'Justified' Producer Shares Crime Writing Secrets

Crime novelist Elmore Leonard (left) with Justified star Timothy Olyphant. i i

Crime novelist Elmore Leonard (left) with Justified star Timothy Olyphant. Courtesy of FX hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of FX
Crime novelist Elmore Leonard (left) with Justified star Timothy Olyphant.

Crime novelist Elmore Leonard (left) with Justified star Timothy Olyphant.

Courtesy of FX

Elmore Leonard has had the kind of writing career many aspiring writers dream of. Over the course of six decades, he's written scores of successful crime novels, short stories and scripts for screens big and small.

Justified, the acclaimed TV series on FX, is based on one of Leonard's short stories, "Fire in the Hole." The show has garnered awards for its gritty yet likeable characters.

Leonard, 86, is the show's executive producer. He talks with NPR's John Donvan about how he crafts his characters for the page and screen and his 2012 novel, Raylan.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

JOHN DONVAN, HOST:

Elmore Leonard has had the kind of writing career that writers dream of when they first start out. He writes crime, and he has turned a lifetime of novels, short stories and movie scripts that sold and got read and seen and that built a following - six decades worth of that, time enough for him to figure out what works on the page, which often turns out to be what works quite well on the screen, as well. The acclaimed TV series on FX, "Justified," is based on one of Leonard's short stories "Fire in the Hole." Seasons one and two captured attention and garnered awards for the show's gritty, yet likeable characters and their Kentucky drawl. Season three premiered this week.

If you have followed Elmore Leonard's works in television or in crime novels, give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989(ph). Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join our conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. And any writers out there who want to talk to a writer's writer, here is your chance. Elmore Leonard joins us now from studios of member station WDET in Detroit. Welcome to the show, Elmore Leonard.

ELMORE LEONARD: Thank you.

DONVAN: So you have this series now, you and a group of colleagues, fellow executive producers. It is based, as I said, on your story "Fire in the Hole." It's doing fabulously well, critically acclaimed. And it's - the interesting thing is your title on the credits is executive producer. So how - what happens when a writer becomes an executive producer?

LEONARD: Well, what happens to me is I feel I should take part in it. I feel I can't just sit along and watch the sequences and not do anything about it, that I should provide something, because I've - all my life, I've written for paychecks. So I'm doing the same thing now, although I don't get involved with the day-to-day work of the writing team, because there are about seven or eight in there. I've never written with anyone else before. So I just write my own book, which I've done now with "Raylan." So "Raylan" runs for a book length.

DONVAN: That's your new book.

LEONARD: And in it - the new book that's coming out today or tomorrow. And it's - and in it are sequences that they can use or not use. But I don't want to know what they're doing, and so I don't want to interfere with their work. So that - I write these about Raylan and about the kind of characters that he is confronted with, and I'm happy about it. And they get to use what they want. But I can't - I just cannot see myself sitting and not working if I'm getting paid.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DONVAN: Our number is - what great work ethic. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, and our email address is talk@npr.org. I'm quite interested, Elmore, in the matter of watching your - a story that you conceived of live and grow beyond the covers of the book that you wrote that might have inspired the film. You wrote the book for - that became the film "Get Shorty." You wrote "Rum Punch," which became Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown." It's happened a number of times. Your books have inspired stories. And now with this hit show on the FX channel, "Justified," I find it fascinating that the pilot is based very much on your short story "Fire in the Hole," but it then lives on for years and years afterward.

So I'd like to just listen to - a little bit of a spoiler alert for those who haven't seen the pilot, but it was two seasons back - the closing scene in which two characters, your main character, Raylan Givens, who's your hero and the main character of your new book "Raylan." Raylan Givens is in a shootout with a Boyd Crowder. And I just need to explain it, because we all know the obvious. Raylan wins the shootout. Let's listen to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "JUSTIFIED")

WALTER GOGGINS: (as Boyd Crowder) What are you packing?

TIMOTHY OLYPHANT: (as Raylan Givens) You'll pay to find that out.

GOGGINS: (as Boyd Crowder) Oh, you got ice cold water run through your veins. Well, should we just do us a shot of Jim Beam, just for old time's sake?

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "JUSTIFIED")

AARON: (as Boyd Crowder) Oh, you did it, huh? You really did. You did it.

OLYPHANT: (as Raylan Givens) I'm sorry. You called it.

DONVAN: Well, what happens there is Raylan and Boyd are still talking, and on television Boyd lives. In your short story, that same shootout happens and then Raylan is asked, is he dead? And you say - and Raylan answers, well, he is now. In the short story, he dies and so...

LEONARD: In the first - and in the shooting he died. Then they said, wait a minute, this guy is so good, let's - we got to keep him alive because I was disappointed when Boyd Crowder died. I said, he's too good to lose, and they all felt the same way. So they worked a little different, re-shot the scene, I guess.

DONVAN: And I guess my basic question is, are you good with - are you OK with that to see this guy live?

LEONARD: That's the best thing that's happened to this show...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEONARD: ...because Boyd's great. He's the perfect counterpart for Raylan.

DONVAN: We have a lot of your fans who are lined up on our phone lines waiting to talk with you. Let's bring in Aaron from Fort Dodge, Iowa. Aaron, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

AARON: Hello.

LEONARD: Hi there.

AARON: Yeah. No, I just wanted to say, first off, thanks to Elmore Leonard. I recently have gotten into the genre of Westerns. And in my attempt to get into the genre, I kind of dipped into short stories, and I ran across a couple of collections of his short stories, and I really gravitated to him. I kind of liked him quite a bit, and I just - I guess my question, just to get to the point then is could you tell us - could Mr. Leonard tell us about his early years writing those short stories, the kind of pulp fiction-y Western tales. And, you know, with that, you know, the days of living hand to mouth, and kind of learning to be a writer for, you know, literally to put food on the table and a roof over the head. Or was this, you know, what was that evolution as a writer like?

DONVAN: How'd you do it?

LEONARD: Well, I decided to write Westerns because there was a terrific market for Westerns in the '50s. There were a lot of pulp magazines, like Dime Western and 10 Story Western that were still being published. The better ones paid two cents a word. And I thought I like Westerns. I didn't read them, but I loved Western movies, so I decided I'm going to get in on this. So I was working at an ad agency, but I'd get up in the morning at 5 o'clock and I'd write - it took me a couple of months to get up. But I would write for two hours and I would write two pages.

At that time, I could write a page an hour - not anymore. But - so I would - at that time, during the '50s, I wrote 30 short stories and sold them and five books, and a couple were made in the movies. So I was on my way. But a lot of them, though, were just for two cents a word, and - but at least in the '50s, that was - that's $100. So at least it was worthwhile in the '50s.

DONVAN: Aaron, thanks for your call. I want to bring in Sirley(ph) from Cedarburg, Wisconsin. Sirley, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

SIRLEY: Oh, Elmore, you are my very favorite. And they suggested that I mention two particularly hilarious polluter sketches from your Florida series. The polluter who - two elderly couples staying in a motel, he leaves the motel gets eaten by an alligator, or - yeah, alligator. And the other one is the polluter who got a dump truck full of trash dumped into his convertible.

LEONARD: Yeah, I remember them.

DONVAN: You're punishing polluters.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEONARD: So I did - no, they - well, they weren't. I don't think they were called polluters in the story. No, but an - you got to put an alligator in the story if you're setting it in Florida. And this guy who was somebody - what was paid to get him out of the way, and they - I think what they did was just dump a lot of cement into his convertible, and he was still in it.

SIRLEY: And then the trek out into the wilderness with that renegade, I think he was one-eyed, lived in a hovel, and they called him the king, or the emperor, or the prince.

LEONARD: I don't remember that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DONVAN: All right. Sirley, thanks for your call. And you're inspiring me to go back to these Florida stories.

SIRLEY: (Unintelligible).

DONVAN: Thanks for your call. I want to talk to you, very briefly, about your famous 10 rules for writing. I'm not sure how far back those were published, but...

LEONARD: 2000. Year of 2000.

DONVAN: 2000. They've lived on forever. You have 10 very practical rules, literally for - I think, you intend them fully for people who want to write and who want to have success, and they are...

LEONARD: I didn't do them very seriously, the one I gave them at a writer's conference. And that afternoon, I wrote the 10 rules and I recited them at the end of my talk. And then I came off the stage and someone is - and I was holding this sheet of paper with the 10 rules written in longhand. And someone came out to me and said, could I have those? I said, yeah and I gave them to him.

DONVAN: Well, they're taken very seriously and it may not be back.

LEONARD: Yeah. Probably I...

DONVAN: Never own a book with the weather.

LEONARD: Well, I was - at that time, I thought it was just sort of funny, you know? But now, I realize they should be taken seriously. At least I took them seriously so...

DONVAN: Never use the word suddenly, or all hell broke loose.

LEONARD: Ever.

DONVAN: What's wrong with suddenly?

LEONARD: Well, it's...

DONVAN: It should say itself.

LEONARD: You...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEONARD: Use - I don't know why, but you see bad writers using suddenly. Perhaps that's was the reason.

DONVAN: Let's bring in somebody, I think, might be an aspiring writer, Charles in St. Augustine, Florida. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

CHARLES: Oh, thank you for taking my call. Mr. Leonard, I was wondering in your writing process, when you're writing something for the page or for the screen, what is the point that you usually begin from? And I'll take my answer off the air.

LEONARD: Hmm. I don't - I'm not sure what you mean. When I begin to write, how do I start?

DONVAN: Well, I think he was intending to ask, do you have the idea - do you have the ending in mind when you sit down with the beginning, or do you start from the beginning and figure it out from there?

LEONARD: No, I have no idea where it's going to go. I don't want to know, because the idea is accumulated in the four months, five months, six months. Now, it's get - it takes me longer - of the writing process, you get more - you get better ideas while you're writing it, that ideas come to you, that scenes come to you that then if you were to sit down and begin to list scenes. So I don't - I started out that way years and years ago, but I only did about two books that I outlined.

And now, I just started writing a book. I have characters in mind to open with. Now, I think that the first 100 pages you're introducing characters that are interested to you, the writer. See how they get along. See if there's - what the conflicts are. And then get them going in the second part - in the act two, and get the, you know, get some subplots going, and then get into a point where you have to finish and then think of the ending. And there are - normally there are other ways. There are more - there's more than one way to finish a book, more than one conclusion you can reach. And that's what - that's just the way you do it.

DONVAN: All right.

LEONARD: You come to an end and you end it.

DONVAN: We are talking with Elmore Leonard. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION. I want to bring in Juan from Fort Myers, Florida. Juan, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JUAN: Yes, thank you. I think you've answered some of my questions, but I have another one. The - in writing, it's important to keep a sequence, or a storyline, you call... And but also, I think is just as important or maybe more important, is how you develop your story and your phrases. What - is there anything that you can tell us about developing and, you know, as part of the art of writing as how you, say, think. And like I know that you notice that some of the words that you said not to use, they're old words and that, kind of, you know, they're not stimulating. So how would you stimulate? What do you use and what do you recommend to stimulate the writing?

DONVAN: And also, Elmore, I want to point out that your writing is widely recognized as very stripped down. I mean, it's very sparse and direct.

LEONARD: Yeah. Well, listen, you can use suddenly and all hell broke loose if someone says it. If someone is dumb enough to use those words in some way, fine, you know? It begins to identify the character. I just say, don't use it in your prose. What I do is always write from a character's point of view, and you begin - or normally, you begin with the main character's point of view, find out what is added to its are, and then maybe bring the woman in. But it's always from the character's point of view when - and then there - then they begin to talk with other characters. And it's the way they talk, the way the kind of person they are and the words they use, that you get to know the characters rather than the writer describing the person and say, well he talk - he spoke with - very undramatically.

DONVAN: And speaking of characters, Elmore, we have a question from an emailer who is asking, I think, the autobiographical question. He wants to know, do you smoke or drink as much as your characters do?

LEONARD: No. Well, I quit drinking for 36, 37 years, but then I started drinking wine again about two years ago 'cause I'm getting old. I thought, let's - we got to liven things us a little bit, but the wine has not affected me at all. But smoke - I've been smoking for what - not 50. I've been smoking from - for 40 years. And I quit one time while I was writing. And the next 30 days, I wrote - I don't know – oh, 10 pages, something like that. Then I started smoking again, I wrote a hundred pages.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEONARD: So it's just, you know...

DONVAN: That's not one for the children out there.

LEONARD: No. It was part of my routine. It was part of my routine. I write in longhand. And when I get to a point where I don't know what comes next, I would stop and light a cigarette, and it just became part of the habit of writing.

DONVAN: Well, Elmore Leonard is a crime novelist and executive producer, one of the executive producers of "Justified," the FX series that is now in it's third season. He joined us from member station WDET in Detroit. Elmore Leonard, thank you so much for the time.

LEONARD: Thank you.

DONVAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here for a look at the world's second synthetic windpipe transplant and how that experimental procedure can save lives. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan in Washington.

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