Father was writer’s harshest critic

JACKSON, Miss. — Fresh out of college with an English degree in hand, Peter Leonard wrote a six-page short story he liked very much and asked a famous author for a few notes.

He got back a three-page critique that pointed out, among other problems, that Leonard’s characters came across “like strips of leather drying in the sun.”

“I didn’t write another word of fiction for 27 years,” Leonard said.

While it’s not true that the critique knocked him out of the writing business, Leonard admits the it was hard to take. After all, it came from his father, Elmore Leonard, one of the coolest dudes ever to put pen to yellow legal pad.

Truth is, life dragged Peter Leonard away. He started his own advertising business, got married, had kids, looked up and realized it was 25 years later.

“His comments probably bothered me a little bit, but I never aspired to be a novelist because my dad was so good,” Peter Leonard said. “I would read his manuscripts and think, ‘He is really something. This guy is an incredible writer.’ And it was probably because of that that I didn’t pursue it as much as anything.”

Too bad, really. Turns out the younger Leonard shares some of his father’s gifts. He’s just released his new book, “Trust Me,” his third after warm notices for his 2008 debut, “Quiver.”

It’s understandable, though. Even today’s hard-boiled titans feel the weight of the 83-year-old Leonard, who shows in his latest novel, “Road Dogs,” he’s still the grizzled alpha male of the large crime fiction pack.

Peter Leonard shares a few traits with his father. His dialogue is singsong and flip, his criminals both cool and incorrigible, and his ability to move a story along is surely genetic.

His father started out as an ad man and part-time pulp writer. He first sold a novelette to Artisan Magazine for $1,000.

Elmore Leonard aimed his stories at the better pulp magazines, writing for two cents a word. His first stories were westerns, and he wrote two of the best, “Hombre” and “Valdez Is Coming.”

His career really took off when he turned to crime, helping to redefine a genre obsessed with the private detective and whodunit plots.

From time to time after his aborted attempt to write, Peter Leonard would feel a twinge, like maybe he’d let something pass him by.

“I remember at times leaving my office after having come back from a meeting at Volkswagen or Audi and … I’d be wearing gray pants and a blazer and a tie, and I’d stop over and see Elmore and he would be wearing jeans and sandals and a Nine Inch Nails T-shirt,” Peter Leonard recalled. “In the background you could see the pool and the tennis court, and I’d be like, ‘This guy has got it. He’s got it all.”’

So at 50 Peter Leonard started chasing his own happiness. He wrote a novel called “Invasion” with a “muddled” plot and 38 characters that turned out to be an exercise, then wrote “Quiver.” With two books out and another on the way, he’s quitting his day job and focusing on writing full time.

The younger Leonard believes he’s more interested in plot than the elder and packs in far more detail than his father, but still shares his father’s gift of giddy-up. Elmore Leonard saw right away that the juxtaposition worked in “Quiver,” and had just a few minor suggestions.

“I don’t remember what was in the three-page letter,” Elmore Leonard says. “I was glad a quarter century later that he got back into it, and then with vigor and great expectations, and pulled it off.”

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