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Elmore Leonard never gets short financially

Elmore Leonard His face may not be instantly familiar, but best-selling novelist Elmore Leonard is the cool creator of such wickedly funny novels-turned-blockbusters as "Out of Sight" (starring Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney), "Get Shorty" (starring John Travolta) and Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown" (based on "Rum Punch").

In the course of 38 novels spanning a half-century, the man who has been called "the Dickens of Detroit" has had successful careers as an advertising writer, Western author and trailblazing creator of loopy, literary hard-boiled fiction that redefined the modern crime novel.

Leonard returned to Detroit in 1949 after serving as a Seabee in the South Pacific during World War II and soon found work writing ad copy for the Chevrolet account. During the '50s, he sold Westerns to the pulps. In 1961, when the Western Writers of America named his novel "Hombre" one of the best Westerns of all time, he quit his day job and never looked back (the modest paycheck from the successful Paul Newman movie didn't hurt, either).

When interest in Westerns waned, Leonard spent the next two decades creating his own genre, combining a dead-perfect ear for dialogue with a new, humorous take on Detroit's assorted lowlifes to create decidedly non-mysterious mysteries that defied, then defined, the new, hip crime novel.

Everyone, it seems, has an Elmore Leonard favorite: "Fifty-two Pickup" (1974), "City Primeval" (1980), "Glitz" (1985), "Tishomingo Blues" (2002). Tarantino, who rocketed from video-store clerk to Hollywood director on the strength of the Leonard-esque "Pulp Fiction," is such a big fan that he optioned four of the author's books for future movies.

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At age 78, when most authors have long since ceased to surprise, this father of five children, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandson is back on the best-seller list with another funny Detroit romp, "Mr. Paradise," his first police procedural in 14 years. Later this year, filming is expected to begin on "Be Cool," the sequel to "Get Shorty" starring "Pulp Fiction" cast mates Travolta and Uma Thurman, as well as "Tishomingo Blues" with Don Cheadle starring and directing.

Bankrate.com caught up with "Dutch" Leonard during a book tour stop in Philadelphia.

Bankrate: Let's clear up this business about your nickname once and for all. How did you come to be called Dutch?

Elmore Leonard: That came when I was in high school. I needed a nickname and just for some reason out of the blue, the guy sitting next to me said, 'Let's call you Dutch Leonard,' because there was this knuckle-baller still pitching with the Washington Senators, he was in his 40s, and that was the name I got. Almost overnight, I was Dutch, throughout the school.

Bankrate: Most writers live on macaroni-and-cheese for years before breaking into publishing. How is it that you managed to attain near-legendary status as a Western writer almost in your spare time?

Elmore Leonard: I've always been successful. When I did hit The New York Times Bestseller list in 1985, one interviewer asked me, "What's it like for success coming at your age?" And I thought that I had always been successful because I always made enough money and I had been selling to Hollywood since the mid-'50s. So there was no problem with money. I was in advertising. I had started writing before I got the job in advertising in 1949, but I sold my first story in '53 and I didn't become an ad writer until 1953. I was a writer on the Chevrolet account. No, I wasn't writing in some basement and then all of a sudden it hit. When I first hit the Times list, I probably had 20 books behind me. It was just a matter of continuing what I had set out to do, because by then I had established my voice and I knew how I wanted to tell a story.

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-- Posted: Feb. 3, 2004
Read more stories by Jay  MacDonald
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