By James O. Born
Elmore Leonard, Dutch to his friends, passed away at 87 on Tuesday morning. He was a friend of mine. He literally got me writing. The hole his passing leaves in my life has only started to hit me. There are other postings and obituaries that document his skill as a writer and his success over many, many years. I would point out Wallace Stroby,writing for the Star Ledger and Scott Eyman, the book editor for the Palm Beach Post . A more personal view comes from the current king of crime fiction, Michael Connelly writing for the LA Times.
I'd like just a few moments to share my own views of Dutch Leonard.
Virtually anyone who can read English would recognize that he was a great writer of both Crime Fiction and Westerns. But in my opinion that's not his biggest accomplishment. To me, Dutch achieved what few people can: he was a really good guy. That's tough to beat. Not everyone can raise a great family, treat other people well, have a wicked sense of humor and not take themselves too seriously and be a phenomenal success.
I met Dutch around 1987 at a library event one of my father's friends had invited me to. It was the first such event I'd ever attended (it wouldn't be the last.) We started chatting and he was interested in my job at the DEA. He casually asked if he might call me sometime for some technical advice. I didn't think much of the request at the time. Little did I know that the encounter would change the trajectory of my entire life.
|Me harassing an elderly man until he smiled outside of Books and Books in Coral Gables.|
Most published authors are approached by people interested in writing, nervous to show their first manuscript to someone, but confident they had written the Great American Novel. He was encouraging and helpful, but most importantly, and this cannot be overstated, he was critical. He told me what I had to do to be a better writer and by following his advice, I eventually landed a book deal and a second career. It was tough to hear at the time but every sentence I look at now is viewed through the prism Dutch created. I can hear him telling me not to get sappy in this very post. No flowery language, just tell the story. His most famous line, "Cut out the stuff people skip." That's a genius that rivals Oppenhiemer.
But it was his many other traits that led me to try to emulate him. His patience and love of family, his thoughtfulness and interest in doing the best he could at whatever he did. All the details that are easy for most of us to over look in our own lives. As busy as he was, Dutch didn't forget people or kindness. The word "effortless" comes to mind. He made everything seem easy even if it wasn't.
No matter how much success he had or how popular he became, it never went to his head. He was interested in other people. He wanted to know what made people tick. That was how he could create such perfectly flawed and believable characters. No one is perfect, but everyone deserves a chance. It's in his novels and his life. A theme that will resonate long after we are all gone.
It's easy to point to him as a mentor, but it was also his longtime associate, Gregg Sutter, who would brutalize my manuscripts until I finally got an idea of what I was supposed to do. A guy like Gregg is so invaluable that words don't do justice to his service. It was Gregg who pulled out the nuggets of gold from mountains of research. He would travel the globe looking for an interesting angle or aspect that Dutch could turn into a masterpiece. And Dutch trusted him completely. There is no higher compliment.
|Gregg Sutter, a young John E. Born and Dutch in 1990|
Oddly enough, I would have to say that I met a guy I depend on now as a mentor through Dutch more than 20 years ago. I listened to a panel on crime fiction with Dutch and two other writers. One member of the panel was still an attorney in Miami who had written several novels. His name was Paul Levine. Even then I recognized that he pronounced his name incorrectly, but when we reconnected 10 years later, after the publication of my first novel, he displayed the same patience and interest in helping others as Dutch did for so long. Through Paul I met the other contributors to this blog. It's funny how everything is connected. Another thing Dutch did for me without even realizing it.
I'm sad that the world lost a great writer on Tuesday. But what strikes deeper and more profoundly is that the world lost a great guy too. That's what's important to remember.