Mystery Writers Visit Ann Arbor

Elmore and Peter Leonard, Loren Estleman speak to capacity crowd
Elmore Leonard signs a copy of Road Dogs for Derek and Laura Ortega.

Elmore Leonard, left, signs a copy of "Road Dogs" for Derek and Laura Ortega after Thursday night's panel discussion at the Ann Arbor District Library.

If you own a mystery bookstore, you want to hold an event with Elmore Leonard. That’s what Jamie Agnew, co-owner of Aunt Agatha’s mystery bookstore in Ann Arbor, told a crowd at the Ann Arbor District Library downtown Thursday evening, while introducing Leonard. Partnering with the library to bring the famed author to town, Aunt Agatha’s was living the dream.

Leonard – who has written over 40 Western and crime/mystery books since his first was published in the 1950s – sat down for a joint interview with his son Peter Leonard (also a crime writer, with two novels under his belt and a third on the way). Fellow Western and mystery author Loren Estleman acted as the interviewer.

The three writers – all Michigan natives – spoke to more than 200 people in the library’s multipurpose room. Every seat in the audience was taken. People who couldn’t find chairs leaned against the walls, novels by the Leonards and Estleman in their arms for the book signing to follow.

Although it was technically an interview, the dynamic between the three authors was more like that of a casual conversation. Seated at the front of the crowded room, they shared their feelings on everything from prologues to writing tools to dealing with editors, often drawing appreciative laughter from the audience with their anecdotes.

One of the first questions Estleman asked was for the younger Leonard: Why did he take so long to get into writing fiction?

Peter Leonard explained that he wrote short stories in college and one six-page short story after he finished school. “I sent the six-page short story to my father…and he sent back his three-page critique,” he recalled, drawing laughter from the audience.

Peter Leonard said his father compared his characters to “strips of leather drying in the sun,” in that they all looked and sounded the same. “And of course, he was right.” After a pause, he concluded (to more audience laughter), “I didn’t write fiction for 27 years.”

Later on, Elmore Leonard helped his son revise the manuscript of his first book, “Quiver.”

Elmore Leonard suggested working the back story in the first chapter of the draft into later sections, Peter Leonard said.

“One of my rules is never use a prologue, no matter what you write,” Elmore Leonard said on Thursday. “It’s always back story, and you can always sprinkle it in other places.”

Although they said they don’t share ideas, they both find inspiration for scenes at family gatherings: a word or expression that comes up in conversation might be included in a future book, Peter Leonard explained. But they don’t compete either.

“I don’t think writers compete,” Elmore Leonard said. “I think they’re all doing separate things in their own style.”

Another topic Estleman brought up was dealing with editors. Elmore Leonard mentioned that his editor doesn’t like what he’s working on now – a novel called “Djibouti.”

“He’s been negative about everything about the book I’m writing, even the title,” Elmore Leonard said. “’Djibouti.’ How can you not like ‘Djibouti’?”

He didn’t seem too concerned with the negative feedback, saying that his editor would come around eventually. From there, he started recalling encounters with past editors, drawing more laughter from the audience.

“One before said, ‘This book ends rather abruptly,’” Elmore Leonard said. “And I said, ‘Well, but it’s over!’”

Both of the Leonards previously worked in advertising. Estleman wanted to know if it had helped their writing.

Peter Leonard said it didn’t have any effect on his work now, although he did get ideas for characters based on people he worked with.

“I had a purchasing agent who was giving me a hard time,” he said. “I made him a gay prison chaplain.”

Elmore Leonard said he also puts the names of people he knows into his books, calling it a way to say “hello.” 

“Sometimes I put an editor’s name in there, just to see if he’s read the book,” he said.

As for how the Leonards capture the dialogue and personalities of criminals in their books, Elmore Leonard said he had talked to inmates in a few places, including the Wayne County Jail. He said he also uses articles he reads about convicts as references. And sometimes he just makes it up.

“I pick it up different places, different ways,” he said.

“I haven’t hung around criminals,” Peter Leonard said of his characters. “I just made them up.”

Finally, the authors talked about other writers who inspire them. Elmore Leonard said Hemingway was a big influence for him for a while. “By the mid-fifties, I’d realized that Hemingway did not exercise a sense of humor in his writing,” he  said.

Peter Leonard also said Hemingway had an impact on him, along with Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men.”

“My father has been a great influence,” Peter Leonard added. “There have been a lot of writers.”

Estleman shared his influences as well, including Edith Wharton, Jack London and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” by Ron Hansen. He recommended the “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” by George V. Higgins.

Elmore Leonard agreed: “I think ‘Friends of Eddie Coyle’ is the best crime book written.”

After the talk was over, Kerri Pepperman was one of many people standing in line to have their books signed by the authors. Pepperman carried three copies of Elmore Leonard’s newest novel “Road Dogs” in her arms; she explained they were for her, her mother and her brother.

Pepperman, who described herself as a big Elmore Leonard fan since her teenage years, said she liked the humor and dialogue in his writing.

“I thought it was great,” Pepperman said of the authors’ interview that night. “It was really interesting how it really became just a conversation.”

Away from the line, Jim Lowry removed stacks of books from a brown paper grocery bag. He brought nine total for the authors to sign: three for Elmore Leonard, two for Peter Leonard and four for Estleman (“Which isn’t many, actually,” he remarked).

“I’ve been a big fan of Elmore and also of Loren Estleman for many years,” Lowry said. “I love hearing the insights to how they work.”

Jenny Hoffman, the Ann Arbor District Library community relations assistant, said the library’s multipurpose room was filled to capacity, with overflow. The event was also simultaneously broadcast to another room for those who came after the main room was full. Overall, 222 people showed up to see the Leonards and Estleman.

“I think it was a great event,” Hoffman said. “We were thrilled to have these authors come.”

About the writer: Helen Nevius, a student at Eastern Michigan University, is an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle.