Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Publishers Weekly

Boston's Uncommon Bestseller
By Edward Nawotka -- 4/14/2003

Dennis Lehane takes life, success and the mystery genre in hand

When Dennis Lehane smiles, small wrinkles form at the corners of his mouth; his freckles rearrange. It's a dramatic difference from the scowling young man with a single loose forelock staring out from the photos on his early books: he is much better looking in person, and not necessarily the guy you would pick out of a lineup to write some of the most menacing and absorbing detective fiction in the last decade. A lot of mystery writers have based series in Boston, two of the biggest being Robert Parker and George V. Higgins—but, arguably, neither has captured the same degree of social and psychological nuance Lehane has in his seven novels so far. Now creeping up on 40 years, Lehane is starting to show a little silver around the edges of his short auburn hair. The overall impression is one of confidence and youth. Maybe it's the way he's dressed, like a college kid fresh from finishing school: in khakis, with a black blazer over a charcoal-gray merino crewneck. He may have grown up on the mean streets of Boston, but he's left them behind this afternoon.

We meet on Newbury Street in the heart of fashionable, moneyed Boston. Lehane has parked his navy blue Toyota SUV in the same parking garage where he first worked as an attendant after returning from college and graduate school in Florida. It's across the street from the original Ritz Carlton Hotel, where Lehane still knows people who have worked there since the days when the hotel owned the parking garage. As PW approaches him in the lobby of the Ritz, he's chatting to one of the hotel staff, describing a summer home he's rented and suggesting she and her husband come up for a visit.

There are few jobs in Boston for a kid with a master's degree in creative writing—"The guys in the garage would give me a hard time about it"—and back in the early '90s Lehane had published only the first of his seven crime novels, the best known and bestselling of which is 2001's Mystic River. That extraordinary novel described the Boston of Lehane's childhood, a place "cramped with corner stores, small playgrounds, and butcher shops where meat, still pink with blood, hung in the windows" and where "Days, the mothers searched the papers for coupons. Nights, the fathers went to bars. You knew everyone; nobody ever left." The new Boston, as exemplified by the wealth of Newbury Street, is populated with the young, beautiful and well-to-do who have made their fortune in the city's tech boom (now waning) and driven property prices to among the highest in the country. "Now that's something we can be proud of," Lehane quips. "We're now more expensive than San Francisco."

Change for the Better
Boston's surface streets may have changed but in its heart, it's still an old seaport. The city is so close to the ocean that on warm spring days the scent of saltwater wafts in from offshore. But that same breeze can quickly turn into a Nor'easter. One only has to think back to Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm to be reminded of the sorrow bad weather can bring.

Perhaps it was from Junger that Lehane took a cue for the milieu of his seventh book, Shutter Island, due for a 150,000-copy, one-day laydown on April 15. At the center of the novel is a dramatic storm that hits the eponymous island in outer Boston Harbor—home to a federal prison for the criminally insane—just after U.S. Marshall Edward "Teddy" Daniels arrives to help search for a murderess who has mysteriously escaped from her locked cell. The year is 1954—this is Lehane's first historical fiction—and the stage is set for Daniels to become an unwilling participant in a government plot to manipulate innocents, murderers and WWII vets in McCarthy-era America. Suitably, Wolfgang Petersen, the director who adopted Junger's The Perfect Storm into a movie, has bought the film option to Shutter Island.

If the story sounds melodramatic, well, Lehane admits that he is heavily influenced by the movies, going so far as to call himself a "fanatic" and citing the 1970s cult movie The Wicker Man as a strong influence on the book. One might also catch echoes of the Frank Sinatra vehicle The Manchurian Candidate or The Ipcress File, which was based on Len Deighton's first novel, or even the Michael Douglas film The Game, from the late '90s.

When PW meets Lehane, one of the first things he says after sitting down to lunch at a modest Italian restaurant is, "I expect Shutter Island to get bad reviews." Lehane provides a flurry of reasons for that curious statement. "It's the first book I ever outlined in my life. I knew everything that was going to happen before it wrote it. A full third of the people who read it will figure it out before the end. The book is not Mystic River, it's something very different, and it's always a danger to change when you have success."

Lehane needn't fear change. Early reviews of Shutter Island have been enthusiastic, including a starred review from PW. Prior to his breakthrough with Mystic River, he made a respectable living as the author of an award-winning series of five crime novels, all set in Boston and starring a pair of gritty private eyes, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. (The first, A Drink Before the War, was published in 1994 and won the Shamus Award for best first P.I. novel.) It was the standalone Mystic River, however, that proved Lehane's breakthrough book, spending more than nine weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and selling 100,000 copies in hardcover. The novel was recently filmed by Clint Eastwood, starring an A-list roster of stars, including Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon as three neighborhood friends—all haunted by an incident in childhood when one of the boys was abducted—who are thrown together when the daughter of one of them is murdered. The movie is scheduled for release this autumn.

No Mystery
Lehane's publisher, Michael Morrison at Morrow, calls Mystic River "a huge leap." He attributes some of the book's success to a new strategy at Morrow that identified Lehane's sales potential and did the right things to exploit it. "It's a result of cause and effect," says Morrison. "It's no mystery." One of the most important decisions was to alter Lehane's covers, which until then had been very dark, often using gemstone-colored type on a black background. Mystic River was given a plainer cover, with black type on a white background, that announced "novel" instead of "noir."

"It was a more inviting look," says Claire Wachtel, Lehane's editor at Morrow. The approach was so radically different that bookstores started displaying the novel front-and-center, while price clubs such as Costco and Sam's picked up Lehane for the first time.

"He'd always had good numbers and devoted fans," continues Wachtel, "but we wanted to keep growing his readership." She says that the change booksellers were responding to wasn't just due to marketing, but involved the type of book Lehane was writing: Mystic River was a much more emotionally and psychologically complex tale than the Kenzie/Gennaro crime stories. Lehane had hit his stride and everybody knew it. Commenting on Lehane's decision to abandon the Kensie/Gennaro crime series, Lehane's agent, Ann Rittenberg, says, "He's always had a distinctive writing style and, and when he told me that he was going to 'alter the face of crime fiction,' I knew he would. He's like a top athlete who because he's in shape can change his game."

Wachtel says she knew she was onto a winner with Mystic River just as soon as "other agents and editors started calling me to have galleys sent over." The early buzz on the book built to a crescendo once Mystic River was chosen as a Book Sense 76 #1 pick. "The stars just lined up," she adds.

"I was living with Mystic River for 10 years before I wrote it," Lehane tells PW. "I had said everything I had to say about the two detectives and wanted to move on to something different. Ann [Rittenberg] and Claire [Wachtel] both encouraged me to do it."

Though he describes himself as a "control freak," Lehane's ability to stick to the job of writing, while allowing others to lobby on his behalf, has probably been one of his biggest assets. Rittenberg says that because Lehane wasn't greedy early on, he was able to "build" a career rather than have himself jettisoned into the marketplace with a big printing—and the accompanying bigger critical and financial risks. "His sales and his advances moved up like steps," says Rittenberg, who sold A Drink Before the War to Wachtel for a mere $8,500 in 1993. It took until Prayers for Rain, his fifth book, before she was able to "break the $100,000 barrier" for advances, she says. "Dennis told me that he'd always been poor and could live that way a little while longer. I always thought he was worth more." Prior to delivering Mystic River, Lehane's contract was for three more books and was priced far less than his current level. The quality of the manuscript prompted Rittenberg to call Morrison for a lunch to talk about Lehane's commitments to the company. "When I told him how much I wanted, he almost couldn't finish what he was eating," Rittenberg jokes. Lehane's renegotiated contract with Morrow, which covers both Mystic River and Shutter Island, as well as three more novels, amounts to more than $3 million, with a bonus promised if the books meet sales goals.

Cause and Effect
There's an old saying that goes, "Money doesn't change you, it just gives you the opportunity be the person you really are." So what is Dennis Lehane like after all this heady critical and financial success? Apparently, he's not much different than he was before finding his name on the New York Times bestseller list. He still lives in Boston with his pair of bulldogs, Marlon and Stella. He still writes at least three drafts of each novel, the first by hand, the second on the computer. He still listens to music when he writes—rock for action sequences, classical for the more contemplative scenes. (For Shutter Island, he listened to Sinatra singing Rodgers and Hart). He still has the same group of friends he's had since childhood, guys who are blessed with having their names immortalized as drug dealers, murderers or other criminals in Lehane's novels. According to him, the one concession he's made to hitting the A-list is buying a new pool table (an eight-foot competition model) and a wide-screen plasma television.

After spending an afternoon eating and drinking with Lehane, it's evident to PW that the author remains as down to earth and as dedicated to writing as the master's degree–wielding parking garage attendant he once was.

His modesty as an adult may be a result of his modest upbringing. Born and raised in Dorchester, one of the poorest Boston neighborhoods, Lehane was the youngest of five children of a pair of Catholic working-class Irish immigrants from Cork. His first book was the Bible. "I read it cover to cover. It was cool," he says without irony. "If you singled out the times in Mystic River with religious symbolism, I mean you're practically in a Scorsese film."

As a teen, Lehane's dream was to become a writer. During his childhood, Lehane's Boston was not the cozy, overpriced college tech-town it is now. Instead, it was a racially divided, parochial city suffering from poverty and drugs. During the era of forced busing (memorialized in Anthony Lukas's book Common Ground), violence ran rampant. One of Lehane's friends was murdered during this time, and the first thing the future writer did when he got the chance was to get out: after dropping out of UMass Boston, he moved to Florida, finishing his B.A. at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg and then taking an M.F.A. from Florida International University, where he studied with novelist John Dufresne and mystery writer John Sandiford.

In college, Lehane learned how to write. "John Dufresne is one of the great writing teachers," he says. "Dufresne calls fiction 'the lie that tells the truth.' " Although Lehane doesn't say so, it's clear that, after an extended writing apprenticeship with the Kensie/Gennaro series, it was in Mystic River that he at last fully embraced Dufresne's dictum to tell the truth—including the traumatic truth of the emotional aftermath of his own difficult youth—through fiction.

Lehane has been so inspired by his experience in writing classes that he's begun teaching them himself, first at Tufts University and later this summer at the Harvard Extension School. "I had some really good teachers and I try to give back, you know, send the elevator car back down. It's great to see someone who has got the chops—maybe they're six years, nine years away from publication—and be able to tell them 'stay on the road, you're going to make it.' " He adds that if anyone comes to one of his classes looking for a how-to on how to write a bestseller, he tries to "scare them right out the door."

Lehane doesn't have much time for the high/low debate that has created two opposing literary camps over the last 40 years. "You can't separate character—which is what the higher set champions—and plot—which is what the other side defends. They are both in service to each other," he says with a hint of exasperation. "If you go to any great work of art, you talk about plot all day and then you talk about character all day. Just give me a well-written book."

Both Mystic River and Shutter Island deliver on this demand. For his next, Lehane is promising a trilogy that begins in 1918 with the Boston police strike and traces the reverberations it had in American society. "The strike changed everything," he says. "It had a big effect on the unionization movement, and Prohibition came on the heels of that, then Calvin Coolidge promising to break the unions. That's all linked to what's going on now." Lehane describes it as a five- or six-year project. "It'll be an epic about small-scale violence," he says with finality.

© 2003 Reed Business Information

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