Writer Loren Estleman Talks His Tech-Free Career

As he closes in on 100 novels, writer Loren Estleman remains proudly old-school in his approach to his craft.
Author Loren Estleman in his home study, where he still drafts his manuscripts on a manual typewriter. // Photograph by Nick Hagen

To make contact with Loren Estleman, I had to do something I hadn’t done in years: write a letter, put a stamp on it, and send it snail mail.

Long ago, Estleman, the Whitmore Lake-based author of more than 90 books, rejected the shift to email, and he’s never once been online. He does have a computer, an “antediluvian” model pieced together from spare parts, on which he polishes his final manuscripts; his wife, the writer Deborah Morgan, forwards them to his publisher.

While the publishing industry has undergone seismic shifts during his nearly 50-year writing career, Estleman still drafts his manuscripts — detective novels, mysteries, and historical Westerns — on a 1960 Olympia manual typewriter. He uses a 1923 Underwood for correspondence (responding to letters from nosy local journalists who ask to come see his workspace, for instance).

Perhaps Estleman’s opting out of the digital age is for the best, since his books evoke the classic old-school, tough-guy novelists like Raymond Chandler, Zane Grey, and Ernest Hemingway. Estleman has been called “the Stravinsky of hard-boiled prose — he never hits a wrong note.” And while he’s not a household name, his books have garnered a cult following and dozens of awards, including the 1990 American Mystery Award for best crime novel from Mystery Scene magazine for Whiskey River, the first in his Detroit Crime series.

The Detroit News, which named him a 2023 Michiganian of the Year, likened him to a less-famous Elmore Leonard.

Estleman lives off the beaten path in a house packed with nostalgia and wonder, including more than 50 manual typewriters, 3,000 films on VHS and DVD, shelves upon shelves of old books, hidden baseboard drawers (that house his original manuscripts), a secret bookcase passageway, and a mind-blowing array of historical items. “Things that have been around for a while — 50, 100 years — they’ve proven their integrity, so I feel very comfortable having them around me.”

The house sits atop a spread of more than 100 acres, out of Wi-Fi range. It’s a landscape he knows well, having grown up across the road.

“My dad and mom had a subsistence farm. My dad trucked during the week, and during the weekend, they drove vegetables, and we had some animals. So I learned how to plant and hoe and all that. I hated hoeing. One thing I learned about hoeing is that you have to hoe backwards, so you can see how far you’ve come, because if you turn around to see how far you have to go, you’re going to just lose heart. Maybe writing’s the same way. I like to have those pages piled up next to me.”

Estleman first got the writing bug at age 15, while attending school in Dexter. His parents gave him a Smith Corona portable, “which I wore the heck out of,” Estleman says, noting he wrote his first short story at this time. “But that [manual] came in handy, because for a short period, I tried electric typewriters, and they just weren’t right for me. For one thing, you turn it on and it hums, and it’s like, ‘Come on, create something!’ Good old manual typewriters — they were just always ready when I was.”

Estleman studied art at Eastern Michigan University but eventually decided “to throw everything over into the writing, because I think I had been subconsciously going that direction anyway.” Journalism seemed like the most practical starting point, so Estleman worked first as a police beat reporter for The Ypsilanti Press in the 1970s, while still a student.

“I was a good writer, but I was a lousy reporter,” Estleman says of his early career.

Creating characters and concocting tales was a far better fit. In 1976, at age 23, he sold his first novel, The Oklahoma Punk (now titled Red Highway). He worked at his hometown paper, The Dexter Leader, until 1980, the year he published the first book to feature his most famous character, hard-boiled Detroit private investigator Amos Walker, who operates on the “dark side of the Motor City.” That same year, The High Rocks was a finalist for the National Book Award in the Westerns category. He began writing full time, churning out novels on his Olympia manual.

Many writers get pigeonholed into one genre, but Estleman shifts freely between them, calling the practice “literary crop rotation.” He even sometimes mashes them together in a single book (see Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula). One of Estleman’s newest series follows the adventures of a film archivist named Valentino who ends up, through his work, piecing together old Hollywood mysteries. “I thought, ‘What a wonderful way to incorporate my love for old movies and the detective genre.’”

Now that he’s fast approaching the milestone of having published 100 books in his career, he can’t tell you where his most recently released book, an Amos Walker novel called City Walls, falls in the lineup, nor his next, a Valentino novel called Vamp.

“I try not to think about it. But I don’t see myself stopping. It’s too much fun.”

This story is from the October 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.