Author Elmore Leonard returns to one of his favorite characters in "Raylan."
Author image courtesy Dermot Cleary
Author Elmore Leonard returns to one of his favorite characters in "Raylan."

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Elmore Leonard returns with his latest in crime fiction, "Raylan"

The character inspired hit TV show, "Justified"

The 86-year-old author has been writing bestsellers for 60 years

CNN —  

Elmore Leonard is something of a living legend among lovers of crime fiction. A favorite of millions of readers, a hero to scores of writers, he’s been called “America’s greatest crime writer.” The 86-year old author has been writing bestselling books for sixty years, mostly Westerns and crime novels. Many of them have been turned into hit movies, including “3:10 to Yuma,” “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight.”

Now, Leonard returns to one of his favorite characters in his newest book, his 45th novel to be exact, titled simply, “Raylan.” That would be U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. The laid back, Stetson-wearing lawman first appeared in Leonard’s novels, “Pronto” and “Riding the Rap” and again in the 2001 short story, “Fire in the Hole” which became the basis for the hit TV show, “Justified,” starring Timothy Olyphant as the title character. The actor and the show are winning over fans, critics and Leonard himself. So much so that Leonard has returned to writing about “Raylan.”

The book just hit store shelves the same week the show had its third season premiere. Leonard, gracious and unassuming, shows no signs of slowing down at this point in his career.

The author spoke to CNN from his home in Michigan. The following is an edited transcript.

CNN: What brought you back to Raylan?

Leonard: I’ve always liked him. He’s just one of my favorites. Now when I see him on the screen I can’t believe it. He acts exactly the way I write him. He’s so laid back and he always has the best line in the scene. He’s perfect, boy. The way he talks I hear him just the way I heard him when I’m writing it. He’s kind of laid back but if you call him on anything, he says, “if I have to pull my gun I will shoot to kill,” and he’s serious about that but he doesn’t have to sound that serious, he just states it.

CNN: Raylan feels like a character from one of your Westerns transplanted into one of your crime novels.

Leonard: He could have been and maybe that’s where I got him. The critics see him as a western character because of his hat but his hat wasn’t my idea, that was his (Olyphant’s) idea. I pictured a businessman’s Stetson, a much smaller cowboy hat if you will but one that’s kind of worn out and shaped exactly the way he likes it. I think the hat works. I didn’t care for it at first but after a couple of episodes I liked the hat.

CNN: The writers on “Justified” all wear wristbands with the initials WWED stamped on them for “What Would Elmore Do?” What do you think about that?

Leonard: Well, I’m flattered. I met all the writers and every one of them had the little plastic bracelet on. I have a picture of all them and they’re at their desk and they all have a different book of mine and each one is reading to get my sound. That’s very flattering, I’ll tell you.

CNN: Do you have an active role with the TV show beyond your inspiration?

Leonard: No and I don’t want to know what they’re doing because I don’t want to interfere with them. While I was writing “Raylan” I would send them pages and I said use what you want, if you don’t use any of it OK but if it fits use it. They found some places to use some scenes where they’re taking body parts from victims and selling them. They’re going to do it one of the episodes this year so that’s very gratifying. I like the way they write, boy. Sometimes I think the show is better than my writing.

CNN: Millions love to read your books but who are you a fan of and what do you like to read?

Leonard: One of my favorites is George V. Higgins who wrote, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” Today I like reading Pete Dexter, Cormac McCarthy, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Ron Hansen and Richard Bissell. He only wrote three or four books but he was a pilot on the Mississippi, piloting a string of barges up and down the river. The way he described his characters and the way they talked, I just loved him and he was funny. That’s what I missed in Hemingway because he never showed any sense of humor. I don’t know why he was so serious. I still read Hemingway. I still read his short stories because they’re so good. He doesn’t waste any words.

CNN: You’ve been writing professionally for sixty years, where do you find your inspiration?

Leonard: It’s what I do. If I just sit here what am I going to do? I don’t have a trade. I don’t teach or anything. I just love to make up characters and gradually build a story around them. There was a photograph in the newspaper of two marshals in front of a courthouse in Miami where some drug dealers were being tried and the woman marshal had a shotgun on her hip, the stock against her hip and the rest of it angled up away from her and she was really good looking. I thought she’s a book, she’s going to be in my next book and she was. That was Karen Sisco, “Out of Sight.”

CNN: Sounds like you still have lot of enthusiasm for your work?

Leonard: Absolutely, that’s it. To me writing is the most fun. It’s not always fun but finally when you make it come out the way you want it then you can say its fun, boy. Even writing a scene I’ll enjoy a particular scene and then several years later I’ll happen to read that scene again, not looking for it, I’ll just happen to open an older book and read and think oh my god and start laughing. I didn’t laugh when I wrote it maybe I smiled, I don’t know. I was startled by the scene; I thought why’d I think of that? Why did I put that in there but it seemed to work.

CNN: Your stories read so easily, how did you develop your style?

Leonard: It’s got to be re-writing. It takes me at least three handwritten pages to get one clean, typed page with every word in place. The next morning I’ll read these pages again and I’ll start to make little changes, not much usually I’ll just add things. The first time I write it’s more spare then when I finally get into it, just add a word maybe add a cigarette or a drink or something like that. I don’t want it to sound like writing. I say leave out the parts people tend to skip. Just don’t overwrite.

CNN: What’s next for you?

Leonard: I’m writing a book right now but I’m only a chapter into it. I’m still thinking of names. For a couple of months I’ve been thinking of the bad guy’s name. I don’t know why I can’t get it but I will. I do this a lot with names. I’ll start with a name and then for some reason he won’t talk much or he’s older than I pictured him just because of a name I give him. So then I finally get the right name and I can’t shut the guy up. This always happens. There’s always a character who gives me trouble that way.

Read an excerpt from Elmore Leonard’s “Raylan.”