Leonard's Law - An Interview with Elmore Leonard
What would Elmore do? Elmore Leonard, that is.
Elmore Leonard passed away on August 20, 2013, at age 87. This article originally appeared in emmy magazine in 2010.
For more than half a century, he's lassoed readers with stories of law and disorder in modern cities and on the old frontier. Now Elmore Leonard inspires a new FX series about a federal lawman fighting bad guys in his old Kentucky home.
The novelist, acclaimed for more than fifty years for his western and crime fiction, has a new credit on his lengthy résumé: he is an executive producer of the FX series Justified, which debuted in March. Leonard is not involved in the series day to day — executive producer Graham Yost is showrunner — but the lawman protagonist, played by Timothy Olyphant, is based on a character he created.
Not surprisingly, the show's writers often have Leonard on their minds — but also on their wrists, where they wear plastic royal-blue wristbands ordered by Yost and embossed: WWED.
As Leonard would have it, Olyphant's character, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, is no easy read. A modern-day law- man, he's a bit old-fashioned, favoring his Stetson, cowboy boots and a sidearm in his hip holster. A suspicious shooting has gotten him kicked out of the Miami marshals' office and sent back to the Kentucky hill country where he was raised. There, Raylan just wants to do his job — chasing fugitives and protecting witnesses — but he's forced to confront some of the skeletons from his past that sent him packing in the first place.
Justified is not the first Leonard project for some of the show's principals. Executive producer Sarah Timberman and executive producer/director Michael Dinner, as well as FX president John Landgraf, worked on the 2003 ABC series Karen Sisco, which was based on a character from a Leonard short story and his novel Out of Sight.
"They come to it from the point of view of having tried to do Elmore Leonard on a weekly basis, and they know some of the pitfalls," says Yost, who wrote three of the season's episodes. "One of the biggest pitfalls was that it wasn't on FX."
Leonard, eighty-four, has just completed his forty-fourth novel, Djibouti, a tale of international intrigue involving Somali pirates and Al Qaeda. From his home in Bloomfield Village, Michigan, he recently spoke with emmy's Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn about his retro-modern lawman and the writing life.
Raylan Givens first appeared on television in a 1997 telefilm, Pronto, and reviews noted it was not the best interpretation of the character from your short stories. Does the character in Justified feel closer to what you had written?
The tone of this series is perfect, and the writers on the show — they like the way I write and they've been reading a lot of my books to get my sound and my style, which I'm very thankful for. So I think it's right on. And Tim Olyphant — he's perfect for the role. He's kind of laid-back naturally; he takes his time. There's just a hint of a Southern accent, just barely enough, and he has all the good lines that really work.
Givens was introduced in your short story "Fire in the Hole." How did you come up with the character?
[First] I came up with the name. I was a luncheon speaker at a book distributor in Amarillo, Texas. The head of [the company] introduced himself to me and said, "Hi, I'm Raylan Givens." I said, "You're Raylan Givens? You're going to be in the name of a character in a book someday — I promise you." It's just a perfect name.
What makes it perfect?
I don't know — just the sound of it, and you don't have to ask, "Well, how do you spell it?" It's just Raylan Givens. Names are not easy, you know, for main characters. I think about names for weeks and weeks, and I sometimes change the name once I get going if I don't feel comfortable with it.
Although you're not writing scripts for the series, you're writing another Raylan Givens short story for the writers to adapt...
Yeah, and I would love to write about fifty pages, although it might not be that long. But I don't want to interfere with what they're doing. I would love to give them enough for an hour, maybe something that they can start the next season with. I want to help them every way I can.
In the past, you've adapted your work for the screen, including "The Moonshine War," "Mr. Majestyk," "52 Pickup" and "Cat Chaser." Why did you stop writing screenplays?
Right from the beginning I wanted to get a job adapting one of my books or stories. I sold Three-Ten to Yuma in 1953, and it was made into a picture three years later. The story was published in Dime Western [magazine] and I got $90 — they paid two cents a word. Then the studio bought it for $4,000, which was really still nothing, but in the '50s it wasn't too bad.
The first screenplay I did, "Moonshine War," was for MGM and it wasn't a good movie. From then on, I was writing screenplays, but I didn't like it because you have too many bosses. You have too many people who don't really know much about writing telling you what to do. The last one I did was for Paramount. [After that] I didn't write any more. I thought, "Why do this? Why do something that you don't enjoy when you know you're going to get all kinds of criticism?" So I quit writing screenplays.
Of course, others have adapted your work — and in the case of Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown," based on your novel "Rum Punch," with much success.
Yeah, the good ones like "Get Shorty" and "Out of Sight" and the one Tarantino did stayed close to the plot, close to the writing. There were places where they had to invite a new scene or handle a scene differently because it was a film. Just like with this show [Justified]. Raylan's got a father — I didn't give him a father — who's been in prison and he's got a former wife. They have to adapt it.
There's talk of an adaptation of your 1988 novel, "Freaky Deaky," coming to the screen. Are you involved with that?
Charlie Matthau [director, and son of the late Walter Matthau] has had it for three or four years, and I'm wondering what he'll come up with. He sent me the second version of the screenplay, and I called him and said, "Listen, I can't read screenplays anymore. This is up to you." The last thing I want to read is a screenplay. Tarantino sent me Inglourious Basterds because he publishes the screenplays and wanted me to write a little introduction. It's a long screenplay — 158 pages. I got about 120 pages into it and gave up, yet when I saw the picture I liked it a lot.
So no interest in writing screenplays or reading them...
I think too many of them have directions in them. You read a Coen brothers' screenplay, it's so simple and there aren't any directions. There are just lines of dialogue, for the most part.
You use dialogue quite a lot in your own work. Has this helped the writers of Justified strike the right tone, since you've already given so much voice to the character?
Yeah, and that's what they're looking for in reading my other books. They're looking for the tone and how I'm saying it, and I think they're doing a great job. The first one [the pilot] was quite good, and the way they handled the bad guy, the white supremacist [Boyd Crowder, played by The Shield's Walton Goggins] — he's really good. I thought they did quite a job. And they like it, that's the best part. They like my dialogue and they're trying to maintain that sound.
Very often you use dialogue, rather than descriptions, to give readers a sense of your characters and to move the story along. How do come up with such vivid discourse?
Most of it comes from my head. Once I define the character clearly in my head, and I know the character, then the sound comes out of the character. It's the most natural way he can talk. Very few of my characters are educated, really educated. I don't deal with college graduates, although I'm sure some of the police officers are, but they talk the way they do in a squadroom.
I've spent a lot of time with Detroit homicide cops in a squadroom, and I listen to them. They have a sense of humor, especially the homicide guys, because they don't want to make this killing such a dreadful act. They want to see a lighter side to it. I heard a cop talking to a witness on the phone — this was back in the late '70s — and he said, "I give you my word as a man, I will not..." do something or other. I don't know what it was, but "I give you my word as a man" — that's something, and you can believe him.
Is that what you like about Raylan Givens, that you can believe him?
I like the way he reacts to things. He has such a simple way of reacting. I'm writing a scene right now, for example, where they're going in to arrest someone — he has a federal warrant to arrest this man — and one of the cops, a local cop who's along, says, "You going to bust in the door?" And Raylan says, "Well, I was thinking we'd go to the desk and get a key."
From Page to Screen
Between episodes of FX's Justified, fans of Elmore Leonard who'd like to catch up on his work have many titles to choose from — he's been writing western and crime fiction for more than fifty years. Argosy magazine printed his short story Trail of the Apache in 1953, and he sold his first novel, The Bounty Hunters, three years later. He's still at it — he just completed novel number forty-four and he's working on a short story that will be fodder for future episodes of Justified.
Since the mid-'80s every Leonard novel — Glitz, Bandits, Get Shorty, Maximum Bob, Out of Sight, Cuba Libre and Road Dogs, to name just a few —has been a bestseller and a critical success. That success has not always translated to the screen. The best feature adaptations of his work — the novelist and critics agree — are Get Shorty, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and starring John Travolta and Gene Hackman; Out of Sight, directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez; and Jackie Brown, the film starring Pam Grier and Samuel L. Jackson that writer-director Quentin Tarantino based on Leonard's novel Rum Punch.
The short story "Three-Ten to Yuma" was the first work the author sold to the movies, and it got a double hit: it was released in 1957 starring Glenn Ford, then remade fifty years later with star Russell Crowe.
On television, ABC chose Carla Gugino to star in Karen Sisco, the 2003 series based on Leonard's sexy-but-tough federal marshal from Out of Sight. The critics liked Sisco, but the network canceled it after only seven airings. "I have to remind myself I can't have control over everything," Gugino told emmy at the time. Leonard would likely agree.