A Conversation with Dennis Lehane Q: Who or what has most influenced your writing?
A. Graham Greene and Richard Price were both hugely influential on me. Elmore Leonard's Detroit novels and Parker's Spenser books certainly also had an effect. There are two short story writers -- Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus -- also set bars I keep trying to reach as well.
Q: Have you worked at jobs other than writing?
A. I've had a million jobs. But from the moment I said I was going to take this seriously, there was no other career track. I was not going to use writing for advertising or journalism. I would tend bar, load trucks, chaffeur-do whatever it took. But from the moment I took my first writing workshop, I was a writer. Whether I got published or not was really irrelevant. Whether I got good was what mattered.
Q: What are your hobbies or favorite pastimes?
A. I'm a pretty boring guy. I love to write, so it rarely seems like work -- even when it gets arduous. As for hobbies, I like to play pool and tennis. I sort of play golf because a lot of my friends are into it, but I'm awful -- my handicap is about six or seven thousand. I play poker a lot with guys I grew up with, and occasionally go out to catch live music in small clubs. My wife Sheila and I watch a lot of old movies and play with our two English Bulldogs, Marlon and Stella. Outside of a serious addiction to watching football during the autumn, that's about it.
Q: What contemporary writing in the crime fiction would you recommend?
A. I would recommend: "Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke; "The Sweet Forever by George P. Pelecanos; "The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley; and James Ellroy's L.A. Quartet:"The Black Dahlia, "LA Confidential, "The Big Nowhere and "White Jazz.
Q: Do you have any particular writing routine?
A: It's pretty scattershot, but predominantly I write in the early morning or very late at night. There's a sense that no one is going to call or drop by at those times and that allows my imagination to stretch. I've found that I get a lot of ideas when I walk my dogs along the river in the morning, so that's become a new routine of mine. Otherwise, I write long hand first; I've tried writing directly onto computer, but I end up getting stilted, self-conscious prose and leaden characters. Something about a smooth-flowing pen allows me to loosen up.
Q: Do you ever play music while you write?
A. The kind of music I play -- or whether I play any at all -- is dictated by what the mood is of whatever I'm writing that day. If it's a sad scene, I play sad songs. I listen to a lot of soundtracks and old blues. I was trying to sustain a high energy level in the language of "Mystic River, so I listened to a lot of high-energy stuff while I was writing it -- The Clash, Springsteen, The Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Moby.
Q: After a five-novel series -- why did you decide to explore a stand-alone novel?
A: For a long time, I think I'd wanted to write a book about small-scale people living in a small-scale place whose lives -- once they've been disrupted by an enormously traumatic event -- play out on a kind of epic, if not operatic, stage. It probably goes back to those Cagney movies and too much Shakespeare and Russian Lit in college, but I'm undeniably attracted to large-scope stories. It's probably why I never succeeded as a short story writer. If acharacter must fall, I want them to fall from the highest altitude possible. If a love must die, then it will be the most passionate love of all time. As a reader, I love large-themed, epic stories that are also bawdy and funny and lusty and adventurous-like "One Hundred Years of Solitude or "The Count of Monte Christo. So, after writing five novels in a series, I was thinking how battered my main characters were, how much they needed a little R & R after gun fights and car chases and a multitude of injuries both physical and emotional, and I knew that if I did write a stand-alone I couldn't just write the same thing I'd been writing with similar characters who have slightly different names and income levels. So I decided to attempt a quasi-epic about normal people thrust into circumstances far beyond them and forced to deal with questions -- about love and loyalty and friendship and family, vengeance and blood lust and the evil within both themselves and the world around them -- that they would prefer never to confront. And unlike the series, if a main character has to die, he dies. If a "good guy" turns out to be far less good than we thought, so be it. The rules no longer apply.
Q: How did Mystic River come to be-what was your inspiration?
A: I had written a novella for my graduate thesis in which the neighborhood of Buckingham existed, as did a cop named Sean Devine, and the title was "Mystic River." I always liked the title and I'd enjoyed creating this fictitious neighborhood with its own history and politics and street names and geography. And for about seven years the title and the neighborhood and the main character stayed with me, just lightly rapping on the doorevery now and then. About three years ago, a sentence--"Brendan Harris loved Katie Marcus like crazy, like movie love. . ."--started echoing in my skull, and it merged with some of the properties of the "Mystic River idea (which had been sort of elbowing its way into pole position in my head) and everything coalesced, I guess. When I was really young, my family would go over my uncle's house every Saturday, and he and I would watch the Jimmy Cagney double-feature they ran weekly on a local station while the rest of the family was socializing and whatnot. I was really young, maybe seven, but those films -- particularly the gangster films like "The Roaring Twenties and "Public Enemy -- had a huge impact. Since then, I think I've wanted to tell one of those types of stories -- the friends who grow up to choose different paths and ultimately reap the rewards and suffer the consequences of those choices. So in "Mystic River you have these three men we first meet as boys, and 25 years later, Sean is a cop, Jimmy is an ex-con, and Dave is deeply disturbed. And the death of Jimmy's daughter will put them on a collision course that in a way was set in motion back when they were nine or ten years old. On a second and third tier in terms of plot you also have Dave's wife, who begins to think he might be a murderer, and then the high tragedy of the victim and her boyfriend whose young love was destroyed in full bloom, and all of these plots and subplots were ideas I've played with at various times over the years, never realizing I'd pack them all into one novel.
Q: Have you decided whether your next novel will be part of the Kenzie-Gennaro series or a stand alone?
A: Honestly, I wish Iknew. Writing "Mystic River took so much out of me, my brain's wiped clean -- keep checking the Web site for updates.
Q: Will there ever be a follow-up to "Mystic River?
A. I can certainly see setting another novel in the neighborhood of East Buckingham and maybe having some of the characters from "Mystic River float through that world, but in more minor roles. I don't see ever writing another novel in which Sean or Jimmy is the main character because their stories seem as if they've been told now.