After five acclaimed crime novels featuring the detective team of Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, in 2001 Dennis Lehane caught the attention of the literary establishment with Mystic River, a fully realized, character driven epic set on the streets of blue collar Boston. Already a national bestseller (and a finalist for the PEN/Winship Award), Mystic River will find new life this fall when Clint Eastwood's star-studded film adaptation arrives in American theaters.
Now, with his follow-up, Lehane has outdone himself again. As a hurricane bears down on the Massachusetts coast, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner, Chuck Aule, arrive on Shutter Island in search of a murderess who has escaped from the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. A riveting psychological thriller, the new novel, Lehane explains, is "an homage to gothic, but also an homage to B movies and pulp."
"To finish the novel—and it would be criminal even to hint at its ending—is to be disoriented, perhaps angered, and finally to reflect on the ability of a master storyteller to play havoc with our minds," Patrick Anderson raved in the Washington Post. "If we could bring back Edgar Allan Poe and equip him with today's postmodern bag of tricks, he might give us a tale as unexpected and unsettling as Shutter Island."
Dennis Lehane: I never know what to feel about my newest books— I need a lot of distance before I can decide if I like the book—but the best thing about Shutter Island is that I accomplished exactly what I'd set out to do. Whether what I set out to do is valid or worthwhile, that's to be judged down the road.
Dave: What did you set out to do?
Lehane: I think I'm really contrary by nature, so when Mystic River was—and I'm very grateful—praised for being literature as opposed to being genre, on the one hand I was over the moon because that's what I'd wanted to do. But the contrary part of me came in and said, "Well, if they got it, I must have made a mistake." So I said with Shutter Island that I would write a book that was an homage to gothic, but also an homage to B movies and pulp, and that the levels that it worked on would not be readily apparent; the subtext would not be readily apparent.
The book works on a straight plane of pure entertainment. If you want to go back and see what other planes it works on, great. If you don't, that's fine. That was the plan. And when I finished it, I thought I'd done it. I had a hybrid of the Bronte sisters and Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers in mind.
Dave: It's funny that you say that because twenty minutes ago we were talking in the office about Shutter Island in the context of Wuthering Heights, comparing the setting to the isolation of the moors. In Shutter Island, in a similar way, you set people apart from the rest of the world, and basically anything can happen.
Lehane: It was a desire to put these guys on the island, then remove every convention of the twentieth century. You don't have telegraph, radio communications? nothing. You're on an island in a hurricane. Boston might be sixty miles away, but it might as well be Australia because you can't contact it. That was very much going after the idea of the gothic dark and stormy night. All contact and all communication has vanished, so all the illusions we have of control are gone. These guys, yeah, they've got badges. Good luck to them.
Dave: It's more taut than Mystic River. It barrels forward.
Lehane: I was after a big sense of claustrophobia. There's a moment about fifty pages into the book where Chuck says to Teddy, "You know, all kidding aside, I'm starting to get nervous here." And I had meant to hold that moment off at least another fifty pages, but as I was writing I thought, Why hold this off? The reader is smart. The reader isn't sitting there going, Boy, I hope nothing else is going on here. I just said, Let's just drop the pedal. Let's just go. And from that point on the book never stops.
So that was very much intentional. The vice just keeps tightening. The "four days" structure of the book? by Day Two, you've got clammy palms, or that's my desire, as a writer. By Day Three, you really start bugging out of your skin. I was when I was writing it. I began to dream like Teddy, to feel a sense of oppressiveness on a regular basis. This book that I was climbing into?
I say this half jokingly, but I think I finished the last quarter of the book so fast because I just wanted to get a good night's sleep. I was dreaming nonstop and it was driving me nuts. I was conceiving dreams all the time in my head, then I'd go to bed and I'd start having them. It was just exhausting.
Lehane: It was a different challenge. It was going down a very different road. It was saying that I can't follow up Mystic River with another Mystic River. Artistically, there was no point. So why not go 360 degrees away and play with something I've always been enamored with: the gothic? That's what I did.
Lehane: I do. He's mentioned early. As a tip. Just saying, "I'm getting this out here now."
Dave: It's not a police book. It's a story about people who happen to get involved with the police.
Lehane: Right. The police procedural stuff in Mystic River is the least important stuff. Who dunnit? Who cares? I mean, ultimately, it's about the ramifications of this one death on every single person who ever came in contact with this woman.
I was very tired of reading books in which the death of a person was put on the pages basically for titillation factor, characters brought in essentially to get killed, like a Friday the 13th movie. We're going to introduce them for three minutes, then we're going to wipe them out. I said with Mystic River: One person's going to die and it's going to hurt. It's going to hurt beyond pain. That's one of the reasons I kept the body off the page for, I think, until about 120 or 130 pages in. You know she's dead. But you feel the absolute anguish of the parents because they just don't know. Is she dead? Is she not dead? Is she in the river? It became a book about the social fabric of the world in which she lived.
The whodunit is there, but it's the last thing I thought of. I always said with Mystic River I wanted to write an epic story about small-scale lives. I wanted it to play out like opera. There's no question I was swinging for the fences very early in that book, particularly the scene where the father realizes his daughter is dead. I remember writing that scene, going, This is either going to work or it's going to fall on its face, because that was about as high opera as I could get. Certainly, the point was the people, the characters, the sense of fate, the sense of tragedy. It was scaled as a tragedy from the beginning, the tragedy of trying to run from who you are, which chases down everybody in the book.
Dave: An inseparable part of that is the neighborhood.
Lehane: It's probably the major character in the book.
Dave: All your novels are set in or around Boston.
Lehane: All my novels. The first five were in Dorchester; the sixth is Buckingham, which is an amalgam of four neighborhoods that I sort of squished together to create one. Then Shutter Island is the Harbor Islands.
Dave: Mystic River feels the closest to home, the most fleshed out as far as the setting goes. That was the plan from the beginning?
Lehane: From line one.
It's funny because when I read a section of Mystic River aloud at a reading, people will come up to me afterwards and say, "You know, I never realized how funny it was." It's all in the voice.
My first five books... there was a lot of repartee, a lot of fast talk. Snap-snap. Mystic River only has, I think, two overtly funny lines in it. But the voice to me is a funny voice. He's humorous. He's a guy sitting in a bar, and he's got a great story to tell, and he knows it's a great story. He's kind of stringing you along, having a good time.
That was a voice that was modeled after pop music. I was going after Springsteen. I listened to a lot of Clash when I was writing the book. I listened to a lot of Rolling Stones and Red Hot Chili Peppers. I was trying for a sense of constant buoyancy because the book itself was so dark and tragic that the voice is what carries you through. It says, Okay, this isn't a depressing dirge. This is a kind of open-hearted look at a tragic event. I'm really happy with that, I guess. It's the only book I'm really ecstatic about—but, as I said, I can't be ecstatic about Shutter Island because I don't have any feeling about it yet.
Dave: I'll ask you in a couple years.
Lehane: It's funny how these things happen. I was hanging out with Richard Price, who is the reason I became a writer, essentially, the closest thing I have to an idol, and he said, "What's your next book going to be?" I said, "It's going to be a gothic." He said, "Wow, that's cool. I'm thinking of writing a ghost story." I thought, Richard Price writing a ghost story?
You always have one in the back of your head. The one you'd like to try. Shutter Island was mine, and I did it.
Dave: You've written seven novels now. To think about your place among writers—mystery or crime fiction or literature—who do you see as the ones working closest to you?
Lehane: Of my contemporaries, I probably feel most closely akin to George Pelecanos. I don't think it's a mistake that we became pretty good friends. We started out kind of around the same time, and we have similar attitudes. A lot has been made of this in the last couple of years, but we do honestly believe—I honestly believe—that the crime novel is where the social novel went. If you want to write about the underbelly of America, if you want to write about the second America that nobody wants to look at, you turn to the crime novel. That's the place to go. So I would say George, definitely.
You know, if it walks like a duck and it talks like a duck, it's a duck. I don't bristle at the "you're a mystery writer" or "you're a crime writer" thing. I don't have any issue with that. But I do think that personally, when I sit down to write, with the exception of Shutter Island, I'm writing an urban novel, writing about urban realities. I'm trying to follow in the tradition not so much of Chandler or Hammett, but of Hubert Selby, Richard Price, Pete Dexter, William Kennedy? That's what I'm going after.
And Richard was talking about this, too: the difference between his books pre-Clockers and Clockers and on. He discovered what he called the skeleton of a crime novel, and he uses it in every book now—in Clockers, Freedomland, and Samaritan. That's always been my thing, too. I'm a terrible plotter, so I need some sort of structure to work all the other stuff in. Give me a crime novel because something bad has to happen. I do that, and it gives me a nice little structure to follow, a very loose structure. Then I can play with that in a million different ways.
I really consider myself sort of a bastard influence between urban novelist, pulp fiction, and high-end literary fiction. Somehow all of that collates to create me, I guess.
Dave: Do you still teach?
Lehane: I do. I love teaching.
Dave: Do you assign the authors you've been mentioning?
Lehane: Well, I teach creative writing. I'm not teaching Lit classes as much.
I did one crime fiction class, and it was terrific. I got to pick a bunch of stuff that a lot of people don't know. People into crime fiction know, I should say, but the students had no idea what The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley was.
Mostly, though, I'm teaching creative writing, and one of the things that I say when people come into my class is, "If you know who I am and you came here to learn how to write a thriller or to learn how to write a bestseller, leave now because I don't teach it. I don't know how to do it. I'm going to talk about depth of language, about depth of character, I'm going to talk about epiphanic moments and Aristotelian logic? I'm not going to stand here and say, 'If you do this and you do this? '"
Whenever I see books about how to write bestsellers, I just want to ask, "Why don't you just call it, 'How to write a screenplay'?" I say to my students right off the bat, if there's not depth of language, if you don't bring some sort of music to your prose, if that isn't something you can put on the table, then please go do something else because it's the only thing that separates literature from any other art form. That's it. That's all we've got left. Hollywood can beat us in the car chases and the explosions and the high drama. All we have is language and the depth of character, the ability to take you through a life, as opposed to suggesting it.
But I love teaching. When I assign books, I assign across the board. I have two weaknesses: modern lit—postwar lit, in particular—and Shakespeare. I read what I had to read to get a Master's degree, but my fascination has always been with postwar writers, American and British, so nine times out of ten if you ask me who I'm reading it's someone reasonably modern: Cormac McCarthy, Martin Amis, Toni Morrison, Marguerite Duras.
Dave: Each of the last two books will be movies. Mystic River will be coming out soon, right?
Lehane: It's done. It just showed at the Cannes Film Festival.
Dave: Have you seen the finished cut?
Lehane: I did.
Dave: What did you think?
Lehane: It took me about two weeks to get my head around it, but I think it's great. For two weeks there I didn't have any opinion whatsoever. Between when the book was published and when it was actually in the can as a film was less than a year and a half. It was blindingly fast. You don't have time to get any distance. I'd just started to get distance on the book. I was just starting to feel good about the book; then all of a sudden the movie was done.
I saw it about a month ago in L.A., and it was like getting pummeled. I couldn't suspend my disbelief. I couldn't be an audience member. I knew everything that was going to happen. I knew every scene that was going to follow. That was really bizarre, so I took a couple weeks and really began to pull away from it. Right at that moment, it premiered at Cannes, and three major reviews came out: Variety, Le Monde, and I think the London Times. They were raving, and the raves were picking up on the things that I felt worked most in the film, so then I began to go, "Oh, I think it's good."
I do think it's a dynamite movie, and no matter what, I was treated better than any author I've ever heard of on that film. Clint Eastwood brought me in from the beginning. He kept me informed, he kept me in the loop and actively sought my opinion. Brian Helgeland wrote an astonishingly faithful script. They got the dream cast of all-time. I'm in gravy.
All you can ask is that they attempt to get the spirit and that they respect you, and I got both of those in spades.
Dave: It must have been strange seeing the story on film so shortly after putting the novel out into the world. It ceases to be your story.
Lehane: No, it's not anymore. Those are your lines, but they're not. That's your world, but it's not really. Those are your characters, but they're not quite. It's all interpretative. It definitely took some adjusting, but I'm really happy with it.
Dave: Now that you're two books out from the Kenzie and Gennaro series, do you think you'll ever go back?
Lehane: If they knock on the door, I will welcome them in with open arms because they bought my first house. That's true, and I'm very touched by how they went out into the world and became, in a bizarre sense, something beyond me. They spread in a way I never could have. So I'd love to bring them back, but I also said that I would never write about them unless they told me to. I won't plug them into a plot. And I do like the idea of leaving the stage on a high note. I think any series is going to run down, and you don't know where the tipping point is. But any series is going to wear out its welcome.
They haven't knocked. I see them, and whenever I picture them they're in some hotel room in the Caribbean, for some reason, and the phone rings. One of them says, "Don't pick it up. It's him." Because I beat the hell out of them. I beat the living shit out of those characters—psychologically, physically, emotionally. I think if they want to stay away, they deserve to stay away. If they knock on the door really hard some day, I will go right to the typewriter because I'd love to go back for one more, but I won't plug them in and have them take a cruise where the chef gets killed and only Patrick and Angie can solve it. That sort of Hart to Hart shit, I don't want to go near it.
Dave: It's true about the impact a long-running series can have, not just in literature—the most obvious example would be a television series. People get attached to it. They live with the characters over a significant period of time. But whereas your readers will wait for each new book, then devour it in a few days, you're working with these characters for years, every day.
Lehane: Also, I think TV series are a great example. I have a five-year rule on dramatic TV series: I will put it to anyone to name one dramatic TV show that didn't drop right off the cliff after the fifth year. Hill Street Blues went to shit. Homicide: Life on the Street, which was just about the greatest TV show ever, went to hell. You run out of storylines. Then what you do is you start putting the characters into personal situations. ER —the doctors are stuck in El Salvador. A very special episode of...
I think of The X-Files. I was an X-Files fanatic. Somebody said, "What did you think of the last episode?" I said, "Well, I stopped watching it for two years, and the last episode showed me exactly why I did." She's gonna get pregnant? You run out of things to say.
I wrote five books, and in the fifth book I noticed one of my characters— probably the most popular character I've ever created, Bubba Rogowski— in the fifth book, he started getting cute. Just a little bit. And I felt myself doing it. I knew that people loved him and they wanted to know a little more about him. I look back at him and I just go, He's exactly what I said I'd never make him. It's just hinted at in the fifth book; it's not all the way, but it's there.
That has a lot to do with it. Step off the stage. Nobody wanted to see Michael Jordan play with the Wizards. Nobody wanted to see Joe Montana go out with Kansas City. I don't really want to see Emmitt Smith play for whoever the hell he's going to play for next year. I felt that way about these characters. If they want to come back for one more hurrah, and it's the right book, I'm all in favor. But if they just want to stay away, I'm all for it.
Dave: You've mentioned music and books and TV. So what's got you excited lately? A movie? Anything in particular?
Lehane: The weirdest stuff. Everybody thinks I sit home and watch Seven over and over again or something, but the films that I like the most are what are generally called "dramadies." My favorite movie is Bull Durham. I've seen it like twenty-five times. I think it's the greatest script ever. And I love Breaking Away. And Nobody's Fool with Paul Newman. My favorite movie of the last long time is Igby Goes Down. I love that movie. And I loved About a Boy with Hugh Grant. I tend to like small little? dramadies, essentially.
Music? I really like that Solomon Burke album [Don't Give Up On Me], but my favorite album of the last year was A Rush of Blood to the Head by Coldplay. I liked their first album, but I think this is heads above, an astonishing piece of work.
I tend toward liking smaller, less loud things, as a viewer, but every now and then? I was online Day Two to see The Matrix: Reloaded, which sucked. We walked out and we said, "I think it's an interesting half a movie." It's the most ridiculous half a movie I've ever seen. They stop practically mid-scene. To be continued, you know? And TV? I'm just lost. There's nothing that gets me excited anymore. I can't even remember the last time I got into a TV show.
Dave: How's Boston these days?
Lehane: It's very good. We survived The Big Dig, so it's all good. We have seats on top of The Green Monster. Things are looking up.
Dave: The Sox are in first place.
Lehane: Only by half a game now, though. I watched into the seventh inning before I came over here, and the Yankees were kicking the hell out of them.
Dave: What else? What keeps you motivated?
Lehane: The highest ambition for a writer—and I think most would admit this, most good writers or people who want to be good—is the desire to be read after you're dead. And it's an insane ambition because you won't know. You'll be dead. But that's it: to stay in print after you're dead.
I think my best books are meant to dig in in a very quiet and deep way. They're meant to be picked up again two or three or four years from now. That's why I write. The greatest compliment you can get is "I reread your book." A person walking up to you and their book's been underlined. Because I do that when I read. All of a sudden I have to mark a line so I'll be able to find it again. That's a grand slam in the seventh game of the World Series. It's better than any awards or any money or any movie deal.
Dennis Lehane visited Powell's City of Books on Wednesday, May 28, 2003; before his reading we spoke for a half hour in the Annex. Then, three days later, I was in Los Angeles, standing in front of the MacAdam/Cage booth on the floor of Book Expo America, when I looked up and found Lehane standing right in front of me. "You, again," he sighed, in the deadpan manner of a writer more than a little familiar with tough guy dialogue.
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State