08/20/2013 05:51 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2013

The Letter I Never Sent to Elmore Leonard


When you work for The Huffington Post, your job is to cover breaking news, not cry over it.

But that was my first impulse when I heard that Elmore Leonard, America's foremost mystery writer of the last century, had passed away at home Tuesday. He was 87 years old.

I never met him, even though he lived about 20 miles away. That just about kills me. I thought about knocking on his door a few times, but that seemed like an excellent way to get arrested. I shouldn't have missed his last book reading, I keep thinking. I should have tried to get an interview with him.

Really though, I should have written him a letter.

As a young journalist with a few amateurish short stories hidden in my sock drawer, I didn't have any pretenses that "Dutch," as he was called, would become my writing mentor or pen pal or friend. He was so beloved to so many. He had family and friends and admirers. I'm sure he was busy.

But have you ever actually told someone you never met how they played a part in the story of your life? I haven't.

As I get older, I understand that unabashed admiration, even if it's never recognized, has its own purpose. It's about taking yourself off the pedestal, admitting that our heroes we'll likely never meet or know can still shape who we become.

So if I had written that letter to Elmore, I would tell him about my first copy of Get Shorty I ever bought. There was really only room for a mattress in my tiny bedroom, but it looked out on an alley in downtown Detroit. I stayed up all night reading about cool Chili Palmer and bad Bo Catlett, who had lived in the Motor City and loved Marvin Gaye. I read through the dark and then watched the sun rise over those darkened streets, thinking about all the fights and schemes and stories that could have happened in the alley below.

In this letter that never was, that I can't seem to stop myself from writing, I'd try to make him laugh. I'd tell him about the time that two different guys I liked bought me first-edition copies of Get Shorty. I'd ask him, do I get to keep both books? I think he would have liked the thought of his novel playing Cupid.

He was the master of writing dialogue that sounded more real than eavesdropping. When I interview someone, I try to ask simple questions and let them talk. I would thank Elmore for teaching me to respect people that way, to listen. In his books, it's hard to tell the difference between good guys and bad guys. Whether his characters did good things or bad things, they always had their reasons. I can't think of a more adult lesson than that.

I would tell him I'm still not a terse writer, like he was, but I work at it. How I look up to him for never leaving Detroit, his adopted hometown, for New York or Los Angeles or some other glamorous place.

Elmore once said that other cities get by on their good looks, but Detroit has to work for a living. When he finally passed away Tuesday, he left his latest project -- his 46th novel -- behind. That unbelievable career doesn't even account for the screenplays he helped create, the short stories, his early life as an ad man. I would say, you hustled so hard; you were never too proud or too famous or too rich to keep pushing. You knew those words would come with a cost, but you paid that toll happily.

That was the profound lesson I learned today from Elmore Leonard -- just shut up already and write the damn thing.