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Dennis Lehane on crime fiction and literature

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Chris Pisarczyk (chrispisarczyk) | 8 comments Dennis Lehane Meets the Bronte Sisters

"Dave Weich: You've written seven novels now. To think about your place among writers—mystery or crime fiction or literature—who do you see as the ones working closest to you?

Lehane: Of my contemporaries, I probably feel most closely akin to George Pelecanos. I don't think it's a mistake that we became pretty good friends. We started out kind of around the same time, and we have similar attitudes. A lot has been made of this in the last couple of years, but we do honestly believe—I honestly believe—that the crime novel is where the social novel went. If you want to write about the underbelly of America, if you want to write about the second America that nobody wants to look at, you turn to the crime novel. That's the place to go. So I would say George, definitely.

You know, if it walks like a duck and it talks like a duck, it's a duck. I don't bristle at the "you're a mystery writer" or "you're a crime writer" thing. I don't have any issue with that. But I do think that personally, when I sit down to write, with the exception of Shutter Island, I'm writing an urban novel, writing about urban realities. I'm trying to follow in the tradition not so much of Chandler or Hammett, but of Hubert Selby
, Richard Price, Pete Dexter, William Kennedy? That's what I'm going after.

And Richard was talking about this, too: the difference between his books pre-Clockers and Clockers and on. He discovered what he called the skeleton of a crime novel, and he uses it in every book now—in Clockers, Freedomland, and Samaritan. That's always been my thing, too. I'm a terrible plotter, so I need some sort of structure to work all the other stuff in. Give me a crime novel because something bad has to happen. I do that, and it gives me a nice little structure to follow, a very loose structure. Then I can play with that in a million different ways.

I really consider myself sort of a bastard influence between urban novelist, pulp fiction, and high-end literary fiction. Somehow all of that collates to create me, I guess.

Dave: Do you still teach?

Lehane: I do. I love teaching.

Dave: Do you assign the authors you've been mentioning?

Lehane: Well, I teach creative writing. I'm not teaching Lit classes as much.

I did one crime fiction class, and it was terrific. I got to pick a bunch of stuff that a lot of people don't know. People into crime fiction know, I should say, but the students had no idea what The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley was.

Mostly, though, I'm teaching creative writing, and one of the things that I say when people come into my class is, "If you know who I am and you came here to learn how to write a thriller or to learn how to write a bestseller, leave now because I don't teach it. I don't know how to do it. I'm going to talk about depth of language, about depth of character, I'm going to talk about epiphanic moments and Aristotelian logic? I'm not going to stand here and say, 'If you do this and you do this? '"

Whenever I see books about how to write bestsellers, I just want to ask, "Why don't you just call it, 'How to write a screenplay'?" I say to my students right off the bat, if there's not depth of language, if you don't bring some sort of music to your prose, if that isn't something you can put on the table, then please go do something else because it's the only thing that separates literature from any other art form. That's it. That's all we've got left. Hollywood can beat us in the car chases and the explosions and the high drama. All we have is language and the depth of character, the ability to take you through a life, as opposed to suggesting it.

But I love teaching. When I assign books, I assign across the board. I have two weaknesses: modern lit—postwar lit, in particular—and Shakespeare. I read what I had to read to get a Master's degree, but my fascination has always been with postwar writers, American and British, so nine times out of ten if you ask me who I'm reading it's someone reasonably modern: Cormac McCarthy, Martin Amis, Toni Morrison, Marguerite Duras."

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Books mentioned in this topic

Clockers (other topics)
Samaritan (other topics)
Freedomland (other topics)
The Last Good Kiss (other topics)
Shutter Island (other topics)

Authors mentioned in this topic

George P. Pelecanos (other topics)
Cormac McCarthy (other topics)
Marguerite Duras (other topics)
F. Scott Fitzgerald (other topics)
Martin Amis (other topics)