In 1983, I picked up a copy of a book called Stick, on a whim. It was written by someone I hadn’t heard of previously: Elmore Leonard, who died in August. The book was brilliant and turned me into an addict.
I bought everything he’d written and was very soon mainlining pure Elmore. He’s a habit I’ve had for over 30 years, Leonard delivering one great book after another, one a year until age began to slow him down a little. His last full-length novel was 2010’s Djibouti, Leonard at 85 as spritely and dazzling as ever.
Leonard was mostly described as a crime writer, but he was much more than that, in his way the equal in the hierarchy of American literature of anyone who’s ever put words on a page. He was more than a masterful genre technician, a supremely gifted craftsman. He was a literary genius who created a space in American letters that was uniquely his, with a style that was entirely his own, much imitated but never bettered, vernacular poetry based on breathtaking narrative economy, vivid characterisation and a gift for dialogue that is unsurpassed.
When I met him in London in October, 1988, he was here to promote his new book, Freaky Deaky, but we were soon talking about Hollywood’s botched attempts to make good movies of his novels. This was a decade before Steven Soderbergh and Tarantino did his writing justice with, respectively, Out Of Sight and Jackie Brown, the latter a version of Elmore’s novel Rum Punch. He offered as an example the turbulent history of trying to bring LaBrava, one of his most popular books, to the screen. United Artists had bought the rights, but when a farcical Burt Reynolds version of Stick went belly-up at the box office they passed on the option to the producer Walter Mirisch at Cannon, to see what he could do with it. David Mamet had by this time read the book and greatly admired it. He passed it on to Dustin Hoffman, who loved it, wanted to film it, but had some suggestions he asked Leonard to take on board.
“Dustin had a lot of ideas,” Leonard said sarcastically. “First, he wants to see the character when he was a secret agent, which immediately involves a lot of flashbacks, things that aren’t in the book. Then he, Dustin, doesn’t think that he, Dustin, could fall in love with a 50-year old woman as LaBrava does in the book. He thinks he should have an affair with a young girl in the motel LaBrava runs. So I write a treatment that way.
We meet a couple of times more. Dustin’s just filming Death Of A Salesman with Volker Schlöndorff and he comes along to some meetings. But he doesn’t last long. Then Martin Scorsese comes in. Scorsese lasts a little longer, then he gets a deal on The Color Of Money.
So he’s out and Hal Ashby comes in. Then I get another call from Hoffman, who tells me he’s decided he can after all fall in love with an older woman. Turns out he’s just met Anouk Aimée. So I change it again. Then Hoffman doesn’t want to do it anymore and Al Pacino gets involved for a while. Then Hal Ashby, who’s got involved because of Dustin, he leaves. Then Ted Kotcheff gets involved and Walter Mirisch tells me that Richard Dreyfuss is interested. The only thing now, Ted Kotcheff is suing Cannon for 10 million dollars for something I don’t even know about. I don’t know if it will ever be made.”
At the time we met, Leonard’s hopes for a successful resolution to his problems with Hollywood resided with Cat Chaser, due to go into production shortly, directed by Abel Ferrara.”Abel talks like a thug,” Leonard said, almost approvingly. “Talking to Abel’s like talking to a convict. They’re having trouble with the script. It’s very difficult, but we’ll see.” About this time, the PR from his UK publishers appears – a cluster of worries and timetables. Leonard has more people to talk to. As he puts on his raincoat, I ask him, half jokingly, if he has any advice for aspiring young novelists. “Sure,” he said, smiling. “Keep at it and keep it simple.”
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