At Literary Traveler, we’re fascinated by the places that inspire writers, which is one of the reasons our Boston-based team was so thrilled to speak with best-selling novelist Dennis Lehane. His novels Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, The Given Day, and most recently Live by Night, have helped to demystify Boston by creating vivid depictions of urban living. No matter what the setting of his novels, Lehane’s characters are complex and bear the weight of Place and History. But we admit: it’s his uncanny ability to keep readers (and movie-goers) on the edge or our seats, desperate to understand his impeccable story, that keeps us coming back for more.
Literary Traveler founder, Francis McGovern spoke with Lehane on the phone, but it was the kind of conversation that could easily have taken place at a local pub. Born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, Lehane knows, perhaps better than anyone, that it’s like nowhere else on earth.
Francis McGovern: Thanks for speaking with Literary Traveler today.
A little background: I’m 42, I’m from Waltham originally, and our offices are in Somerville. I’ve lived in Somerville for about 20 years, and my dad was a liquor salesman. He’s originally from Brighton and his parents were from Ireland–Galway and Swanlinbar. Growing up, he would tell me stories about the places he covered, like the ‘combat zone’, and all of the organized crime in Boston. He would tell me crazy stories. I wondered, do people when they first meet you, talk about their brushes with gangsters and crime?
Dennis Lehane: No, just the occasional person who actually had that experience, but I don’t think that’s the norm. People who have maybe passed through that world a little bit…might make some passing reference to it, but no, I don’t get too many people.
FM: In regards to your current book, Live by Night, the characters and the action are phenomenal. There is this fear and tension that runs through the book and through a lot of the dialogue. You describe Joe as an outlaw and I’m wondering why is that so interesting to you? Can you talk a little bit about that sense of being an outlaw and how that is like being a writer in any sort of way?
DL: In the book, he’s under the impression that he is an outlaw, but as the book progresses he is more and more incorporated into the gangster world, so that’s very much his delusion, something he wishes he could cling to, but as the book goes on, he can’t. As far as the writer as an outlaw, I don’t think we’re actually very good–or a lot of writers I know–are very good at towing the party line, if you will, and we are sort of the square pegs and the world is the round hole.
FM: Do you find that for yourself?
DL: Yeah sure, I mean I wouldn’t be a writer otherwise, I don’t think.
FM: One of the things I find compelling about your work is the dialogue, you almost dissolve into it. Who were the storytellers that influenced you? Was it people that you knew, family members, or was it more the books that you read?
DL: All of those things. I grew up in a storytelling culture. I am from an Irish culture and my parents and their brothers and sisters would all get together every weekend and they would sit around and tell stories. It’s what they did. So that was probably mainlined into my blood at a very early age. I also grew up in Dorchester, so it’s a bar culture. I spent a lot of time in bars when I was a young kid hearing people tell stories. So sort of a [different path] that I think is pretty prevalent in Ireland and Irish American neighborhoods across the country.
FM: I know that you have mentioned in some other interviews that The Last Good Kiss [by James Crumley] was influential to you. Are there other books that have influenced you? What would you say is your favorite book?
DL: My favorite book is One Hundred Years of Solitude [by Gabriel Garcia Marquez], but I wouldn’t call it influential. I don’t see a direct relationship between that and anything that I’ve ever written. I think that what you see as clear lines of influence between my work and Richard Price or Elmore Leonard is that of an urban novelist… The voice tradition that I am following is of an urban voice.
FM: We are doing an upcoming series called “One True Sentence,” based on the Hemingway quote, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” We are trying to get at what has inspired people whether it’s a song, or a line from a book or poem. Is there one of those for you, a true sentence? Something accessible that you carry with you?
DL: The long answer would be there’s a million of them. You could quote anyone from Fitzgerald to James Crumley to Shakespeare–it’s an endless list. It’s rare that you can get me to say ‘this is my favorite’ or ‘this is the one’ because…I just soak it all in…. Like this line about ‘one true sentence,’ it’s a great line [but it’s] oversimplified. Is that all there is to it? I think there is a little more to it than that. You can rattle off a bunch of them from a variety of books. And what makes a great first sentence varies from book to book to book as well. You can have a great first sentence like the first line of The Last Good Kiss, or you can have a really simple first sentence, like the first line of A Good Soldier, which is “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”
FM: Since we are trying to talk about your inspiration, what musicians or songwriters inspire you or have had an influence on you?
DL: I think Springsteen was a big influence. He’s a writer. He’s a great poet and he’s an urban writer and when he’s not writing about urban issues, he’s writing about social issues, class issues and the working class. So he’s definitely somebody who I have followed album by album by album my entire life.
FM: Do you have a favorite album of Bruce’s?
DL: I’m partial to Born to Run but he’s got so many. He’s someone who is still putting out great albums which is mind-boggling. If you look at the breadth of his career I think you can find someone who has put out as much, but I don’t think you can find anyone who has kept the level of quality he has for as long as he has. His last album was as good as his first.
FM: I’m a huge fan as well – I’ve seen him like 15 times. Now that we have talked a little bit about music – what about films? I know that James Cagney films were a big influence on you, as well as film noir. Do you have a favorite film noir?
DL: A favorite film noir would probably be Out of the Past, if I had to choose just one. There are so many. It would either be that or Night and the City, the original, not the remake.
FM: Obviously your books have been made into films and that is a lens that people will sometimes see and use to interpret your work. Do you have favorite directors now? I don’t want to pin it to a genre, because a good story is a good story.
DL: David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Michael Graham, Ben Affleck has really stepped up, I am probably going to see Argo this weekend.
FM: We just saw news he is making Live by Night?
DL: It is public consumption now, he is. We’ll see what happens. It worked the first time, why not try it again?
FM: Why mess with success, right? You set a lot of your work in Boston, yet part of Live by Night is also set in Florida. Is there something about Boston in the sense that the way people lived in Boston during some of the times your writing about, that you’re born into something and you are not alone in Boston? Can you talk about that in terms of the relationships between people, as well as the place. Can you compare those two places or settings for your work?
DL: The part of Florida, Ybor City, that I am writing about remains virtually unchanged since the 1920s, everything is still there. All the buildings in the book are still there… that’s really unheard of in Florida… its somewhat of a troubling city setting. I’m interesting in industrial city settings, and its on the water-just like Boston. The thing about Boston, which is why I write about it so much: there are not many places like it. Chicago’s a little bit, it’s really big…. New York’s a little bit, again, but it is really big. Boston has character, it is a small town… it’s a very concentrated area…and the people are unlike anybody else. I’ve traveled all around the country and Bostonians are a unique breed. So it is thrilling to write about the city and I’m grateful that I wasn’t born somewhere that’s just like anywhere else. I’ve seen a lot of communities [that seem] indistinguishable from a million different small towns, or a million different suburbs, or a million different suburban areas…. I feel like if I were born in one of those areas I am not sure I would become a writer, but I certainly would be a different writer. I was lucky to be born in a unique and interesting place.
FM: Definitely. That was my next question. What do you want people to get or understand about Boston? I think you answered it eloquently. Getting back a little bit to the book, one of themes there is this connection between fathers and sons… a conversation about doing things in your father’s shadow and I think Joe says that he doesn’t want to escape it. You hone in on something there that’s really true, that you can’t escape that… and you also talk about the violent offspring, when Joe’s father is talking to him about the consequences of his actions. Obviously, within your latest book, Live by Night, you are dealing with right and wrong and the repercussions of your actions. Was there a decision, or a point in your life, that has made the difference for you? Whether it was choosing to be a writer or not to take a job? Was it the consequences of that decision that made the difference for you?
DL: The only thing in my life that I can think of is when I was twenty I realized I was just no good at anything except writing. There was nothing else. There was no competition. So unlike a lot of people who can be pulled away from a degree if they are very good at math or very good at science or whatever, those other temptations, I wasn’t good at anything. So that was a life-changing revelation. It really put me on a path. So I was very grateful for that moment.
FM: And was there anything that brought that about or did it just sort of happen?
DL: I just realized there was just nothing… I was enrolled in community colleges, twice, and both times I flaked out because I wasn’t interested. [I thought], well I should probably just make the leap and try to be a writer.
FM: At what point was your breakthrough, in your mind, where you realized you had built up enough momentum as a writer to know that you had made it and that you would be successful?
DL: One turning point would be when I landed an agent, and then [another was] two years later when my book was accepted for publication. That was a great moment. And then when I actually saw the book in the bookstore—that was huge. Those are all moments. When I knew I could potentially be successful was [after the publication of] my fourth book; I realized I was making enough money not to have to worry that I would have to go back to tending bar or something. At least a few years I remember thinking [this is a breakthrough]: and I have enough to last to 1998, and then 2002, and then there was Mystic River, and when there was a renegotiation of my contract, and then until 2010…. So that’s where, those would be the moments.
FM: How far out are you now? [both laugh]
DL: I have kids now, so it’s totally different. Now I am thinking about college and if anything should happen to me. So now I am almost back to zero.
FM: I’ll leave it with a final question. How do you want to be remembered?
DL: I guess, because I have very little control over that, I think if someone said, he was a really great urban novelist I would take that…. If somebody said he was one of the definitive Boston novelists I’ll take that. I don’t need any bigger.
Well we could certainly say that.
For more from Dennis Lehane, check out his latest book, Live by Night, available now.
If you’re in the Boston area, welcome him back at the Boston Book Festival on Saturday, October 27, 2012. He will be taking part in a panel on Fiction: Time and Place – an exploration and discussion on the role of setting. And as we know, that puts Boston, past and present, on the literary map.