Whistling Dixie

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And now the author who has enjoyed success in the bookstores and on the big screen (Get Shorty, Glitz, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight) is looking back on his boyhood wanderings for locations of future works.

"I've never set a book in Texas," he says, "but a novella ("Tenkiller") that will be included in a collection of short stories due out next year will open at the Bud Light Bullriding Championships in Austin. And lately I've been thinking about a novel that will be set in Oklahoma in the 1930s."

Fact is, while he's spent his entire adult life in Detroit, the man The New York Times has called "America's greatest living crime writer" has always had a soft spot for this neck of the woods. He even spent a few years of his early childhood in Dallas when General Motors transferred his father here. And though he has little recall of those days--"I wasn't but 5 or so"--he does remember that the newspaper headlines of his boyhood launched a lifetime fascination with the criminal likes of Pretty Boy Floyd and Machine Gun Kelley.

"We'd moved to Memphis by the time Bonnie and Clyde were finally killed," he says, "and I remember reading everything about it that I could get my hands on." Somewhere, he admits, he even has a photo, taken when he was just 10, in which he emulates Bonnie Parker as he remembered her pictured on the nation's front pages. "I'm standing by the family car with one foot on the running board, pointing my toy gun at the camera," he says.

Too, he recalls at least one occasion when he returned home from a Texas visit with grist for his fiction mill. "Several years ago," he says, "I was invited to Amarillo to speak to a group of book distributors. One of the people I met at the luncheon was a guy named Raylan Givens. What a wonderful name. I told him I was going to borrow it if he didn't mind." Thus one of the characters in a Leonard novel titled Pronto was given the name of the Texas distributor.

All of which offers a glimpse into the gathering process Leonard lends to his work. Long applauded for the lyrical and humorous dialogue he creates, he insists that he's not spent a lifetime eavesdropping on strangers. "I just listen to people," he says, "picking up on their dialect, the way they describe things, phrases they repeat, words they use and misuse. For me, allowing a character to describe a scene is far more effective than anything I could do with a narrative approach."

Dallas mystery writer A.W. Gray agrees that Leonard's dialogue is unmatched in today's fiction. "But," he adds, "that is only one element that has elevated him to the position he's achieved. To me, the most remarkable thing about his writing is his ability to say so much with so few words. He can paint the same picture in one sentence that some writers need a page and a half to do."

So why, after critical and financial success that continues at an age when many are content to put daily toiling aside, does Leonard continue his search for new characters, new settings; keeping his daily 10 a.m.-to-6 p.m. writing schedule? "Once I settled on what I wanted to write and found the voice I wanted to use," the former ad agency copywriter says, "it quickly became fun. And still is. So long as that's the case, I'll keep at it."

And, clearly, he hasn't lost a step. Leonard points out that Tishomingo Blues now ranks as his personal favorite among his own books, displacing one titled Freaky Deaky written several years ago. "I've never had such a good time writing a book," he says. "When I began it, I had no real idea where it was going, but it just took on a life of its own."

With that he's off to other topics, talking about a children's adventure novel he's just completed ("It's about this gang of coyotes that roam Hollywood Hills because the actors who live there have such great garbage and a lonely Saint Bernard who is retired from the movie business," he says), a mystery he plans to set in Detroit, then the Oklahoma period novel. There's the short-story collection and a half dozen more movie projects in various stages of development.

And no doubt, somewhere out there is another Dixie Mafia-type legend to research and mold to his needs. If what he finds lacks the proper amount of dark humor or isn't tilted a bit off-center, rest assured Leonard will be sure to make it so. "I like dealing with the gray areas," he says, "where everything and everyone isn't simply good or bad."

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers

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