Elmore Leonard's endlessly surprising characters are back in the movie theatres this summer, dancing nimbly through one of his cleverest stories, Out of Sight, with George Clooney as a fugitive bank robber and Jennifer Lopez as a federal marshal whose taste in boyfriends is at best eccentric. Though it may sound like a cold-blooded assembly of standard Hollywood elements (sexy, violent, suspenseful romantic comedy), nothing in Out of Sight feels like a formula. The reason is the mind from which this mad, enthralling novel sprang.
As always, Leonard expertly engineered the plot and shaped characters of fascinating perversity. Steven Soderbergh has directed what may well be the most Elmore-ish film ever drawn from one of his books. It catches Leonard's deadpan comedy, the farce produced inadvertently by people who are entirely in earnest. He once said of his criminal characters, "I just think of them as, for the most part, normal people who get up in the morning and wonder what they're going to have for breakfast, and they sneeze, and they wonder if they should call their mother, and then they rob a bank." Of course, they usually get caught, and then wonder what went wrong.
On this sort of material, Leonard has made an astonishing career. At the age of 73 he's reached a unique status: no other American crime writer has ever been so successful and so admired in his lifetime. Martin Amis mentioned recently in a public discussion that he had spotted several Leonard novels on the shelves of Saul Bellow's place in Boston. "Bellow and I agreed," Amis continued, "that for an absolutely reliable and unstinting infusion of narrative pleasure in a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities, there was no one quite like Elmore Leonard." Leonard has also become a one-man entertainment conglomerate. Of the 34 novels he's written, a dozen have been best-sellers and 29 have been made into movies or optioned. Next month, ABC starts a TV series based on Maximum Bob, his 1991 novel, with Beau Bridges as the malicious judge who gives everyone convicted in his court the longest jail term the law allows.
In Out of Sight, the reckless confidence of the Lopez character, Karen Sisco, has attracted everyone's notice. Leonard isn't famous for heroines but in earlier books you can see rough sketches for Karen emerging. His 1980 novel, City Primeval, has a smart, tough criminal lawyer, Carolyn Wilder, who keeps on her wall a famous remark by Charlotte Whitton, the mayor of Ottawa 40 years ago--"Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult." Then there's Kathy Diaz Baker in Maximum Bob, the tough, pretty, take-no-trash parole officer whose energy pushes the story along. Since writing Out of Sight, Leonard has gone further. When he astonished his admirers last winter with Cuba Libre, a historical novel that takes place in Cuba in 1898, he put Amelia Brown near the centre of the book. At the beginning she's simply a kept woman, but she has ideas of her own and a manic determination to carry them out.
Long-time Leonard fans love to watch him twist his characters till they become interesting and create the terrifying U-turns in plot that bring his narratives to life. He's a manipulator and a genre writer as well as an author of high talent. Considering his exalted position, he gives remarkably down-to-earth interviews about his career. He started out writing westerns, he says, because that's what the market wanted. Then, "The market dried up, and I had to switch to crime." Amis and Bellow may say there's no one like him (and they're right), but he's never claimed to be entirely original. "I learned by imitating Hemingway....until I realized that I didn't share his attitude about life. I didn't take myself or anything as seriously as he did."
All stories about authors involve breathtaking devotion to craft. Anthony Trollope getting up every morning to write for a few hours before going out to organize the British post office. Gustave Flaubert spending a whole morning just inserting a comma, then in the afternoon taking it out. Character is destiny: that's what the lives of writers tell us, the same sort of thing you'll often find inside their books.
In the 1950s Leonard worked in a Detroit advertising agency, writing ads for Chevrolet. That drove him crazy, he's said, "Because you had to write real cute then. I had a lot of trouble with that. I could do truck ads, but I couldn't do convertibles at all." He began getting up at five a.m. to write fiction for two hours before going to the office. "I wrote most of five books that way. I had one rule: I had to start writing before I put the water on for coffee. And I couldn't pick up a magazine. If I hadn't done that, we wouldn't be talking."
There's something sweetly obsessive (and altogether admirable) about that story, the man denying himself coffee till he got some work done. I find even more charming the simple but hugely ambitious rule of writing that he claims he's lived by: "I try to leave out the parts that people skip."