This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 29, 1999
When it comes to the art of how to Be Cool, Elmore Leonard wrote the book - in every way. First, there's his new novel of the same name, which rocketed to a position near the top of North American best-seller lists almost immediately upon its release last month. A sequel to one of Leonard's most popular previous books, Get Shorty, it marks the return of Chili Palmer, the soft-spoken hardcase-turned-movie-producer who was played to perfection by John Travolta in the similarly titled 1995 movie. Then, there's the 73-year-old Leonard, whose courtly manners, neat style of dress, well-trimmed trademark goatee and obvious affection for his family render him the opposite of many of the seedy, disenfranchised characters who populate his books. In Leonard's case, he achieves cool precisely because doing so never seems to be a priority. In fact, said Leonard, while he puzzled over the contents of his dessert at a posh Toronto restaurant last week: "One mistake no one should make is to presume my books are autobiographical."
For the man often described as the best English-language crime writer - and one of the finest overall fiction writers - precision and order in private life matter. Leonard has followed the same habits with all of his 35 books since 1953. He writes every day of the week, in longhand, adding rather than cutting copy as he edits, and never takes more than six months to finish. When he begins a book, he has no idea how it will end. Instead, he says, "I learn where the plot is going at the same time as my lead character."
Those habits produce quantity and quality: Leonard's admirers include British novelist Martin Amis, who calls Leonard "a literary genius," many book critics, and virtually every film producer in Hollywood. The movie rights have been sold for more than 30 of his books.
Leonard has been compared to the legendary Raymond Chandler - but bristles at that. "For one, I don't do private eyes," he says. "For another, I don't do good-guy/bad-guy stories. My people are more ambivalent than that." Leonard's private life is downright suburban. He lives in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., outside Detroit, with three of his five now grown-up children living in houses less than two kilometres away. He seldom reads other contemporary authors, enjoys gardening and describes his favourite pastime as watching television - "usually documentaries." Born in New Orleans but largely raised in Detroit, he was a sailor in the Second World War, studied English at the University of Detroit after the war, and became an advertising copywriter in the city. He published his first short story, a western, in 1951, and wrote five novels over the next decade before quitting advertising to write full time. Leonard switched to contemporary novels in 1968, and developed a cult following. With Glitz in 1985 - a tale of a wounded, recovering cop, and the revenge-driven psychopath killer that he sent to jail - he won his first big sales and rave reviews.
But before, and since, the world that Leonard sketches has remained unchanged - a place where moral ambiguity abounds, and sudden, shocking violence is never more than a flick of the page away. Be Cool, like Get Shorty, skewers the pretensions of the entertainment industry. It opens with Chili Palmer having lunch with a charming hood named Tommy Athens. When Palmer goes to the restroom and re-emerges, a gunman appears and blows Athens away. With that, the action - punctuated with the rapid-fire dialogue that characterizes Leonard's books - begins.
Almost everyone who liked Get Shorty will enjoy Be Cool. One reason is arguably the book's biggest flaw: the plot, pacing and characters in Be Cool are highly reminiscent of Get Shorty. The first book revolved around Palmer's efforts to make it in the movie industry; in Be Cool, he takes on the music business. The lead female character in Get Shorty was a talented, down-on-her-luck actor; Be Cool has a talented, undiscovered singer. The first book featured Chili doing battle with a fast-talking black hustler, accompanied by his hulking bodyguard, who is trying to break into show business. In Be Cool, there is a black hustler named Raji with the same ambition, and his hulking bodyguard, a Samoan named Elliot. Despite that, Leonard says, with a slight sigh of impatience: "I don't see any real similarities in the characters."
But Be Cool has other qualities that fans have come to admire in Leonard's work. That includes taut prose, a racing pace, the sharpest ear for dialogue in modern literature and some of the most finely drawn characters. Although Leonard's characters typically feature a disparate mix of white trash interspersed with Hispanics and blacks, he never uses a gimmick like phonetic spelling to mark their speech patterns. Consider this sentence from a black convict in Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full: "Da whole pod, brah-dah whole pod, dey wen spahk dat beeg moke sit down wi' one new fish, you brah." That describes how others in the penitentiary greet a new prisoner. In contrast, Leonard has the hustler Raji say: "That's why Chili Palmer was asking Nicky did he know where Joe Loop was. What he was saying was, he knows." Leonard's readers never need an interpreter to understand the characters.
Leonard considers atmosphere and the personality of his characters crucial, and rewrites any sentence that sounds unnatural when he speaks it out loud. For realism, he interviews everyone from beat cops and bail bondsmen to prison guards and convicted killers on Death Row. Almost all his characters have memorable names, including Teddy Magyk (a killer in Glitz), Ray Barbonia aka Ray Bones (a gangster in Get Shorty), and Joseph LaBrava (a former Secret Service agent-turned-photographer in LaBrava). Once he decides on a name, Leonard says, "that tells me who the person is." He carries a notebook to scribble down slang and tics of speech that catch his ear. The results ring true - even to real wise guys. Leonard says that his real-life model for Chili Palmer, who he does not name, hears from his old Brooklyn hoodlum friends, "who tell him they love my books for their authenticity."
Leonard's books are published in more than 30 languages, and he often receives fan mail from such places as England and Germany. "I wish," says Leonard, "that I spoke another language just to figure out what my characters sound like in translation. I find that idea startling." No more so, surely, than readers find the speed with which his characters appear, disappear and change moods. In Be Cool, a character who seems funny and harmless suddenly turns into a remorseless killer, battering someone to death. In other books, likable sidekicks are dispatched not as a plot device, but because "in real life, bad stuff just happens."
That may be, but the bad stuff in Leonard's life seems behind him. Once a heavy drinker, he quit cold turkey in 1977, and now makes do with dealcoholized beer. His first marriage, which produced all of his children, ended after 27 years in 1977. His second wife, Joan, died of cancer in 1993, but several months later, he met his present wife, Christine, when she showed up at his door as head of a lawn-grooming crew.
Professionally, the undeclared war between Leonard and Hollywood is over. For years, the film industry made bad, cheaply produced movies of his books, but that has changed: Get Shorty, Out of Sight (starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez) and Jackie Brown (directed by Quentin Tarantino) are big-budget, critically praised pictures that Leonard likes. Whenever Be Cool becomes a movie, Leonard wants Travolta to play the part again. When someone suggests that the Chili Palmer books are wicked satires of the entertainment industry, Leonard looks briefly surprised and indignant. "I write things as they are," he says. "You'd have to be crazy to waste time making that whole scene look sillier." And besides, in Leonard's menacing, unpredictable works, buffoonery and brutality often live, as in real life, within the same people.
The Code Of Cool
Elmore Leonard lives by precise writing rules - some of which fly in the face of custom. Several of his maxims:
Never use adverbs. "They're unnecessary over-writing, and they slow the story."
Don't write long descriptions. "They get in the way of the action."
Don't say much about the lead character's background or appearance. "People want a story through the lead's eyes, not a lot of analysis and thoughts."
Don't always supply happy endings. "Real life isn't that tidy."
Maclean's March 29, 1999