Sunday, March 4, 2012

On Meeting An Icon: Elmore Leonard

  Last weekend, I had the unique opportunity of attending a discussion/book signing with one of my favorite authors: Elmore Leonard. Author of Get Shorty, Rum Punch (better known as the film Jackie Brown), and several books and stories featuring Raylan Givens, the main character on the FX TV series Justified, the man is a legend. He was in Lone Tree out by Park Meadows mall to promote his new book, Raylan, along with his son, Peter Leonard--also promoting a new book. I was a a little surprised he hadn't drawn a larger crowd, but then again, he was at a Barnes and Noble way in the hell out of the way, and he is a writer, not a rock star. In fact, there were probably only 20 or so people gathered around the table he and his son, also an author, sat at.
     I was amazed to be sitting so close to a man whose books I've been reading for years, whose characters and sense of humor I've gotten to know so well. Once I start one of his books, I usually can't put it down, and I'm finished reading in a few weeks or less.
    During the discussion portion, I felt like I was in school again, where the teacher is at the front and nobody is brave enough to ask a question. Peter Leonard was the one leading the discussion, asking his father questions, talking about his own book every so often. In the end, the focus ended up being more on interesting memories, like meeting Charles Bronson and George Clooney, rather than on Raylan.
    When a few people finally put forth some questions, I was surprised again that the conversation was on writing tips rather than on Elmore Leonard's books. There are dozens of novels and short stories to pick from, especially the numerous ones that have been made into movies that people are more familiar with, and still, people were more focused on his 10 Rules of Writing and screenwriting in general.
    One of the things he said about screenwriting stuck with me: Peter mentioned how he showed a script he'd written to his father and asked his opinion, to which Elmore replied that wanting to be a screenwriter was like wanting to be a copilot. While I have always loved the movies, and I have always loved writing, I always enjoyed writing novels and stories more than screenplays. So, I thought his comment was pretty funny, and made a lot of sense, though I suspect he may have hurt the pride of the person who asked the question...
    Another thing I really enjoyed about the discussion was character names. Elmore Leonard says he spends days, even weeks, trying to choose the right name for a character in his books. I do not do this when I write. I hit up a names website (for whatever reason, I like BabyNames.com despite the bright colors and weird fonts) for anywhere from a few minutes to a couple hours making notes about names I like, until I narrow it down to a few. The ones I still like that don't make onto the list of main characters I keep on file for secondary characters as the story goes on.
    Elmore and Peter were saying how people buy names to be featured in their books. The money is donated to charity, but I was surprised that people spend thousands of dollars just to get their name in a book. Elmore Leonard was saying how he didn't always use the names, and he still had quite a long list of names to use in his books because they weren't right for the characters he was writing. If a person has a weak name or a boring name, "You can't shoot someone with a name like that," he said. And as fans of his books know, someone almost always ends up getting shot. That remark resonated with me as a writer. A WASP-y character can't have a modern sounding name, and a cowboy can't have a name that a dancer would have. It just doesn't fit. It won't be believable.
    What surprised me most about all this was not even how much people spend to have their names published in a Leonard book--it was more that Elmore keeps letting people have auctions where people can buy a name in one of his books when he doesn't use them very often. The man is 86 years old. He can't fit that many names into that many more books, something he realizes as well.
    One thing no one saw coming, not even the authors, was a surprise guest: during the discussion, a woman in the second of three rows of chairs raised her hand and asked a question about Rum Punch. Neither Peter nor Elmore recognized that it was Pam Grier, the star of Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown. Once she identified herself, there was general surprise and awe that she had shown up. I knew that she lived in Colorado at one point, but I didn't know she was still here! Considering Jackie Brown is my second favorite Tarantino movie, I was quite starstruck myself.
    At the end of the discussion, everyone lined up and Elmore Leonard signed books. While most people were buying new books, copies of Raylan, I had brought a book from home. I meant to bring The Hot Kid, Riding the Rap, or Glitz, one of my favorites, I forgot when I left my apartment and I had to ask my dad for a book. Fortunately, he happened to have a copy of City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit that I took. I think I was the only person that brought a book from home.
    When I walked out of there that afternoon, I read the note he'd written when he signed my used copy of the book--"Take it easy." You too, Mr. Leonard. You too.
Must start campaign to get Stephen King to Colorado...

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