The Interview: Crime-Fiction Writer Dennis Lehane
After nearly a decade in Hollywood and his first new book in six years, the hometown author often finds himself missing Boston. Just don’t expect to catch him at Tenean Beach, kid.
You can take the boy out of Dorchester, but you can’t take Dorchester out of the boy. Author Dennis Lehane first came to our attention with his novels Gone, Baby, Gone and Mystic River, just two of his books that have been turned into movies. Since then, he’s forsaken his hometown for Los Angeles and found success writing for television, most notably on HBO’s The Wire. With his latest novel, Small Mercies—his first book in six years, about racism and busing in 1970s Boston—coming out April 25, we caught up with Lehane to talk about the writing life, what it’s like to work with movie mega-stars, and what he misses most about his hometown.
You’re from Dorchester. What parish?
St. Margaret’s, which I believe is now St. Teresa of Calcutta.
Do you still consider yourself a Dot rat?
I certainly consider myself a Bostonian. That’s kind of hard to get out of your system.
But you defected to California. Why?
We came out here to look into TV possibilities at the time, and it just sort of snowballed. I didn’t think it was going to be permanent. I thought I was going to be here for maybe a year.
So how long has it been?
Nine years now. But what’s really strange is that because of COVID, I haven’t been home in four years. Before COVID, I was always coming back to Boston every summer. It was a big tradition. I’d take my girls to Red Sox games.
What do you miss the most?
The look of it. I miss red brick. I miss the smell. I don’t know. I miss that neighborhood vibe, the East Coast feel. But I have to admit I’ve become one of those people now, in late middle age, who’s like, “Yeah, I don’t miss winter at all.”
Okay, then, let’s talk beaches—New England versus southern California?
It depends upon the beach. I don’t think you’re going to put Carson Beach up against Venice Beach and win that battle. Or I don’t think Tenean is going to hold a candle to Santa Monica Beach. Tenean is the little dumpy beach in Dorchester where Whitey Bulger buried a lot of bodies. Like, you only went there when you had no choice. But when you look at Provincetown or Truro? I would say they’re the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. Those dunes? And that light? It’s hard to top that.
A lot of your work is on the darker side. Is that cathartic or depressing?
I find it cathartic. With my new book, writing it was like an exorcism. I finally purged stuff that’s been haunting me since I was, like, nine. It’s about racism, busing, and the summer of ’74. I had a front-row seat for that, and it was bewildering to see as a kid.
What were you doing when you published your first novel [1994’s A Drink Before the War]
I was a chauffeur for the Ritz-Carlton, a limo driver.
Who did you prefer as a director turning one of your books into a movie—Ben Affleck or Clint Eastwood?
Well, the thing Ben brought to the table that nobody else could is that he understands Boston on a granular level, and you feel that in Gone Baby Gone. Whereas Clint mounted just a beautiful film. It’s not that one film is better than the other. It’s just that in one, you can tell the director’s looking in through the glass, while in the other, he’s inside it.
How weird was it to have Leonardo DiCaprio, Sean Penn, and Kevin Bacon bring your characters to life?
At this point, because I now primarily run TV shows, I’m just very used to it. It’s my job. But am I past the point where it could faze me in any way? Bill Murray or Daniel Day-Lewis might. I always say that when it comes to the film adaptations of my books, I can’t take credit for much. I wrote the book, but the only thing I can take credit for with the movies is that I seem to write characters with enough meat on their bones that great actors want to play them.
Which of your books did you find the hardest to write?
There are a couple of answers to that. The Given Day because it was so long and so detailed is one answer. And then Mystic River because it was so emotionally devastating. That was pretty fucking hard.
Harder than your first one, A Drink Before the War?
That was a piece of cake. I finished the first draft in three weeks. I mean, that’s not what was published. I think what was published was like the tenth draft. But that sort of spaghetti-on-the-wall draft was done in three weeks.
Which of your books spent the most time atop the bestseller lists?
The longest was Mystic River, for sure.
You owe Bill Clinton a big thank you, don’t you?
Definitely. First, he was photographed coming off Air Force One carrying Gone, Baby, Gone. That image was used on a promo for 60 Minutes, so it was on this constant loop, him holding that book. That began an uptick in my name recognition, and then every year, he would release his list of vacation books to a bookstore on Martha’s Vineyard that was called Bickerton & Ripley [now Edgartown Books], and my books were always on the list.
Is historical fiction harder or easier to write than regular fiction?
I sometimes find that when I give myself boundaries or guardrails—things I must stick to, like history—that it’s a little easier. But one thing I learned from writing The Given Day was interesting. The Boston police strike of 1919 was mostly precipitated by the death of the previous commissioner, Stephen O’Meara, and then he was replaced by this monster who basically caused the strike. While I was writing, I remember obsessing for months because my timelines weren’t lining up. I knew that O’Meara died in December 1918, but I needed him to die in February 1919. And then, one day, I realized, I don’t think there are a lot of Stephen O’Meara fans out there who are really going to judge or check me on this one fact. So, I gave myself permission to fudge it. That’s the kind of thing you can get hung up on with historical fiction.
Is dialogue easy to write?
I think so. Every writer is born with some gift. Some are born with a lot of gifts. But I was born with the gift of an “ear,” which isn’t surprising, given that I grew up in Dorchester, where people speak rather vividly. I could always do dialogue. In fact, my earliest short stories were just like: “They sat on the bench,” and then a shitload of dialogue. And then “she had a cigarette,” followed by a shitload of dialogue.
Why do you think that even the best actors in the world can’t get a Boston accent right?
I was just talking to Paul Walter Hauser about this. We worked on Black Bird together. He’s doing a Boston movie [The Instigators], and he called me immediately. I finally got to give him the piece of advice I’ve been dying to give anybody for years, which is words are not meant to be dragged out. It’s more of an amputation. That’s what they constantly get wrong with a Boston accent. It’s not “nevaah,” it’s “nev’a.” It’s brief. It’s all about being too lazy to say the damn letter.
Was The Wire the best cop show ever?
It was an extremely good show, and I don’t argue when people say season four [when I was writing for the show] was one of the best. [Laughs.] But it always ends up in the top 10 or top five, so I’ll take it.
Screenwriting is a whole different beast, right?
It’s great because you don’t have to deal with the finery. With a book, I lose a lot of time agonizing over describing a room in a way that’s not hackneyed or clichéd. I can lose weeks, sometimes. In a screenplay, it’s: “Interior. Kitchen. Day.” You get to the heart of a scene a lot faster, and I find it immensely easier because my challenge as a writer lies in description. Static description is extremely hard for me.
Is there any topic that you would shy away from?
Well, you won’t see me writing too often about people who live in well-appointed kitchens discussing their malaise. That’s not my jam. I may be one of those people sometimes, but I don’t write about them.
Award you’re most proud of?
I’ve won a couple of Barry Awards, which are pretty cool because they come from readers. So, I like those. But I’m pretty fond of my two Edgars, just because they came rather late in the day. I was starting to feel like Scorsese before he won the Oscar for The Departed. If one more person came up to me and said, “Well, you’re the best writer never nominated,” I would have been like, “Shut the fuck up.” So it was nice to score a couple of those.
One book you wish you’d written?
That’s a big question. Right now, I’m on this massive Claire Keegan kick. She’s an Irish writer, and she’s written two short novels, one called Foster and the other called Small Things Like These. Those books are so perfect I’d kill to have written either. They are very small and very precise. I always set out to write a very small and very precise book, and it always gets away from me.
Anything you’ve written that you wish you didn’t?
I’ll be honest with you, no. Most of what I call my homeroom class, everybody I started out with—so that’s Harlan Coben, Lee Child, Michael Connelley, George Pelecanos—have lapped me, doubled my output. I produce at a much slower pace because I know that if I ever sped up, it wouldn’t be very good. So I’ve never put out a book I really want back, because I never rushed it. James Lee Burke puts out a book a year, and the quality doesn’t seem to flag. I’m like, “How do you do that?” Because I can’t, I just can’t write like that.
Do you think of your characters as real people?
When I’m writing, they become as close to real as they can get without me becoming schizophrenic. But a lot of the things that I used to experience in that way don’t happen. It’s a job, right? In the past 15 years, I’ve changed. I’ve brought kids into the world, and I’m a much more professional writer. I keep steady hours. So, that takes away a little bit of the artiste part of it.
What would you have said if I’d told the teenage you that someday you’d be teaching English at Harvard? “No way, mush?”
I don’t say “mush.” That’s a Newton thing. I would have said, “No way, kid.”
By the Numbers
From the Page to the Screen
A look at Dennis Lehane’s road to Hollywood.
Number of Lehane’s 14 novels that have been turned into movies.
Number of Oscar nominations received by Mystic River based on the novel of the same name.
Amount, in dollars, Gone Baby Gone earned at the box office worldwide.
Number of films based on Lehane’s novels in which Ben Affleck was involved.
The season of the HBO hit Boardwalk Empire in which Lehane served as a writer and creative consultant.
Number of seasons Lehane served as a writer on the TV series The Wire.
A version of this was first published in the print edition of the April 2023 issue with the headline “Truth and Fiction.”
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