An interview with Boston Irish author Dennis Lehane

Declan Burke talks to the Boston Irish man who’s considered one of America’s great contemporary writers, with a string of novels, TV scripts and movie screenplays to his credit.

Due at Listowel this month to talk at Writer’s Week,  Lehane will probably gain most attention for his adaptation of Love/ Hate for an American audience and his choice of setting — uniquely, the action will take place in Hawaii.

Dennis Lehane has seen it all. The author of 12 best-selling novels, the laconic son of Dorchester, Boston, MA, has written for one of TV’s greatest series, The Wire, and seen his books — Mystic River, Shutter Island, Gone Baby, Gone — adapted into acclaimed box office hits by the likes of Ben Affleck, Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese.

Mention Stuart Carolan’s Love/Hate, however, and the previously laid back Lehane starts to crackle with enthusiasm.

“My God, it’s total wheelhouse stuff,” says Dennis. 

“Stuart’s show is about the new Ireland, and showing that Ireland is not this place in which people sit around by the hearth in knit sweaters sipping Guinness. This is the new Ireland, the new Dublin — this is Goodfellas meets Trainspotting on the streets of Dublin.”

Commissioned to adapt Love/Hate for an American audience, Dennis initially baulked at the idea, because Love/Hate ‘is a portrait of a very particular culture’.

“When they first said they wanted me to adapt it for America, I said, ‘But we’ve already done The Wire’.

“I mean, it’s not news that America has a drug problem. So, just when I was talking myself out of the project, that’s when I came up with my master idea, which was to set it in Hawaii. 

“That’s the culture I want to write about. Everybody thought it was insane until they saw it, and then they said, ‘Oh my god, it makes perfect sense’. So yeah, Dublin meets West O’ahu.

“I really don’t want to fall any more in love,” he says of the project, “because my heart is right there on the chopping-block right now. I poured everything I had into this. This is hands down the best script I ever wrote. I put every single ounce of myself into this.”

That’s saying something, because Dennis Lehane is rightly regarded as one of America’s great contemporary novelists. His debut novel, A Drink Before The War (1994), featuring the private eye duo Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, was the result, he says, of his being “obsessed with writing about the haves and the have-nots. 

Mainly the have-nots. I’m obsessed with that battle, if you will, that cultural war. And the place which seemed like a welcome home for those types of obsessions — about violence and the social questions, the ills of our time — was crime fiction.

“I wrote A Drink Before The War so fast that part of me said, ‘wow, you’ve got a comfort level here that you do not have when you’re trying to write much more overtly literary fiction’. And then,” he laughs. 

“I went back to writing overtly literary fiction. But I was thinking more and more about crime fiction, and the next thing I wanted to say, and that became Darkness, Take My Hand [1996].

“So that’s why I write these stories. It was a way to write about the things that fascinated me the most in our culture, and the crime fiction genre seemed to be tailor-made.”

Lehane’s current novel, World Gone By, is the final part of a trilogy that began with The Given Day (2008) and continued with Live By Night (2012). 

It features Joe Coughlin, the Boston-born son of an Irish-American policeman’s family who rebels against his upbringing and becomes one of the most powerful gangsters in pre-WWII America.

“I always wanted to write about my favourite period in American history, which is between the wars. I mean, I feel like I belong — like I was born sometime around 1910,” he says. “I love everything about that period, even the dark side.”

Always hardboiled, the Joe Coughlin trilogy turns a distinctly noirish shade of dark in World Gone By, as Joe — like so many fictional anti-heroes before him — discovers that you can’t outrun Fate.

“Well, once you have all the fedoras and the suits, and the two-tone shoes, you’re certainly in a noir world,” says Dennis.

“But of all of my books, I’d say it’s the most Catholic. It’s very much a book that is about whether you can pay for your sins. As in, is there such a thing as moral or spiritual reparation?”

The Catholicism that has permeated his most recent work — and particularly the screenplay he wrote for the movie The Drop (2014), and the novel he adapted from that screenplay—– was ‘ingrained by his upbringing’.

“I think I’m a very spiritual man,” says Dennis, “but I wouldn’t say I’m a religious man, much to my wife’s consternation. Catholicism gets grafted onto you, and if you become a writer it’s so ready-made for it — it’s so allegorical, so symbolic, it’s so concerned with the questions that writers ask anyway, like ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘What is the nature of man?’ 

These are the kinds of things you’re constantly asking if you’re raised Catholic and went to a Jesuit High School, like I did.”

Joe Coughlin and Bob Saganowski, the existentialist hero of The Drop, have much in common.

“The thing we ended up cutting from The Drop is that Bob Saganowski talks a lot about how he has voluntarily put himself in a purgatory for 10 years. And what he realises is, what if this is the only life?

It’s almost like an anti-Calvinist idea. It says that at some point you have to live again. At some point you have to forgive yourself. And that’s what Bob ultimately does and in doing so, he kills somebody else.”

In World Gone By, Joe Coughlin finds himself in a similar moral bind.

“I think the truest negative line said about Joe is when King Lucius says, ‘You think feeling bad about your sins makes you good. Some might find that kind of delusion contemptible’.

“And that is Joe’s problem. Joe thinks, y’know, ‘I feel bad, so I’m a good guy, because I care about people. I invest in hospitals, I love my son. I try to do no harm’. But there are so many people who are dead because of Joe Coughlin, that there ultimately has to be a reckoning for that.”

Dennis Lehane’s success as a screenwriter — apart from TV’s The Wire and Boardwalk Empire and the forthcoming Love/Hate, he has written screenplays for The Drop and upcoming movies Live By Night and The Deep Blue Good-By — has seen him recently relocate from the east coast to live in LA. 

“I’m not a fan, but what’re you going to do? Wife loves it, kids love it, so it looks like I’m there.”

Despite the move, Dennis remains a first-generation Boston-Irish boy at heart. He’ll be appearing at the Listowel Writers’ Festival later this month, but he won’t have to spend much time tracking down his Irish ancestors.

“Whenever I go to Ireland, it’s brilliant,” he says. 

“You wouldn’t believe the number of emails I receive. Y’know, this is so-and-so, I’m so-and-so’s daughter. At one point, this is a few years ago, my brother and I figured out that we had something like 121 first cousins. And that’s first cousins — that’s not second or third or once-removeds.” 

 There’s a line in World Gone By, from a chapter titled ‘Father and Son’, where Dennis Lehane writes, ‘Joe [Coughlin] came from a family tree whose branches had bent over the centuries with the weight of troubadours, publicans, writers, revolutionaries, magistrates and policemen — liars all …’ Is there a kernel of autobiographical truth lurking in there?

Dennis laughs. “Y’know, my father would just outright lie about Ireland. He would tell me a story, and then I’d hear the real story from my relatives when I was over in Ireland. I went back to him one time and said, ‘Dad, why didn’t you just tell me the truth?’ And he shrugged and he said, ‘Ah, who wants to hear that?’” 

* Dennis Lehane attends the Listowel Writers’ Festival on May 29. World Gone By is published by Little, Brown (€25.50).

I really don’t want to fall any more in love,” he says of the project, “because my heart is right there on the chopping-block right now.....

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