Crime & Punishment | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Crime & Punishment

Photo by Melissa Webster

When a best-selling author comes to Jackson, it's news. When three best-selling authors come in one exclusive event, it's historic.

On Monday, June 15, New York Times crime-fiction best-sellers Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos will share a stage at Lemuria Books. Elmore's son Peter, also an acclaimed novelist who made his writing debut last year, will join them. The authors, who each released a new novel this spring, will sign their books and participate in a panel discussion. Afterward, they will be available to chat with the public.

Lemuria owner John Evans says that while he's hosted his share of famous authors since he opened the store in 1975, he's never had an event of this magnitude. The four authors have never appeared together before, and the Lemuria event is the only public appearance they have scheduled.

To bring writers of such caliber to Jackson, Evans teamed up with former 16 WAPT anchor Gene Edwards, with whom he co-created Mississippi Public Broadcasting "Writers" series for public television. On June 16, the senior Leonard, Connelly and Pelecanos will film a roundtable discussion about crime-fiction writing with host Edwards.

The mission of "Writers," Edwards says, is to celebrate the craft of writers in different genres and "to build an audience for literature." The award-winning program captures an hour-long conversation, which Edwards moderates, among three writers who share a genre. Past guests have included best-selling authors like Rick Bragg and Nevada Barr.

"Writers" airs on public television statewide and on 78 national affiliate stations. Streaming audio of the programs is free at the MPB Web site, and DVDs are for sale on the Web site and at Lemuria. The crime-fiction writers episode does not yet have a release date.

ELMORE LEONARD - 'Can't Keep Away From It'
Elmore Leonard is a legend of crime fiction. Time Magazine has called him "The Dickens of Detroit." To many, he is simply "Dutch," nicknamed after the 1940s baseball pitcher Dutch Leonard, but the witty New York Times bestselling author says to call him whatever you're comfortable with. Leonard published his first novel in 1953, and this May he released his 43rd, "Road Dogs." Many of his books have been adapted into movies, including the recent "3:10 to Yuma" and "Out of Sight."

Last fall, he won the prestigious F. Scott Fitzgerald Award for literature. Leonard, 83, has the presence of a much younger man and has no plans to retire from the craft that he loves. He is currently working on "Djibouti," a novel about pirates who kidnap a documentary filmmaker.

How have you felt about some of the praise that you've received for your writing? Walker Percy, in The New York Times, said that you were "the greatest crime writer of our time, perhaps ever."
Well, as I told Charlie Rose (in a May interview), that can get in the way, because there are reviewers who will hold up other names, four or five names that are as good, if not better … so it hasn't served me that well. I'm not sure how many people believe it.

Do you believe it yourself?
No! I don't think you should compare writers. We have different styles; we have different ways of approaching (writing); and we appeal to different readers.

In terms of the details that you put into the crimes in your books, how do you make sure they're accurate?
In the late '70s, The Detroit News asked me to do a piece for their Sunday magazine. They introduced me to a lieutenant at Squad 7. … I spent three weeks with him before I wrote a word. At that time, Detroit was known as the murder capital, so there was a lot of activity. I just sat in the squad room and listened to them. They let me look through all the files and let me sit in on interrogations of suspects and witnesses. So I got a complete study of how (the police) do it, what they do. So then when I'm doing a Detroit crime story, I'll go back to police headquarters and find out what's going on now, what's current. They might take me over to the morgue to see what's going on there.

What do you think of the film adaptations of your books?
Some of them just were terrible. (Laughs) I'm always optimistic; I think the pictures are going to be good, but there haven't been that many that were really good. The ones I like are "Out of Sight" with (George) Clooney, "Jackie Brown," which Quentin Tarantino made. "Get Shorty" was a good one. And then others before that, like "Hombre," a Paul Newman picture, (and) "Valdez is Coming." They were good pictures.

In your new book, "Road Dogs," you bring back three characters from older works: Jack Foley, Cundo Rey and Dawn Navarro. How did you decide to bring them back?
I liked them. … I knew what they were about, how they talked, what their attitudes were. I didn't have to make up new characters, but there are new characters in the book, and I always spend time on my characters, so they're human, at least. … I think about "How did they get that way? What do they think about in the morning, when they're getting dressed to go rob a bank?" Things like that.

What is your process as a writer, your daily routine? Where in your house do you write?
I write in the living room. I have my desk in one end of the living room by the French doors. I look out at the pool and tennis court. There's an awful lot of green out there, just so much greenery. I see little squirrels come up on patio and rabbits, and so on. My process is to do the whole thing in scenes, so that my characters are talking all the time. If they can't talk, they don't make the book.

Over time, how has your writing changed?
I think over time it's gotten a little more spare. I don't use as many words as I used to. I don't use adverbs anymore. I stick pretty close to my "10 Rules of Writing." I wrote those sort of tongue-in-cheek, just to give one night where I was a guest of honor at a writer's conference, and I wrote them that afternoon and gave them that evening.

Have you ever tried to write a story on a computer?
No. There's no reason to. I write in longhand; I'll do a couple pages or so. Then I'll put it on the typewriter, and I'll look at the typed pages and start marking them up, and then retype them. I figure it takes me three or four handwritten pages to get one that works.

Do you get writer's block?
No, I don't believe in it. I think if you're having trouble, if you feel you're getting tired of what you're doing, you've got to look at it in a different way. … Just look at it again from another point of view, and it's bound to work out.

What's your best advice for people who want to write?
You've got to just write. Hemingway said, "If you say you want to be a writer, but you're not writing, then you don't really want to." You can't keep away from it.

Favorite Authors
Ernest Hemingway
Pete Dexter
George Pelecanos
Dennis Lehane
Russell Banks
Cormac McCarthy
Annie Proulx

"Road Dogs"
Though bank robber Jack Foley ("Out of Sight") is locked up in a Miami penitentiary, wealthy fellow inmate Cundo Rey ("La Brava") arranges for his 30-year sentence to be reduced to just three months. Upon his release, Jack gets mixed up with Cundo's common-law wife, professional psychic Dawn Navarro ("Riding the Rap") while waiting for Cundo to get out of prison himself. Dawn wants Jack's help to steal Cundo's fortune, and he's not sure whom he can trust. "Road Dogs" is "full of wonderful banter and the kind of back-and-forthing between characters out to double- and triple-cross each other," according to Booklist.

MICHAEL CONNELLY - Getting to the Truth
If the details in Michael Connelly's crime novels seem realistic, it's probably because he spent his pre-novelist career as a crime reporter. Right out of college, Connelly began covering crime at newspapers in Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He then moved to Los Angeles to be a crime reporter for The Los Angeles Times, one of the nation's largest newspapers. Three years later, he published his first novel, "The Black Echo," which received the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. His bestselling books have been translated into 35 languages. "The Scarecrow" is Connelly's 20th novel and reunites reporter Jack McEvoy and FBI Agent Rachel Walling from "The Poet."

You majored in journalism with a minor in creative writing. How did you bring creative writing to your work as a crime reporter?
I think it was journalism that made me a creative writer. I think a lot of reporters do the work for a while and then think about writing a book, (but) I always wanted to write the books first. The whole time I was on a cop beat, or a court beat, I was always on the lookout for stuff that might not go into the newspaper, that I could use as anecdotal or character stuff in the books I was hoping to write one day.

"The Scarecrow" is set against layoffs at the L.A. Times. What do you think about the ways print journalism is changing?
I'm concerned, as everybody should be. … I think if the newspaper goes away, every community is going to suffer for it. Yes, there will be other avenues of getting news—the Internet and so forth—but I think the center of a community will be lost. I think the public watchdog aspect of the newspaper is not really on the radar right now, and that's going to be a huge loss.

How is writing crime novels different from crime reporting?
(Fiction) is what I do now, so of course I'm gonna come down on this side. But there's that thing about "If you want to know the facts, read a newspaper. If you want to know the truth, read a novel." And I've come to believe that, because the novel has more freedom to go inside people's minds, hear or know what they really think, all the things that can remain hidden in a newspaper story. Whether you really get at the truth or not, that's open for debate. But in terms of writing, it's much more powerful to have that freedom, to have that other dimension that you're not going to get at in newspapers.

Crime reporter Jack McEvoy is the protagonist of "The Scarecrow." Is this the first time you've brought him back since "The Poet" in 1997?
He has shown up little places here and there, almost like in cameos. Last year I had a book called "The Brass Verdict" that was a legal thriller, and I knew I was going to write "The Scarecrow" after that. So I put him into "The Brass Verdict" last year. It was almost like, "Hey, Jack McEvoy's out there somewhere in this alternate universe," and it was a little prep move before I followed it up with a book that he carried. It had been a long time since "The Poet."

How much is McEvoy based on you in your reporting days?
His back history is fictional, but his view of the job, his view of the world, his methods are all mine. I was writing what I would do and say, so it's inescapable that he would be a lot like me. I would say of all the characters I've written about in 20 novels, he's definitely the most autobiographical.

You've talked about the writing life having highs when it's going well and lows when it isn't. What does that look like for you?
I think it's almost a joke, that it's very clear. People around me, like my wife and my daughter, or maybe my editor, they can always tell when the writing is going good, because I'm Mr. Happy. And also because I disappear a lot because I want to be writing. When you catch the wave, you want to stay on it. … When it's not going well, I'm kind of a grumpy old guy.

Favorite Authors
Raymond Chandler
Joseph Wambaugh
Ross Macdonald

"The Scarecrow"
Caught in the midst of layoffs at the L.A. Times, crime reporter Jack McEvoy is determined to make his last story his best. He takes on the story of a 16-year-old prisoner who has confessed to a murder, but when he investigates it, he quickly realizes that the confession is bogus. McEvoy, who reunites with FBI agent and love interest Rachel Walling from "The Poet," sets off to track down the real killer. The demented man he's hunting knows McEvoy is coming, and he's prepared. Publishers Weekly wrote: "This magnificent effort is a reminder of why Connelly is one of today's top crime authors."

GEORGE PELECANOS - Straying from the Formula
Born to Greek immigrants in Washington, D.C., George Pelecanos worked jobs from a line cook to women's shoe salesman before he tried his hand at writing. Although he had no formal training, he received praise for the realism of his crime novels and became a New York Times bestselling author. Pelecanos has also worked in television as a writer, story editor and producer for the HBO dramatic series "The Wire," for which he received an Emmy nomination. He is an active volunteer in Washington, D.C., particularly with at-risk youth, and is currently producing a film adaptation of his novel, "Shoedog." This spring he published his 16th novel, "The Way Home."

How did you decide to write crime fiction?
The class I took in college was a crime fiction course (at the University of Maryland). I was a film major, and this thing was just an elective that turned me on to books. The thing that got me very interested and excited was the fact that it was populist literature; it was written for everyday people. And if it was done well, it could attain the level of art. I'd never really been interested before, because the books that were handed to me in school were like "The Scarlet Letter," things of that nature. They had no bearing on my world at all, and I was just uninterested. Crime fiction books were the first books that I ever read that spoke to me and my world.

The Associated Press said that you're "one of the most literary of America's crime writers." What elements might make your crime novels more literary than others?
Well, I really don't know what that means, to tell you the truth. I just try to write good books. They often stray from the formula, because that's what's in me. You won't see a book where there's a murder committed the first chapter and solved by the last chapter. Sometimes you may not see the murder solved at all, because where I come from, less than half of murder cases get solved. So they reflect reality. I think that's what the difference is: the fact that I concentrate on character more than I do on convention.

You were nominated for an Emmy for your writing on the award-winning HBO drama "The Wire," set in Baltimore. Did you spend time with Baltimore police as research?
Oh yeah; they were very open. I could do anything. I could walk into a station, and they'd hand me a Kevlar vest and say, "Let's go run out on a drug bust," or something like that.

Were there any things that you got to experience that stuck out in your mind?
When I was with the cops in their office, homicide guys, I was interested less in the procedural stuff than I was in just getting a few minutes at their desks. You look up on the corkboard there, and they've got pictures of their kids pinned up there right next to pictures of mutilated corpses, and people in the morgue. And there's a lot of religious imagery. … Boy, that stuff tells a story. That's the kind of stuff I'm looking for, because it describes character.

How do you think writing crime fiction has influenced your worldview?
Before I was doing this, I would just get angry about things. Like most people, I'd just shake my head. Now, in my free time, I'm out there doing work in the city. I work in juvenile prisons; I work in public schools in D.C., just trying to do something. You know, you can blame the government, blame a lot of people, but the only instances where I see things that are getting done is when they're being done by people in the community, by citizens.

What might surprise or appeal to your readers about "The Way Home"?
I think it's the most emotionally effective book I've written. … It's got its moments of righteous violence, but it's also an affecting story about a father and son. To me, that's the backbone of the book: the relationship.

Favorite Authors
Dashiell Hammett
Raymond Chandler
Ross Macdonald
John D. MacDonald
John Laker Ray
James Crumley
Elmore Leonard
Richard Price

"The Way Home"
After a stay in juvenile hall, Chris Flynn begins to turn his life around, getting a job installing carpet for his father's business. One day, however, Chris and a friend make a startling discovery underneath the floorboards at a work site, and they find themselves drawn back into the seedy world that they're trying to escape. When Chris fails to show up for work one day, his father knows that he's in trouble. The Washington Post wrote that "The Way Home" has "wonderful dialogue, the characters who unpeel like onions before your eyes, and action that punches from the shoulder and hip."

PETER LEONARD - When In Rome ...
This month has been momentous for Peter Leonard. After 25 years of writing advertising copy (he is a currently partner in a Birmingham, Mich., agency), he is leaving to write fiction full time. Inspired by the writing life of his father, Elmore Leonard, the younger Leonard published his acclaimed first book, "Quiver," last May. Just a year later, Leonard published his second thriller, "Trust Me," this spring. The Washington Times called it "breathtaking." Leonard recently finished his third novel, "As the Romans Do," which is inspired by his brief stay in an Italian prison as a college student.

When you write fiction, what's your process of character development?
I think that what I do is, like my father, audition characters. You see what they're going to do. ... In "Trust Me," my new novel, in the original version of the first draft, I had O'Clair, who is an ex-con. He was the bad guy, and I ended up liking him so much that I ended up changing his character. I just couldn't make him the menace, the bad guy, because I was too fond of him. So that was a surprise. It's interesting how it works. The characters become so real they kind of take over.

There are themes and settings in your novel—a prison, hospital, police station, drugs, violence, etc.—that I expect you don't have firsthand experience with. How do you write what you don't know personally?
I just imagine it. I do it the way most writers do it: Having read a lot of books and seen a lot of movies and observed life, I make it up.

There are some things where I have experience. My next book "As the Romans Do," opens with two American students in Italy stealing a taxi cab. The two guys are sent to (a) Roman prison. I was 20 years old and a student at Loyola University in Rome. I was drunk with a buddy, and we stole a taxi cab and got caught by the Carbonari, the national police, and ended up spending six days and seven nights in Roman prison. I remember vividly being in the police car as I was driven out to Rebibbia, the maximum security prison 30 minutes outside of the city. I remember seeing the walls of the prison and the guard towers, and thinking it seemed like an awfully severe punishment for what I had done. I knew that I would use it someday, even then. I remember waking up the first morning in that time between sleep and wakefulness. I opened my eyes, and the sun was coming through the barred window making a pattern on the floor, and I thought, "Oh boy, I am in trouble."

At that point, did you know you were going to be a writer?
Not at all. I had taken a creative writing class at school, which I enjoyed. I remember reading a short story to the class, and people laughed. I don't believe that I ever thought of myself as a novel writer. After writing ads, which are 50 to 80 words, writing a 300-page book seemed pretty daunting to me.

When I was finished with college, I wrote a short story, six pages, and I mailed my dad the story. A few days later, he sent me his three-page critique. The gist was that my characters were like "strips of leather drying in the sun. They all looked and sounded the same." He was right, no doubt about it. I didn't write another word of fiction for 27 years. Not because of that, but because I got married, had kids, went into business. Time flies.

Is there anything else that might surprise people in "Trust Me"?
It's fast-paced. Almost everyone in the story is bad to a certain degree. … It's a bunch of bad people who are trying to get money. They face off, and it doesn't stop. I highly recommend it as a summer beach book.

"Trust Me"
Karen Delaney is dead set on getting her $300,000 back from her crooked ex-boyfriend, Samir. She enlists the help of two thieves to retrieve it, but she doesn't realize that she's in for some dangerous competition. Also pursuing the money are an ex-con/ex-cop, Samir's nephew, two hit men and the very thieves whose help she is enlisting. Carl Hiaasen hailed the novel as "fast, sly, and full of twists."

What do the authors say about each other?

Michael Connelly On Elmore Leonard and George Pelecanos:
"I would do anything with Elmore Leonard and George Pelecanos, because I think they're two of the best, if not the best, people plying this trade. Elmore Leonard's been writing books for decades, and everybody could still learn from him. George, I think he's a bright star in this genre because he's doing what we all hope to do, but doing it better: that's delivering mystery over message. Yes, he always has a crime story, but his books are social documents. He's almost like an anthropologist studying a place and a time, and taking apart the causal reasons for a crime, or an aspect of our society. What he does is pretty amazing.
Pelecanos on Elmore Leonard and Connelly:

There isn't a person in my generation, who's telling the truth, who wasn't affected by (Leonard). He turned crime fiction on its head, basically. … He showed you that you didn't have to write that traditional kind of (crime) novel.

I think Connelly is the best mystery writer in the world, basically. I wouldn't call Elmore Leonard a mystery writer anyway, but as far as delivering the goods in terms of crime fiction and thrillers in that category, there's nobody better than Connelly, so I'm in good company in Jackson.

Elmore Leonard on Peter Leonard, after reading "Quiver":
Right away, I thought, "He's got it; he knows what he's doing.

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This story is featured on Elmore Leonard's Web site.

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2009-06-12T14:27:31-06:00

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