Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Dennis Lehane, the library, & Sleuthfest!

If you're not going to Sleuthfest and you'd love to meet Dennis Lehane, swing on by the Hagen Ranch Road Library Friday night (3/4/11) at 6:30 p.m. for Wine & Words with Dennis Lehane. It's $30 at the door and you get two glasses of wine, some snacks and best of all, a chance to rub elbows with Dennis Lehane! Murder on the Beach Bookstore will be there selling books and the author will also be speaking and signing those books! For more information: Writers Live!

Dennis Lehane is also the guest of honor at this year's Sleuthfest, and the following is an interview they did with him:

"So much of learning to write involves one step forward and two steps back-but failure's okay."

Dennis Lehane has built a writing career that most writers dream of. He has published nine critically acclaimed novels, including his most recent release, MOONLIGHT MILE, and the New York Times bestsellers GONE, BABY, GONE; MYSTIC RIVER; SHUTTER ISLAND; and THE GIVEN DAY. His novels have been translated into over 30 languages. Three of his novels have already been made into major motion pictures. Two of his short stories are currently being adapted into feature films. He has written for several television programs, including THE WIRE, and is now busy developing an original pilot for F/X and gearing up to both write the screenplay for and executive produce (along with George Pelecanos) a movie for HBO. Somehow, he still finds time to teach creative writing at Eckert College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

It's an understatement to say we're very fortunate to have him as a Guest of Honor for SleuthFest 2011. In the third of our interview series leading up to this year's conference, Joanna Campbell Slan once again put on her interviewer's hat and asked Dennis to share his thoughts about his writing process and career.

Q: You wrote a book in three weeks and tossed it in a box. Then you revised it, and it became A DRINK BEFORE WAR. Tell us about that revision. What had you learned since writing the book that helped you turn it into such a power house of a novel?

A: It went through so many revisions I lost count. The first draft had Patrick's voice and most of the plot structure. That was it, though. In terms of language or depth, it was execrable. First drafts are often like that for me.

Q: You teach writing. What's the one thing you tell your students over and over that no one believes? What do you wish you had heard as a novice writer?

A: If you can't tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, as well as a clearly established main character who takes an active role in that story, then all the pretty prose and wink-wink allusions and meta playfulness will not save you. The other side of that coin is that if all you have is some high-concept plot but you forgot to attach it to three-dimensional characters, depth of language and depth of insight, all you really have is wrapping paper over an empty box. You don't have a novel, at least not as I define one.

Q: Expand, please, on these sentences from an interview with you: Accident or not, Lehane has kept a firm hand on the professional aspects of his writing as well as the creative, understanding as he does the reverberations that a small thing can have on an entire career. "Where you enter the ladder," says Lehane in relation to a writing career, "I think, indicates how far you're going up it."

A: The key missing word here is "can." Where you enter the ladder can indicate how far you're going up it. And, yes, I feel it's better to enter the game with a strong hand. I wanted my first book to be published by a major New York publisher in hardcover. I felt if I were published by a small press and/or as a paperback original, I'd have that much more ground to cover. Several friends of mine did start with paperback originals and went on to considerable success--Harlan Coben and Laura Lippman spring immediately to mind-so what's good for the goose isn't necessarily good for the gander. It's all relative. My way is just my way, it's not the way.

Q: Do you keep a journal? You've said, "There's the idea that any incident reverberates, anything that happens in your life. The smallest thing. So if the smallest thing reverberates, then the biggest thing has a consequence." How do you track those small incidents?

A: In my head. Journals and I just don't work.

Q: How is the real world the enemy of the writer? What can we do about this?

A: Wordsworth has a phrase, "the world is too much with us," which I think applies as much to our era as it did to his. Which is also to say the world was always thus. Writers always had to fight the intrusion of the real world into their creative life and the intrusion of the creative into their domestic life. It's a balancing act. Those who balance it best, tend to have writing careers. Those who don't, don't. Like most things about the profession, there's no easy fix, no magic pill, no instruction manual. You just have to find your way, knowing that many others have come before you and confronted the same dilemmas. So at the very least, you can find comfort in knowing you're not alone.

Q: Many of us who write mysteries want to see justice prevail. In your books, right does not always win out, or at least enjoy a happy ending. In some ways, you seem to be following in the footsteps of Patricia Highsmith with THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY because your characters do commit murder, and yet we cheer for them. Comment on that.

A: I hope you're not cheering for murder in my books. That would suck. Yikes. Otherwise, at the end of the day, if I have to be pigeon-holed, I'll accept that I'm a noirist. And most people who write noir seem to think justice does not prevail. Or, if it does, it's a very relative thing. We've just had the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and everybody of reasonable intelligence knows exactly who's responsible. And yet not only are those people not in jail, they've gone back to engaging in the same practices which led to the meltdown. Meanwhile, we blather on about taxes, birth certificates, border fences and all sorts of odious sound and fury, fiddling while Rome burns. And I'm to believe that justice, in such a world, prevails? Doesn't mean you stop fighting for justice, though. Which is a paradox, yes, but paradoxes are dramatic gold.

Q: Tell us about depth of language. How can you teach that? How can a writer improve this skill?

A: If you don't have it naturally, read for it. You'll take some missteps of course-so much of learning to write involves one step forward and two steps back-but failure's okay. There are some writers who are well-known for their language. Just off the top of my head, I can think of Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Martin Amis, and Cormac McCarthy. So read those people and emulate them. At some point, your own voice will bubble up.

Q: Tell us about epiphanic moments in your books. Since you don't outline, how do you make sure these happen?

A: I was trained to look for epiphanies. I mean, that was the whole point. A novel is about the moment when a character learns something about himself and/or the world at large that he didn't realize before. The moment when Othello realizes he "threw away a pearl richer than all his tribe" for vanity or when C.W. in THE LAST GOOD KISS realizes his own inability to truly see women has kept him from seeing the truth in front of his face from about the third chapter on-those are the moments I read for. So they're the moments I write for.

Q: You admire Edith Wharton, and her HOUSE OF MIRTH brought destruction to a woman's life through a whisper campaign. As a society we are fixated on physical violence, but you also use emotional violence as a catalyst in your books. What techniques do you employ so that emotional violence seems as real as physical violence?

A: I have no idea. (It should be obvious by now that I don't speak to process well. Sorry. What I find so appealing in Wharton is how she gets at the ways tribes use whatever's at their disposal to eradicate any person or thing they perceive as a threat to the tribe's primacy. That's a pretty noir concept, because in noir the individual who goes against the machine is usually destroyed. Think Harry Fabian in NIGHT AND THE CITY or Eddie Coyle in THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE. What's hopeful in noir and in Edith Wharton novels is that the hero tries to break from the pack. That alone is a life-affirming concept.


Our Friday night movie this year is GONE, BABY, GONE, based on the novel of the same name, to be followed by a discussion with our SleuthFest Guest of Honor Dennis Lehane. On Saturday, Dennis will be our Saturday lunch Keynote Speaker, and in the afternoon he will participate on two panels: "Characters Who Withstand the Test of Time" and "Making History." In the afternoon, join him poolside for a discussion of GONE, BABY, GONE, the novel. Finally, in a not-to-be missed session on Sunday morning, reviewer Oline Cogdill will interview Dennis and Neil S. Nyren (Senior VP, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of G.P. Putnam's Sons) about the publishing industry, writing, and the mystery genre.


Maryannwrites said...

Enjoyed the interview very much. I am glad I had the opportunity to meet Dennis some years ago at Mayhem in the Midlands, as I am much too far away to make this event. Sounds like great fun.

Italia said...

This book was a interesting and empowering novel. It is hard to put down. Mystic River is a diverse and spellbinding read. The characterizations are well thought out and you can really sympathise with them. This book shows how truly sick our world really is. If you want to read a book that will truly satisfy you intellectually and plot-wise Mystic River is that book. When you finish this book you will just say:

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