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Elmore Leonard: Why he was drawn to bad guys, but not to Wall Street


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    LOS ANGELES - MAY 24, 2007: Author Elmore Leonard speaks prior a signing of his novel 'Up In Honey's Room' at Book Soup in Los Angeles, California.

    - Vince Bucci/Getty Images

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    "Djibouti" by Elmore Leonard

    - Courtesy of Harper Collins

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    "Djibouti" by Elmore Leonard

    - Courtesy of Harper Collins

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    "Djibouti" by Elmore Leonard

    - Courtesy of Harper Collins

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    "Djibouti" by Elmore Leonard

    - Courtesy of Harper Collins

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    "Djibouti" by Elmore Leonard

    - Courtesy of Harper Collins

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    "Djibouti" by Elmore Leonard

    - Courtesy of Harper Collins

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    "Djibouti" by Elmore Leonard

    - Courtesy of Harper Collins
Image of Djibouti: A Novel
Author: Elmore Leonard
Publisher: William Morrow (2010)
Binding: Hardcover, 288 pages

Elmore Leonard, a former adman who later became one of America's foremost crime writers, has died. He was 87. Leonard's books were populated by pathetic schemers, clever con men and casual killers. And many of the novels -- notably "Out of Sight," ''Get Shorty" and "Be Cool" -- were made into films.

In 2010, Leonard sat down with Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal to discuss his new release, "Djibouti" and why he's drawn to bad guys.

Click on the audio player above to hear more.

The AP contributed to this report.

Text of interview:

Kai Ryssdal: As of today, there are 21 ships being held by pirates off the coast of Somalia. That's the stretch of the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean leading into and out of the Suez Canal, so it's a pretty busy piece of water. About 22,000 ships cross it every year. Billions of dollars worth of cargo. Hundreds of billions of dollars, quite possibly. Tempting targets for people with guns, boats and very little to lose.

Piracy and that corner of the world is at the center of Elmore Leonard's new novel "Djibouti," it's called.

Welcome to the program.

Elmore Leonard:Thank you.

RYSSDAL: You write about mobsters and gangsters and bank robbers and all those guys; where did pirates come from in this book?

LEONARD: I started to read about the Somali pirates off the coast of East Africa, and I thought, wait, what's going on here? Because they all had already hijacked a number of ships and they didn't call it hijacking, they called it "taxing." Taxing foreign merchandise that was going through their area -- 20,000 ships a year going both ways. So they were just set up to go after 'em in their little speedboats with their automatic weapons and they were all high, they were all were chewing qat.

RYSSDAL: It's interesting because these guys, these pirates, and all the characters in this book, they fit kind of a theme that I think you see in a lot of your books -- that everybody that you write about is, they're hustlin' man. They're trying to work the system and make things work their way, right? There is something about that that appeals to you.

LEONARD: Well there is. But of course, they're trying to do it without working.

RYSSDAL: Aren't we all?

LEONARD: And yet they have to put in longer hours; they have to work harder to get away from a job.

RYSSDAL: Sometimes when you write, you have your heroes who are criminals, they're bad guys. I'm thinking Jack Foley in "Out of Sight," the George Clooney character. But the fact is, bad guys aren't always bad guys, right? George Clooney is a charming kind of fellow.

LEONARD: That's right. You want to root for them. When you get someone who had been a bank robber, for example George Clooney, he robs banks, well now he's not robbing banks. But you never know. That's the beauty of that kind of a character; he's on the fence.

RYSSDAL: What is it, though, about the shadier characters that is so appealing to you?

LEONARD: Well, I think we're all interested in bad guys, people who get away with things, unless they're really nasty. I couldn't write about serial killers, because I have to have an antagonist who can be funny, whether he's talking to his mother -- see, I think about that. That this bad guy has a mother. Well, I could do something with that that is unexpected.

RYSSDAL: It sounds a little bit like you admire the guys who can get away with this stuff.

LEONARD: Well, if it's George Clooney, yes. Certainly.

RYSSDAL: Clearly, you're a guy who reads the news, you keep up on events; that's reflected in "Dijbouti," your new book. So the financial crisis and the economy and the recession -- there's gotta be a book in there for you.

LEONARD: No.

RYSSDAL: Really? Come on!

LEONARD: Where's the action?

RYSSDAL: Wall Street, center of the financial universe. Jamie Dimon is a bad guy. C'mon.

LEONARD: I know, I know. But I don't write that. My people don't have stock. I think it's the most boring thing in the world to make your money that way, using money to make money.

RYSSDAL: You don't think there's some entry-level person that you could find... Oh I don't know. I don't know why I'm pitching you a book.

LEONARD: Well, if you ain't kidding about a good idea, let me know about it.

RYSSDAL: I'll do that. Well Elmore Leonard, his most recent book is "Dijbouti." Thank you so much for your time.

LEONARD: Thank you, it was a pleasure.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
Image of Djibouti: A Novel
Author: Elmore Leonard
Publisher: William Morrow (2010)
Binding: Hardcover, 288 pages

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