Peter Leonard’s debut novel Quiver garnered great reaction among crime fans and press alike. George Pelecanos said, “Quiver’s supercharged plot, rhythmic dialogue and cool-under-pressure characters kept me reading into the night. An impressive, exciting debut from Peter Leonard.” Trust George, believe me. I’ve admired his father’s writing for a long time and when I finished Quiver, I had to agree with the rave reviews. When the opportunity came along to put some questions to him, I naturally jumped at the chance. You can read the opening pages to Quiver.
Kate McCall's husband has been killed by her son, Luke, in a tragic bow-hunting accident. In the aftermath, Jack, a charismatic but troubled ex-con from Kate's past, shows up. When Luke takes off on his own for their rural Michigan cabin, Kate and Jack follow, but they're not the only ones hot on his heels. Two-time losers Teddy and Celeste, along with hit man DeJuan, are all looking to cash in on the money left to Kate. As they all head for the woods of northern Michigan, events rapidly spiral towards a dramatic life-and-death confrontation.
By way of an introduction, could you tell us a little of your background?
I’m 57, been married for 28 years. I have three sons: Tim, Alex and Max, and a daughter named Kate. I’ve lived in a suburb of Detroit all my life except for a couple years in Ann Arbor, a college town about an hour away, and a year in Rome. I’ve written three novels but I still work in advertising. I’m a partner in an agency that calls on VW and Audi. I like to read and watch movies and cook and listen to music of all kinds. I go to sporting events and concerts. I play tennis and collect wine and travel. I typically visit a country or two in Europe every year.
QUIVER started as a film script what made you write in that format?
After writing ads for 25 years the idea of writing a novel seemed too daunting. I was used to writing about products, describing their features and benefits in 100 words or less. Writing a script seemed easier, and was, although it wasn’t particularly satisfying.
What made you decide that it would be better as fiction?
My father said why did you write a script? Writing a script is like wanting to be a co-pilot. If you want to write, write a novel. Elmore’s criticism is probably what motivated me to finally try writing fiction.
With a novel presumably you know where you are going when you begin?
I did with QUIVER because I had the script as a blueprint. I didn’t with Trust Me, my second novel, and I have to say, not knowing is a lot more fun.
Were you trying to create a positive heroine in Kate McCall out of an average woman in society?
Yes, I liked the idea of thrusting a suburban mom into a life-threatening situation and seeing how she would react.
You gathered together a really colourful set of characters: Celeste, Teddy, Jack and DeJuan. Is there a particular one that you favour and why?
I liked DeJuan, his cool calm demeanour. I couldn’t wait to get back to him. To me he’s the most interesting character, and his scenes were the easiest to write. I don’t know what that says about me.
Why is it that crime writers always seem to favour the bad guy?
Bad guys are more interesting, more fun. Writers can have a good time living vicariously through them.
There is an old saying that there is loyalty amongst thieves but not in the case of your characters, did you purposefully set out to turn this on its head?
I don’t believe there is loyalty among thieves when there’s $2 million at stake.
There is a strong sense of rhythm in your book, are you conscious of this?
I try to keep the reader slightly off balance, punching and counter punching.
Do you find your words come from images and lines rather than from ideas?
I picture scenes and hear characters talk.
Do you wince when people say they see a resemblance between your style of writing and that of your father’s?
The comparisons are inevitable. I chose my father’s genre and I tell my stories through the eyes of my characters in shifting points of view. So there are some obvious similarities. But I think there are a lot of differences too. Elmore Leonard would never write a story like QUIVER. It’s too sentimental.
Has having a famous father helped or hindered you in any way?
I think it has hurt more than it has helped. Finding an agent and a publisher was probably easier, but I’m clearly still in Elmore’s shadow. I think it’s going to take a while to shake him.
Are you conscious of writing within the boundaries of the genre?
I don’t know what the boundaries of the genre are. I picture the story like a movie and tell it the way I see it.
Would you consider yourself a crime writer?
Not really, but there are criminals and crimes in all the books I’ve written, and books have to be categorized.
Being an American writer are there any advantages or disadvantages over other nationalities?
I don’t think so. There is good material for stories everywhere. I think if you want to write you write.
Who do you feel have been the people who have influenced you?
Hemingway, Steinbeck, John O’Hara, James M. Cain, John D. MacDonald, Charles Willeford, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, and of course Elmore Leonard.
How do you work/ Can you describe how you write your first draft?
I write longhand on a yellow legal pad with a Pilot Precise V7 pen. I usually sit in a chair with my feet on an ottoman. I typically write a chapter this way and then transcribe it to an Apple Mac computer in my office, or an Apple Macpro laptop at my house. It takes me a year, part time, to write a 300-page novel. I take it a chapter at a time, editing as I go along. However, if I can’t solve a particular problem I may put it off and come back to it later. I write when I can, evenings, weekends and also during the workday if possible. But I get ideas all the time: when I’m driving home from work, when I’m taking a shower, when I’m cooking dinner. I write the ideas on a note pad and use them later.
What do you find is the most difficult aspect of writing?
Description. Describing things, places and action.
What do you like most about your own writing?
Getting in the head of a character and writing the scene from his/her point of view. I also enjoy crafting dialogue. I’ll write a scene with two characters talking and add their gestures, descriptions and pauses later. Once the story gets going, it’s almost as if the characters take over. I don’t know what they’re going to do.
Is there anything unique about the writer’s eye?
Once you start writing you notice more. You memorize details. You listen to dialogue more carefully. If I hear a good line or anecdote I’ll look for a place to use it.
Who do you write for?
When I write a book I have to please myself first. I have to think it’s good or nobody else will. I think of the reader when I’m plotting, trying to create suspense, leaving clues here and there that will mean something later on.
I’ve often wondered if writers feel encouraged by good reviews or discouraged by bad ones?
Imagine spending a year writing a book and having it trashed by a critic in a brief review. I try not to dwell on bad reviews. Good reviews, not surprisingly, are gratifying. I’m writing to entertain a mass audience and good reviews help sell books.
Have crime and thrillers played a significant part of your reading background?
Definitely. I’ve read and been influenced by countless crime novelists and novels, starting with The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain.
Can you tell us what you are working on now?
I’m just finishing a suspense thriller set in Rome, Italy. It opens with two American students stealing a taxi (based on a true story), getting arrested and sent to Rebibbia Prison where they cross paths with members of a Mafia gang.
Finally, I’ve probably skipped many things you would prefer talking about, so is there anything particular I left out?
I think QUIVER’S main appeal is that it’s a quick read and it’s entertaining. I’ve always felt that reading a good book is the purest form of entertainment. It’s you and the book. You’re involved in the story. You try to figure out what’s going to happen. You get to know the characters and picture them your own way. I try to hook the reader quickly and keep the pages turning. I’ve had a number of people tell me they were up half the night trying to finish QUIVER, and for me that’s highest form of praise.
QUIVER, published by Faber & Faber pbk March 2009 £6.99
TRUST ME published by Faber & Faber Hbk March 2009 £18.99
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