His hard-boiled novels (Get Shorty, Rum Punch and his latest, The Hot Kid) are beloved by readers and Hollywood alike: 17 of his 40 books have been made into movies. Even at 79, Elmore Leonard is back at his desk every morning, scrawling in longhand--no computers, please--his daily quota of pitch-perfect dialogue. He spoke to TIME's Philip Elmer-DeWitt from his home outside Detroit.
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE CALLED THE GREATEST LIVING WRITER OF CRIME FICTION BY THE NEW YORK TIMES?
I don't know what that means. There are any number of people who write better in a conventional sort of way. To tell you the truth, I don't read much in my field. I didn't learn anything from Raymond Chandler or the other guy, Dashiell Hammett. I've never done that first-person private-eye thing.
WHAT ARE YOU READING NOW?
A lot of material about German POWs in the U.S. in 1944. I'm doing a sequel to The Hot Kid, moving it ahead 10 years.
WHAT ATTRACTS YOU TO GENRE FICTION?
The popularity of it. Because it will sell. That's why I chose westerns originally. In the '50s, you could sell a western almost anywhere. The better pulp magazines--Dime Western, Zane Grey's Western, Ten-Story Western--paid 2¢ a word, which, for a 5,000-word story, was 100 bucks. In the '50s, that wasn't too bad, and anyway, I had a day job at the time writing Chevrolet ads. I would get up in the morning at 5 and write fiction for two hours. I had a rule that I had to start writing before I put the water on for coffee, or else I might never get to it.
HOW DO YOU GET YOUR DIALOGUE TO SOUND SO NATURAL? DO YOU GO OUT ON THE STREET WITH A TAPE RECORDER?
I just make it up. Don't you hear people talking in your head? You think of a certain character, and you hear them talking. And from the way he talks, his character has attitude. When you see a character coming that you've met before, you know what his angle is going to be, what his beef is or if he's funny. So that I'm always writing from their point of view, and I'm never writing from my own.
CHANDLER HAD PHILIP MARLOWE AND HAMMETT HAD THE CONTINENTAL OP. WHY DON'T YOU HAVE A CHARACTER THAT RUNS THROUGH YOUR BOOKS?
I think I'd become bored with the guy. Also, after City Primeval sold to United Artists, I used the same character in my next book, and my agent in Hollywood said, "You've got to change this guy's name because United Artists owns him and if we don't sell the book to UA, we won't be able to sell it." So I changed his name and lightened his mustache a bit.
WHAT'S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE ELMORE LEONARD MOVIE?
Well, it has to be The Big Bounce. When The Big Bounce came out the first time, in 1969, I said, "This has got to be the second worst movie ever made." I didn't know what the first one was until they remade The Big Bounce.
WHY DON'T YOU WRITE YOUR OWN SCREENPLAYS?
I would if I could just write a draft and hand it to them and say, "Here, shoot this." But you get into it with all these experts sitting around at the table, and they're all telling you, "Well, why doesn't he say this? Why doesn't he say that?" And then they all take off, and you sit there in your hotel room, writing the screenplay. That's no fun. This has got to be fun, or else it's not worth doing.
YOU COULD LIVE ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD. WHY DETROIT?