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Elmore Leonard's Adventures in Serialized Fiction

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DETROIT - Get the details right.

That's an Elmore Leonard rule of writing, right there, along with the one you always hear: "Leave out the parts everyone skips."

Woe to the reporter who gets the details wrong. Leonard is sitting behind the elegant writing desk in his Bloomfield Village living room. (Writing desk, check; Bloomfield Village, check; sofa, chairs, fireplace, check. )

"So many people have said this," he's saying, gesturing to the middle of the desk, "that I write on lined yellow legal pads. And I don't. I write on unlined yellow pads that I get from the print shop." (Note: Unlined. Yellow? Get up, look: yes.)

"I order 50 pads, 60 pages a pad; that's 3,000 sheets of paper, which lasts me about a year." (Note: 3,000 pages a year.)

"It can take me ... sometimes five, but at least three or four of these" - he flips a yellow page with his handwriting - "to get one that I'm gonna put on a typewriter." (Note: Typewriter, not word processor.)

Leonard has been selling his fiction since 1951. Read any of his novels, especially the crime fiction that was made into movies like "Jackie Brown" or "Out of Sight," and you think: Wow. He makes it look easy.

A Leonard plot is about what bad guys do when they think they're being clever, and how "good guys with an edge" - his phrase - try to stop them. A Leonard character knows how to talk and doesn't waste time navel-gazing. A Leonard novel is stylish, fast and too damn funny. There are 40 of them, one for kids.

Now add to them a serial, "Comfort to the Enemy," which is appearing in 14 installments in The New York Times Magazine.

Another detail: Leonard turned 80 this month.

Slowing down?

His long-time researcher, Gregg Sutter, puts it this way.

He was talking to Leonard after he'd gotten a call from the director making a movie of Leonard's "Killshot."

"I told him, `They want you to play the old Mafia don,'" Sutter says.

"Tell them I'm not old enough," Leonard said.

"Comfort to the Enemy" takes the Depression-era U.S. marshal from Leonard's latest novel, "The Hot Kid," and moves him to 1944 Tulsa. There's a camp for German POWs nearby, and Carl Webster, the too-cool marshal, is looking into what might or might not be a suicide there.

It's the first time Leonard has written serial fiction for a newspaper. It's the first time he's written a serial, period. The work took him all summer and really cut into his tennis playing.

And that was before the Times copy editors got it. Now, the idea of Elmore Leonard and his expletive-spouting bad guys being edited for a newspaper that still identifies women as Mrs. So-and-So is hilarious. In time, Leonard will probably think it's funny, too.

Right now, though, he's listing the things that the detail-oriented Times editors said were no-nos. "Getting laid." The Gray Lady's gatekeepers X'd that one.

"Arkansas." Arkansas? In newspaper style, it's abbreviated Ark.

But what if a person is saying "Arkansas"? You still abbreviate, because it's in the stylebook. Even if you're writing fiction, it seems.

Sutter fought the Times' copy editors on that one, and you can see his victory in Chapter 2. But Sutter's still hot about it.

"They don't realize this guy's got a sound . Every word. Ar-kan-saw. That's a big word for Elmore," Sutter says. "He sweats every word."

And then there's the matter of the Times' illustrator transforming the Mayo in downtown Tulsa into a motel. Well, it's not a motel. It's a classy hotel, which you'd know if you'd read "The Hot Kid." Leonard even kicked off his "Hot Kid" book tour there.

Too bad the illustration to go with "Comfort to the Enemy" showed it with a '50s-style neon sign flashing "Mayo Motel" out the window.

Leonard told Sutter not to bother the illustrator, unless something was way off. "And this is way off," Leonard says, still shaking his head.

"Oh, I got sideways with a few people over there," Sutter says. The new illustration - you'll see it later - replaces the neon with the Philcade building, which really was visible from the Mayo Hotel then. "And if one person from Tulsa goes, That's the Philcade tower,' he'll say,God, those guys really did their homework,'" Sutter says.

Meanwhile, Leonard is thinking how he'll turn the 40,000 words that will appear in the Times into an 80,000-word Elmore Leonard crime novel.

He'll start by putting back the not-ready-for-a-family-newspaper language. And he'll try to convince his publisher, HarperCollins, to title it what the Times rejected: "Krauts."

"It's like what Mike Lupica would say: `It's funny. Don't they get it?'" he says.

How does somebody get a job as Elmore Leonard's researcher and go-between?

You start as a fan. In 1979, Sutter was working the Olds 88 assembly line in Lansing, Mich., topping off transmission fluid.

"It's a little like being in the joint, except you get to go home at night and drink," Sutter says.

Propped up at his bench he'd have an Elmore Leonard novel. He could get a page read between Oldses.

Sutter had read Chandler and Hammett, but here was a crime writer setting shootouts in Rochester. "He was our guy," Sutter says.

He and a friend decided to call Leonard. He was listed in the phone book in those days. Come on over, Leonard said, and by the time their visit was done, Sutter had offered to research anything Leonard needed, since he was at the library all the time, anyway.

Leonard finally called him in January 1981 for help with "Split Images."

Sutter, 54, has worked for Leonard, part time then full- ime, since. He runs the Web site,, too.

In a box behind the elegant writing desk are the fruits of one Sutter hunt, information about German prisoners of war and Life magazines from the 1940s. Sutter, a Detroit east sider, gets a lot of his magazines from John K. King Used & Rare Books downtown.

Most of Leonard's novels have taken him four to six months to write, but "The Hot Kid" took a year. Leonard wanted the research to look offhand, thrown into dialogue, and that takes work.

"Just references that wouldn't necessarily be information to the reader, but just something the guy would say at the time, but he would have to be in the oil business to say it, you know?" he says.

And "Comfort to the Enemy"?

Sutter had hit Tulsa for the "Hot Kid" research, where he learned that there'd been German POW camps in Oklahoma. Too bad "The Hot Kid" wasn't going to go beyond 1935.

"And I thought, `Shucks, this is great stuff! This is Elmore stuff!'" Sutter says.

Sutter sent the camp material to Leonard, anyway, and this summer, it's in "Comfort to the Enemy."

Eighteen of Leonard's tales have been turned into movies, a few more into TV shows. Two more movies are coming: "Tishomingo Blues," from the 2002 novel, is being directed by Don Cheadle.

And "Killshot," from 1989, is being directed by John Madden , the one who did "Shakespeare in Love" and "Proof."

Leonard has headshots of Madden's cast - Diane Lane and Mickey Rourke star - and he picks up Rosario Dawson's photo. Dawson plays a former prison guard and Elvis nut named Donna.

"I said to Madden, `The way I would picture Donna now is just take Rosario and make her look as trashy as you can, which would be kind of hard, but see what you can do,'" he says.

The ace Elmore Leonard director is Quentin Tarantino, who made what Leonard says is the most faithful adaptation of one of his novels, "Jackie Brown," which came from 1992's "Rum Punch."

"That was the book," Leonard says, in spite of the little details that Tarantino changed, like the title, the setting and the race of the main character.

But those changes don't matter, he says. What matters is that Tarantino understands his novels. Detail: Tarantino tried to shoplift "The Switch" as a teenager. He got caught - then went back and stole the book again.

"He's a fan," Leonard says.

On a wall behind his desk, Leonard has a framed photo of another fan, H.N. Swanson, the legendary Hollywood agent who read "The Big Bounce" in the mid-'60s and called Leonard up.

"He said, `Kiddo, I'm gonna make you rich.' And that was the nicest thing anybody had said to me," Leonard says.

(Detail: Under the photo, though, it reads, "I'm going to make you rich, kiddo." "Yeah, they got that wrong," Leonard says.)

Swanson got Leonard into the big time, but not until collecting 84 rejections for "The Big Bounce." The novel came out in paperback and the first movie of it was released in 1969.

"The movie, when I saw it in New York, I said, This is the second-worst movie ever made,'" Leonard says. "And the woman in front of me said to her husband, or her date,This is the worst movie I've ever seen.' And the three of us got up and left."

I'll bite. What's the worst movie ever made?

"I didn't know, but I thought there must be one that's worse."


"I didn't discover what it was until the remake of `The Big Bounce.'"


(c) 2005, Detroit Free Press. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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