A writer that I consider one of the greatest living novelists working the crime fiction genre is Dennis Lehane. He needs little introduction except to say if you’ve not read his work, you are missing some of the most remarkable books to grace the genre. On a rare visit to London, Shots Ezine managed to get Lehane to discuss his work with Shots’ Assistant Editor, Ali Karim.
More information available from www.dennislehanebooks.com
Ali Dennis, your Patrick and Angie PI series have become very successful and in fact launched your writing career [with A Drink Before The War]. Since then you’ve written only standalones such as Mystic River, Shutter Island and now your historical opus The Given Day. Did you get nervous when you first jumped out of your comfort zone of that very successful PI series?
DL I got a little nervous after a point sort of like that Chinese proverb/warning ‘be careful what you wish for’ kind of thing. At first I was a little excited to get back to the third-person narrative with Mystic River and I felt that ‘wow, I can do anything’. Then months later I thought ‘oh shit’ as I realised I had to make choices which you don’t get to do with a first person perspective. So it was strange at first with the standalones, but then I soon found a comfort zone in third person.
Ali I heard one of your earlier novels Darkness, Take My Hand was originally titled Cold, Cold Heart but you changed it because of a novel with the same title by James Elliott [a pen name of J.C. Pollock]. Have you had other changes of title?
DL Yes, well spotted. I’ve had a few title changes, for instance Shutter Island I was originally going to title The Barrens, then I found out that Joyce Carol Oates had a book out with the same title. The Given Day was originally going to be A Country at Dawn, but I decided that title sounded a little pretentious, however I discovered that The Given Day has been published in several countries under that title, such as France; my French publishers liked that title.
Ali It has now been widely reported on the internet that you are returning to the Patrick and Angie PI series – why the return?
DL I don’t want to say too much at this stage, just ‘Hey, they’re back’ and that’s it. In fact I won’t say any more until the book comes out.
Ali I’m still going to pump you … Boston seems to be a familiar location as a backdrop for your work, so will Patrick and Angie operate in Boston in the new book?
DL <Laughing> To answer your question, Yes! …Yes, they will, I took them once to Florida in Sacred, that was fun, but as a reader I always hated reading a PI novel when the PI and sidekick head to LA to hunt down a missing actress – this was because all the writers were out in LA working on movie deals. So I decided that I’ll never do that, hence Patrick and Angie will operate on their home turf of Boston. OK, if there was a reason to take them to Dublin, I’d do that. No West Coast travel though.
Ali So will the new Patrick and Angie novel carry on immediately after the events of Prayers for Rain? Or will some time have elapsed? It is a decade since their last novel appeared.
DL I know there will be gap, but it won’t be a full ten years; I don’t see them in a pre-9/11 America. A lot has happened in the last decade, and it would be ridiculous to take them back in time if you follow me.
Dennis Lehane, Selina Walker and Tess Gerritsen
Ali Were you aware of the issues with the disappearance of the British infant Madeleine McCann in Portugal when the film version of your novel Gone, Baby, Gone was released in the US? It had a delayed release in the UK as the actress who played the missing girl was also called Madeline [O'Brien].
DL And, hey, the actress Madeline O’Brien bore a very striking resemblance to the missing Madeleine McCann. I remember having a conversation with Ben [Affleck] about it at the time. We were on the same page – we totally understood that the film’s release at that time could be potentially hurtful so why do it? We understood – it didn’t feel like censorship, it was in both our opinions and expressions of sensitivity.
Ali There’s been a five year gap between the release of The Given Day and Shutter Island. I’ve read that you had a bad experience finishing Prayers for Rain and you vowed never to have to work to a tight deadline again.
DL The issue with Prayers for Rain was that I released the book from my hands faster than I normally release a manuscript. The book was written blindingly fast – but that’s not the issue here, as I have written books fast before – but I was never quite satisfied with the end result. I wished I had more time. I don’t mean taking three years, five years, ten years or whatever, it’s taking whatever time the book needs, and I know instinctively when a book needs more time to finish it. As an example The Given Day was completed a whole year before I sent it in, because I wanted – actually needed – the time. No one saw it until I felt it was ready.
Ali And there’s more as I’ve heard The Given Day is the start of a trilogy?
DL Possibly a trilogy… <laughing> … possibly a deca-olgy … at this stage I don’t know …
Ali … I understand … Now, onto one of my favourite novels of all time: Shutter Island and the film Ashcliffe.
DL Actually, Ashcliffe was just the working title when they were filming but the finished film will be titled Shutter Island.
Ali Tell us why you never got involved in screenwriting now that three of your novels will appear on the big screen?
DL I’m not a good adapter, and certainly not a qualified adapter of my own work. I guess I feel it would be like a surgeon operating on his own child. Could I write an original screenplay? Maybe. Could I adapt someone else’s work for the screen? Maybe. But the last person who should be entrusted in adapting one of my novels is me!
Ali How did you feel when you heard Martin Scorcese was going to be associated with Shutter Island?
DL I was totally bummed out … <laughing> … what can I say? It was embarrassing. I go from having home runs with my first two filmed novels [Mystic River and Gone, Baby, Gone], and then I get a call saying ‘the world’s greatest film director wants to direct one of your books’. I felt … humbled, embarrassed, confused … I was so shocked that I didn’t tell anyone. I just feel ridiculous having such amazing good fortune … unbelievable…
Ali You first opened up your website many years ago…
DL Sorry to correct you, Ali, but I did not, that was my publisher’s website. I’d like to say that the way I chose to engage, or not engage, with that world of blogs, websites, etc, believe it or not is a way to maintain my creative edge. It allows me to be the man who writes books, gets home and his wife says, ‘There’s dog-shit in the back yard, go clean it up’ without me saying, ‘Hey, I’m Dennis Lehane!’ So my only way to keep that part of myself stable is to not engage that world at all. Now that’s not saying that’s the way it should be done! It’s purely my way, and that’s why I don’t engage that world. But someone’s set up afacebook page in my name; I don’t know who the guy is, but I hope people don’t think that’s me. I just can’t deal with it.
Ali And do still spilt your time between Boston and Florida?
DL Yes, my wife has a practice in Florida, so I can’t look her in the eye and say I can only write in Boston, so I have the tough job of having to spend time in Florida…
Ali One thing that intrigues me is the difference in book-jacket design between your US publishers [William Morrow] and your UK publishers [Transworld]. Would you care to comment?
DL Unless one is particularly heinous, which has rarely happened to me, I assume each international publisher knows its people and country and so I can’t presume to tell them what they should have on the covers. I’ve had issues with perhaps only four books, globally, in my time and when that happened I’d say, ‘Hey, I’m not keen on that cover, but you know your market so go with it.’ But that’s rare, most of the time it’s me saying ‘Fine by me’. Some of my British covers are gorgeous – as are some of my French, German, Japanese covers – some are not but what am I going to tell my Japanese publishers? Can I say, ‘Hey, don’t do that cover, I don’t like it’? <laughing> I just don’t know the market, all I do is hope for the best.
AK Considering the path of your career from PI series, to standalone crime thriller [Mystic River], to gothic noir [Shutter Island] and now your literary opus [The Given Day], can you see a ‘game plan’ to your writing?
DL I think the one commonality is that they are all urban novels; they are concerned with the machinery or soul of the city, if you will. So in the end that’s the canvas I work – the urban novel, with the exception, of course, with a trip to the gothic world of Shutter Island.
Ali And what a tremendous gothic novel, Shutter Island is; in my opinion it will be one of the novels that you will always be remembered for. It is magnificent in terms of its ambition, its story and of course the gothic dread that infuses the narrative.
DL Wow, thank you, thank you. I go by the dictum that you write the book you want to read. If you have that sort of love and passion for a book, then I think it will translate and people will be entertained.
Ali Your Patrick and Angie fanbase is solid, even though they clamour for your PI series, but have they followed your literary path with Shutter Island, or the more recent The Given Day? What is your take on your fans and readers?
DL It’s simple, it’s such an honour to have loyal readers. I always remember every day that my success is due to my readers; I have my house due to my readers; I have everything due to my readers; so I have no issues with my fans and readers, they make my career possible.
Ali And finally, what do you make of his dreadful economic crisis affecting us all, including publishing?
DL I think we deregulated a bunch of regulations that were put in place for a very good reason in the great depression. We fucked it all up, and the poor are suffering as the poor always do. I couldn’t be more serious about this – people should be going to jail, it’s disgusting, I don’t know what else to say. Another thread I write about in my work is this eternal war between the haves and the have nots. And you see that war in clear focus right now. I just find the economic situation revolting.
Ali Dennis, thank you for your time and enjoy the rest of your trip in London.
DL And thank you for some great questions and your support over the years.
Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro PI Series
A Drink before the War (1994)
Darkness, Take My Hand (1996)
Gone, Baby, Gone (1998)
Prayers for Rain (1999)
Mystic River (2001)
Shutter Island (2003)
The Given Day (2008)
Short Story Collection
Coronado: Stories (2006)
Shots Ezine would like to thank Patsy Irwin for organising this interview and Borders Charing Cross Road for providing an interview room.
An edited version of this interview first appeared at www.therapsheet.blogspot.com