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Shorty Out West 

Leonard began as a successful oater novelist

Elmore Leonard has a well-known disdain for what John Steinbeck once termed "hooptedoodle" -- flowery words and phrases and other superfluous material -- so it comes as little surprise that his interviews are terse affairs.Leonard, 79, was born in New Orleans and bounced around through Oklahoma, Texas and Tennessee before settling at age 9 in Detroit, where he still lives. During a recent telephone interview from his Michigan home, the legendary crime novelist was asked about his childhood.

"I was born in New Orleans," he said. "Moved when I was about 2." Does he remember the city at all? "We used to go back every summer in the 1930s, so, yeah, I remember New Orleans." End of answer.

None of which is to say Leonard is rude or haughty or uninviting. Just concise. Like the sentences in his books. He speaks in flat Midwestern tones. He offers up dry wit in small doses. Over the course of a 25-minute conversation.

Such economy and efficiency run through every aspect of Leonard's career. He doesn't work the Manhattan literary lunch scene, nor does he take many meetings in Hollywood (this despite a steady stream of movie-rights sales dating to the mid-1950s).

Instead, he stays home -- suburban Detroit and a place in South Florida -- and cranks out five or six pages of pitch-perfect prose a day. Since the former advertising copywriter began writing short stories in 1951, he's produced 41 books and a dozen or so screenplays that have won him recognition as a master of crime fiction.

Currently, though, Leonard's early writing years take center stage. His Western stories, published by long-dead pulp weeklies and monthlies such as Western Story and Dime Western Magazine, have been collected in one volume for the first time. While many of the stories conform to the Western canon (relentless heat, senseless violence, distrust between Indians and whites), they offer ample plot twists and derivations, cinematic storytelling and the author's trademark sharp dialogue.

Other than brief family migrations to Oklahoma and Texas during his boyhood, Leonard never spent any time in the American West chronicled in his short stories. He wasn't even much enamored with cowboys-and-Indians lore beyond a weakness for Hollywood oaters filled with gunfights and Monument Valley vistas.

But Leonard did see an opportunity to learn storytelling and make money at the same time, which convinced him to tackle Westerns.

"I wanted to make some money at it while I was learning to write," he said. "It takes 10 years to find your (writing) voice. If you can be selling while you do that, it's all the better."

He began by reading books about Arizona in the late-1800s. For scenery and setting, Leonard subscribed to Arizona Highways, combing the magazine's lavish pictures and captions for local color.

"It told you what that cactus was called that was crawling up the side of the canyon. Otherwise I could be out there and not know a thing about it. That was the beauty of it."

Thus his Westerns offer snippets of description, enough detail to make the reader believe he's ensconced in the land of saguaros. Pine trees are wedged in close among the bare, rolling hills, Leonard writes. Or, he's noting the clumps of mesquite and catclaw amid sun-glare that creates shimmering waves of hazy heat.

Lest one get bored with such lengthy examination of source material, blame this reviewer, not the erstwhile Western writer. Leonard, even in the early works in this collection, doesn't abide back-story, lengthy descriptions of weather and setting -- or simple good guy-bad guy confrontations. As with his contemporary crime novels (Get Shorty, Maximum Bob, Freaky Deaky), Leonard's West is edgy, unpredictable and driven by dialogue. Leonard lets his characters talk and talk and talk and, all the while, pages riffle past in a blur.

The Leonard Method is on full display in "Three-Ten to Yuma," one of the best tales in the 30-story collection. In over 14 pages, he combines conventional fare (a deputy marshal checks into a room in a town called Contention, where he is charged with making certain a convicted murderer makes it aboard the train that will take him to prison) with engaging conversation (the cop and the crook discuss Arizona law-enforcement wages).

Listen as the deputy marshal, in embarrassment, tries to justify the personal risk and sacrifice he makes to bring home $150 a month:

He wanted to say that he started for seventy-five and worked up to the one hundred and fifty, but he didn't.

"And then someday you'll get to be marshal and make two hundred."


"And then one night a drunk cowhand you've never seen will be tearing up somebody's saloon and you'll go in to arrest him and he'll drill you with a lucky shot before you get your gun out."

"So you're telling me I'm crazy."

"If you don't already know it."

Other than a few too many exclamation points and adverbs -- plagues Leonard warns against in his rules of writing -- these Westerns hold up well, in their creator's estimation. Most of the stories were ones Leonard hadn't read in the 50 or so years since they were first published.

None of which portends being saddled with more Arizona Highways homework. Leonard's Western days, by his account, are long since past. When he turned to the contemporary crime novel in 1969, Leonard left the range for good.

He harbors no regrets, though.

"I'm so glad that I chose Westerns at that time rather than some writers' workshop where you're just writing something experimental or you're writing something that's contemporary about your life and you come out with just a pointless short story," he said. "I'm so glad I stayed with a commercial market."

As always, Leonard has at least several more steps planned out beyond his current work. First up is yet another movie, Be Cool, based on his Get Shorty sequel of the same name. Set for a March 4 release, it stars John Travolta and Uma Thurman in their first movie together since Pulp Fiction, which was directed by Quentin Tarantino, a man whose movies often bear the unmistakable stamp of heavy Leonard influences.

While the author takes the obligatory swipes at Hollywood, his style, and healthy option sales, demonstrate an abiding love of movies. Tarantino (Jackie Brown, which was based on Leonard's Rum Punch) is but one of several A-list directors who have adapted Leonard novels. Others include Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight) and Barry Sonnenfeld (Get Shorty).

Hollywood aside, Leonard still has plenty of stories to tell. His next novel, The Hot Kid, will be published in May.

The book's main character, Carl Webster, was introduced in Michael Chabon's McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales as part of an adapted short story that now serves as the opening sequence of The Hot Kid. Set in Oklahoma during the 1920s and 1930s, Leonard's novel chronicles the adventures of Webster, a hotshot marshal during the high-flying Bonnie-and-Clyde, bank robbing era.

After a laconic run-through of his Westerns, Leonard grows more animated discussing The Hot Kid.

"When I finished the book, I was writing a scene and I thought, "I'm finished with the book,'" he said. "There's not another word that needs to be written. I was surprised.

"And as I'm re-reading it, I'm thinking about World War II, which would have been the next decade -- the Forties -- and I thought I can just continue this. (Carl Webster) goes to war with the First Cavalry. I'm going to explore that because I have a book which describes the First Cavalry's invasion of an island in the Admiralties (where) I spent more than a year (during a stint in the Navy) after they took it from the Japanese."

That it? "Then I find out that Oklahoma had quite a number of POW camps during the war and there were German prisoners there. And I thought, well, what if a German prisoner was to escape who speaks English fluently? And my guy, Carl Webster, goes after him." Insert punch line: "You've got the redneck and the SS!"

And, no doubt, one hell of a novel, lean on hooptedoodle and heavy on crackerjack dialogue. How could we expect anything less from the Dickens of Detroit?

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