TO CALL DENNIS LEHANE a crime novelist is to miss the point. It’s an easy mistake to make. After all, he did get his start writing procedurals — the popular Kenzie-Gennaro series. But it didn’t take long for Lehane to blow the conventions of the genre wide open and use crime as a springboard to explore the people we are, the way we think, the places we live, and the world we’ve created. Most recently, in his Joe Coughlin novels, he’s employed the microcosm of crime, specifically gangsters, to examine the violence inherent in American history. Lehane’s most recent novel, World Gone By, brings this series to an inevitable conclusion with a dramatic and emotionally brutal flourish.
IVY POCHODA: We’ve talked about writing several times in the past, and one thing that stuck with me from those conversations is that you don’t plan your books — you write your way in until you find the story. So had you planned the Coughlin novels as a trilogy?
DENNIS LEHANE: I just never knew, ultimately, which is truly the only way I work. It just seems I have to leave an opening for the story to organically do what it’s supposed to do, if that makes any sense. I put a period on this in a big way, which was not necessarily my intention when I started the book, but the book just kept saying to me, for all intents and purposes, you’re writing a book that on every page is about death. I doubt there’s going to be a happy ending.
It seemed from a quarter of the way through that we were trundling toward a rather inevitable ending. I know you let your characters lead you. How far were you into the writing before you saw that this wasn’t going to end well?
It was actually several drafts. There were several drafts with a different ending, but I was very unhappy with them. I was miserable. I realized because I was writing against what I knew needed to happen. I was engaging in a type of wish fulfillment, which I’ve always hated and I think always leads to a false art.
This book is on a completely different scale than the previous two in the series. This one is more streamlined and has a ticking time bomb structure, while the others are more epic in scope. I guess you didn’t plan that.
No, it’s just what the book wanted. For whatever reason, it needed this specter. In that sense, it had a cleaner through-line than the other two books — What is this rumor? Why is this rumor out there? Why does Joe keep hearing that somebody wants to kill him when all evidence is to the contrary on every single page of the book? I probably overindulged in the Greeks, I guess.
Again, I wish I had more of a conscious sense. I just know that when the book began, that the first time I felt like I’d locked in on it was this idea of an unsubstantiated rumor out there. At first, Joe’s rational side would say, “Of course not,” but if somebody says, “Somebody may be trying to kill you,” sooner or later, it’s going to get you.
The action takes place at a moment in Joe’s life when he has a lot of questions about morality and mortality. I thought that gave a wistfulness and melancholy to this novel. He’s 37 years old, but he’s looking back on a life like a much older man.
I think if you were 37 in 1942, you were a much older man. I didn’t want to mention the war much, but I did want it to be there. Psychologically speaking, I think everybody in that era would have had a heightened sense of their own mortality. I think that was because every day, you were opening the paper, and every day, there were more dead and more cataclysm and concentration camps and blitzkriegs and sieges.
One of the trickier things with Joe has always been how disconnected he is from his own emotions, because he is this child of a disconnected marriage. It’s a very tricky thing to do, because what you’re constantly doing is having Joe in some ways being unreliable when things are filtered through him. That’s why a lot of people left Live by Night saying, “That was a tone poem to the gangster.” I was like, no, there’s nobody left alive at the end of this book. So it’s hardly saying this is a great life, but Joe thinks it is because Joe’s relatively amoral in a charming way. He’s completely disconnected from his emotions. The only emotion he understands is his own isolation.
I know that you value story above anything else, but this book does seem to have themes that pop up over and over again. No good writer sits down and says, “I’m going to write about the theme of death,” and, “I’m going to write about the theme of this and that,” but there are some overwhelming recurrences. One of them is parenting, a question of fathers and sons. I believe you became a father while you were writing this series, right?
Yeah. I entered into The Given Day as the most cynical human being on the planet, and I exited the entire coffin with two children. I have never been an autobiographical writer, but I am always obliquely writing about whatever I’m going through. The last three books I’ve written have been very child-centric, and partially that’s because I’ve got two kids constantly interrupting me while I’m trying to write.
The strange thing about the parent/child story in this book and in Live by Night is it’s a worst-case-scenario story. It’s not happy. If you’re drawing on your own experiences, you certainly translated them into something tragic.
Basically, these men [in these books] should not have children. The big lie all over the gangster community is family first, then business. Bullshit. That’s just horseshit. When Joe has that realization, “We always say we don’t go after each other’s families, but we amputate them pretty good. We create a lot of widows,” that’s the specter that’s haunting him. There are a lot of ghosts in this book, and there are a lot of fractured family relationships, and there are a lot of orphans. Part of the inference is that I know guys who have literally gone to war rather than stick it out for the domestic stuff early in a kid’s life, because it scares the shit out of them. I think that’s something that these guys engage in constantly, and that orphans their children.
It’s interesting that Joe realizes, “We create a lot of widows,” because in this book you have more widowers than widows.
Yeah. I didn’t realize that until after the book was pretty much going to print. I could have thought that one through a little bit more. Where the hell are all the women in this?
The woman you do have is just terrific. Teresa is one of the great characters, I think, and worthy of her own book. And she’s also a single mom, so you’ve got these three tough single parents in difficult situations. It makes me wonder if deep down some voice is telling you, “Now that I’m a father, becoming a single father is the worst thing that could possibly happen to me.”
Probably. I’m sure that’s probably part of it. One of the things I say about my wife is that she is the best mother I’ve ever seen, hands down. We may have a million other issues, just like any other normal married couple, but I always say to her, “As a mother, you’re just incredible, just astonishing.” I wish I was half as good a father as she is a mother.
So, yeah, my God, it’s in the back of my head. What if something ever happened to my wife? You know what I mean? It’s not that I’d have to take care of these kids, but I wouldn’t be half the parent she is and that’s something that weighs on me.
All these single parents add to the book’s melancholy note, which I found really interesting in a gangster novel.
One of the reasons I say, “Get the story down first,” is because it’s the last thing I’m interested in, so I just lay it down like a base coat of paint. Then I can do all the things I really love to do. So once I’d laid it down, I said, “Wow, you’re writing a book about the passage of time. You’re writing a book about how nothing gold can stay. The bell tolls for us all.” I would say that I don’t think it’s a coincidence by any means that this happened. Normally I would never speak of this, but I can’t deny it — my brother died as I was finishing this book. Then I lost my mother and my wife lost her father. And we went through this incredible year of death. I just thought, of course, this is weighing on every thought I have. I have now seen the world through a prism in which I realized that I’m losing people. I’m getting to that age.
I was going to ask you what you were yearning for in particular, but I think you answered in a way that I wasn’t quite expecting.
It was a really pervasive thing that was going on as I was coming into the homestretch of the book, something that I was grappling with and I’m still grappling with. I was extremely close to my brother, so it was on my mind, and it was coloring everything I was doing. Then also, kids, believe me — having kids makes you think about your mortality all the time. Some weird shit that happens when you’re a parent — you get this incredible empathy for your parents, and then you also get this renewed judgment of your parents.
Your kid will do something, and then you’ll snap, and you’ll think, “Oh, that’s why my parents snapped. That’s why my mother yelled at me that way that time. Now I get it. I understand.” Then your kid does something, and instead of snapping, or instead of replicating a bad parenting model, you do something good that your parents didn’t do. Then you go, what the fuck? You couldn’t show me a little love back then? This was one of the things I was playing with with Joe. His defense mechanisms are so strong, but being a parent also can be tough on the ego. You know what I mean? You just think, “Wow, I’m really lousy at that,” or, “That illusion that I built up that I just sold the world on, that doesn’t work with my kids.”
You do a ton of different things: screenwriting, television writing, novels — in two genres. How do you move back and forth between all these and keep your sanity?
I think a certain breaking point has been approached a couple of times, so I’ve learned to start saying no a lot and to keep my focus to a minimum of projects. Right now, it’s at a manageable level. I’m writing a trilogy of short novels that look at the creation of the new Boston, if you will.
How do you know it’s going to be three books if you don’t plan?
I always have a macro sense. We’re looking at a crime that happened many years ago in which the wrong person went to jail, so there are several steps. The first book is pushing toward an exoneration, and if the character were to get exonerated, or whatever, we’d be looking at what really happened. Then it would be: why did it happen? That journey will mirror something that’s going on with the main character in terms of his personal life and his own path, and those two things will ultimately cross paths. That’s the macro stuff I understand about the book. The only way I could write it is to say, okay, number one in my head is just called “Exoneration.” I’m writing towards the exoneration, whether it happens or not.
So does the day feel different to you when you’re sitting down to write a screenplay or to write a novel?
Completely different. One hundred percent different. I find novels about twenty times as hard and about twenty times more satisfying than screenplays. The hardest thing for me to do as a writer is setting the stage, painting the stage, dressing the stage, showing what you’re seeing. My God, that could take me forever, and it can be just so painful to do. Maybe I have a little trouble visualizing sometimes. I don’t know what it is. Whereas if all I’m supposed to do is say, “Interior ballroom, Joe enters,” and then have action and then have conversation, that’s just fucking cake to me.
You might struggle with painting the room, but sense of place seems so natural to your work. I knew nothing about Ybor City before I read Live by Night. So I looked it up online and could see why you’d be compelled to write about it. Since place is such a big part of your writing, what has to compel you about a place before you feel the urge to write about it? I remember you mentioning you were writing a television show set in Hawaii. What drew you there?
That’s a TV show. I don’t think I could write prose on Hawaii. I am in love with old places. But I don’t think I ever will write about any place in America besides Boston again. I feel like I’m pushing my way back to Boston. I spent the all of this book going, “God, I just got to get home.” I need to get back to my literary home. I can write about Ybor and Havana because they’re very similar to Boston, because they’re old, they’re filled with beautiful buildings, they’re filled with a lot of wrought iron — things that I find sexy. I’m attracted to old cities, but then old cities tend to have similar characters in some ways.
Ybor’s a microcosm of a microcosm. It’s a little, tiny encampment in the middle of Tampa, and we’re talking about the heart of a state where, if the paint peels on a building, they bulldoze it and put up a Hooters. Yet Ybor has held this line that it has been holding since around 1910. I love that about it. It was always a melting pot. It was never a place that was ever white. It had some native Floridians in it, some old Tampa people, but then it was Cuban, and it was African American, and it was Portuguese. That defined it. It has this wonderful flavor to it that I love. I feel like it’s this little baby New Orleans. I used to go over there when I was in college and in my later years, and think, wow, I just feel at home here. I feel comfortable.
I did notice that there was a fleeting mention of Los Angeles in World Gone By. One of your characters comes from Holmby Hills. Is that as much Los Angeles as is going to leak into your fiction?
I feel like Los Angeles is so covered that I would never … Never say never, but I’m going to come as close to saying never. I don’t see what I could contribute. I really don’t. James Ellroy’s got it. Michael Connelly has it. Chandler certainly had it. I just feel like, not even talking about novelists, what could you say about Los Angeles that Paul Thomas Anderson has not said? Talk about working in the shadow of, in my opinion, the greatest director of his generation. You want to be working in that shadow? Lord. No thank you. I just feel like I’m good.
I’m sure there’s some poor writer wanting to write about Boston and saying, “God, this guy keeps writing these really good books about Boston. What can I do?”
I want that. Thank you very much. Go write about fucking Jersey.