Peter Leonard lives in Birmingham, Michigan. He has published five novels: QUIVER, TRUST ME, ALL HE SAW WAS THE GIRL, VOICES OF THE DEAD, and BACK FROM THE DEAD.
You can contact him by email at peterleonardbooks@Gmail.com
Click below for articles, and inteviews:
I was in a year-abroad programme, one of 240 American students attending Loyola University's Rome Center in Italy. The school year was winding down. I went out to dinner with a group of friends in Trastevere. After several courses and many bottles of wine we went to a bar, and listened to a singer do jazz standards.
Around 11.30pm Steve Pappas, a friend from Vallejo, California, and I decided to peel off from the group and take a cab across town to Harry's Bar, an old Hemingway haunt on Via Veneto where we'd sit outside, drink whisky and talk to the prostitutes, beautiful women who walked down from the park, Villa Borghese, looking for a rich guy staying at one of the expensive hotels.
We left the bar and I saw a taxi on the other side of the piazza under a full moon. I walked to it and I got in the back and closed my eyes, feeling the effects of many drinks. I heard the front door open and close, looked and saw Pappas grinning in the driver's seat. "We're going to Harry's."
I thought he was kidding. But then I heard the engine start, saw him slip the shifter in gear, and we did a couple doughnuts in the middle of the piazza, tyres squealing, and pulled out, turning right on to a street heading for the Tiber River.
I said: "Are you out of your mind?"
He looked at me in the rear-view mirror and laughed.
Minutes later, negotiating the narrow cobblestone streets of Trastevere, we passed a Carabinieri (national police) sedan parked on the side of the road. I could see the cops look at us in what seemed like slow motion. The next thing I remember, the taxi came to a stop. Unlikely as it was, we were stuck in a traffic jam on the backstreets of Rome. I got out of the taxi and started to run, made it to the Tiber, but hesitated. Instead of going over the wall and climbing the ladder to the riverbank, I crouched behind a car in a small parking lot and waited. I could feel my heart banging in my chest. A few minutes passed and nothing happened. Just as I started to relax, I saw a Carabinieri patrolman appear out of the darkness, coming toward me, gun drawn, shouting something in Italian.
There was nowhere to go. I stood with my arms raised, hands over my head. I was handcuffed and taken to Carabinieri headquarters. Pappas had also been picked up, and we were reunited in an interrogation room and later were questioned by an angry Carabinieri officer.
"Who are you?" We gave him our names. I said: "We're Americans, students at Loyola University."
He didn't seem impressed.
"Why did you steal the taxi?"
"We had too much to drink," Pappas said. "It was a prank."
"This is how a man makes his living and you dismiss it as something trivial, unimportant. You drink too much and use this as an excuse." The Carabinieri officer paused. "In Italy you are guilty until proven innocent." With that, he walked out of the room.
From there I was handcuffed and pushed into the back of a Fiat sedan, flanked by two heavyset cops and driven to the outskirts of Rome. I could see the walls and towers of a prison in the distance set behind a high fence topped with razor wire. I said to the cop on my right: "What is that?"
"Rebibbia," he said.
I had heard of it, Rebibbia, where the hardcore criminals were sent. We turned into the prison complex and pulled up to a building with a silver steel garage door that reminded me of something I'd seen in a James Bond movie. The door went up and we drove into a concrete loading area. The handcuffs were removed and I was escorted to a room, photographed and fingerprinted. After that I was escorted to a hall and fell in line behind the other fools who had been arrested that night, a motley crew of 20 men. No sign of Pappas.
I was thinking about what my mother had said before I left the country. We were standing on the driveway, getting ready to go to the airport. "Peter, please don't get in trouble."
I said: "What do you think I'm going to do?"
The line kept moving, and when it was my turn I stepped up to the open half-door of a storeroom and was given a stained towel, a bar of soap and a distressed cup made out of extruded metal. A guard escorted me to a cell, solitary confinement, which seemed like a blessing under the circumstances. It was now 4.30 in the morning. I was exhausted and fell asleep fast.
Next thing I remember, I was in that state between sleep and waking up when your mind can play tricks on you. I was thinking about the events of the previous night, wondering if it was a dream, and then I opened my eyes and saw the morning sunlight coming through the barred window creating a distorted pattern on the tile floor. The room had a bed, an orange metal frame bolted to the wall and a stained mattress, a toilet, and scarred, graffiti-covered walls. A guy named Ricki professing his love for Ana.
On my second day in captivity a woman from the American embassy visited and gave me a couple packs of Marlboros and two Hershey bars. I said: "Do you have any news from Father Felice?" He was the director of the university. She didn't know who he was, which wasn't a good sign. I hadn't heard anything from Felice or anyone else, and I was starting to wonder. Except for an hour in the exercise yard each day, I was locked in the 6ft x 8ft cell and I was getting anxious,
The exercise yard, with its concrete floor and chain-link walls, looked like it had been lifted from the projects in Detroit. I would stand with my back to the fence, feeling the warmth of the sun. Inmates would come up and ask if I was Swedish. When I told them I was an American they assumed I had been arrested for drugs. "No," I would say, "stealing a taxi." And the typical response would be: "That's not bad. You get eight months, maybe a year, but no more than that." Hearing it freaked me out. I thought: eight months – I've got to get out of here.
One afternoon in the yard a dark-skinned guy, who looked Tunisian or Moroccan, tried to take my cigarettes. I didn't say anything, just stepped in and hit him in the face, and he went down. No one else bothered me after that.
Early in the morning of day four I was taken to a holding cell, where I met my court-appointed attorney, a young guy named Sergio who didn't speak English. I asked him to contact Father Felice and find out was going on, but I don't think he understood. Sergio represented me during the arraignment that was held in a conference room at the prison. A judge advocate explained the charges against me and said I would be going to trial in a few days.
After the arraignment, I was moved to a four-man cell in general population. Pappas had been moved there, too. Our cellmates were Alejo, a 25-year-old pickpocket from Buenos Aires, and Spoleto, a 72-year-old armed robber who had been incarcerated since Mussolini was in power. Spoleto was demented and slept in his clothes, thinking he was going to be released any minute.
I spent the next three days reading crime fiction from the prison library, and thinking some day I would use the Rebibbia experience in a novel. On day seven I was escorted to a large holding cell filled with prisoners, most of whom were throwing salt over their left shoulder for good luck before going to court. Pappas appeared a little later handcuffed to a thin frightened Italian. I was handcuffed to a little Sardinian guy who might've been 5ft tall. When we rode on a bench seat in the back of a van, six of us on one side with our backs to six others, the Sardinian's little feet dangled above the floor.
In court we were represented by father/son attorneys hired by Father Felice. Here's what I remember: there were three judges and a prosecutor all wearing powdered wigs and black robes. The prosecutor shouted at us in a loud theatrical voice. Our attorneys answered the charges and the three judges spoke to each other in hushed tones. It was over in 10 minutes. I was acquitted; there was no evidence against me. Pappas was found guilty and fined 20,000 lire, about $34. We found out later that Pappas's attorney and one of the judges were friends and a deal had been made.
We were released, but it wasn't over. Guilty or not, we were given 48 hours to leave the country. Which coincided with the end of the school year and our flight back to Chicago. Pappas and I were in the airport drinking beer with our friends when two Carabinieri in swat fatigues called our names and escorted Signore Pappas and Signore Leonard out of the airport terminal, through a gate to the tarmac and up the stairway that led to our plane. We were officially kicked out of Italy, personae non gratae.
We arrived in Chicago the next morning and I took a connecting flight a few hours later. My father, Elmore Leonard, was waiting at the gate when I got off the plane in Detroit. Elmore looked at me and said: "Hard time makes the boy the man."
My father, Elmore Leonard, invited me to go with him to Mantova, Italy in the fall of 2007. He was a featured speaker at the annual book festival. Although I never intended to follow in my father’s footsteps, I ended up writing a novel called QUIVER and had sold it a few months earlier to St. Martin’s Minotaur. For me, it was an opportunity to interest Italian publishers in my book, and meet other American authors who had been invited.
We arrived on schedule but Elmore’s luggage didn’t. I loaned him a pair of underwear and a blue dress shirt so he could shower and change. That night we had dinner with Russell Banks, James Hall, Gregg Sutter, Elmore’s longtime researcher, and Gregg’s girlfried, Amy Alkon, an advice columnist from LA.
We had risotto with pork, the house specialty, and drank dark delicious Valpollacella. The food and wine were good and the conversation was better.
Elmore told us about the time he was in an elevator with Charles Bronson at the Ritz Carleton in Boston. The young elevator operator noticed Bronson and said, “’Charles Bronson, what’re you doing here?’”
Bronson gave him a serious look and said, “I’m checking up on elevator operators.”
I told the group about meeting George Clooney at a cast party at Elmore’s house after the filming of OUT OF SIGHT. I walked in the living room and George was standing there by himself. Everyone was in the dining room, getting something to eat. I introduced myself and we started talking. A few minutes later, the thirty or so woman at the party, my wife included, found out George was in the house, and came in the room, circling around him like vultures. George flashed his megawatt smile and the ladies swooned and I stepped away.
After dinner we went back to the hotel. Elmore’s bag still hadn’t arrived. He called my room the next morning and said, “’I’ve got to buy some underwear. Will you come with me?’”
I had lived in Rome for a year when I was younger and still speak enough Italian to get around. We walked out of the hotel and headed down a cobblestone street toward the shop and found a store. It was a boutique that only sold underwear, men’s and women’s. I have to tell you I felt a little strange. I had never gone underwear shopping with my father. We walked in and the shop owner, and four female customers all looked at us and grinned.
Elmore started opening boxes, taking the underwear out, stretching it.” The blonde behind behind the counter said, “’You can no do that.’”
Elmore said, “How am I supposed to know what it looks like?”
“You look on the box,” I said.
He bought three pairs, and to this day says it’s the most comfortable underwear he’s ever worn.
When our new books came out earlier this year—mine is called TRUST ME and Elmore’s is ROAD DOGS, we went on the road together, appeared and spoke at various events: book stores, libraries and the City Oprea House in Traverse City, Michigan.
At the signings we talked about writers who influenced us. Elmore mentioned Hemingway and Richard Bissell and George V. Higgins.
I mentioned Hemingway and John Steinbeck, Elmore and Cormac McCarthy as influences.
We talked about auditioning characters. We both agree that until we get to know a character we don’t know what he/she is going to do. DeJuan Green, in my first novel, is hired by a stock broker to kill his wife. The wife is taking a shower and Dejuan is in her bedroom, sitting on the bed thinking about how he’s going to kill her. He hears the shower turn off, and a couple minutes later the bathroom door opens. Shelley, the wife, sees DeJuan and says, “Whatever he’s paying you I’ll double it.” I didn’t know what was going to happen in that scene and the characters took over. Elmore says if a character isn’t working out he has the person shot.
We talked about point of view. Both of us tell our stories through the eyes of our characters. This sometimes confuses readers. A friend’s mother read TRUST ME and said she couldn’t believe a guy who went to catholic schools could use language like that. I said I’m not using the language. The characters are. I don’t rob liquor stores either, or carry a gun.
We talked about names. Chili Palmer, the main character in GET SHORTY was a real guy Elmore met, a private eye in Miami, and loved his name. Elmore told about seeing a newspaper photograph of a good-looking female U.S. marshal, legs apart, shotgun butt on her hip, barrel pointing up. He said to himself that’s a book. The girl inspired Karen Sisco in OUT OF SIGHT.
We talked about using friend’s names, or the names of people we know. Elmore made Miley Mitchell, an eighteen year old neighborhood girl, and friend of my sister’s, a prostitute in THE MOONSHINE WAR. I said,”How did her parents react?”
And he said, “They didn’t seem to mind.”
I was a partner in an ad agency for many years, and our main client was Volkswagen. I dealt with a German purchasing agent who used to give me a hard time, so I made him a gay prison chaplain in QUIVER.
In early July, we attended a signing in Jackson, Mississippi at Lemuria Bookstore, a cool indie shop owned by John Evans. We signed our new books: TRUST ME and ROAD DOGS. Then we met up with Michael Connolley and George Pelecanos for a panel discussion hosted by a local television personality named Gene Edwards.
After the event we went to a bar the featured the local cuisine: fried catfish, fried pickles and fried mushrooms. I sat across the table from George Pelecanos and Ellen Bordeaux, a gallery owner who remembered the Ku’Klux- Klan buring a cross on her parent’s lawn when she was a kid. Sitting next to me was a nice-looking local girl. I introduced myself and said, “What’s your name?”
She said, “’Holiday. But it’s spelled ‘Holidae.’”
I said, “Holidae, that’s a great name.” I could see George Pelecanos look over, George probably thinking the same thing I was. I looked the other way and Elmore, too had perked up, showing signs of interest.
Holidae said, “’I was named after Holiday Goolightly in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. My husband calls me Day-girl.’”
Thinking about the reactions of Elmore and Pelecanos I said, “Get ready, Holidae, your name might appear in three novels in the next year or so.”
She looked at me and smiled. “’You really think so?’” “I wouldn’t be surprised,” I said.
We finished our book tour at the City Opera House in northern Michigan, over five hundred people in attendance. Doug Stanton, author of HORSE SOLDIERS, hosted the event and introduced us. Elmore closed out the evening with an anecdote from a ski trip to Aspen years ago. He was in the lodge sitting by the huge fireplace. A beautiful woman was next to him taking off her ski boots. She pulled her right foot out of the boot, looked at him and said, “Ahhh, I think that’s better than getting laid.”
He said, “uh-huh.” In a helpless voice. The crowd erupted with laughter. Elmore, the master of dialogue said, “I’ve been trying to think of a come back line for twenty years.”