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Many of Elmore Leonard's stories have been adapted for the screen, from the movie Get Shorty to the TV show, Justified.
Vince Bucci/Getty Images
Elmore Leonard was a
writer who hated — and I don't mean disliked; Elmore had a contempt for
putting pretty clothes on hard, direct words, so I mean hated —
literature, or at least what he believed a lot of people mean when they
say liter-a-ture, as if it were a Members Only club.
Elmore Leonard wrote for
a living, from the time in his 20s when he turned out ads for Detroit
department stores and vacuum cleaners during the day, and wrote cowboy
and crime stories for pulp magazines at night.
died on Tuesday, at the age of 87, after a career in which he wrote
over 40 novels with vivid characters speaking spare, funny, flinty
"I think of them as
normal people," he said of the quotable criminals he put into his
stories. "The guy who's going to rob a bank gets up in the morning and
thinks, 'What am I going to have for breakfast? What am I going to wear
I interviewed Elmore at a
Tucson book festival in 2010. Just before going onstage we thumbed
through a program listing all the esteemed authors, of which he was
easily the best-known and, he told me, the one who had won no
prestigious fellowships and few awards.
"Most of these writers don't write for a living," he said. "They write for tenure. Or for the New York Times.
Or to get invited to conferences like this. When you write to make the
rent or send your kids to school, you learn how to write without a lot
he repeated something like that onstage, the room rocked with laughter
and applause. In his 80s, Elmore had become the kind of star who could
tweak his hosts and be loved for it.
he seemed only amused by the critical accolades that came late in life.
"If you get old enough," he said, "even critics begin to think you must
be doing something right."
Elmore Leonard began to write for a living, there didn't seem to be
such a big, fat line between literature and entertainment. People read
for fun, to learn, to be transported by the pleasure of words, plots,
places and the companionship of characters.
If you look at the
fiction bestseller lists of 1950, you see Hemingway, Robert Penn Warren,
Tennessee Williams, John Hersey, Nevil Shute, Alberto Moravia, AJ
Cronin — authors who are still read and enjoyed. Take a look at this
week's list and ask yourself: how many of those books and authors will
still be read decades from now?
Elmore Leonard may not have liked literature much, but he loved writing. As one of his characters says in his 2012 novel, Raylan, if " you don't have a good time doin' crime, you may as well find a job."