The Washington Post

In which an Elmore Leonard character writes on Elmore Leonard

The “greatest living crime novelist,” “the king of crime,” “the Dickens of Detroit,” Elmore Leonard died Tuesday morning at his home in Bloomfield Township, a suburb of Detroit, from complications of a stroke. In 2008, Post reporter Neely Tucker, a close friend of Leonard’s, profiled the prolific author. The article came with one of the more interesting taglines to appear in the paper: “Neely Tucker was the basis and namesake for the ‘Neely Tucker’ character in ‘Cuba Libre.’ ”

(Rob Kozloff/AP)

It was a rare chance for an Elmore Leonard character to write about Elmore Leonard. Like any Leonard novel worth it’s weight, Tucker began his article with a crime: Elmore Leonard gets robbed. Read the full story here to find out who did it and read below for a few key points on Leonard’s writing style, his chicken legs and his IMB Wheelwriter 1000 typewriter.

How he looked:

You expect a guy with this kind of career to come across as the love child of Joe Eszterhas and Mickey Spillane, spewing ego all over your shirt. Instead you get this skinny guy, little chicken legs, not tall, soft-spoken but funny. He’s wearing shorts, for God’s sake. T-shirt. Light beard. Says he’s 82, but moves around like he’s 20 years short of it.

How he wrote:

He works at a regular desk with an IBM Wheelwriter 1000 typewriter at the side. It’s in a nice room with some wooden bookcases and a television at one end. He doesn’t own a computer.


He still writes as he always has, from 9 to 6, on an unlined yellow pad, then typing up a scene when he likes it. He never has an outline. He thinks of, say, “two guys in a room, talking,” usually about some criminal endeavor, and lets them “audition” for leading roles. He shapes them by intense research — in 1978, he hung out with the Detroit police’s homicide squad, an experience that shaped the rest of his writing — and then lets them wander deeper into trouble. If any passage sounds like “writing,” he rewrites it. This nets two to four pages a day. The next morning, he’ll read over those pages and “add cigarettes and drinks and things like that” and press forward.

On his alcoholism:

There is a way that recovered alcoholics have of looking at the world — beginning, say, about an hour and half after the last drink — that is a straight ahead take on life. The absolute beat-down of denial. The reservoir of belief in a higher power. This is what Elmore Leonard found. His characters took on some of that same self-confidence.

On his fictional landscape:

His world is off-kilter America, primarily a vision of the lower end of the post-Vietnam era, when the margins got thin, the morals of the nation got cloudy, and irony became a survival mechanism. It’s populated by cops who aren’t exactly good, crooks who aren’t exactly bad, and women who have an eye for the in-between. There is no judgment. Bad guys don’t know they’re bad. They brush their teeth and call their moms and then go rob a bank. Cynicism is on view, as is a vast detailing of bars, alcohol, prison cells, loan-sharking operations and gun runners. There is usually a lot of cash in a small container. People get shot. Self-confidence is a requirement.



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