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Elmore Leonard On His Writing: Sometimes It's Incorrect 'On Purpose'

Writer/executive producer Elmore Leonard of the television show Justifield spea i i

Elmore Leonard. (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images) hide caption

itoggle caption (Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
Writer/executive producer Elmore Leonard of the television show Justifield spea

Elmore Leonard.

(Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Crime writer Elmore Leonard is one of those authors who inspires people. Fans love his richly developed characters. Writers wish they could put words together the way he can.

Tonight, the FX network premieres Justified, a new series that revolves around fictional Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, one of Leonard's characters.

NPR's Noah Adams visited with the 84-year-old Leonard recently at his home near Detroit. On All Things Considered today, Noah profiles Leonard and reports that the writer's next book, Dijoubti, is about terrorism, piracy and al-Qaida. It's as if Leonard, who began as a writer of Westerns, is still doing that — only on a global scale, Noah says.

Leonard tells Noah that the book, due in November, is called Dijoubti because "I've always liked it. ... And I said to my editor, 'well I'm gonna call my next one Dijoubti' even before I started to write it."

While Noah was with Leonard, they talked about writing. That part of their conversation didn't make it into Noah's piece for ATC, so he sent us this dispatch:


Elmore Leonard's writing desk. (Noah Adams/NPR)

Yellow pads for writing. (Noah Adams/NPR)


Leonard works at a wooden table in his living room, with a view through French doors to his backyard. He has an electric typewriter to his left, but his writing has always been done by hand. He uses yellow paper, made up for him in pads by a local printer.

Leonard doesn't have trouble starting; he just lights up a cigarette — he smokes Virginia Slims — and starts listening to his characters. They talk, he writes it down. Here is a mini Elmore Leonard writing course:

Leonard: "They're incomplete sentences ... and often they are present participles as another paragraph may be a line or two. I mean maybe just one line. 'Lookin' in the mirror.'

"But something's gotta come after it; it builds. The use of the participle makes things start to kick in."

Noah: "There's a direct action going on?"

Leonard: "Yeah, definitely."

"I remember back in ... '70s, I wrote a book set in Tel Aviv. I had action go on in a little, kind of a bar, and it was probably a hundred words, one sentence. And the copy editor cut it down into three sentences and ruined it. You know?

"And ever since then I've had my editor warn the copy editor, 'don't mess with it.' Because a lot of it, is incorrect but on purpose it's incorrect, it's coming out of this guy's head or it's the way he is."

Here's what that part of the conversation sounded like:

Listen

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For more about how Leonard writes, see his "10 Rules." I particularly like one that he says sums up all 10: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

To find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams ATC, click here. Noah's story, and more, is posted here.

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