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By KATE GURNETT , Staff writer
First published: Monday, April 3, 2000
Elmore's cool

Writer comes to town, snaps up limp prose

They sat at a sidewalk table at The Ginger Man along Western Avenue: Elmore Leonard with the grilled chicken salad and a Kaliber, the reporter with the fruit and cheese board and a bottle of Evian.

"Sure, there's a lot of lookers in Hollywood,'' the reporter told Leonard. She didn't call him "Dutch'' yet. His friends called him Dutch. "But maybe you could stick around here, in Albany. I mean, we're in the middle of an epidemic.''

Dutch watched a University at Albany student stroll by, then turned his crinkled eyes to the reporter, also female, also blond, but with a couple more decades on her odometer.

"An epidemic?'' he asked in a slight Midwestern accent. He'd come to town to talk screenwriting at the Writers Institute. But an epidemic might work in his next novel, "Buzz Off.'' Change the title. Call it "Outbreak.'' A disgraced fashion designer gets his hands on a killer virus and ...

"Yeah,'' the reporter said intently. "Croppin' up everywhere. Notebooks. Computer screens.''

"What's croppin'?'' Leonard asked, fishing a bent pack of True cigarettes out of his short-sleeved-shirt pocket.

"Words!'' she said.

"Words,'' he laughed.

"Yes, Dutch, words.'' There, she'd said it. It stopped him to hear her call him Dutch. But she felt like she knew him. And she was on a rant now. "With all the wannabe writers in this town? ... You've got manuscripts in every drawer. It's Henry James in spades.''

Elmore "Dutch'' Leonard, the master of pace and dialogue, had heard this tune. "Plot-free writers, eh?'' he mused.

"Dutch. Look at me,'' she said. "We got an outbreak. Unnecessary words, Elmore.''

"Only one thing to do,'' Leonard said.

She knew what he meant. She smiled.

"Kill 'em,'' he said.

Elmore Leonard knows words. His characters talk their way through his stories. If they won't talk, he gets rough. He changes their names. In "Bandits,'' Frank Matise zipped his lip. Leonard made him Frank Delaney. Couldn't shut him up. "He wasn't comfortable in the other name,'' he said.

His ear for dialogue is "the best in the business,'' according to The New York Times Book Review. Writers from Saul Bellow to Martin Amis praise his realistic narration. "Your prose makes Raymond Chandler look clumsy,'' Amis told him at a Writers Guild Theatre event in Beverly Hills in 1998.

"I don't want the reader ever to be aware of me. So I don't get in the way using my language. It's only my characters telling it, in their voices,'' Leonard, 74, said in a telephone interview last week from his suburban Detroit home. They talk. A plot unfolds.

In this way, the king of crime humor has written 38 books; optioned or sold 33 of them to Hollywood and written many scripts. He started with Westerns in 1951, switched to crime in 1969. His breakthrough came in 1985 with "Glitz.''

A decade later Leonard wowed Hollywood with "Get Shorty,'' his book-turned-movie starring John Travolta as anti-hero Chili Palmer, the Miami loan shark turned movie producer. Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown,'' based on Leonard's novel "Rum Punch,'' followed in 1997, prompting $3 million deals for "Out of Sight'' and "Cuba Libre.''

Success doesn't faze him. Dutch is cool.

Decades before "Pulp Fiction'' and "The Sopranos,'' Leonard clued in American readers: Criminals are people, too. They shop for Jiffy corn muffin mix. They screw up getaways because they can't drive a stick shift (a bit used by Vincent Gallo in "Buffalo '66'').

Legions of writers who snagged Leonard's crackling dialogue are getting secondhand prose, Leonard notes. He got it from Hemingway. It started in high school. With his mother's Book-of-the-Month Club selections. Too wordy. He turned to Hemingway and saw white space -- left on the page by dialogue. "This guy's for me,'' thought Dutch. (He was nicknamed for the knuckleball pitcher Emil "Dutch'' Leonard.)

Hollywood bought it. But Hollywood didn't get it. They didn't get his subtlety, his irony, his deadpan delivery. For years, Leonard watched as his books became unrecognizable action films -- from "Hombre,'' (1967, starring Paul Newman), to "The Big Bounce'' (1969, with Ryan O'Neal) or "Stick'' (1985, with Burt Reynolds).

"Shouldn't I have my gun out when I say that?'' Clint Eastwood once asked Leonard about a showdown scene for "Joe Kidd'' (1972). "No, you don't need your gun out,'' Leonard told him.

Producers picked Bronson and Eastwood. They ignored characters like Frank and Stick, two hapless robbers who drive around in "Swag'' scoping stick-up spots.

They pass an A&P. They skip a Wrigley and a Farmer Jack and pass on the Michigan National Bank. C'mon, Frank's thinking.

"What's wrong with that one?'' he asks Stick. "You don't like it?''

"I like it,'' Stick said. "It's just I don't love it.''

If Hollywood was missing out, Leonard didn't much care. Dutch is cool, remember?

All that changed with "Get Shorty'' and "Jackie Brown,'' directed by Quentin Tarantino. As a teen, Tarantino shoplifted a copy of Leonard's "Switch.'' He grooved on the off-key dialogue. He made it his own and now owns film rights to four novels.

Prisoners write Leonard to ask if he's ever done time. He hasn't. He looks like a small-town doctor or a quiet professor, with squinty blue eyes and a whitish beard.

Born in the Big Easy in 1925, his father moved the family around as a location scout for General Motors before settling in Detroit in the 1930s. After a Navy stint in World War II, Leonard got a job writing Chevrolet ad copy.

His true love was books. So he rose at 5 a.m. to write westerns, pushing pulp at 2 cents a word. In 1961 he sold screen rights to "3.10 Yuma'' for $4,000 and quit his day job. When the western market died out, he stuck his gun in his belt and switched to crime fiction, debuting with "The Big Bounce'' in 1969.

In 1977 he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, quit drinking, got divorced and married his second wife, who died of cancer in 1993. That same year he married his third wife, Christine Kent, a master gardener and French teacher 23 years his junior who'd come to Leonard's suburban Birmingham home to work on his garden. He has five children, 11 grandchildren and writes each day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., penning four pages on a good day.

He prowls the gritty Detroit streets only in his novels. To travel any great distance, he calls on his legs, researcher Gregg Sutter. He still writes books in longhand and gives them to one of his daughters to type into a computer.

In recent years his macho world has widened to include female protagonists, like Karen Sisco, the smart-mouth federal marshal (played by Jennifer Lopez opposite George Clooney in the movie version of "Out of Sight'').

"Yeah, Karen,'' Leonard said. "I think all of my women lately have been pretty strong.''

And sometimes they just take over the book. Like In "Killshot.'' "Carmen, who was married to Wayne? He seemed too obvious. She was smarter and seemed more fun. I've had a good time with them. I don't think, 'Oh my God, how am I going to write as a woman?' I just do them as a person.''

"Pagan Babies,'' completed in January but not yet in print, features a female ex-con turned stand-up comic. Leonard said he thought the book ended rather abruptly. But the prince of "less is more'' would not use too many words.

"So I added one more line,'' he said. "It made a big difference.''

Stops in Albany: This week marks Elmore Leonard's first visit to Albany since 1946. He passed through with some Navy buddies. They saw a Bob Hope matinee and left town.

On Thursday, Leonard will read at 8 p.m. at Page Hall, 135 Western Ave. He'll host an informal seminar to discuss screenwriting and his Hollywood experiences at 4 p.m. Thursday, also at Page Hall. Both are free to the public.

Die-hard Dutch fans can also catch films based on his books at Page Hall this week. "The Tall T'' (1957, starring Randolph Scott and Maureen O'Sullivan), followed by "Get Shorty'' (starring John Travolta and Rene Russo) at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, and "Out of Sight'' (1998, starring Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney) at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.


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