Elmore Leonard made art of 'keep it simple'

“I never thought of him as any kind of super-intellect...He likes what he does. That’s the main thing.”

That’s novelist Elmore Leonard talking about Raylan Givens, the character he created and that Timothy Olyphant brought to life in FX’s “Justified.”

But Leonard, who died Tuesday at 87 from complications of a recent stroke, might easily have been talking about himself.

That’s the impression he gave, at least, when he’d turn up for Television Critics Association events to help promote “Justified,” one of the adaptations of his work with which he was particularly pleased. He was dry and quietly charming, he smelled a bit of tobacco and he seemed to be in a hurry to get back to Michigan to work on whatever he was writing at the time.

He was a writer who liked what he did. That was the main thing.

It probably didn’t hurt that so many other people liked what he did, too, or that he got paid a lot to do it. But it wasn’t just luck that more than two dozen of his books and short stories had become movies or TV shows.

“From the very beginning I wanted to sell to the movies when I started. And so I made it very visual, as visual as I could, with always from a character’s point of view, always, and use all the characters and find out who they are. And I think that’s helped,” he told reporters last year. “Because from the very beginning I’ve been in it to make money. And that’s the way to do it.”

He kept technology at arm’s length, employing a researcher in Los Angeles who handled Internet chores, but when I asked him if cared whether he was read on a printed page or on an e-book, he said, “I did at first, but not anymore, since so many e-books now are selling.”

Not to him, though. “I don’t have any of the modern stuff. I don’t have e-mail. I don’t have a computer!” he said.

“I write longhand, until I get to the end. It’s never more than a page or two at a time, because I’ll think of a scene, I’ll start to write the scene in longhand and then I’ll put it on the typewriter. I think it takes me about, on average, about three pages to get one, to get a clean page, you know. I’ll write maybe three or four pages a day and then the next day, I’ll see what I wrote.

“And most of the time it’s very spare and I can even now have time to add a little bit if I want, a cigarette or a drink. It’s never anything important to the plot that I add, but it’s just some business. A little bit of business, while maintaining the rhythm of the scene,” Leonard said.

I wondered at this point whether Leonard’s famous rules of writing, including, “try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip,” might not be easier to follow when writing itself is a more physical act. (Not that the lack of a laptop ever stopped Herman Melville.)

"I don’t have the desire to begin with,” Leonard said. “Or maybe something occurs to me, to add a little bit more about this character and I’ll think, ‘Why?’ I mean, if he’s covered. If this guy comes to life, the way it is, why add anything to him? Keep it simple.”

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