Tuesday, March 12, 2013

If It's Tuesday, It's Justified: Elmore Leonard article

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.

JUSTIFIED was starting off, but by then, Leonard had had a long career. Talking with him for this article has been one of the great pleasures of my own writing career.

So, for a little insight into Elmore Leonard, the creator of Raylan Givens, here's the first part of that article--I'll run the other half next Tuesday.

Elmore Leonard -- By Larry D. Sweazy

Born in New Orleans in 1925, Elmore “Dutch” Leonard, learned to travel early on. His father was a site locator for General Motors, and the family moved about from Dallas, Oklahoma City, Memphis, and back and forth to Detroit, before settling permanently in Detroit, in 1934.

The times were ripe for a boy with an active imagination. Bonnie and Clyde were on the loose in Texas. Western serials, with William Boyd starring as Hopalong Cassidy, were showing weekly at the local movie palace. And the Detroit Tigers won the World Series in the autumn of the same year the Leonard family arrived in Michigan.

The desire to write fiction came early on to Elmore Leonard. “I wrote a play in the 5th grade, and it was based on All Quiet on the Western Front. I just made up a scene that could take place in the classroom. I got to decide who were the Germans and who were the Americans.”

But the real work, the real desire to write, needed a spark…a spark that would have to wait until after he graduated from the University of Detroit Jesuit High School in 1943. “I wrote just what I needed to in high school, compositions and things like that,” Leonard says of his high school days.

The nickname, “Dutch” also came out of his high school years. “I needed a nickname and for some reason out of the blue, the guy sitting next to me said, ‘Let's call you Dutch Leonard,’ because there was this knuckle-baller named Dutch Leonard still pitching with the Washington Senators. He was in his 40s, and that was the name I got. Almost overnight, I was Dutch, throughout the school.”

After graduating high school, World War II was raging, and Leonard enlisted in the United States Navy. He served for three years with the Seebees, the construction battalion of the Navy, in the South Pacific. “I didn’t write at all in the Navy.”

The writing spark turned into a flame, then a full fledged fire, when Leonard enrolled at the University of Detroit, a member of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, after returning home from the Navy.

It was at the university that Leonard began to write short stories—mainly at the prompting of an English professor who said, “If you enter a writing contest, I’ll give you a B.” The contest was sponsored by a local writers’ club at the university. He submitted to the contest, but did not win.

“The commercial approach toward writing is something that has always inspired me,” Leonard says about writing for compensation, grades or otherwise, that took hold in college. “Another break came when a professor told me if I wrote short stories and turned them in to him, I didn’t have to show up for class, just go into his office once a week and talk about what I wrote.”

Before graduating from the University of Detroit, Leonard went to work for the Campbell-Ewald Advertising agency as copywriter in 1949, and wrote fiction in his off time. He graduated from the University of Detroit in 1950 with a degree in English and Philosophy.

Among his early influences, Leonard says “Mickey Spillane was starting to catch on in the late 40s. I liked him a lot, and thought he could really write. I read a lot of different writers, and Hemingway was one of my favorites. I copied him. Typed him right out of the book word for word, but I quit doing that once I figured out Hemingway didn’t have much of a sense of humor.”

Leonard’s inclusion of humor in his westerns would be one of the ingredients that would make his writing stand out in the early 1950s. Leonard also discovered Richard Bissell, author of The Pajama Game and Say,Darling. “In his books, nobody was trying to be funny,” Leonard says about Bissell, “but they were all funny because of the way they talked.”

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.

The rest of this article will run next week.

  Copyright by Larry D. Sweazy, no part of this article can be used without permission of the author.

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