Dennis Lehane hasn't always taken the easy road or followed the choicest bend of the river, yet each new turn in his writing career seems to be the right one.
Like the protagonists of his epic bestseller Mystic River, Lehane grew up in one of Boston's less-affluent neighborhoods, the son of working-class Irish immigrants. But despite his own set of blue-collar jobs—including chauffeur, parking attendant, rental car agent and waiter—Lehane bypassed offers of paperback publication for his first novel, holding out for hardcover. More than one article has quoted him as saying that he had gotten used to being poor, so why compromise? When that debut, 1994's A Drink Before the War, was finally published, it won admiring reviews as well as the Shamus Award for Best First Novel.
After building a solid career with several books spawned by that first success—a five-novel series featuring Boston-based private investigators Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro—Lehane took another risk, stretching the boundaries of neo-noir fiction with 2001's dark and ambitious Mystic River. This novel begins with a childhood incident of sexual abuse and explores the longterm consequences of this violence in the lives of three boyhood friends. The men and women in the novel "hide from the hard, ugly truths your soul recognized long before your mind caught up," and, to borrow the feelings of another main player, the book is suffused with "an awareness that tragedy loomed somewhere in [the] future, tragedy as heavy as limestone bricks." Mystic River ascended quickly to the top of the bestseller charts, ultimately selling 100,000 copies in hardcover.
This year, Lehane's career continues both to defy the odds and to fulfill the great promise of this gifted writer. His latest novel, the tense, psychological mind-game Shutter Island, marks an abrupt and perhaps risky shift in structure and style from his previous success—but it has nonetheless earned strikingly positive reviews.
Clint Eastwood's film version of Mystic River—adapted for the screen by Brian Helgeland (of L.A. Confidential fame) and featuring a powerhouse cast including Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins—ultimately became one of the few standouts of April's Cannes Film Festival. In October, the movie opened the 41st annual New York Film Festival, and when the movie opened nationwide a week later, filmgoers discovered what readers everywhere already love about Lehane's work. With the dark and daring Mystic River and the turbulent sea journey to Shutter Island, Lehane has found smooth sailing ahead.
Mystery Scene: The movie version of Mystic River is out now in theaters. Are you pleased with the translation of your novel from page to screen? What role did you have in the film's creation?
Dennis Lehane: Clint [Eastwood] read a review of the book and it intrigued him, so he picked up a copy, read it and decided he had to make it into a movie. The book was not for sale to Hollywood, so he had to jump through some hoops just to find me, and then we had a few conversations, and I realized: "Wow. He gets it." I thought back to several of his films like Unforgiven and, particularly, A Perfect World (my personal favorite), and I knew that he was the only director who could handle the material. Our worldviews seemed quite similar. If you look at Unforgiven, for example, there's no true villain in that film; even Gene Hackman's character is just a guy trying to do a very tough job to the best of his abilities in a very tough place. Everyone in the film is certain their actions are right and yet they're all wrong. The same could be said of the people in Mystic River. Once we agreed on Brian Helgeland as the screenwriter and Clint hired him, I stepped out of the way and let them work. They were wonderful, though, in terms of keeping me involved, making sure that my vision of the novel was protected. I couldn't have asked for a better experience. In fact, I'm pretty sure it spoiled me.
Mystic River marked a departure of sorts from the Kenzie-Gennaro series—not only in terms of character but also scale and scope—and Shutter Island is, in turn, dramatically different from Mystic River. What direction do you see yourself moving in as a writer? Outside of genre?
I just want to get better. With every book, the question is: Where haven't I gone before? I don't necessarily see moving outside the genre because I have an obsession with the roots of violence that lends itself quite ably to the crime fiction or noir genre. I know I ask a lot of my fans because I'm incapable of writing several versions of the same book; I remove the comfort level from the fan-author relationship. So I deeply appreciate that my fans, thus far, have been willing to go on the journey with me.
Focusing on the question of genre: Over the last decade (maybe a little more), we've seen a resurgence of authors exploring noir fiction—creating the "neo-noir," a phrase increasingly in vogue—and a renewed interest from readers in this genre. To what do you attribute this interest?
I'm not sure I'm the guy to ask on that. I'm just writing 'em the way I know how. But if there is a theory I think makes some sense it's the one that argues that the social novel morphed and found a second home in noir. If you want to know what's going on in this country, particularly in terms of the people we drive and fly over, you read noir. That probably has a lot to do with the resurgence. But, ultimately, what the hell do I know?
A related question: You've been called the "hippest heir to Hammett and Chandler" by Publishers Weekly. When I think of Hammett's and Chandler's works, I think of worlds that seem distant, separate from the everyday existence of most American readers. But a novel like Mystic River touches directly on the fears and anxieties that are fed daily by the local news: child abduction and abuse, for example. How do you see your works as different from the classic hard-boiled novel? Or is it just the world out there—society across America—that has changed?
I'm not entirely comfortable with labels or the whole genre concept. I get that if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it's a duck. So, in that regard, I'm cool with being called a mystery novelist. But so much of what's been happening with this "crime fiction renaissance" we keep hearing about is that the whole issue of "genre" has been called into question. I guess, at day's end, I think of myself as an urban novelist who needs a skeletal structure to hang my ideas on. So Mystic River was a novel about the futility of running from your nature, and it was a novel about gentrification and a query into what shades we can find in simple words like "family" or "loyalty" or "faith." Somewhere, at the bottom of the list, it was also a whodunit, but I'm not sure that's what most people take away from it.
One thing that I took from Mystic River was its exploration of the burdens of the past, on a truly epic scale: the way we live with the choices we've made, are haunted by and defined by the consequences of our decisions. But the book also recognizes the randomness and inexplicability of human's violence to each other. Do you see your works undergirded by a worldview? Is there a pessimism (or a determinism? a fatalism?) that drives your attitude toward the world you write about?
Mystic River grew out of a dawning realization that violence is never a solitary event. Even the smallest act of violence reverberates in ways the people involved in the original act can never foresee. Violence is a greedy little animal; you give it air and it keeps sucking more and more oxygen out of the atmosphere. You see this principle at play now in Iraq. So my operating theory while I was writing Mystic River was that everyone in the book would be affected by those two acts of violence—Dave's sexual violation and Katie's murder—in very profound and painful ways none of them could have foreseen. I don't think it's a pessimistic novel, but it's undeniably—if only in a structural sense—a tragedy. I think tragedy is inherently optimistic, though. Jimmy loses his soul at the end of Mystic, yes. But Dave finds his. So does Sean. That, I think, makes it optimistic. Of course, my definition of optimism is probably a bit skewed.
What authors do you admire or feel a kinship with? In interviews elsewhere, you've mentioned the influence of James Ellroy as easily as your admiration for Gabriel Garcia Marquez—authors who might appear more dissimilar than they are, at first glance. What do you respond most to in the books that you read? And which writers have you been reading recently?
I want depth of language and depth of character in a book. A good plot helps, but it's not what gets me out of bed. My favorite writers are urban novelists: Richard Price, William Kennedy, Hubert Selby, Pete Dexter, those great Detroit novels of Elmore Leonard. Recently I've been reading a steady diet of books set at the turn of the previous century—E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, Dos Passos' U.S.A. Trilogy—because my next book begins in 1919. Otherwise, I recently read an astonishing novel called Hell at the Breech by Tom Franklin, which is set in Alabama in the 1890s.
Shifting direction: You graduated from an MFA program at Florida International University, a formal education which sets you apart from many of your contemporaries and the paths they took to publication. What did you gain by completing a formal writing program? And would you recommend such a path for others wishing to write mystery, suspense, noir? Or for writers in general?
When I teach, the first thing I say to a class is, "If you came here to learn how to write a bestseller, you need to go to another class." I don't teach how to write a "thriller" or a "commercial novel" because that's an exercise I find both crass and futile. I teach what I was taught—that all literature worthy of being judged is worthy only in terms of whether it has depth of language, character, insight and thematic undercurrent. Can you tell a story that engages and sinks in? Can you tell a story in which something is at stake? Those are the questions that matter. If someone gets into an undergraduate or MFA program where those issues are the primary ones of concern, then that program can only help you as a writer. Plus, an MFA gives you two more years to hide from the world and not have to think about a real job. That's a hell of a bonus.
You've mentioned in other interviews how you declined paperback publication for your early novels, preferring not to have them published instead of compromising on certain aspects of your career path. In retrospect, what combination of events do you credit with delivering you where you are today?
I have a great agent, a great editor, a great publisher. They knew early that I wasn't going to follow the straight-and-narrow career path. If it meant I made less money, then fine, I made less money. Because what I wanted was creative freedom. I can't tell you how grateful I am that I was allowed to grow as a writer at my own pace and that during the entire length of my career I have never, not once, had a discussion with any of the people mentioned above about ways I could be more commercial, more palatable to the general public. All of my career instincts ultimately stem from the same concept: It's about the work, dummy. As long as I stay true to that idea, I'm happy. The other thing that contributed to my success, without a doubt, was luck. You can't downplay the importance of that in my career. Yes, I work hard. Yes, I'd like to think I have some measure of talent. But I know plenty of writers as talented as I am, if not more so, and they haven't had the kind of ridiculous financial success I've enjoyed. And that's a humbling thing to realize. I wake up every day feeling blessed.
Finally, are there other Lehane-based films in the works? And are you planning to pen your own screenplays anytime soon? In short, what's next for Dennis Lehane?
Wolfgang Peterson is set to direct Shutter Island. There's a script in the works, but I'm not writing it. Asking a writer to adapt his own work for film seems to me like asking a doctor to operate on his child. Some people can pull it off—Price, again, comes to mind—but not me. And apparently Ben Affleck has written a script for Gone, Baby, Gone, but I haven't seen it, so I can't speak to it. As for me and the film world, I like it, but I love writing novels. And I'm too selfish to put what I love on the shelf even for a moment to do something I like. So I'm just trying to keep my head down and get into the new book. Hopefully it won't suck.