Wednesday, Sep 29, 2010: Maximum Shelf: Djibouti

Read an excerpt of Djibouti by Elmore Leonard

Watch a video of Elmore Leonard talking about his new novel, Djibouti

Read an excerpt of Djibouti by Elmore Leonard

Send Elmore Leonard an 85th birthday card.

Morrow: Comfort to the Enemy by Elmore Leonard

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: Djibouti

In this edition of Maximum Shelf, the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere, we present Djibouti by Elmore Leonard. The review and interviews are by Marilyn Dahl. William Morrow has helped support the issue.

Djibouti (jih-BOOT-ee) is Elmore Leonard's 44th novel, and is sure to be another bestseller. It combines his trademark cool characters with a fast-paced story taken from the day's news: piracy off the East African coast. The CIA describes the terrain there as mostly wasteland; the U.S. has its only sub-Saharan military base in Djibouti, which is considered a prime location on the front lines in the war on terrorism due to its proximity to Somalia. Our State Department says there is a stable political situation in Djibouti, but cautions strongly against travel by ship in Djiboutian waters, by car (especially after dark) in the city and countryside, and by air since the only paved airport in the nation has never been assessed by the FAA. And yet, Djibouti is a tourist destination, with a luxurious hotel (the Djibouti Palace Kempinski). A perfect dichotomy for Elmore Leonard's magic.

With the publication of his 44th novel, Leonard is also celebrating his 85th birthday. Morrow has created a birthday card for fans to send him, and Shelf Awareness is delighted to take part in this celebration of a national treasure.



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Books & Authors

The Djibouti Hot List

Place to Stay: The Hotel Kempinski

Drug of Choice: khat

Expat Nationality: Somali

Language: French

Legal Profession: Eco-tour guide on Lac Assal and Lac Abbe

Illegal Profession: Pirate

Assist: There are no restrictions on converting or transferring foreign funds into or out of the country

Place to Be Lazy: Every day's a half-day Friday in Djibouti! Government employees work from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Dara Barr on Djibouti, the capital city: "It's a slum.... Maybe the worst slum in the civilized world.

Elmore's Passport: He says he's never been to Djibouti, but he does have this.



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Dutch's Biggest Fan: Mike Lupica

Mike Lupica is one of the most prominent sports writers in America and a syndicated columnist for the New York Daily News; he's also a best-selling author of both mysteries and YA sports novels--he's been called "A guy who gets boys to read." His new YA novel, Hero, about a teenage superhero, comes out in November from Philomel. Lupica is also what he describes as a "serial Little League coach," a youth basketball coach, and a soccer coach for his four children, three sons and a daughter. He and his family live in Connecticut. Today he appears in another role: as Elmore Leonard's self-proclaimed biggest fan. 


How did you become both a fan and a friend? Did you read him first, or meet him first?

I had written some adult mystery novels with the recurring character of a New York City television reporter. My book editor, Peter Gethers, said that Esquire wanted me to do a piece on Elmore Leonard. This was in 1987. I was already a huge fan (I believe I now have every single one of his books) so of course agreed. I flew to Detroit, took him to a Tigers game, hung out with him for a few days. That was the beginning of a friendship that has grown and lasted. His place in North Palm Beach and the place we used to have in Jupiter were about five minutes away from each other. When your writing hero becomes a good friend, it's just the best. We talk at least three times a week now, sometimes more than that. The real fun is talking to him when he's in mid-book and having him read the scene he's writing at that moment.

The only thing better than reading Elmore Leonard is re-reading him. You see him described as our greatest living crime writer; I say, take out "crime." And he's at the top of his game.

What's so appealing about his writing?

I remember when I read Road Dogs. I got to the end and was disappointed that I didn't get to hang around these people any more.

The reason he's lasted is because he tells great stories. The dialogue is fabulous, of course. The best dialogue being written, with characters that you can tell interest him. I can always tell in his books when he loses interest in some characters and gains interest in others. For example, in Tishomingo Blues, you can see the book starts off with high diver Dennis Lenahan, but you then see Detroit gangster Robert Taylor walk in and just take the book over. I've always said, don't even think you know where Dutch is going to take you. Because you don't.

His dialogue is so wonderful. It must be great on audio.

Listen to Mr. Paradise, read by Robert Forster. It's like listening to jazz--Coltrane, Miles, Ben Webster.

Dutch likes Hemingway, he's always said, because he believes in white space. He'll put books down that have too many words. But you have to pay attention to his writing--lack of words doesn't mean lack of complexity or nuance. You read some of his scenes, it really is like he's laying down music.

He once wondered what a page would look like if every line of dialogue was only one line. That's why his pages move. You get carried along for the ride.

What do you like about Djibouti?

One of the clichés you hear about great contemporary novels is that they read like they were ripped from the day's headlines. But he's done that here with piracy. And if you wonder how the pirates do what they do, he tells you exactly how, and with great characters and colorful language. No one's ever written better dialogue. Not ever. This is the way he becomes your guide into something you can't get your mind around. He opens a door and lets you into an amazing world.

After all these books--Djibouti makes 44--we're going to celebrate his 85th birthday this year, and to realize that he's still at the top of his game, and he's still having as much fun as always, well, if that's not an inspiration, I don't know what is. Some day somebody will figure out that his writing is worth the Nobel.

It's great reading him; it's better knowing him.



Morrow: Djibouti (Audiobook) by Elmore Leonard

Book Brahmin: Elmore Leonard

It's tempting to say that Elmore Leonard needs no introduction, but for the people who don't know he's called "Dutch," or don't know he's been writing for more than 60 years, or who haven't discovered him yet--you are in for a rare treat!--we can say a few things about "The Dickens of Detroit," "The Top Gun of Crime Writing," "The Old Master."

Leonard was born in New Orleans on October 11, 1925, so is celebrating his 85th birthday this year. In the 1950s, he wrote western novels and short stories, and finished his first crime novel, The Big Bounce, in 1969. In 1984, La Brava was voted the best novel by the Mystery Writers of America. In 1995, Get Shorty was made into a hit movie, which further spread the word about Leonard. He's won 14 major literary awards; and his work has been made into 21 feature films, seven television movies and three TV series, including the current hit FX's Justified (starring Timothy Olyphant). He's been on the New York Times bestseller list 17 times, and with William Morrow's publication of Djibouti on October 12, 2010, that number will turn to 18 in a nanosecond.

Leonard discusses his career and his new novel in a video, and more can be found on his website and at HarperCollins's Djibouti page. You can also browse a few pages here.

We managed to get the busy author to take a few minutes from his birthday celebrations and book publicity to answer a few questions about his reading history and about writing.


On your nightstand now:

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter.

Favorite book when you were a child:

The My Book House series, six volumes from nursery rhymes to Beowulf.

Your top five mystery/thriller authors:

Ed McBain, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, John D. MacDonald, and Michael Connelly.

Your top non-thriller authors:

Annie Proulx, Richard Price, Cormac McCarthy, Ron Hansen, Richard Bissell, Pete Dexter and Jim Harrison.

Newcomers who write in the spirit of Elmore Leonard:

Writers who copy my style generally lack my attitude.

Book you've faked reading:

The Fall of the Roman Empire.

Book you've bought for the cover:


What you look for in a good book:

A spare style and the way people talk, leaving out the parts readers tend to skip.

Book that changed your life:

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. It got me reading and inspired me to write a play in the fifth grade.

Favorite line from a book:

The opening line of The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George Higgins: "Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said he could get some guns."

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

I'll pick up Hemingway's 49 Stories at any given time and read every one of them. I copied Papa's style until I realized he didn't have a sense of humor. Richard Bissell showed me to do low-key, realistic humor in dialogue.

Have you been to Djibouti?


So how did you do your research?

My assistant got me everything I needed about Djibouti: stories, histories, photographs.

Many of your books have been made into films featuring a variety of stars. Who are some actors who you feel fully embody the characters you've created?

Obviously, George Clooney in Out of Sight and John Travolta in Get Shorty; Robert Forster in Jackie Brown.

Who would you cast in a feature film of Djibouti?

Samuel L. Jackson or Morgan Freeman as Xavier and Naomi Watts as Dara. That's as far as I've gotten.

You've penned more than 40 books in your career. Which mean the most to you today?

The one I'm writing now.

How does it feel to be, at 85, considered one of the hottest writers in contemporary literature? How do you stay hip? How do you pick up current language?

I've been writing the same way for almost 65 years, and I just try to stay current with what's going on. I listen, keep my eyes and ears open.

What's been the most gratifying aspect of being a writer?

Having the freedom to tell my stories my way, without anybody telling me how to write.

Some novelists slow down as they get older. Where does your energy and your inspiration to keep writing come from?

Same place it always came from. Writing is its own reward.


Photo by Dermot Cleary

85 and 44 Aren’t the Only Numbers

Elmore Leonard has amassed a few other milestones in his life besides the number of novels he's published and his years spent living and writing. He has children, he has doctorates and he has a few rejection slips under his belt. Herewith are a few Dutch statistics:



Book Review

Mandahla: Djibouti

Djibouti by Elmore Leonard (William Morrow & Company, $26.99 Hardcover, 9780061735172, October 2010)

Character. Plot. Dialogue. Who does it better than Elmore Leonard? With Djibouti, his 44th novel, he's at his rhythmic best, with an intricate plot, snappy patter and quirky players. 

At the Djibouti airport, as Xavier LeBo waits for Dara Barr to arrive on an Air France flight from Paris, he watches Legionnaires checking out passengers, "seeing could they tell a terrorist they saw one." Dara walks toward Xavier, alongside an Arab guy in suit and tie, trim beard, bit of a Brit accent--Ari Ahmed Sheikh Bakar, known as Harry. 

Harry works with the IMO, the International Maritime Organization, and speaks to pirates directly, trying to convince them there's no future in piracy, what with the navies of the world after them. He is "the spokesman for what is proper in this African world, or what can be gotten away with, and what is outright improper, hijacking ships and holding them for ransom." He plays the good guy role with panache. Their meeting is fortuitous for Dara, since she and Xavier want to meet pirates. 

Xavier is her 6'6" assistant--cameraman, grip, gofer and guide (with a gun)--72 to her 36, black to her blonde, but they're evenly matched in daring, nonchalance and cool. She's made several films--Bosnia, white supremacists--and won an Oscar for a documentary she and Xavier made during Katrina. Now they're in Djibouti to interview pirates, catch them hijacking a ship, get their story. Harry, already slightly enamored of Dara, promises to introduce her to an actual pirate, a gentleman rogue in the pirate's own eyes. They set up a plan to meet in two weeks in Eyl, a pirate stronghold on the Somali coast, where eight hijacked ships are being held. 

The pirates go out on skiffs and take down huge tankers and cargo ships, getting at least $1 million each time. Xavier was talking to a pirate at a club the night before, he and his gang drinking and chewing khat. He asked the pirate if he was always high when he went out to sea. The pirate replied, "If we not drunk, what are we doing in a skiff and think we can seize an oil tanker?" 

Dara is eager to see the boat Xavier has found for them, so before they go to the luxe Kempinski hotel, they drive through Djibouti to the docks; she's unprepared for what it's like--hot, open sewers, rats, dirty kinds of bugs, "like that beetle rolls up bat shit bigger'n he is." She starts to film for background, asks Xavier why they're driving through the slums, and he replies it's the upscale part of town where the Europeans live. Xavier's been through the Gulf 37 times--"I could be a tour guide, keep you from steppin in the sewers." 

The port of Djibouti is a crazy mix of cruise ships, container ships and navy vessels. At the dock, they meet Billy Wynn and Helene, drinking champagne on Billy's 62-foot ketch, Pegaso. Billy's filthy rich (Oklahoma oil) and is taking Helene, a model he met in France, on a test cruise around the world. If she doesn't complain or get seasick, he'll consider marrying her. Billy is dying to meet Dara, has some ideas about the pirates. He's a bit of a cowboy, with a rich beach-comber look, a fast boat and a Holland & Holland elephant gun. Helene knows if she passes the test and marries Billy, when he dies she'll be unimaginably rich, and Billy is 20 years older than she. Dara notes it could be a long wait; he looks pretty healthy. "Cigars," Helene said. "You think I'm out of my mind?" She likes Billy, usually, but thinks he's often like Sterling Hayden in Dr. Strangelove, expects him to start talking about preserving "our precious bodily fluids" at any moment. Wherever they are, Billy will have at least one bottle of champagne, and an abiding interest in a Saudi tanker loaded with LNG--liquid natural gas--held in Eyl for months by hijackers.

Out on the town the first night with Billy and Helene, Xavier snags a pirate for Dara: Idris Mohammed, a smooth Somali in a white suit, commander of a gang of swashbucklers. Dara asks him if he considers himself a pirate; he says, "I think of us as the Coast Guard giving fines to ships that contaminate our seas, thousands of them leaving their waste in the waters we once fished." He attended Miami U in Ohio for a few years, and now has luxurious homes in Eyl and Djibouti; he's friends with Harry, the fixer. Both Idris and Harry are polished, hip and amusing, but somewhat dubious. They met over a gun, or more precisely, Harry sold Idris 400 Uzis from Tel Aviv. And now Harry is promoting a solution to end piracy. Or so he says, as he sips Scotch and watches CNN footage of the Maersk Alabama being taken, the first American vessel boarded in more than 200 years. 

Dara and Xavier go out on their boat, the Buster, for 27 days. Back in her suite at the Kempinski, she puts together a rough cut of the film: Idris in his Mercedes trailing dust in the moonlight, Idris and his boys going out to hijack a ship, a light plane trying to drop bags of ransom on the deck of an oil tanker and missing, several pirates drownng trying to retrieve the loot, "pirate skiffs getting a beat going with quick cuts to faces she thought of as rimshots coming in a flow of action and gone." And footage of a new player, Jama, an African-American al Qaeda Muslim. Jama shot five people, but they don't have it on film. "We see bodies comin out of the house," Xavier said. "Then cut to us in our deck chairs sippin wine and chewin on khat. I noticed you favor it." 

After Xavier gets back, they go over the film again, and the story develops as they edit and comment. Dara's point of view: The pirates have made $30 million hijacking ships, but have lost out on a $300 million market when they had to stop fishing due to toxic waste dumped in their seas and foreign fishing companies pushing them out. Xavier's point of view: they don't care about fishing, they stumbled into piracy, they're having fun and getting rich. "They enjoyin every minute of it. Gonna keep takin ships till it gets dangerous." He points out that she sees the pirates as good guys. "It's like you made a picture called Men of Bosnia and left out all the women they raped." But Dara's adamant: As long as they are underdogs, getting back at the shipping companies, they're okay. Or maybe they're being used by middlemen in London or Dubai who work out ransom negotiations and take a cut. Someone had to supply the weapons in the first place. Xavier says: shoot what you see, not what you want to see. Billy's point of view: follow the money. Who's financing? Al Qaeda? Other countries helping them with information about the ships? He thinks he has enough money to bribe people to help him get the answers; he thinks terrorists are playing a part in this. And warlords, clan elders, lawyers--all getting a cut. 

As Dara and Xavier go over the footage, telling each other what they knew and are now finding out, piecing together the story to make it into a film, they come to think they're shooting a thriller rather than a documentary. "Two hours of Somali pirates in the can," Dara said, "and it's no longer about them." The picture takes a turn to a bigger story. "Mr. Billy Wynn knows what he's dong. Keep him in sight and you have your movie." And what Billy has in his sights is the Aphrodite, the hijacked LNG tanker. 

He keeps watching the tanker, anchored off Eyl. He spends his days monitoring CNN reports, studying the hijacked ships with his binoculars, and making satellite calls to his informants in Djibouti and Qatar. He figures the Aphrodite is going to blow up a U.S. port.

When the Aphrodite took on its load of LNG in Yemen, two al Qaeda men--one Saudi, one American--boarded and planted explosives on the ship. But where, how and when will it be blown up? Dara and Xavier are somewhat disinterested observers at this point, but Billy is determined to get involved. Follow the ship, save America. "Trail her till I have to call the navy or sink her myself." Meanwhile, Idris and Harry are holding three men from the LNG ship--the first officer and the two terrorists. Harry shoots the first officer, but not the crewmen: Jama Raisuli, who used to be James Russell in the states, and Qasim al Salah, his brother in jihad. Idris and Harry plan to turn the two men over to the American Embassy and collect $6 million--$5 million for Qasim, an infamous terrorist; $1 million for Jama. "You didn't spread enough terror," Idris said to Jama, "to get your numbers up." 

But then Idris and Harry realize that Jama could be worth much more than a million. An active traitor and a black man? Harry thinks at least $10, $25 million. Idris thinks he's is crazy, but the only way to find out is to discover Jama's real name; he won't tell them and neither will Qasim. 

How do these strands converge? In surprising ways, as Billy and Helene trail the Aphrodite, Dara tries to find Jama for an interview, Xavier tries to keep them both alive and the Aphrodite sits, a ticking bomb. 

Leonard writes a nifty story, weaving in current events and issues seamlessly; the real fun is listening to his characters talk and reading his descriptions. "Billy had on a pair of blue bikini briefs, his stomach trying to hide them." Jama, with a lot on his precarious plate in Djibouti, is cranky: "Being a terrorist was a pain in the ass when you weren't spreading terror." Dara, talking to Helene about the travails of being Billy's first and only mate: 

"It must be a fine line [between] keeping up your appeal and staying high enough to see it through."

"It gets tricky," Helene said. "I have to watch I don't fall overboard." 

And a typically laconic exchange between Xavier and Dara: 

"And all hell broke loose," Xavier said. "You ever use that expression?" 

"It broke loose shooting Katrina but I restrained myself." 

The jazzy conversation is a concise riff, and the tension is low-key until the finish--hard to build high-key tension when everyone is swilling expensive champagne. The story takes unexpected turns, but unexpected only for Leonard newbies; one learns early in a Leonard novel to not trust what's laid out, to wait for the switch. In Djibouti, the wait produces a brilliant payoff, with a thrilling, adrenaline-laced ride to the end. --Marilyn Dahl




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