Interview By Elmore Leonard
Peter Leonard sits down with his dad to talk about writing.
Elmore: Peter it seems to me that by the time you were in your 20’s, you and I were reading pretty much the same novels . I think at that time you really began to read very seriously. Did any of those books influence you that you read, you know, over the last 20 years or so?
Peter: Yeah, absolutely. John D. McDonald. Ernest Hemingway of course. Robert Parker to a certain degree., His novels, were fun, I liked his main character. Charles Williford, James Lee Burke. Cormac McCarthy. Certainly influenced me.
Elmore: When did you start thinking about writing fiction?
Peter: I thought about it but never did anything about it. 10 years ago or so, I ended up writing a few scripts. Movie scripts. In fact, Quiver was originally written as a movie script. And I think when I was doing this, you said to me, “Why do you want to be a script writer? Being a script writer is like wanting to be a copilot. “ Which I think was a good smartass answer. And you were right, though. Because you’ve got to get in the head of the character. That’s what it’s all about. So I stopped writing scripts ‘cause nothing happened. It was kind of a dead end for me, even with your connections, and 5 years ago I started writing Quiver. Even after writing a few pages of it I realized that I liked it and I wanted to get good at it. And it was a fun, energizing experience.
Elmore: How many words do you think you’ve written since you’ve started writing fiction?
Peter: I would say about 200,000.
Elmore: In three books, or 2 and a half books.
Peter: Yeah, something like that. Maybe 250.
Elmore: John D. McDonald said you have to write a million words before you know what you’re doing, have real control over your sound that you’re consistent with what you want your prose to sound like.
Peter: Well I’ve got a few years to go then.
Elmore: I want to ask you about your writing habits. Where do you write?
Peter: I write in my bedroom. I sit in a chair with a laptop or a pad. I always start with a yellow legal pad because that’s how I wrote ads for twenty years and I just feel confortable writing in longhard first, and then putting it on the computer. And then printing a page and then rewriting it four or five more times.
Elmore: Do you like to write?
Peter: I do. I’m surprised how much I like it. It’s very satisfying.
Elmore: Good, good, good. You don’t ever look it as a chore.
Peter: I don’t look at it as work. I spend a lot of my free time writing. So if I didn’t like it I wouldn’t be doing that. I’d be watching TV at night. Dancing with the Stars, or American Idol. Or football games or baseball games. I certainly get all that in, too.
Elmore: Well what I’ve seen, you’ve certainly thrown yourself into this act of writing books. I think it’s terrific. You will not be discouraged. I don’t see how you could possibly be discouraged at this point, outside of little, little things that happen. When you send a book in, is there much rewriting required?
Peter: Well, for Quiver, there was quite a bit of rewriting. There were a number of suggestions that my editor, Pete Wolverton made. And I read them over and some of them didn’t upset me but I disagreed with them, but rather than say anything, I thought, just think about them. Think about them and look at it from his point of view and I did and realized he’s got very good story sense. And I listened to him and I believe that his suggestions helped make Quiver a much better book.
Elmore: Wow, that’s great. I had one of the best book editors, ever. Don Fine. And Don Fine would give me a sheet with say 15 little points that he wanted to make about the manuscript. And I would talk him out of at least half. And he would realize that it’s not that important what he was asking for. One time I said, I think for some reason around 120 this thing starts to slow down. This manuscript. And he said, “Cut the first chapter in half and you’ll see a difference.”
Peter: And that did it, huh?
Elmore: Yes, that did it.
Peter: Wow, that’s good.
Elmore: And it made no sense to me still.
Peter: One amusing thing that Wolverton said was, I have a character in Quiver his name is DeJuan and he likes to use the word, motherfucker. Pete read the book and said, “You’ve got to get rid of some of the motherfuckers.” So I did. I think he was right, there were just too many.
Peter: I’ll say, too, you, Elmore, helped with Quiver. You read the original version of it. The first chapter was backstory, it was Kate in Guatemala. And you said, “Take that backstory and weave it into the second chapter, You know, use part of it there and move part of it to further in the book. And you were right. 55 years of writing – really heped.
Peter: And you had one other good suggestion, in fact. DeJuan. His name was spelled Dewan. And you said, “Hey, I’d change the spelling to DeJuan. “ And it changed the character. Amazing.
Elmore: Yeah. That’ll happen. If you get the right name, you know the character’s much better.
Peter: That’s for sure.
Elmore: You’re a partner in an advertising agency. Three member patnership. And now you want out.
Peter: Well, after writing ads for 25 years, it gets boring. That was one of ther reasons I decided to try writing fiction just to do something else. To amuse myself in another way. You wrote ads, how long did you do it?
Elmore: Well I did Chevrolet ads for 7 years. And then as soon as my time came, my profit sharing came do, I left. I’ve been on my own ever since. That was in 1961.
Peter: I’m hooked. Or was hooked in advertising because I’m in the process of raising four kids. And it takes money. I’ve got two guys in college right now, out of state schools and it takes a lot of dough.
Elmore: Yeah. I want to talk more about writing. The act of writing. When you sit down to write, you see a scene? Say you want two guys talking, I mean there’s a reason why you want these particular characters to be talking. How much of the scene do you see? Or are the words much more important?
Peter: Well I think it depends on the situation. But I think the words are very important. And setting can be important but I do write in scenes because you always said, you’ve got to write in scenes. Write in scenes – it’s like a movie scene, it makes it more interesting, more entertaining to do it that way.
Peter: So that’s the way I’ve approached it.
Elmore: And then add to that dialogue. You like dialogue.
Peter: I do like dialogue.
Elmore: Yeah. Because I feel that my goal always with any book is to move the story with dialogue. And keep it going.
Peter: Well I like to keep it going, too. But I like to keep the dialogue short and quick. Not always, I mean sometimes you’ve got to give more information.
Elmore: It’s funny because I think my books have been characterized sometimes as full of really short sentences. And I don’t write short sentences. Some are short. But I don’t try to write short sentences. The way you’d see in Hemingway at a certain time in his writing career. I wanted to ask you how you see yourself as the author. Are you writing the book or do your characters take over and you’re nowhere in sight.
Peter: That’s a good question. I try to keep my nose out of it, I try to let the characters tell the story. I don’t want to be seen anywere.
Elmore: Well, that’s the way I feel about it. The Village Voice did a piece on me once and they called it The Author Vanishes. So that evidently, I was making that point.
Peter: I’m sure I got that from you. Instead of a guy like Herman Melville, who’s the omniscient author who knows everything that’s happening and you feel his presence. I much prefer to let the characters tell the story. How about plotting? You don’t seem too concerned about plotting.
Elmore: No, I’m not concerned about plotting. It comes along, a scene follows a scene I don’t want to know what going to happen. There’s plenty of time. I should develop the story. Because if I were to sit down and outline the book. You know, say take a few weeks to do it, I don’t know, it seems to me what you’re writing then would lack some spontaneity. When you think of a good idea, it’s made your day. You know.
Peter: Right. I disagree to a certain extent, because I think with Quiver for example, I knew the story. Because I had written it as a script so I knew the story. The fun was, plotting along the way and making it interesting, and making it suspenseful and exciting. I did a lot of plotting.
Elmore: Oh, yeah…
Peter: And that was good.
Elmore: Tell me how do you look as yourself as a writer. Are you a crime writer?
Peter: I don’t think so.
Peter: No, I just think that Quiver’s a novel. Ther are criminals in it, But there’re normal people in it, too. But books have to be categorized, right?. People have to know what they’re getting, what they’re buying. So, it’s got to fit somewhere.
Elmore: I probably take more time with the bad guy than the good guy. Although my good guys aren’t necessarily that good. And they might be know you, on the fence, between.
Peter: Right. There are just degrees of bad, it seems.
Elmore: Yeah, yeah.
Peter: But the bad guys are more fun.
Elmore: They are. Definitely.
Peter: And my favorite character in Quiver is DeJuan. I couldn’t wait to get back to him. I couldn’t wait to get back in his head and figure out what he was going to say. It was really enjoyable.
Elmore: That’s a really great character to have. Boy, you can’t wait to get back to him. Yeah. And you’re anxious to listen to him.
Peter: Right. Yeah,
Elmore: Yeah. Peter: He actually makes me laugh.
Elmore: ( Laughs) I’ve never laughed at any lines of mine while I’m writing the book. But then if I pick up one which I always – usually I start that way in the morning – I pick up one of my books and just open it anywhere, you know an older book, say it was from ‘89 or so, and -- to get into the feel of this kind of fiction, this – my sound, -- and I’ll get into a scene and I’ll read a line and I’ll laugh out loud. But I didn’t laugh when I wrote it. You know. It just would surprise me.
Peter: So you go back and look at old books to get the thread or sound for new books.
Elmore: Yeah, well to maintain the sound of the author not there.
Peter: Right. So you’re slipping out of that, you, that’s how you do it. I guess, yeah, that makes perfect sense. And you’ve suggested that to me. When I was writing a third novel, and you said, “If you ever have a problem, just go back to your first or second one and get the sound.” That’s good advice.
Elmore: Yeah. Do you think your sound or your style will change at all?
Peter: I think it will.
Elmore: How would it change?
Peter: I don’t know. It can’t get any simpler, I know that.
Elmore: Maybe you’d want to fatten it up?
Peter: Maybe I’ll fatten it up, yeah. Maybe I’ll add more description, make the characters more complex. I’m not sure.
Peter: I’ve noticed though that your books have gone from being fatter, more description and longer lines of dialogue. You’ve evolved into a much leaner, simpler style.
Elmore: It might be just getting older. But I’m not sure. Elmore: I’ll tell you what I really enjoy. What I like is your enthusiasm. When you want to tell me a scene. You’ve written a scene that you love, And you’re anxious to tell me about it. And you do. And that’s a wonderful feeling to have. That you’re so ..
Peter: So excited about it you gotta …
Elmore: Yeah … you gotta tell someone.
Peter: Well I can tell you because you get it. You understand. You’ve been telling me and the other kids of scenes for as long as I can remember.
Elmore: Oh that’s right. Yeah.
Peter: I mean, and good stuff. And I think, you know, that probably influenced me as much as anything. You describing scenes and lines of dialogue. And they were funny and entertaining. This goes back 30 years.
Elmore: I remember when you were in high school and you were in the family room with a group. And you were playing music and I was at the other end of the room at the table and I wrote eight pages of Valdez is Coming while all this was going on.
Peter: That’s unbelievable.
Elmore: I’ve never done anything like it since.
Peter: I can’t do it like that. I’ve gotta have more quiet. Until I get in.
Elmore: But that feeling of a scene that boy I’ve got to tell somebody about it. I think that’s a wonderful scene. And you can’t help but be proud of it . You know, it works. It works.
Peter: It does. I remember sitting in the family room watching football games and the phone would ring and it would be Clint Eastwood, or Steve McQueen or Paul Newman. And one of us would get the phone … and I remember one time I picked it up and I said Hello and it was Clint Eastwood. And he said, This is Clint Eastwood, is your dad there? And I said, Elmore, Clint is on the phone. And you said, Tell him to wait. You were waiting for a football play to end.
Peter: That’s a good one. That’s a good recollection.
Elmore: The question you’re always asked is where do you get your ideas?
Peter: You just think of them. I don’t think there’s any magic or mystery there. You just come up with them. You read an article about somebody who does something and that you know, triggers an idea.
Elmore: Do you feel that you have several ideas right now that you could develop?
Peter: I have four that I would like to get to as soon as I finish my current book the Italian Story I’m gonna do another one. I’m not sure which of the four but yes, there’s always another one I want to get to.
Elmore: Beyond the Italian story, you have at least three?
Peter: I have four.
Peter: Four more yeah. And I have a couple of characters that I’d like to see as serial recurring guys . We’ll see what happens. I need to think of stories.
Elmore: But be careful. You may end up writng your 28th book with this serial character.
Peter: Yeah, that doesn’t sound good.
Elmore: John D. McDonald, he said, Oh, I don’t tknow if I’ll be able to finish this. I think he did. But he died shortly after.So now, you’ll have to get ready for the critics. And naturally you will see some that you will think are egotists – in love with the sound of their own voice. But I think you will get good reviews. I don’t know how you can help but get good reviews.
Peter: It’s gonna be new to me. You’ve had your share of critics who love you and critics who don’t like you.
Elmore: Well there’s only one.
Peter: Who’s that?
Elmore: There’s a guy in Palm Beach. The Palm Beach Post. I don’t know why …
Peter: What’s his problem?
Elmore: I don’t know.
Elmore: Do you feel that you’re making progress as a writer. Do you feel that your writing is getting better – is changing in any way?
Peter: Well I think like anything, the more you do it the better you get at it. And I’m much more confident having sold Quiver and now writing the third book. I just I feel I know what I’m doing … the first one was tough … I’d never done it. It’s a lot of trial and error. But I’m learning. So now I feel like I kind of know what I’m doing.
Elmore: What’s the title of the second one?
Peter: Trust Me.
Elmore: Oh yea. Trust Me. That’s a good title. Very good. After all these years in advertising do you feel that if you had started earlier – at a younger age – would that have been to your advantage?
Peter: I don’t know. I don’t think so. I don’t believe had the experience or patience to do it then.
Elmore: That’s good. Yeah.
Peter: I have always taken up things late in life. Like tennis when I was 35. Reading when I was 15 or 16. That’s okay. Once I get into something I go full tilt into it.
Elmore: I would say you are definitely on your way.
Peter: Thanks, Pops.