Interview with Dennis Lehane

December, 2008
Dennis Lehane Don't tell Dennis Lehane that he's a Hollywood kind of guy. Clint Eastwood and Ben Affleck may have transformed Lehane's books, Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone respectively, into Oscar-worthy films, and Martin Scorsese may have just wrapped filming on the upcoming Shutter Island, but Lehane's a Boston man through and through. This month the author pays homage to his East Coast roots with the publication of The Given Day (enter now to win a copy »), a historical epic set in post-World War I Boston that Goodreads member Joe calls Lehane's War and Peace. Lehane chatted with Goodreads about crazed baseball fans, the long-awaited return of his popular Kenzie-Gennaro crime series, and some of his favorite books.

Goodreads: The Given Day centers around the Boston Police Strike of 1919. What drew you to this event?

Dennis Lehane: It confounded me that the city I was born and raised in had once gone four months without a police force and that the first three days after they walked off the job were one big, long, riot. To say that piqued my curiosity would be an understatement. I spent a year reading everything I could get my hands on about the time period. After that year, I realized I was becoming a little too enamored of the researching part, and so I put it away and got down to the actual writing of the book. Parallels [to events today] were something I tripped over during the writing of the book. Once they began appearing, they did so at such an alarming rate that it became clear my job would be to make sure I simply reported them, not editorialized on them.

GR: The story intricately weaves together two character (Luther and Danny) arcs across quite a range of true historical events. For such a complex structure, do you do a lot of pre-planning in advance, or do you let it flow and revise later?

DL: Luther walked into the novel on his own, and I had to trust that he'd eventually tell me why he was here. I never have a strong sense of my plots — I usually know something about what has to happen at the end, and in this case, I knew the end was the Boston Police Strike itself, but beyond that I'm just throwing spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks. If you work hard enough at this method, you get a real nice pasta dish, but you also spend a fair amount of time picking noodles off the floor and throwing them away. In the end, it's the only way I know how to do it.

GR: Your books often feature Boston, your hometown, and many Irish characters. How does your personal history as a first-generation Irish American influence your writing?

DL: My parents both came over on the boat when they were in their twenties. The Ireland my parents knew, which was the Ireland of farmers, is much more akin to the Ireland of the 19th century than it is to the 20th. So I grew up with a sense of a much larger, richer historical past than a lot of kids who were children of '70s/'80s Boston. I also grew up with a revolving cabal of Irish uncles and aunts who got together every weekend, rain or shine, and told stories of the old days. For a budding writer, how much more blessed could you be?

GR: The Given Day feels like a departure from your other crime/noir books. Do you consider yourself a genre writer?

DL: I don't "consider" much of anything when I write—I just write. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it's a duck, so I'm perfectly happy to be labeled whatever is necessary to get the word out about my books. But in the end, I feel like I wrote five noirs (the Kenzie-Gennaro series); one tragedy (Mystic River); one gothic (Shutter Island); and one historical (The Given Day). There are people who label them all social novels and people who label them all crime novels and people who label them all pulp-literary hybrids and on and on. Best we can do, as writers, is just write.

GR: Are you an avid baseball fan? How does Babe Ruth's character fit into The Given Day?

DL: I'm a fan, sure, and a Boston fan which might make me a tad more avid than most, but at the end of the day I don't get anyone who "lives and dies" by their allegiance to a sports team. I flick on sports radio about once a year and just five minutes of listening to people get apoplectic—I mean truly batshit crazy—about a game in a way they rarely get excited in their lives...just freaks me out. Babe was a backdoor way of looking at that. He's a sports celebrity when that concept was in its infancy, yet he certainly thinks he's the most important thing around. But he's still part of a world that hadn't caught up with the concept yet. Luther and Danny have far more important things on their minds throughout the book. So having him pop in and out of a book filled with war and plague and molasses tank disasters and political turmoil and assassination, all the while thinking about the best place to get a steak or when he's going to get laid next—was fun.

GR: As a teacher of creative writing, what is your favorite writing exercise to give to your students? Has teaching impacted your own writing process over the years?

DL: Once a semester, I usually go through a page of a story with all the students and we remove every modifier. Then we go and put back only the ones the page can't live without, which tends to add up to about 5 percent of what was there in the first place, if that. Otherwise, I'm not big on exercises. Nothing against them, I just might be lazy in that regard. What teaching has done for me is constantly beg the question of whether I'm practicing what I preach. Are my characters doing, as opposed to thinking about doing? Am I telling when I should be showing?

GR: Is it nerve-racking to have your work transformed into film? What has it been like to work with Martin Scorsese on Shutter Island?

DL: Scorsese came in with a script and his director's chair and his ridiculously talented cast, and I was happy just to be there and see it all happen. I don't get nervous about things I can't control; I'm a huge control freak, don't get me wrong, but only about the things I can control. Once I know something's beyond my paternal grasp, if you will, I roll with it. So my moments of worry come before I sell the books to the movies, not after. Thus far, I've been really lucky in that all three movies of my books have been guided to the screen by strong directors with strong visions and enough power and/or goodwill from the moneymen that they've been allowed to put those visions on the screen without a modicum of watering down. That's really been the key to the success of my book adaptations.

GR: Do you have any plans to return to Kenzie and Gennaro? What's next?

DL: What's next is the sixth Kenzie-Gennaro book. Really.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

DL: I usually write in the morning or very late at night, but I don't write every day and I don't have a set number of words I produce or any of those things. It's a terrible method by which to produce work, but I've put nine books on the shelves in fourteen years, so it seems to be working out OK for me.

GR: What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?

DL: I'm reading Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. Before that I was re-reading a bunch of early Elmore Leonard. I also re-read Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road recently because I hadn't read it in a while and it's one of the great novels of the last 50 years; the TV show Mad Men pays so much homage to it, and that gave me a hankering for the real thing.

Favorite books? The Wanderers and Clockers by Richard Price; Billy Phelan's Greatest Game by William Kennedy; God's Pocket by Pete Dexter; Swag by Elmore Leonard; Sula by Toni Morrison; The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley; Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy; The Quiet American and The End of the Affair by Graham Greene; What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Cathedral by Raymond Carver; The Moviegoer by Walker Percy; Jesus's Son by Denis Johnson; One Hundred Years of Solitude; The Great Gatsby; The Three Musketeers; Dubliners; Selected Stories of Andre Dubus; The Sun Also Rises; The Age of Innocence; The Lover; Under Western Eyes.

Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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message 1: by Diane (last edited Dec 04, 2008 01:15PM) (new)

Diane Originally from Boston, I was in Waterstones Bookstore on Exeter Street and saw a cute author (i.e., Dennis Lehane :) signing his debut novel, A Drink Before the War. Since he was there signing, naturally I bought it, as I especially liked to support new authors from my home town. I love the fact that I started reading and collecting Dennis' novels before he became so popular. I have all of his books, all signed and all first editions. I couldn't be happier for his success, and I love it that he has remained true to his Boston roots. I try to see him whenever he visits LA. Looking forward to Patrick and Angie coming back.


message 2: by Rod (new)

Rod Allmon Thank you for the Denis Lehane interview. I remember I was at the airport and needed a book to read on the flight. I hadn't heard of the writer but liked the title "Mystic River" so I bought the paperback. When the plan landed in Boston for the my first ever visit I felt as if I had been there before. Excellent writing.
And it is good to hear he has a the spaghetti on the wall writing style. It gives hope to us aspiring writers who don't have a serious regimen. I look forward to the new book. Thanks again Mr. Lehane and GoodReads.


message 3: by Mike (new)

Mike Good interview. I am a fan of DL and his writing. While THE GIVEN DAY wasn't my favorite book by him, I will still say it was a good read. I am very happy to hear that he is now working on Kenzie/Gennaro #6....long time coming! I hope it will be released within the next couple years.

Thanks, MO


message 4: by Janellyn51 (new)

Janellyn51 I came to Dennis Lehane's writing after seeing him interviewed on, of all places, "The Count" Joe Viglione's cable TV show. He really is one of my favorite authors. I knew plenty of kids from Dorchester and Columbia Point. Sometimes, just riding the red line through Dorchester, I look under an underpass and think that's where Patrick and Angie did this or Bubba did that. I like knowing where he's talking about. I find it remarkable that Lehane is so intelligent, but has such an infitie grasp of the Dorchester/Southie criminal thinking. I saw him read once behind Mystic River, and it really is true that his gift is being able to write, I forget just how he put it, conversation? Everybody knows pahk the cah in Hahvad Yahd....but do they know it's, "Fuck is this shit"?...and not, What the fuck is this shit? It's simple stuff that he totally gets. I've read everything by him but THE GIVEN DAY, I'll do that soon.


message 5: by Diane (last edited Mar 18, 2009 10:53AM) (new)

Diane Janellyn - I knew from reading your post that you are from Boston...and i checked your profile and saw Sommerville. I have relatives that grew up on Sterling Street and I spent alot of time there, Farragut Ave, Davis Square. I am now an LA transplant but "I love that dirty water .... Boston you're my home"...." :)


message 6: by Janellyn51 (new)

Janellyn51 Hello Diane...Davis is my Squaya! Oddly enough, people often point out that I have no regional accent...but when I hear things like "batshit crazy" I'm proud to be from Boston! I'm totally down with the film Mystic River. I did like Gone Baby Gone, which was the first Lehane book I read, and perhaps my favorite. I don't know who thought that Monahan girl could play Angie though. Angie has brass balls, should look way Italian...that girl had little or nothing to offer. she was a totally pussy. I also thought, that in the scene where Patrick was laying on the bed with his shirt off, they should have put the waffley iron scar on his stomach..it's an integral Patrick thing...The girl who played Amanda's mother should have gotten the Oscar though, she was brilliant.
When I saw him read, as I was leading up to my question, I said, your from Dorchester right...he said, NO, I'm from Wellesly...I had that hummita hummita look on my face when he laughed, He said "if your going to throw me a low ball, I got to swing at it!" He did appologize for embarrassing me when he signed my book!
Nice to hear from you.
Jan


message 7: by Diane (new)

Diane LOL - what a GREAT story about the low ball! He does have a sense of humor! He was at the LA Times Festival of Books a few years back and naturally i went to see him. I told him he's gonna make me rich because I have all his books, first editions, and all signed. batshit crazy, right!! Wicked funny !!!


message 8: by Laini (new)

Laini I absolutely ADORED The Given Day-- more than any of the others I've read so far because I also write historicals, and I love that period of history.

Lehane's writing is top notch.


message 9: by Diane (new)

Diane Laini wrote: "I absolutely ADORED The Given Day-- more than any of the others I've read so far because I also write historicals, and I love that period of history.

Lehane's writing is top notch."


Good to know you enjoyed so much!


message 10: by Janellyn51 (new)

Janellyn51 I did read The Given Day several books back....and just thought it was wonderful....I never knew about the Molasses thing, or the strike for that matter. I think he did historical fiction as well as his more contemporary story's.


message 11: by Diane (new)

Diane Being from Boston originally I would probably love it.


message 12: by Janellyn51 (new)

Janellyn51 What's with the cab thing? Is there some India authors convention I don't know about? You keep posting this on authors interviews.


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