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Life Lessons

Making It Up as I Go Along

The author of such classics as Get Shorty and Out of Sight advises writers: the best ideas come from the most unlikely places.

I began working on my eighth novel, Valdez Is Coming, sometime in 1967 and finished the book in seven weeks. It's the only one I started knowing how it would end. It was the culmination of all those other westerns that dealt with the man who is misjudged until it's too late. I'm not big on themes, but this was a natural for westerns. The movie in 1971 with Burt Lancaster is the truest to the book of the 20 or so adaptations of my work that have made it to the screen.

I was writing for the movies then, and a producer who missed out on the Valdez bidding asked if I could write another one, "sort of like Valdez, only different." You wouldn't think this kind of request motivating, but it is.

At the main library in Detroit I moved through rows of titles in the History room and stopped at a book called Night Comes to the Cumberlands by Harry M. Caudill. I opened it in the middle and looked at a chapter heading called "Moonshine and Mayhem." I closed the book and held it against me so the chapter wouldn't get away. I had in my hands the idea for my next book, The Moonshine War.

Then I drove to Kentucky with a writer friend of mine, David E. Davis, who introduced me to his uncle Jim Bill Simpson, a moonshiner for 40 years before he joined AA and gave up drinking. Jim Bill said, "What you do is shake the jar and look at the beads that form. When you see them half above and half below the surface, you know you're looking at 90-proof corn whiskey." My moonshiners in the book owe a debt to Jim Bill Simpson.

A lot of times I get characters and ideas for books from people I know or have read about.

For example, Maximum Bob borrows its title from Maximum Bob Potter, the hard-sentencing judge who gave evangelist Jim Bakker 45 years on 24 counts of fraud.

I had met Marvin Mounts, a Palm Beach County circuit court judge, who asked if I would give a talk at a local library. I accepted, we became friends, and remained so until his death in 2004. Now I had a judge helping me develop my own Maximum Bob, a lecher but entertaining. Marvin raised orchids on his wooded property. So does Bob, using them as lures, to entice girls to stop by his home for drinks.

Sometimes, when Marvin saw me in his courtroom, he'd bring up an issue for my benefit, something I could use. Marvin asked a man who robbed a bank how he was apprehended. The felon said he left the bank and a dye pack exploded, turned his take and the front of his clothes red. Marvin said, "Didn't you try to clean the money?" The man said, "Yeah, I did. I was arrested shopping with a bunch of pink twenties."

I began to add scenes. On a family trip to Florida, I had read a flier about Weeki Wachee Mermaids, girls who performed in a natural spring wearing mermaid tails. Gregg checked out the show and gave me a video. "You watch from an underwater theater," he said, "the girls making mermaid moves, flipping their tails, sucking discreetly on air hoses."

I was reading about channeling at that time. So I made Maximum Bob's wife, Leanne—a former mermaid who panics when an alligator swims into the act—have an out-of-body experience and begin channeling a slave girl, Wanda Grace, who was devoured by an alligator 150 years ago. Wanda says, "I be back when you needs me, Leanne." It drives the judge nuts hearing this squeaky voice coming out of his wife.

I thought my experiences in Hollywood would make a good novel. But I didn't want to do it the same old way. I wanted to show that a total outsider could make it in Hollywood.

I knew a guy named Chili Palmer who worked for Bill Marshall, an old college classmate of mine who was now a private eye in Miami. Chili was a former loan shark who did surveillance on cheating husbands. They made quite a team. Marshall could not open his mouth without saying something funny. Chili could put on a look of cool menace whenever he wanted.

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