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Discovering A Pandemic

Unrelated To A Pandemic: A Love Letter To Leonard.

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The following entry has absolutely nothing to do with We're Alive or the world created by Kc and friends.

I’m going to take another minute, and break with the usual DaP format to honor the passing of a literary giant. Well, giant is arguable, but for my money there are very few writers on par with the late Elmore Leonard. His works have influenced the genre, have inspired, and have brought so much to the world as a whole. To say the least, I’m a fan. Leonard has been one of the biggest influences on my writing as an adult. In case you didn’t know, I write. I write because I need to write, I write to put my mind and soul at rest. I write because I’ve been inspired to do so, and one of the people who inspired me most is Elmore Leonard.

When I was a boy, probably nine or ten, I got my hands on a book by Franklin W. Dixon called Dead On Target. It was a Hardy Boys book, the first in The Hardy Boys Casefiles series, which would become an obsession for me. The world of crime fiction captured my imagination. I had little to no interest in anything else. It was episodes of The Rockford Files followed with a healthy dose of Joe and Frank Hardy solving mysteries and writing wrongs. I gained an affinity for the underdog. Sure, they always solved their cases, they always came out on top, but it wasn’t without a struggle.
This led me to my next great love—noir. I stumbled upon an old black and white movie with Humphrey Bogart about a bird, and I realized what my passion really was. It wasn’t the mystery, it wasn’t the insurmountable odds, or even the underdog factor. The flawed hero. The Maltese Falcon led me to discover Dashiell Hammett which in turn led me to discover another passion in the form of homage. I discovered a Carl Reiner movie called Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid with Steve Martin and the beautiful Rachel Ward.

It was around this time (somewhere in the neighborhood of thirteen or fourteen) that I switched gears and started reading Douglas Addams. This led to writing my first book—which is so terrible even pieces of it will never see the light of day—called Glyph 2363 about a crew of misfits roaming space looking for a new home. Yeah, totally original, right? Well, geez. I was a kid. Bad as it was (is), the process was a valuable lesson, and a great exercise. From that point it was all about learning structure. It was a year or two before I sat down to write the next book—you see, I was determined this would be a series. After all, I’m a great writer! I’m right up there with Poe, Addams, Dixon, and Salvatore! I’m an undiscovered literary genius! In truth, I understood very little about what makes a story interesting, what makes a reader turn pages. I have a better grasp of that now, but not a day goes by I don’t wrestle with finding the right words.

The second book was better, but not by much. The characters were wooden, one dimensional, uninteresting. Everyone sound the same, monotone, boring. So, upon completion, I took the hot mess in its entirety, and locked both books in a closet under a stack of well-worn Penthouse magazines. I decided then and there I needed to try something else. Writing novels just isn’t working out. So easily I gave up back then! If at first you don’t succeed try once more and then call it quits. I knew I still wanted to write, I just didn’t know what that was going to look like. Then I was turned on to a local contest for screenwriting. Well, shit! That’s just like writing a novel only way easier because it’s shorter! This would be my next hot mess called Bodies. It was a horror movie about some teens that head out in search of a house party and end up butchered by some unstoppable force—shades of Halloween and Evil Dead. Of course, I had absolutely no idea how scripts are written—I had the formatting down, but not the science behind it. Once again, the characters were one trick ponies with very little to offer.

Even though I had a good grasp of the story I wanted to tell, getting the characters to feel lived in eluded me. But, I wasn’t ready to give up, and I pushed along as best as I could, and by the time it was all said and done I’d written two more feature length scripts, one of which came so close to being produced I may or may not have gotten an erection because of it—but that doesn’t happen for a couple more years. I started calling myself a writer around that time, probably seventeen or eighteen, and caught a break working on doctoring a script for a student film—which was called Codename when I worked on it, though I never saw a finished product so I have no idea what changes of mine were used. I knew I wanted to keep going in that vein, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it.

It was close to this time that I was introduced to a pair of movies that changed my whole world.

First came Clerks. A movie about two dipshits working at a convenience store. It’s not pretty, it’s not action packed, but the characters are real, they’re interesting, they’re . . . just like me. I didn’t quite understand the why of it, the reason these characters were so appealing to me. At first I thought it was how normal they seemed, how the whole movie was just two guys talking, but talking about stuff me and my friends talked about: Star Wars, getting laid, being annoyed at stupid people, not knowing what to do with our lives, and so on. It wouldn’t be until the night I got stoned and watched a movie that everyone I knew had been talking about for what felt like for-fucking-ever.

I saw Pulp Fiction in a small, one two-bedroom converted garage where my friend Norm lived. A group of us got together to play cards and drink microbrewery beers that we considered at the time to be some of the best beer on the planet [someone remind me to do a beer blog one day], which in reality was swill in a bottle. Pulp Fiction captured my imagination completely. It wasn’t the violence, it wasn’t how the story moved back and forth on itself, and connected the characters in a way that I’d never imagined possible. It was a world. A whole world. For the first time I understood what story really meant, and saw the possibilities laid out before me like a buffet of fucks. Characters talked about absolutely nothing while engaging in some serious, heavy shit. I realized what I’d been doing wrong! I was negligent with respect to getting to know my characters, to consider how they might speak to one another.

Thanks to Quentin Tarantino I discovered the man who would become my favourite writer, and the most influential person on my writing, through the movie Jackie Brown which is based on the novel Rum Punch. Sure, Jackie Brown is arguably one of the weakest Tarantino flicks, but the dialogue and characters still very much pop off the screen with ease. I searched high and low for a copy of the book, having seen it mentioned in the credits, and a world opened up beneath my feet and swallowed me whole.

I was hooked. This guy, this Elmore cat, he writes how people talk! His characters are vibrant, they’re alive. They’ve got the weight of decades of life behind their words. Fuck pronouns. Not always important to the point. Just in the way of what matters. He taught me to keep stripping away anything that got in the way of the point—not just in dialogue, but in the surrounding prose. Sometimes, it’s better if a character just “sat, and looked.” As far as dialogue goes, understanding speech patterns, understanding the whys of how characters speak and interact verbally with each other, there is no better writer to have lived than Elmore Leonard. His work stands on its own merits, and if you never find yourself in a Chapters or Barnes & Nobles, take a wander over to a staff member and ask them to point out some Elmore Leonard. Pick yourself up a copy of Out of Sight, Valdez is Coming, Rum Punch, Hombre, Killshot, or Fire in the Hole.

Not much of a reader? Rather watch a movie or a TV show? Pulp Fiction, 3:10 To Yuma, Killshot, Justified, Out of Sight, Be Cool, Get Shorty, or Hombre, just to name a few. This is not to say that I’ve finally figured it all out thanks to Leonard, and that I’m the world’s greatest writer—the work I’ve posted here speaks to the contrary—but he’s given me no end of valuable insight into the world of words I would have otherwise remained ignorant of to this day. I can honestly say, without having read Leonard I would have put down my pen and concentrated on the 9 to 5 instead. I write every day, working hard to better myself as a writer. Two new novels, a third on the way, and more screenplays than I care to count are all attributable to his influence. I feel a profound sense of sadness when I think I’ll never be able to walk into a book store to discover Leonard released a new book. I’m certain we’ll receive one or two collected works of unpublished material, but it just won’t be the same.

Thank, Elmore. Thank you for all the beautiful words you’ve given the world. I still fuck up, time to time, but I do what I can to elevate myself with you as the bar. One day I might finally get it. Might. Truth? Be hard. Sure not easy getting up that ladder, but it's there, and I'm on the rungs. Thank you, Elmore. Thank you so much.

October 11, 1925 - August 20, 2013
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  1. scbubba's Avatar
    Sad day. Elmore Leonard was one of the best.

    Great blog post, Osi. Thanks for sharing.
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  2. YetAnotherBloodyCheek's Avatar
    The hardest part is to start writing, I guess.
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