Q&A With Novelist Elmore Leonard

Advice from a master at page turners: Keep it simple.


In the kind of fiction you write, you can invent dialogue that tells your story. Do your rules apply to nonfiction?

When Pete Hamill saw my rules, he said they should be posted in every newsroom in the country. What kind of nonfiction do you read today where you feel the writing is pretty good?

I read Time and Newsweek, the New Yorker, that big one... Vanity Fair. The writing is good. Time used to piss me off a little bit, they seem so righteous sometimes. Tom Wolfe is very good. Gay Talese, this guy is fun to read. He tells what he sees. He can write a story about a film star or comedian, and it doesn't matter how long the guy gives him because he also writes about waiting to talk to the guy, and the things he saw and heard, and it's really interesting.

What do you find most pleasing, or most rewarding, about good writing?

Most pleasing...well, it might be the way a writer expresses himself. Thomas Lynch—he writes about Ireland every once in a while. His constructions are different. There was another guy, a writer I discovered in the 1950s. Richard Bissell. He had a very rational style. His books were mostly set on a river. Bissell was a boat pilot, and his characters worked on barges going through the tricky parts of the river. He also wrote 7½ Cents, which became the musical The Pajama Game. Then he got tired of writing fiction and that was it. The Internet gives more people a forum for writing, a place for expressing themselves. Does this seem meaningful to you?

It sounds like a lot of people wasting time, to me. So many people say, "I'm dying to write." Well, if you're dying to write, why aren't you writing? If you're not writing, you're not dying to do it enough. Writing to me is such a pleasure. It's hard, but it's so satisfying. You said you like to write letters. Do you get many letters in return?

I get a lot of letters, a lot of fan mail, and a lot of them sound alike. "You're my favorite writer, I've read all of your books," even though I know most of them haven't read all of my books, maybe they've read a few but not all. But if there's a question, I'll always answer their question, or write a letter to turn down people who ask for blurbs for their own books. One guy I turned down, I read the first page of his book and it was awful, so I told him I didn't have time to do much reading, and he wrote back, saying, "I would have thought that a letter from a professional writer like you would have been more artfully crafted." Artfully crafted. I loved that. I said, if you're writing a contract, that's when you worry about artfully crafting your words. Do you have a list of books, maybe some classics, that you've never read but you really want to some day?

There's a new translation of War and Peace—two of them, actually—and I may read one of those. I first read War and Peace when I was 17 or 18, and I liked it. But I've started Crime and Punishment twice and never gotten past page 50. There are just too many words. Think you'll give it a third try?

No. I'm not going to try that one again. What else?

I'm curious about some American writers. Hawthorne. Whitman. But I probably won't get to them. What about Twain?

I've read enough of him. I always liked him. Also Red Badge of Courage. Although writing then was so obviously written. I remember reading that book, and looking for obscenities. There were none. I always wondered, when did obscenities become a normal part of everyday speech? Did you ever figure that out?

Never did, really.