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Elmore Leonard
Elmore Leonard

Novelist and screenwriter
NYS Writers Institute, April 6, 2000

Featured on The Writer PBS Series, Channel 17, September 9, 2001, 2:00 p.m.

"My characters have to be able to talk in an interesting way. . ." (26:55)

ELMORE LEONARD, novelist and screenwriter, has received wide-spread critical acclaim for his crime fiction. He became interested in writing in 1935, after reading a serialization of All Quiet on the Western Front in the Detroit Times. Touched by the story, he wrote a play based on the novel for his fifth-grade classroom, using the desks as "No-Man's Land." In high school he wrote a story or two for the school paper but spent most of his time reading. After graduating in 1943 Leonard joined the navy and served with a Seabee unit in the South Pacific. He left the service in 1946 and enrolled at the University of Detroit, where he began to write again, entering short story contests and placing third in one of them.

In 1949, while still in college, Leonard began to work for Campbell-Ewald advertising agency. He also began writing in earnest during this period. He had his first success in 1951 when Argosy magazine published his short story Trail of the Apache. Other stories--all westerns--followed in such publications as Zane Grey Western and The Saturday Evening Post.

In 1953 Leonard published his first novel, The Bounty Hunters. Over the next eight years he published 30 short stories and four more novels. When his novel Hombre (1961) was chosen as one of the best westerns of all time by the Western Writers of American in 1961, Leonard finally felt confident enough to quit the advertising agency and devote all of his time to writing. The market for westerns began to dry up, however, and Leonard found himself writing educational films for Encyclopaedia Britannica, industrial films for corporations and advertising and sales materials.

It might seem almost a fluke that Leonard was asked to write a day-in-the-life feature on Detroit policemen for a local newspaper, for he enjoyed it so much that it sent him as one journalist has observed, on a thirty year "novel spree" in the genre of crime writing, beginning with the publication of The Big Bounce in 1969.

During the next two decades Leonard developed a devoted following in the genre with such novels as Fifty-two Pickup (1974), The Switch (1978), City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit (1980), Split Images (1981), Stick (1983), and LaBrava (1983). Yet it was not until 1985 that he had his commercial breakthrough with the publication of his bestselling novel Glitz. Soon he began to receive long-overdue attention, including a Newsweek cover story. As Steven King noted in a New York Times book review of the novel: "You can put Glitz on the same shelf with your John D. MacDonalds, your Raymond Chandlers, your Dashiell Hammetts. . .This is the kind of book that if you get up to see if there are any chocolate chip cookies left, you take it with you so you won't miss anything."

Each of Leonard's subsequent novels--Bandits (1987), Touch (1987), Freaky Deaky (1988), Killshot (1989), Get Shorty (1990), Maximum Bob (1991), Rum Punch (1992), Pronto (1993), Riding the Rap (1995), Out of Sight (1996) and Cuba Libre (1998)--has been a national bestseller as well as a critical success. "The question here is, why is Elmore Leonard so good?" wrote Walker Percy in a 1987 review of Bandits. "He is as good as the blurbs say: 'The greatest crime writer of our time, perhaps ever.'"

Three of Leonard's books have been nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award by the Mystery Writers of American: The Switch, nominated for Best Original Paperback Novel of 1978; Split Images, for Best Novel of 1981; and LaBrava, which won for Best Novel in 1983. Maximum Bob was also awarded the first annual International Association of Crime Writers North American Hammett Prize in 1991. In 1992 the Mystery Writers gave Leonard the Grand Master Award, which "is presented only to individuals who, by a lifetime of achievement, have proved themselves preeminent in the craft of the mystery and dedicated to the advancement of the genre."

Success has followed Leonard to Hollywood as well. Released in October 1995, Get Shorty was an immediate critical and commercial success; the same is true of Out of Sight (released in 1998). Award-winning director Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) directed Jackie Brown, a film based on Leonard's novel Rum Punch, in December 1997. Tarantino also plans to bring three more Leonard novels to film: Bandits, Freaky Deaky and Killshot. The film rights to the novel Cuba Libre, a story of high adventure, history, romance and nefarious undertakings in Cuba, were brought by Joel and Ethan Coen of Fargo fame, and Maximum Bob was adapted for an ABC television miniseries in 1998.

Elmore Leonard, photo by Linda SolomonLeonard's 37th book Be Cool, was published in 1999. As reviewer Patrick O'Kelly has noted, this follow-up to Get Shorty, "surpasses its original because it is so self-consciously a novel about sequels, about the. . .cowardice that limits the creativity of the American film industry. It is hard to imagine how Leonard could top this multilayered satire/crime novel/exposé." The novel not only pokes fun at the shortcomings of the film industry but at the very nature of storymaking itself, as the lead character, Chili Palmer, manipulates events and plays characters off one another to observe what story twists emerge, trying to plot his new movie. "There is a fine line between fiction and nonfiction," writes Kinky Friedman in a New York Times book review of Be Cool, "and Leonard. . .has no doubt spent much of his literary life erasing it."

". . .Nobody I've ever read sets up pace, mood and sound better than Elmore Leonard. . .[He] is the greatest living writer of crime fiction." - Barry Gifford, New York Times Book Review

Books by Elmore Leonard:

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Film Screening of Elmore Leonard:

The Tall T, Get Shorty - April 4, 2000, 7:30 p.m., Page Hall
Out of Sight
- April 5, 2000, 7:30 p.m., Page Hall

Addtional Links:
Writers Online Magazine Article
Daily Gazette Article
Albany Times Union Article
Elmore Leonard/Random House

For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at https://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.