High Life, Low Life

HARRY ZIMM, the schlock movie producer in Elmore Leonard's new novel, Get Shorty, says he once asked a literary agent what type of writing made the most money. "Ransom notes," the agent replied.

You get the feeling Leonard's agent would have a different reply. Most kidnappings don't bring in as much as his client does -- a multimillion-dollar deal for the new novel and a second one.

But perhaps Leonard, who 40 years ago received all of $2,000 for his first book, The Bounty Hunters, doesn't care about money anymore. He still lives in Detroit, has been married to the same woman for years, is still the same un-flashy, yachtless guy.

"Are you kidding?" he says with a laugh, making it clear that this is one of the stupider questions he's heard in days. "You don't have to spend it . . . The money is still an incentive."

It's an incentive for others, too. "A guy comes up to me at a signing and says, 'You know a letter of yours sold at a library fundraiser for $500, and I'm the guy who bought.' I said, 'You paid $500 for a letter? Give me your address, I'll write you a letter' -- meaning, 'You deserve more than a letter.' So I wrote him and included a Xerox typescript of something -- Bandits or Freaky Deaky. At the ABA convention a few months later I found out he had sold the two letters and the typescript for $1,250."

That sounds a bit crude.

"It's okay with me," Leonard says.

Clearly, this guy is having so good a time that nothing bothers him. Take Hollywood, the setting and subject for most of the new book. Now, Leonard has been involved with the world of movies for years. There's enough of them to have an Elmore Leonard film festival, which is precisely what a group in England hopes to do.

"They want to show all my movies," Leonard says, "and they want me to come over and stand on a stage and talk about them. I said to the guy, 'Are you crazy?' "

The thought of being anywhere near most of his films gives Leonard the creeps. Asked to list the ones that are good, he can only name pieces: "Parts of 52 Pick-Up. Parts of Hombre and Valdez Is Coming."

Then there's Cat Chaser, which has never been seen here. It's pretty good, he thinks, but even so there's a problem: "Before it was released in England the producers had a voice-over track laid on to explain the main character's psychological problems, which I never knew about. I thought the guy had it all together."

This, it should be noted, is a matter that comes up frequently. On Diane Rehm's show on WAMU-FM a few hours previously, a listener had asked a variant of the same question: "Where do you meet these sociopaths that you write about?"

His response, Leonard says, went something like this: "They're not all sociopaths to me. . . . My characters are often referred to as losers and low-life, but I think of them as the majority of the population. They're the same people you see at the ballpark."

So in Get Shorty, you've got a hero who's a loan shark. One of the main characters kills a man in cold blood; another tries variously to set up or kill the hero; a third runs out on his wife with $300,000. Where is this ballpark, anyway?

Well, Leonard amends, they're "normal for Hollywood."

Part of the inspiration for Get Shorty was from a letter John D. MacDonald sent to Leonard. "He asked me, 'How can you put up with all the {expletive} out there? How can you stand the meetings and the interminable rewrites? Write your Hollywood novel and kill them off in ugly ways.' "

But as it turns out, the novel -- despite the unsavory characters mentioned above -- is curiously benign. Did mercy stay Leonard's hand? "I don't feel vengeful at all," he explains. "When you take a deal out there, you know going in what's going to happen. So I'm never surprised."The Mencken Files SIX MONTHS from now, the vault on the second floor of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore will be opened, and several wooden boxes ceremoniously brought forth. Inside will be seven typescript autobiographical volumes by H.L. Mencken. Considering the literary sensation his diaries caused last year, with much attendant fuss over his alleged racism and anti-semitism, the Mencken world is waiting for this material with no small interest.

"I would expect it to be a very significant document," says Neil Jordahl, the keeper of the library's Mencken Room. "The diaries represent his declining years. I personally thought them very interesting, but they don't represent his most productive period."

The four volumes of My Life as Author and Editor, however, include Mencken's stint as editor of the American Mercury, which in the '20s had the impact and audience that magazines like the New Yorker, Time and Life did in succeeding decades. In addition there are three volumes titled Thirty-Five Years of Newspaper Work.

Mencken embargoed this material for 35 years after his death. Apparently, he wanted to be completely honest but also didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings; to wait until all involved were dead was the safest course.

Knopf, his longtime publisher, has first refusal rights on any unpublished Menckeniana. In light of its success with the diaries, with a respectable 20,000 copies sold, there's a likelihood these typescripts will eventually be widely available.

Mencken will be a presence in bookstores in other ways during the first half of this decade. There has been no biography since Carl Bode's more than two decades ago, but two writers are currently striving to remedy that deficit. As it happens, they both agree on the potential importance of the typescripts.

"Enormously significant," says Terry Teachout, an essayist and member of the editorial board of the New York Daily News. "What I gather from the diaries is they're something like the first draft of an autobiography -- a narrative about his professional life. He says they're absolutely candid and unexpurgated. That's the reason they were sealed longer than anything else."

Says Fred Hobson, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina: "It is Mencken's take on the most crucial period of his life, although I wouldn't use the word 'autobiography' as such. It probably won't be a spiritual probing in the Henry Adams sense as much as a reflection on other people and his time and place."

These authors say they're both planning to produce proverbial "big" biographies. Teachout, whose work will be published by Poseidon no earlier than fall '94, holds up William Manchester's epic biography of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, American Caesar, as a standard. Mencken, he feels, deserves similar treatment. "He is a popular writer to an extent that is not common among writers of his generation, and that is almost unprecedented for journalists of his generation."

Hobson expects to hand in his manuscript to Random House late next year. Despite his scholarly background, he says he's not producing "an intensely documented, detailed, every-meal-chronicled kind of biography. It will be an interpretative biography. Mencken was an unprecedented figure -- the things that usually explain American writers don't explain him. For instance, there's a basic sentimentality found in almost all American writers, but not in him."

In the meantime, Sept. 8 is Mencken Day. Arnold Rampersad, author of the acclaimed two-volume life of Langston Hughes, will be giving the keynote address at the library on that much-discussed topic, "Mencken, Race and America." For more information, call (301)396-5494.Cover-Ups JAY PARINI's novel about Tolstoy, The Last Station, garnered enthusiastic high-brow attention last month. A dignified figure on the literary circuit, one would think. So what's this paperback of his that just showed up, titled The Love Run and featuring a photograph of a woman provocatively posed in panties and a shirt that's twisted like a straitjacket?

"When the book arrived, I blushed from toe to temple," says Parini. "I could feel the goosebumps traveling around my body as I looked in the back at ads for books like Venus School Mistress." Not to mention Pearls of the Orient, Blue Tango and The Calamities of Jane ("An innocent girl is hired as secretary of an employment agency that is, in reality, a bordello").

The publisher of all this erotica is Blue Moon, a line started by Barney Rosset after he left Grove Press. Far from not knowing Rosset was publishing The Love Run, it was actually Parini's idea. Even if his tale of obsessive attraction is much less steamy than, say, any three pages of Erica Jong.

"It's a hilarious misrepresentation, but I willingly submitted to it. It had been out of print for nine years, I was having lunch with Barney, and I said, 'I've got a book with a bit of sex in it, why don't you publish it?' Like a character in a Blue Moon novel, I couldn't resist." Plus, he needed the $2,000.

At the moment, he's trying to look beyond the present predicament. "I always thought it would be an embarrassing thing to tell my kids the facts of life. Now at the right age I can take them into the back room and say, 'Boys, read this.' "In the Margin WHEN THE declining ability to read meets the slackening ability to write, you get glossaries like the one in back of Barbara Taylor Bradford's new romance, The Women in His Life. Here are some of the "Common Yiddish Terms" that readers are presumed to need help with: "Goy: A Gentile, anyone who is not a Jew." "Shabbat: Sabbath." "Mensch: Someone of consequence." "Bar mitzvah: a ceremony in a synagogue in which a 13-year-old boy reaches the status of a man." "Chutzpa: Audacity, nerve; incredible gall." Remember the old days, when novelists were capable of explaining much more complicated things in the body of the story itself? . . .

Apologies to Rogues' Gallery in Bethesda for stating last month that its name greatly resembled that of two of its competitors, MysteryBooks in the District and Mystery Bookshop of Bethesda. Meanwhile, another source of mysteries, Moonstone Bookcellars, has disappeared with no forwarding address. The Pennsylvania Avenue shop, which also specialized in science fiction, was in declining health in recent years . . .

When the Reagans moved to California, the astrologically minded Nancy had the street address of their new house changed from 666 to 668. The first number, of course, is the number of the Beast, a sign of the devil. But the Evil One has another trick up his sleeve. Dell Publishing, which is bring out the paperback of My Turn this fall, is located at 666 Fifth Ave., an address it displays on every publication. There was a rumor Mrs. Reagan would make them change it on her book. Dell officials say this is the silliest thing they ever heard. By Halloween, we'll know for sure.