How American crime novelist Peter Leonard is stepping out from the shadow of his father
Son of Elmore Leonard publishes new book All He Saw Was the Girl
Having a legendary author for a dad led Peter Leonard into a different kind of writing. He tells Miles Fielder how he finally found his true calling
Peter Leonard wants to escape from Detroit. Not literally. The 59-year-old American crime novelist actually resides 30 miles northwest in Birmingham, where he lives very happily with his wife and four kids. Instead, Leonard wants to flee Michigan State’s ‘Motor City’ fictionally. That’s because his father is Elmore Leonard, just about the most famous living crime writer and the author who’s been dubbed the ‘Dickens of Detroit’. So with his third novel, All He Saw Was the Girl, Leonard Jr has set one of its twin narratives in Detroit and the second and more substantial storyline on the other side of the Atlantic, in Rome.
‘I am trying to distance myself from my father,’ says Peter Leonard. ‘I’ve been accused of telling his kind of story. The Italian story made perfect sense, because I spent a year living in Rome as a student. The beginning of the book is based on an actual event. I got drunk one night and a buddy and I stole a taxi and took it for a ride across town to another bar. I was arrested and spent a week in jail, and while I was there I looked out of the cell, through the barred window into the exercise yard and thought: “This is too good. I’ve gotta use this someday”. And 30 years later I thought of a story.’
Leonard actually wanted to write from a young age. After he graduated from college he penned a story, gave the six pages of it to his father and received three pages of notes back, which included the less-than-inspiring comment: ‘Your characters are like strips of leather drying in the sun’. After that he took up writing of a different kind, at an advertising agency, which was still following in his father’s footsteps given that Leonard Sr was an ad man for Chevrolet.
Eventually, he set up his own advertising company, but despite it being successful enough to raise a family on the proceeds, Leonard eventually wanted out. He turned once again to writing fiction, this time with more luck, and in 2008 published his first novel, Quiver. That book, and a follow-up, Trust Me, were critical and commercial successes, and the three decades on from that early critical drubbing, Leonard’s father gave his son his professional blessing.
Nevertheless, having the Dickens of Detroit for a dad has been a mixed blessing. ‘Elmore has influenced me, and continues to influence me,’ he says. ‘A lot of it has to do with style, letting the characters tell the story, don’t over-write, etc. I saw him just last night and he said, “I like your characters, they have attitude”. But it has been difficult being related to Elmore, because of the inevitable comparisons. But that’s life: I got into my father’s profession and I take the consequences.’
Meanwhile, Leonard is continuing to buck his father’s trend and move beyond Michigan’s borders with his next book. ‘It’s about a Holocaust survivor whose daughter is killed in Washington DC by a German diplomat. So that’s something new. Now my writing is beginning to feel familiar to me as though I’ve now found my voice.’
All He Saw Was the Girl is published by Faber on Thu 6 Jan.