Lehane optimistic in a dark wayPublished 5:04pm Sunday, May 9, 2010
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
“Threads” fascinate Dennis Lehane, who also factors luck into his equations.
Like his Irish immigrant parents, who came from “massive” families. His dad’s, 18 children, his mom’s, 15. His father and his brother were told whoever married first got the farm. “The other, good luck.”
“My father had a girlfriend (Dennis met her visiting Ireland), but he lost the contest, so the village walked him to the train station. I saw my cousin and the farm. I saw him take a cow to the ground with a punch. I thought, ‘That could have been my life,’ and I wanted to kiss my late grandma.”
Lehane, 44, not only was in New York City last week, he was lecturing his wife Angela about how safe Times Square is to take their daughter, who shares his love of cities, except it happened to be the same day Faisal Shahzad drove there from Connecticut and parked an SUV as part of a terrorist bomb plot.
A theme of “Shutter Island” (2003) is what happens when the Greatest Generation came home after saving libety in World War II.
“They deserve our everlasting thanks,” Lehane said, “but everybody says they didn’t want to talk about the war when they came back. Yes, they did. Nobody wanted to hear about it. What was the price for these guys fighting? The breakdown of mental capacity caused by violence. It’s a lifelong fascination.
“At the end of my fourth book, ‘Gone, Baby, Gone,’ (1998) I began to question the American myth of regeneration through violence. Violence doesn’t solve problems. I don’t want to traffic in it anymore. ‘Mystic River’ (2001) became a book about one death rippling across and affecting everybody’s lives. I was getting really tired of reading books and seeing TV shows or movies where somebody dies and everybody just moves on. That’s not how the world works.”
When he sees people loudly proclaiming, “I’m proud to be an American,” he feels the same way, but humble, “lucky” and “blessed” to be born at the right time in the richest nation in the history of the world, not arrogant that it’s his birthright.
“Don’t think everything good happened to you because God chose you to be born in America,” he said. “Kiss my ass. Most of us are exceptionally lucky. The difference between the haves and the have-nots, the victims and the non-victims is luck, and I want to be true to that when I write. I don’t think there are too many things I get angry about, but let’s put it this way: You don’t want to talk to me about the Catholic church right now.” His audience applauds.
“I think if you don’t find this world depressing, you’re not paying attention,” Lehane said. “To the teenagers, I feel worse about turning this world over to you, except you’re going to screw it up, too.
“I’m fascinated with folly. ‘Mystic River’ is a book about folly. Everything that’s gone wrong in the universe comes from the same impulse, so I get really nervous (at self-righteous assuredness) that what we are doing is right. It creeps me out.”
That feeling comes from a writer’s natural place as an outsider.
“An artist’s job is to puncture the status quo, whether it is to the left or the right. You have to question conventional wisdom. That’s your job. I don’t know why I’m weird. Writers are mutants. I see as much bleakness in the human mind as I see light. Yes, I was taught by nuns, and to this day when I see these cute little ladies, I back up because they beat me with rulers.”
Of second chances because “people change,” he says, “Closure is one of the great fallacies of the last 30 years. You can close off some pain, but if something’s particularly harmful to you, you die saying, ‘Rosebud,’ ” referring to “Citizen Kane.”
Lehane, whose next book (“Moonlight Mile,” expected at the end of November) will be a 12-year sequel to “Gone, Baby, Gone,” is just beginning work on a novel about Prohibition and his favorite topic, gangsters.
Saturday nights in his youth were spent at an uncle’s watching Jimmy Cagney movies. He mostly reads non-fiction, like a new book about Al Capone.
He buys fiction and piles it on shelves with receipts sticking out like bookmarks. Influences include Richard Price, Pete Dexter, Toni Morrison, F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Shakespeare, “which you can’t talk about without sounding pretentious.”
Lehane’s grave reservations about Amazon’s Kindle revolve around the “Walmarting of the publishing industry” in which price points make traditional books vanish. His audience applauded.
Though he has a master’s degree and is Eckerd College trustee, tommy guns, tires with wide white walls and wide-brimmed fedoras still speak to the Dorchester, Mass., native.
“Scarface is three hours long and I think I’ve seen it 72 times,” said the product of “Irish bar culture” who “failed upward” after washing out of two colleges.
“I was terrible at everything I tried” except writing and playing pool. His third try at college was in St. Petersburg, Fla., which was like “Club Med” surrounded by scantily-clad co-eds.
For eight years above his desk hung, “Nobody cares,” to remind him, “The world is not sitting there for my voice to light it on fire. It also meant nobody cared if I failed. It’s not rocket science. You’re not going to lose somebody on the table. I did get a master’s degree so I could fulfill my mother’s lifelong ambition of becoming a teacher, but I realized I didn’t want to teach. Grading 160 papers, I’d never get any writing done. Teachers are great heroes, like ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus.’ I wanted to write. My first book paid just enough to purchase a crappy car. I was the only guy parking cars in my garage who had a master’s degree. (Co-workers) enjoyed that. I had made my peace very clearly with both the up side and down side of this road I was on. Whatever happens, I’m making my own decisions and I will make no excuses for what I’m doing. I will blame nobody but myself or look for somebody to bail me out.”
“Strangely enough,” another belief clicked into place. “Keep your head down, do good work and the audience will find you. That seemed to start happening. My career started to go a little bit better. Books sold a little bit more. Each book got more critical response. Then the other component in my career is luck. I was in the right place at the right time. There was no better time to be Irish than 1994 (“A Drinker Before the War,” which introduced recurring characters Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro). We had Frank McCourt, Lord of the Dance and David Caruso making redheads sexy. It’s the only other time I can remember it was cool to be pale. My book tapped into that same zeitgeist.”
The president – “the one who read, Clinton,” he said to applause – was not only photographed leaving Air Force One with a Lehane book, but the image appeared repeatedly in a “60 Minutes” promo.
Stephen King, writing about Harry Potter in the New York Times, referenced Lehane, who heard about it in Spain. “So don’t anybody ever diss Stephen King in my presence.”
Lehane loathes “writers who diss movies made of their own works. It’s like the old line about the guy who goes to a whore house and doesn’t feel loved. You knew what you were doing when you made the sale and took their money. Shut up and vanish. Swim in your swimming pool.”
As his career accelerated, his father, too busy providing for his family to keep up with the arts – he’s never read one of Dennis’ books, seen a movie since he dozed off during the first four minutes of “Star Wars” or watched TV since “Bonanza” – would call and say Boston Gas is hiring or notify him of a postal exam. His father’ obliviousness to writing books keeps the author humble.
“He supports me,” Lehane said, “but he does not read fiction.”
“Mystic River” was a “surprising success no one saw coming,” Lehane said. He did not want to sell it to the movies, fearful of “what they did to ‘The Scarlet Letter.’ A studio executive I know said to me sweetly – they always say things sweetly – about ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ we think it’s an absolutely brilliant script, another ‘Schindler’s List,’ but can we get her out of the attic?’ ”
He relented, though, and humorously described the scene when he called his parents in Florida to give them the good news. With each on a different extension, he quickly became the third wheel listening to their exchange. His mother was delighted to hear Clint Eastwood purchased the rights.
“My father said, ‘Who’s Clint Eastwood?’ ” since “Rawhide” and spaghetti westerns weren’t Bonanza.
Eastwood doted on his parents “like royalty.”
His mother was “rattled.” His father turned on the charm, telling him how much his films meant to him.
Eastwood “seemed like a very nice man,” his dad concluded.
His dad was fascinated by a backdrop showing the harbor as it looked when he arrived from Ireland in 1949.
“Are you going to go back to teaching?” he asked Dennis.
“I took a very strange path, and I understand that,” Lehane said. “I want to say to those of you who have read my work and stayed with me, thank you. I know I’m not a predictable writer. I’ll never write a science fiction book, a romance novel or anything with a vampire, if that helps.” His audience applauds.
He wrote mystery novels until quitting “right at the moment when they were about to get successful.”
His friend Michael Connelly’s mysteries he was finding predictable.
Everyone wanted him to write “another Mystic River, so I couldn’t do that. So I did a paranoid gothic influenced by 1950s B movies. My publisher said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ Then I wrote a big, fat historical epic that’s going to take me at least five years (‘The Given Day,’ 2008). That’s about the 1919 Boston police strike, which has always fascinated me. My next project is what I’ve really wanted to do my entire life – gangster novel. It won’t be 700 pages, I promise.
“Whatever you do, if you’re 17, 19 or 30, do what you love and your happiness will fit in there. We get really confused as a society that happiness means rich. Some of the happiest people I know are social workers. Some of the most miserable people I know are stockbrokers. If you chase money, you’ll be miserable. If all you want out of life is money, you might get it, but that’s all you’ll get, and it’s a very empty way to live. Pursue what you want with a little common sense. I don’t want to hear you’re bartending in Key West 15 years from now and it’s my fault.”
Just as his dad came to America to save up enough money to go back to Ireland, but met the love of his life and raised a daughter and four sons here, Lehane met his wife, who has a successful business, while teaching in Florida. He’s been trying to get back to Boston from Tampa for 3 1/2 years.
“Everything, at some strange level, is connected.”