50 Great American Authors

They defined Elmore Leonard as a writer of ‘crime fiction.’ True, but it no more covers the man than only saying Michael Jordan played off guard for the Chicago Bulls. He was more than a writer … he was a craftsman. That’s because he had rules. No. 1, for example: “Never open a book with weather.” You know, don’t say “It was a dark and stormy night.” The man wasn’t interested in meteorology, he was interested in stories, characters, direction. That’s why his every page was worth reading … again.

He didn’t waste time. Another rule shows that: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” Oooh, we’re cutting it to the bone here! Well, I just broke one of his rules there: “Keep your exclamation marks under control.” Damn! And I pepper everything I write with them. Do you suppose he was down on CAPITAL letters, as well? He also said, “Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell broke loose.'” Dammit! The man took all the fun out of my composition habits! But that’s why he’s still Elmore Leonard and I’m not!

Elmore Leonard was born in 1925, so he was of age to serve in World War II and that’s what he did, in the U. S. Navy, serving with the ‘Seabees,’ the Navy’s construction team, rising to Petty Officer 3rd Class. After that, he got into writing short stories and … Westerns! Five of those became Western movies: The Tall T (with Richard Boone); 3:10 to Yuma (Glenn Ford); Hombre (Paul Newman); Valdez is Coming (Burt Lancaster) and Joe Kidd (Clint Eastwood). That’s a writing career right there.

Other movies: Jackie Brown (Pam Grier); Get Shorty (John Travolta and Gene Hackman); Out of Sight (George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez). Well, he was the master of realism. In fact, that was another of his rules: “If it sounds like writing, re-write it.” That’s why his characters ‘talked’ to his readers. Colleagues heaped praise on him: “The Charles Dickens of Detroit.” Or, “The poet laureate of wild assholes and revolvers.” Or, “His prose made Raymond Chandler look clumsy.”

He was the master of his craft and it was described this way: “Leonard’s mastery of free indirect discourse, a third-person narrative technique that gives the illusion of immediate access to a character’s thoughts is unsurpassed in our time, and among the surest of all time, even if we include Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, and Hemingway in the mix.” Well, you get the idea. And here I haven’t even talked about Get Shorty. No matter. His every book is like Get Shorty: rhythm, ripping and writing.

So, don’t let me stick you with Get Shorty. Yes, it’s a must read. But so is ever book he wrote. Try Fire in the Hole. Try Bandits, described thusly: “A wild ride with ‘the coolest, hottest writer in America’ (Chicago Tribune), Bandits has everything Elmore Leonard fans love: non-stop thrills, unexpected twists and turns, unforgettable characters, and the most razor-sharp dialogue being rapidly exchanged anywhere in the crime fiction genre.” Call him the Hemingway of the Whodunit. He was all that.

Many authors turn out one masterpiece that is so grand that everything else they did before that or after that is simply dwarfed by comparison. The list of such authors is impressive: J. D. Salinger, Margaret Mitchell, James Jones, Emily Bronte, Oscar Wilde, Joseph Heller, Sylvia Plath, Anna Jewell, Boris Pasternak, Ralph Ellison, F. Scott Fitzgerald and many others. There is another that must be included: Alex Haley, whose Roots, which was published in 1976, was so big and so important that it’s almost impossible to describe.

An experience that shaped him was when he became an editor for Reader’s Digest. Writing is creative talent but editing is stylized craft. Haley thus had both working for him. He then perfected interview technique, sounding out important names for Playboy: Martin Luther King, Jr., Miles Davis, Muhammad Ali, Sammy Davis Jr., football star Jim Brown, attorney Melvin Belli and … George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party, and Rockwell’s direct opposite, Malcolm X.

The story of Roots is basic: Haley traced his own family tree back seven generations, from Africa to America. That sounds easy on the surface but try finding manifests for ‘passengers’ on slave ships. Haley spent years in library ‘dungeons’ and read voraciously on the subject. He was even slapped with a law suit for plagiarism, losing a court case to Harold Courlander. Haley supposedly lifted a passage from The African. As I’ve ‘stolen’ many passages myself, I thought the whole thing wasn’t worth the time of day.

Here’s the difference between the two men: Harold Courlander wrote The African and nobody remembers it (or very few); Alex Haley wrote Roots and nobody can forget it, as it was made into a supreme series for TV of the same name for the silver screen, with Marlon Brando in the role of George Lincoln Rockwell. Brando wanted to shoot over several days. They told him: “Do it this morning or we replace you.” Brando shot it in two hours, eyeball to eyeball with James Earl Jones in the role of Haley!

It’s difficult to pinpoint a specific ‘style’ of writing with Alex Haley and Roots. But, in reading the book, I felt like I was getting news flashes from some front line in some important battle, as though he were a … war correspondent. Lots of great authors were war correspondents, with Ernest Hemingway heading that list. But this was Hemingway with … research. Roots got right down to it, every last detail, no matter how minute, like a documentary, a genealogical study, an anthropology field trip.

Roots was such a success that Alex Haley won the Pulitzer Prize for it in 1977. They had to invent a new ‘Special Considerations’ category for him, as the book was, most definitely, not … fiction. Well, it was one of the most read, most admired, most acclaimed books in the history of American Literature. It was historical and it was personal. The reader felt the roll of the slave ship, the grip of the ankle irons, the humility of slavery, the pride and genius that were handed down through seven generations. A book for all ages.

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Dan Peterson

Dan Peterson

Long-time Head Coach of Olimpia Milano in the Italian Serie A1
Dan Peterson

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