Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Elmore Leonard, We Hardly Knew Ye. Actually, We Didn't Know Ye, We Just Read a Lot of Ye. 1925-2013

Back when I worked at Warner Books, I did not get involved in many editorial decisions. Editors would sometimes ask us to read manuscripts, and then use our reads to help get the deal. I don’t know what they did with a negative read once they were gunning to publish someone. Ignore it, I guess.

So one day, someone gives me a manuscript for this novelist named Elmore Leonard. It might have been Karren*, who at that time might have been Karine, as she was one of several folks I worked with who used a numerologist to adjust their names for SUCCESS!) who gave it to me, as she was a good dealmaker and we liked talking to each other about books. Welcome to the eighties.

It turns out that I had become obsessed with Elmore Leonard (photo credit Linda Solomon). I can’t figure out why I started reading him, but I was voracious, as you can see in the addendum. And that's probably why they included a junior publicity person in an important acquisition meeting.

I became what you might call an addict. I had read a lot of mysteries, but these weren’t mysteries in my book, because you knew the villain. The heroes weren’t always that good, but boy, the villains were quite bad, and were pretty violent too, moreso with the later books. Often funny. I loved that the plots were rather intricate and filled with double and even triple crosses. You can see why Quentin Tarantino was a fan.

So that manuscript was the novel Glitz, and Arbor House came to us to be their paperback partner in an attempt to break Elmore Leonard out beyond his cult following. To do that, they needed money and they apparently couldn’t get that from Avon, their normal paperback sibling, Avon. It’s all in this New York Times article about their big plans, leading to Glitz becoming Leonard’s first New York Times bestseller, but what it doesn’t say is that I yapped more at that meeting than I ever did before. I was in my early twenties and often had no idea what I was talking about. Do I now? But I sure did love Leonard and I was positive that other people would too

The article doesn’t make mention of Warner, who provided a lot of the cash, but I remember that even after the book was signed, Warner seemed involved in the marketing of the book, as my coworker Margaret in advertising had several ad proofs. I had befriended George Coleman, a Donald Fine protégé invovled in the Leonard, who later left Arbor House to return to Fine at his new independent house, and and later (I think) he brought Dale Brown to Putnam. He was one of those people who was about my age but had a talent that made me feel like I was a gawky 13 year old. I still run into folks like that, but I won’t list names. Alas, George died of AIDS at a very young 35.

It's coming back to me, how I started reading Leonard. I think George sent me one of his novels, in order to trade for some Warner title, perhaps Megatrends or Life Extension. It's how I met a lot of people in publishing. Editors or the publisher or the even the president would come to me and say, go get me a copy of this book, and I would call the publicity department and see if they'd be interested in say, The Richard Simmons Never-Say-Diet Cookbook.

After the deal was set up, I wasn’t really obligated to read future Elmore Leonards. As the junior assistant paperback publicist, my job was mostly to say no to requests and you really don't have to know about the books when you're just rejecting everyone. That being said, in addition to the multiple-book hard-soft deal, we also picked up a lot of his backlist and I tended to read what what we published. Warner had four Gail Godwin books on our backlist, which we repackaged whenever when she had a successful novel; I read them all. When we acquired the Popular Library backlist, I read a whole mess of P.D. James. And so I kept reading Elmore Leonard. Including at least one western.

After I moved to Harry W. Schwartz and we started our event program, I figured we’d eventually host Mr. Leonard. After all, the Detroit suburbs weren't really that far from Milwaukee, though he also spent a fair amount of time in Florida, as you can tell from the increasingly Floridian setting of the stories. It never happened, and I’m pretty sure the only time I met Mr. Leonard was at that planning meeting for Glitz in New York. And needless to say, at that point, I was too star struck to talk to him.

Mr. Leonard died this week, after a stroke.


I stated keeping track of my reading in 1984. I'm pretty sure this is not a complete list, though it doesn't start much earlier than Cat Chaser, and I could tell by the last few annotated titles that Rum Punch might have been the last. Hey, I can't think of too many other authors in my reading where I read twenty of the novels. I would say that makes Leonard one of my all-time favorites.

January 1984: Cat Chaser
February 1984: Stick
April 1984: LaBrava
May 1984: 52 Pickup
June 1984: Unknown Man #89
July 1984: City Primeval
August 1984: Split Images
September 1984: Swag
November 1984: Glitz
December 1984: The Switch (I read 17 books that month. Oh for the day.)
February 1986: The Hunted
April 1986: Mr. Majestyk
September 1986: The Big Bounce
December 1986: Bandits
July 1987: Touch
May 1988: Freaky Deaky
May 1989: Killshot
August 1990: Get Shorty
September 1991: Maximum Bob
September 1992: Rum Punch (which became the film "Jackie Brown")

His most recent book is Raylan. His most quoted is Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing. I'm shocked by how many of his titles continue to be republished!

*I don't normally do this but I changed the editor's name. Maybe her friends don't know she kept changing her name's spelling at the advice of a numerologist.

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