Killer Writing Method

"Method Writing" from The Killer as Protagonist:
a Novel View (abridged)

From The Los Angeles Sunday Times

Writer Uses Violence as Emotional Catalyst
By Penelope Moffet

For novelist George Leonard, writing "Ice Cathedral" required, what he calls "method writing," a process similar to method acting in which the novelist attempts to become the character he describes. "With Kessler, there was this point where I'd have to try and change over into him," Leonard said.

Over a five-year period the writer put the book through five drafts. He worked in "surges" of six or seven weeks; during the last surges he slept until 2 or 3 p.m. each day and spent most of his nights writing in the office of a friend who is a criminal lawyer. That friend, a [now published] novelist, Kevin Gallagher of Orange, let Leonard "permanently install" a typewriter on a corner desk. After the staff had gone home for the night, Leonard would consume a quarter-pound bar of Hershey's chocolate and a quart of Coca Cola and read through accounts of biker murders.

He'd look at the grisly black-and-white photographs in the files and eye the semi-automatic weapon Gallagher kept behind his desk. "When I reached the point where it (murder) didn't look unusual to me, then I could write those scenes," said the novelist. With sufficient caffeine and sugar pumped into his system, he said, "I would seal myself in and un-loose the fantasy."

Leonard used similar methods to produce his first book, to make the character of the unethical doctor in "Beyond Control" real to him. But the work on "Ice Cathedral" was more intense. "Kessler is so much more different from me than anybody in 'Beyond Control,' I had to go through much more gymnastics," Leonard said.

When using "method writing," he added, "I'll write for five hours, and I won't know it. I'll think 20 minutes have gone by, (but) I'll look at my watch and it's 2 or 3 in the morning. Winding down is terrible. I drive to U-Tote-M and stand around with the same kind of bums like me." That's one of the few times when the writer misses his native New York, where a wider choice of all-night gathering spots is available.

The characters in his last novel are not bad people, Leonard insisted. Kessler is not evil, from his creator's perspective, and neither is Lang, the police detective who tries to hunt Kessler down. "Our world is not a world of heroes and villains, this is a world of fairly decent human beings who are slaughtering each other. That's the real horror. That's what I'm always writing about in the serious work," Leonard said.

"Civilization is a lid. You have to be able to pull the lid aside, to let it (violence) up, and still stay completely in control so you can observe it and write about it. And it's very frightening to do that. You have to trust the reader very much to do that.

"I'm exposing myself completely when I write. I really try to look through the page and see the reader on the other side, to become completely intimate with him or her. And this is terrifying.

"That (writing 'Ice Cathedral') was not fun to do, Because I would have to come out of his (Kessler's) personality. The next day I'd feel I'd been beaten all over with baseball bats."

Prying the civilized "lid" aside is not enough, the author wrote in a letter sent after the interview: "Writing is mostly rewriting, endless training, work. The truth is, there's as much discipline involoved in writing as in ballet. Nobody, but nobody writes a book just by tapping into the subconscious."

"Ice Cathedral" is full of action. It reads quickly and easily, like Leonard's first book, but is more polished. Some passages are almost lyric, like a section at mid novel when Kessler, weighted, walks up-side down beneath the ice in a frozen over lake in the Great South Bay:

Silence, blessed: not even the rustle of wind. Kessler exhaled and floated gently down into the silence; inhaled, and stopped his flight,; hung motionless in space. He was weightless, hung in the transparent other-air the water had become, like a hawk on wind, motionless.

The ice shown above him with a tranquil light, like a light behind pearl, if a pearl could be flat and extend for miles. The cold water was clearer than cold air, with the sharp clarity a winter's day has, that a summer's day never reaches.

Despite the sensational elements in his novels and their commercial appeal, Leonard considers himself a serious writer, a "prose-poet."

"The novels are not for the purpose of money," he said. "My books are free at the library, and I tell people that." Film rights to "Beyond Control" were sold at a good price, the writer said, and [a producer bought his screenplay] although the movie was never made. His agent is negotiating to sell the new book to a motion picture company.

Still, "I write to communicate, not to make money," Leonard stressed. And recently while giving a reading at the Fullerton Public Library, he told an audience that "I want my readers to have it all. If you'll forgive me. I think I can write prose poetry better than anybody. Now that Truman Capote's dead, I can say that," he said. "I have to confess John Updike's better than me." he added. "But he's old." Leonard is 38.

To improve his ear, the author learns poetry by heart, he told the Fullerton audience. "Memorize poetry. It's the best thing for your style," he advised the group of neighbors and would-be writers. The rhythms of great poems will filter into the subconscious and improve the writer's own subsequent work, Leonard said.

While working on a novel, Leonard does other writing to pay the bills. He's sometimes hired to help repair other people's stories, for print and for film, a process he prefers not to discuss. "If you kiss and tell in plot-doctoriung, what's the use of you?" he asked rhetorically. He is also working as a paid consultant to search out a home for the proposed Anthony Duquette Museum, which will house a collection of cross-culture artwork angels, crafted by Duquette, that once roosted in Exposition Park.

"Ice Cathedral" was published in hardback by Simon and Schuster. Paperback rights have just been sold to Pinnacle Books. These days Leonard is focusing his energies on "Into the Light of Things," the critical work for the University of California Press, and maintaining more ordinary hours and eating habits. "You don't have to drink a quart of Coca Cola and eat a quarter-pound of chocolate to do that (art criticism)," he said. "Into the Light of Things," concerns the end in recent years of "an enormous current that entered art and took over art around 1800," Leonard said.

Leonard is also toying with an idea for another novel. It will be set in "Kessler's marsh," the area described in "Ice Cathedral." This time the main characters will be children who go "looking for Captrain Kidd's treasure, but they find something different," the novelist said. The new story may be about children, but it won't be geared to the junior crowd.

Chances are the action and suspense will be strong. The result may well be filmable. But despite Leonard's allegiance to Hitchcock, he is less interested in the idea made visual than in the word made irresistible. He's written scripts and once directed a movie, but said he has no desire to work on location again.

Compared with novel-writing, anything else is "weak tea," Leonard said. "The novelist is God. The novelist goes in there and plays all the (human) parts, and the sun and the sea. Novelists have all the fun."

Leonard at Home

Leonard looked slightly worried as he came to the door of his Fullerton home. He'd tried to clean house but had stopped, he said, because a visiting reporter would want to see reality rather than a tidied-up version of his life. Instead of continuing to arrange his surroundings, he'd gone back to working on Into the Light of Things, a book of criticism that deals with the evolution of modern art and literature.

After a quick tour of his house --a mix of cleanliness and clutter --Leonard settled at the kitchen table to talk. He is a short, trim man with a mustache, a beard and thinning black hair. Thick, dark brows overscore usually intense brown eyes.

Theme in Two Books

In conversation, Leonard projects a kind of vulnerability. Yet a willingness to answer almost any question is conveyed along with a desire to keep many of his answers "off the record." Most references to his family and other personal matters were declared not for publication; the on-the-record talk was about his writing, his working habits and the motivations behind his novels.

Leonard has had two novels published in recent years by major houses, "Beyond Control" in 1975, and this year's "The Ice Cathedral." Both books deal with the role of violence in American Society, and both have killer-protagonists. The lead character in the second novel, which has generated glowing reviews from some East Coast newspapers, is a mass murderer.

"Ice Cathedral" is set in "South Shore County," a mythical region Leonard created in southern Long Island. The county is "an emotional, geographical" territory, Leonard said, something like Yoknapatawpha County, the setting of William Faulkner's novels about the South. Leonard's story centers around a self employed fisherman named Kessler and the taste for killing he discovers in himself after his first, accidental murder. A lot of blood flows within the pages of the book.

But Leonard thinks reviewers have focused too much on the novel's killings. Although 70 murders take place in 221 pages, "I was writing about love," he said. "Anything looks stronger placed against its opposite.

"Everybody just reacts to violence. I saw the book as a love story. I wanted to write something like 'Bonnie and Clyde,' only my Bonnie would be this abused little girl (a central character in "Ice Cathedral" named Ellen), this child whose life had become impossible. In my 'Bonnie and Clyde,' Clyde is a guy who kills the father and rescues her."

A framed photograph of Alfred Hitchcock receiving an honorary degree from Columbia University, where Leonard earned his Ph.D., hangs above the novelist's desk. Leonard said he has drawn much inspiration from Hitchcock's movies. Parts of "Beyond Control" were modeled on Hitchcock's "North by Northwest."

Other films also have affected his work, he said. "Bonnie and Clyde" influenced "Ice Cathedral."

So did "Pretty Baby," a film that gets a mention in the book. The furor over "Pretty Baby" (in which Brooke Shields plays an exploited adolescent) and the reality it represents was part of the fuel that kept Leonard pounding away at his typewriter for five years.

"I guess that's my fatherhood novel," said Leonard. In "Ice Cathedral," Kessler learns something about tenderness as he tries to play father-protector to Ellen. "I believe in family very much," Leonard said.

Tenderness toward children appears to be one of the few traits Kessler and Leonard have in common. Leonard is slight and thin, while Kessler is burly and muscular. Leonard has a Ph.D. and has taught university classes; Kessler dropped out of college. Kessler kills repeatedly; Leonard seems to be the kind who leaves flies alone. But although Leonard admits he thinks of himself as "a nice person" he insists, "that amount of violence is inside anybody. Freud would tell you that. Anybody could manage to let that violence up, for artistic purposes, if they were willing to go through that enormous effort to pull back the lid" of civilization.

Copyright © The Los Angeles Times, 1984