Leonard doesn't fear his father's shadow
Whenever he's writing, novelist Peter Leonard says his father's looking over his shoulder.
It's the truth.
Hanging on the wall of his home office is a portrait of the late Elmore (Dutch) Leonard taken by renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz. Sometimes called the “Dickens of Detroit,” the elder Leonard penned nearly 50 novels; many were adapted for movies and television, including FX's Emmy-winning “Justified.” He died last year at age 87.
“I hear him saying, ‘If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.' If I see myself writing something that goes on too long or isn't interesting enough, I'll hear him say, ‘Leave out the parts readers tend to skip. ... (Readers) want the story to keep moving,' ” says Peter Leonard, 62.
Leonard lives in Birmingham, Mich., with Julie, his wife of 33 years, and has four children. His latest novel, “Eyes Closed Tight,” arrived in stores last week — his first release since his father died.
“It took a while to get back into the swing of things after he died. I was distracted. But now I'm back in business,” he says. “I don't think about him while I'm working. It doesn't affect what I'm doing ... my ability to concentrate. I gain inspiration looking at his photo.”
He says he treats writing “like a business — that's what it is. I write all day in a paneled den just like my father (did),” Leonard says. “I used to watch him and think, ‘Boy, does that look difficult.' Now that I do what he did all those years, I see why he did it — it's so much fun, it's so satisfying, it's so enjoyable. I can't imagine doing anything I'd like better.”
Leonard knows he's living in his father's long shadow — something he embraces. He also knows he'd be foolish not to.
“He's considered the greatest crime-fiction writer of all time by critics,” Leonard says. “He had a great sense of humor and was a very funny man. He'd see humor in many situations that weren't funny. You could read his books and see that — humor in crime. That's what made him so distinctively different than many others.”
Peter Leonard is the second of five children Elmore had with his first wife, Beverly Decker. For 30 years, he co-owned an advertising agency, Leonard Mayer & Tocco, Inc.
“I was content, and Elmore became very famous along the way,” Leonard explains. He didn't want to do what his father did because his father was so good at it. He thought it wouldn't be smart to write fiction and be compared to him. “Then I decided, ‘What the heck?' I wanted to do it, and I'm gonna do it.”
This epiphany came nearly a decade ago, after he pitched an ad campaign to Volkswagen, and the manager flung his storyboard across the conference room.
“He (bought) the campaign, but I was frustrated. I went to visit Elmore. I was wearing a coat and tie; he was wearing Birkenstocks, jeans and a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt. He had a bounce in his step. He really loved what he was doing,” Leonard recalls. “He picked up a scene he'd been writing and read it to me. I thought, ‘This guy loves what he's doing,' and I really didn't. I started writing (several) months later.”
The result was 2009's “Quiver,” his first novel. Peter left the advertising business in 2009 to pursue writing full time and hasn't looked back.
“I read Peter's first book and knew he had it in the blood. The same crisp characters and dialogue I knew from another Detroit writer with the same last name. Like many of us, he had a great teacher,” said New York Times best-selling novelist Michael Connelly.
“Eyes Closed Tight” is Leonard's sixth novel. He brings back O'Clair from his second novel, “Trust Me.” A retired Detroit homicide detective, O'Clair moved to Florida and bought a hotel. When a girl is found dead, it's hauntingly similar to a case he solved six years earlier.
“In the opening scene, (O'Clair) sees that one of the lounge chairs is missing, looks down at the beach and sees it there. He walks down and sees this pretty young girl asleep on the lounge chair,” Leonard says. “He touches her arm and knows right away she's dead — her skin's cold and her body's starting to rigor. That begins this novel.”
Most of the novel occurs in Detroit during the winter.
“With the white snow and the white sky, all you see is this monochromatic world we live in several months a year,” Leonard says. “The grittiness of Detroit against this white background is pretty effective.”
Currently, he's finishing his seventh novel — “Unknown Remains,” due next year — in which two loan sharks collect from a broker at the World Trade Center on 9/11. Leonard didn't outline “Unknown Remains”; he just let the characters tell the story, something his father did.
“I didn't know what the story was about and just sat down every day and tried to advance the novel. It was tricky. It was way more challenging. I don't know if I'll do that again,” he confesses.
He's researching a novel starring Elmore's Raylan Givens, portrayed by Timothy Olyphant on “Justified.”
“I'm going to write a couple chapters and see how I feel about (Raylan),” he says. “If Raylan doesn't work for me, I'll just change his name and make him my own U.S. marshal.”
Like his father, Leonard writes longhand. But unlike him, he uses a computer, too.
“I feel it connects me to what I'm doing; it connects me to the story. I may write a chapter longhand, then transpose it to the computer,” he says. “I was so fortunate to have a dad who happened to be a famous writer that I could talk to several nights a week about writing. It almost seems unfair, but that's the way it was.”
Kurt Anthony Krug is a staff writer for the Detroit Free Press.
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