Interview with Dennis Lehane
Dennis Lehane’s latest novel, Since We Fell, was published this week. I reviewed it for Shelf Awareness, and interviewed Lehane for the same issue. Below is our conversation, reprinted with permission.
It seems the only thing predictable about your career is that you always do something unpredictable. Since We Fell is different from anything you’ve written. The central POV is female, and Rachel and her family aren’t working class.
After 20 years of writing mostly about guys, it was refreshing to step into a woman’s perspective. And, yes, I decided to write about a bit more upscale world than I have before. Rachel comes from an intellectual family–her mother and father were both professors–but the damage they inflicted on her is just as brutal as the more direct forms of violence that happen in my other novels. And her journey (at least until she meets her second husband) is one of dislocation and isolation, of people abruptly leaving her life without a look back. In the first third of the book she’s on a search for her paternity. After that search leads to a mental breakdown, her next journey is to reclaim herself, which is the main journey of the book.
Rachel’s voice was so convincing, both as a woman and an individual with agoraphobia. How did you go about finding it? Did it come easily, and how did you know when it was right?
The voice mostly came easily. I did a pass after I was done to red-flag any areas where I thought Rachel could be sounding like a man or where I was seeing the scene through a pair of guy goggles. But there weren’t too many moments like that, as luck would have it. I ran the manuscript past a few female friends and it passed muster with them, so I figured I was okay from there.
As for the agoraphobia, I did a tiny bit of research but hardly to a taxing level. Most of the hard work of the book centered around drilling down into the causes of Rachel’s maladies. The gender-specific stuff and the particulars of how her panic attacks manifested themselves came out without too much struggle.
Your recurring theme of family is present: biological vs. chosen. Has becoming a father yourself affected how you write about family and father-child relationships?
No how-to manual can prepare you for the depths of both love and fear that overtake you when you bring a child into the world. I mean, before you have kids, you sort of get it… but you don’t, not really.
Since I’ve had children, I wrestle with the not terribly original terrors of not measuring up to what they need me to be, of failing them at crucial moments and, most of all, of what will happen to them if something happens to me before they reach adulthood. That last fear is clearly reflected in both the father-son relationship in my previous book, World Gone By, and the relationship Rachel has–or, more specifically, doesn’t–with her own father(s) in Since We Fell.
Regarding movie rights, you’ve said you only “sell to a studio through somebody,” e.g., to Clint Eastwood who then approached Warner Bros. about Mystic River, not to WB directly. Via which director did DreamWorks buy Since We Fell?
In the case of Since We Fell, I broke all my usual rules. I’m writing the adaptation, for example, and I did sell directly to DreamWorks, although with the inclusion of three producers whose work I admire. I’ve been in L.A. now for almost four years, so the “studios” are not as faceless as they were when I lived in Boston; I know a lot of the top execs. So, it’s a bit different from the days when I refused to sell to a studio because it felt like dropping the book into an ocean filled with unknowable but predatory creatures.
Tell us about your decision to write the screenplay, which you’ve said you never wanted to do for one of your novels.
Most times when I write a novel, the last thing I can see is the structure of it. I usually mosey on into my novels with a character or a line or two and just fumble around blindly for the light switch. And I rewrite a lot, usually in no particular sequence. So it’s normally impossible for me to see the structural through-line. I leave that for readers and, yes, screenwriters who wish to adapt the book.
But with Since We Fell, the idea popped into my head, fully formed: What if an agoraphobic woman with the “perfect marriage” comes to believe her husband has a second life in another city? And the answers to why that husband might be lying and what was going on in the background and how Rachel was going to have to conquer her agoraphobia to solve the mystery–all of that came to me in a matter of days. So for the first time since Shutter Island, I started a book with the structure locked in place. That made it easy to see how to adapt it for film. And I seemed like the right guy for the job. For once.
You live in L.A. now. Has the city inspired you to write any L.A. noir?
No. You’d be jousting with giants there. [Raymond] Chandler, [John] Fante, [Nathanael] West, [Horace] McCoy, and [James] Ellroy–to name just five right off the top of my head. I don’t see the point. I still have my little neck of the woods in Boston, the one place I feel confident that I know better than almost anyone. L.A. would take a lifetime to learn and I’ve spent that lifetime learning Boston. The L.A. literary landscape can get along great without any contributions from me.
You’ve written different genres and in different mediums. Is there something you’d like to tackle but haven’t yet?
Two things: I’d like to do a straight-up chase novel someday, à la Three Days of the Condor, a film I love. And I’d like to do a purely naturalistic novel in which there are no big action sequences or even overtly big emotions. Something small and quiet.
What have you learned in the past 20+ years of your career that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
Nothing. Careers are often built because of what you don’t know, what you’re too ignorant to fear or too stupid to realize you shouldn’t try. I never regret something I tried at and failed. I only regret things I never tried at all.