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Monday, August 25, 2014

An interview with Gregg Sutter on Elmore Leonard’s “dialogue-driven crime novels with an emphasis on character”

The latest Library of America volume, Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970s, recently arrived from the printer and will go on sale in bookstores everywhere this week.

We recently interviewed Gregg Sutter, who edited the volume. Sutter first met Leonard in 1979 and began working for him in 1981. He is currently at work on a biography of Leonard, from the unique perspective as his full-time researcher for more than thirty years.

What was Elmore Leonard’s greatest contribution to the post-Chandler tradition of American crime fiction?

Elmore did not come out of the Chandler tradition, which broadly includes the subgenres of detective, mystery, suspense, thriller, and crime fiction. Elmore’s writing school was Hemingway for the Westerns and George V. Higgins for the crime stories. He wrote dialogue-driven crime novels with an emphasis on character, from the point of view of both the good guys and the bad guys. Characters “auditioned” for their roles. If they couldn’t talk, they were in danger of getting bumped off. He frequently described the freedom he felt as a writer. “I make it up as I go along,” he said.

Who were the writers who influenced him?

Ernest Hemingway had the most profound influence on Elmore. He studied Hemingway intensely when learning to write and well beyond, saying he always could pick up a Hemingway story and be inspired. But Hemingway lacked a sense of humor, according to Elmore. He found the natural humor he sought in the work of Richard Bissell. Finally, in the early 1970s, he read the work of Higgins, which had a liberating effect on his writing, especially showing Elmore how to tell a story with dialogue alone.

What did Leonard accomplish in his Detroit novels from the 1970s and where did he go from there?

With his body of work in the 1970s, especially the four novels included in the Library of America volume, Elmore began to be noticed in publishing and crime fiction circles as a rising star, even though he had been writing for thirty years. He also developed and refined a style that has been often imitated. Starting in 1981, Elmore set novels in South Florida, where his characters—often with a Detroit connection—migrated and found new opportunities, mainly criminal. These works did not go unnoticed. By mid-decade, he was recognized as one of the greats of contemporary American fiction.

As a Detroit native yourself, do you feel a special connection to these books?

Absolutely. Detroit in the 60s into the 70s was known nationally for the auto industry, its sports teams, and Motown—and that was about it. I looked to New York and Los Angeles for cultural direction. By the mid-70s, it was Raymond Chandler’s Hollywood and Martin Scorsese’s New York that had my attention. Then in 1975, I read Fifty-Two Pickup by Elmore Leonard and that same devotion to place was bestowed on my hometown of Detroit, in novels, by an author who captured its sound and atmosphere.

You didn’t start working with him until the 1980s, but do you know of any anecdotes connected with the composition or reception of the four novels in the LOA collection?

Before Fifty-Two Pickup, Elmore was best known for his westerns and his film work. Five of his previous six novels had been in paperback, which didn’t exactly raise his profile. But he was back in hardcover with Fifty-Two Pickup and soon discovered by The New York Times, which sang his praises, especially for Unknown Man No. 89. They said, “he can write circles around almost anybody active in the crime novel today.” The Switch, released in paperback, failed to receive the same critical attention as the others, but it was every bit as significant.

What were the high points and low points of working with Elmore Leonard?

I’ll give an example of each. The low was when Elmore’s wife, Joan, died in 1993. She was his loving wife, smart friend and great editor. She was greatly missed, but Elmore quickly remarried and produced a string of great novels during the rest of the 1990s. The high points were the road trips with Dutch to exotic places like Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and Tishomingo, Mississippi. Hanging out with Dutch was always fun, and it brought me even closer to his work.

Do you see links between Leonard’s personal life and any of these four novels?

Plenty. He weaves into all four novels elements of his personal life, such as alcoholism in Unknown Man No. 89, his background in advertising and the auto industry in Fifty-Two Pickup and Swag. Then, in The Switch, the contrast of the world of the country club party crowd in Detroit’s northern suburbs, with the bleak landscape of the city and its marginal inhabitants.

There was a scene deleted from Swag. Who cut it and why do you think it was cut?

My feeling is that the scene, while entertaining to read, slowed down the fast-moving Swag a little, so the editor cut it. I’m not exactly sure who would have made the decision to cut it or Elmore’s reaction. In any event, it’s great that the deleted scene is included in the Notes for Elmore Leonard: Four Novels of the 1970s, so readers can enjoy this fun scene with Stick and Frank.

Did you make any personal discoveries or reassessments while preparing the LOA volume?

My discoveries are just rediscoveries. Fifty-Two Pickup was the first Elmore Leonard novel I read. For me, it was the start a lifelong interest in his work as a fan and scholar. For Elmore, it was the beginning of a new phase in his career that would have glorious results. These Detroit novels have the same effect on me now as when I first read them in the 1970s, bringing forth a deep understanding of the landscape of Detroit, its sound and certainly its characters.

Do you have a favorite in the collection?

That’s tough but if I had to pick one from the collection, it would be Unknown Man No. 89. This novel established Elmore as “a new and important writer,” as The New York Times put it in 1977. Its plot featured a shootout on Main St. in Rochester, Michigan, near where I had lived as a student. The unreality of Elmore’s fiction combined with the reality of my life, created a feeling of attachment with Elmore’s work that never left me.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Forty years ago: Nixon’s farewell remarks to the White House staff (August 9, 1974)

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency. Facing near-certain impeachment after the Watergate scandal, Nixon announced his resignation in a televised address and the following morning delivered an extemporaneous speech to the White House staff.

In the following guest blog post, Lary Wallace, a magazine writer and editor who did his graduate thesis on Nixon’s oratory, takes a new look at his farewell remarks from a distance of four decades.

* * *
Outside the White House gates, crowds spent the night chanting, “Jail to the Chief.” On August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon delivered his resignation speech via live broadcast and then managed a few hours’ sleep. At 4 a.m. his watch stopped, its battery at last run down on this, his very last day in the White House, the day he made his farewell remarks to the White House staff. It would be his final speech as a professional politician and, whether he knew it or not, his masterpiece. For sheer shamelessness, for raw naked honesty, for pathos and bathos, for autobiographical allusion and psychological revelation, there’d never been anything from a president quite like it, and there hasn’t been anything like it since.

Delivered in a moment of crisis, amidst a profound depression that would last for months, the emotion he exhibited in the speech was real. Everyone in the room felt it. Henry Kissinger in his memoirs would call the speech “one of the most dramatic moments in American history,” “an elegy of anguish,” “as rambling as the previous night’s had been disciplined.” His wife, Pat, was none too pleased “that after all the agony television had caused us,” as Nixon would write, “its prying eye should be allowed to intrude on this last and most intimate moment of all.”

Nixon allowed it to intrude nevertheless, and our understanding of this profoundly peculiar man is only the richer for it. On the speech’s fortieth anniversary, it’s well worth highlighting a few of those moments that make it a sui generis piece of political theater—those places where the speech achieves its transcendent strangeness, becoming literature writ historical, and history writ literary.

Nixon shared some wisdom remarkable in its lack of self-awareness: “[T]here are many fine careers. This country needs good farmers, good businessmen, good plumbers, good carpenters.” It was, of course, a want of good Plumbers—if not plumbers—that led to Watergate and its fallout, the most recent manifestation of which was Nixon delivering this very speech in farewell. It was an obliviously allusive line, perfectly naked in its grim humor and subliminal diagnostic accuracy.

He recalled his humble origins in Orange County, California, his father “sort of a little man, common man,” and yet “he was a great man, because he did his job, and every job counts up to the hilt.” But his father was nothing compared to his mother: “[M]y mother was a saint. And I think of her, two boys dying of tuberculosis, nursing four others in order that she could take care of my older brother for three years in Arizona, and seeing each of them die, and when they died, it was like one of her own.”

It was at this point in the speech that friend and former counsel Leonard Garment thought to himself, “Oh, my God, he’s beginning to break down. A binge of free association. Money, father, mother, brothers, death. The man is unraveling right before us. He will be the first person to go over the edge on live television.” David Eisenhower, too, thought his father-in-law was about to crack. He stood beside him along with Nixon’s two daughters, Julie and Tricia, and Tricia’s husband, Ed Cox. And of course, as ever, there was Pat. Except that Nixon would not mention Pat even once during the speech.

Wiping sweat from his upper lip, Nixon put on his glasses and read at length from a famous passage in the journals of Theodore Roosevelt (always something of a hero to Nixon), in which Roosevelt writes of his wife and baby daughter dying on the same day, and of how “the light went from my life forever.” Having finished his reading, Nixon choked up and fought back sobs and sniffling. There were plenty in the audience who’d given up the fight. Kissinger, for one, “was at the same time moved to tears and outraged at being put through the wringer once again”; “the anguish on the platform engulfed us all. In defeat and disgrace Nixon had at last prevailed; he had stripped us of our reserve; we were naked before these elemental feelings and our hearts went out to this man who transcended his extremity by refusing to act as if he were defeated.”

Pat stood by him with that same tight smile, pained and painful, that television viewers had known since Nixon’s Checkers speech, more than twenty years earlier. Kissinger did not approve of Pat’s omission from Nixon’s remarks—after all, “without his capacity for make-believe,” she “must have suffered the most grievously of all”—and he was not alone. Stephen Ambrose in his triple-decker biography of Nixon opines, “It was odd that Nixon could have given this speech without mentioning Pat, could have been so insensitive as to read another man’s description of his wife. It made many of those present, and those watching on television, wince.” Yet Julie, in a biography she wrote of her mother, responded to such criticism, “[T]hat would have been asking too much of any man. We were standing so close to my father that he could reach out and touch us if he wanted. . . . [M]uch of the regret he felt at that moment, yet left unspoken, was that he had let his family down.”

Winding toward his peroration, Nixon prescribed some enlightenment wisdom even less self-aware than the “plumbers” line: “Always give your best, never get discouraged, never be petty; always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”

These weren’t the last words of the speech, but they were close. There could have been no more-appropriate way for Nixon to end his political career, vexing and perplexing, leaving us to wonder, as ever, just how much of his obliviousness was in fact self-destructive canniness.

* * *
Nixon’s farewell remarks and his Checkers speech are two of the 83 texts included in The Library of America collection American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton.

Video of Nixon’s farewell remarks to the White House staff
The speech begins at the 3:00 mark

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