Elmore Leonard talks about the return of “Justified” and his new Raylan Givens novel

By Stacey Harrison

Just go ahead and call today Raylan Givens Day. The modern-day lawman with an Old West sense of justice isn’t only returning to TV screens tonight — as FX rolls out Season 3 of Justified at 10pm — he’s also back on the pages of Raylan, the new novel from Elmore Leonard.

The crime fiction master introduced the character back in 1993’s Pronto, when Givens was just a neophyte U.S. marshal still prone to making mistakes. The character showed up again a couple years later in Riding the Rap, emerging from supporting role to a co-lead, and then finally took center stage in the 2002 novella “Fire in the Hole,” which served as the inspiration for Justified.

Careful Justified viewers will notice bits of his previous adventures also sprinkled into the series. The restaurant shootout that begins Justified — the one that gets Raylan banished from Miami to his native Harlan County, Kentucky — is lifted from the climax of Pronto, and his car ride with Dewey Crowe in an early episode is altered a bit from a similar scene in Riding the Rap. This trend continues in Raylan, which features characters easily recognizable as the Bennett clan from Season 2. There is also a woman named Carol representing a big mining company, just as there was in Season 2, who tries to sweet-talk Harlan County residents while still making time to tempt our favorite Stetson-hatted hero. Other bits of the plot will make their way into Season 3, which has Givens back in conflict with his old mining buddy Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), and becoming ensnared with a Detroit gangster named Quarles (Neal McDonough), who has his sights set on controlling the Harlan drug pipeline. Another local crime lord also comes into the fray, a man named Limehouse (Mykelti Williamson), who fiercely protects his black holler.

Speaking from his Michigan home as he was about to embark on a promotional tour for Raylan and Justified, Leonard said that while he enjoys the series, calling Timothy Olyphant “absolutely perfect” in the role, he tries to keep his Raylan independent from the TV version.

“I didn’t really follow what they’re doing,” he said. “I don’t want to get mixed up in any of their plots, so I just thought I’d write another Raylan Givens book, is what it amounted to. … They have mostly different story ideas going for this year. I don’t want to mess with what they have planned and see if I can tie in with that, because it wouldn’t make sense. I’m writing prose and they’re writing screenplays.”

STORY: Elmore Leonard talks about Justified just as Season 1 was about to premiere.

It is hard, however, not to read the distinct three-part structure of Raylan — which has him facing off with a nurse who aids in the stealing and trafficking of organs, the aforementioned coal-mining company representative, and an alluring young female gambler — and not be reminded of the episodic nature of television. This wasn’t lost on Leonard.

“I was trying to hide that,” he said, good-naturedly, “so it would sound like a book and not three stories put together. A couple of critics so far have said we’re not sure if this is a novel or not, but it’s OK because we like it. You know, it reads OK. I’m happy with that. … I remember authors talking about what makes a novella and what makes it finally a novel, how many pages do you have to write, and there are no rules for that. You just write what you want.”

Leonard has been writing what he wants for nearly 60 years, having started out plying Westerns in the 1950s before forging a path in crime fiction that has earned him unrivaled success in the genre. Dozens of film and TV adaptations have been done of his work, including Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, 3:10 to Yuma and Out of Sight, but Leonard ranks Justified as among the best. From the casting of Olyphant, whom Leonard says is “the kind of guy I saw when I wrote his lines,” to the care the writers take in preserving the feel of his work, it’s the most faithful Leonard adaptation TV has produced.

STORY: 10 Things to Love about Season 2 of Justified

But it assuredly won’t be the last. Leonard said he has had inquiries about a series featuring one of his early characters, Jack Ryan, who appeared in The Big Bounce and Unknown Man No. 89, as well as a possible adaptation of “Sparks,” a short story about an insurance investigator in Hollywood that was featured in the same book that contains “Fire in the Hole.” He has high hopes for each, and would love to see them end up on a cable network like FX or HBO, where “they can do pretty much what they want” without fear of censorship.

He’s most likely not done with Raylan Givens either, saying, “I just feel confident with him. I like the way he comes up with the last line in key situations, and he’s fun, so I stick with him.” Leonard said he is contemplating, in fact, putting Givens in the novel he’s currently working on called Sweetmary. It takes place in Arizona, and follows a former champion bull rider’s attempt to help three of his former employees — young Indian men — who have been railroaded into serving time at a privately owned prison.

“I haven’t gotten the bull rider in the story to talk yet and sound believable,” he said. “He doesn’t have a personality yet, so I thought, ‘Well, why don’t I just bring Raylan in?’ although my agent in Hollywood doesn’t want me to use Raylan again, but I think he’s wrong. Agents are not always right.”

Photo: Credit: Prashant Gupta