Friday, May 13, 2005

Leaving Out What Will Be Skipped

DETROIT, May 9 - Elmore Leonard is about talked out. The stories about the craft of America's premier crime novelist have become clich├ęs waiting their turn.

So why not get the hooptedoodle, as Mr. Leonard calls "the part that readers tend to skip," out of the way? He writes seven days a week in the living room of a nice house in the suburbs here with a No. 5 Pilot Pen on unlined yellow paper. He does not use e-mail or a computer. He types the handwritten pages on an I.B.M. Selectric, which occasionally breaks down from daily exertion.

"There's one name in the phonebook who repairs typewriters," Mr. Leonard said, adding, "he says he can live on $6,000 a year. He lives in a trailer park."

That is all he says about the typewriter guy, but with those spare details, the typewriter guy comes alive in the room, full-blown.

That economy and precision have enabled a career that has lasted more than 50 years. One day ran into the next, one book became another, and now Mr. Leonard is a nearly 80-year-old man who has just written his 40th book.

Even though writing comes reflexively to him, there is nothing automatic or tossed off in his books, which use the dyad of character and dialogue to compose mini-epics on human folly, stripped of artifice and adjectives. "The Hot Kid," a robbers-and-lawmen tale set during Prohibition, will be released this week and is getting plenty of love from the critics. Charles McGrath of The New York Times called Mr. Leonard's books "ruthlessly efficient entertainment machines." Writing in The Boston Globe, Stephen King said, "the old guy's still got plenty of bite."

But not in person. To say that Mr. Leonard lacks pretension does not quite get it. He is scary normal, friendly in an absent way. This great American author, one of the best dialogue writers ever, lets people at charity auctions bid for the right to name his characters; Ed Hagenlocker, a "hard-shell Baptist" and cotton farmer in "The Hot Kid," got his name that way. "Why not help them out?" he said.

A former writer of ads and industrial films, "Dutch," as his pals call him, published his first novel, "The Bounty Hunters," a half-century ago. Switching from westerns to crime, he became a not-so-overnight sensation with the publication of "Glitz" in 1985. Mr. Leonard has written many best sellers, including "Mr. Paradise," "Be Cool," "Get Shorty" and "Rum Punch."

If those titles sound familiar to even nonreaders, it is because many of them have been made into movies - Hollywood producers pull up to the curb almost every time he writes, and "The Hot Kid," with its gun molls, strutting lawmen and so-dumb-they-are-smart hoods will be no exception. Mr. Leonard has won the Grand Master Award of the Mystery Writers of America, but he is no big fan of Hammett and Chandler, preferring the lean-and-mean gait of Hemingway and Steinbeck. Mr. Leonard does not think what he does is very complicated.

"The first part moves along O.K., and then I have to think about the second part, because the second part keeps it going," he said. "And then you've got to get to some new things, say around page 250. There is always those surprises near the end."

He wears jeans, sandals and a Detroit Pistons shirt. When he writes, he looks out on a tarp-covered pool and a tennis court beyond. The place smells of pot roast, being looked after by Christine, his wife of a dozen years. He lives in Bloomfield Village, 20 miles north of the city that has supplied endless grit and grist for his stories. His neighborhood has more in common with a John Cheever novel than one of Mr. Leonard's wiseguy librettos.

His longtime researcher, Gregg Sutter, did the grimy version of the Dutch Leonard tour earlier that day. There was a drive past 1300 Beaubien, a cop shop where the fifth floor is occupied by the homicide division, the holiest of holies and a pivot point for a lot of Mr. Leonard's books. There is the Greek joint down the street with the ouzo and the flaming cheese, where cops went to get hammered after their shifts. Mr. Sutter stopped in front of a dilapidated apartment building in the shadow of the now empty Tiger Stadium. It was the site of a triple homicide, Chaldean money guys ripped off by and then killed by drug dealers. Mr. Sutter, who lives in Los Angeles, but happened to be in town, saw it on the news and went right over. He called Mr. Leonard from the scene.

"We got a triple," he told Mr. Leonard. The murders, which involved a chainsaw, body parts and a fire to cover up the crime, appeared in "Mr. Paradise," published last year. But Mr. Leonard has seen and heard plenty in his time, so he can sit in a living-room office and create all sorts of mayhem.

The room includes none of the trophies that men of accomplishment acquire and no grip-and-grin portraits of him with the famous and infamous people he has known. There is just a picture of his agent, H. N. Swanson, who called him up after his first book and said, "Kiddo, I'm going to make you rich." Eighty-four rejections followed, but the now-departed Mr. Swanson ended up being right.

Mr. Leonard seemed genuinely surprised that "The Hot Kid" had the press in a tizzy. "I kind of thought of it as one of my quieter books," he said. Part of the reason that "The Hot Kid" works is that it manages to bookend his career in one crisp little novel. The men, both bad guys and good, who ramble through Tulsa and Kansas City in the 1920's and 30's are part gangster and part gunslinger. As such, they are hybrids, embodying his early career as a western writer and his later critically acclaimed run as a crime novelist. He is happy for the good reviews but the approbation is a little beside the point.

"I write them to find out what happens," he said of his novels. "I don't write for anybody else."

Characters serve as can-openers on plots for Mr. Leonard. Once conceived, they become his masters, shoving him from one scene to the next, until the book ends, usually at about 300 pages.

Critics aside, "The Hot Kid" came up short. Two hundred and eighty pages.

"I thought it should be longer than 280," he said, sitting in one of the chairs in front of his desk. "So I said reset it with one or two lines less per page and make it work. And it came out to 312."

Mr. Leonard was less able to count when it came to his drinks, so he has been sober since 1977. At the end of the day, he enjoys a nonalcoholic beer and a single cigarette. He used to chain-smoke, but for the first time in his life, he seems to be aging with a bit of high blood pressure and arterial fibrillation.

"I'm turning into an old man all of a sudden," he said. "And I've got hearing aids, but they don't do much good. I have trouble hearing my wife."

His wife, picking at the daffodils in the front of the house, said, "Elmore always says you have to do what you love; otherwise, what's the point?"

But Mr. Leonard hates that he now takes pills. "I don't want to live forever," he said, having his daily smoke out by the pool. "What am I gonna do, write another book?"

He knows the answer is yes.

Leaving Out What Will Be Skipped - New York Times

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Reviewing NPR Authors on NPR: A Conflict of Interest?, May 10, 2005 ·

There's a longstanding tradition of book reviews on NPR. Authors and publishers constantly send their wares to NPR programs in hopes that something about the book will pique a producer's interest.

Public radio listeners are voracious readers and thousands of books and their authors are aired on public radio every year.

When an author gets interviewed on NPR, it's almost a ticket to the top of the lists.

NPR Interviews NPR Personalities

There's another longstanding tradition in public radio. Whenever an NPR journalist, host or personality writes a book, invariably he or she is interviewed on NPR. And usually on more than one program.

Just as inevitably, listeners ask: should NPR employees use NPR programs to talk about their books? (NPR hosts may not talk about their own works on their own program.)

NPR is a creative environment and it houses a prolific bunch. Rarely a year goes by without someone well known to public radio audiences going on a book tour to promote a latest opus.

Now it's NPR's Scott Simon's turn. It's not his first book. But it is his first novel.

The novel is entitled Little Birds and Scott has taken a leave of absence from NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday to travel around the country, read excerpts in book stores and autograph copies for eager listener/readers. So far, the reviews in other media have been positive.

Interviewed on 'Morning Edition'

On May 3, Renee Montagne on NPR's Morning Edition interviewed Simon.

He read excerpts and answered questions from the host about how the novel originated from his own reporting for NPR News during the siege of Sarajevo in 1993.

After the interview, a number of listeners such as Gary Sullivan wrote to ask whether this constituted a conflict of interest on the part of NPR and Simon:

I was surprised to hear Scott Simon interviewed this morning about his new book.

I haven't read it -- I have no idea if it's any good. But does anyone at NPR think it's a little... unseemly... for a host to be interviewed, essentially to flog his own book?

Scott Simon also was interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. That provoked another round of e-mails.

From listener Donn Cohen:

NPR engages from time to time in the promotion of books written by its employees. Most recently you promoted a book written by Mr. Simon. There are many excellent books published almost daily but the authors of those books don't have the advantage of being employed by NPR and many fine books go unnoticed. I object to employees of NPR using their connections to gain publicity for their books. It's a conflict of interest and I decry the practice.

'Listeners Want to Hear This Side'

Bruce Drake is NPR's VP of News. His response to the question of whether this constitutes a problem:

NPR is blessed with some of the finest writers, journalists and thinkers in the business. When they write a book, it usually is a book that would merit invitations from a variety of news outlets for an author interview -- on TV, radio and in print. That is the basis on which we have maintained the tradition of allowing NPR people to be interviewed on our shows about their work. I would add my belief that given the close connection our audience has with us, they want to hear this side of the people they have known on air for so long.

That being said, there may be a perception problem when an NPR author appears on more than one NPR program. That has resulted from the fact that there are some programs produced in-house by NPR like Morning Edition and ATC, and there are what we call "acquired" programs (that) are produced by others that we distribute, and who do their booking of guests independently from the in-house programs. But all these programs carry the NPR name, so this is an issue we may have to think about.

Journalists Reviewing Journalists

Most news organizations are faced with this problem of how to review books written by their own journalists.

Newspapers partly resolve this by hiring freelance reviewers to write their assessments. But fellow ombudsmen tell me that it is almost impossible for a newspaper not to review a book written by one of their own journalists.

I suspect that, at NPR, the same subtle pressures exist.

Scott Simon's book may or may not be an exception to this since it is rare for any journalist -- at NPR or anywhere else -- to venture into fiction. So the rationale for asking him to appear on NPR is probably justified.

'Logrolling'* or Normal Decision-Making?

But other books by NPR journalists have, in the past, provoked grumbling from the producers who feel that some books just weren't good enough to merit interviews with the authors. Yet it's almost impossible to reject a book by a co-worker without appearing uncollegial.

One solution might be to adopt the outside critic model. NPR's All Things Considered does this by asking a professor of creative writing, Alan Cheuse, to review fiction that he alone picks (after running it by an editor).

NPR listeners are, we are told, always interested in hearing the ideas of NPR journalists. The presence of so many public radio supporters at any book tour is proof of that.

There is also nothing wrong with NPR modestly basking in the reflected glory of its employees' extracurricular achievements.

But listeners are still concerned whenever NPR's journalism appears to overlap with its employees' economic self-interest. And they worry that "logrolling"* -- as opposed to normal journalistic practices -- may be part of NPR's decision to review the book and interview its author.

*Webster's Dictionary, 4th Edition: Logrolling -- a giving of help, praise, in return for help, praise. In politics, mutual aid among politicians, as by reciprocal voting for each other's bills.

NPR : Reviewing NPR Authors on NPR: A Conflict of Interest?

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