Sunday, October 05, 2008

Sunday Salon - Dennis Lehane at The Poisoned Pen

It's been almost ten years since I first met Dennis Lehane. I was chair of the Authors Programming for the Lee County Reading Festival in Ft. Myers, FL, and I invited him to participate in our first festival. At first, he said he didn't have a current book. He had finished the Patrick and Angie series, and was writing a book. He finally agreed to serve on the panel with Les Standiford, James Hall, and Jan Burke. He talked about the book he was writing, Mystic River. In March, he'll be returning to the festival, now The Southwest Florida Reading Festival, to celebrate the tenth anniversary, and talk about his latest book, The Given Day.

But, I'm in Arizona now, and I had the chance to see him on Friday night when he came to The Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale, on the occasion of their nineteenth anniversary. According to Barbara Peters, the bookstore owner, Dennis has a long history with them. He's signed all of his books there.

Barbara asked Dennis if he was still teaching in Florida. He said he does everything in reverse. He took five years to write The Given Day because he spent too much time teaching. Most teachers teach so they can write books. He got successful, and went back to teaching. He had to quit so he could write. He still does some writing conferences, but not as much teaching.

Barbara and Dennis started by talking about his Patrick and Angie mystery series. He set out to do three of them. He wrote five and stopped. He's pretty sure they're not coming back in future books. Lehane said it's been nine years, and he can't get the voice back, even though he's tried. He's come to the conclusion that Patrick's voice is a young man's voice. There was a great deal of pop culture in the series. Lehane stopped writing the books at thirty-three. He said he no longer cares about the events of the day and the pop culture. He's become an old man. So that series went silent in 1999.

He was asked about the connection between his books and films, with the success of Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone. Lehane said he doesn't see the melding. It's like comparing giraffes and bananas. He doesn't view the movies as his. They're a movie version of the book, but they're not his characters. Gone Baby Gone isn't his Patrick. He was asked about future movie rights, and he said there has been discussion about Patrick and Angie as a TV show, but it's just talk.

Dennis joked and said Shutter Island is just a small film with a director named Martin Scorsese. Leo DiCaprio and Ben Kingsley are in the movie. It's finished, and comes out in October 2009. He's seen some footage, and he said it's really disturbing. He said he doesn't get the effect that his books have on people, but the film is really disturbing. Lehane said he's seen a shot that will probably a trailer. Teddy (DiCaprio) walks up the hospital on Shutter Island. There's a woman patient sitting there, with a scar across her throat. She looks at Teddy, and slices her finger across her throat. He said the scene freaks him out. He thinks it will be disturbing.

When Barbara asked him about rereading his books, he said he reads the book obsessively for months up to publication, and after it's published he'll look at it, and then finally he's just sick of it, and doesn't want to go back and look at it again. Dennis said he had dinner with Ben Affleck, the director of Gone Baby Gone. And, Ben was talking about characters and plot, and finally he looked at Dennis and said, "You don't know what I'm talking about, do you?" And, he didn't remember the characters. Lehane said, looking back at the book, he thought it was bad. All he sees is mistakes and flaws. But, he does go see the movies. He said they were two good movies.

He did say he and Ben were not on the same page when it came to Angie. Ben's Angie wasn't Lehane's Angie. But, he thought the city of Boston was captured as only a Bostonian can know. Lehane thinks it was the best movie ever made about Boston.

The book, Gone Baby Gone, had a huge time continuum. It covered eight months. Patrick is haunted by killing a man. In this book, when a child is kidnapped, he discovers they've been doing it for years. Ben did the movie differently. In the movie, it was one kid, not groups of them.

Helene, in Gone Baby Gone, was one of the only characters Lehane's ever based on a real person. In the movie, there's a scene with a house in the background, over Helene's shoulder. That was the real house where the real "Helene" lived, and the real child abuse occurred.

The film is about maternal instinct and the lack of it. Angie could have shot Helene with no problem. Helene was a woman who eats her young. Women identify with Angie. In the book, Angie kills her soul mate, Bressant. That's changed in the movie. It's one of the things that drives Angie and Patrick apart.

Dennis Lehane's latest novel, The Given Day, is about the Boston police strike and the ensuing riots. The Brahmins, Boston's upper class, were so terrified that they armed the Harvard football team. There was even a cavalry charge down Beacon Hill. When Lehane first heard this, he thought, this is so cool. I've got to write about that. He tells his writing students, if you're not as excited as a little kid about you're writing, don't do it. He waited four and a half years to be the mayor watching that scene is his book. He wanted to write the cavalry charge scene.

He also tells aspiring writers not to write like he does. He tore one whole manuscript apart, and started over. He's always wanted more time to write his books. With one book, that was on deadline, he turned it in, and then thought of the right ending. He's haunted by the fact that book has the wrong ending. Lehane said he lives with the book, and it hurts when they take it away.

After the success of Mystic River, his publisher asked him what he wanted. Lehane said he wanted no more deadlines. The publisher, who has always been good to him, said OK. His agent said, "How do I get 15% of that?"

In talking about his publisher, and his writing, Dennis said it takes five books to get a series going successfully. He wrote five books, and ended the series. His publisher said, OK. Then he wrote Mystic River, a book about inner Boston, in which everyone loses. And, his publisher said OK. Then when they asked what he was going to write next, Lehane told them a book with a Gothic influence set in the 1950s, Invasion of the Body Snatchers vs. the Bronte sisters, and they said, OK. And, then he told them his next book was going to be about the Boston police strike.

He was asked who influenced him, and who he likes now. Lehane mentioned the urban novelists, Richard Price and Pete Dexter, but saved his highest praise for Elmore Leonard's Detroit novels. For high literary art, he read short stories, Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus. In mysteries, it was the harder the better. He liked them funny, or mean, authors such as Jim Thompson, Richard Stark, Robert Parker. Lehane said Robert Parker is all over his first book, A Drink Before the War. In college, it was non-mysteries, because then you're an elitist snob. For those who came up in the 90s, trying to do something new, their inspiration is the late James Crumley, particularly The Last Good Kiss. Michael Connelly says the same thing. In the 80s, the authors he read were James Ellroy and his L.A. Quartet, and James Lee Burke, with the early Robicheaux.

Lehane said the 90s authors said, why can't we be both. We don't want the car chases, shoot-em-ups and femmes fatales, but it doesn't have to be literary novels that no one cares about. So, in the 90s, he took a genre he loves, noir, and poured everything he knew about literature into the writing. He taught himself about writing novels as he wrote them. Dennis said he found he must write within the traditional form, but he can have fun with it.

He's now done a tragedy, Mystic River; a Gothic, Shutter Island; and a Historical Epic, The Given Day. He won't do a romance or science fiction. Lehane likes the psychological questions of violence. Readers will get the urban ethos from him, other than Shutter Island.

He shot down the rumor that he wrote his first book, A Drink Before the War, when he was working at the Ritz Carlton, in the backseat of cars, on a manual typewriter. He said, no. In the summer of 1990, he was writing in his parents' house in an elderly community in Florida. He was too poor to go out, so he was drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, and almost resorted to generic cigarettes. He wrote it on a typewriter, and now he writes on a Mac. He did write a lot of Darkness Take My Hand in the front of a limo while he was at work.

He was asking about the changing face of mysteries, with noir authors moving out, and literary authors moving in. Michael Chabon was mentioned, and Banville. Dennis did say he had a problem with Banville using a pseudonym, because why use a pseudonym.

Lehane said there's been a weird flowering the arts, and walls are getting broken down. It used to be embarrassing to write mysteries. But, it used to be embarrassing to be on television, and now everyone wants to be there. He said he and Chabon don't believe in those walls. He said if his tombstone says, Writer, he'll be happy, and if it says, Mystery Writer, that's fine, too.

In Dennis' opinion, only people on the extreme ends of the spectrum care about what it's called. At one end are the people who only care about sales. Lehane said he's a writer, not a salesman. He writes books, and isn't concerned about the ends of the spectrum. Anne Rice was his example at that end. She used to go around saying, "I don't know anyone who reads Updike," and he said, "She hangs around with morons." At the other end of the spectrum are the writers who only write for three or four students at Brown University. Dennis Lehane calls himself a writer, not a literary writer. Tom Perotta, a friend, also calls himself a writer.

Lehane said the walls fell in the center, and it's only the extremists who argue about literary vs. genre. Pelacanos and others damaged the idea of "mystery" versus literary. At one time, someone liked categories because it was easy to sell it that way. Readers can call him whatever they want. He has no problem being a mystery writer. But, don't denigrate it by saying, "Just a mystery writer," or Jane Austen was "just a romance writer." He doesn't think so.

In discussing his mysteries, Dennis said he never cared who did it. He only put that in for the readers, and it's really early in every book because he doesn't care who did it. He's interested in the psychological aspects of behavior. He said he does love how much people love Patrick and Angie, and he's honored by it.

Dennis Lehane writes about the urban setting of Boston. He's from the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. The Given Day is set in Boston, although he's proud of the Tulsa section in the book. His next book may start in Tulsa. But, he knows Boston, and knows its streets. He's comfortable with Boston. It's the same way with Elmore Leonard. He loves Leonard's Detroit novels, with their richness. He mentioned Harlan Coben's books, set in suburban New Jersey, and he said Coben does suburban New Jersey and fathers well. Lehane said he doesn't have to force Boston. He knows everything about it, including how people talk, and what's in their kitchens. He said he's lived in Florida for a while, but he does pick up the accent when he goes back, he's tired, or he's been drinking.

An artist in the audience asked about his daily routine, and he asked, "Besides kick back, drink a few beers?" He tells his students to write every day, and have a routine. But, he doesn't. He uses a scattershot approach. The well has to build up again. Boston is like going to the well. One day, it's there again, and he starts writing. It might be erratic at first. But, he has no process, and it works for him really well.

One attraction for him about The Given Day has to do with the unions. Dennis' father was a union man. Lehane is a big believer in unions. It makes him sick when people go to Walmart. When people think of unions, they need to thank them for the eight hour day, the forty hour week, insurance, weekends, that kids don't work in sweatshops. He was fascinated with the Boston police strike. He's pro-union, but should we let police strike? Firemen? Air traffic controllers? Fifteen minutes after the police struck in Boston, the city went ballistic. There were rapes, and brutal killings in response to the violence. Should police be allowed to strike?

When asked if his books have a populist view, he said populist is a dirty word if idiots like Sarah Palin can call herself one. (There was applause from the audience.) Fox News sells itself as populist, when it's the least populist network.

Dennis Lehane said he still sees his father, wearing his uniform, walking off to a job he hated. When he loses touch with this, that's the day he'll stop writing.

Dennis Lehane's website is

You can read an excerpt from The Given Day at

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane. William Morrow, ©2008. ISBN 978-0688163181 (hardcover), 720p.


Jen said...

I didn't think it would be possible for me to like this man any more than I already do, but your summary of his visit is outstanding. He is definitely a writer I respect. I LOVE the fact that he focuses more on the psychological aspects of his plots. That's exactly what draws me to them!

And in case you didn't hear, I, too, cheered when I read that he referred to Sarah Palin as an "idiot"!

Just a little side note, Michael Koryta dedicated his most recent book to Dennis and it says, "To Dennis Lehane, who remembered the elevator". When I asked Michael about it, he explained that Dennis has the mentality that you don't get off of the success elevator at the floor it takes you to, instead you ride it back down and help others who are trying to get up. Dennis didn't create that analogy, but the fact that he believes in it is a tell-tale sign of a great person.

This was wonderful, Lesa. Thanks for sharing with those of us who weren't lucky enough to see him ourselves.

And somehow, someway I'm going to make a trip to Arizona to visit the Poisoned Pen Bookstore. It's now become my mission!

Lesa said...

Thank you, Jen! Your comments show that I got the spirit of Dennis Lehane's appearance across, not just a rote summary of it.

I wish you could have seen his face, with that smile, throughout his talk.

It's nice to read Koryta's comments, and know that Dennis gives back. He sounds as if he would, since he was still teaching classes up to a short time ago.

Glad to hear the cheers! (smile)

And, I hope you get to the Poisoned Pen. I might get a chance to meet you, then!

Corey Wilde said...

Lesa, good job on this one. The big point in Lehane's favor, for me, is the Wal-Mart comment. Smart man!

Lesa said...

I think the last time I was in Wal-Mart was last Christmas when I went to pick up some boxes for under the bed. That's it. I agree with you and Dennis.

Thanks, Corey!

L.J. Sellers said...

Very informative. Thanks for a great post. I usually don't go back and read books if I've seen the movie, but in this case, there's a good reason to.

Lesa said...

Thank you, L.J.

I agree with you. It makes me want to go back and read the series. It's been ten years since I read them.

Literary Feline said...

I am fortunate in that I haven't yet read his series books so I have something to look forward to. I have read Mystic River and was so impressed with the author's writing and ability to bring his characters and the setting to life. I'm looking forward to reading more by him.

Thank you for sharing the interview with us, Lesa. I especially liked what Lehane had to say about genre vs. literary fiction, particularly as a reader of both who doesn't understand why there has to be such a to do about reading one or the other.

Lesa said...

Wendy, I appreciated it as well because I want to read a good book, and I don't care what genre it is, or if it's considered literary. Give me a good story, with interesting characters, and I'm happy.

I envy you since you haven't read the series yet. You still have that ahead of you!

Sallyb said...

Hi Lesa,
What a great article about Dennis Lehane. I am so thrilled that he'll be back with us for our 10th anniversary. I wish you could fly down here for it.
We always knew that he was special, didn't we? If he hadn't been a writer he'd have had to be a psychologyst. The way he explores the human condition with such empathy leaves readers coming away from his books overwhelmed. I can't wait to get my hands on The Given Day!

Lesa said...

Actually, Sally, you and Maryellen read Dennis Lehane's mysteries before I did. I had read them by the time he did the festival. And, you were right. He is special.

He's just as impressive in person once he gets going, as his books are.

Wish I could be there, too, but can't spend the money. Have fun, and think of me!

Jim Stovall said...

Excellent article and comments. I have posted a link on

All the best,


Lesa said...

Thank you very much, Jim. Excellent subject to cover! I'll check out the link. I appreciate it.

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