"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Monday, October 22, 2012

Eng. 180: Interview with Dennis Lehane!

Last week, we finished up Dennis Lehane's Mystic River and my class and I formulated some questions that he agreed to answer via email.  I was not expecting to get answers so fast, but last night, I come home from a truly spectacular conference in Milwaukee (which, as many of you know, "spectacular" generally does not denote a low-energy affair, so I was exhausted, which may have been exacerbated by the 10-hour drive from Lincoln to Milwaukee and back)--and what should be waiting in my inbox, but our interview!  I can't wait for class (later) this morning to share this with my students!  And, yes!  That's a lot of exclamation points for this early in the morning!



How do you go about writing your novels?  What is your writing process like?  Do you write longhand?  Computer?  What was your specific inspiration for Mystic River?  How many drafts did you go through for this novel?
I write in the mornings or late at night. Always hit the chair every morning for at least 3 hours. I write longhand and/or on laptop. Completely depends on my mood. The inspiration for Mystic River was moving to Charlestown in the early 90's, a historically clannish, 100% Irish, mostly poor-to-working-class neighborhood of Boston that had just been discovered by the real estate frontiersmen and yuppies looking to live closer to downtown. When I first lived there it still had plenty of rough edges but I could read the tea leaves, and I wrote myself a note: "What happens when Pat's Pizza becomes a Starbucks?" That's Mystic River in a nutshell. It took my another six years to begin writing the book because I didn't have the necessary muscle when I first came up with the idea. The book took about four or five drafts if memory serves. 

When creating characters, do you ever favor one over another and do you find yourself becoming attached to a certain character?  How much control do your characters have over the plot?  Do you let them free and write wherever they take you or do you know from the beginning what will happen in the story?
I usually have prior knowledge of three or four things that have to happen in my novel--one beginning thing, one middle thing, one end thing. Everything else is discovery. Sometimes characters pop up who speak to you with a lot more clarity and volume then others. Sometimes they're minor characters who present their case to become major ones. When that happens, I listen, because so much time is spent chasing characters down and begging them to talk to me. When one does so, freely and unbidden, I treat that like a gift from the gods.

How do you create a character’s dialect in a way that adds to the flavor of the story without being distracting?  What sorts of local knowledge—like dialect—are you conscious of writing into your characters?
I always had an ear for dialogue, probably because I came from a place where people spoke in a very vivid manner. I'm not conscious of writing it, though. It's just innate and organic. 

How did your upbringing affect the ways you use setting and character attitudes in Mystic River?  How are you aware of the ways you use the natural and built environments in this novel to create suspense?  What ways do you see this story as rooted in this place, that it could not take place anywhere else?
The neighborhood is a character in the novel, quite possibly the most important. It couldn’t take place anywhere else because East Buckingham doesn’t exist; it’s my amalgam of all the urban Boston neighborhoods. It was my way to look at the tribalism that defined the city for decades, for good and ill. Since I grew up very much a part of that tribal culture I certainly felt comfortable writing about it.

How do you go about writing societal fears, such as violence against children and violence against women?  Are you conscious of having an overall agenda as you write a novel, an overarching principle you want the reader to come away with?
I never bring an agenda into the book. If it bubbles up organically—as I assume it will—I deal with it as seems appropriate but I’d prefer to come bearing questions not answers. I’m not a big fan of the novel-as-scold. As a reader I’m there to be entertained and learn something about the human condition, not to be hectored or lectured. 
The relationship between law and justice and punishment is extremely complicated in Mystic River, a relationship that is essential to crime literature (crime disrupts the social order and and something must happen to restore order by the end of the tale) and causes the reader to question what constitutes justice.  (We just finished reading Rebecca, where a murderer went unpunished (at least by legal standards) and we were rooting for that murderer to go free.)  Can you respond to the complications of law/justice/punishment in Mystic River and how you created them, as a writer?
It’s playing around with American myths regarding regeneration through violence and the outsider who rights the wrongs society is unable or unwilling to. Jimmy Marcus is the classic American gunslinger hero—he follows his gut; he avenges the sins no one cares to avenge; he is absolutely sure he is right. Punch line is—he’s wrong. The novel is something of an assault on the idea that might can equal right or that we should forego trust in our institutions and the better angels of our nature simply because our emotions are boiling hot enough.
Many are critical of genre literature and crime fiction (recently Jeffrey Eugenides in the By the Book interview in the New York Times).  What position do you believe genre literature occupies in the larger world of writing and literature?  What do you see as it offering that other modes of fiction do not?  What do you see as the value of crime fiction?  (And we are noting that you use several different modes in your own work—from the PI in the Kenzie and Gennaro novels to a complication of that mode in Mystic River, etc.) 
The issue isn’t genre. The issue is whether something is formulaic or not. If I pick up a genre book where the hero cop and his family are targeted by the serial killer because this time it’s personal, well, I’m tossing that book aside. But if I have to to choose between, on one side, THE BIG NOWHERE or CLOCKERS—both books in which the main characters are policemen who, on some base level solve crimes—and, on the other side, the latest dirge about “the vaguely dissatisfied in Connecticut” or some piece of clever meta-fiction wholly unconcerned with character or story, it’s no choice at all. The former is literature, the latter is “literary fiction.” I’ll take the literature, thanks very much.
What authors did you read when you were starting out, writing your books?  Which authors were influential—and in what ways?  What current practitioners of crime literature do you think are doing particularly good work these days?  Where do you see the genre going?  What are you reading right now?  What books would you recommend to us?
I was most influenced by urban novelists like Richard Price, Pete Dexter, Elmore Leonard, William Kennedy, and Hubert Selby. I also looked up to those who’d transformed the crime fiction genre in the late 70’s and through the `80s—James Crumley, James Ellroy, and James Lee Burke. Then, because I’d studied to be a short story writer for so long, I’d say Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Andre Dubus, and Hemingway’s short fiction left a mark. Graham Greene cast an enormous shadow. The people who are currently doing great work in crime fiction are legion but ones who spring immediately to mind are Daniel Woodrell, Ken Bruen, Gillian Flynn, George Pelecanos, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, Laura Lippman, Michael Koryta, Stuart Neville, and Val McDermid.

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