Traveling With Elmore

My father, Elmore Leonard, invited me to go with him to Mantova, Italy in the fall of 2007. He was a featured speaker at the annual book festival. Although I never intended to follow in my father’s footsteps, I ended up writing a novel called QUIVER and had sold it a few months earlier to St. Martin’s Minotaur. For me, it was an opportunity to interest Italian publishers in my book, and meet other American authors who had been invited.

We arrived on schedule but Elmore’s luggage didn’t. I loaned him a pair of underwear and a blue dress shirt so he could shower and change. That night we had dinner with Russell Banks, James Hall, Gregg Sutter, Elmore’s longtime researcher, and Gregg’s girlfried, Amy Alkon, an advice columnist from LA.

We had risotto with pork, the house specialty, and drank dark delicious Valpollacella. The food and wine were good and the conversation was better.

Elmore told us about the time he was in an elevator with Charles Bronson at the Ritz Carleton in Boston. The young elevator operator noticed Bronson and said, “Charles Bronson, what’re you doing here?”

Bronson gave him a serious look and said, “I’m checking up on elevator operators.”

I told the group about meeting George Clooney at a cast party at Elmore’s house after the filming of Out of Sight. I walked in the living room and George was standing there by himself. Everyone was in the dining room, getting something to eat. I introduced myself and we started talking. A few minutes later, the thirty or so woman at the party, my wife included, found out George was in the house, and came in the room, circling around him like vultures. George flashed his megawatt smile and the ladies swooned and I stepped away.

After dinner we went back to the hotel. Elmore’s bag still hadn’t arrived. He called my room the next morning and said, “’I’ve got to buy some underwear. Will you come with me?’”

I had lived in Rome for a year when I was younger and still speak enough Italian to get around. We walked out of the hotel and headed down a cobblestone street toward the shop and found a store. It was a boutique that only sold underwear, men’s and women’s. I have to tell you I felt a little strange. I had never gone underwear shopping with my father. We walked in and the shop owner, and four female customers all looked at us and grinned.

Elmore started opening boxes, taking the underwear out, stretching it. The blonde behind behind the counter said, “’You can no do that.’” Elmore said, “How am I supposed to know what it looks like?”

“You look on the box,” I said.

He bought three pairs, and to this day says it’s the most comfortable underwear he’s ever worn.

When our new books came out earlier this year—mine is called Trust Me and Elmore’s is Road Dogs, we went on the road together, appeared and spoke at various events: book stores, libraries and the City Oprea House in Traverse City, Michigan.

At the signings we talked about writers who influenced us. Elmore mentioned Hemingway and Richard Bissell and George V. Higgins.

I mentioned Hemingway and John Steinbeck, Elmore and Cormac McCarthy as influences.

We talked about auditioning characters. We both agree that until we get to know a character we don’t know what he/she is going to do. DeJuan Green, in my first novel, is hired by a stock broker to kill his wife. The wife is taking a shower and Dejuan is in her bedroom, sitting on the bed thinking about how he’s going to kill her. He hears the shower turn off, and a couple minutes later the bathroom door opens. Shelley, the wife, sees DeJuan and says, “Whatever he’s paying you I’ll double it.” I didn’t know what was going to happen in that scene and the characters took over. Elmore says if a character isn’t working out he has the person shot.

We talked about point of view. Both of us tell our stories through the eyes of our characters. This sometimes confuses readers. A friend’s mother read Trust Me and said she couldn’t believe a guy who went to catholic schools could use language like that. I said I’m not using the language. The characters are. I don’t rob liquor stores either, or carry a gun.

We talked about names. Chili Palmer, the main character in Get Shorty was a real guy Elmore met, a private eye in Miami, and loved his name. Elmore told about seeing a newspaper photograph of a good-looking female U.S. marshal, legs apart, shotgun butt on her hip, barrel pointing up. He said to himself that’s a book. The girl inspired Karen Sisco in Out of Sight.

We talked about using friend’s names, or the names of people we know. Elmore made Miley Mitchell, an eighteen year old neighborhood girl, and friend of my sister’s, a prostitute in The Moonshine War. I said,”How did her parents react?”

And he said, “They didn’t seem to mind.”

I was a partner in an ad agency for many years, and our main client was Volkswagen. I dealt with a German purchasing agent who used to give me a hard time, so I made him a gay prison chaplain in Quiver.

In early July, we attended a signing in Jackson, Mississippi at Lemuria Bookstore, a cool indie shop owned by John Evans. We signed our new books: Trust Me and Road Dogs. Then we met up with Michael Connolley and George Pelecanos for a panel discussion hosted by a local television personality named Gene Edwards.

After the event we went to a bar the featured the local cuisine: fried catfish, fried pickles and fried mushrooms. I sat across the table from George Pelecanos and Ellen Bordeaux, a gallery owner who remembered the Klu-Klux-Klan buring a cross on her parent’s lawn when she was a kid. Sitting next to me was a nice-looking local girl. I introduced myself and said, “What’s your name?”

She said, “’Holiday. But it’s spelled ‘Holidae.’”

I said, “Holidae, that’s a great name.” I could see George Pelecanos look over, George probably thinking the same thing I was. I looked the other way and Elmore, too had perked up, showing signs of interest.

Holidae said, “’I was named after Holiday Goolightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. My husband calls me Day-girl.’”

Thinking about the reactions of Elmore and Pelecanos I said, “Get ready, Holidae, your name might appear in three novels in the next year or so.”

She looked at me and smiled. “’You really think so?’” “I wouldn’t be surprised,” I said.

We finished our book tour at the City Opera House in northern Michigan, over five hundred people in attendance. Doug Stanton, author of Horse Soldiers, hosted the event and introduced us. Elmore closed out the evening with an anecdote from a ski trip to Aspen years ago. He was in the lodge sitting by the huge fireplace. A beautiful woman was next to him taking off her ski boots. She pulled her right foot out of the boot, looked at him and said, “Ahhh, I think that’s better than getting laid.”

He said, “uh-huh.” In a helpless voice.

The crowd erupted with laughter.

Elmore, the master of dialogue said, “I’ve been trying to think of a comeback line for twenty years.”