Books by Dennis Lehane
When he's writing, Dennis Lehane often listens for the echoes. "There's the idea that any incident reverberates, anything that happens in your life. The smallest thing. So if the smallest thing reverberates, then the biggest thing has a consequence." In crime fiction, plot twists are as often about consequence as they are about truth and Lehane seems to understand this concept better than most.
The 35-year-old author is currently riding a high. Less than a decade into his writing career, his sixth book, Mystic River, went straight to the bestseller lists when it was published in January of 2001. The film rights to that book have been purchased by Clint Eastwood's production company, a project Eastwood plans to direct, and the film rights to Lehane's previous book, Prayers for Rain, are held by Paramount. Not bad, some would say, for an Irish-American kid from Boston's south side.
There was never any doubt in Dennis Lehane's mind that he was going to be a writer. It wasn't so much a matter of "if" as much as "how" and "when." Lehane wrote his first novel while he was still in college as "a goof, as a fluke, as something to do because I was bored. And to entertain myself." The overworked creative writing student felt he needed a break from all of the "really literary, avant garde short fiction" he'd been writing. He says he wrote that novel in three weeks and tossed it into a box. He was 25.
About a dozen drafts later, while Lehane was at grad school, the novel was accepted for publication and saw print in 1994 as A Drink Before the War, the first book to feature Lehane's dynamic Boston duo, private investigators Angie Gennaro and Patrick Kenzie.
Lehane says now that he understood exactly what he was doing when he signed his first book contract: he understood the course he was allowing his life to take. "You're leaving one camp and stepping into another. Why mess around?" He knew that the publication of A Drink Before the War would label him, perhaps forever, as a genre writer: "And there's no way out of that, so let's just go all the way. And I'm so glad I did. Oh! Thank God. It's been the greatest accident of my life."
Accident or not, Lehane has kept a firm hand on the professional aspects of his writing as well as the creative, understanding as he does the reverberations that a small thing can have on an entire career. "Where you enter the ladder," says Lehane in relation to a writing career, "I think, indicates how far you're going up it." With that ladder in mind, Lehane resisted going the paperback original route as well as manuscript changes to A Drink Before the War that he didn't agree with because, he says, he didn't really have a lot to lose. "What were you going to do to me? Make me poorer? I didn't think that was possible." The idealistic young writer stuck to his guns and stepped onto the ladder on a fairly high rung. He has, he says, no regrets.
Mystic River is shaping up to be Lehane's breakthrough novel and the first outside of the Gennaro/Kenzie series. Though Lehane's series books have been selling consistently better from book to book, Mystic River had outsold all of the writer's previous books just a few weeks after publication.
Though Mystic River is a crime fiction novel, its early success is no great mystery: Lehane is a stylish writer determined to tell a good tale. "Character is action," says Lehane, "the oldest law of writing. It goes back to Aristotle. Plot is just a vehicle in which you see them act." Lehane's books tend to be marked by well paced, tightly wound plots with a great deal of care and respect to the characters he creates. As a Kirkus reviewer once remarked, Lehane "knows every block of the neighborhood and every hair on his characters' heads."
Mystic River opens in 1975 on three kids playing, hanging and just being kids. When two of the three -- Jimmy Marcus and Sean Devine -- get into a huge knock-down-drag-out fight in the middle of the street, none of the boys are especially surprised when a police car stops, admonishes the boys for fighting and then takes the third boy, Dave Boyle, away with them in the back of their car. It turns out that the cops aren't cops at all and Dave has been abducted. It's a crime that will reverberate throughout all three of the boys' lives.
Flash forward a couple of chapters and 25 years and the boys have grown to be men, each somehow still a part of the south Boston neighborhood they were born in. Now another violent crime takes place, this time involving Jimmy's 19-year-old daughter, and the three one-time friends are brought back together in a way they couldn't have imagined.
Lehane lives in Boston with his wife Sheila and a brace of bulldogs: Marlon and Stella.
Linda Richards: Tell me about the Mystic River. I want to know about the river before we even talk about the book.
Dennis Lehane: The river itself?
If you ever want to see Boston for the first time in a cool way, drive from the north. Tell your cab driver: Take the Tobin. It's called either the Tobin or the Mystic River Bridge. And it just connects the north shore of Boston to the city, downtown. Historically the two neighborhoods that are kind of really at the base of where the bridge is dug in is Charlestown on the Boston side and then Chelsea on the north shore side. And they've historically been kind of run down neighborhoods, Chelsea in particular is horrendous. So it's just always been an evocative place in my mind. It's very industrial looking, all over. Big tanks, oil tanks, and now it's all getting gentrified, because it's river. But for years it was always the most moody place. I always just loved driving over and looking at it.
It almost becomes a character in Mystic River. And it certainly adds texture to the book and lends its name.
Yeah, see that's the other thing. "Mystic" has so many great connotations. And water is always symbolic, so I knew before I wrote the book that that's what it was going to be called. It's a book about the past, it's about the tug of the past.
And the river becomes a metaphor, in a way.
Yeah. I don't want to be pretentious English lit class guy but, yeah. It's definitely a metaphor. The Mystic River is the largest metaphor in the book.
This is your first novel outside of the Kenzie/Gennaro series.
And I know from your interview with Karen that that was a conscious thing, because two years ago you were saying that maybe it was time to do something else.
Yes. I was beginning to write Mystic River when I had the interview with Karen. But yeah: I think there's a finite number in any series. You never hear people say: Oh, the 15th is the best. You never hear that. There's a point where a series has to end. I don't think I've reached that point, but I reached a point where it needed a break. And I do think that the number is rapidly approaching: whatever that magic number is, where it's going to be time.
So people might be dying?
No. Just riding off into the sunset or whatever. It's just time to -- gradually -- it's time to say: Well, we've learned all we can learn about these characters. As a reader, that's why I read: to find out about the main characters. The plot is just the vehicle through which we see into these characters. Character is action: the oldest law of writing. It goes back to Aristotle. Plot is just a vehicle in which you see them act. And that's how you find out who they are as people. And, after a certain point, with a series, you know everything there is to know about a character. That's the exact moment to stop writing [it]. Just don't do it. It's tempting, you know?
And there must be a great reader demand, as well, because Angie and Patrick are loved.
Oh, I know. And Bubba. I had a woman walk up to me at a signing about a week ago and say: I've just read this Mystic River. And I said: That's good. And she said: When are you going back to the series? And she was angry. Sure, there are going to be some people who don't want you to do that. That's fine.
They are coming back, though? Patrick and Angie and Bubba?
They are coming back, yes. Not this next book, but the book after that, I think. Just like Mystic River, these characters were really knocking on the door for a while. And then they really started getting loud. You know, knocking stuff really loud: Make a hole, we're comin' in.
The series book, those characters have to say that to me. I'm not going to plug them into a plot. Put them on a cruise ship, you know? We'll just see what happens.
Have you had any film interest in your books?
Paramount owns the rights to Prayers For Rain. And now Clint Eastwood just bought Mystic River to direct. I'm very psyched.
Congratulations. Are you still at the stage in your career where that's fun?
Oh God! If you're not at that stage, then... and I had to call him. I talked to him last week on the phone. And my wife is going up by the phone, listening. I talked to him for about 15 or 20 seconds and all of a sudden I just thought: You're talking to Clint Eastwood. This is for real! And I don't think I made any sense during the entire conversation. [Laughs] I think by the end he was like: Why the hell did this guy want to talk to me?
So, yeah. I think if you get to the point where that sort of stuff... Mystic River wasn't for sale, I pulled it off. I said: Screw that. I'm tired of having inane conversations in which I'm supposed to act like: Oh, that's an interesting idea, when it's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. So I just said: this isn't for sale. Screw it. And then in the back of my mind I knew that whoever would come for it would at least be serious. They'd have actually read the book, not just the coverage. Then we got a phone call and it was Clint Eastwood. I was like: Clint Eastwood? I mean, come on. And it's not just because he's an icon. As a film buff I've been following him as a director since Play Misty For Me, his first movie, and I think he's a fascinating director and I think he's right for this material. Clint's movies tend to be about 20 minutes longer than the average. He goes for a kind of more leisurely pace and I think this novel needs that breadth. It needs to have somebody so big behind it that says: You know what? It's going to be two hours and 20 minutes, not 95 minutes. Tell the studio that. That sort of thing.
And his work does tend to be more moody.
Yup. And he gets really classy screenwriters and really classy actors. I don't want to write the script. That's what we talked about: who was going to write the screenplay. And he's just worked with the best guys out there. It's amazing. And he said to me: Next book, write a part for an old guy. [Laughs] But he's just going to direct [Mystic River]. He's not going to be in it. I think it sounds wonderful. It sounds like a perfect fit. And I'm done. I'll write him a letter saying these are the people [who I see in the roles], for what it's worth and if I never hear from him again until they go into production, fine. I've stepped away. So I don't have to go through any of the heartache or any of the B.S.
While they screw up your vision.
Well, I don't think that he would, but who knows.
And it is your vision. It's going to be different.
Oh yeah. Absolutely. And you just have to hope.
Are they talking about dates yet?
No, no. This is just literally: Can I do your movie? And: Yes you can, Mr. Eastwood. That's where we're at.
Mystic River came out and made all of the important lists right away. I have a sense that it's going to be your biggest book so far. Do you?
Oh yes: it's already outsold every one I ever wrote.
So it's your breakthrough book?
I think, finally, yeah. I think we can finally say yeah. Who knows what that means for the next book, but...
For this book I think one of the things it means is that the stores are not necessarily just stocking it with the mysteries and the crime fiction. They're putting it out front with mainstream fiction.
Yeah. And the reviews have definitely been pushing that idea. I would say that 50 per cent of the reviews have said this is not simply a crime novel, which is very nice.
So you do find you get kind of disrespected writing in a genre?
There is a ghettoization that goes on, certainly. But I think less and less every day.
Especially from that particular genre. Because, if anything is going to break through, it's going to be a crime book.
The mystery/crime genre has been in a sort of renaissance for about 15 years that's really, finally hitting serious steam. People are standing up and going: Some of these people are really writing good books. And I think that's happening and that's nice. It's a nice time to be doing it.
Do you think the pulps in the 1950s did some damage to the genre?
I think the very badly written books of the 50s that were all about: I'm gonna kill that commie scum. You know, and dames were dames. That sort of Mickey Spillane-esque thing did a lot of damage, I think. Women didn't want to read it. If you were reasonably cultured you didn't want to read it. It was just this embarrassment. I think that and the lurid covers they were always coming up with: the guy standing there with the big .45 and the woman hanging on his leg. So it took a long time.
I think the turning point hands down was James Crumley's The Last Good Kiss which was published in 1978. That was within the genre, within sort of the little world of both readers and writers. I think that was the moment when people said: Wow, we can do all that? We can actually elevate it to that level?
There are several of us sort of younger guys who were just in awe of that novel. That is the single most influential novel. I know it was a huge influence on [Michael] Connelly, it was a huge influence on [George P.] Pelecanos, me: that's the bible, man. And then all of a sudden [James] Ellroy came along and then Black Dahlia began the L.A. Quartet. I remember reading Black Dahlia in like 86 or 87 -- whenever it came out -- and being in my college dorm room sitting and not getting off the floor all night and saying: Oh my God! This is truly what you can do. And then James Lee Burke came along and all of a sudden there was just this flood of people coming in from everywhere writing at a level that's at a higher pitch than ever. That's just one man's opinion. But I think the level of craft is higher than it's ever been.
These were authors that you found influential?
Did they have impact on the direction you took?
No, I can't say that only because I wrote my first crime novel as a goof, as a fluke, as something to do because I was bored. And to entertain myself. And I was, like: Aw, after writing all this really literary, avant garde short fiction I need a break. I'm just going to take a break. I'm gonna write a book. I was 25 and I banged it out in three weeks. That was the first draft. What was published was probably the 13th draft but I just blew it out of my typewriter and then I tossed it in a box. It was not a big thing. And then I was at grad school at the time and they accepted it for publication, I knew exactly what that meant: You're leaving one camp and stepping into another. Why mess around? And I was: All right. Because [I knew that] the moment this book comes out I would be called a mystery writer. I would be called a genre writer. And there's no way out of that, so let's just go all the way. And I'm so glad I did. Oh! Thank God. It's been the greatest accident of my life.
Your first book was published in 1994?
Yes. But I wrote the first draft in 1990. Then gradually I landed an agent with, I think, the third draft. Then I went off to grad school and [the book] went out to some publishers and then it was accepted in 1993 and that was it.
Are you a better writer now?
God, I hope so! I hope so. Am I a better writer than I was with my first book? Yes.
What was your first hardcover?
All of my books have been hardcover. Somebody came knocking on the door with a paperback original offer and it was great being so broke because you had no place to go but up. They really couldn't tempt you with anything. I remember one publisher was asking me to change something in A Drink Before the War and I wouldn't change it because what were you going to do to me? Make me poorer? I didn't think that was possible. So when a paperback publisher came along and had initial talks with my agent, I said: I'm not coming out in paperback, I'm not doing it. So it was like: OK, good. We just didn't want my career going that way. That's just one more ghetto you've got to climb out of. Where you enter the ladder, I think, indicates how far you're going up it. And if you enter at the absolute lowest rung, which is paperback original, yes you may end up like John D. MacDonald some day, but it took him like 20 years for his first hardcover.
Is your wife also a writer?
Oh, no, no, no. Writers should not breed. [Laughs] They shouldn't interbreed. You end up with, like, Woody Allen for a kid.
No, she's an advocate for the elderly for the city of Boston.
What's her name?
Sheila. And she's great. She reads my manuscripts first and her reactions to them are very visceral and gut-level and sensible. Whereas I go to two of my buddies from grad school who help me with, you know: Your metaphors are showing. This is crap, cut this. Nice simile. Sheila is more like: Why is she acting like a moron? Which section? Right here. OK: thanks honey. And I go back and I work.
Does Sean [one of the main characters in Mystic River] have another book in him? Might we see him again?
I don't know. I didn't think so. Now I think maybe several years down the road I might see where they're at: where they've gone. Maybe. I don't know for sure. The idea was to get away from sequels. But people have brought it up enough times that I say: Maybe.
If I were to go back in, the character that would get me back would be Annabeth Marcus, Jimmy's wife. She was really just starting to come alive when I shut that book down and I was, like: Oooh. I could do more with her.
It just seemed that, since Sean is a cop, he could support that whole crime fighting thing. And I liked him.
Well, he definitely could do another book. But Jimmy is truly the focal character of the book. He took it over. It was originally supposed to be Sean's book. But then, all of a sudden, well Jimmy just has a lot more drama. He's just lost a daughter, his emotions are much closer to the surface. And they're much more primal emotions. Sean is just the seeker. He's the guy who takes the audience into the book and leads you around.
It seemed to me that at the end of the book you made Jimmy see or do some things that would decrease our sympathy for him.
Because he's a very likable character until almost the very end.
But if you go back through the book you'll see that all of that was there from chapter three. I was really playing with that, because I knew where he was going to end up, but the audience didn't. So when it became apparent to me that some people who read the first hundred pages while I was working on it -- my wife, my editor, my brother -- they were all so enthralled by Jimmy and I just said: Wow. I know where this is going. I didn't count on that much audience identification. It was great.
It's supposed to force the reader to question, I hope, some of their ideas on what a hero is. Or what good is. Because it's a double-edged sword.
So, going into a book, you know where you're going?
I know my ending. I don't know how the hell I'm going to fill those 350 pages to get there but I always know how it's going to end.
You're not one of those careful plotters with file cards all over your office?
Oh no. I don't know how people do that. If I knew everything that was going to happen [it would] suck the life out. It sucks the desire to go and sit there and discover things. You know what I mean? That's the fun of writing. Flannery O'Connor called it "happy accidents." That moment when, all of a sudden, your character does something that you didn't intend him to do and you realize it had been oddly inevitable since the first time you introduced him. And you go: Yeah! That's why I write. That's the high.
It's fun for you?
Yeah, it's great. It's not always. Early on it's always murder. I'm in, usually, a state of complete manic depression. In the first 100 pages of a book usually, finding my way in, making a million mistakes. To get the first 100 pages of Mystic River I threw out 200. And then all of a sudden it's set up: the world is defined and I'm coastin' and then it's heaven and then I'm the easiest, happiest guy to be around.
Are you a disciplined writer?
Pretty much. I've learned to trust over time that I do build up [to it]. That when I write for an hour at the beginning of a book I'm exhausted and I think most of it sucks. And I'm just tired and that's all I can get from a day is an hour's worth of work. But I know from experience that I'm going to reach this point where I'm pulling 12 and 14 hour days and not even feeling it. And lovin' it. And I've just got to trust that that's going to happen. Because it has always happened before.
So, in that sense, yeah. Once I begin on a book I try to write every day but I don't kill myself if I don't because I know I'm going to hit a moment where everything is going to coalesce and I'll be writing every day because I love it.
Do you write in longhand or on a computer?
Always longhand first. I usually write longhand in the morning and then I type it into the computer that night, so in a way I'm doing two drafts as I work.
Does that help you keep the plot connections straight?
No. None of that helps. There's always a moment 250 pages in where you just go: What the fuck is going on? [Laughs] And you've gotta sit back and go through the entire manuscript and figure out where you're going here and... the closest thing I ever did to an outline was on Mystic River. I was probably about 300 manuscript pages in -- it was a 600 page manuscript -- and I went: What the hell is going on in this book? And I was spinning all over the place. And I sat down and I wrote out everything that had to happen from that point on. I think it was something like 13 points. Just: this needs to happen, this needs to happen, this needs to happen. And from that point on I wrote 13 chapters. I went right off that list.
Are you working on anything now?
Yeah. I'm working on a book called Missing Dolores but that's really all I can say. I'm superstitious about talking about a book.
But it's not a series book, though?
Not a series book, no. It's set in Buckingham. I like going back to that world. It's fun.
Tell me about Buckingham.
Buckingham is basically four different neighborhoods that I've slammed together to create one.
But it doesn't really exist?
No. The series novels are set in Dorchester which is a real place. Buckingham is a fictitious place. And I think there will be Buckingham novels and then there will be series novels. I just love playing around and I love going: I need a gas station. OK, I'll put it right there.
I found the vocal cadences in Mystic River interesting. In many ways much of the dialog is as Irish as anything written by Roddy Doyle. That's intriguing, of course, because your characters are Irish-American and while the cadences might be similar, the sound would be quite different. They sound Irish.
In immigrant cultures, particularly Irish which is a very storytelling culture, a very musical culture: yeah. There's a certain rhythm to the language. I always say that the funniest people I know, hands down, are people I knew growing up in the neighborhood. I mean, they crush any comic I see on the stage. They're just naturally funny. They know how to drop a line. They know how to spin a word. That's the culture I grew up in.
Yes. My parents are Irish and I'm Irish-American. And it was a very verbal culture. And my only gift as a writer -- the only thing I was given, everything else I worked for -- was an ear. I always had a good ear. I could always write dialog. And I think it's because I grew up hearing really cool dialog all the time and I'd be like: Wow, what makes that funny? And it's a lot about where a word is removed from a sentence. Not saying the word "if." I was like 11 years old when I had this revelation. Nobody ever said: What the hell are you talking about? Like on TV. They said: The hell you talking about? There was never a "What." And I remember going: Oooh. You know, trumpets, the whole works.
Did I hear somewhere that the opening event in Mystic River, with Dave getting taken away in a car, that that was inspired by something from your life?
Yeah. When I was a kid there was this completely innocuous incident. I was having a fight with my oldest friend -- we'd been good friends since we were five -- and we finally had a fight at like 11, so it was a big deal. And the whole neighborhood was around us: we had this swarm of kids following us and we went like nine blocks and it just kept going and going and going. It started in the school yard and went all the way up this hill and the police came by and broke it up. A car and two detectives, they came by and they stopped the whole thing. We said: OK and the moment they drove away we started beating the shit out of each other again. Then they came back and they were pissed because we hadn't responded to them. So they threw us in the car and took us back to our parents.
My mother was so shaken up. After they left, she said: You didn't see a badge? What are you, nuts? And it had happened so fast -- we were bloody, we were tired, we just didn't think -- and the whole thing was they really were detectives. It was no big deal but it shook my mother: the fact that we'd gotten into that car without seeing a badge and the fact that these guys had even stopped to pick us up kind of annoyed her. I just remember that sticking with me and 20 years later I started writing the scene and all of a sudden they start fighting in the street and a car rolls up. Now take that to the worst case scenario.
And how it affects people's lives.
Forever. That's one of the things. Certainly there's the idea that any incident reverberates, anything that happens in your life. The smallest thing. So if the smallest thing reverberates, then the biggest thing has a consequence. | March 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of Death was the Other Woman.