Interviewed by Jackie Headapohl | Photography by Jerry Zolynsky
Peter Leonard has a lot in common with his famous dad, the late novelist Elmore Leonard. Like his dad, he writes books. Even their styles are similar: stories that focus on dialogue and character development with very little description.
“Part of it is that we looked at life from the same point of view,” said Peter Leonard, who has four grown children and lives in Birmingham. “Before he passed away, we spent a lot of time together. My father came over for dinner three or four nights a week. He was 87 at the time, writing Blue Dreams. He’d smoke a Virginia Slims 100 menthol, sip wine and tell me about a scene he was working on, and I would tell him about what I wrote. We toured together, spoke at universities, libraries. We had a lot of fun together. I can’t imagine a better teacher.”
Peter Leonard is the author of six novels, including his latest, Eyes Closed Tight. His next book, Unknown Remains, comes out in May. The story, which he wrote with his Miniature Pinscher, Sam, at his side, starts out on the morning of 9-11, when two debt collectors are going to collect a debt on the 89th floor of Tower One.
Leonard, 64, an Eastern Michigan University grad, had a long career in advertising — even owned his own firm, Leonard, Mayer & Tocco — before he retired to begin writing full time when he was 55.
“I was getting bored writing ads,” he says, “and I saw my father, who was so enthusiastic about what he was doing.”
He began writing his first novel, Quiver, longhand while his kids were doing homework. “Twelve months later I had a book,” he said. Eventually, St. Martin’s Press offered him a two-book deal.
Q: What was it like growing up with a famous dad?
Growing up, Elmore was the only writer in the area. All my friends’ dads were lawyers, accountants and the like or worked for one of the auto companies. He stood out. I remember him always writing, sitting at this little red desk with a yellow pad, a ballpoint pen and red wicker wastebasket surrounded by little yellow balls of paper — scenes that didn’t work. We would go to Florida every spring. My dad would sit with the other parents, but he’d be writing. There’d be a dozen kids in the pool, and he would be off by himself in his own little world. When I was in high school, he wrote eight pages of a novel while my friends and I were listening to a new Jimi Hendrix album.
Q: Can you tell us about a pivotal experience in your life?
I can tell you about the dumbest thing I’ve ever done — but it’s my best story. I was in a year-abroad study program in Italy. After a night of drinking, my friend and I left the bar and headed out to another place called Harry’s across town. I climbed in the back seat of a taxi. My friend climbed in the front. I didn’t even notice the taxi driver was missing until my friend grinned at me from the driver’s seat. Minutes later, we were stopped by Italian police. What followed was seven days in the Italian prison Rebibbia … After a week, I went to trial and was acquitted and then kicked out of the country. My father was waiting at the gate when I got off the plane in Detroit. He looked at me and said: “Hard times make the boy the man.” I used that experience in the beginning of my book, All He Saw Was The Girl.
How do you write?
I have a paneled den in my house. I write longhand part of the time and then transpose what I’ve written to my computer. I start at 9:30 and work until about 5:30, taking a break for lunch. Right now, I’m involved in the editing process for my next book and writing another novel that will feature my father’s recurring character Raylan Givens — who the TV show Justified is based on. This will be a tribute novel to my father. The character will be coming to Detroit in the book. Writing isn’t work for me. It’s fun.
What else do you do for fun?
I go to Tigers games and concerts. I like all kinds of music, including rock and jazz. I love to go out to dinner: Selden Standard and Chartreuse are my favorites. In Birmingham, I like Hyde Park and Streetside. I also enjoy playing tennis, cooking, collecting wine, going to the movies and reading. NS
Peter Leonard will be honored by the Bates Street Society with a Pillars of Vibrancy Award for culture Jan. 30 at the Community House in Birmingham. Other honorees include Alexander Zonjic, Congressman David Trott, Pat Rosen, Norm and Bonnie LePage and Paul and Mary Glantz. General admission tickets are $150. For information, call the Community House at (248) 644-5832 or visit tchserves.org.