The previous part of this article ran last week. If you missed it, you can check it out here.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to get asked to write an article
about Elmore Leonard. He was being honored for a lifetime achievement
award (the WWA Wister Award), and Roundup needed a reflection of his life and career for the awards issue. I happily obliged.
Elmore Leonard -- Part 2
by Larry D. Sweazy
Married and in the process of starting a family that would bring five children in to the fold, Leonard began to submit short stories to the magazines of the times in earnest.
“There were a dozen different pulps for the westerns, and the slick magazines ran serials, too, like Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post. I decided this was a good market, and I liked westerns a lot, so I didn’t see anything wrong with making as much money as I could.”
The third story Leonard sent out sold to Argosy magazine. The story, “Trail of the Apache”, appeared in the December, 1951 issue, and was the start of Elmore Leonard’s professional writing career.
A literary agent, Marguerite Harper, contacted him shortly after the publication of “Trail of the Apache”, and he signed with her. Her immediate advice: “Don’t write any stories set on the border.” Leonard ignored her advice. “I wanted to write about the border because that’s where all the action was. Once you figured out how to write the Mexican’s speaking, hint at the language, it was a great setting.”
He quickly followed up on his success with Argosy, and published six short stories in 1952 to the magazines, Dime Western Magazine, 10 Story Western Magazine, and Zane Grey’s Western Magazine.
“I loved writing westerns. Writing them was a great way to learn to write. They had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And with short stories, you’re putting your words down on paper, you’re making pictures. You have to develop a style.”
Leonard often refers to his style as his “sound”, a skill he built upon in the early days of his writing westerns, and would be later come to be called “The Dickens of Detroit”, and considered a master of writing dialogue.
The Bounty Hunters, Leonard’s first novel, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1953. In The Bounty Hunters, the Arizona Department Adjutant sends two men to find an Apache renegade, Soldado Viejo, who is hiding out in Mexico. One of the men, Dave Flynn, is experienced and wise to the ways of his prey, while the other man, a lieutenant named R. D. Bowers, is green behind the ears. The two run into all sorts of trouble at the border and across it, and Leonard obviously chose not to heed his agent’s advice with his first novel concerning the border setting.
One of the sources of Leonard’s early research was the magazine, Arizona Highways. Each issue was devoted to specific topics such as winter bird visitors, horses, or the seasons of wildflowers. Scenic photography graced the pages of the slick magazine, bringing a clear picture of the West to a young Leonard who was now living in the Detroit suburbs.
He quickly followed up his sale of The Bounty Hunters with more western novels, The Law at Randado, Escape from Five Shadows, Last Stand at Sabre River, and Hombre.
Leonard also continued to write short stories as well, and Hollywood soon came calling. The short story, “Moment of Vengence” originally published in The Saturday Evening Post, was turned into a screenplay, and was aired on the CBS television show, Schlitz Playhouse of the Stars, on September 28, 1956. The episode starred Ward Bond and Gene Nelson.
In the March 1953 issue, Dime Western Magazine published “Three Ten to Yuma,” a short story about a down-on-his-luck rancher who escorts an outlaw to the prison train. “Three Ten to Yuma” was made into the movie, 3:10 To Yuma, in 1957 starring Glenn Ford as the outlaw, Ben Wade, and Van Heflin as Dan Evans, the rancher. The movie was directed by Delmer Daves, and Halsted Welles wrote the screenplay, who had also been a screen writer for Schlitz Playhouse of the Stars, a few years before.
1957 also saw another movie made from one of Leonard’s short stories. “The Captives” appeared in the 1955 February issue of Argosy, and was renamed for the silver screen as The Tall T.
The Tall T was released by Columbia Pictures. The screenplay was adapted by Burt Kennedy (who was born in Michigan), and starred Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, and Maureen O’Sullivan. The movie was directed by Budd Boetticher. The plot featured another down-on-his-luck cowboy. This time around, a cowhand falls for a married woman while they are being held hostage.
In both cases, concerning 3:10 To Yuma and The Tall T, Leonard was excited to see his stories on the movie screen, but “saw how easily Hollywood could screw up a simple story.”
3:10 To Yuma was re-made in 2007 with Russell Crowe as Ben Wade and Christian Bale as Dan Evans. Halsted Welles, Michael Brandt, and Derek Hass are credited as screen writers, and the re-make was directed by James Mangold.
David Denby a film critic for The New Yorker, wrote that the remake, “is faster, more cynical, and more brutal” than the original starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin.
The Christian Science Monitor also reviewed the 2007 film. Peter Rainer wrote “what Alfred Hitchcock once said about thrillers also applies to Westerns: The stronger the bad guy, the better the film. By that measure, 3:10 to Yuma is excellent.”
Roger Ebert said of the remake, “James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma restores the wounded heart of the Western and rescues it from the morass of pointless violence. The Western in its glory days was often a morality play, a story about humanist values penetrating the lawless anarchy of the frontier.”
Of both films, 3:10 to Yuma, Leonard says, “In the first version they added about twenty minutes to the front end, to show the robbery and all. Otherwise, it was the story right up to the ending. Glenn Ford was the star, and he had to renounce being an outlaw in the end—so the audience would like him. The endings to both versions made no sense at all to me. I just had the good guy throw the bad guy on the train.”
In the early 1960s, westerns on television were gaining in popularity, and the fiction market was drying up, so in 1961, Leonard quit working for Campbell-Ewald Advertising to write full time.
He did a little freelance advertising, staying as far away from car ads as possible. He says writing the Chevrolet ads for Campbell-Ewald, “Drove him crazy, because you had to write real cute then. I could write truck ads, but I couldn’t write convertible ads at all, so I got out of that.”
He also began writing scripts for industrial movies during this period in order to make a living and care for his family. He made movies about air pollution, geography, and history, mostly for Encyclopedia Britannica. “I made about a dozen or so of those movies. They were about twenty-seven minutes long, about the Danube, settling the Mississippi Valley, the French and Indian War, Puerto Rico, and others. The experience with the industrial movies helped when I went to Hollywood and did some screen writing, but I didn’t like that much. There were too many meetings, and not enough writing. You could spend all day talking about back story, and I didn’t think the back story needed to be in the movie. Stick to the story.”
He published Hombre in 1961, which would prove to be a breakthrough for Leonard once the movie was made in 1967 with Paul Newman in the lead. Hombre was written in 1959 and took two years to sell. His advance was about a quarter of what he was previously being paid, due to the tightening in the market. It was published by Ballantine Books as a paperback original. The cover price was thirty-five cents.
In Hombre, Leonard once again tells the story of the Apache. In this story, John Russell has been raised by the Apache, but is on his way to try and live his life as a white man. He is on a stagecoach, and once the other riders learn that Russell was raised by Apache, they want nothing to do with him—until outlaws rob them all and leave them to walk out of, or die in the desert. Then Russell becomes the passengers’ only hope.
The movie also starred Frederic March, Richard Boone, Diane Cilento,
Cameron Mitchell, Barbara Rush, and Martin Balsam. It was directed by Martin Ritt, and the screenplay was written by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.
The success of Hombre allowed Leonard to write full-time, and before switching almost exclusively to writing contemporary crime novels, he wrote Valdez is Coming in 1970, and Forty Lashes Less One in 1972.
After nearly twenty years of writing professionally, Leonard considers Valdez is Coming as his favorite western. He says, “I felt a difference in how I should write. I’d turned a corner. There were parts of the book that had nothing to with the plot, but was all about the character.”
The movie, Valdez is Coming, was made in 1971, and starred Burt Lancaster, Susan Clark, and Jon Cypher, and was considered one of the best contemporary westerns of the time.
At 84, Elmore Leonard is still writing, still striving at being a better writer. When asked what his advice to writers just starting out, he said, “Find somebody you like, and copy them, like I did with Hemingway. After a while you have to quit that, and find your own sound.” His greatest advice may be found in Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules for Writing, an 89 page guide, published by William Morrow & Company in 2007. In this short writing manual, Leonard touches on everything from starting a story with the weather, how he feels about prologues, and the use of regional dialects. It is a practical guide that is applicable to westerns, mysteries, or any form of good storytelling.
Of his writing habits, Leonard says, “I write every day when I’m writing a novel. Some weekends, a few hours every day. I want to stay with the story. If I miss a day or two , it’s difficult to get the rhythm of it. I’m lucky to get four clean pages a day. They’re clean until the next day. I don’t look at this as work. It’s not a test of any kind, any kind of proof of what I can do. I have a good time.”
He prefers to write in third person as opposed to first person. “I don’t want to be stuck with one character’s viewpoint because there are too many viewpoints. And, of course, the bad guys’ viewpoints are a lot more fun.”
In 1982, Leonard published “The Tonto Woman” a western short story in Roundup--An anthology of Great Stories by the Western Writers of America, edited by Stephen Overholser.
The story revolves around a white woman who was kidnapped from her home by Apaches, then traded to Mojave Indians. She is found by her husband after 11 years, but he decides she is not fit to mix with society, so he keeps her in a shack in the desert. She is befriended by a Mexican, and she ultimately she learns has control over her own life.
“The Tonto Woman” was made into a short film in 2008. It was directed by Daniel Barber, and the screenplay was written by Joe Shrapnel. The film was nominated for an Oscar in the short film category, and is Elmore Leonard’s most recent western to grace the movie screen.
Asked what keeps him going after over fifty years of writing professionally, Leonard says, “It’s [writing] the most satisfying thing I can imagine doing, and I’m still trying to make it better.”
His crime novels have defined an era. Works in crime fiction, such as Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, and Out of Sight, have made Elmore Leonard a household name. But his westerns are the foundation of an amazing career. They have helped shape a generation and preserve a genre. That is a legacy any writer could be proud of.
Copyright by Larry D. Sweazy, no part of this article can be used without permission of the author.