Thanks, Mr. L

by Robert Ferrigno
Elmore Leonard’s life-changing advice.

Elmore Leonard was the worst interview of my life. Not his fault. Mine. He didn’t hold it against me; in fact, he gave me an incredible gift, which tells you plenty about the man.

I was a feature writer for a Southern California daily newspaper at the time, and I leapt at the chance to talk to him when he came through on a book tour. He was my literary hero, writing this lean, graceful prose and dialogue that was absolutely true to the little criminals he wrote about — those overeager psychopaths who were just like the rest of us, but freed of the limitations of long-term thinking and responsibility.

The interview took place in his suite at the Ritz-Carlton. I was nervous, too aware of my struggles with my first novel and in awe of him for making it look easy, which is always the hardest part. I taped the interview, to my great regret. I was pathetic, so overwhelmed that my questions tacked from the sycophantic to the rude as I tried and failed to find the right balance. Mr. L remained cordial and polite throughout the ordeal, a scrawny gent calmly smoking a cigarette while I sweated and stumbled.

Near the end, I confessed to my predicament as a writer. Said I had a full-time job at the paper and a new baby at home and weekends were the only time I had to write and I was making no progress at all. I knew his history, knew he must have some kind of method, some secret. He had worked at an ad agency in Detroit while supporting five kids and writing a succession of paperbacks for ten years before he made enough to quit his day job.

He smiled. Showed the kind of bad teeth you didn’t see in Southern California. Mr. L. was in the kind of tax bracket where he could have had them capped and buffed to a high, white shine . . . so those nicotine-stained incisors were a decision, a bit of honesty that suited him better than Joe Biden autograph-model choppers. He leaned forward in his chair and gave me the advice that changed my life. I’ve passed it on a lot of times since, always giving credit to the master. It’s easy advice to give, but hard to put into practice.

What time you get up? he asked me.

Seven, I told him. I have to be at the office by nine.

It was the same way at the agency, he said. You want to write a novel, you have to get up at 5. That way you have two hours every day to write before your normal day begins.

Five a.m.? I’m a night person, I said.

Mr. L. smiled again. Gave a little shrug.

Okay. I’ll get up at five.

You get up at five and you start work, said Mr. L., no messing around making coffee or buttering toast. You sit down and start writing. At 7 you stop, if you’re in the middle of a sentence, you stop, and then you make coffee, take a shower, have breakfast, whatever you normally do. You’re done working on the novel for the day. You do that every day and at the end of a year, you’ll have a novel. Then you send it out to an agent and you start on the next one.

I thanked him and apologized for being such a lousy interviewer, and he didn’t contradict me. Then I took a deep breath and handed him my favorite article that I had ever written, a profile of ex-CIA agent Frank Snepp. I told him that I didn’t expect a response, but if he read it and thought I should shift to a career selling shoes, I’d appreciate it if he’d let me know. A day later I got a note from him saying he liked the piece very much, and when I finished my book, when I finished, that I should send him a galley, and if he liked it, he would blurb it.

A couple of years later I sent him the galley of The Horse Latitudes. He liked it. He blurbed it. My publisher levitated and put it on the jacket. The book made a splash. Time magazine called it “the fiction debut of the season,” although to be fair, it was only April. A few days after the major reviews, I got a call at home from Mr. L. He was genuinely happy for me. I thanked him, told him he had changed my life and the life of my family, and I would always be grateful. He said he gave that advice all the time and that most writers lasted about a week on the schedule before falling off the wagon. I told him I had lied to him when I said I would get up every day at five a.m. as he had suggested. Yeah? His voice on the line tense now. Yes sir, I told him, I got up at four a.m. every day for the last year and a half. You’re a better writer than I am, so I figured I needed the extra hour. It made him laugh, a dry cackle that kind of hung up at the back of his throat. A beautiful laugh.

We communicated intermittently over the last 25 years. I’ve often thought that his amazing talent was sustained by his honesty, his modest outlook, his dismissal of so many accolades that were laid at his feet. He knew how to listen. How to pay attention. So many literary writers seem to pontificate to the reader, demanding to be heard, off-putting somehow. Mr. L’s work draws you in from the first sentence, the characters real and scary and utterly human. He didn’t so much create the characters as allow the characters to be born; didn’t put words into their mouths, but allowed them to speak. I imagine him pounding away on a typewriter in his basement early in the morning, a cold basement in Detroit, without coffee, cranking out gritty westerns, paperback originals that barely paid him minimum wage for his time. Ten years of that before Hollywood made Hombre, starring Paul Newman, and he could quit the ad agency. The kind of worldwide success he achieved afterwards would have made lesser writers arrogant, but he stayed true to himself and his work, and just kept getting better.

He’s gone now. No more new books from Mr. L., which is a loss, but he left us plenty to read and reread. There’s music there. And I like to think that maybe God’s working on a sequel to the Bible and he needed somebody to punch up the dialogue.

Robert Ferrigno is a New York Times–best-selling writer of crime thrillers. His latest book is The Girl Who Cried Wolf.

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