Elmore Leonard is the coolest man in America. He just turned 85, still smokes, likes Mad Men, thinks Stieg Larsson's books are boring, and couldn't care less about social networking. Ask him about e-books and you can't finish the question before he answers: don't know, don't care.
"I did two interviews last week, both of them started with a digital question. I said, ‘Wait. I write my books longhand.' Long pause. I think I cut out two-thirds of their questions."
Leonard's been writing longhand for 60 years. Before his writing earned enough to keep him and his wife afloat, he worked in advertising in Detroit, pulling down $125 a month until Truman increased the minimum wage in 1949, giving Leonard a $10 bump. So it wasn't quite like Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce for young Leonard, banging out copy for Chevrolet ads.
"I never saw people drink so much," he says of Mad Men. "I was in advertising at the end of that time, and we didn't walk around with drinks. We didn't even smoke that much. Those guys always have a cigarette going."
His 44th book, Djibouti, just landed in stores. It's trademark Leonard: all substance, no filler, funny, sometimes outrageous, and instantly knowable as a product of the imagination of a guy who's been called the best crime writer in America. He started with westerns, selling them to pulps that paid two cents a word or less. He caught a break with 3:10 to Yuma, a $90 story that Hollywood picked up for $4,500 in the late 1950s—but he ground it out for decades before hitting the New York Times bestseller list. Now Leonard's books live there; film rights are a hot commodity; and, even if you've never read Leonard, you've surely seen movies or TV shows based on his novels: Jackie Brown, Get Shorty, 3:10 to Yuma (twice), Out of Sight, and on and on. Leonard writes lean, fast, and dialogue-heavy—perfect for film.
The big departure for his new one is it's set in Djibouti, and the usual bank robbers, cops, and criminals are replaced by pirates and al-Qaeda operatives. The story follows a documentary filmmaker named Dara Barr (think: Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow; Leonard digs her work and sent her an early copy of the book), who is in Djibouti to shoot a documentary on pirates. Her work brings her into the orbit of thugs, opportunists, Feds, terrorists, and, of course, pirates, at least one of whom, Idris, is a smooth operator with cash to burn who keeps his mates stocked with shoes straight from London's tony Jermyn Street. And there's Xavier, Dara's 70-something right-hand man and, if Xavier had his way, paramour. The narrative is fast and lean, told without adverbs, and crackles with great lines. Here's Xavier watching Dara arrive in Djibouti:
By 8:30 the once-a-week Air France was in, the stairway wheeled up and a gang of Arabs and Dara Barr coming off, the Foreign Legion checking out the passengers, seeing could they tell a terrorist they saw one.
The British edition of the book has a cover line calling it a "western on water."
"It's great," Leonard says. "I wanted to use that."
And though the book's just out and he's still doing the press rounds for it, he's already deep into his next: the return of Raylan Givens, the U.S. marshal hero of Pronto and Riding the Rap, and the star of the FX series, Justified, entering its second season and executive produced by Leonard.
"They need real story lines to go with it, so I'm writing three," he says. "What they don't use I'm going to sell as a book."
He's got the series mostly figured out; it'll have three parts, one about organ trafficking, another about the controversial mining method known as mountaintop removal (it coincidentally also plays a big role in Jonathan Franzen's new novel; Leonard hasn't read it, but he did read The Corrections, which he liked except for a dull part in the middle), but the third one he's not sure yet. He's got a couple of ideas about a way to bring back another character—Dawn Navarro from Road Dogs and Riding the Rap. Leonard connoisseurs will recall that Dawn met Raylan in Riding the Rap, but they never got in the sack—Raylan wouldn't have it.
Raylan, like many of Leonard's creations, could almost be a real person, the way Leonard talks about him and his exploits. When Leonard gets to talking about his characters, he does it with such an affection and familiarity that you'd think he was telling you stories about some crazy stuff a guy he knows did.
"There are characters I particularly like," he says. "That's what happens—I get to wonder, what are they up to now? I know they're a little bit more mature. I don't know if that's the word. But they're older and they've been doing what they've been doing, and they'll be able to talk about it, talk about themselves."
Unlike most writers, Leonard has the luxury of being able to write without his publicist hounding him to start a blog. He's not on Twitter. He's not on Facebook. He doesn't own a computer. He doesn't have anything to do with his Web site; Gregg Sutter, his longtime research guy, does that. Leonard just writes longhand, and then he types it on an electric typewriter, as he's done since the 1950s—and his editor has the easiest job in publishing: when a typescript leaves Leonard's desk, the book is done.
"I'm trying not to repeat myself," he says. "And I'm 85 now. God, I should be just sitting in a sweater out in the back reading."
He's been so busy writing that he hasn't read much fiction lately—he rarely reads fiction while writing. And when he does read, he's a tough customer. He tried Stieg Larsson. "I put the book down, the first one. Got about halfway and nothing happened," Leonard says. "He's talking about the things he was doing before. It didn't interest me. But the bookstores, you go in there, it's all you see."
He did, however, like Martin Amis's new novel, The Pregnant Widow, a perhaps unlikely endorsement from a guy who thinks "most literary writing tends to be boring."
"I thought [The Pregnant Widow] was fascinating, and looking at it as someone who writes novels, what's the plot?" Leonard says. "He's a literary writer. He doesn't need a lot of plot. He just puts these people in a situation and then he talks about them."
There's a bookcase next to his desk, and a short stack of books on his desk. Among them, Jayne Anne Phillips's Lark and Termite, Mike Lupica's The Hero (Leonard dedicates Djibouti to him), Wilbert Rideau's In the Place of Justice (Leonard blurbed it), Josh Bazell's Beat the Reaper. Nell Irvin Painter's The History of White People. Some of these just show up at his house. Others he's read or plans on reading. Some he has no clue about. Next to the books is a cellphone, plugged into a charger block. He just got it.
"It's the first cellphone that's not just user friendly, but Elmore friendly," says Sutter.
It's one of those Jitterbug phones they advertise sometimes in the New York Times Book Review: it has large buttons. It can't text, and there's no GPS, no Internet browser, no e-mail, no camera. Stripped of all the stuff that gets in the way of it being a phone, it is simply that: a phone.
"They shouldn't call it the Jitterbug," Sutter says. "They should call it the Elmore Leonard phone."