Elmore Leonard, At Home In Detroit The crime writer has more than 40 books to his name and dozens of films made from that source material. Leonard gives NPR's Noah Adams a tour of his hometown, with stops at some of the places that taught the writer about the language of crime, and at his writing desk at home.
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Elmore Leonard, At Home In Detroit

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Elmore Leonard, At Home In Detroit

Elmore Leonard, At Home In Detroit

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Some of the sharpest fiction ever written about the law, and the people who love to break it, began in one place: the criminal mind of Elmore Leonard. And tonight on television, a new series begins, inspired by the author of "Get Shorty" and "Out of Sight." FX TV has borrowed one of Leonard's characters for the new series called "Justified."

Elmore Leonard has been writing mayhem for six decades, and NPR's Noah Adams visited him at his home outside Detroit.

NOAH ADAMS: Elmore Leonard is listed as executive producer of "Justified," but there's a whole bunch of those, and he does not have script approval. But Leonard's happy, says he's met the writers.

ELMORE LEONARD (Writer): They said we all have this little, plastic bracelet on that says WWED: What Would Elmore Do? And it seems to me they sound like my writing.

ADAMS: There have been, in Elmore Leonard's time, a lot of go-arounds with Hollywood.

Mr. LEONARD: It's like when we shot the one with Travolta, the first one with Travolta...

ADAMS: "Get Shorty."

Mr. LEONARD: "Get Shorty." I said to the director, I said, when these guys say something funny, you don't cut away to get laughs and like that, because they're serious. They're all serious.

(Soundbite of film, "Get Shorty")

Mr. JOHN TRAVOLTA (Actor): (As Chili Palmer) How you doing? I'm Chili Palmer.

Mr. GENE HACKMAN (Actor): (As Harry Zimm) Oh, Jesus, if I have a heart attack, I hope you know what to do.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Where you been, Harry?

Mr. HACKMAN: Have we met? I don't recall.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: We just did. I told you, my name's Chili Palmer.

Mr. HACKMAN: We have pictures, right? Did you ever stop to think what would happen if I had a heart attack?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: Look at me, Harry.

Mr. HACKMAN: I'm looking at you.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: I want you to keep looking at me, right here.

Mr. HACKMAN: Well, that's what I'm doing.

ADAMS: Almost all of Leonard's novels have been optioned for the movies. He has written 43 books. And his fans, who say he's the best crime writer ever, can recognize any page because of the sound.

Mr. LEONARD: Well, when people ask me about my dialogue, I say, don't you hear people talking? That's all I do. I hear a certain type of individual, 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.

ADAMS: Leonard also uses names that he likes the sound of. He met a man named Raylen at a book fair and created Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylen Givens, from Harlan County, Kentucky. And he's now the lead character in the TV show "Justified." He wears a white Stetson; only pulls his sidearm if he intends to use it.

In this scene from the pilot, Marshal Givens has told a gun thug to get out of town. Leave Miami or die.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Justified")

Mr. TIMOTHY OLYPHANT (Actor): (As Marshal Raylen Givens) You can get up and go, 30 seconds.

Unidentified Man: So what are you going to do? In front of all these people, you're going to pull out a gun, and you're going to shoot an unarmed man?

Mr. OLYPHANT: You're unarmed, huh?

Unidentified Man: Hey, you got eyes. Do you see a piece on me?

Mr. OLYPHANT: Twenty seconds.

ADAMS: Elmore Leonard says the TV guys just might run out of stories and, not being able to resist, he's been working on an idea for "Justified." He's 20 pages into this - about body parts. Marshal Givens goes into a motel room to make an arrest...

Mr. LEONARD: It's quiet. He doesn't see that the guy's not in the bed. He goes into the bathroom and the guy's in an ice bath, naked, a lot of crushed ice up to his chin, hair back, and both of his kidneys are missing. So Raylen wonders, well, they took his kidneys to sell them. There's a big demand for a lot of parts, but why do they keep him alive?

(Soundbite of geese)

ADAMS: On a nice day, come to Belle Isle near downtown with your kids, and feed the geese. Or if you're a crime writer, set a couple of scenes here. In the icy dark, a murder weapon goes into the Detroit River, or a car could blow up on the bridge.

(Soundbite of car)

Mr. LEONARD: OK, we're coming on to 1300. Up here on the right.

ADAMS: If you're driving around to see Elmore Leonard's Detroit, thinking back to when the city had 700 murders a year, he's going to show you the police headquarters on Beaubien; 1300's the address, and that's how people call it.

What do the criminals call it?

Mr. LEONARD: I don't know. Youll see them coming out, holding their shoelaces.

ADAMS: Elmore Leonard spent long weeks at 1300, and in the bars listening to the homicide detectives. He'd go sit in the courtroom at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice, make notes, hear stories that wouldn't occur to a fiction writer.

Mr. LEONARD: Hey, they fixed it up. That house was on fire last time I saw it.

ADAMS: What are we looking at?

Mr. LEONARD: That red house, that was, that's the opening scene in "Mr. Paradise." Three bodies.

ADAMS: Three people shot in the head - one body sectioned by chainsaw. The red house was near a White Castle and close to Tiger Stadium, described in the book as that famous old ballpark of no use to anybody. We pull up to the curb at that site. Leonard hasn't seen this yet.

Mr. LEONARD: Geez, where - there's nothing left.

ADAMS: Twenty-four miles from where Tiger Stadium used to stand, Elmore Leonard and his wife, Christine, live in a handsome house in a fine neighborhood.

Mr. LEONARD: This is the first book I wrote.

ADAMS: "Bounty Hunters," oh, I like that. Read the exposition there at the bottom.

Mr. LEONARD: A novel by Elmore Leonard about a time when an Apache scalp would bring 500 pesos in Mexico.

ADAMS: "The Bounty Hunters" was published in 1953. Leonard had been writing Western short stories for two cents a word, getting up at 5 a.m. He was good at Westerns, left his job as an advertising copywriter on the Chevrolet account, published "Hombre" and "3:10 to Yuma." Then and now, every page at first, handwritten.

Mr. LEONARD: I always order this. I order 50 pads of 60 pages per pad.

ADAMS: He writes on canary yellow paper, orders a year's supply.

Mr. LEONARD: And I've been using this paper ever since I left the ad agency, where they used these pads. I always write in longhand before I put it on the typewriter.

ADAMS: The next book from this desk is about terrorism, about piracy and al-Qaida. You'll notice Leonard is still writing Westerns, only now on a global scale. This one, due in November, is called "Djibouti."

Mr. LEONARD: I've always liked Djibouti. And I said to my editor, well, I want to call my next one Djibouti, before I started to write it. And 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ADAMS: Elmore Leonard, 84 years old, crime writer, Bloomfield Village, Michigan.

For NPR News, this is Noah Adams.

BLOCK: And Elmore Leonard talks about the writers who influenced him at our Web site, NPR.org.

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