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.
Do your friends back home give you shit for living in L.A.?
Yeah. But not as much as you’d think. It’s funny, most of the guys I still hang out with are the guys I met while parking cars and stuff. I was back at a party a while back, and I said, “I realize something now. I realize I am prejudiced against one group of people. I hate white people. I hate the one percent.” And my buddy said, “Fuck you, give me your car. Fuck you and your liberal guilt. I drive a piece-of-shit Honda, give me your fucking Range Rover.” But they’re not dissing me as much as you’d think.
Do you have a favorite Boston story? Like, when people around here ask you to explain the city to them?
Yeah. When we lived in Charlestown, my wife had just seen The Town, and she said, “Honey, I don’t get The Town and Mystic River; I don’t get what you’re talking about. Everybody here looks just like us. It’s just a bunch of yuppies who drive BMWs and live in really nice houses.” I said, “Just wait, you’ll see.” So we took our daughter, she was one at the time, to the playground. And as we walk in there was a woman who was clearly Italian, and she had three kids clearly from three different dads, and she couldn’t have been nicer. And one of her boys was buzzing around my daughter, who was just learning how to walk with this plastic car. And the woman suddenly reaches out and grabs the kid, and says, “Hey, hey, you’re scaring that little girl. You’re scaring that little girl. Do it one more time and I swear I’m taking you back to the playground in the friggin’ projects and see how you like it when you get shot.” My wife was like, “We’re going to go.” But that, to me, is like the ultimate Boston. “See how you like it when you get shot.”
That’s fantastic. Not that I’m accusing that woman of child abuse, but you worked with traumatized kids after college. What was that experience like?
In a lot of ways, grueling. I worked with severely mentally handicapped kids here in Boston, and then all through college in Florida. When I finished college, the only thing I was qualified for—with a creative-writing degree—was nothing. And the only experience I had was working in group homes. So then that morphed into working in a group home with mentally, physically, or sexually abused kids.
That’s a burnout job.
It was a major burnout job. And the people who do it, my hats off to them. God bless them, because after a certain point of doing it, I started to really pick up a hair-trigger temper, which I never really had before. You’d see people treating their kids like shit and you couldn’t do anything about it, and you’d carry that anger. I did that for a few years, and then I basically reached a crossroads: I said, “I think I’d like to channel this in a different way,” and I put it toward the writing. I do think A Drink Before the War, my first book, was a direct result of that job.
I feel like all your books are a direct result of that job.
You know what it is? I always put it like this: The most autobiographical detail you’ll ever see in any of my books is in Sean Divine in Mystic River, because he grew up in the nice part of the crap part of town, and he won the parental lottery. It’s what separates him from the other two kids. And I said I’m never going to use the words “survivor guilt,” but that’s what he suffers from. That was the overriding autobiographical thing that I put into that book. The difference between me and so many of my friends was that I won the parental lottery and they did not. Simple as that.
You don’t want to use the term survivor’s guilt, but do you feel any guilt about it?
I feel some. I knew so many super-smart guys and girls, but basically, a certain defeatism entered into them; a certain sense that you can’t go any higher. And they had a certain upbringing. And I didn’t have that. I had my loving immigrant parents, pushing me, saying, “Do better than us, do better than us.” That gave me this advantage that my friends didn’t have. I may have a little bit of survivor’s guilt, but I certainly have a sense of real responsibilities.
To your parents? Or to your own potential?
To what I’m doing. People will say, “Why did you do social work?” “Why did you teach as long as you did?” All of these other things. Because it’s the only way you can live with the guilt. You know what I mean? It’s the success.
You don’t want to feel like you’re hoarding it all for yourself.
It’s funny, my friend Andre Dubus, the elder, the late short-story writer, he used to say the only way Catholics like us can live with the guilt of success is to send the elevator car back down. That was his theory. So you don’t hold it up on the floor where you got off; you’ve got to make sure it goes back down and picks somebody up. So I do believe in that.
I like that. So: World Gone By. I’m not bullshitting you, that book is fantastic.
Oh, wow, thanks.
I think it’s my favorite Lehane book. Not to diminish your other ones, but this one felt like a complete command performance. It felt completely realized.
Which is weird, because I hated writing it so much.
Yeah, one of my best buddies was just saying to me, “Jesus, there’s not a seam that shows in this book.” Really? It was written in so many pieces, it was so disjointed, I fucked the dog on the thing at least four times, up until early January of this year. I didn’t have it, I didn’t have it, I didn’t have it. Then I was with the writer Tim O’Brien, who showed up at the writers’ conference I ran because he wanted to meet me, which floored me—this is fucking Tim O’Brien, he’s one of the biggest idols I have—and he said, “The thing I love about your work is it’s always authentic; you’re organically authentic.” And I went home that night, and I went, That’s the problem, the whole book’s a fucking lie. [Laughs.] I threw the whole entire ending out. I woke up the next morning, I had the ghost, I had Joe, I had my ending.
And that ending’s a killer. By the time it was publishable, did you finally feel like you had knocked it out of the park?
No, by that point you’re just too disjointed, you know all the stuff that you screwed up, you’ve got file cabinets filled with what didn’t make World Gone By. It was the exact opposite of Live by Night. Live by Night was written in four months, straight, beginning to end, piece of cake. World Gone By was more than two years.
Have you ever been totally satisfied by any of your books?
Close. Mystic River I was close; The Given Day I was close.
The Coughlin books are all about fathers and sons. In Live by Night, Thomas Coughlin says, “The funny thing about fathers and sons is you can go forth and build an empire, become king, God, but you’ll always live in his shadow.” Do you feel like that’s universal?
I don’t know if it’s universal, but you do always feel like some part of you has this impossible dream, which you’re probably not even aware of, to become your father. And you can’t do it. Physically it’s impossible; culturally it’s impossible. It’s just impossible. You can’t be the guy. So you’re in a constant state of dissatisfaction. It’s very weird to be a son.
Did the fatherhood theme come from your own experience raising kids?
Yeah. When you’re a parent, you’re constantly—whether you know it or not—reflecting on your own childhood through your kids. You find yourself completely identifying with your parents in ways you never thought you would. Like, Oh, I’ve been pissed at them all this time and now I realize why they did what they did. Or other times you go, No, you assholes, you didn’t have the right to act that way. Like, I didn’t do that with my kid. It’s really weird. You have kids and all of a sudden all this shit that you haven’t really reconciled—it comes back.
Are your parents still alive?
Nope, they’re both gone.
What was your father like?
My father was a charming motherfucker.
Give me a good Mr. Lehane story.
Okay, when I made the deal with Clint Eastwood for Mystic River, I called my parents, and they did that annoying thing where they both pick up the phone. I told my mother I made a deal with Eastwood, and she says, “Oh, my!” And my father says, “Who’s Clint Eastwood?” She says, “Mike, you know who Clint Eastwood is.” He says, “I have no idea.” She says, “He was on Westerns.” My father says, “Was he on Bonanza?” That was the last show my father ever watched. He didn’t like fiction; he never read any of my books. And my mother tells him no, and my father says, “Then I don’t know who the hell he is.”
Then he meets Clint on the set. My mother’s in catatonic shock: Clint had just shaken her hand and she’s staring at it not knowing what to do with it. And I turn around and there’s my old man talking to Clint, and he’s telling him how much his movies have meant to him over the years, the bonding experiences he had with his sons. Finally Clint leaves and I say, “You still don’t know who that fucking guy is?” And he says, “Not a clue.” [Laughs.]
That’s the most Irish thing I’ve heard in my entire life.
For a guy who didn’t like fiction, he was a great storyteller, and he grew me up to be a storyteller. He used to take me to bars where I would hear stories; he used to take me to his brother’s and sister’s and his brother-in-law’s houses and I would hear stories. That’s really where I got the gene. But he read no fiction, and he did not like movies. He did not like fictive TV. Nothing. He liked 60 Minutes and the newspaper.
What did he do for work?
He worked for Sears & Roebuck in Kenmore Square. He was part of that generation: The guys that went in, and 35 years later they came out with a watch and a pension.
Did he give you shit for sitting on your ass all day?
He kept asking me when I was going to get a real job. He was asking me until my fifth book. He’d call me every time Boston Gas was hiring, the postal exam. He kept asking me when I was going to go back to teaching. As he understood, the bottom could drop out at any second, and there was no safety net. So he didn’t quite get it. Then he saw this billboard, it was over the Pine Street Inn—it’s the billboard in Boston. It used to be the most expensive billboard in Boston because it was where the traffic slows down on 93. I got that billboard for Mystic River. He came to my house and he said, “So I guess you’re doing okay.” That was the moment for him. But until the day he died, people would ask him if he’d read my books, and he’d lie and say, “Oh, that Mystic River, that was a good one.” He didn’t read shit.