BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. — For a man who built his career on word economy, the title is pretty darned long — the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
Still, Elmore Leonard says he’s thrilled to receive one of the literary world’s highest honors.
The 86-year-old crime novelist will be presented with the medal in New York on Nov. 14, the same evening this year’s National Book Awards are announced.
“I was very surprised. I didn’t ever count on winning this kind of an award,” Mr. Leonard, with one of his trademark Virginia Slims between his fingers, said in an interview at his home in suburban Detroit. “I’ve won a lot of awards, but not like this one.”
He’ll be introduced by British novelist Martin Amis and deliver remarks that organizers have requested he limit to six minutes.
Asked if he’d abide by that request, Mr. Leonard took a drag from his cigarette and said: “Oh yeah.”
In taking home the National Book Foundation’s lifetime achievement award, Mr. Leonard joins a list of past recipients that includes Ray Bradbury, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, John Updike, Gore Vidal and Tom Wolfe.
“These names, these are all finished writers,” Mr. Leonard said. “They know what they’re doing.”
And so does Mr. Leonard, says Mr. Amis, who remembers first reading him and being impressed by his “faultless ear.” He loves “Get Shorty” and “Be Cool” among others and says Mr. Leonard’s books have “incredible dialogue” and “incredible structure.”
“You read page after page and there’s no sense of false quantities, in the sense of repetition,” Mr. Amis said, noting that Mr. Leonard transcends being labeled a crime writer, citing an old axiom: Literary writers covet sales, and successful writers covet respect.
Or as Mr. Leonard puts it, in his succinct style: “I think I’m a good writer. I don’t see any objection to my being on this list.”
The National Book Foundation isn’t the only organization honoring Mr. Leonard. The Library of America, which releases hardcover volumes of the country’s greatest authors, from Herman Melville to Saul Bellow, has added Mr. Leonard to the pantheon. Four of his novels will be published in a bound edition in 2014, and additional volumes are planned.
Mr. Leonard, one of the few writers the library has honored while still living, has been recognized many times over by the general public.
Nearly half of Mr. Leonard’s 45 novels have appeared on the New York Times’ best-seller list, and he’s hoping to add to that total with his 46th effort — working title: “Blue Dreams” — a tale that involves both a rogue Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent and bull riding. He’s written several dozen pages so far.