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Interview: Elmore Leonard Is More Than 'Justified'

Brittany Frederick Brittany Frederick
February 3rd, 2011 10:02am EST

Elmore LeonardYou've heard me wax poetic time and again about my fierce love for FX's Justified. As the show returns for its second season on February 9, I sat down with the man we owe it all to - legendary novelist Elmore Leonard - to talk about one of the best dramas on television, how it got to be that way, and the already much-anticipated next literary adventure of Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens.

You've been writing for almost sixty years, and you haven't changed much, if at all; you still handwrite every word of every manuscript. After all that time, still doing things the same way, what keeps things interesting for you?

There's nothing else I want to do. I have fun writing. I don't make it a chore. I don't have to struggle with it. I keep myself out of the book. You never hear from me; it's always the characters' point of view. They're always talking and I keep my nose out of it. That's the way I like doing things, and it seems to work for me.

What do you have to go through in order to get a novel turned into a film or television series? How involved do you get in what happens to your work?

In the case of Justified, Graham Yost was reading my work - he had read a lot of it already - and he decided that "Fire In The Hole" could be adapted. He wrote the script for the pilot and sent it to me, and I read it and thought it was really good. And then when I saw it I thought, "This was better than I expected," because Raylan was exactly the way I wrote him. It keeps getting better. The show is thriving.

Justified is the third TV series based upon your work. I have fond memories of Karen Sisco. Both are about U.S. Marshals who start out in Miami (although Raylan doesn't stay there). Is that simply a coincidence?

Probably. I was setting stories in Miami. I've set like five or six books in that area.

Did you learn anything from the previous two series that influenced how you approached this third venture? What do you think Justified got right that the previous ones didn't?

They didn't quite develop [Karen's] character in a way that really worked. They didn't quite get it. It worked fine in the book, but I think they were trying too hard. For example, she has a father who's a private investigator, and she would go to him for advice. The way I write it, her dad's very short with her. I liked that relationship, but on the TV series, he was so soft with her.

Is there a particular episode or moment from Justified that you think best reflects what you created?

Definitely the pilot. I like the way they cut it, the way they keep moving. I like, especially, the rhythm.

We heard at Justified's TCA panel that the show inspired you to pen a new Raylan Givens novel for next year. It's been ten years since you wrote "Fire In The Hole." What was it like picking up the character after so long?

He's easy, because I just know him. I've written so many Westerns - he could fit into any one of those. I'm using the same rhythm that I write everything in. For the most part, I'm writing about cops and robbers. I try and make them different; I try to give everybody a sense of humor, of not saying everything straight, to make them interesting. I just get a feel for the characters. I know them.

Can you give us an idea of what we can expect from the new novel? Is it going to reflect a little more of the TV series?

I'm writing [it] in three parts. In the very first scene, they go into a motel to arrest somebody for marijuana and he's in the bathtub naked with a bandage on his stomach. Raylan doesn't know what it is. One of the other Marshals says, "Oh, he's had his kidney removed." They're stealing kidneys.

How much has the show influenced your writing? Do you find yourself drawing on the performances of the actors when you're putting the characters to paper?

I use the ones that I'm familiar with. The ones I add, they don't necessarily use, but that's all right. Nor do I try to follow their storylines. I write exactly what I want and I send it to them.

It's been said that parts of the upcoming novel will be used in season two of Justified. Are you at all worried about how that might affect the novel, in terms of covering the same ground?

No, it'll help because the fans of Justified will want to read the book. They might not even recognize the book in certain parts.

After Rita was killed off on Dexter, Jeff Lindsay said that he got an earful from fans who didn't understand that his novels were completely different from the television series. Have you ever had any experiences like that?

I hear from people all the time who have never read me, even though I've been writing for sixty years. I'm surprised that everyone doesn't know who I am after being out there for so long.

There are so many superlatives out there to describe you and your body of work. I can't begin to imagine what that kind of acclaim feels like. What has it been like for you? Has it ever seemed surreal?

I have gotten an awful lot of praise because of the writing, but it doesn't move me that much. You've got to keep writing and always try to make it better.

After everything you've done, is there anything you'd like to do?

Well, I don't want to write any more screenplays, I'll tell you that right now. It's a waste of time. You've got too many people who think they have the answer to a good screenplay and they don't. No one knows.

My thanks to Elmore Leonard for this interview. Justified returns for its second season on February 9 on FX. Elmore has written two Raylan Givens novels (Pronto and Riding The Rap) and you can check out the short story that inspired the series by picking up the collection When the Women Come Out to Dance.

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