Master storyteller returns to Boston

Issue March/April 2016

Award-winning novelist and screenwriter Dennis Lehane will deliver the keynote address at the Massachusetts Bar Association's Annual Dinner on Thursday, April 28, at the Westin Boston Waterfront. Born and raised in Dorchester, Lehane has published more than 12 novels that have been translated into more than 30 languages and become international bestsellers. Some of Lehane's novels showcase both Boston and the criminal justice system. Lehane recently took part in a Q&A session about his literary career.

Where do you get your ideas for characters? From growing up in Boston?

Lehane: I honestly have no idea. I rarely base anyone even a tiny bit on anyone I've known, so it's not like I can draw a chart from Jimmy Marcus, say, to some guy I used to play baseball with at Savin Hill park. At the end of the day, it's all about imagination. I sit in a room, stare at the ceiling and conjure stuff up. That's the job.

Your initial books were detective stories, but then some of your books went in different directions (with more of a focus on a family). What prompted the change in direction?

Lehane: It was always an organic process. There was never a plan. I don't like to repeat myself, so even in the detective series, each book has a different mood and was toying with different aspects of the sub-genre of the P.I. novel. And then when I was done with it, I was done with it. Onto "Mystic River." After that was done, I felt like I needed a break from urban novels in general and thought I'd try my hand at a gothic, which is how "Shutter Island" came about. Then it was, "I always liked big fat historical epics. …" And so on.

Your stories always seem to be more than just a crime novel -- they have an underlying moral or message. Why is that important? Does the moral come before the idea for the characters/plot?

Lehane: I'm not sure I'd agree that my stories have morals at the end; that seems something better left to Aesop and Sunday homilies. But all good fiction, I'd argue, is moral fiction (that's not the same things as fiction with a moral), and what hangs in the balance of most good books is often a character's soul. I mean, why else are we reading it if all that's at stake is whether someone gets a good bowl of cereal or not? Cormac McCarthy's got a great definition of what he writes -- "fiction of mortal event." I love that. I try for that.

Were there any local stories that inspired "Shutter Island?"

Lehane: It was inspired by Long Island, off Squantum. There's a drug treatment facility there now (or maybe it's even something else by now) that used to be a minimum security mental institution. My uncle took me and my brother there when we were kids - it was abandoned at that time - and let us roam around and told us the ghosts of dead mental patients were rumored to walk the grounds. And then he hid from us for a while until we freaked out. Hilarious people, my family. Real cards.

Some of your stories are historical fiction -- what inspired you to do that?

Lehane: I like history. I like how the more you look at it, the more you realize the human race barely changes at all. The same issues people were obsessed about in 1919, are the same ones we obsessed about in 2008. The clothing changes, the technology obviously does, but at the end of the day we're as foolish and childish as our ancestors. I find that oddly endearing.

Boston itself is often a character in many of your books -- and in many popular movies. What do you think it is about the city that seems to captivate audiences?

Lehane: Boston is pretty unique; as the rest of the country, even the world, grows more and more homogenous, Boston remains kind of tribal and resistant to having its edges smoothed. That's not true in every neighborhood or town, obviously, but it's true just enough. If you say, "That guy's from Boston," people get an instant idea in their heads about what that means. If you say, "That guy's from Aurora, Illinois," I'm not sure they do.

How much say do you have in the final product, when your book is turned into a movie?

Lehane: None. I just write the book.

You have done a lot of TV work lately (writing for "Boardwalk Empire," "The Wire," appearing in "Castle"). Do you see yourself going more in the screenplay direction, or will novels still be the main focus?

Lehane: Well, I live in L.A. now, so you can draw your own conclusions. I love what's going on in TV right now and I happen to have been lucky enough to have been on the ground floor when this revolution in premium cable TV started. It's a novelist's medium and I happen to be a novelist. So I'm not sure what's going to happen. I just finished a novel that will be out next spring so that's consistent with my one-book-every-two-years pace, which suggests I can still do both. We'll see.

Are any of your other books currently in the works to be turned into movies?

Lehane: Ben Affleck just finished directing an adaptation of "Live By Night."

Have there been any lawyers you know who inspired you with their client cases, etc.? Did you have a particular experience with the legal community that shaped your crime novels?

Lehane: Not really, no. I'd be insane to steal ideas from a lawyer. You guys are rumored to sue about stuff like that.