Lehane ‘won parent lottery’Published 5:02pm Sunday, May 9, 2010
By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News
The youngest of five children, Dennis Lehane’s exposure to storytelling came at an early age eavesdropping while seated on Boston barstools and marinating in the violence erupting around him between Vietnam and federal desegregation busing.
Busing “caused my city to explode with racial strife. I grew up in very interesting times in an interesting place” which infuses his work with darkness, though he feels personally optimistic.
There is applause when Lehane says, “I believe very strongly we should see dead soldiers come home from war to testify.”
Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, Kent State and the energy crisis with gas lines form early memories. President Richard Nixon resigned on Aug. 9, 1974 – days after Lehane’s Aug. 5 ninth birthday.
During his more than 45-minute Q&A in Dowagiac, a woman in the audience asks where the violence comes from in his writing.
“There’s murder and then there’s murder the way you do it,” she says.
Every Saturday he accompanied his dad to the farmers market, sharing his love of cities. “He took me through neighborhoods most people drive over. I had a frontline view that gave me a lifelong love of that city and all cities. You could drop me at 2 a.m. in South Central and I’d figure my way home, but if you dropped me at 3 in the afternoon in the woods a half mile off the road I’d starve – even if I could still hear cars.”
“He hit it like it was the beach at Normandy,” then spent the rest of the time at his favorite Dorchester tavern, with Dennis and a ginger ale “his excuse that he was actually (at the market) for four hours. I listened to people talk and that’s where I fell in love with storytelling. I feel very blessed to come from a place where people knew how to tell stories.”
“Where I came from,” he told Union High School students before his lecture Friday night, “people didn’t become writers,” but “electricians, inmates, firemen and cops. If you got in with a utility, that was a big thing because people would always need water.”
He considered writing at 20 after dropping out of two colleges, his Irish immigrant parents’ last hope for higher education.
Lehane, who published his first book at 28, started out studying journalism, but “I realized I didn’t like facts.” Then he thought about teaching English literature. After a year, “I discovered that as much as I loved reading books, I didn’t like talking about the green light at the end of the dock in ‘The Great Gatsby.’
Now that the Tampa resident has a young daughter of his own, such experiences color his parenting.
“I keep saying to my wife, ‘A little obstacle isn’t bad. It can’t be too easy. You need things thrown in your way. You need to be told you can’t do it because it proves who you are.’ ”
He chides students as “the generation that gets gold stars for coming in ninth.”
“What’s the difference? Why am I successful when so many kids who were just as good writers aren’t. Part of it, I think, is you could not beat me. If you knock me down, I keep getting back up. I was going to do this no matter what it took. I would not go back to pouring beers” and hearing the catcalls, “Hey, Hemingway, bring me another.”
He felt accomplished in his craft at 29, after his second book. “All studies show it takes 10 years or 10,000 hours to master something,” Lehane said. “That doesn’t mean you can’t get published, sell a painting or make a recording, so don’t beat yourself up if after four years you still suck. What separates the men from the boys is the size of the fight in the dog – not the size of the dog in the fight.”
Lehane aborted a novel between “Mystic River” (his personal favorite of his own works) and “Shutter Island” after a year “pouring my heart and soul into it. I was terrified I would never be able to write again.”
His third “great adaptation,” though less faithful on screen to his novel, is “Gone Baby Gone,” directed by actor Ben Affleck. “Nobody knew Ben was a great director.”
Summoning the discipline he coaches others to have, he rose at 5:30, showered and shaved, put on nice clothes and walked four feet to his desk.
He wrote from 6 to 9 in the morning and then again at night from 6 until 9 or 10 and completed it in four months.
Lehane doesn’t want to be one of those “whiny” writers weighing in on how demanding his craft is, given his rewards versus his father toiling 35 years at Sears and Roebuck.
“Writing is extremely hard, but at the same time I have a job that allows me to sleep as late as I want – at least before I got married. I can go days without shaving, play video games. I have no boss, really, and I have no clue what it’s like to go to a meeting. It’s a pretty nice tradeoff.”
“Shutter Island was such a miserable experience when I wrote it,” he said, “that you connect the experience of writing a book with the book itself. Shutter Island is the only book I’ve ever known everything that happens in it before I wrote a line. He’s crazy, so you know all his attempts to be a hero are futile and a little pathetic. It’s a sad punchline.”
Not only was its film version directed by Martin Scorsese – a “lifelong dream” – but the actors included Max von Sydow, which to a child of the ’70s, meant shaking hands with “The Exorcist.” He also met Ben Kingsley and Leonardo DiCaprio.
“Mystic River,” directed by Clint Eastwood and for which Sean Penn won the Best Actor Oscar, “lived with me the longest. I got the idea in 1994 and knew I didn’t have the chops as a writer yet to take it on, so I just kept writing things in a little notebook and thinking about it” until 1999. It took two years to write.
“Mystic River” is somewhat autobiographical. At 10 or 11, he and his best friend, Bubba, got in a huge fight. Police broke it up. When cops had to return and drive them home, his mother demanded to know their badge numbers because “we lived in the inner city at an extremely dangerous time because of busing. You didn’t get in a car with strangers. We were pretty cynical city kids, mistrustful of authority and adults. They didn’t grow them any other way where I come from. And yet, when push came to shove, and those cops looked at us and said, ‘Get in the car,’ I’ll never forget the look on my mother’s face. Anything could have happened.”
Lehane also spent five years working with abused and molested children.
“I kept thinking about this idea that when something makes us uncomfortable, we jump to judgment. On the one hand, (Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback) Ben Roethlisberger probably raped a girl in the bathroom. On the other hand, she was drunk. We have this need sometimes to blame victims. We say things like, ‘What was the rape victim wearing? Why was somebody in that place at that time? I thought, What separates me from a lot of other people? In my neighborhood, my high school sweetheart, me and one other kid were the only ones who got out. Everybody else is back there. Three are in jail. Others are in rehab or working crappy jobs. Why did we make it out? Survivor’s guilt.
“My answer’s really simple. I had two parents who totally loved us, protected us and gave us a very safe environment” amidst the turmoil. “I didn’t like it at the time. I didn’t grow up in 1970s Boston. I grew up in 1940s Ireland – respect the (Catholic) church and Cardinal Cushing, respect John F. Kennedy. In our very poor neighborhood, on Easter everyone got new clothes and paraded around. Not in my house. We got new clothes only at Christmas or maybe on our birthday. That’s how my parents had college funds waiting for five kids on a Sears and Roebuck foreman’s paycheck. We were never confused. My friends, their parents partied with the one week and beat the s– out of them the next week. I love the line, ‘My mom’s my best friend.’ Mom should be your parent, not your best pal. My parents were really clear about that: You’re the kid and we’re the parents. Our job is to protect you, take care of you and get you through this life safely. Looking back, that’s why I made it. Do I have the moral upper hand? No, I won the parental lottery. That’s what ‘Mystic River’ is about. It’s about the lottery. One kid pauses and gets in the car. The molesters seize on that. The other two kids are too quick, but they spend the rest of their lives saying, ‘We should have changed something.’ It’s all about how you never get past those bumps. Closure? I don’t believe in Oprah. I know what this book is about, but I never once use the term. It’s about survivor skills.”
Lehane, in a nod to Alfred Hitchcock, makes cameo appearances, like playing the clean-shaven mayor in the “Mystic River” parade scene. His “only regret” was shaving his goatee, which grew back gray.
He passed on appearing in “Gone Baby Gone” because he was “starving” and wanted to get to dinner.
He also appears in HBO’s “The Wire.”
For females interested in “Leo,” Lehane offers a story about running into DiCaprio at the New York premiere. His wife became tongue-tied in the presence of the movie star and the “glow” he seemed to radiate.
“Leo’s presence enters the room 14 days before he does,” Lehane said. “Whatever ‘it’ is, he has it, as do Johnny Depp, Paul Newman and Angelina Jolie.”
After all his dealings with Hollywood, Lehane takes celebrity sightings in stride and shrugs off nervousness.
Until they duck up the stairs and run into Mick Jagger.
Then Dennis can’t speak, either, leaving the Rolling Stone singer to wonder if “I’m a special needs guy.”