Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Fan Mail

I have written three fan letters in my life. One to Stan Lee, back in 1965. One to Octavia Butler shortly before her untimely death in 2006. And one to Elmore Leonard a few years earlier.

My favorite Elmore Leonard novel
Elmore Leonard died this morning, at age eighty-seven. I did not know him as a person, but as a writer he had a pretty good run. He was still writing until two weeks ago, when he suffered a stroke. He was an artist who kept getting better at his craft well into his sixties, and maintained that high level of quality until the end.

Back in the mid 1980s, when I was first getting serious about writing novels, I picked up a copy of Leonard’s LaBrava (1983) on the recommendation of Jeff Hatfield, then the manager of Uncle Edgar’s Mystery Bookstore. I immediately went on to read every other book Leonard had written. I learned more about writing from those books than I had from any other single author. A few years later, I wrote a series of comic crime novels. If you read the first three—Drawing Dead, Short Money, and The Mortal Nuts—you will see Elmore Leonard’s influence on nearly every page, just as you can see George V. Higgins’ influence in Leonard’s early crime novels, and James M. Cain’s fingers all over Higgins’ early work, and so on back to Sophocles.

My later work displays less of Leonard’s DNA, but it’s still there, tweaking the dialog, shoring up the characters, fine-tuning the timing, making me better. Every day I am aware of him. He was one of the great ones, and for me he was the right writer discovered at the right time, and I will be forever grateful for his example.

Elmore Leonard answered my fan letter. I still have his reply, a short handwritten note, classy and gracious. I must find it now, and reread it. Excuse me.

1 comment:

Little Messy Missy said...

I will have to pick up one of his books.