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.