The great American crime writer Elmore Leonard said he liked to remain invisible to his readers, to allow his taut, spare dialogue to bloom in the imagination.
“If it feels like writing, I rewrite it,” the late novelist of crime fiction and Westerns said in his little book, “Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Good Writing.”
Now, with the addition of his voluminous archive of papers and artifacts to USC Libraries, scholars will be able to do their own dissection of what has made Leonard such a distinctive American literary voice and why his characters – Raylan Givens, Lt. Vincent Mora, Chili Palmer, among them – are so memorable.
The acquisition, announced Wednesday by USC President Harris Pastides, is a coup for the university, which already has laid impressive claim to the archives of other American fiction writers including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Heller, and two fellow crime writers George V. Higgins and James Ellroy.
Most recently, the university acquired the collection of South Carolina author Pat Conroy, who continues to add his hand-written manuscripts and other memorabilia to the Conroy archive.
“When I learned that Elmore Leonard’s papers were available, I looked at them as papers that would move us into the ‘great’ category” of crime and suspense writing, said USC Dean of Libraries Tom McNally.
McNally initiated telephone discussions with Leonard about the collection in January 2013. When Leonard came to South Carolina to receive a literary medal from USC’s Thomas Cooper Society in May 2013, USC officials gave him a tour of the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library, home to the university’s rare books and literary archives.
“We took him into the vault,” said McNally. “He spent hours down there just looking at original manuscripts,” including those of Hemingway, a revered figure, and Higgins, the author of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” and other books in the “hard-boiled” genre of suspense literature. Leonard credited Higgins with teaching him the art of character dialogue.
That literary expedition, including laying his hands on a copy of Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” sealed the deal, said Leonard’s son, Peter Leonard, a trustee of the author’s papers and a novelist in his own right.
Peter Leonard said his father told him he used to lay a blank sheet of paper over a section of Hemingway prose and attempt to write it for himself.
When Elmore Leonard got on the plane to return to his Detroit home, he turned to his son and said “this is where I want my papers to go.”
Peter Leonard has great memories of his father, who died in August 2013 at the age of 87.
“He was a fun, funny dad who broke all the rules,” Peter Leonard said. “We would watch Westerns and eat beans off a tin plate.”
As adult father and son, the pair traveled the country to book fairs and other literary gatherings, sharing their particular love of crime noir.
Leonard stored his archive in his basement for years, tucked away in 150 bank boxes. It is huge at 2,400 linear square feet; spread out, the papers would cover a half-mile, McNally said.
Among the items in the USC collections are 450 drafts of book manuscripts, short stories and screenplays, many written on Leonard’s favorite yellow paper. There are family scrapbooks, correspondence between Leonard and other writers, two director’s chairs, his writing desk and typewriters.
McNally won’t say how much the university paid for the archive or whether part of it was a gift, but he will say the independent appraiser who assisted the university described the collection as “unprecedented” for its breadth and scope.
Otto Penzler, a writer, publisher and proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City, said Leonard’s influence on the genre is legendary, with writers seeking to emulate his peculiar blend of sharp dialogue, bursts of violence and humor.
“After Elmore Leonard, people realized you don’t have to write (dialogue) in complete sentences, you don’t have to worry about grammar, usage, punctuation,” he said.
Pentzler and Leonard were friends for decades. On Wednesday, he recounted how Leonard autographed a manuscript for him as a gift, which Penzler had to sell during a lean time. Miraculously, that manuscript has turned up in the USC collection.
Leonard was a prolific writer, with more than 45 novels under his belt starting with the short pulp Westerns he wrote in the early morning hours before he began his day job as an advertising man in the 1950s. He wrote for 60 years, earning the sobriquet of the “Dickens of Detroit.”
Photographs of Leonard during that early writing period suggest the suave sophistication of a Don Draper.
Yet he was writing spare prose like this: “Near the corner two horses stood under a sign that said EAT, in red letters; and on the other side of Stockman the signs continued, lining the rutted main street to make it seem narrower. And beneath the signs, in the shadows, nothing moved. There was a whisper of wind along the ramadas. It whipped sand specks from the street and rattled them against clapboard, and the sound was hollow and lifeless. Somewhere a screen door banged, far away.”
That story, “3:10 to Yuma” was made into a movie twice, the first in 1957 starring Glenn Ford as outlaw Ben Wade and Van Heflin as Dan Evans, the deputized rancher who agrees to take the outlaw to the Yuma prison on the 3:30 train. In 2007, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale starred as the leading men.
From Westerns, Leonard moved into the crime genre that would transform him into an American literary icon.
Leonard’s books translated easily to the screen and many Leonard fans came to his books after watching movies such as “Get Shorty” (1995), “Jackie Brown (1997) (based on his book “Rum Punch”) and “The Big Bounce (2004). The FX television series “Justified” with Timothy Olyphant was based on Leonard’s short story “Fire in the Hole.” His most recent film was this year’s “Life of Crime” starring Jennifer Anniston and Tim Robbins.
“He takes all of his character and drops a little circle around them and makes them figure out how they are all interconnected,” said McNally, who got hooked on Leonard’s crime fiction before moving backwards to the early Westerns.
Once university archivists organize the Leonard collection, researchers will be able to analyze the materials for scholarly purposes or simply enjoy reading a hand-written manuscript that Leonard penned.
“When we take on a collection we take on an enormous responsibility,” McNally said. “We are making a commitment to preserve the legacy of Elmore Leonard. We don’t put things on a shelf and forget about it.”
As President Pastides noted, “Elmore Leonard will live at the University of South Carolina.”