It was the perfect way to end time at the Tucson Festival of Books. I caught the tail end of Alice Hoffman's presentation, then stood in line to get a front row seat for the Elmore Leonard family, interviewed by NPR's Scott Simon.
I arrived at the program, Conversation with Alice Hoffman and Bobby Rich, just at the point where the audience started to ask questions. Alice Hoffman said her favorite book is always the next book to come, and she still writes about the fifteen-year-old girl she was.
When asked about writing about the supernatural, she said she didn't plan it that what. But, what a child or teen reads stays with you, and influences your writing.
Hoffman loved fairy tales, Edward Eager's books such as Magic by the Lake, and Ray Bradbury. Hoffman said magical realism isn't new. Magic has always been a part of literature. And, she said fairy tales spoke the truth to her as other books didn't, a psychological truth.
Questions involved Alice Hoffman's themes. She said she wrote very early about HIV in At Risk. She was pregnant at the time, and said, when you have your first child, you cross over to the other side, and worry for the rest of your life about your child. She worried about her child getting ill. Since her husband was dealing with ill children at the hospital, At Risk was written.
Someone mentioned that she uses blackbirds a lot in her books. Hoffman said symbols do arise, but she's not always conscious of it. But, she is interested in the attachment to memory and totem animals, and how people relate to them. Hoffman does live in an old house, and loves old houses. She grew up in a Levittown type of community, where every house looked the same.
She does write a lot about family mythology, and what living life gives you; what's passed down to you by mother and grandmother. Hoffman said she writes about strong women and family mythology. She has grandmother figures i her books. She was close to her grandmother from Russia, a woman who was a storyteller. Anyone who is close to their grandmother is lucky. It's a pure relationship. The first story Hoffman ever wrote was about her grandmother.
Alice Hoffman talked about the beginning of her writing career. She said she was about to drop out of high school, but a guidance counselor told her if she went to summer school, she could graduate early. So, she did, went to college, and then applied to a grad school at a university she'd never heard of, Stanford. While in a writing class there, her professor submitted one of her short stories, and it was published. A famous editor that story, and contacted her, asking her if she had a novel. She quickly wrote one, and sent it to him. He didn't publish it, but she's always been a fan of writing programs because of this experience.
The final question asked was, did Hoffman care if people read her books on paper or on a Kindle. That ended the program on a poignant note when Alice Hoffman's answer was, she didn't care, but she felt said to think books may not exist. Books are beautiful. Writing will exist, but books might not.
I couldn't have ended the weekend on a better note, a program called "The Elmore
Leonard Family with Scott Simon." Simon, the host of National Public Radio's (NPR), Weekend Edition Saturday, introduced and interviewed the family. The interview was recorded for NPR. Elmore Leonard was there, along with his son, Chris. Leonard's other son, Peter, had injured his Achilles tendon, and joined the program via speakerphone.
When Scott Simon was introduced, the announcer said Tucson could claim him because his stepfather had once played baseball for the Tucson Toros.
Simon congratulated everyone involved with the festival. He said it was a magnificent event, and he and his family had been to more than one book festival. In fact, he said his daughters were already asking if they could come back again. He said the support the festival provided for literacy was so important, and made a difference in the community.
Simon went on to ask if Representative Gabrielle Giffords was in the audience. She had asked him to participate in the festival. In return, he said, his daughters' pictures would soon be appearing on twenty dollar bills, by an act of Congress.
Simon then introduced the members of "One of America's preeminent crime families." First he introduced Elmore Leonard's sons. Chris Leonard, who once owned a restaurant in Tucson, is at work on his first novel, having written 100 pages. Peter Leonard is the author of two books. He joined the group by phone, saying he'd been holding off on his medications all day so he'd sound intelligible. And, then he introduced Elmore Leonard as one of the most successful novelists in the world. He's the author of Road Dogs, Maximum Bob, and Get Shorty, among other books. Leonard has a fresh set of characters, and a fresh storyline in each novel.
Scott Simon asked the sons what it was like to grow up with their father always plotting murders. Chris said he thought of it as his father plying his trade. He saw crushed papers in the wastebasket, and the papers that didn't make it were on the floor. Peter said he remembers him writing, with those rolled up yellow papers around. He said he was always working, and remembers him writing when they went on a trip to Florida, and the other adults were around the pool.
Leonard said he remembers his family life differently. He would stop writing at 6 p.m. He used to start at 9 a.m., and write until 6 p.m. He'd try to quit at 6, and think about something else. He found his writing fun, and satisfying. It is the most fun he can imagine having because he can write whatever he wants.
Peter said when he told his father he wanted to write screenplays, Elmore asked why. He said wanting to be a screenwriter was like wanting to be a co-pilot. Peter said it's amazing how fast the day goes now that he's writing books instead of ads. When asked if he learned anything that could carryover to writing books, Elmore said he learned nothing writing ads, and Peter agreed. Chris said the restaurant business was a grind, day-to-day, but he did witness the entire life cycle from dating to engagements, break-ups, and fights. He's also an ordained minister, and married ten couples.
Elmore Leonard's one-line answers were usually funny, as when Scott Simon asked him if he's taking things in all the time. He said, "If it's worth taking in." He said he's always listening. He learned to listen to people talk, and he was not as anxious to say what he wanted to say.
He said he likes to watch Wheel of Fortune to see the way people express themselves. Those are natural, real people, and he watches their reactions. He said that other show, Jeopardy? He thinks he should be on it because he knows all the answers. Now, though, it takes him four or five minutes to come up with the answers.
Elmore Leonard has written his books in longhand for fifty-nine years. He started on a Royal Portable, but he'd write a line, and then xxx it out. Then, he just stared at xxx. So, he writes on 8 1/2 by 11 yellow pads with no lines, buying them at 50 pads at a time, and they last him a year. He writes three pages a day, and at the end of 100 days he has a book. Now, it takes him a year to write a book.
Peter picked on Chris, and said how's that working for you, Chris, since he's been writing that book for a while. Chris said he hit a wall, but his father tells him to keep writing. The characters will tell him what to do.
Peter said Elmore told him, first you audition your characters. Then they'll show themselves, and it's almost as if you have no control. The characters become more important than the plot.
Elmore said all his scenes are written from the character's point of view. Readers are looking through his eyes. So, the language doesn't have to sound literary. Leonard doesn't use words his character wouldn't use. As an author, he doesn't want to appear in the book.
Simon mentioned that in Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing he said, never open a book with weather. Elmore responded, it's all right if you open a book with it, but you have to get out of the weather in three lines, and get into the character's reaction to it.
When asked if his books are compared to his father's, Peter said he doesn't think of it. When he writes, he doesn't wonder what Elmore would think. He did say, though, that he had dinner with his wife, and a friend, Senator Don Riegle, and told him he was writing a book. Riegle said you writing a book is like Michael Jordan's son going into the NBA. Peter said when his book came out, a crime story set in Detroit, people were very protective of his father. They said, how dare he? He told his father he was surprised that one of his ten rules wasn't "cut to the chase," and Elmore snapped back, "Make up your own list."
Most of Elmore Leonard's books have short titles. He said his next one for HarperCollins is called Jabuti, after the port in east Africa. It's about a woman film director who goes to film the pirates in Somali.
He said he had two women as his editors at HarperCollins for twenty years. The mark of a good editor is that they don't have to change anything. He now has his first male editor, and he's a little more aggressive, and he wants to edit. But, he did find something that needed to be changed.
Scott Simon asked all three men if they believed in evil. Elmore answered yes, but it's mostly selfishness or laziness, or a combination of the two. Peter said there is evil. He met a fifteen-year-old kid who had been arrested for murdering four people, and he thought the kid was evil. He had an aura, and was totally detached from the murders, as if someone else had done them. Chris still thinks his first boss in the restaurant business was evil.
Chris or Peter were to answer the question, what did you learn about literature or life from your father? Peter learned who the good writers were, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck. And, he learned how to make fried Spam for breakfast, fried Spam with jelly. Scott Simon immediately responded. "Right, there is evil in this world."
Elmore Leonard lived his life by example. He didn't tell his sons what to do. He just said, do it well, whatever you do. He's a hard-working guy, who likes his work. Elmore said he took them to a restaurant, told them about sex, and then took them to see Cleopatra. Chris said he had a lucky childhood. He adored his father. He told them what not to do, rather than what to do. Peter said he learned about dressing because his father was cool, and better dressed than the kids. Chris said he realized early on that Elmore was way cooler than he'd ever be.
In answer to a question about his depraved characters, Elmore said he doesn't think of them as depraved. He thinks of them as normal people. The guy about to rob a bank is cranky. He had to decide what he should wear to rob the bank? A mask? He gets into what doesn't quite fit with that type of character.
When asked how his books translated to movies, Elmore Leonard mentioned Be Cool. He said, when asked, he'll talk to movie people about characters. But, if you get a guy like Cedric the Entertainer in one of Elmore Leonard's stories, you know he doesn't fit. And neither did any of the other characters. He said some of his books have been made into successful pictures, but they don't look like what he wrote. Some are good, some not so good. Rum Punch, made into the movie, Jackie Brown, was the best. So, he was asked which of his books he'd like to see made into movies, and he said, "I'd like to see all of them." And, his role when his books are made into movies? Lately, he gets a chair with his name on it, "Dutch," and they ask him if he'd like to look through the monitor. That's as close as he gets to the movie. He is still getting residuals from the Charles Bronson movie, Mr. Majestyk.
One audience member asked why he quit writing westerns, and he said the market dried up. He didn't like TV westerns, since they weren't realistic enough. But, there was no market for westerns, so he switched to crime, which is always there.
The two final questions were addressed to Scott Simon and Chris Leonard. Simon said he went into journalism because it was a way to see the world, and ask impertinent questions of people he wouldn't normally get to talk to. And, Chris Leonard was asked, now that his restaurant had closed, where could they go in Tucson to get fried pickles and gator tails.
Perfect, entertaining way, to end the Tucson Festival of Books.
I needed this weekend. It gave me a chance to get away for a few days, spend time with friends, enjoy some good food. I felt as if the Tucson Festival of Books just enclosed me in a bubble, a world of books, and readers, and literacy. It was my kind of place. And, I have three friends to thank. Left to right in the picture with me is, Jenise Porter, Lisa Colcord, and Anna Caggiano. Thanks for a very special book weekend.
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