LOS ANGELES—Until now you’ve been able to find Dennis Lehane’s work in two places: the mystery paperback shelves, where his superbly crafted novels have been confined to a sort of genre fiction ghetto, and the multiplex, where filmmakers have converted his cinematic prose into movies such as “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone.”
The film streak won’t stop with “The Given Day,” Lehane’s epic historical novel built around the 1919 Boston police strike. Columbia Pictures has already snapped up the rights, and Sam Raimi is expected to direct. But when the book hits stores in September, you can expect to find it in the literature section—where, some might argue, Lehane’s work has belonged all along.
“He’s always been a literary writer, but ‘The Given Day’ is much more ambitious,” says Claire Watchell, Lehane’s longtime editor at HarperCollins. “It deals with bigger issues and much broader themes. I’ve known him since his very first book, and there’s been such a huge quantum leap. Not just in terms of writing; he’s always been a good writer, but in the depth of his characters. He really goes down to the core.”
Lehane, interviewed at Book Expo America in Los Angeles last month, has a simpler explanation.
“If you don’t challenge yourself every time out, I don’t see why you do it,” he says.
Flawed detectives, missing children, hearts of darkness: These have been Lehane’s stock in trade, propelled by page-turning plots and thorny moral quandaries set mostly on the streets of the working-class Boston area where the author grew up.
All of these ingredients can be found in “The Given Day,” but the stakes are higher, the intent more serious, the results richer. At 700 pages, the novel took Lehane four years to write; by contrast, “Mystic River” took two. It mixes characters real (including Babe Ruth, J. Edgar Hoover and Calvin Coolidge) and imagined (a conflicted law enforcement family, a black man on the lam from gangsters and a crooked cop). It tells a timely story about the balance between security and civil liberties.
It sets up shop at the corner of art and escapism. Look for business to be booming.
Sitting at a HarperCollins table at Book Expo, where “The Given Day” was among the most talked-about titles, Lehane greeted interview-interrupting well-wishers ranging from the famous (Ted Turner, with whom he appeared on a breakfast panel that morning) to the anonymous (a Barnes & Noble employee who wanted an autograph). He has the same no-nonsense demeanor as many of his characters, but he’s a lot gentler—which is good, since a knife fight on the Book Expo floor might be awkward.
He agrees that “The Given Day” represents a leap forward for him. But he sees that leap as just another part of a natural progression.
|DENNIS LEHANE AT A GLANCE BORN: Aug. 4, 1965, in Dorchester, Mass., a working-class area of Boston. CAREER: Before becoming a professional writer he worked as a counselor for abused children. He has also driven limousines, loaded tractor-trailers, parked cars and waited tables. “Everything was based on the idea of taking the best possible job for me to be a writer with,” he says. “Limos were phenomenal. You drive people somewhere and you wait for them for four hours. You start writing right away. You’re a captive audience.” THE WIRE: He wrote three episodes of the HBO series, including the one in which Omar, a fan favorite who robs drug dealers for a living, was killed off. “I killed Omar,” he says. “I got hate mail about it.” ON WRITING: He runs a writers workshop in St. Petersburg, Fla., called Writers in Paradise. He attended Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. “I believe very much in giving back,” he says. “I’m a writer because of very good teachers. So Writers in Paradise was the idea of myself and Sterling Watson, who was my mentor in college. It’s my alma mater, and it’s where he teaches. We started it up, and boom, it was successful right off the bat. It’s fun.”|
“The challenge after ‘Mystic River’ was to not get caught in a cycle of Mystic Rivers,” he says. “So I wrote ‘Shutter Island’ (the story of a woman who escapes from a hospital for the criminally insane, currently being filmed by Martin Scorsese). The challenge after ‘Shutter Island’ was to do a book about the Boston police strike, and then I very quickly realized I was dealing with a historical epic. Every time out I have to go some place artistically different for myself. That’s just for me. I can’t speak for everyone, but ultimately I can’t get inspired unless I’m testing myself.”
There are times in “The Given Day” when you can still hear the gears shifting, and when coincidence plays too big a part in moving the plot forward. This is the crank-it-out genre side of Lehane, the writer who in the past has needed the framework of a crime to be solved, frequently by the detective team of Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro (the main characters of “Gone Baby Gone”).
“Mystery and the detectives were always the metaphors,” says Watchell. “But he’s now gone beyond that.”
“The Given Day” also has a healthy dose of what Lehane calls his “class rage issues,” manifested here through a young police lieutenant who grows so sick of conditions in the department that he defies his family by becoming a union organizer. Class themes run throughout Lehane’s work; as strong as Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation of “Mystic River” was, it ended up glossing over many of the novel’s socioeconomic underpinnings. (Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” fared much better in this regard.)
Lehane’s books dramatize a palpable disgust with the arrogance and entitlement wielded by the haves over the have-nots. His father, a former foreman for Sears, Roebuck and Co., was a staunch union man, and Lehane inherited his fire.
“Taking the Lord’s name in vain was one cardinal sin in my family,” says Lehane, 42. “Crossing a picket line would be No. 2. Those were things my father felt like he could shoot you in the head for. Kill you on the spot. So I grew up with that very strong sensibility.”
But little is cut-and-dried in Lehane’s moral universe, especially when he writes about issues that speak to the here and now. “The Given Day” unfolds before a backdrop of urban terrorism, orchestrated largely by the real-life Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani (described by Lehane as “the Osama bin Laden of his time”). In the novel, officials use the very real terrorist threat as an opportunity to clamp down on unions and any other potentially subversive activity. Civil liberties take a beating.
“What comes across in the book is that I’m not sitting there saying, ‘Gee, we shouldn’t be afraid of terrorists,’” he explains. “You damn well should. But do you let the fear create your government? Do you let the fear throw out civil rights? If we go that way, then what are we protecting in the end? If you give away one more civil right, if you allow one more torture, you’ve given away the store. That certainly was the same thing they were facing back in 1918 and 1919.”
Meanwhile Lehane faces yet another novel-to-film proposition, a process that should feel more than familiar to him by now.
He says he never planned to become what New York magazine’s Vulture blog recently dubbed “crack for directors.” He just tries to write good stories. And if they become film, or literature, along the way, then so be it.
“Anybody who writes a book with a movie in mind, why not just skip the process and write a screenplay?” he says. “Books are hard, man. Write the screenplay and save yourself the trouble.
“I write my books to be read.”