"Foley had never seen a prison where you could walk rightup to the fence without getting shot. He mentioned it to the guard they called Pup, making conversation: convict and guard standing in a strip of shade between the chapel and a gun tower, red-brick structures in a red-brick prison, both men looking toward the athletic field. Several hundred inmates along the fence out there were watching the game of football played without pads, both sides wearing the same correctional blue, on every play trying to pound each other into the ground.
You know what they're doing," Foley said, "don't you? I mean besides working off their aggressions."
Pup said, "The hell you talking about?"
This was about the dumbest hack Foley had ever met in his three falls, two state time, one federal, plus a half-dozen stays in county lockups."
That's the opening of the novel Out of Sight, by Elmore Leonard. Right away we know where we are, who's talking, and there's something happening. That's typical of the openings (and the middles and endings) of all of Leonard's novels.
He died yesterday, age 87. Until his stroke a few days ago, he was still writing, and writing well.
THE 60-YEAR-OLD OVERNIGHT SUCCESS
Leonard started in the days of pulp fiction, which taught him to be prolific and to write things that people wanted to read. His day job was writing ads. He sold his first Western story in 1951, but didn't start writing full-time until 1967, when he was paid $10,000 for the film rights to Hombre.
He wrote more than forty novels. He picked up prizes along the way, but they were a long time coming. It wasn't until he was 60 that his novels started appearing on best-seller lists.
His first crime novel was rejected 84 times before it found a publisher.
Several movies were made based on his novels and stories, not always with great results. Among the best: Hombre, Valdez is Coming, Get Shorty, and the 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma. Recenty he was involved with, and happy with, Justified, a TV series based on his characters.
I can't think of any contemporary writer better at capturing low-life characters and the way they talk. Or maybe his writing was just so convincing that I believe that's how they talk.
HIS ADVICE TO WRITERS
Leonard offered a list of tips to writers, as terse and powerful as his novels. You can read them here, along with a few comments I added:
I'm sad there won't be any new Elmore Leonard books, but he remains an inspiration. His little list of tips and the many books in which he applied them are, for my money, a better writing education than a Master's Degree.
HIS (ALMOST) LAST WORDS
Last year he told an interviewer, "I probably won't quit until I just quit everything--quit my life--because it's all I know how to do. And it's fun. I do have fun writing, and a long time ago I told myself, 'You got to have fun at this, or it'll drive you nuts."