Thursday, January 26, 2012

Writers: Elmore Leonard and Mike Lupica at Barnes & Noble, last night

Text and photos by George Molé

I've never read Elmore Leonard, but I've read and heard enough about him to believe I'd like his work.  He's often described as a colorful character in his own right, a tough-guy American writer in the Hemingway tradition, and a master of strong, spare prose and punchy dialogue.  Mike Lupica, in particular--the fine sportswriter for the New York Daily News, whose writing I do know and like--never misses a chance to plug Leonard's work in his Sunday column.  So I showed up last night for Leonard's appearance at Barnes & Noble's big and welcoming East 86th Street location, where he was interviewed onstage by Lupica himself.


Lupica introduced Leonard in glowing terms, calling him "my writing hero."

"We are here tonight to talk with and about...our greatest writer," Lupica said, "and the writer from this time who's going to be remembered."

Leonard, 86, is a small, dapper, soft-spoken and seemingly-shy man, who seemed to depend on Lupica to draw him out in conversation.  "I think you should ask me a question, to start," he directed the sportswriter.

Mike Lupica (left) in conversation with Elmore Leonard.

Lupica did, asking about Raylan, Leonard's latest novel, about Justified, the current television series based on Leonard's work, and about Leonard's long career.

"I've been writing for 60 years, and I've had a good time all the way," Leonard said.  "What more can I say than that?  I like my books.  I think all my books are good."

The rapport between the two writers was fun to watch, as Leonard, in his deadpan way, cracked Lupica up periodically.  For example, one of the plot lines in Raylan involves criminals who steal and sell body parts.


"I researched it," Leonard said.  "You can excise a kidney and you can put it back just about anywhere you want.  And the going price was about $10,000, and there are two of them in every body, so that's a pretty good deal, 20 grand.  So, I just got into body parts."


"I'm surprised you didn't make it a musical," Lupica said.
"I thought it was kind of funny, too, but you never know," Leonard observed.  "You don't want to go for laughs when you're excising kidneys."


Lupica described Leonard's writing process.  "He sits down at a big desk in the living room of his home.  He's got  these blank yellow pads, and..."

"Unlined," Leonard threw in.

"Unlined," Lupica agreed.  "Got me out of yellow legal pads.  "'Cause I keep thinking if I just get the same kind of pads..."

"But he doesn't.  He gets lined pads..."

"No, I don't.  No I do not..." 


This led eventually to an exchange about Hemingway.  "Oh, I thought Hemingway was terrific," Leonard said, "in the '50s when I was reading him, until I found out he doesn't have a sense of humor.  He's never written a funny line."

A free-form, wide-ranging and riveting interview.  But, for me, the best parts were afterward.

Following their conversation, Leonard and Lupica took questions from audience members...

Broadcaster Tony Guida (WCBS Radio) asks a question.

...including radio broadcaster Tony Guida.  But in between questions, Lupica introduced a frail-looking older man, sitting on the side of the room, in the back. "I was perfectly willing to be the second-best writer in the room," Lupica said. "but unfortunately I'm the third-best writer in the room tonight, because we have one distinguished guest--the great William Goldman, the author of The Princess Bride [and] Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

Goldman is indeed great.  Best known for his screenplays (he won Oscars for Butch Cassidy and All the President's Men), he's been part of my life from way back due to three wonderful novels of his that I discovered many years ago--Marathon Man (later made into a hit movie, starring Dustin Hoffman, for which Goldman also wrote the screenplay); Control, a thriller involving New York City detectives and rogue government operatives; and The Color of Light, an episodic novel taking place at various points in the life of a young writer.

Goldman's plots are fine, but these novels stay with you largely because of his witty, rhythmic dialogue and prose, and his evocative New York City settings. Here's a bit of The Color of Light--the young writer, Chub, a college student in Ohio at this point, is visiting New York for the first time, with his buddy Two-Brew, a native New Yorker:

It was after seven before they got through the Holland Tunnel and then Two-Brew said to take a left and Chub did, driving through the driving rain, past ugly buildings and skittering pedestrians and as a drunk came staggering in the middle of the street into oncoming traffic Two Brew spoke again:  "Welcome to Magic Town." 

Chub stared at him.  "This is Manhattan?"

Two-Brew nodded.  "Sometimes it's even prettier.  This is Eighth Avenue--people from Hawaii come here to vacation."

Chub made a smile, but inside there was only disbelief...

"Cat got your tongue?"

"I just...I thought there'd be more...I don't know what."

"Ah, yes, with Fred and Ginger spinning on tabletops.  It can be very beautiful here--I remember one day my junior year in high school it was very beautiful all morning."

(From The Color of Light by William Goldman, 1984, Warner Books.) 

Don't worry, Chub falls hard for the city and becomes a New York lifer.

I love all three of these books and often think about them, remembering whole batches of dialogue and description almost perfectly. So I had to talk to him.

After the presentation, when Leonard had begun signing books...

...I walked back to where Goldman was sitting and chatting with one or two people, making my way down the row of chairs toward him.  The age-old question:  What do you say to someone whose work means a lot to you, but to whom you are a faceless stranger?

"Excuse me, Mr. Goldman?"


"You wrote a book called Control..."

"Yes."  Reserved but friendly.

"Well, I'm a New York City cop, and I just wanted to tell you how good you got us in that book."

Yeah, I said "how good you got us" to a great writer.

But he smiled and seemed pleased.  "Oh, thank you."

"I wonder if I could bother you..."

"Sure, if you have something..."

"If you don't mind signing a piece of paper..."

"I don't mind signing a piece of paper."

While he signed one of the folded-up pieces of copy paper on which I had been taking notes, I threw in, "And I think The Color of Light is one of the best writer's books I've read."  I meant that it's one of the best books about being a writer--and it is.

"Oh, thank you."  Sounding genuinely pleased.  A lady standing behind him, who seemed to be with him, said, "See that?"  As if my praise was a contradiction of his own evaluation of his work--and I have heard that he, for all his accomplishment, is not a confident man.

I guess I could've done better--figured out a way to engage him in scintillating conversation.  But I could've done worse, too.

He got up a bit later and was talking with people.  I got one good picture...

William Goldman

Also, while Leonard was signing books on the platform, Lupica was wandering the room and chatting. After I sat down again, he walked over to where I was sitting and I asked him to sign one of his books for me.  And as he did...

Anyone who knows Lupica's work knows his excellent sportswriting.  But Lupica also fancies himself something of a political pundit, and peppers his Sunday sports column with political comments, almost always from a far-left perspective.  The Daily News was also unwise enough to give him a weekly political column, sometimes more than one in a week--and these, though still employing Lupica's engaging writing style, can also be grating, displaying a shallow, reflexive liberalism that doesn't add much to the political debate.

Well, why shouldn't I tell him?

"Mike, I love your writing but I hate your politics."

"Well, if you agreed with me on everything you'd get bored reading me."

A reasonable answer--but...

"Well...I don't know...I'm still hoping you'll come around."

But that was enough of that--he had already turned away.

Great evening, interesting people.  And William Goldman!

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At February 13, 2012 at 1:56 PM , Anonymous Barry Reitman said...

Thanks, George, for another wonderful view of a writer on writers. Re Goldman: This blog sent me to Wiki. Two big favorites jumped up. "Soldier in the Rain," which although not read by me, I've always regarded as the standout movie of "the Great One," Jackie Gleason. The other is "No Way to Treat a Lady." The book was a delicious, perverse, and humor-filled look at an insane actor who just happens to be a serial killer. The movie, while toned down, was a thoroughly enjoyable showcase of Rod Steiger's range.

The enumeration in this comment of certain books/movies shall not be construed to deny or disparage others, including "Marathon Man" and "All the President's Men," to which you paid tribute.

At July 8, 2012 at 11:34 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great piece, felt like I was in there with you. I'll have to look for Control and Color of Light in the library. I think you did quite well talking to Goldman, considering he's someone you admire greatly. And to have him respond favorably to you, how great is that? As far Lupica, I'm kind of hoping you'll come around.


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