Elmore Leonard And Sons' Recipes For Writing, Fried Spam

Elmore Leonard has written scores of novels about crime and the Old West, many of which have been turned into movies. Host Scott Simon visited the Tuscon Festival of Books earlier this month and spoke with Leonard and his sons about growing up with one of America's best crime novelists and the craft of writing.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Got to interview America's number one crime family couple weeks ago at the Tucson Book Festival, and not the Corleones. Elmore, Peter and Chris Leonard.

Elmore Leonard, of course, is one of the most esteemed writers in the world. He left the Detroit ad business to write westerns, then switched to crime fiction, and has since produced more than 40 novels, including "Get Shorty," "Cuba Libre," "Maximum Bob," and the forthcoming "Djibouti."

Peter Leonard also left the ad business to write crime novels, including "Quiver" and "Trust Me." And Chris Leonard, the youngest son, is writing his first novel.

Began by asking the Leonard boys what's it like to grow up with a father who's always plotting murder in his head. Peter Leonard joined us by phone. He's recovering from ankle surgery. Chris Leonard spoke first.

Mr. CHRIS LEONARD (Author): I don't think that any of my brothers and sisters and I ever thought about it as him plotting murders as much as we thought he's plying his trade. He's writing, which is what he does. And we all saw the wastebasket with the missed shots of crunched up paper that didn't make it, on the floor and some in the basket. And that's just what he's done.

SIMON: Peter Leonard, was there some advice your father gave you when you began to write and you began to write screenplays?

Mr. PETER LEONARD (Author): Well, yes. He said - why do you want to write screenplays? Writing screenplays is like wanting to be a copilot. And that was his smart guy, you know, way of saying, hey, if you want to write, write a novel. I spent 25 years writing ads, writing something I didn't want to write. So now I'm free and it's the greatest feeling in the world.

SIMON: But can I ask, Peter and Elmore Leonard, do you learn something about your craft by writing ads at the same time? You wrote ad copy for years, didn't you?

Mr. ELMORE LEONARD (Author): I didn't learn anything writing ads.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. E. LEONARD: Not a thing.

Mr. P. LEONARD: I agree, Scott. Nothing.

Mr. E. LEONARD: I've been told, well, this is why you use short sentences, because you wrote ads. And I say, I don't use short sentences. I use sentences. They run however long they have to run.

SIMON: Do you take things in all the time wherever you are?

Mr. E. LEONARD: If it's worth taking in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. E. LEONARD: But, yeah, I'm always listening. Just like watching, not "Jeopardy" but the one just before "Jeopardy." "The"...

Mr. P. LEONARD: "Wheel of Fortune"?

Mr. E. LEONARD: "Wheel of Fortune." I love "The Wheel of Fortune" because the people, the way they express themselves and they way they're very...

SIMON: Don't they usually go whee?

Mr. E. LEONARD: A lot of that. There's a lot of whee-ing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. E. LEONARD: And...

SIMON: The master of the language, Elmore Leonard.

And a master of technique, although he usually says that he has none. But Elmore Leonard's "Ten Rules of Writing," which he wrote nine years ago at the suggestion of the New York Times, are quoted constantly by and to writers.

Mr. E. LEONARD: Never, never, ever open a book with weather.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. E. LEONARD: Please.

Mr. C. LEONARD: And one example of that, Elmore, it was a dark and stormy night, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. E. LEONARD: Well, that's what everyone says.

Mr. C. LEONARD: Well, we're quoting that to this day. But...

SIMON: And why not, if I may draw you out a bit about not opening a book with weather?

Mr. E. LEONARD: It's alright if you get out of the weather in about three lines and get into the person's reaction to the weather.

SIMON: So you don't say it was raining so much as the character turned up the collar on his coat because of the...

Mr. E. LEONARD: God, will it ever stop raining?

SIMON: Someone in the Tucson audience asked Elmore Leonard: You write about so many crooks and psychopaths - do you ever write about normal people?

Mr. E. LEONARD: I think of them as normal people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. E. LEONARD: The guy who's going to rob a bank, he gets up in the morning and he might be cranky and he might decide to have something a little different for breakfast. But then he thinks about what should I wear. What should I wear when I rob the bank? Should I wear a mask? You get into something that doesn't quite fit with this type of character, that he has human feelings.

MARY (Audience Member): Hi, my name is Mary. And I'm here with my mother today, who's read everything you ever wrote. She wants to know what made you stop writing the westerns. That's how she really got involved with your writing, and she's interested in why you changed.

Mr. E. LEONARD: Oh, because the market dried up. The market moved from pulps and Saturday Evening Post and magazines to television. And I didn't care for any of the westerns that were on television. I thought they were all - well, they weren't realistic enough for me. So I switched to crime, which is always there, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARY: Thank you.

SIMON: Chris and Peter, what did you learn about literature or life from your father, Elmore?

Mr. C. LEONARD: Peter, go ahead, I'll follow you.

Mr. P. LEONARD: Well, we certainly learned who the good writers were - Ernest Hemingway, for example, and John Steinbeck, and that was fun. He also taught us how to make fried Spam, which is a real delicacy. We grew up on Spam as kids, and there aren't many of us living to tell about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. E. LEONARD: That was for breakfast.

SIMON: Forgive me, is that a particularly complicated recipe, fried Spam?

Mr. P. LEONARD: Well, we'd fry the spam and then I think we'd put jelly on it, didn't we?

Mr. E. LEONARD: Yeah, fried Spam and jelly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. P. LEONARD: I think, you know, that I had the luckiest childhood of anyone, you know, I've ever known. And we learned more about what not to do than what to do. And even as I, you know, as I have learned about, say, music and even writing, it's not what you put out musically, it's the notes you skip or it's the words you skip when you're writing. These are the subtle things that I think we learned maybe through osmosis.

Mr. C. LEONARD: Well, Elmore, you gave me advice. I told you that I was writing a novel and you said, good. Don't use any other words but (unintelligible) dialogue and leave out the parts that people tend to skip. I think those were the two things you said.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. C. LEONARD: And they're both good, I have to tell you.

Mr. E. LEONARD: They're true today, yes.

SIMON: Elmore Leonard, who's now 84, and his sons Chris and Peter at the Tucson Book Festival.

Elmore Leonard told me later that he has an 11th rule for writing that he cut for space: Throw out all 10 rules if it makes the story better.

Our thanks to Arizona Public Media for recording the event.

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