Elmore Leonard on 'Raylan' and 'Justified'

Elmore Leonard discusses the moral ambiguity of his protagonist, the struggle to make good guys as interesting as villains, and his thoughts on 'Justified,' the TV series based on his work.

By Dermot Cleary
Elmore Leonard says actor Timothy Olyphant, who plays lead character Raylan Givens in the TV series 'Justified' based on Leonard's books, 'is probably the best one to do one of my characters.'

All right, you’re looking at Harlan County, Ky., and there goes Boyd Crowder, a shady character if ever there was one.

Boyd has a knack for finding the kind of work that requires a rap sheet instead of a résumé.

Now he’s working for a company notorious for strip-mining mountaintops in the Appalachians, assigned to a dubious department known as Disagreements. His boss, the cruel and calculating Carol Conlan, swoops in and decides to make Boyd her personal chauffeur during her visit. Just one problem: Carol shoots a local resident who happens to be a victim of the mine company’s pollution, then pins the act on Boyd, claiming he had saved her from an unprovoked attack.

All of which explains why Boyd and Carol are getting testy, arguing as Boyd drives her through Kentucky. Carol threatens to fire Boyd and he recalls an earlier part of their conversation.

            “You know you ended a sentence with a preposition? You said, ‘She’s here in a nursing home we’re payin for.’ ”

            “Caught being ungrammatical.” Carol staring at his serious face.

            “How should I have said it?”

            “She’s here in a nursing home,” Boyd said, “for which we’re payin the costs.”

Welcome to the wonderful world of Elmore Leonard. The scene above comes from his latest book, “Raylan” (Morrow, $26.99, 272 pages). Raylan, of course, is Raylan Givens, a sharpshooting modern-day deputy US marshal with a penchant for intermittent bouts of moral ambiguity and a consistent case of walk-off zingers.

A prime example: Raylan, soon after a suspect in the Kentucky mountains hands him a jar of moonshine, later tells his boss what became of it.

“It was good. The peach didn’t mess it up any. I had a couple of pulls and gave it to an old coot on the street. It brought tears to his eyes.”

As for old coots, Leonard, 86, is anything but. He keeps turning out smooth, hip novels that may be found in the mystery section but are, in fact, slices of street-wise patois and pop-culture observation, with healthy splashes of crime and violence. Good guys and bad guys alike are quirky, with plenty of ambivalence on both sides. All are prone to impromptu pronouncements on subjects various and sundry, such as Raylan’s off-hand observation in the new novel that Ole Miss “has the best-looking girls of any college in the country. Even Vanderbilt. Ole Miss, the girl’s an eight-plus, she doesn’t have to pass her SATs.”

In “Raylan,” Leonard riffs on everything from a bungled scheme to trade in stolen kidneys to backwoods poverty rife with drug dealers and marijuana crops.

Leonard introduced Givens in earlier short stories and novels, but is writing about him now for the first time since cable network FX made the character the centerpiece of the critically acclaimed "Justified" series. Timothy Olyphant plays the role to perfection, capturing Leonard’s wise-guy charm and steely, shoot-em-up bravado. The novel arrives just as "Justified" begins its third season Jan. 17.

Leonard recently discussed the TV show, the book and what comes next during a telephone interview from his home in Michigan. Following are edited excerpts from that conversation.

On why he wrote "Raylan": I figured I should do something since they were paying me as an executive producer [for the show]. I can’t just sit here, I’ve got to do something. But I didn’t ask them what they were doing and try to tie in with it, I just wrote my own things. It worked out so they could use a little bit here and there.

On how his approach changes because of the TV show: That didn’t bother me because as soon as I met [Raylan] in earlier books, I liked him a lot. He just seemed to work. He seemed easygoing, but serious, too.

But seeing him now [as a TV character] just reinforces my feeling about it. That he’s the guy. [Timothy Olyphant] is probably the best one to do one of my characters. [The late actor] Richard Boone would recite the lines exactly the way I heard them, he was in a couple of movies [based on Leonard works], but this guy’s perfect. He’s the good guy. Richard Boone was always the bad guy.

On whether portions of the book will be used in the show: It already has. There were some references in the second year. They were minor scenes, but they were from the book. I don’t think they did enough with my character who works for the mining company. She was in last year – they may bring her back. I hope they do.

On the novel’s villains, including the murderous mining executive and crooks trading in excised body organs: Well, I don’t know why I decided to do three girls there [as criminals], but then the third girl, who played poker, wasn’t that menacing at all. She wasn’t that bad. So then I added this guy who is dressed like a girl when Raylan shoots him. I have a good time but I take it seriously. Nobody’s laughing or clowning around.

On why he likes Raylan: The fact that he’s not shady, but there is some question about him. The way he disposes, for example, of moonshine. Things that he says about the laws. He’s not 100 percent on the good side.

He does his job and he’s very good at it. And he always has that last line when the bad guy says something, he comes back with a line. It may take me weeks to think of that line, but I go back and stick it in. That’s the beauty of being able to write it in a book. You’ve got time to get everybody’s character the way you want.

On his characters’ tendency to relate to each other no matter which side they’re on: I want the reader to know what’s going on. So there’s never a mystery in my books. You’ll meet the bad guys, I’ll spend enough time with the bad guys because they’re interesting. A friend of mine who is in the publishing business knew I was writing a book and he said, “Have you said anything yet about the good guy? Because I know you spend so much time with the bad guys.”

Because they’re fun. So then you have to make the good guy fun, in order to compete. That’s the challenge.

On why he chose Kentucky for the setting: Because I used moonshine as the industry going on there. They produce more moonshine than, I think, any state, with the exception of California and Hawaii. All those miners out of work are growing marijuana, trying to make a living.

On plot elements inspired by his researcher: Gregg Sutter, he sends me material all the time. Constantly. And he arranges things for me. He’s in L.A., but he does everything for me. I couldn’t get along without him. He’s far advanced on all the electronic stuff. He’s got everything. He comes to see me and he shows me things I can’t believe. Stacks of material I need for my research.

On his approach: I’ve always tried to use as much dialogue as possible to keep the thing going. So you know the state of mind of all the people. I don’t have to just sit and describe it. If I get them into a conversation, it’s a lot easier. That’s why I use so much dialogue. Maybe I’m getting lazy, but it seems to me I’m using more dialogue than ever before. You get what they’re thinking out loud.

On finding ideas: It is [harder], because [after] 45 books, I’ve used just about everything. When I get an idea for a book, something appeals to me, it’s usually a character. I’ll see a picture of a female marshal in front of the courthouse in Miami and she’s got a shotgun on her hip and it goes up on an angle. And she’s good-looking. And I say, “I’ve got to use her.”

On Raylan as a contemporary Old West hero: The critics have been calling Raylan a cowboy with his hat. The hat came unexpectedly [with the show]. I had described kind of a businessman’s Stetson, a smaller Stetson. The one all the cops were wearing when Jack Ruby shot [Lee Harvey Oswald].

But evidently he found his own hat and design. It’s perfect. I don’t see him bareheaded. He seems to need a hat to define who he is. 

On the quality of the show: It’s got great writers. I’m amazed at the writing. They’re all so real and the accents are so good. They sound like those people

On his next book: I’m writing a book called "Sweetmary." Sweetmary is a privately run prison in Arizona. There are three Apache Indian boys who are 20 and one of them is a bull rider and he wins, he stays on three bulls for eight seconds each in the Indian rodeo and wins $4,000. And he and his two friends, who are bull handlers, all go out to celebrate. They’re having a good time drinking tequila and beer-chasers and the guy at the next table is with immigration enforcement.

He takes exception to these boys and they mouth off at him and he throws them in jail. They don’t have identification. He’s the bad guy.

But I want to bring Raylan in. I need Raylan in this one.

Erik Spanberg is a regular contributor to the Monitor's book section.

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