Lehane, 56, is known for his viscerally cinematic descriptive skills and acute ear for authentic street speak, both of which have been apparent in the film adaptations of his work: Gone Baby Gone and Shutter Island, in addition to aforementioned Mystic River.
CityBeat recently phoned Lehane to discuss his most recent novel — 2010’s Moonlight Mile, his first Kenzie-Gennaro effort in a dozen years — the origins of his storytelling skills and the voices in his head.
CityBeat: HarperCollins recently announced it is going to introduce a Dennis Lehane Books imprint. How did that come about?
Dennis Lehane: They approached me. We have a very long and fruitful relationship. I’ve been with them 17 years, so when they came to me with this idea, I said, “Oh, that’d be cool,” because I’m one of those geeks who lives to recommend. I’m the guy who is always making mix tapes — not when I’m trying to score with you, but just to send you cool music — and I’ll watch a movie for the ninth time just to see it with a friend for the first time. I thought this could be cool because I’m always heralding writers who no one has ever heard of, and now I get to do it from the ground floor up.
CB: The press release says the imprint will focus on stories with a “dark urban edge.” Why has that type of story or genre always interested you?
DL: When I’m teaching, I say this to writers who are trying to find their voice: “There are a million writers you can admire” — my favorite writer is Gabriel García Márquez, but I don’t write anything like him — “but there are some writers when you read them you feel like you’re coming home, like they’ve walked through your front door.” I say to my students, “Those are the writers you want to emulate, because those are the ones who are speaking in some approximation of what will be your voice.” For me, those writers were always urban novelists: Richard Price, William Kennedy, Elmore Leonard’s Detroit novels, novels that are about cities.
CB: You’ve always, even as a young child, had this voracious appetite for books and stories
DL: I don’t know. My mother was a reader. That could be a genetic issue right there. Where the reading came from I can’t explain; where the writing came from I think is a little clearer because I grew up in such a storytelling culture. I grew up in an Irish culture and I grew up in a bar culture, so the premium was on a good story well told. And if you told the same story five times in a six-month period, that’s fine, too, as long as you could make it interesting.
CB: I’ve been reading various things you’ve said about the decision to go back Patrick and Angela for Moonlight Mile, and one of the things you kept doing was referring to the characters as if they were independent of you, as if they were friends or acquaintances or actual human beings. I’m curious about this phenomenon, which seems to afflict many writers.
DL: Yeah, they are definitely these kind of alterna-humans. I’m not sure where that comes from. I always know when a book is working when I expect to see one of the characters walk through my door. Truly, honestly, I’ll have that moment. I remember being in a bar one time — I think I was writing Gone Baby Gone, and I was hip-deep in the book by that point — and the door opened. I remember turning my head and looking down the bar and hoping and expecting Patrick and Angie to walk through the door, because I wanted to hear what they were going to say — I had just left them an hour before and we were in the middle of something very interesting. If you try to talk about this you sound like you should be locked up, but it’s when you know a book is really singing.
CB: The Given Day was a pretty big departure for you. Was the process of writing that, which I’m sure took a lot of research, one of the reasons you decided to go back to Patrick and Angela?
DL: I want to be really clear on this: There is never any conscious decision for me on a project. It’s more like something kind of feeds my imagination and I say, “OK, I have to do that.” With Moonlight Mile, it was that Patrick started talking in my head, and I said, “Oh, he’s back.” Then it became this issue of, OK, I want to revisit them through the one case that haunts the most, and I want to see who they are now in this era, because so many of my friends are private contractors, and I watched them just get leveled during the 2008 (economic) meltdown. And then I just couldn’t escape the fact that we had this situation where it’s very clear to the entire country exactly what caused the meltdown, and yet we turned around and blamed unions and public service workers. I just thought, “Wow, that’s stunning, I have to somehow investigate that.” That led me to Moonlight Mile. I’m sure my publisher wishes there was more of a rhyme or reason to how I choose my projects, but there really isn’t.
DENNIS LEHANE appears 2 p.m. Saturday at the Books by the Banks festival, which runs 10 a.m.-4 p.m. at the Duke Energy Center. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.