Gone, Baby, Gone
But he can’t stay away. Dennis Lehane left Boston for Hollywood, but you can’t take the city out of the writer.
These days, the writer Dennis Lehane operates out of a storefront in Santa Monica, California, a dozen or so blocks from the beach. It’s not much to look at: frosted windows, vaguely abandoned-looking, next door to a diner. When I visited in January, I wondered if I had the right address. Then I noticed a French-language edition of his 2008 novel, The Given Day, wedged up against the glass. There you go. Right address.
Lehane, 49, is one of the great crime writers of his age, and by far the most successful Boston writer. Which is to say, he’s a writer from Boston, but also of Boston, preoccupied with Boston. Eight of the Dorchester native’s 13 books, starting with his debut, A Drink Before the War, and perhaps culminating with 2001’s Mystic River—adapted for the screen by Clint Eastwood—are set in contemporary Boston, though several include a fictitious neighborhood called Buckingham.
In recent years, though, Lehane has struck farther afield. The Given Day explores the 1919 Boston police strike, and its sequel, Live by Night, follows Joe Coughlin, the son of police captain Thomas Coughlin, to Florida, where he embarks on a life of crime. His latest, the masterful World Gone By, continues the story in both Tampa and Cuba. It’s a book about fathers and sons, mayhem and morality, centered on a character who is either a good man who does bad things, or a bad man who does good things. If there’s even a distinction worth making.
Even as his characters travel away from Boston, so has the man. After working on The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, he moved to L.A. to keep a more active hand in the business. He calls himself “an unwilling transplant,” but if he’s unwilling, he’s busy as hell. While working on two upcoming novels, he’s adapting the Irish crime show Love/Hate (setting it in drug-ridden Oahu) for Showtime, developing a series for WGN America about Eliot Ness, and turning his period asylum thriller Shutter Island into a show for HBO.
So Shutter Island’s been a book, a movie, and now it’s going to be a show?
It’s set in the world of Shutter Island. It’s not Shutter Island; it predates Shutter Island. None of the characters are the same. There’s no DiCaprio type of character; there’s no Ted Daniels.
So you’re Fargo-ing your own material.
Yeah. When they proposed it to me, I didn’t want to do it, and then the more I thought about it the more I thought, Well, the one thing I didn’t get to do much with when I was doing Shutter Island—and it fascinated me—is the history of psychiatry in the 20th century. It’s fascinating, absolutely fascinating. I talked to Martin Scorsese about it, and we thought, Okay, this is something we can really rip the lid off.
What’s Scorsese like to work with?
He’s Scorsese. He’s intense. It’s a weird thing to be in the presence of a living genius. It’s like hanging with Rembrandt—it’s a very weird thing.
You were saying earlier you started thinking about moving when you got called in to work in the writers’ room on Boardwalk Empire.
Yeah, the experience was great. It was really cool. It is probably what led me to be out here now. I’m a pretty social human being, and I’ve been isolated now for the better part of 22, 23 years. I realized how much I missed water-cooler conversation, I missed socializing; I missed all of it.
Just bullshit. It’s a lot of fun. And you go out for drinks afterward—all that stuff that normal people take for granted that I completely missed out on for the past few decades.
Okay, so you moved to L.A. 18 months ago. Are you going to stay?
It looks that way right now. We’ve got our kids enrolled in schools, and suddenly it’s your life, you know? Would I like to be back in Boston? Hell, yeah, but I’m outvoted three to one right now.
What’s your read on the city these days?
It’s funny, that’s what this new book is looking at. I’m trying to figure out what the new Boston is. I don’t have it yet. It’s going to be a part of a trilogy that jumps back and forth between the past and the meltdown in 2008, which is where I think old Boston, new Boston, and America all came together. It’s a book about how the city is run. It’s looking at the old boys’ network. And it’s from the perspective of a cold-case detective whose father runs the BRA.
When you say the old Boston, you mean like the bad old days, the ’70s?
Yeah, what I called the bad old days, but I would actually argue were maybe the good old days. What Menino created is a wonderful new Boston, but it’s interesting—it mirrors this sort of new global order as well. We have this gleaming city on a hill, no question, but the disparity between the rich and the poor is staggering. Nobody can afford to live in Southie anymore, nobody can afford to live in Charlestown, nobody can afford to live in the city anymore. The city itself seems to be getting reenergized, but reenergized with very different demographics, economically speaking.
Are you finding it hard to write about contemporary Boston in a way that keeps you inspired?
It’s possible that’s why I stopped writing about contemporary Boston. In general, I do feel like an old world I knew very well has been swept away, and a new world is replacing it that I’m not sure I like very much. It’s probably true with every generation, but it’s never happened with this speed.
And yet I don’t think there was ever a period in which more people were fascinated by Boston. There’s no end to the Boston shows and movies. Why do you think that is? Besides the tax credits.
Architecturally speaking, it’s just a distinct-looking city. And it’s still got enough distinct attitude. Did you see the meme that went out the night of the bombings? It was a picture of Kenmore Square, and it said, “We’re not terrorized, we’re just wicked pissed.” It wasn’t even 10 hours after the bombings.
It’s always had this great sense of “fuck you.”
Yeah, we’re not going to call you terrorists, we’re going to call you fucking knuckleheads.
Which Menino actually did. It’s also a great shit-talking town, a great dialogue city.
Oh, it’s a great dialogue city. That’s when you can always tell the difference, even in The Equalizer, which was a perfectly enjoyable, kind of grindhouse movie. But the only reason it was shot in Boston was because it was architecturally cool. There was nothing Boston about it. There’s not a single Boston moment in there. I was like, “Give us five minutes with the script. Give me one Boston line.” There’s enough of us out in L.A. now. Any time a movie’s being shot in Boston, let us know. We’ll do it for practically nothing. Just let us Bostonize it.