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Spring 2000
Volume 4, Number 2

Jayne Anne Phillips' MotherKind

Jayne Anne Phillips grew up in West Virginia, a locale to which she has returned time and again in the settings of her stories. While she attended West Virginia University as an undergraduate she began writing the stories that would make up her first volume of fiction, Sweathearts (1976), which was published and awarded a Pushcart Prize even before she entered the Iowa Writers workshop as a student in 1977. Since then Phillips has published four more collections of short stories, Counting (1978), Black Tickets (1979), How Mickey Made It (1981) and Fast Lanes (1984), as well as three novels, Machine Dreams (1984), Shelter (1994) and the recently released Motherkind (2000).

Phillips has won three additional Pushcart Prizes and one O. Henry Award for individual stories and she was the first writer to receive the Sue Kaufman Award for First Fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. She was selected as a finalist for the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction for Machine Dreams, which also received a New York Times citation for one of the best books of the year. A two-time recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, she is Writer in Residence at Brandeis University.

Phillips first attracted widespread notice for her eclectic collection of short fiction, Black Tickets, which included a mixture of short interior monologues from socially disenfranchised characters and longer stories exploring the complexities of family life. The stories in Black Tickets provide excursions into the sordid side of life--into worlds of violence, loneliness, mental illness, sex and lovelessness--preoccupations, according to James Baker of Newsweek, drawn from "her rootless days on the road" in the mid-1970s. As Raymond Carver commented on the collection: "These stories of America's disenfranchised--men and women light-years away from the American dream--are unlike any in our literature. [Phillips] is an original, and this book of hers is a crooked beauty."

The family-centered stories of Black Tickets fed naturally, if not directly, into Phillips first novel, Machine Dreams, which tells the sweeping story of the Hampson family in the years between World War II and Vietnam. Through the experiences of Mitch, Jean, Danner and Billy Hampson, Phillips explores in miniature the pervasive cultural disillusionment that attend a slowly disintegrating system of values based on the mythical American dream. The result is what Nadine Gordimer called a penetrating portrayal of "the definitive experience of her generation." As novelist Anne Tyler adds: "The novel's shocks arise from small, ordinary moments, patiently developed, that suddenly burst out with far more meaning than we had expected. And each of these moments owes its impact to an assured and gifted writer."

Like Machine Dreams, Phillips' second novel Shelter continues to explore family ties and generational complexities through the perspectives of many different characters, among them children whose lives are in the midst of profound, even turbulent change. Set in a West Virginia Girls' Camp in July, 1963, the novel's subtle handling of issues like abuse and incest betray its deeper preoccupation with the nature of human evil, its causes and effects. Phillips, writes one critic in the New Stateman & Society, "has shown herself capable of mixing the banal and the transcendent, the ugly and the beautiful, until they become one reality. . .no one writing fiction in the U.S. today comes near her for linguistic beauty and atavistic, almost reluctant, wisdom."

Phillips' latest novel, MotherKind, explores a year and a half of profound change in the life of Kate Tateman. The story begins as thirty-year-old Kate returns to her hometown in Appalachia to inform her mother that she is pregnant. We soon learn that her mother, Katherine, is terminally ill with cancer, and that she has decided to forego chemotherapy in order to stave off the anguish of a protracted illness whose end is inevitable. Kate's news gives Katherine reason to reconsider her decision. She resolves to go through with the difficult treatments after all so that she can see the baby born, and she moves to Boston to live with her daughter and the baby's father, Matthew.

Though Kate and Matthew have plans of marriage, their budding relationship is not without its difficulties. Matthew's divorce from the mother of his first two sons has not yet been finalized, and Kate feels wrongfully cast as the other woman, especially since it was Matthew's wife who precipitated their break-up by having an affair with someone else. Her ill-will toward Kate filters down to the boys, eight-year old Sam and six-year-old Jonah. The boys are unruly and at times even hostile toward Kate when they stay over. This tension is heightened by Matthew's unwillingness to keep the boys in check because he feels guilty for having split up the family. Kate's concern, on the other hand, is that Katherine be made as comfortable as possible during her days of decline. As she works to come to terms with the many life-altering developments that beset her--a new relationship, a new home, her mother's illness and impending death--Kate is at first caught unawares then shaped and strengthened by the profound physical, emotional, and spiritual changes that attend childbearing and motherhood:

After the birth and the overnight in the hospital, she didn't go downstairs for a week. She'd lost some blood and she felt flattened. nearly dizzy, from the labor and then the general anesthetic. Alexander had been born at dawn on Christmas Day; since then she'd wept frequently, with incredible ease, and entertained the illusion that she now new more than she'd ever questioned or known before. The illusion pursued her into sleep itself, into jagged pieces of sleep.

(From Motherkind)

According to Phillips writers are always writing in reality about themselves. In a personal essay published in Salon in April 1999, she provided a glimpse into the probable genesis of MotherKind, which she was then still finishing. Through the eyes of her own adolescent self she writes with characteristic grace and power of the bond between mothers and their daughters:

My mother refers always to my grandmother as Mother but the term seems neither formal nor distanced. The word is her comfort. I learn early that a woman who loses her mother aches. Much happens in life and miracles unfold, but that central absence of voice and image persists. It's as though a room of the spirit remains just as it was the day my grandmother died, the day her long illness was over and my mother had nursed her through it into the mouth of time. In that room possessions are undisturbed and the August air smells of roses. The town stands still; the hour, closed like a bud, pulls softly shut. You only have one mother ... As Mother used to say ... I don't know how many times Mother told me...

I know her through words. She died when my mother was three months married, but her story is my mother's story. Together they chose my name when my mother was 12, and referred to me as someone who would exist. Their story is so complex and layered and shot through with luminous sorrow that I will exist and become a writer to make sure the stories don't vanish.

(From "On Not Having A Daughter," by Jayne Anne Phillips, Salon, April 1999)

It would certainly appear that MotherKind is Phillips' song of love and remembrance to her mother and grandmother, as well as to all women who have known the joy of experiencing that bond, and the sorrow of seeing it pass from the ephemeral into the "mouth of time." Some of the novel's most moving sections are those which deal with that passing, while others memorialize the profound bond of mother and newborn:

He was her blood. When she held him he was inside her; always, he was near her, like an atmosphere, in his sleep, in his being. She would not be alone again for many years, even if she wanted to, even if she tried. In her deepest thoughts, she would approach him, move around and through him, make room for him. In nursing there would be a still, spiral peace, an energy in which she felt herself, her needs and wants, slough away like useless debris.

(From MotherKind)

A prose stylist of the highest order, Phillips composes fluid and eminently readable narratives that are also technically sophisticated and subtly allusive. Moreover, she sometimes chooses unlikely moments to imbue the narrative with greater lyrical intensity or thematic resonance. In the following passage, for instance, Kate, Matthew and his two sons have gone to visit the John F. Kennedy Library so that Katherine can have a few hours of rest at home. Now in her ninth month of pregnancy, Kate has to make urgent use of the restroom as they are leaving the museum.

Kate trained her gaze on the back of the stall door. The white metal looked new and untouched, but someone had scrawled, near the bottom in red ink, "Born to Die." Farther down, another scribe had written in script, "Bonnie loves." Lines begun and not completed were everywhere, Kate thought wryly. Loves what, she wondered, loves who?

She thought of her mother, floating in her sleep as they floated, all of them and the world itself, through various postures and travelling states, the boys tossed in the van against a soft drone of adult comment, this arching inhabited monument on its spit of land, the coastline beyond, irregular and rocky, running on for hundreds, thousands of miles, into other weather and zones of time. The turning of events might register across such distance as a ripple of liquid movement, a settling of limbs. Her father, during the years of her parents' marriage, would drive into town on Sundays to buy the newspapers. He'd called from the store. "Turn on the television," he'd said gravely. "Why?" Kate had asked, adolescent by then, eleven, twelve. "They shot Bobby Kennedy," he'd said, resigned.

The phrase floated still. Kate saw the words bobbing on water like a cast-off paper label, remnant of some drifting flotsom. She heard it in her father's voice as the baby moved, hard. Kate stood to give him room.

(from MotherKind)

The passage begins with Kate's random glance at a piece of graffiti that is anything but randomly selected by Phillips, since it expresses one of the novel's major thematic preoccupations--that we are all "Born to die." (Even during childbearing, Kate cannot keep from contemplating the inevitability of death.) From this we drift to "Bonnie loves," another of the many "lines begun and not completed," a qualification which encapsulates in miniature Kate's situation in the novel. "Good-bye was not so simple as a kiss," Phillips writes elsewhere. "...Good-bye went on and on." Birth and motherhood, new relationships and old, slow loss and dying, the grief of letting go and the necessity of moving on with lives and loves in progress--all of these are the lines "begun and not completed" that Kate faces in the eighteen-month span of the story, many of them for the first time in her life and all of them, now, at once.

"Loves what?" Kate wonders. "Loves who?" And the next line provides the answer: "She thought of her mother..." One association dovetails into the next, and we are simultaneously with the boys listening to the drone of adult voices in the car, with an earler adolescent Kate receiving news of Bobby Kennedy's assassination, and with the adult Kate hearing those very words again in the bathroom stall as if they were being uttered for the first time, prompting the baby to move, "hard."

Such passages are not uncommon in Phillips' fiction and they give the reader cause to marvel, as much for the sheer breadth of their allusive possibilities as for their lyricism and economy of expression. In terms of story, little in the novel is surprising. From the outset the reader has a fair grasp of what will unfold to challenge Kate's life. And yet surprises of another order happen on each page, if not in each paragraph. For the most part the narrative mirrors the plodding pace of daily life, but embedded in the prose are gems of subtle insight, moments of surprising emotive power and delicate wit. The story of this remarkable year in the life of Kate Tateman is always engaging, but in its most poignant moments it is both tragic and joyful, a celebration of all the wonder that life holds, even in death.

Phillips' ceaseless fascination with the complexities and nuances of family life has given rise to a body of works that display ever more clearly the concerns closest to her heart, just as she as a writer has evolved with an ever increasing maturity of vision and voice. Her talents and the intimate fictional worlds they yield have crystallized in MotherKind to produce a novel in which that voice rises nearly to a perfect pitch. Yet as life begets life, so too does one work beget the next. One can only hope that Jayne Anne Phillips will continure to grow as a novelist and writer of short fiction as she has with each successive book. If her past history is any indication, then she will, and her voice will continue to reach larger and more appreciative audiences.

Steven Hartman is a Program Fellow at the New York State Writers Institute

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Jayne Anne Phillips

Nathan Englander

Nathan Englander is not, strictly speaking, a newcomer to modern life. Though raised in an Orthodox Jewish enclave of West Hempstead, Long Island, and schooled in a traditional yeshiva, Englander spent every evening of his boyhood in front of the TV set. Thus, like many writers, Englander grew up in a place between cultures.

That place is often fertile ground for the production of writers, because it requires its occupants to become good explainers—to explain and translate in two directions. Englander's rejection of Judaism in favor of non-religious Jewish culture makes the need for translation even more urgent: he must explain to his secular friends what he was before, and he must explain to his parents (who still love him) what he has become.

Englander also translates the insular world of the ultra-Orthodox for his readers. At the same time, he must interpret the bewildering modern world from the perspective of his ultra-Orthodox characters. In the title story of his first collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, (1999) a Hasid from Jerusalem's cloistered Mea Shearim neighborhood visits Tel Aviv, the "city of sin," seeking a prostitute:

Though he was familiar with the city, its social aspects were foreign to him. It was the first leisurely walk he had taken in Tel Aviv and, fancying himself an anthropologist in a foreign land, he found it all quite interesting. He was usually the one under scrutiny.

Englander is attracted to the "place between cultures." Not satisfied to settle into the identity of an assimilated American Jew, he chooses to reside in Israel—an ex-patriot, a new immigrant, an outsider. The one (possibly) autobiographical story in the collection features a character named Nathan, a young American who lives in Jerusalem. A bomb goes off outside the cafe where Nathan often writes. The bombing brings into relief Nathan's conflicted identity as a new Israeli: his feeling of belonging to an embattled Israel because the incident happens in his own neighborhood, and his counter-feeling of not belonging at all. He tries to translate the experience for himself into American terms. He thinks of the suspension of activity on the street as a kind of "snow day," a day off from school. But translation necessarily fails and cognitive dissonance persists:

We watch our life on every channel. We turn to CNN for a top-of-the-hour translation of our world. Maybe English will make it more real. . . It does not help. There is my cafe. There is my cash machine. There is the tree I wait by when there is waiting to be done. . . "Would you recognize your own bedroom," I say, "if you saw it on TV?"

Englander also finds humor in the meeting of cultures. The insider's customs, he knows, often strike the outsider as pure absurdity. In "The Gilgul of Park Avenue," a WASPy Manhattan businessman experiences a sudden and unheralded conversion to Judaism in the back of a taxicab. It is not a conversion in the normal sense. Charles Luger simply realizes with shocking clarity that he has a Yiddishe neshama, a Jewish soul. "Jewish," he tells the puzzled driver, "Jewish here in the back."

Charles's wife Sue cannot accept the transition, and his sudden adoption of Orthodox practices offends her sense of reason. "Today the cheese is gone," she says, after Charles begins to purge the house of non-kosher food. "You threw out all the cheese, Charles. How could God hate cheese?"

Englander does not mock Charles from the safety of his new and modern identity. Rather, he feels for both Charles and Sue, and knows that they yearn for reconciliation on both sides of the cognitive divide. Charles does not reject his Gentile wife. He wants her to "love him changed."

One can only speculate whether Englander yearns for acceptance from the community he abandoned. The modern literary community has however welcomed him with the enthusiasm that a religious group might reserve for the newly converted. Reviews of his first book of stories have been sprinkled with superlatives that the Psalmists themselves reserved only for God. One hopes that Englander will explore, in his future writing, yet another abrupt transition of identity: from obscurity to fame.

— Mark Koplik, Program Assistant

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Nathan Englander
Daily Gazette Article
Times Union Article

Almost No Memory by Lydia Davis

Lydia Davis is one of the great practitioners of the short, short story, a form that in recent times has been given the name of "sudden fiction" or "microfiction" as though it were something entirely new requiring a new name. Short short stories tend to be too short for the normal unfolding of plot or full portrayal of character that we expect from longer pieces. They provide instead a fleeting glimpse of a subject: a character trait rather than a character, a moment rather than a story. In this regard, they resemble snapshots which, to some degree, tell a story but which, to a greater degree, invite the viewer to invent a story, or to reflect on some larger issue not entirely contained within the borders of the picture.

These quick observations of moments and character traits are, of course, not new. But they are more often expressed through the medium of poetry or even song, rather than prose. In oral form, we know them as anecdotes, a normal part of everyday life. Reducing brief observations to playful prose invites the reader to read them like poems: to reread them, puzzle over them, look at them in various lights.

Almost No Memory is a marvelous collection of Davis's short short pieces that combine the pregnant meaningfulness of poetry with the easy accessibility of anecdote. Even the longest piece (30 pages), "Lord Royston's Tour," is really a series of brief entries in a travel diary, and therefore partakes of the very short literary form. The collection was chosen as one of the "25 Favorite Books of 1997" by the Voice Literary Supplement, and one of the "100 Best Books of 1997" by the Los Angeles Times.

Lydia Davis knows that even a brief reflection on any topic inevitably shows us ourselves. She notices the subjective component in every view. If her stories are photographs, the principal subject is always the photographer.

"I stare at four fish in a tank in the supermarket. They are swimming in parallel formation against a small current created by a jet of water, and they are opening and closing their mouths and staring off into the distance with the one eye, each, that I can see. As I watch them through the glass, thinking how fresh they would be to eat, still alive now, and calculating whether I might buy one to cook for dinner, I also see, as though behind or through them, a larger, shadowy form darkening their tank, what there is of me on the glass, their predator." ("The Fish Tank").

Reality is a subjective reality, and a subjective reality is a contested one. There is no right way to view anything. Davis reformulates the familiar paradox of the "half-empty cup" as a lovers' quarrel:

"He said she was disagreeing with him. She said no, that was not true, he was disagreeing with her. This was about the screen door. That it should not be left open was her idea, because of the flies; his was that it could be left open first thing in the morning, when there were no flies on the deck. Anyway, he said, most of the flies came from other parts of the building: in fact, he was probably letting more of them out than in." ("Disagreement")

Davis's characters often attempt to negotiate relationships, but are baffled by how to see those relationships, because the act of seeing is so problematic: everything may be viewed in too many ways. Indeed, Davis's use of microfiction helps to convey this fragmented view of a world in which no seamless realities or seamless narratives are possible. Davis dramatizes the problem in "Trying to Learn":

"I am trying to learn that this playful man who teases me is the same as that serious man talking money to me so seriously he does not even see me anymore and that patient man offering me advice in times of trouble and that angry man slamming the door as he leaves the house. I have often wanted the playful man to be more serious, and the serious man to be less serious, and the patient man to be more playful. As for the angry man, he is a stranger to me and I do not feel it is wrong to hate him. Now I am learning that if I say bitter words to the angry man as he leaves the house, I am at the same time wounding the others, the ones I do not want to wound, the playful man teasing, the serious man talking money, and the patient man offering advice. Yet I look at the patient man, for instance, whom I would want above all to protect from such bitter words as mine, and though I tell myself he is the same man as the others, I can only believe I said those words, not to him, but to another, my enemy, who deserved all my anger."

A fragmented reality necessarily implies a fragmented view of the self. No person's impressions can be organized into a unified whole. Each of us is multiple, scattered, shattered. In the title story, "Almost No Memory," a woman records all of her impressions in notebooks because she is otherwise unable to remember them. But when she rereads her own notes, she does not know how to view them or how to view herself:

"...these notebooks truly had a great deal to do with her, though it was hard for her to understand, and troubled her to try to understand, just how they had to do with her, how much they were of her and how much they were outside her and not of her, as they sat there on the shelf, being what she knew but did not know, being what she had read but did not remember reading, being what she had thought but did not now think, or remember thinking, or if she remembered, then did not know whether she was thinking it now or whether she had once thought it, or understand why she had had a thought once and then years later the same thought, or a thought once and then never that same thought again."

Lydia Davis's ability to capture worlds in small space brings to mind the great aphorists, people like Alexander Pope and Benjamin Franklin. We permit them to define for us the ethos of the periods in which they lived because they did so in such a succinct and entertaining manner. The Los Angeles Times calls Lydia Davis, "one of the quiet giants in the world of American fiction." Perhaps it takes a giant to say so much so briefly.

— Mark Koplik, Program Assistant

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Lydia Davis

Tina Howe

Critics have characterized Tina Howe’s plays as “beautifully abstract,” “giddily elegiac,” “vibrant,” “bizarre,” “poetic,” “antic” and “enchanting.” For more than three decades Howe has been writing comedies that play with the stage as well as on it, inviting audiences into homes where mushrooms and broccoli sprout in the closets and into museums where visitors dance with the sculptures. Howe's comedies reveal a playwright with a fine sensitivity to the terrors of existence, a splendidly anarchic sense of humor, and a willingness to take risks on the stage.

To her credit (artistic if not economic) Tina Howe has never had a smash hit on Broadway. Her dramatic vision is too original and daring for Broadway, and mainstream critics have sometimes responded to her work with bewilderment and even anger. But her plays – including The Art of Dining, Coastal Disturbances, Approaching Zanzibar and Pride’s Crossing – have enthralled audiences from San Diego to Sofia, where a recent production of Painting Churches played to packed houses. Along the way Howe has garnered numerous awards, most notably an OBIE for Distinguished Playwriting, an Outer Critics Circle Award, a Tony nomination for Coastal Disturbances and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Pride’s Crossing.

Howe is a marvelously perceptive observer of contemporary mores, and much of the pleasure we receive from her plays comes from her comic skewering of pretentious amateur art critics, couples moaning orgasmically over the Yuppie menu of their dreams, and thoroughly enlightened parents thoroughly unable to cope with their monstrous four-year-old. This social satire is, however, merely one layer of Howe’s complex theatrical creations. With a scalpel in one hand and a banana peel in the other, Howe cuts to the heart of our deepest fears – aging, death, betrayal, public humiliation – and then forces us to laugh at the futile ways we attempt to cope with those fears. In The Art of Dining, a brilliant but socially inept writer tries desperately to have a quiet meal with her editor, only to become the object of amused stares when she gets more of her food on her than in her. Olivia Childs in Approaching Zanzibar fights off thoughts of her impending death by playing a cagey game of “terrify the relatives” with a fright wig and fake bald pate for props.

Howe once said: “The motivating factor in all my works is a hopeless infatuation with extravagance. To me, the theater is an arena for celebrating excess – outrageous settings, lush language, and intense emotions.” She favors unusual stage locales, ranging from a claustrophobic New Jersey restaurant kitchen to a peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Howe likes to pose challenges for herself, but the settings are never arbitrary theatrical gimmicks. The beach in Coastal Disturbances, for example, is as much metaphor as place: like human beings and their relationships, the sand and ocean remain essentially the same over millennia yet change from moment to moment. The tree that grows in the living room in One Shoe Off symbolizes a dangerous lust that threatens to destroy Leonard and Dinah’s marriage.

While most contemporary dramatists play it safe with protagonists who are post-adolescent and pre-menopausal, Howe’s central characters include frightened nine-year-old girls, aging artists searching for their lost creative powers, and elderly women displaying what Howe calls “old lady rage and old lady tenderness.” In her most recent work, Pride’s Crossing, seven actors undertake twenty roles, changing ages, sexes and nationalities from scene to scene. Howe creates wonderful opportunities for performers: Cherry Jones, who starred in Pride’s Crossing, moved back and forth in time without a wig or costume change, playing Mabel Tidings at every stage from rebellious preteen to cranky nonagenarian.

Howe’s favored protagonists are artists: a photographer in Coastal Disturbances who searches for the (literally) naked source of her talent by taking nude pictures of herself, a painter in Painting Churches who futilely tries to hide behind her portraits of others. With postmodern self-consciousness Howe shows these artists at work onstage. She is also endlessly fascinated by the complex interrelationships among creator, creation, and audience – whether that “audience” is a crowd of museum goers or gourmets at a posh eatery. For her, both the creation and the consumption of art are rituals bound up with our deepest terrors and needs.

Howe has acknowledged her debt to Absurdist writers like Ionesco and Beckett, a debt more apparent in her earlier plays than in her most recent ones. Like many other American dramatists, she doesn't entirely share the nihilistic vision of her European counterparts. Although salvation is transitory and more apt to be aesthetic than religious or social, there are moments of redemption in all her plays as elderly parents dance one last time to celebrate their daughter’s portrait of them or as a little girl leaps “like a reckless angel” in tribute to her dying great-aunt. Howe once wrote that the Marx Brothers “didn’t just celebrate lunacy, they turned it into a high art form.” The same may be said of Tina Howe.

Judith E. Barlow is a Professor in the English and Women’s Studies Departments, University at Albany.

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Tina Howe

The Making of History
Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient

Michael Ondaatje has long enjoyed a reputation as one of Canada's finest and most original poets. Three times the recipient of Canadian Governor General's Award (twice for poetry), his books of verse include Handwriting (1999), The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems (1991), Secular Love (1984) and There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning To Do (1979). Ondaatje's interest in crossing the borders of genre, form and even media is best exemplified by The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), a fictionalized biography of William Bonney that explores the complex psyche of the legendary outlaw. Appropriating fact and popular legend, this groundbreaking work liberally rewrites "what is known" and understood about Billy by introducing quasi-factual interviews and reports into his story, which is conveyed through an unusual mixture of prose, poetry, photographs and even some drawings.

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid marked Ondaatje's first successful (if partial) foray into the world of prose fiction. His reputation as a fiction writer continued to grow with the publication of two additional novels. Coming Through Slaughter (1976) fictionalized the tortured life of Buddy Bolden, an obscure jazz musician who became legendary after running amok in a New Orleans parade. Like his other fictional works Ondaatje's next novel, In the Skin of a Lion (1987), is also based on historical record. A powerful and intriguing novel dramatizing the cultural and social tensions that came into play during the building of Toronto in the early 20th century, it was the first of Ondaatje's novels to receive serious international attention.

When Ondaatje's novel The English Patient (1992) became the first book by a Canadian author to win the prestigious Booker Prize, the reading world sat up and took a good hard look at the literature coming out of Canada. When the novel was then adapted into a film that swept the 1996 Academy Awards, winning nine Oscars, the world of popular culture followed suit. What the rest of the world has discovered is what readers above the 49th parallel have known for decades: that Canada has a vibrant, rich and diverse literary culture. Writers like Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies and Alice Munro have done much themselves to bring Canadian literature (fiction in particular) into international focus, but in all likelihood not even these authors have reached as broad a popular audience as poet Michael Ondaatje--again, for a work of fiction turned into a Hollywood success. This irony takes on a new twist when we consider that Ondaatje never set foot in Canada until he was an adult.

Born on September 12, 1943 in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Michael Ondaatje was raised in circumstances that could be the stuff of fiction. As a Colonial tea planter his grandfather amassed a sizeable family fortune, much of which Ondaatje's father managed to squander. Michael grew up in the midst of a large boisterous family dealing with their own cultural obsolescence in post-colonial Ceylon, and he was profoundly affected by what he observed and experienced in these early years. His father had a drinking problem, and when this became excessive his parents separated. In 1948 his mother took all of the children, except the six year-old Michael, with her to England. After spending five more years with various relatives in Sri Lanka, he finally moved to England to live with his mother and three siblings. He passed his teen years in London before emigrating to Canada and yet another new beginning.

With this kind of background, it is not surprising that Michael Ondaatje deals in his works with unusual cultural intersections. The English Patient may be the best example of this thematic preoccupation. Set in the ruins of a convent in Italy, the novel portrays the developing relationships between four characters from distinctly different cultural backgrounds during an almost timeless respite in the last months of the Second World War.

The story begins with Hana, a young Canadian nurse caring for the title character in the once grand Villa San Girolamo in Tuscany. The war has ended in this part of Europe, moving northward to its incipient conclusion. Briefly converted into a field hospital by the Allies, the bombed out convent and all of its immediate surroundings have been carefully mined by the retreating Germans. Despite the dangers, Hana remains behind to nurse the English patient when the Allied forces move on. He is wounded beyond hope. The survivor of a plane crash in the North African desert, his identify has literally been burned away by flames.

In the Pisa hospital she had seen the English patient for the first time. A man with no face. An ebony pool. All identification consumed in a fire. Parts of his burned body and face had been sprayed with tannic acid, that hardened into a protective shell over his raw skin. The area around his eyes was coated with a thick layer of gentian violet. There was nothing to recognize in him. Hana seeks consolation and meaning in her daily ritual of nursing the anonymous English patient. His fire-ravaged body, slowly dying in this crumbling villa, becomes her world, her reason for living. She pours calamine in stripes across his chest where he is less burned, where she can touch him. She loves the hollow below the lowest rib, its cliff of skin. Reaching his shoulders she blows cool air onto his neck, and he mutters.

What? she asks, coming out of her concentration.

He turns his dark face with its grey eyes towards her. She puts her hand into its pocket. She unskins the plum with her teeth, withdraws the stone and passes the flesh of the fruit into his mouth.

She reads to him from whatever books she can find in the library, or from a tattered copy of Herodotus' Histories, his only possession, which survived the plane crash with him. Like the English patient, it is incomplete and enigmatic. Many passages are missing, replaced by others he has pasted in from other books, or by random observations in his gnarled handwriting, the patient's fractured history melding with that of Western civilization.

A complicit and tender intimacy develops between Hana and the English patient. The villa becomes their sanctuary from a world of pain, a refuge from memories too hard to bear. Hana too has been wounded almost beyond hope.

Nurses too became shell-shocked from the dying around them. Or from something as small as a letter. They would carry a severed arm down a hall, or swab at blood that never stopped, as if the would were a well, and they began to believe in nothing, trust nothing. They broke the way a man dismantling a mine broke the second his geography exploded. The way Hana broke in Santa Chiara Hospital when as official walked down the space between a hundred beds and gave her a letter that told her of the death of her father.

We learn as well that Hana's lover, an officer with whom she was planning to have a child, has been killed in the war. The unborn child was aborted and Hana has all but given up on life. In the villa, however, in this brief period seemingly out of time, she can skirt these sorrows and live without the burden a past she would sooner forget, moment by tender moment, one small gesture at a time. Indeed, there is something very edenic about Ondaatje's evocation of the shattered villa with its view of a shattered landscape grown silent in the wake of battles lost and won. And in this Eden, for a time, Ondaatje's disfigured Adam and traumatized Eve experience a separate peace.

That peace is disturbed by the arrival of Caravaggio, a family friend who has heard rumors of Hana's presence in the perilous villa. Both Caravaggio and Hana were minor characters in Ondaatje's earlier novel In the Skin of a Lion. A close friend of Hana's late father, Patrick (the hero of that novel), Caravaggio is a professional burglar turned spy for the Allies. When he arrives at the Villa San Girolamo with bandaged hands, we realize he too is a victim of the war. Caught in the act of stealing documents from a German's officer's bedroom, he has been subjected to brutal torture by the Gestapo, with life-altering results.

Notwithstanding his handicap, Caravaggio is resourceful, self-sufficient and, above all, suspicious--an occupational trait. Though he has come to the villa out of concern for Hana's welfare, the English patient soon becomes the subject of his curiosity and scrutiny.

Caravaggio believes the mysterious patient is not an Englishman at all, but the Hungarian Count Ladislaus de Almasy, a brilliant scholar, desert explorer and German spy. This complication becomes the dramatic impetus for the surface plot of the book. Since the English patient can't seem to recall his own name or most of his past, Ondaatje reveals his history piecemeal, allowing the reader to gradually figure out whether Caravaggio's suspicion is in fact warranted.

This narrative thread is certainly important to the dramatic intensity of the novel, but in truth it is largely a vehicle for the other stories that surface through the individual characters. It would be misleading to call these narratives subplots, for in many ways the stories and their conflicts are more compelling than those that drive the surface narrative. If ever there were a successful novel driven more by character than by coherent, linear story, The English Patient is it. Which is not to say that Ondaatje is unconcerned with story. There are so many different narratives that come together in this novel that it's obvious he cares about it considerably. What seems to intrigue him even more, however, is how different stories come together, not in a single consciousness, but in the dynamic interplay between several characters. Social interaction is the food of a drama that creates their shared histories, just as it memorializes their personal ones.

The patient remembers enough of the past to relate a tale of his impossible love affair with a woman he could not have without tragic consequences. Those consequences, in fact, are what have precipitated his present condition.

In the arboured bedroom the burned patient views great distances. The way that dead knight in Ravenna, whose marble body seems alive, almost liquid, has his head raised upon a stone pillow, so it can gaze beyond his feet into vista. Farther than the desired rain of Africa. Towards all their lives in Cairo. Their works and days. Hana sits by his bed, and she travels like a squire beside him during these journeys.

In similar fashion the histories of all the main characters unfold before us, including the fourth of the principals, Kip.

A military demolition specialist for the British army, Kip (short for Kirpal Singh) is a young Sikh man who arrives at the villa to seek out and defuse the mines left behind by the Germans. Unlike all the other characters Kip has not been maimed by war, though through his work he has witnessed its destructive capacity closehand many times. His presence at the villa is a generative force that brings a kind of spiritual healing to the group. Kip's fascinating history is woven in among the threads of the surface narrative, and as with the other characters we learn what has brought him to the villa at this unique point in time. Some of the most arresting parts of the novel are those which depict his lethal job of defusing mines. For instance, just after he arrives at the villa, he encounters a complex mechanism that threatens to kill not only him but Hana.

Very slowly he unearthed the series of wires. There were six wires jumbled up, tied together, all painted black.

He brushed the dust off the mapboard the wires lay on. Six black wires. When he was a child his father had bunched up his fingers and, disguising all but the tips of them, made him guess which was the long one. His own small finger would touch his choice, and his father's hand would unfold, blossoming, to reveal the boy's mistake. One could of course make a red wire negative. But this opponent had not just concreted the thing but painted all the characters black. Kip was being pulled into a psychological vortex. With the knife he began to scrape the paint free, revealing a red, a blue, a green. Would his opponent have also switched them?

This passage typifies the apparent ease with which Ondaatje moves seemlessly between past and present storylines. The web of stories grows and strengthens as the book reaches its climax. A love affair develops between Kip and Hana that provides an effective counterpoint to the ill-starred desert romance between the English patient and Katherine, the wife of a jealous and homicidal colleague. The judgement of Caravaggio continues to loom above the English patient as the narratives of past and present coalesce to form a thematic whole whose intensity and complexity can be likened to those of an epic poem. In the end, this Eden of the maimed and injured cannot escape the hands of time, and with news of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the spell that binds them to the villa and to each other lifts. But those moments out of time remain alive in imagination and memory, the maker and preserver of history.

What seems to interest Michael Ondaatje the most is the intersection of different subjective experiences and lived histories--and how each of these can come together in a brief moment of great poignancy. The English Patient is like a sequence of poems that immortalize such moments. What they reveal of truth is that it is ever elusive and ever changing, like a hundred random stories pasted between extant passages in The Histories of Herodotus.

Steven Hartman is a Program Fellow at the New York State Writers Institute

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Michael Ondaatje & Linda Spalding

Working the Angles:
A Look at the Career of Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard has produced such a staggeringly large body of fiction that one hardly knows where to begin discussing it. With the recent publication of Be Cool (1999), the sequel to his bestselling Get Shorty (1990), Leonard has published thirty-five novels in forty-six years. To this list we can add roughly thirty short stories that have appeared in such magazines as Argosy, Zane Grey's Western Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post, many of which were collected for the first time and published recently in The Tonto Woman and Other Western Stories (1998). If these lists were not enough to drive chronic sufferers of writer's block mad with envy, it might be worth mentioning that he also has ten feature-length screenwriting credits, including both original screenplays and adaptations of his novels and stories for television and film.

For most of his life Leonard has lived by the pen in the truest sense of the expression, and he has achieved a level of commercial and critical success that most writers would kill for. Yet this success came relatively late in his career, after decades of toughing it out, working long hours on his craft, day after day. "My routine is just to start in the morning and write all day. That's it. I work from about nine-thirty to six," Leonard said in a recent HomeArts interview. "I think a writer has to write maybe a million words and work very hard just to develop confidence. It took me ten or fifteen years to discover the way that I write most naturally, to discover my style."

Though born in New Orleans, Elmore Leonard spent much of his childhood moving around with his family in the American Southwest before his parents settled permanently in Detroit, the city he still calls home. Leonard first became interested in writing in 1935, at the age of eleven, after reading a serialization of All Quiet on the Western Front in the Detroit Times. Inspired by Remarque's classic war novel, the precocious fifth grader wrote his own war play in which the coward of the drama is redeemed when he rescues the hero. This reversal, as David Everson has pointed out, is the first significant sign of what would come to be a pattern in Leonard's writings, his desire to upset reader expectations.

In high school Leonard wrote a few stories for the school paper, but spent most of his time reading. The writings of Hemingway, Steinbeck and John O'Hara served as models for some of his earliest fiction writing. As he acknowledged in an interview with J.D. Reed in a 1984 Time Magazine interview: "I learned to write from For Whom the Bell Tolls." The influence of Hemingway in particular can still be traced in Leonard's terse, punchy dialogue and economical prose, as in the following excerpt from Killshot about a Native American hitman named the Blackbird:

The Blackbird told himself he was drinking too much because he lived in this hotel and the Silver Dollar was close by, right downstairs. Try to walk out the door past it. Try to come along Spadina Avenue, see that goddamn Silver Dollar sign, hundreds of light bulbs in your face, and not be drawn in there. Have a few drinks before coming up to this room with a ceiling that looked like a road map, all the cracks in it. Or it was the people in the Silver Dollar talking about the Blue Jays all the time that made him drink too much. He didn't give a shit about the Blue Jays. He believed it was time to get away from here, leave Toronto and the Waverly Hotel for good and he wouldn't drink so much and be sick in the morning. Follow one of those cracks in the ceiling.
. . . .
The phone rang. He listened to several rings before picking up the receiver, wanting it to be a sign. He liked signs. The Blackbird said, "Yes?" and a voice he recognized asked would he like to go to Detroit. See a man at a hotel Friday morning. It would take him maybe two minutes.
In the moment the voice on the phone said "Detroit" the Blackbird thought of his grandmother, who lived near there, and began to see himself and his brothers with her when they were young boys and thought, This could be a sign. The voice on the phone said, "what do you say, Chief?"
"How much?"
"Out of town, I'll go fifteen."
The Blackbird lay in his bed staring at the ceiling, at the cracks making highways and rivers. The stains were lakes, big ones.
"I can't hear you, Chief."
"I'm thinking you're low."
"All right, gimme a number."
"I like twenty thousand."
"You're drunk. I'll call you back."
"I'm thinking this guy staying at a hotel, he's from here, no?"
"What difference is it where he's from?"
"You mean what difference is it to me. I think it's somebody you don't want to look in the face."
The voice on the phone said, "Hey, Chief? Fuck you. I'll get somebody else."
This guy was a punk, he had to talk like that. It was okay. The Blackbird knew what this guy and his people thought of him. Half-breed tough guy one time from Montreal, maybe a little crazy, they gave the dirty jobs to. If you took the jobs, you took the way they spoke to you. You spoke back if you could get away with it, if they needed you. It wasn't social, it was business.
(From Killshot, 1989)

After graduating from high school in 1943 Leonard joined the navy and served with a Seabee unit in the South Pacific for the remainder of the Second World War. He left the service in 1946 and enrolled at the University of Detroit, where he began to try his hand at more ambitious writing projects. While still in college, he also took a job at the Campbell-Ewald advertising agency writing ad copy. His first success as a fiction writer came in 1951 when Argosy magazine published his short story "Trail of the Apache."

In 1953 Leonard published his first novel, The Bounty Hunters. Over the next eight years he published dozens of short stories and four more novels, all of them Westerns. Two of his stories were sold to Columbia Pictures and appeared as films in 1957: "The Tall T" and "3:10 to Yuma." The latter film, modeled on "High Noon," starred Glenn Ford and received a warm critical reception. Like The Bounty Hunters most of Leonard's novels during this period were not commercial successes, partly because they dared to break from the pat types and conventions of the now well established Western genre. Already in his earliest professional writings Leonard was driven by a desire to stretch the limits of the genre, or even to revamp it altogether in favor of less romantic and flattering depictions of the west, with unexpected moments of dark humor worked in. In this respect Leonard can be credited with helping to set into motion an evolving Western aesthetic that came to fruition a decade or so later in the popular anti-heroic Western films of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, among others.

In 1961 Leonard's novel Hombre was chosen as one of the best westerns of all time by the Western Writers of America. The film rights to the novel were also sold to 20th Century Fox, who produced a memorable film adaptation in 1967 directed by Martin Ritt and starring Paul Newman. Hombre might have been Leonard's breakthrough work as a novelist were it not for the fact that the bottom dropped out on the market for Westerns shortly after its publication. With the money from the film sale of Hombre, Leonard nevertheless felt confident enough to quit the Campbell-Ewald advertising agency and devote all of his time to writing. What followed were eight years representing the only apparent lull in his career as a novelist. In reality Leonard wrote prodigiously between 1961 and 1969, though what he produced was an odd assortment of educational film scripts (mostly for Encyclopedia Brittanica Films) on subjects ranging from Julius Caesar to the Settlement of the Mississippi Valley, even a recruiting film for the Franciscan Order. True to his avocation Leonard sustained himself through his drier years by relying on his pen until circumstances would conspire to give his career a rebirth and his writing endeavors a new direction.

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 in the late 1960s, but the assignment would prove to be a case study in serendipity. He enjoyed researching the feature 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 in 1969 of The Big Bounce. Yet even this turning point represented a hard-fought battle for Leonard, who received eighty-four rejections before The Big Bounce was finally accepted and published. Initially dispirited by such a cold reception to the world of crime writing, Leonard nearly abandoned the genre and went back to writing Westerns, but when Warner Bros. purchased the film rights for $50,000, he found the encouragement and fiscal stability he needed to continue writing in earnest. A film adaptation of The Big Bounce starring Ryan O'Neal (with a screenplay by Leonard) appeared later in 1969.

What followed were a string of novels over the next thirteen years--including The Moonshine War (1969), Fifty-two Pickup (1974), Unknown Man No. 89 (1977), City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit (1980) and Cat Chaser (1982)--that earned Leonard a small but devoted following and a growing reputation as a crime writer whose works were revitalizing and revolutionizing the genre, as his early Westerns had done. Yet it was not until 1983 that he had his first serious critical breakthrough with the publication of both Stick and LaBrava. Highly favorable reviews in the New York Times and other high profile newspapers fueled a broader reader interest in Leonard's works. As the Washington Post's ordinarily grudging critic Jonathan Yardley observed, Leonard deserved praise for "accomplishments rather more substantial than that of keeping the reader on tenterhooks" since he was raising "the hard-boiled suspense novel beyond the limits of genre and into social commentary." Such attention resulted in greater sales of his books and set the stage for his first bestselling novel, Glitz (1985). The following excerpt from Glitz demonstrates Leonard's vivid, hard-boiled style, which is both entertaining and penetrating:

The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming. The guy approached out of the streetlight on the corner of Meridian and Sixteenth, South Beach, and reached Vincent as he was walking from his car to his apartment building. It was early, a few minutes past nine.

Vincent turned his head to look at the guy and there was a moment when he could have taken him and did consider it, hit the guy as hard as he could. But Vincent was carrying a sack of groceries. He wasn't going to drop a half gallon of Gallo Hearty Burgundy, a bottle of prune juice and a jar of Ragu spaghetti sauce on the sidewalk. Not even when the guy showed his gun, called him a motherfucker through his teeth and said he wanted Vincent's wallet and all the money he had on him. The guy was not big, he was scruffy, wore a tank top and biker boots and smelled. Vincent believed he had seen him before, in the detective bureau holding cell. It wouldn't surprise him. Muggers were repeaters in their strungout state, often dumb, always desperate. They came on with adrenaline pumping, hoping to hit and get out. Vincent's hope was to give the guy pause.

He said, "You see that car? Standard Plymouth, nothing on it, not even wheel covers?" It was a pale gray. "You think I'd go out and buy a car like that?" The guy was wired or not paying attention. Vincent had to tell him, "It's a police car, asshole. Now gimme the gun and go lean against it."

What he should have done, either put the groceries down and given the guy his wallet or screamed in the guy's face to hit the deck, now, or he was fucking dead. Instead of trying to be clever and getting shot for it. This guy wasn't going to lay himself out against any police car, he had done it too many times before -- as it turned out -- and it didn't pay. He shot from the hip and that was where Vincent took the first one, in his own right hip, through and through. The .38 slug chipped bone, nicked the ilium, missed the socket by a couple of centimeters but raised other hell in its deflected course: tore through his gluteus maximus, taking out his back pocket and wallet containing seventeen dollars and punched his gun out of the waistband of his pants, where it rode just behind his hip. The guy's second shot went through the Hearty Burgundy, passing between Vincent's right arm and his rib cage. At this point Vincent dropped the groceries and went for his piece, yelling at the guy, who was running now, to halt or he'd fire. Here again was a lesson to be learned. When you say it, mean it.
(From Glitz, 1985)

After the publication of Glitz Leonard began to receive not only long-overdue attention, including a Newsweek cover story, but correspondingly high sales, a trend that has continued and snowballed with each successive novel. As Steven King noted in a New York Times book review: "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."

All 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)—have been national bestsellers and most have been met enthusiastically by critics as well. "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.'"

Percy was not alone in his estimation of Leonard, though avid readers of crime fiction have offered a variety of reasons for naming him the genre's king of the hill. One reason may be that he has caused 'serious' reviewers to sit up and take notice who might otherwise steer far clear of anything with the word 'genre' attached to it. Another may be that he has inspired as many critics who review his works to stop using that word altogether. Then there's those who simply value his originality. Leonard's novels are not devoid of character types--however, they're typical only to his fictional world, not to the world of crime writing traditionally. Typical Leonard heroes are wisecracking and street smart (though not too smart), and operate according to a questionable set of values at odds with that of the communities they 'deal with.' The villains are often good enough to be interesting and somehow all the more threatening for their humanity, while just as often the heroes are bad enough to ring true as credible individuals. These heroes might border on a dangerous moral relativism were it not for their fidelity to certain idiosyncratic principles that would no doubt seem skewed to others, but which serve as serious codes of honor to themselves. Many of Leonard's characters just want to be left alone, but they tend to get pulled into a mess of problems by circumstances beyond their control. Accordingly, Leonard's plots are shaped by how these characters deal with the predicaments that then arise. In the typical Leonard novel a number of plot twists can be expected, though never predicted.

* * *

Elmore Leonard has been associated with Hollywood nearly as long as he has been writing fiction, which may account for why some of his novels read like expanded and highly polished film treatments. Heavy on dialogue, slight on description, driven by action and character exchange, they seem to be composed with eventual film adaptation in mind. In a recent interview Leonard spoke of his early hope that his novels would eventually make it to film:

I knew it would eventually happen. One of the main reasons I started out writing Western short stories and novels in the 1950's was because Westerns were so popular on the screen. And in magazines, too — the short story market in the 1950's was sensational. Since my prose style is highly visual, and since I write in scenes and use a lot of dialogue, I knew that if I could learn how to write Westerns, some of them would sell in Hollywood.
(from Elmore Leonard Interview, HomeArts)

Twenty-three of Leonard novels and stories have indeed been adapted to feature films--seventeen of these for theatrical distribution, the others for major television networks and cable channels. Adaptations of four more of his novels for theatrical release are currently in development or production.

But such a track record can be misleading. In truth, he has enjoyed an on-again off-again relationship with the film industry--at times lucrative, at times disappointing, even dismal. As Leonard has acknowledged, the qualities that make his novels successful have not always survived in translation to the screen

[Chili] made his way through the coffee shop to the men's room aware of glances but thinking of a girl named Linda Moon. Different ideas now beginning to come together in his mind. A movie about a guy in the record business. A movie about a girl who worked for a dating service. He could hear her voice again on the phone telling him--once she'd given up trying to sell him on coming in--that her real life was music and up until last year she had her own band. Now all she did--once in a while a recording studio would call when they needed a backup vocal for one of the current pop stars and the dating-service girl's voice would be on a hit record, somewhere in the mix…
. . . .
Chili walked back through the coffee shop thinking of what he'd say to Tommy. Surprise him and sound interested. Give him a scenario off the top of the head. The guy who plays Tommy Athens is the main character: His name…Tommy Amore, like the song, the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie. The girl, she's with a group but wants to do her own stuff, so she comes to Amore records. Walks in, Tommy takes one look at her and love is instantly in the fuckin air. But is she any good? Let's say she has potential, she'll make it if she listens to Amore, does what he tells her. But Linda has ideas of her own. She fights Amore every step of the way. While this is going on the subplot develops. Some deal Amore thought was behind him's now giving him fits. The real Tommy will start nodding his head because it could be true. Like in Get Leo you have the plot, talk a star into making your movie, and you have the subplot, try to keep from getting killed while you're doing it. Make it up as you're telling him. Which is what movie pitches sound like anyway.
(from Be Cool, 1999)

"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."

Three of Leonard's books have been nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award by the Mystery Writers of America: 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 are dedicated to the advancement of the genre."

Steven Hartman is a Program Fellow at the New York State Writers Institute

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Elmore Leonard
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