Dennis Lehane drinks in some sunlight
Dennis Lehane is one of Boston’s best-known writers. Born and raised in the community of Dorchester (or, as he would pronounce it, “Dorchestah”), he’s got a Bostonian no-nonsense, tough-guy edge, and his books, including “Mystic River” and the six-book Kenzie-Gennaro mystery series, are set on the city’s streets.
And yet here he is eating lunch by the ocean in Santa Monica. Massachusetts remains snowbound, while here we can see the Pacific glittering blue, tourists passing, mercury pushing 80 on a postcard-perfect Southern California day. The great Boston writer is now an Angeleno.
Lehane lists a couple of factors in moving cross-country with his family: His wife likes the warm weather, their young kids have a great quality of life, and he has a ton of work in Hollywood. Recent completed projects include “The Drop” (James Gandolfini’s last film) and a consulting producer role on “Boardwalk Empire.” Ben Affleck, who directed and starred in an adaptation of Lehane’s “Gone Baby Gone,” is slated to do the same with his Prohibition-era drama “Live by Night.”
Which brings us to Lehane’s newest novel, “World Gone By” (William Morrow: 320 pp., $27.99), a continuation of the “Live by Night” story. In it, Joe Coughlin, the gangster son of a Boston police captain, has set up shop in 1940s Tampa, Fla. Rum-running has grown into corruption and graft that looks almost respectable.
The three-book series began with 2008’s “The Given Day,” set in and around the 1918 Boston police strike; then, Coughlin was just a boy. Now he’s a matured gangster, one whose affairs cross class lines from the underworld Ybor City to the offices of Tampa’s police and politicians and the promise of Cuba. “I am so Boston-centric. Writing that book was really difficult for me,” Lehane admits. “I was just, like: Get me out of here. I need to get back to Boston. I need to get out of Cuba.”
Although Coughlin is a caring dad, his criminal enterprises ride an endless tide of violence, and he is willfully unaware of the consequences. “The law of their business, so they tell themselves, is that you never involve families,” Lehane says of his fictional underworld. “But you’re taking out the head of the families left and right.”
Lehane says his own family has changed how he works. Every day he goes to his office — brick-walled, book-lined and big enough for his enthusiastic bulldog to run laps — where he writes for five hours. The afternoon is for business and correspondence. By 4 p.m., he’s home with the kids. Before, “there was no wall between my writing life and the rest of my life,” he says. “My wife, a wonderful, wonderful woman, she didn’t really roll with that.”
Now he gets more done. In the last year, he’s finished this novel, written two screenplays, overseen an imprint that publishes mystery writers Attica Locke and Ivy Pochoda, and written two television pilots. One of the pilots is “Asheville,” a prequel to “Shutter Island,” and as with the film made of that book, Martin Scorsese is slated to direct.
But the new regimen has a price. “I’m not sure I could write a ‘Mystic River’ or ‘A Given Day’ now. ‘Given Day’ was 800 pages, and it took me five years; I’m not sure I would have that mental stamina in the same way,” he says. “‘Mystic River’ was such a dive into the primordial darkness; I’m not sure I could do that with two kids. That was emotionally a very trying book to write.”
He recalls talking to Sean Penn when he was shooting “Mystic River.” Penn told him, “‘I’m still circling the porch scene. I’m not ready to land on it yet,’ and I totally understood what he meant,” Lehane says. He himself had circled a scene in “Mystic River.”
“I just wouldn’t write it. I talked about it. People knew it happened within the world of the book. But the scene was never written,” Lehane says. “It’s the scene where you find out what really happened that night from Dave’s perspective. Dave, to me, is the hero of ‘Mystic River.’ It gets lost, but — he’s somebody who has the disease now. Because he’s been molested himself, he has this disease in him.”
When he finally wrote the scene that demonstrated Dave’s sickness, he says, “It shredded me. I don’t think I wrote for another week.”
Lehane — who has published 13 books in 21 years and has an armload of screen credits — thinks of himself as a slow writer. “Most of my homeroom class, since we all started together in the early ‘90s, have produced twice the number of books I have,” he says, ticking off the names of contemporaries publishing a book a year: Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben, Lee Child, George Pelecanos.
He and Pelecanos have taken slightly different paths since working together on “The Wire.” Series creator David Simon had recruited them and fellow novelist Richard Price. It was a unique experience, Lehane says. “Everybody had titanic egos. I mean, galactic. So the fights would be galactic. But it was always in service of the show. The ego of the self had no place.”
Another writer might have found it hard-going, but it was perfect for Lehane. “We were all on the same page,” he says. “We would say the most horrible things to each other in that room — then all go out for a beer.”
That was a kind of family, the kind you find as an adult. “What is family — is it biology or is it something you choose?” Lehane asks. “That’s something Joe Coughlin represents throughout the three books.”
Lehane, the youngest of five, lost one of his brothers in 2014; family losses form the emotional core of “World Gone By.” Although he’s from a huge Irish American family (Lehane’s mother and father had 13 and 17 siblings, respectively, and at one count, he had 130 first cousins), it’s disappearing.
“The world that we lived in, that parochial, small, little inner-city world — it’s all getting swept away,” Lehane says.
Now that Lehane lives on the West Coast, he has become part of that diaspora. He plans to get a place in Boston for his family. But his next book, the one he’s working on now, is set there, so he visits it in his mind every time he sits down to write.
“Boston seems more vivid to me as I sit here in California,” he says. “I think homesickness is a wonderful thing.”
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