Tuesday, August 20, 2013

My interview with Elmore Leonard made me a fan

Macomb Daily file photo/David N. Posavetz

It is a sad day for writers, but also TV fans, readers and students – anyone who has been entertained by the words of Elmore Leonard. The Michigan native and crime novelist,  whose books have launched many Hollywood movie and TV series, died Tuesday morning at his home from complications of a stroke he suffered a few weeks ago.

When I met him three years ago he was two months shy of 85.

It was the inaugural year of the Elmore Leonard Literary Arts and Film Festival and I was granted an interview with the author -- although I don’t think he would have denied anyone a chat provided they were seriously interested in his work. 

Admittedly, I was excited to meet him. 

I considered the menagerie of characters that Leonard created over his nearly six decade writing career. If audiences were not being introduced to them through his books (44-and-counting) or novellas they are discovering them on the big screen. There was always some ambitious director or screenwriter plucking a villain or hero from Leonard’s circus of feisty true-to-life characters. His words inspired almost 30 films and TV movies including “3:10 to Yuma” (based on a shorty story he sold to Dime Western magazine for 2 cents a word). This September, I was hoping to chat with him again about a film debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival that was based on his book. For Leonard’s festival, organizers featured a special showing of the pilot episode for the hit FX Network series, “Justified.” Though not a direct adaptation, at the heart of the TV series that spawned a new generation of Leonard fans, including my son, is Leonard’s beloved character U.S. marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant). 

As excited as I was, I was leery, too. A few people who had met him when he was younger gave me the impression that he was aloof and difficult. So, I went to the interview expecting him to honor his commitment to the festival but nod for a handler to give me the old five-finger warning (meaning you are outta here in five minutes).

Instead it was just him who answered the door.

As luck would have it, he was in the middle of writing. After a cordial greeting he ushered me into his office. It was an area in the great room sectioned off by a wooden desk facing a wall of windows overlooking his garden. On his desk was a burning candle, no doubt trying to mask the smell cigarette smoke, an electric typewriter (not quite an antique but definitely not modern) and a stack of paper. As he showed me later the canary paper bludgeoned by pencil corrections were pages of his new book about U.S. marshal Givens.

Following a quick session with our photographer David Posavetz, which included Leonard offering to pose with Poz, he and I settled into a casual conversation about his career and his family. He is the father of five children, and his son Peter, who lived nearby,  followed in his footsteps, going into advertising before achieving his own success as a novelist in 2008. Elmore was gracious and kind, not only in the manner in which he responded to questions but in carrying the conversation onward. For hours we spoke about writing. I learned that while he drafted a screenplay – it was not fun for him.

At one point during the interview, he saw that I was staring at the sheets of yellow paper strewn across his desk. I was straining to read the straightforward and believable Leonardian dialogue that made him famous.  So, he grabbed one and read the words aloud, like they were all new to him. After reading a sentence or two, he put the paper down and made a correction, then read to the end of the page. “I always write in longhand first,” he told me. “I cross out what I don’t want and then just keep adding to it.” When he felt the page was done, he would complete a polished version. It was done, not on a computer, but on his trusty IBM Wheelwriter electric typewriter. 

When we both needed a moment to stretch, he gave me a quick tour of the kitchen and living room (adorned with photos of his family and works of art). We rounded a corner and entered a small room where his wife was working. Stacked on several shelves in the small room were the books he had published over the years. With one children’s book to my name, I can only imagine how proud he was of his 44 titles. He did not gloat or brag but proceeded to tell me a story about several of them including his newest title at the time, “Djibouti.”

By then I could tell by the shadows on the wall it was time to leave, or invite myself to dinner. Even then, he did not rush me out the door. Instead he eyed his collection of books and picked a stack of titles that he knew my teenage son would enjoy.

My time with Elmore Leonard that afternoon could not have been better. I was inspired. I was entertained and I felt enriched having met him.  

One final note
If there was one Elmore Leonard quote I'll remember it's this -- as I am a vacuum when it comes to interesting facts ...
“Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language.

You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.”

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A fireman hangs his hat in two homes

WFD district chief Willoughby with a fellow firefighter.

Firefighters have two homes: the house they live in with their kin and the other they share with members of their fire brigade. My brother Al has hung his hat on the hook and ladders of the Windsor Fire Department for 33 years. From his roaring days as a rookie, to his glory days as a gallant captain and mentoring chief, he’s been packing an overnight bag for his second home. 

Other people may have two homes - college students have their dorm and then go home to their parents’; retirees have a home-base and maybe a vacation place.

But not only do firefighters have two homes, they have two families depending on them. It could be unclogging a sink or rocking a sick child to sleep or climbing a shaky ladder with a fire hose (that has the force of a jet engine) or running into a burning building to rescue a comrade.

No wonder they hang up their helmets at age 60.

Firefighter Joe Ventimiglia, left, with retiring district chief Willoughby.
"Today is 33 years to the day," said WFD District Chief “Willoughby,” adjusting the tie of his dress blue uniform while awaiting the arrival of his wife Sue and their children, Trisha (Frank), Dawn (Jessie), Kristopher (Niky) and first grandchild Alayna. Because it was the last shift of his career, he would not be fighting any fires. Instead, he fought a blaze of pokes and jokes from his fire-station family.

"I've got a few stories to tell," said firefighter Rob Fawcett, with a grin at the chief. "We were coming back from a run in a new truck," Fawcett said. (A new fire rescue vehicle can cost between $500,000 and $1.5 million depending on its bells and whistles.) While turning a corner near a lot in the city, Fawcett said he hollered a warning to his chief about some boards protruding into the street. The chief proceeded cautiously but took the corner too sharp and loud scraping and crunching sounds were heard. He stopped long enough for Fawcett to jump off the truck and survey the damages (pick up the pieces), then motored on.

Willoughby said nothing, nor did Fawcett when he saw his chief back at the fire hall, using rolls of Duct tape to try and fix the little white lights on the big red truck.

Other firehouse anecdotes had to do with Willoughby's cooking - his famous butter tarts (I have the recipe archived if you want it) and cabbage rolls (this one is still a secret) and infamous pig head soup. Even I remember when all of the firefighters were calling in sick after Willoughby made a pot of soup out of the leftovers from a pig roast. Although delicious (the pot was emptied), the meat was bad after being left too long in a warm car.

No soup today.

For this firehouse party the crew planned a meal fit for a chief. There were several bowls of salads, sweet corn, barbecue chicken and most importantly 20 slabs of pork ribs, Fred Flintstone-size ribs.

They were cut and marinated the night before in a special brine recipe created by firefighter Mark “Chevy” Chevalier.

“He was a great captain and great chief,” Chevalier said, turning the ribs. “A lot of guys showing up today are off duty, but they came in for Al (some like Ray Gauthier even brought Bundt cakes). It shows you how well he’s respected.”

He received parting gifts – an engraved brass fire extinguisher and T-shirt splattered with barbecue sauce.

Then at 6 p.m. the all-call paging tone for chiefs rang out and everyone came to attention as a voice over the air announced that Willoughby was officially retired. That’s when it hit home for Willoughby and Sue, who, as the wife of a firefighter had to spend many nights alone with her children, wondering if he was in harm’s way. They were both teary-eyed as they listened, following the announcement to firefighters from across the city chiming in with their goodbyes and congratulatory messages. Even the “peons” - as senior members call the rookies - hailed greeting to the chief.

Willoughby responded with his last address as district chief, in which he told everyone what a pleasure his life has been as their leader, friend and fellow firefighter.

“You are the heart and soul of the department, acknowledged by citizens every day. I will always be proud of the fact that I was a firefighter and that I was part of Windsor Fire and Rescue,” Willoughby said.

Now the chief is down to taking care of one home, but he’ll always have two families.