do?' " Leonard says. "It seems to me that they sound like my writing."
What Would Elmore Do? Take, for starters, the advice he says he gave to Get Shorty director Barry Sonnenfeld on how to balance dark humor and menace.
"I said, 'When these guys say something funny, you don't cut away to get laughs because they're serious. They're all serious,' " Leonard says.
It's advice worth heeding. Leonard has written 43 books, almost all of which have been optioned for films. His fans — there are many — say he's the best crime writer ever, and they can recognize any page based on the sound.
"Well, when people ask me about my dialogue, I say 'Well, don't you hear people talking?' That's all I do. I hear a certain type of individual," Leonard says. "I decide this is what he should be, whatever it is, and then I hear him. Well, I don't hear anybody that I can't make talk."
Leonard also uses names he likes the sound of. He once met a man named Raylan at a book fair, and created Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, from Harlan County, Ky. Givens appeared in two novels by Leonard as well as the short story "Fire in the Hole" that is the basis for Justified.
In the show, Givens wears a white Stetson and only pulls his sidearm if he intends to use it, as in a scene from the pilot where Givens (played by Timothy Olyphant) gives a thug an ultimatum: Get out of town, or die.
Just in case the television guys run out of stories, Leonard says he hasn't been able to resist working on an idea of his own for Justified. He's about 20 pages into a storyline about body parts that starts as Givens enters a motel room to make an arrest.
Justified, based on Leonard's character.
Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens in the FX series
Timothy Olyphant as Raylan Givens in the FX series Justified, based on Leonard's character. FX/Sony
"It's quiet, and the guy's not in the bed," Leonard says. Givens goes into the bathroom to find his suspect "in an ice bath, naked, lot of crushed ice up to his chin, hair back, and both of his kidneys are missing. So Raylan wonders, well they took his kidneys to sell them." Leonard chuckles. "But why did they keep him alive?"
On a nice day in Detroit, you might take your kids to Bell Isle, near downtown, to feed the geese. Or, if you're a crime writer, you might set a scene here. Perhaps, in the icy dark, a murder weapon goes into the Detroit River, or a car blows up on the bridge.
Leonard still remembers when Detroit had 700 murders a year. And any tour of Leonard's city will stop in front of the police headquarters on Beaubien, at No. 1300. Leonard spent long weeks at the station, and in the bars nearby, listening to the homicide detectives. He recalls sitting in the courtroom at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, taking notes about stories that wouldn't occur to a fiction writer.
"That house was on fire last time I saw it," Leonard says, pointing at a red house. "That's the opening scene in Mr. Paradise. Three bodies."
Three people shot in the head, to be exact, one sectioned by chain saw. The red house from Leonard's 2002 novel was near a White Castle, close to Tiger Stadium, which a character describes in the book as "that famous old ball park of no use to anybody."
Pulling up to the curb at that site, Leonard gets a surprise. The stadium was demolished last year; he has fewer words for what remains: "Jeez ... where ... there's nothing left."
Twenty-four miles from where Tiger Stadium used to stand, where Leonard and his wife, Christine, live in a handsome house, in a fine neighborhood, the author pulls a book from the shelf.
The Bounty Hunter was Leonard's first book, published in 1953. The cover reads, "A Novel by Elmore Leonard about a time when an Apache scalp would bring 500 pesos in Mexico."
Elmore Leonard's writing desk at his home near Detroit. Leonard writes each page of his books by hand, on canary yellow paper.
Elmore Leonard's writing desk at his home near Detroit. Leonard writes each page of his books by hand, on canary yellow paper. Noah Adams/NPR
At the time, Leonard had been writing Western short stories for two cents a word, getting up at 5 a.m. He found he was good at Westerns, and he left his job writing copy for Chevrolet ads.
Every page, from 1961's Hombre to last year's Road Dogs, has been handwritten on canary yellow paper. Leonard orders a year's supply at a time, "50 pads of 60 pages per pad."
"I've been using this paper ever since I left the ad agency where they used these pads," Leonard says. "I like them but I always write in longhand before I put it in the typewriter."
Leonard is still writing Westerns, only now on a global scale. The next book to come from this desk is about terrorism, piracy, and al-Qaida. It's called Djibouti, and it's due in November.
"I said to my editor, 'Well, I'm gonna call my next one Djibouti' before I started to write it," Leonard says. "He said, 'Well, you can't use Djibouti. You could use maybe with another word or two with it, might work.' I said, 'It's Djibouti. And that's it.' "