Crime novelist 'surprised' by prestigious award
For a man who built his career on word economy, the title is pretty darned long — the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
Still, Elmore Leonard says he's thrilled to receive one of the literary world's highest honors.
The 86-year-old crime novelist will be presented with the medal in New York on Nov. 14, the same evening this year's National Book Awards are announced.
“I was very surprised. I didn't ever count on winning this kind of an award,” Leonard, with one of his trademark Virginia Slims between his fingers, said in an interview at his home in suburban Detroit. “I've won a lot of awards, but not like this one.”
He'll be introduced by British novelist Martin Amis and deliver remarks that organizers have requested he limit to 6 minutes.
Asked if he'd abide by that request, Leonard took a drag from his cigarette and said: “Oh yeah.”
In taking home the National Book Foundation's lifetime achievement award, Leonard joins a list of past recipients that includes Ray Bradbury, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, John Updike, Gore Vidal and Tom Wolfe.
“These names, these are all finished writers,” Leonard said. “They know what they're doing.”
And so does Leonard, says Amis, who remembers first reading him and being impressed by his “faultless ear.” He loves “Get Shorty” and “Be Cool,” among others, and says Leonard's books have “incredible dialogue” and “incredible structure.”
“You read page after page, and there's no sense of false quantities, in the sense of repetition,” Amis said, noting that Leonard transcends being labeled a crime writer, citing an old axiom: Literary writers covet sales and successful writers covet respect.
This award, Amis says, will help ensure Leonard has both.
Or as Leonard puts it, in his succinct style: “I think I'm a good writer. I don't see any objection to my being on this list.”
The National Book Foundation isn't the only organization honoring Leonard. The Library of America, which releases hardcover volumes of the country's greatest authors, from Herman Melville to Saul Bellow, has added Leonard to the pantheon. Four of his novels will be published in a bound edition in 2014, and additional volumes are planned.
Leonard, one of the few writers the library has honored while still living, has been recognized many times over by the general public.
Nearly half of Leonard's 45 novels have appeared on The New York Times' best-seller list, and he's hoping to add to that total with his 46th effort — working title: “Blue Dreams” — a tale that involves both a rogue Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent and bull riding. He's written several dozen pages so far.
Despite his advancing age and some recent personal upheaval — he's divorcing his wife of nearly 20 years — Leonard is pressing ahead and expects to have “Blue Dreams” finished “certainly by the end of the year.”
Sitting in his home office at a desk covered with papers, photographs and research materials, Leonard thumbed through the neatly stacked pages of “Blue Dreams,” yanked one out of the pile and began reading.
What came out of his mouth was unmistakable, vintage Leonard — a crisply written narrative with lines of deadpan dialogue uttered by morally ambiguous characters.
That verbal back-and-forth spoken by fictional people who sound real is what has made Leonard's writing so distinctive.
“People always say, ‘Where do you get (your characters') words?', and I say, ‘Can't you remember people talking or think up people talking in your head?' That's all it is. I don't know why that seems such a wonder to people,” he said.
It's also why his characters have spent so much time on both big and small screens over the years.
Leonard's novels and short stories have been turned into 20 feature films, nine TV movies and three series, including the current FX show “Justified,” which stars Timothy Olyphant as one of Leonard's signature characters, the cool-under-pressure U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens.
His all-time favorite adaptation is the 1997 Quentin Tarantino film “Jackie Brown,” which was based on the Leonard novel “Rum Punch.”
When Tarantino called to ask for guidance ahead of filming, Leonard remembered saying, “Do what you want. I like your work.”
Tarantino is one of many Hollywood heavyweights who bow down at the altar of Leonard.
George Clooney hung out at Leonard's place while filming the big-screen adaptation of “Out of Sight,” and members of Aerosmith — in town for a concert — also visited, taking a dip in Leonard's pool.
He'll be 87 in a few weeks. And while the slender, bespectacled man friends call “Dutch” is far removed from his days of riding along with Detroit homicide cops, he still writes every day in eight-hour shifts that are befitting his hometown's automotive legacy.
Leonard's father was a General Motors executive, and the future author penned advertising copy for Chevrolet as a younger man.
And Leonard follows the same writing protocols that have served him for decades.
He writes longhand on the 63-page unlined yellow pads that are custom-made for him, and when a page is completed, he transfers the words onto a separate piece of paper using a typewriter.
Leonard tries to complete a handful of pages by the time his workday ends at 6 p.m.
He may be on the cusp of becoming a lifetime achievement award winner, but Leonard has no intention of ending his life's work anytime soon.
“I probably won't quit until I just quit everything — quit my life — because it's all I know how to do,” he said. “And it's fun. I do have fun writing, and a long time ago, I told myself, ‘You gotta have fun at this, or it'll drive you nuts.' ”
Mike Householder is a staff writer for the Associated Press.
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