September 10, 2013

Maximum Pulp- Elmore Leonard

How do you become one of the world’s best-loved writers? Well, for starters by not writing about the weather. This was just one of the things that separated Elmore Leonard, the pasha of pulp, from the bevy who explored the genre before and ever since. Leonard, who died on 20 August, could arguably be the most aural of writers to have ever pen to paper who made his characters actually speak to the reader in their unique voices. In fact, Leonard was legendary to strike out anything that sounded remotely written and this is what made him truly exceptional.

Having started his literary career by penning westerns before he shifted to pulp and noir, Leonard wrote about desperate men and women you couldn’t have claimed to know but yet appeared uncannily familiar. His stark depiction of people and places along with gritty dialogue that never lost its sting in a writing career that spanned almost six decades, Leonard, at times, made up rules of grammar almost like his characters. With gems like ‘Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip’, Leonard was governed by his Ten Rules of Writing that many writers today place alongside the Ten Commandments. This approach blessed his writing with a fantastic rhythm, a visual richness and the two in tandem with crisp dialogue made them perfect for cinematic adaptation. It’s hardly surprising that many of his initial westerns like works such as Valdez is Coming, Hombre and 3:10 to Yuma attained an instant cult status. After almost two decades of writing westerns Leonard shifted gears and started traversing the underbelly of crime infested Detroit and Miami. Bringing the trademark Western twists and turns into a landscape that was as different as chalk to cheese, Leonard made socially inept characters affable by keeping his razor sharp dialogue intact. But it was with the publication of Glitz in 1985 that Leonard truly ‘arrived’ on the scene. Set in Miami the book with a tough cop put in a corner by a psycho, whom he had previously incarcerated, and now beginning to seek revenge by killing a hooker who also happens to be the cop’s ‘special friend’, was standard Leonard.

Apart from the rich characterizations and supremely handsome dialogues that simply need to be read in order to be truly appreciated, Leonard was a master when it came to openings. You could randomly pick up any of his books and be assured of being put into the heart of matters by the time you finished reading the first few lines- "Dave Flynn stretched his boots over the footrest and his body eased lower into the barber chair." (The Bounty Hunters); "He could not get used to going to the girl's apartment. " (52 Pick-Up) "The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming." (Glitz); Dale Crowe Junior told Kathy Baker, his probation officer, he didn't see where he had done anything wrong." (Maximum Bob) or "Raylan Givens was holding a federal warrant to serve on a man in the marijuana trade known as Angel Arenas, forty-seven, born in the U.S. but 100 percent of him Hispanic." (Raylan). He managed to do that even after deliberately avoiding giving detailed description of characters, places or things, yet another of his famous writing rules.

An extremely prolific writer who churned out one masterpiece after another, Leonard made his stories special by way of immaculate research. He had a long time collaborator called Gregg Sutter whom he’d send out to find out things that would turn the world of a typical reference desk upside down. The sheer audacity with which Leonard could make his characters authentically pick a Corvette, commit an insurance fraud, disappear only to create a new identity or know if Chicago police used hollow-points or full metal jackets when it came to bullets is all thanks to the questions he posed to Sutter. Leonard preferred to write his books rather than scurry around for details but he rarely traded authenticity and got the correct look and sound be it the derelict Detroit corners, or the Maimi marina or even Rwanda. For someone who had written over 30 novels and had film adaptations based on some of his earliest works it was only in 1995 with the release of Barry Sonnenfeld Get Shorty that Hollywood truly discovered Elmore Leonard. One of the major changes from the last time around was that Get Short, and the adaptations that followed like Out of Sight, preserved most of Leonard’s original dialogue rather trying to sound like him. The viewers were warmed up to vintage Leonard thanks to a new talent called Quentin Tarantino and his writing in True Romance, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty simply (re) introduced them to one who inspired Tarantino. As a matter of fact the only non-original material that Tarantino has ever adapted was Leonard’s Rum Punch that he reshaped into Jackie Brown. Leonard could very well have been a soul teacher to filmmakers like Tarantino, Steven Soderberg and even the Coen Brothers who found in him a voice that best suited their ideas. In fact, it wouldn’t be totally incorrect to say that a large part of the impact that these filmmakers have had on cinema is perhaps thanks to the great Elmore Leonard, who would have, of course, chided at the adverb used to describe him…but the missing exclamation mark at end would have won this writer some points.

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