Interview with Dennis Lehane

Carl Brooks

(This is the second half of our interview with author Dennis Lehane. His novel Mystic River is coming out as a movie this fall.)

Carl Brooks: You deal, in A Drink Before the War, with the remarkable racial divide in Boston. What is your perspective on the problem, 7 years after the book and years after growing up in the thick of it?

Dennis Lehane: I do think it’s dying out, if very gradually. One of the only good things that came out of 9/11 is that it seemed to finally dawn on this country that everyone who died in that tragedy, blacks, whites, Asians, Arabs, gays, straights, Hispanics, were Americans. That’s America. And that to me should be the true meaning of the slogan “America: Love It or Leave It.” If you can’t accept that we are a streaming multi-colored banner of acceptance for any race and any creed (even if that creed is paganism or atheism) then please, get out. Go to France or Austria and be white and boring. Major social change only happens generationally. Old hatreds need time to water down. The thing I love most about people my age is that I don’t know many who are racist or homophobic or militantly sexist. We see those things as non-issues. That’s what the morons ranting on talk radio and in tabloid editorials don’t seem to get and that’s why they’re so hysterical; they’re preaching to a choir that has power now, sure, but it’s aging and aging fast, very close to dying out. So, hopefully, fifty years from now, our grandkids will look back and go, Wow, people actually cared about that stuff? How odd.

CB: One thing that endears your books to me is that your characters suffer, just like real people do, the cumulative effects of violence and sorrow, and by the end of the series (Prayers for Rain), it seems like the next book better be a nice long Caribbean cruise, or somebody is going to pitch a fit. Why did you want to write it that way?

DL: I can’t stand books in which the characters bounce right back from their trips to the abyss. It’s bullshit and it’s wish fulfillment. Violence scars people, traumatizes them. The pact I made with myself when I wrote the series was that I would allow the two main characters to grow organically in relation to what they’d experienced. I wouldn’t dictate how they’d react to what they saw. So the books quite naturally and quite to my surprise became about a downward and an upward trajectory. Patrick’s is downward because he can’t compartmentalize; Angle’s is upward because she can. By the end of the fifth book, I found that I didn’t have anything else to say about them for the time being. If you look at those five as one long novel, it’s a novel about one man coming to terms with the darkness in himself, a darkness bequeathed from his father. By the end of the fifth book, he’s made a peace of sorts with it. End of story, time for fade-out. If, however, they come back to me in a year or so and say, Hey, Lehane, we’ve got a few more issues to deal with now that we’re a little older, then I’ll welcome them back with open arms because those two, god love `em, bought my house.

CB: Who wanted to make a movie out of Mystic River, and how much influence did you get over the movie making?

DL: A lot of people wanted the book, but it wasn’t for sale. I don’t go to Hollywood. I don’t take meetings. I have no desire to swim in that pond. And because Mystic was my baby, the book I’d been carrying in my head for seven years, I didn’t want them mucking it up. So, again, it wasn’t for sale. But my agent tracked me down in Chicago one morning and said Clint Eastwood called because he’d read the book and wanted to make it into a movie, so I said, I’ll take that call. And it was while I was talking to him that it occurred to me that there were a lot of similarities between his worldview and mine. Mystic River, for example, is very similar thematically to “Unforgiven” in that both have a cast of characters who are so positive that their responses to given situations are right. In the end, though, they’re wrong. And there’s no real villain in either piece, just people rationalizing their way into bad deeds. So Clint and I agreed on a screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, who we both thought was the only guy for the job. Clint went out and hired him, and I just stepped the hell out of the way. So, really, there was no Hollywood experience. I haven’t stepped foot in California since early `01.

(Dennis Lehane currently lives and teaches in Boston. His new book, Shutter Island, is coming out this April)