Hookers, Guns, and Money

Dennis Lehane talks about Mystic River, Hollywood, and "fiction of mortal event."

"Until Gwen," the magazine's June short story by Dennis Lehane, is not your typical Atlantic story. "Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon," the story begins, "with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat." From here, Lehane slowly reveals the events that preceded the narrator's prison sentence, a past replete with murder, greed, lost love, and—if you're not hooked yet—stolen diamonds.

Has Atlantic fiction gone noir?

The narrator, a young man trained by his father to be a scam artist, has grown up on the run. His father is "a professional thief, a consummate con man" and has dragged his son all over the map, presumably to get into and out of trouble. But this lifestyle has left the narrator without a sense of identity. He doesn't know where he's from and his father won't tell. He's never held a job. He doesn't have a birth certificate. He doesn't really know who he is. Until Gwena young woman who loved him so much she was even willing to help him commit his crimes.

Lehane, who counts himself among "the new renaissance writers of noir," believes that crime writing is the latest manifestation of the social novel. He came to the genre, in fact, out of a desire to write about social issues. His first novel, A Drink Before the War, published in 1994, addressed racism and domestic violence, and his novels since have touched on class warfare, urban violence, and gentrification. He's interested in communities that are struggling—or, in his own words, "the sort of world we drive over on the expressway." Places characterized not only by crime, but by interesting—and sometimes devastating—social change.

Born and raised in Dorchester, Massachusetts, Lehane has stuck with Boston as the setting for most of his fiction. In Boston, where some call him "The Bard of Edward Everett Square," he understands how people tick. Anywhere else, for any longer than the duration of a short story, he feels like a tourist.

A Drink Before the War introduced the Boston detective duo Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, who served as the engine for his five-novel series and won him a faithful readership. (Stephen King credited the series in The New York Times Review of Books with helping him to convalesce after a road accident.) But it was Mystic River, his first stand-alone novel—about the grief and community fall-out after the senseless murder of a teenager—that was his real breakthrough. Not only did it bring him critical acclaim and focus new attention on the literary merits of his work, but it also put him on a first name basis with Clint Eastwood, who turned the story into an enormously successful movie.

Shutter Island (2003), Lehane's most recent book, in which a woman mysteriously disappears from a hospital for the criminally insane, has also been optioned by Hollywood, and there are rumors that Ben Affleck has written a script for one of Lehane's detective novels—alas, Jennifer Lopez probably won't be cast as Angie—but Lehane doesn't seem to get caught up in Hollywood any more than he gets caught up in academic literary debates. He's happy to let the critics decide whether his work will be remembered as noir or literary fiction. His greatest concerns are creating convincing characters and writing fiction in which "things happen."

Lehane teaches creative writing at the University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast M.F.A. program and at Harvard Extension School. He is at work on a new historical novel that revolves around the Boston police strike of 1919.

We spoke on the telephone on April 8 with surprisingly understated Boston accents.

—Jessica Murphy

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Dennis Lehane

From the first sentence of your new story "Until Gwen" we are back on your familiar turf of ex-cons and past crimes. What is it that attracts you to these types of characters and to crime writing in general?

I'm attracted to crime writing because I've always written about violence. I think I have an obsession with violence—why we commit violent acts, what it is in our nature that makes us do it. I think that's partly what drew me to the noir genre. I also think I'm inclined toward fiction as both a reader and a writer. It doesn't have to be crime fiction, just "fiction of mortal event," as Cormac McCarthy called it once. I think that's a good term. I like fiction where things happen.

We also know from that first line that we're going to be reading about a somewhat untraditional father-son relationship. Were you at all tempted to pursue this relationship in greater depth than either the mystery genre or the short-story form would allow?

Actually, no. The story was originally conceived as a sort of practice-what-you-preach lesson for my students. I spend a lot of time talking about Aristotelian theories of character—that the character is action—and the idea that the strongest characters are always revealed through their actions. It has nothing to do with what they think or what they say or what other people say about them. It's really just what they do. So I said to myself, "I think it's time you put up or shut up. Write a story in which the character reveals himself exclusively by what he does." That was the challenge with "Until Gwen." I couldn't have gone any further into the relationship between the narrator and his father.

At the beginning of the story we know that the narrator is getting out of prison, but we don't know why he was there in the first place. The rest of the story slowly reveals that why, with strategically placed details and backstory. While the revealing detail is important in all fiction, I would think that divulging that crucial detail—a new lead for the detective, or, in this story, a new piece in the puzzle of the narrator's past—must be perfectly timed in crime writing. How do you decide when to disclose what?

I wish I could give you a great answer for that, but I can't. You just write along and see what happens. When I started the story I just had that first sentence. I had no idea why the narrator was in prison, and I had no idea what the hell happened to Gwen. You don't know. You just begin to write your way into the story. Gradually, I realized that the big question for me was: Why was I writing in the second person, which is a very strange point of view to do? Gradually, I realized that the story was about a guy's search for his own identity, so the second person was a wonderful way to keep his name off the page—because he doesn't really know his name. We don't learn his name until he remembers Gwen saying it, in the past.

In "Until Gwen" the distribution of the clues is really a product of the story's structure. The actual timeframe of the story is about six hours, it's just that day. The characters walk into town, and they're looking for something. Gradually, through the looping back of the structure, and the idea of past being present, we get the crucial revelation. But the narrator knew it all along. That was the idea of character revealed purely through action. If I started having him think on the page for you, and telling you the story in a conventional way, then he would have had to reveal his suspicions about Gwen on page two. By revealing him purely through what he does, I was allowed to play around with withholding a major piece of information.

It's interesting that you just began with the first line and wrote your way into the story. In a Boston Globe interview, you said that Shutter Island was the only novel you've written where you knew the end before you knew how you'd get there.

With Shutter Island I knew everything.

How does finding your way as you write compare with knowing how things will go from the beginning?

There's a big danger in writing your way into a book. You can write your way into a short story. Let's say you miss the mark by a country mile. Who cares? It's twenty pages. You're not going to want to commit suicide over losing a month of your life. If you write your way into a disastrous novel and lose a year and a half of your life, that's a problem. That's certainly a serious danger. But I love the highwire act of it. For Mystic River I wrote three hundred pages to get the first hundred. I threw out two hundred.

That sounds painful.

It was extremely painful. With Shutter Island, I got the idea, and then I realized the central conceit of the novel, the thing that you don't usually understand until the very end. And I realized I would have to work that in from page one. I knew I had to know everything. That was the only time that happened. And actually my big fear was that it would constrict my creativity. That's one of the reasons I don't outline. The best things are what Flannery O'Connor called the "happy accidents." There were some nice "happy accidents" in Shutter Island, but none were structural. The structure was built and then certain characters popped up in a way I didn't expect them to.

With that novel it sounds like you started with an idea. Do you usually start with an idea or do you start with a character? Or a plot?

I start with character. Plot is the last thing that occurs to me. It's funny because Richard Price and I were talking once about how we ended up in the crime genre. Since Clockers Richard has technically been writing what could be called crime novels. I asked him, "How did you end up there?" And he said, "I ran out of autobiography." He needed a skeleton, something to hang the story on. That's also what drew me to this genre. I don't plot well. If you give me a skeleton to work with, I think I'm a much better writer. And the skeleton is the crime or noir framework. Since I'm interested in violence anyway, what the hell.

Do you run out of plots?

To my detriment, I don't really care much about plot, and that kind of shows sometimes. Outside of Shutter Island, I don't think I've ever come up with a plot that's particularly memorable.

I think it's very important to tell a good story. I'm a big believer in storytelling as entertainment—in the way that Gabriel García Márquez is entertaining. Tell a damn good story, but you don't need to reinvent the wheel. Plotwise, you don't need to tell a fantastic story. Mystic River is one of the most told and retold stories of all time. Nobody remembers the plots of my detective series. They remember character. Plot is just a way of explicating the character's needs and wants, his internal journey, and that's it.

Your fiction often includes a character who is haunted by a dark, traumatic event from the past. In Mystic River the three main characters are haunted, into adulthood, by Dave's abduction. In Shutter Island one of the U.S. Marshals cannot free his mind from thoughts of his dead wife. In "Until Gwen" the narrator slowly reveals the full story behind what haunts him.

I think the past certainly haunts all of my characters. Carrying around a nice big wound is just dramatically interesting.

But I'm really working on thaton trying to get backstory out of my work as much as I can. When I teach fiction I tell my students to read poets for language and to read playwrights for plot, to just learn how to get the story moving. It doesn't mean that it has to take off like a bullet, or you have to have a flying car or a shootout or anything, but just tell the damn story. Playwrights know that better than anybody. You've got a bare stage, somebody walks out, and stuff better start happening or the audience is going to leave. I teach a lot of David Mamet's theories. He's got a book, Three Uses of the Knife, that's absolutely wonderful. One of the things Mamet says is: no backstory. Playwrights hardly ever have backstory.

I would guess—and correct me if I'm wrong—that when you were getting your M.F.A. at the Florida International University, your classes focused on authors like Raymond Carver, Flannery O'Connor, and Chekhov, and that you probably weren't taking classes on the crime writing of Raymond Chandler or Patricia Highsmith. Am I right?


So how did you come out of an M.F.A. program with a detective novel?

In the early nineties there was a sort of backlash against the direction fiction was going. Not all fiction, but a majority of what I considered bad fiction had become choir preaching, esoteric fiction written by academics for academics. Every novel was about a forty-two-year-old professor having an affair with a student and going through a midlife crisis. Story had disappeared. One of the most explosive publishing events when I was in graduate school was The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones. There's nothing about Thom Jones that's absolutely spectacular or innovative. He just brought story back. Denis Johnson's Jesus's Son was another book about which we said, "Oh my God, this is fiction that's about something, the blood and guts of it. It's life going on here."

I think that was the moment when I turned toward noir. A lot of us who are considered the new renaissance writers of noir believed that's where the social novel was going. We wanted to write about the people nobody was writing about. I've always said that the best novel hands down of the 1990s was Clockers. It never got the respect it deserved. This was what was going on in the early nineties in America, but nobody was writing about it. Nobody would touch it with a ten foot pole because they were writing about thinly disguised versions of Princeton. Who cares. This guy was writing about crack. It was America. He was writing about race. I think that's how I ended up drifting into this genre—the desire to write about social issues. So my first novel was about racism.

Mystic River was described again and again by reviewers as crime fiction with serious literary ambitions. What do you make of a comment like that? Is it a compliment? Or is it a backhanded way of saying that most crime fiction does not have such ambitions?

It's one of those debates that you almost don't want to touch because the only people who are arguing about it are the people on the extreme ends of the high-and low-art spectrum. I have no interest in either. You either have the crass commercialists or the people who are so avant garde and esoteric as to have no meaning or relevance. Those are basically the people engaged in that debate. The rest of us are just writing. The labels won't matter until long after I'm dead. I'm very happy with Mystic River. I'm very happy because it was the book I wanted to write and I was stunned by its success.

As for the critics, there's nothing you can do. The critics have been exceedingly kind to me my entire career, and I'm grateful. But you can't control criticism, so why think about it.

So you read your reviews?

I do read my reviews. If I respect the critic, and he or she gives me a negative review, I give that review a lot of thought. If it's somebody I don't respect, I don't even blink. That's the good thing about coming up through a writing workshop system. You get very used to criticism, and you get very used to discerning who you respect and who you don't.

"Until Gwen" takes place in West Virginia, but, I have to admit, I did begin with the preconceived notion that the story was taking place in Boston. Do you plan to move away from becoming a "regional writer?" Do you see yourself—like, say, a Richard Ford or an Annie Proulx—picking up and moving to a new area and infiltrating it until you can sense how the people tick?

That's not my gift.

Is Boston too much in your blood? Is this where most of your fiction will continue to reside?

I think most of my fiction will reside in Boston. There might be exceptions. In my new book, the ending is not in Boston. It's not finished yet, but I know the last third of the book will be in Oklahoma—but that's because of history. The finale of the new book is the Tulsa race riot of 1921. But it starts in Boston and the meat of the book is the Boston police strike of 1919.

I love Boston. My books will always be set primarily in Boston because there's so much to say about it. My short stories, on the other hand, are usually set in the South, because I lived there for eight years and I like to go down there and play with it. Short stories for me are the one realm where pleasing the audience is not a consideration.

What do you mean?

The late Andre Dubus, who was a friend of mine, wrote a great article about how he got paid so little for short stories that he wouldn't change a line on anyone else's account. If an editor asked him, he'd simply say, "No, thank you, I'll take the story back." His theory was that they don't pay you enough, so you're not in it for the money. You're in it for the piece and the piece alone, so you can take it and sell it someplace else.

Might not be quite that easy for people who aren't Andre Dubus.

Exactly. I get that. But with me, it's the same thing. I have no monetary reason to write short stories, so I write them for the love of it. I wrote "Until Gwen" to do that thing with character in action and to play with second person. I've written stories set in South Carolina, in Florida. I go all over the map.

Do you write a lot of short stories?

No. Probably one a year. But I love the form. I think ultimately I'm a novelist, but I trained as a short-story writer for seven years.

How do you translate training in short stories into structuring a novel and taking on a much larger endeavor?

That's a tough one. What I discovered was that I was banging my head against a wall as a short-story writer. What I only gradually realized, once I had a few novels under my belt, was that the novel is just a bigger form, and I do bigger better. I wish I could do smaller, and I am in awe of the people who can. I am in awe of the great short-story writers because I can't do that, except occasionally, and I don't do it naturally. Whereas a novel, with its gradual unfurling, its building up to an epic kind of feel—that's something that comes naturally to me, so I took to it. I wrote the first draft of my first novel faster than I'd ever written a short story. The entire novel. I just blasted through it. It was an awful, awful draft, but it was done, it was out, and I could play with it. I think that was a big wake-up moment. Then I went to grad school, and I went back to writing short stories, and everybody kept saying, "What are you doing with that novel?" And I was saying, "I don't know." Just as I was finishing grad school it was accepted for publication.

Does being defined as a "regional writer" come with limitations?

I write about Boston because I love to write about Boston. Anywhere else I'd be somewhat of a tourist. I think you can get away with that for thirty pages, but otherwise I think I'd feel like I'd get caught at it. I understand Boston instinctively, and I write about it at novel length because that's where I'm comfortable.

I also believe in what Bogart said: All you owe them is a great performance. That's what I owe the audience. I don't get hung up on what their expectations are, because I think that's silly and disingenuous. What makes the librarian from Waltham happy is not going to make the pipe-fitter from Southie happy. So who's my audience? I just go where the material takes me, and with my new book the material's taking me to Tulsa. And I'm not thinking, Oh dear, will the reader follow me? Either he will or he won't.

East Buckingham, the fictional city in Mystic River, is clearly Boston—from comments about the Sox to Dunkin' Donuts to road rage. What made you decide to use a fictional name for the city? And what advantages are there to creating a city—even one so clearly pinned to a real area?

It was a decision that accompanied the shift from a first-person series to a third-person novel. Once I knew I was going to paint whatever I wanted on my canvas, then I said, well why not create a whole place. I control where the post office is and I don't have to receive silly letters that say, actually, that street doesn't go that far. We seem to have entered this boring, hyper-realistic age where people are saying, I don't know if it would happen that way. Who cares?

With East Buckingham, I had this idea about a park, and I wanted to put a drive-in screen there. I actually took two parks—a park where I walk my dogs in Brighton and what was once the old Neponset drive-in in Dorchester—and I merged them. From that moment on I said, I'm going all the way. I took four neighborhoods—Charlestown, Southie, Brighton, and Dorchester—and that's East Buckingham.

Mystic River is so much about gentrification, and if I had set it in an actual town, what if it didn't gentrify? Or what if it gentrified faster than I thought, and the book comes out and it looks stupid? For example, I got the idea for the book when I was living in Charlestown. But by the time the book came out, Charlestown had become completely gentrified. So I was also playing around with Southie, which was gentrifying too. I stole a lot of the street names from Brighton, because that's where I lived later on, and some of the other street names came from Dorchester.

How difficult was it for you to break away from series writing to your first stand-alone novel? How did you change your approach?

It wasn't tough to break away from the series. I was dying to write Mystic River. It had been bubbling up inside of me for quite some time. That was a complete joy. I wanted to go back to writing in the third person. I'd never written in first person until I wrote my first novel, and then I kind of got stuck in first person. I remember thinking, "Wow, this isn't exactly a place I'm totally comfortable." I love to be able to do anecdotal stuff. I love to be able to do character for two pages even if it doesn't really pay off in the end. That was a lot of fun. And that's what I loved about Mystic River.

What do you make of the fact that your first stand-alone novel is also your breakthrough novel?

The response to it frankly stunned me. I thought I'd written this very dark tragedy, set in a world that most people don't really know about or care about, the sort of world we drive over on the expressway. I thought, Ok, I wrote the book I wanted to write. I was very happy with that, and my publisher was very excited to publish it, but I don't think anybody expected the success. To this day I don't know what I tapped into with that book, but I'm very happy that I did. It's nice to have your baby—which you thought was going to be the child only you loved—be the book that's successful. But it was very strange. Outside of the fact that there's a minor mystery in the book, there's not a single aspect of that book that's overtly commercial. This is a book that's very dark—there's no happy ending, there's no hero—but people responded. I was very, very happy with that.

People have called your writing "cinematic," and clearly, with one major film adaptation and two other novels optioned by Hollywood, there are others who agree that there is something about the stories that lends itself to the screen. Is this something you have in mind when you're writing? Or is it a surprise to you that someone can envision your stories on the screen?

I remember thinking when I finished Shutter Island, Oh, this will probably make a decent movie. But I didn't want to sell Mystic River. I didn't think anyone could film it, since the vast majority of it happens inside the characters' minds. It was only because I talked to Clint and knew he got it that I said Alright, I'll let him do this. And then of course they did it so beautifully.

But when people talk about cinematic writing, I think, My God, all great writing is cinematic. It predates cinema. It's vibrant, it's visual, it's evocative. By that standard, all great writing—even minimalism, even extremely spare prose, like in the case of Carver, who knew exactly what he was doing—is going to create a film in your head as you read. The term "cinematic" has always bothered me because it seems kind of silly. We were first.

Do you think that that's why film relies so heavily on novels? You only had to watch the Oscars to see this with Lord of the Rings, Mystic River, Cold Mountain.

I wish they'd lean on novels more. I think one of the things Hollywood used to understand, a long time ago, was this idea that character is all. You can get through a shaky plot if you have great characters. Take Casablanca. Not the greatest plot in the world. You've got loose ends. But it's such a classic because of the characters. Nowadays Hollywood seems to have completely forgotten that. They don't know how to do character anymore. They just don't have a clue. The only time they seem to do it right is when they adapt a book, and they adapt a book faithfully—which is what Minghella did with Cold Mountain, and what Clint certainly did with Mystic River. As I understand it, Big Fish was actually reasonably faithful, as was House of Sand and Fog. I don't think the novelists should run the show by any means, but trust them with what they know. Chances are, if you were attracted to the book because of the characters, you should probably not screw around with that.

Last January, Michael Cunningham wrote in The New York Times about his experience as a novelist whose work has been adapted to film. He wrote, "Before the movie deal was made, people sometimes asked me what actors I imagined playing my characters, and the only response I could offer was this: I have such a cogent image of these people that they'd have to play themselves. I can't picture them on any terms other than their own. Who, after all, would play your mother in the film version of her life? Your mother would have to do it. No one else is remotely like her." Did you have a similar reaction when you saw Tim Robbins in Dave's shoes and Sean Penn in Jimmy's?

To a certain extent, they're alterna-Daves and alterna-Jimmies. They're not the Jimmy or the Dave that I created, but they're interpreting the characters, and they sure interpreted them nicely. With Sean, I was over the moon. I thought, That's the guy, that's the only guy who could do this. It wasn't until I saw Tim on the set that I went, "Oh, that works."

I don't understand why people don't grasp—I've never had trouble grasping this—that a book is a book and a movie is a movie. One's an apple and one's a giraffe. They have that much in common. It's just an interpretation. It doesn't affect the book at all. The book is still the book. I can appreciate L.A. Confidential the novel and I can appreciate L.A. Confidential the film. They're very different animals. What you want is for the film to capture the spirit of the book. If they throw the spirit of the book out … Like Spike Lee. Spike just didn't get Clockers, didn't even come close to getting it. I can't remember who directed A Thousand Acres, but the single most crucial moment in the book was cut from the film. Well, I think they kind of missed the point there.

Is this why you were hesitant about selling your novel and very specific about who could buy your story and turn it into a screenplay? Were you afraid that someone was going to miss the spirit of the novel?

Yeah, they'd slap a happy ending on it. They'd amp up the mystery of it, the pulp aspect of it. The thing with Mystic River, which I was very conscious of at all times, was that it was a hybrid of two major influences: pulp fiction and literary fiction. I was trying to fuse them as best I could. I was trying to keep the pulp running at all times in the story, which is basically a story straight out of a Jimmy Cagney picture. And then I wanted to elevate the language and the character to a high-art level. If you strip the book down to just the events, you have a kind of pulpy story, and if somebody doesn't understand the underpinnings, they're just going to make a film that's a pulpy piece of shit. And then they'll change the ending. I always knew whoever got a hold of it would change the ending. The first thing Clint said to me was, "I won't change the ending." Warner said, you have to change the ending, and Clint said no. And they said fine, we're not going to finance the film. They only gave Clint half the budget. He had to go get the other half from Village Roadshow. He really got revenge for that in every interview he ever gave. They were against him making the picture because nobody wanted that ending. It was too dark, it was too despairing. And even when the film came out, the negative reviews it got very much hit it for that—bleak chic. It was just pulverizingly depressing; it was, Who the hell wants to sit through that?

Clint had the courage of his convictions and that's what you need in a filmmaker. You need an Ang Lee or an Anthony Minghella or somebody with power to say, This is the way we're going. That's something that I realized from working with Eastwood: I will not sell my books to studios. I will only sell to directors—powerful directors.