Let Your Characters Do the Talking
Photo © Joe Worthem
Elmore “Dutch” Leonard died cool. There’s a certain kind of magic in a man who came of age during the Great Depression and refused to become dated, repetitive, or, worst of all, soft. Not only was he one of the best crime writers of all time, he was—no matter the year—the hippest.
When Elmore died two years ago at age 87, he was still going strong, with his hit TV show Justified and a newly published collection of short stories featuring Raylan Givens. There was a new movie in production and new fans discovering his work. His final years were peppered with some terrific books: Cuba Libre, Tishomingo Blues, Mr. Paradise, and The Hot Kid. I love the golden era of Dutch, all those gritty Detroit crime novels. But there was really something special about The Hot Kid, a meditation on storytelling and a return to Dutch’s childhood, when criminals were folk heroes.
He never tried to recycle old ideas and he never phoned it in. One of his last books wasn’t about his tried-and-true urban crime but instead Somali pirates. I think by always challenging himself, he never really got old. Or acted old. He never stopped evolving. He mastered the Western, producing stories that became classic films, Three-Ten to Yuma and Hombre. Then he ventured into the modern, real grit of Detroit, with the classics Swag, The Switch, and City Primeval. And by the time he’d become synonymous with Detroit, he moved on and arguably created the modern Florida crime novel with awesome books like LaBrava and Gold Coast. After that it was on to Cuba during the Spanish-American War, the Mississippi Delta, and Rwanda.
I was fortunate enough to know Dutch. We corresponded for several years, and I spent time with him both in my hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, and at a noir festival in Frontignan, France. He was as cool in person as the characters from his books. I recall us arriving at a press event during the festival and French newspapers giving him the rock star treatment he deserved.
Like an aging gunfighter, he didn’t speak much, but observed everything around him. The first thing he did when sitting down for an interview was light a cigarette and slowly blow out the smoke. He later told me, “That’s when you see the flashbulbs popping.”
It was the image seen on newsstands across France the next day.
On the trip, he told me he’d read my third novel, and admitted, “It’s not bad, but a lot of it reads like writing.” As longtime Leonard fans know, one of his 10 Rules of Writing was “If It Sounds Like Writing, I Rewrite It.” To try and overwrite or be ornate with your language simply wasn’t cool to Dutch. You disappear as the author.
You hang back and let your characters talk. The author’s job is to listen, learn, and evolve.
And hopefully you’ll stay cool and never grow old.
Ace Atkins is the bestselling author of 17 novels, including the US Army ranger Quinn Colson series, the Nick Travers series, and the and Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series. A former newspaper reporter and SEC football player, Ace lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his family, where he’s friend to many dogs and several bartenders.
This “Writers on Reading” essay was originally published in “At the Scene” eNews May 2015 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.