In the past two weeks, two of my favourite writers passed away. Great artists both, I never met either and yet both had a profound influence on how I write. In fact, both were so good at what they did that they could put the fear of God into lesser writers like myself. Reading them as a writer could make you stop and shudder in wonder--How does he do that?--and, occasionally, despair--I might as well chuck it in because nothing I write will ever, ever match this...
Elmore Leonard and Seamus Heaney might not, at first glance, appear to have much in common other than that they were both 'writers'. One American, the other Irish. One a novelist, the other a poet etc. etc. But what they both shared was a love for, and profound trust in, the language of the common man. Both had a gift for rendering the sound of speech--whether Detroit or Miami, Bellaghy or Belfast-- as it is locally spoken. And not merely the turns of phrase, the quip or curse or colloquialism, but the rhythms of speech.
Two examples, just chosen randomly: Heaney, from his poem
The Flight Path: "When, for fuck's sake, are you going to write/Something for us?/If I do write something,/Whatever it is, I'll be writing for/myself." And here's Leonard from his novel, City Primeval-High Noon in Detroit: "'Yeah, it's dark in here,' Clement said, looking around Uncle Deano's, at the steer horns on the walls and the mirrors framed with horse collars. 'Darker'n most places that play Country, but it's intimate. You know it? I thought if we was gonna have a intimate talk why not have it in a intimate place?' Clement straightened, looking up. 'Except for that goddamn pinball machine; sounds like a monkey playing a 'lectric organ.'
One a sharply brilliant political, autobiographical poem and one a fiercely brilliant, mordantly humourous crime novel, but in both you can literally hear the men in them talking. Like they were sitting with you on the train, as in The Flight Path or in Uncle Deano's in City Primeval. Both writers, both geniuses. And may they both Rest In Peace.