MARTIN AMIS: We're welcoming here Elmore Leonard, also known as "Dutch." And rather less formally, the "Dickens of Detroit. " It is an apt description, I think, because he is as close as anything you have here in America to a national novelist, a concept that almost seemed to die with Charles Dickens but has here been revived. I was recently in Boston visiting Saul Bellow, and on the shelves of the Nobel laureate, I spied several Elmore Leonards. Saul Bellow has a high, even exalted view of what literature is and does. For him, it creates the "quiet zone " where certain essences can nourish what he calls "our fair souls. " This kind of literature of the Prousto- Nabokovian variety has recently been assigned the label "minority interest. " There is patently nothing "minority interest " about Elmore Leonard. He is a popular writer in several senses. But Saul Bellow and I agreed that for an absolutely reliable and unstinting infusion of narrative pleasure in a prose miraculously purged of all false qualities, there was no one quite like Elmore Leonard.
I thought we might begin at the beginning, and talk about your early years as a writer and how you got started. In my experience, everyone at the age of 14 or 15 (or a bit earlier) starts to commune with themselves and to keep notes and to keep a diary. It's only the writers who go on with that kind of adolescent communion. Was it like that for you? Did you get the glimmer quite early on?
ELMORE LEONARD: Let me ask first: Do you think if I lived in Buffalo, I'd be Dickens?
AMIS: The "Balzac of Buffalo " perhaps.
LEONARD: I had a desire to write very early on but I didn't. I wrote just what I had to write in school compositions and things like that. It wasn't until I was in college after World War II that I wrote a couple of short stories. The first one because the English instructor said, "If you enter this contest "--it was a local writers' club within the University of Detroit-- "I'll give you a B. " I've always been inspired in this somewhat commercial approach toward writing. Which is why I chose westerns to begin with. In 1951, I decided to look at the field. I looked at the market, and I saw westerns in the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, almost everything from the Ladies Home Journal down through men's magazines and pulps. There were then at least a dozen pulps still in business, the better ones paying two cents a word. So I decided this was a market. What with all of these magazines buying short stories, this was the place to start--and because I liked western movies a lot, and I wanted to sell to Hollywood right away and make some money. I approached this with a desire to write but also to make as much money as I could doing it. I didn't see anything wrong with that at all. I think the third one sold, and that was it. After that, they've all sold since then. But then the market dried up, and I had to switch to crime.
AMIS: You were also, as I understand, writing commentaries for educational films and industrial movies.
LEONARD: Yes: industrial movies about air pollution, building highways, Encyclopaedia Britannica, geography and history movies. I did about a dozen of those: the settlement of the Mississippi Valley, the French and Indian War, the Danube, Puerto Rico. I think they were 27-minute movies. I did that right after I had left an ad agency where I was writing Chevrolet ads, which drove me crazy. Because you had to write real cute then. I had a lot of trouble with that. I could do truck ads, but I couldn't do convertibles at all. So I got out of that. But I still had to make a living. So I got into the industrial movies and a little freelance advertising.