"It's not that I like them. I kind of sympathize with them because they're dumb," the author says.
They make mistakes, he says, "but they still have pretty much the same desires that you and I do. ... They're not always snarling and thinking about crime or doing something bad, something evil. They all have mothers. I think about that."
His 37th novel, the recently released "Tishomingo Blues," features a Detroit con man as the central character.
Leonard says the novel is his "favorite so far," though he wouldn't elaborate. It features the elements of many of the author's previous efforts: deadpan dialogue, nefarious characters and unexpected plot twists.
Set in Tunica, Miss., the book is written mainly from the point of view of two characters: the con man Robert Taylor and Dennis Lenahan, a stunt diver who has been hired to perform a high-dive shw for patrons of the Tishomingo Lodge & Casino.
While preparing for his show, Lenahan witnesses an execution and is placed in the middle of a turf war between Taylor and his associates from Detroit and a local organized crime outfit called the "Dixie Mafia."
Along the way, Lenahan meets the smooth-talking, black Jaguar-driving Taylor; Arlen Novis, a former law enforcement officer and member of the Dixie Mafia; Walter Kirkbride, whose home construction business is a front for Novis and his cohorts; and
John Rau, a strait-laced investigator from the Criminal Investigation Bureau of Mississippi Department of Public Safety.
All of them, plus a few other key players, end up at a Civil War re-enactment - the Battle of Brice's Cross Roads - where, after a series of unexpected twists and turns, hangs the outcome of the book.
Leonard says he started with the idea of Lenahan, then added Taylor to counterbalance the Dixie Mafia.
"The way I work, I make it up as I go along," he says, seated behind a desk covered with books, handwritten notes and a typewriter in his home in this wealthy Detroit suburb. "I start with a character, then I add a character. ... I was at the end of `Pagan Babies,' when I thought of a high diver.
"I just became interested in the idea of a high diver as the main character, because it just seems like a natural. The guy risks serious injury or his life everyday."
But he is never sure who the main character will be or what's going to happen until "I get to about page 100," he says.
"It's so sly how he pulls you into his book," says Mike Lupica, a New York Daily News sports columnist.
"You think it's about Dennis. ... It's like he calls to the bullpen. Then he brings in Robert Taylor, who's just one of the best characters he ever wrote," says Lupica, who has been friends with Leonard ever since he interviewed him for Esquire magazine in the 1980s.
Leonard, critics have said, stands apart from other novelists because of the way his characters speak.
The author describes it this way:
"I told ('Get Shorty' director) Barry Sonnenfeld a couple years before they started shooting that I hoped when somebody delivers a funny line, you don't cut to get a reaction from another character, grinning or winking or laughing, because these guys aren't being funny.
"They're serious. It's kind of flat and deadpan, the whole thing. This is how I see my material. If the audience thinks it's funny, fine. ... There's a certain rhythm that runs through it."
Leonard could have relied solely on Gregg Sutter, his longtime researcher, for help on the book, but instead, he trekked down to Panama City, Fla., where he spent the day with a group of stunt divers. He also attended a few Civil War re-enactments in Michigan.
For his best seller, "Be Cool," Leonard researched the world of pop music with a trip to Los Angeles, where he spent time with producer Rick Rubin and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
"He's the coolest perso I know," Lupica says.
"What I like about him is he's smart, he's hip, he's current, he's funny and if you know him, the best thing is to call him when he's writing a book or a novel, because for that day he will walk you into that world."
Leonard was born in New Orleans and as a boy lived in Dallas, Oklahoma City and Memphis, Tenn., before eventually settling in Detroit in 1934.
As a sophomore at University of Detroit High School, his friends gave him the nickname "Dutch," after Emil "Dutch" Leonard, a knuckle ball pitcher for the Washington Senators. The nickname survives today.
"It was overnight. It was almost as though a press release was sent out: `Start calling him Dutch.' And it just happened," Leonard says.
After attending college in Detroit, Leonard married and took a job at an advertising agency as a copy boy. He eventually worked his way up to writing advertising copy for Chevrolet. It was then that he began writing Westerns. His first published story was "Trail of the Apache" for Argosy magazine in 1951.
Through the 1950s, Leonard woke up at 5 a.m., two hours before leaving for work, and wrote 30 pulp Westerns and five Western novels.
By 1961, he quit his job and devoted himself to writing full-time. But with a family to support, he was forced back into writing free-lance advertising and short documentaries for Encyclopedia Britannica Films.
After the film rights to "Hombre" were sold in 1966 and the Western market had dried up, Leonard wrote his first crime novel, "The Big Bounce." He also began a screenwriting career, adapting his own work, including "The Moonshine War," for film. His side career in Hollywood financed his book writing for the next several years.
His breakthrough came in 1983 with "La Brava," followed two years later by "Glitz," which landed him on the cover of Newsweek.
Since then, Leonard has written about a book a year and has received widespread attention partly due to the success of movies made from his work, including "Get Shorty," "Jackie Brown" and "Out of Sight."
"I don't think we've had such a crossover writer since Raymond Chandler," says Jim Harrison, an author and Leonard friend whose "Legends of the Fall" was made into a movie starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins.
"You're forced by the quality of his writing to take him very seriously in a literary way," Harrison says.
The film rights to nearly all of Leonard's novels have been optioned or purchased. Actors like Gene Hackman, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds and George Clooney have appeared in film adaptations of his work.
The film rights to "Tishomingo Blues" were bought by FilmFour Ltd., and Leonard signed on as a producer.
"We're overjoyed to be partnering with Elmore - a true literary genius and master of cool," says Paul Webster, FilmFour chief executive. "This is as cinematic and compelling a book as Elmore has ever written. We can't wait to turn it into a movie."
Leonard still writes verything longhand, then types it out on his typewriter before his daughter puts it into a computer.
After all, the author doesn't own a computer.
"I have no need for it," he said.
His cigarette long since extinguished, Leonard's office phone rings. The topic of discussion: what to wear to dinner. After all, they would look silly if they wore the same outfit, Leonard says.
Leonard has more on his mind than dinner attire, of course. Besides his continued brush with the movie world, Leonard plans to keep churning out books.
At a time when many 76-year-olds might consider slowing down, he is at work fulfilling a three-book deal he signed last summer with new publisher William Morrow. He is juggling several projects: a novel about a Hollywood stuntman who returns home to his native Oklahoma in the 1930s, a novella and his first children's book.
A children's book?
"I have five kids and 11 grandchildren, so I've made up a lot of stories in my time," Leonard says.
By Mike Householder
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