Tuesday, October 30, 2007

What Say You, Mr. Leonard?

In association with The Rap Sheet’s contest to win a free, signed and numbered copy of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, publisher HarperCollins gave yours truly the opportunity to address some brief questions to author Leonard. I e-mailed my queries to HarperCollins assistant publicist James Houston late last week, and received Leonard’s responses--typewritten, on two sheets of paper--yesterday via fax, as the octogenarian novelist doesn’t use a computer.

I’ve woven those two communications together here as an interview:

J. Kingston Pierce: I’m curious. You say you wrote up these 10 rules for Bouchercon a few years back. But in order to come up with 10, I suspect you actually came up with more. So, which other rules didn’t make the cut?

Elmore Leonard: I wrote the rules originally in Denver, there as the Bouchercon 2000 guest of honor, and presented them tongue-in-cheek. But I’ve learned to swear by them. One of the rules on the original list was: Never use a colon or semicolon in lines of dialogue; they don’t look right. Another one, Don’t ever write to a critic or show your manuscript to anyone who isn’t in the publishing business until you’re satisfied with it. ...

JKP: As one your “rules,” you say writers should avoid giving detailed descriptions of characters and places. But there can be great satisfaction in composing a thoughtful, semi-poetic word picture of a locale or player in fiction. Shouldn’t there be a balance struck between what the reader wants and what the writer needs in order to feel satisfied with the quality of the completed work?

EL: I say in the opening paragraph [of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing], “If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you ...” go ahead, skip the rules.

JKP: Are you really arguing against the length or concentration of descriptions, rather than their punchiness? If one can describe a character over the course of a book through a series of telling details, is it then wrong to have more fully described that person?

EL: The length, the style, have nothing to do with it. Descriptions by writers trying to write can be tedious. The reader can already have a picture of the character and the writer’s description ruins it.

JKP: I was surprised, in looking back over your 10 rules (at least as they were presented in The New York Times), not to find you counseling writers against referring too often to a thesaurus. What’s your thinking on writing from one’s own natural vocabulary? And might there be value in reaching for a thesaurus now, if only to avoid close-set word repetitions?

EL: My books are written in scenes from the point of view of a person in the book, with some variety in the points of view to hear different sounds or voices. I avoid close-set word repetition without using a thesaurus.

JKP: An adjunct to that last question: If you have a large vocabulary, should you falsely limit yourself to using words you think everyone else will understand without looking them up, or should you feel free to write from knowledge but without pretension?

EL: Writers don’t want to sound pretentious, but some can’t avoid it. See what I say in the rule banning prologues, quoting one of [John] Steinbeck’s characters.

JKP: I agree with your admonition against using exclamation points. But how do you feel about punctuation of other sorts? Commas, for instance. People nowadays try to limit their use of commas, many times because they don’t really know how and when to use them in the first place. And how about hyphens? There’s been lots of talk lately about people expunging hyphens, again because they were adequately trained in using them, and also because adding a hyphen demands an extra keystroke on the computer. It seems to me that all sorts of punctuation marks are losing ground in the English language, because people would rather not use them than reveal they don’t know how to use them. Do you see that?

EL: My punctuation is consistent. A comma indicates a pause; a dash, something follows that relates, or might be an aside.

JKP: What about the adage, “Rules were made to be broken”? Are your rules for writing made to be broken by people who can do it well?

EL: Again, my opening paragraph. I’m not dumbing down writing, I’m saying let’s try not using so many words. It’s harder.

JKP: You’ve said that it takes you longer to write nowadays. Is that simply because you’re older, or is it because you’re more demanding of your own work now than you used to be?

EL: Both. I still have the desire, but it gets more difficult trying not to repeat myself, keeping it fresh.

JKP: Has your self-definition as a writer changed over the years, in terms of what you think you can and cannot accomplish? And what would still be a challenge for you to do as a writer?

EL: I’ve known for 50 years what I can do and what I can’t. Still, I experiment in ways to write a scene, fooling around with points of view, and the way words appear on the page, say, to give a word prominence without lighting it up.

JKP: If you could have written any one or two books that don’t already appear under your name, which would they be?

EL: [George V. Higgins’] The Friends of Eddie Coyle and the book that started me reading, All Quiet on the Western Front [by Erich Maria Remarque].

JKP: Certainly, there must be other authors working today whose work you admire and would recommend. Can you name a few?

EL: Pete Dexter, Ron Hansen, Russell Banks, Richard Price, Jim Harrison, Margaret Atwood, Annie Proulx. Yes, and Cormac McCarthy.

* * *

Curiously, Leonard either deliberately or inadvertently failed to respond to my 12th and final question, which read:
I have a fond memory to share with you. In 1981, I was just out of college and working at an alternative paper in Portland, Oregon. I sent you a letter, because I was going to write a feature piece about what noteworthy crime writers were reading themselves. You were kind enough to answer, and you also sent me a paperback copy of Gold Coast, with an accompanying note that said something on the order of “I hope you like this book, too bad there aren’t more people reading my work.” I laugh occasionally in thinking back to that note, and how far you’ve come since. Are you amazed, too, to see yourself at age 82, being idolized by all these younger wordsmiths?
Conducting an interview through a third party, as I did this one via HarperCollins, didn’t allow me (at least, not before my deadline) the opportunity to follow up on this or any of the previous questions I put to Elmore Leonard. But I’d still love to hear how the “Dickens of Detroit” would respond to that last query.

(Photo of Elmore Leonard by Dermot Cleary.)

READ MORE:Kurt Vonnegut’s Rules for Writing a Novel,” by Jude Hardin (Crimespace).

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