Last night I heard Elmore Leonard read, the last of Butler University’s visiting writers this semester. He’s in his mid-eighties now, but the moment he began reading from his novel, Freaky Deaky, years fell away and he was at the same his own low-life characters carrying on a hilarious dialogue about a gangster who might or might not be about to get blown up by a bomb and the writer delighting in his own words, sometimes half-chuckling at a line.
During the Q&A a guy asked, “What’s the secret to good dialogue?” Leonard looked bemused. “Don’t you hear it?” he asked. “There are people all around us, talking. I listen.”
Someone else asked if he knew what the end of a story would be when he started it. He said, no, he just got a couple of interesting people talking and let them go. If someone gets boring, he shoots him. About three-quarters of the way through the book, he starts thinking about how it could end. A book could end in a lot of different ways, he said.
I loved the matter-of-factness and pleasure with which he talked about writing. Though he didn’t say it exactly this way, I think he’d agree that his message was: Pay attention to the world you’re living in; be curious about people, listen to them talking; if something interests you that you don’t know about or don’t understand, find out about it. Being a writer is seeing the potential for stories in the world around you, taking time to find out about things you don’t already know about or understand. Asking, what if? And when you find the story, leaving out every single thing it doesn’t need—the parts people skim.
Don’t. Be. Boring.
Later, it occurred to me that hearing Elmore Leonard read was a lot like hearing Eudora Welty read in Birmingham, Alabama, years ago, when she was around the same age. Sitting onstage during the introduction, dressed in a flowered church-dress, her turquoise pocketbook set firmly on her lap, she looked like the archetypal little old lady. But when she went to the podium and started reading “The Petrified Man,” years fell from her voice and she became the ladies in the beauty shop, every single one of them.
Another writer who talked about writing plainly, she once observed, “Children, like animals use all their senses to discover the world. Then artists come along and discover the same way…Or now and then we’ll hear from an artist who’s never lost it.”
Elmore Leonard is one of those artists. So was Eudora Welty.
Their work couldn’t be more different, but both have seen the world through the clear lens of a child, both retained their sense of wonder about the sheer strangeness of it all their lives.