Writers at Work: What Elmore Leonard Learned from George V. Higgins

By Jack Limpert

Screen shot 2014-08-29 at 11.00.33 AMToday’s Washington Post has a wonderful piece by Neely Tucker about novelist Elmore Leonard—the hook is a new Library of America volume of four Leonard novels from the 1970s.

Tucker says that Leonard had solid, if not spectacular, success in the first two decades of writing. “Then, in the winter of 1972, his agent told him to get George V. Higgins’s new book, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Higgins’s characters were lowlifes and working-class cops, none of whom were the brightest guys you ever met.

“Leonard loved how Higgins let the characters’ voices dictate the style of writing, how he moved the story almost entirely with dialogue.

“He began a new career phase, with crime novels set in Detroit. His character-driven stories were not mysteries—you always knew who did it, because that was the person or people helping narrate the story. His debt to Higgins was so profound that he read the first sentence of Coyle—’Jackie Brown, at 26, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns’—when he accepted the lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation, 40 years later.”
At The Washingtonian, we had a long relationship with George V. Higgins—we published his journalism and short stories. Here is a 2012 post I wrote about Higgins.
Brad Pitt’s new movie, Killing Them Softly, is based on the George V. Higgins novel Cogan’s Trade and it’s bringing about another richly deserved Higgins revival. His pal, Marty Nolan, has a good story about it in today’s Boston Globe.

Most of what Higgins wrote was set in Boston but in the 1970s he spent time in Washington. His novel, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, had been been published in 1972 and then made into a 1973 movie starring Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle so when Higgins came to Washington he had a name. He came to DC to do the reporting for The Friends of Richard Nixon, a non-fiction book published in 1975. The Washingtonian profiled him in March 1975—the writer was Julia Cameron. Here are a few grafs from her story:

George V. Higgins drives a fast car hard and himself even harder. The car is a black Porsche Targa. Higgins is a Boston journalist turned lawyer who has logged three bestsellers: The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972), The Digger’s Game (1973), and Cogan’s Trade (1974). For 1975 Higgins has two entries, a Washington novel titled A City on a Hill and a Watergate book, The Friends of Richard Nixon. That’s a very fast track, a killer pace.

At 35 the pace is beginning to tell. Higgins hands shake like bastards and his nails are bitten past the quick. Four hours’ sleep is no longer enough and three packs a day is getting to be too many. He never drinks before noon, but he doesn’t eat breakfast either. He never gets drunk, but he drinks enough, which would be a lot if he wasn’t used to it. “My typewriter runs on beer,” Higgins says. That typewriter run at upwards of 70 words a minute. Higgins himself has been clocked in the courtroom at 380 words per.

Talking or Richard Nixon and his friends, Higgins sees most of them as goddamn amateurs he’s not so fond of. “They had the habits of mind of criminals,” he says, “but they weren’t very good.”… Richard Nixon was the one good crook among them.”

Among the believers Nixon deceived was Elliott Richardson, Higgins’ former boss when he worked as a prosecutor. Higgins recalls Richardson’s “stunned fury” over the deception and the long afternoon’s talk they had about it. “The more we talked, the madder we got. We weren’t mad at each other, we liked each other all right, but we were mad. We were, both of us, very mad.”

When Higgins got mad in Washington, he had two ways to vent his spleen. The first was to damage his liver at the Class Reunion, a journalists’ bar on H Street. The second was to take heart by visiting the Jefferson Memorial, all alone and late at night. The first remedy was for everyday malaise. The second Higgins saved for cases of severe depression.
From his Washington novel A City on a Hill:

“Power,” Richmond said. “When we first got down there, it was all right. Then, somehow, it wasn’t all right. Sandy began to hate it. I didn’t like it. ‘It’s so phony,’ she said. She was wrong. The problem is that it’s too real. You’re always on and you better know it, too. You don’t get any practice serves in that town. Nobody ever goes ahead and says something for the decent hell of saying it, to see how it sounds. Nobody with any sense, because there’s always some whore around that can’t wait to call Maxine Cheshire or Betty Beale. Then the next day in the paper is your dirty crack about the president; the guy you’re working for can’t get a sewer grant for home if the place was floating in shit. I wasn’t used to that. I like conversation. You can’t have any of that down there. It’s all public addresses.
Higgins in 1978 wrote two short stories for The Washingtonian. The first was “Edgar Needs New Counsel” and here a character is talking about what Washington lawyers do:

“The product of the Washington industry is laws. Therefore, lawyers occupy the same place in Washington that directors and producers occupy in Hollywood The difference is that almost nobody in LA is trying to stop the product from being manufactured.

“In Washington, at least half the people on the production line are devoting all their energies to stopping it. You have two kinds of people on the line here: foremen and saboteurs. They are, for long periods of time—the average useful lifetime—the same people. When the Democrats throw the Republicans out, the Democratic saboteurs become foremen and the Republican foremen become saboteurs. Eight years later they switch places again. Washington is probably the only town in the world with two Mafias—the In Mafia and the Out Mafia—and it works exactly the same way: You reward your friends and you punish your enemies. The stakes are about the same, too: life and death, but that is exactly the way it is , and all these fellows down here know it. Which may be why most of them look so grim, most of the time: because their clients know it, too, and are about as merciful as Genghis Khan when they don’t get want they want.”

The second short story was “Edgar Goes to a Dinner Party.” This is how Edgar talked of the experience, starting with his arrival at the party:

“We got to the party,” Edgar said. “A rather spacious brick manse, with a semicircle drive, carriage lights, and those nifty Mount Vernon columns situated two by each on either side of the doorway, through which one could maneuver a Tiger tank without much difficulty, and all around about stabled vehicles that cost a lot of money.

“Now what have we got,” Edgar said, “is this rented butler, which is clearly Arthur Treacher after a bad embalming job, or maybe Arthur Murray after a good one. And I stand there like a dummy in the foyer, all these women in long dresses swooping by me. All the men were freshly tailored that very afternoon—washed, coiffed, and barbered—and I felt like I was watching Alfred Hitchcock’s thing again, The Birds, except this time I was in it, and not doing any better’n the people that were in the last one he did.

“From the foyer,” Edgar said, “I pulled such as remained of my chestnuts and humped myself into what a lower-class guy like me would call the living room, and there are fauna of many higher orders, some from State and some from Justice, others from such esoteric rookeries as the Washington Post and the Senate of the old US. I mean, you had a couple or three under secretaries in captivity in those precincts. One or more White House assistants of various persuasions. A leading black. A couple of Iranians. A pride of real estate developers. One or two highly ranked amateur tennis players, each with a mean backhand. Some women that’ve been around since Christ rose from the dead. A guy who ran for President and lost quite miserably. A top-ranked homosexual of one sex or another. A former spy. A current spy. And a partridge in a pear tree. Which was me. And I looked like I had been in that pear tree for several days. During wet weather.

“Would you like a drink, sir?” this creature in a maid costume says to me, and I stood there on the Astrakhan, or whatever that Oriental rug was, thinking: Actually what I would like is a rather stiff jolt of heroin but I’m too ashamed to ask. So I took the path of least resistance and said: ‘Yes. Gimme about as much bourbon as you can find, with some ice and water, and go easy on the water.’

“And that,” Edgar said, “was when the fun began.”
Higgins went on to write 23 more novels, a baseball book, The Progress of the Seasons, and a book, On Writing. In it, here is what he had to say about writing good dialogue: “Many of my critics seem to feel that they have to say, or strongly imply, that my gift for dialog is all I have; or that writing dialog is not the most important attribute a novelist can have….A man or woman who does not write good dialog is not a first-rate writer. I do not believe that a writer who neglects or has not learned to write good dialog can be depended on for accuracy in his understanding of character and in his creation of characters. Therefore to dismiss good dialog so lightly is evidence of a critic’s incomplete understanding of what constitutes a good novel.”

Higgins died in Boston in 1999 a week before his 60th birthday.
Julia Cameron, who wrote The Washingtonian profile of Higgins, was one of the magazine’s young stars in the 1970s. She never was good with money and one day said she had a profile assignment from a national magazine and could I lend her $300 and my tape recorder. I wrote her a check, gave her my tape recorder, she left town, wrote a profile of film director Martin Scorsese, married him, and moved to California. About three years later I got a check for $300 from Scorsese’s film production company—no note or tape recorder. But no hard feelings—good writers always give more than they get.
And here’s another post, from 2013, on George V. Higgins—see the letter from him.

Remembering George V. Higgins

George died on November 6, 1999, a week before his 60th birthday. Today he would have been a week away from turning 74 and think of the great books and magazine pieces that could have been.

At The Washingtonian, we had a lot of back and forth with George in the 1970s and ’80s, some by phone, much of it with his agent, Gail Hochman. Back then we tried to buy his 5,000 word short stories for $1,500 but after some negotiating often paid $2,000. That was about double what we were paying most writers.

One of the joys of the pre-digital age were the letters that sometimes went back and forth between editors and writers or their agents. I remember mostly smooth sailing between George and the magazine but one somewhat tart letter from Gail Hochman says, “I do expect that we’ll be able to resolve the Higgins affair,” going on to encourage me to do all the things an editor should do: Pay more promptly, send George galleys before publication, let them know the publication date, send them finished copies of the magazine.

George occasionally came to Washington from Boston and we had several lunches but the conversations and what we ate, drank, and talked about have vanished. I do remember being in awe of the young lawyer who had written The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I have notes of phone conversations but only one letter. It’s a reminder that letters seem much more personal than the emails that now are exchanged.

Letters provided some sense of the person, as did the manuscripts that a writer would turn in. Back then it seemed that there was an inverse relationship between the neatness of the manuscript and the quality of the prose. When a piece came in on bond paper and it had been done on an electric typewriter, it seemed a sure sign that the writer was an amateur and probably not worth reading past the first few grafs. Real writers didn’t buy expensive paper and they often added last-minute edits to the copy. So getting a messy manuscript was sort of a window into the mind of the writer.

Here’s the Higgins letter I have from February 11, 1989. You’ll see that I had passed the letter on to Dick Victory, the Washingtonian editor who worked on most of George’s stories. Dick was wonderfully cynical about writers and life, so don’t take his comment too seriously.

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