Meeting Elmore Leonard

When I met Mr. Leonard, it was the first time I had met someone in person who I felt was influencing my ideas of wanting to write and make movies. I was about 20. I was at a reading of his and I remember being undoubtedly the youngest person in the room by several life experiences. There was a very long line to see him after he had read from his latest novel so I figured that waiting until the line dissipated would give me more time with him.

It would make for a more succinct story to say that I carry with me to this day one profound and elegantly crafted piece of advice he gifted to me but there wasn’t any such exchange. I simply told him that the way he wrote was teaching me that I could write my dialogue in my screenplays however I chose because he clearly did things his own way and in a style that was, at least to me, unconventional. I also asked about what would be involved in securing rights to his novels for film purposes because the idea interested me and he said he unfortunately didn’t really own his material because the publishers did and that they made those decisions but he suggested that it was a nasty business trying to make a movie from a book because of rights and licenses and went on to explain the process. Of course I know this now, because I’ve had to look into several copyright related issues with the music I use in my films. Though the question seems a naïve one to me today, having him answer me anyway instead of laughing at me may have been one of the major events that sparked in me a practice I maintain to this day, which is that with my film work, I always ask anything if I need something, no matter how seemingly large or bizarre the request. Had he been condescending, it could have affected that ability to ask people things without fear of rejection which eventually came to be a trait I adopted in daily life as well. I was probably just some kid to him, asking a question larger than my head. I imagine that I came off like someone sitting to eat a steak with salad tongs and a ladle; right general area, wrong equipment. But he certainly didn’t make me feel like it. He answered me like he might have answered any one of those other people there to see him that were old enough to have bought his first novels when they were first published. He answered me like he might have answered a professional producer, filmmaker or established writer well into his film career and not the way most people would have answered some young kid barely out of high school, faking his way through university unsuccessfully and only beginning to assemble the frailest wisps of insight about how to write anything substantial or, for that matter, intelligible.

In the end, he may have inspired me more as a person in those brief minutes than for his craft. It would be silly to think he remembered meeting me, not that that was ever the point. And I don’t think he was looking to influence anyone either on that night or at any point in his life. It doesn’t strike me as something you set out to do. But if we care about what we do, I guess all of us regardless of what our vocation is, do hope to show others who want the same thing why that thing matters to us and why we value it, as a way of helping them discern whether it really matters to them. There isn’t really anything else of use that you can offer as someone with a certain amount of experience. Getting from Mr. Leonard that evening something with the meaningless banality of “advice for a young person beginning their career as a writer” would have been advice I probably wouldn’t remember today. The further you swim out into experience, the more you realise when you look back that where you’ve ended up isn’t a place you can give directions to.

I suppose I thought at the time, like many people do when meeting someone they admire, that the simple fact of meeting him would be something I could look back on, a bit selfishly, as a great moment in my memory. “I met Elmore Leonard once!”, I imagined I would say. But instead we had a chat, and I have a story about when I met a really interesting person first, who happens to be a writer I like second. His respect for me and treating me as a peer though I had hardly anything more than a whisper of an idea of how to write (still working on that, I might add) tells me today about how much he valued being a writer himself. I’ll cherish that more than a handshake and an impersonal autograph on some tattered piece of paper any day, although he did offer to sign something for me as well.

I met Elmore Leonard once.

In memory of Elmore Leonard, 1925-2013

Leonardsign

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