A Conversation With Dennis Lehane
Andrew Cotto talks with the bestselling author about writing, books as movies, and the role of art in society.
Dennis Lehane is the author of nine novels-including the New York Times bestsellers Gone, Baby, Gone; Mystic River; Shutter Island; and The Given Day—as well as Coronado, a collection of short stories and a play. He is currently at work on a new book set during prohibition in Boston, Tampa, and Havana. The paperback version of his latest novel, Moonlight Mile, was released in July.
Cotto: Your first novel, A Drink Before the War, was a detective story, genre. You wrote this story before becoming a graduate student in Florida International University’s creative writing program. What inspired this type of story?
Lehane: What ultimately led me to genre fiction was that I knew I didn’t have a bildungsroman in me at that point. Did the world really need another white-boy-goes-to-college-and-learns-about-himself book? I didn’t think so. But I also didn’t know how to plot. Nobody had ever really talked about it, so I had no real clue how to do it. What I did know was that in crime fiction something bad had to happen and by the end there had to be some kind of reckoning in terms of that bad thing. Once I understood that, I understood how to loosely plot a crime novel. And I was off to the races.
Cotto: What was the response to your writing genre from the faculty and your classmates?
Lehane: I was primarily a short story writer, even though it was common knowledge I had a genre novel being shopped around NYC. And, yeah, there was a certain looking down the nose at genre fiction. Hell, I looked down my nose at genre fiction. But what was also happening at that time—we’re talking the early nineties—was the beginning of a backlash against faux-literary fiction. If you were published by Vintage, did that automatically make you literary? If you wrote a self-indulgent, sexually embarrassing, “semi”-autobiographical novel in which the protagonist referenced Virginia Woolf and Moliere enough times for us to accept that you’d read literary fiction, did that make your work literary? Literature is literature, doesn’t matter what it comes dressed to the ball as. Over the course of time, a novel endures and thereby defines itself as such. Or it doesn’t. "Literary fiction" is a genre. And it’s not a given that what’s accepted as the literary fiction of today will be the literature of tomorrow. What, in essence, is literary fiction? I’ll accept that it’s Edith Wharton or Julian Barnes, but I refuse to accept that some plotless model of post-modern, post-structural masturbation is comparable to something as majestic as Ellroy’s LA Quartet or Thom Jones’s The Pugilist at Rest.
Cotto: A Drink Before the War won The Shamus Award for best first private eye novel. When did you decide to turn this into a series?
Lehane: While I was at FIU, I started mucking about with what became Darkness, Take My Hand. I have never consciously considered the “next” book in my life, though. I’m a one-book-at-a-time, fall-off-bridges-once-I-come-to-them kinda guy. So the series happened organically and as much to my surprise as anyone’s.
Cotto: When did the first inkling of Mystic River come to you?
Lehane: Writing my graduate school thesis. I’d moved back to Boston and was living in a once-tough, hardscrabble neighborhood that was undergoing gentrification. I wrote myself a note—“What happens when Pat’s Pizza becomes a Starbucks?” That was Mystic River in a nutshell. After I failed to write it as a successful novella, I knew my reach was extending beyond my grasp. So I went back to the Kenzie and Gennaro books to teach myself how to write better. With each book I’d challenge myself in a different way until around '99 I finally felt I had the muscles necessary to tackle this story again.
Cotto: Who was the first character?
Lehane: The first character in the novella was a very different Sean Devine. The first character I thought up five years later in what became the novel was Brendan Harris. I wanted to write a love story that played out like the one between the Rat and the Barefoot Girl in Springsteen’s Jungleland. That’s what I had in my head anyway, and then the book took on a mind of its own and that plot thread quickly faded into the dust.
Cotto: How long did it take you to write the novel?
Lehane: Two years. Lots of mistakes, lots of blown ideas, lots of wrong turns. A largely unpleasant process across the board if you must know.
Cotto: What was the greatest challenge, craft-wise, between this story and your previous books?
Lehane: Third person POV. It was liberating to suddenly have it at my disposal after five books told in first. It felt like getting handed wings in a prison yard, you know? Wow—I can fly! But then I immediately had the “be careful what you wish for” experience because all these decisions I never had to make with Patrick, I now had to make. Whose POV do I choose? Whose story is this? When do I go into Sean’s POV? When do I go into Celeste’s? How many POVs are too many? Must a POV justify itself or can I just go into someone’s head for the hell of it? (The answer to that is “yes” and then “no,” btw.) And—again—whose fucking story is this?
Cotto: Did you set out to write something that went beyond genre into more literary terrain?
Lehane: I could lie, but the answer is yes. I wanted to blow some doors off.
Lehane: In '99, I was on vacation and tried to read a particular type of commercial novel—one of those crass, plot-is-the-only-thing pieces of shit that line the racks at the supermarket checkout—and it opened with this fourteen year old girl being murdered. It was immediately obvious the author was pretending to condemn violence against poor 14-year-old girls who also happen to be black and therefore prostitutes (as if it’s all so axiomatic that) but in reality he was getting his rocks off and expecting the reader to get her rocks off depicting the sensational and the salacious aspects of said death. It disgusted me and I decided to write a book in which someone dies and dies off-stage in the best Greek tradition and yet that one death hurts like hell. Hurts everyone within the orbit of this girl’s life. I was very determined to make that loss of life rip the reader’s stomach out. Because violence does not exist for our fucking entertainment. Death is finite and wasteful and it destroys the lives of those who cared about the victim and sometimes even the lives of those who didn’t even know the victim. Violence ripples out from the center and those ripples can scald anyone they touch.
Cotto: Why are crime/noir stories so consistently popular with readers?
Lehane: Readers throughout history have loved to read about life lived at the extremes. Cormac McCarthy has a term for it—fiction of mortal event—that may explain why so many people dig noir. In noir, shit’s serious, man. Characters don’t have a whole lot of margin for error.
Cotto: Three of your novels, Mystic River, Shutter Island, and Gone Baby Gone, have been made into movies. What, most of all, is missing from the page?
Lehane: A movie is $40 million Cliff Note. And sometimes it’s a tremendous Cliff Note, outstanding. But it’s never the book. The book is an apple, the movie’s a giraffe; they have that much in common. They’re both examples of narrative art, yes, but similarities pretty much end there. Books require your active participation. Movies are passive entertainment. What’s missing from the movie adaptation is about, well, 80 percent of the book. Nature of the beast. If that 20 percent, however, compels people to read the book—yay. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
Cotto: Is there any area where the film surpasses the novel?
Lehane: A film can get to the heart of a scene a lot faster. One glance from a good actor can replace pages of a book.
Cotto: You contributed to the writing of HBO’s highly acclaimed series The Wire. What, above all else, made this particular show so special?
Lehane: David Simon’s and Ed Burns’s refusal to pander to the audience in even the most infinitesimal ways. Too many characters to follow? Tough shit, go watch something else. Can’t find anyone to like? Fuck off; we don’t need you. Etc. It was exceptionally brave storytelling on every level and utterly uncompromising. I’m not sure I would have had the balls to be that uncompromising, so my hat is all the way off to David and Ed.
Cotto: Can shows like The Wire or socially conscious novels such as yours have an effect on America?
Lehane: If you go into narrative art trying to change the world or “teach” people something, you will write a polemic. You want to write polemic, become a speechwriter. If you’re a narrative artist, however, your job is to tell a story. First and foremost. And then (if I may be so pretentious for a moment) it is to birth something universal about the human condition from that story. And if, ancillary to your original goal, something with social ramifications organically manifests itself from your tale, well, good. Nice job.
Cotto: What is the responsibility, if any, of the artist in our society?
Lehane: EL Doctorow said an artist’s responsibility is to be true to the times in which he lives. I love that line. I can’t top it, so I’ll just quote it and be done.
—Photo via abandonadtodaesperanza.blogspot.com. Interview originally published on the Good Men Project.