Q&A: Dennis Lehane on writing, family and his new novel, ‘Since We Fell’

Dennis Lehane, author of "Mystic River" and "Shutter Island," has a new book: "Since We Fell."
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Many people know Dennis Lehane for his books-turned-movies: “Mystic River,” “Shelter Island,” “Gone Baby Gone.” Others know him for his TV work (including “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire”). And some of us know to go straight to the source: his books.

“Since We Fell”, the latest action-packed novel from the former Bostonite who now lives in L.A., is his first told from a woman’s point of view. Rachel Childs, the daughter of a difficult mother who refuses to tell her daughter who her father is, tries to find her dad, becomes a journalist who covers the earthquake in Haiti, and her experiences make her agoraphobic — or maybe she’s being gaslit by her husband? Oh, and she shoots him on the first page. There’s much more, but no spoilers. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What was it like writing New England from 3,000 miles away?

It’s funny, I wrote my first book out of homesickness; I was living in Florida. It makes the writing more vivid. It’s kind of like when you write about summer in the depth of winter: You remember more about it. You can touch it in a different way, because you’re not there.

The book makes several turns; at first we think she’s going to be sort of like a detective looking for her lost father, and then it changes, and changes again. How much of that did you have mapped out?

The return to western Massachusetts in those first eight chapters, that came very late to me. I think it was my way of staking claim to it very much as a book, because I knew I was going to be writing the film script. And I thought, I want there to be a lot of things in here that couldn’t fit in a film. That became, let’s take her on this single journey in pursuit of her father and, ultimately, herself.

See Dennis Lehane discuss "Since We Fell" with Attica Locke on at ALOUD on Tue. May 23 at 7:30 p.m. »

This isn’t a book of realism — there’s a lot of amped-up action, tension and powerful secrets — but I’m curious: Do you know anyone who, like Rachel, doesn’t know who their father is?

No. People have told me since — it’s nuts. I’ve had people coming out of the woodwork. People come up and tell me, oh my God, I have a very similar story about my father. I’m like, What? Are you kidding me? I had no clue. The missing father was not what concerned me; it was the mother-daughter dynamic that I was really riffing on. The way in which [Rachel’s mother] Elizabeth Childs is a horrible paradox: A woman of great, sweeping intelligence, but also her inner child is a rageful fanatic, deeply wounded, and uses that against her daughter for no other reason except her daughter is the closest person to her. And that’s what I was really exploring.

How has being a parent affected how you think about the dynamics between parents and children?

It’s all I think about. As a parent, you live with this terrible knowledge that you fail all the time, and a lot of times in ways you can’t even see. You won’t find out until they tell you 20 years later: My therapist told me, mention the time that you did this is the reason I’m doing this now. It’s the greatest job in the world. It’s the greatest joy — I said this to my brother recently: Before I had kids, I knew plenty about happiness, but I’d never experienced joy. And even if you’re a completely committed parent, which I am, you think, damn, I’m still messing up left and right. And then you think, the unforgivable thing among people who try hard as parents is to see people who don’t. Or to see people who pour all their own damage into their kids. It’s something you see all the time.

As a thriller, there are lots of twists and turns, but it’s set in this current moment. People have said that if you went back to the old thrillers and detective films of the 1940s and gave everybody cellphones, the films just wouldn’t work.

Cellphones did a lot of damage to the suspense genre. The easiest way to look at it — look at the mid-1990s in film and in television. Watch how many times they had to go out of their way to explain why a cellphone wasn’t working. That’s why a lot of movies would take place in Arizona — seriously. Look at “Breakdown,” which was one of the great B-movie suspense movies of the ’90s: It was all predicated on the idea that well, they just can’t use their cellphones. They can’t get service. “The X Files”: They could never get service, and they were the FBI. So that was something that it took a little time to figure out how to work around it. But now we have. I think you can do it — obviously.

Rich Fahle interviews Dennis Lehane about 2015 novel, “World Gone By.”

You make good use of cellphones to advance the plot of “Since We Fell.” The book is told from Rachel’s point of view, but she doesn’t always know what’s happening. What’s that like to write?

There’s not another single point of view anytime. It’s all Rachel, all the time. You never learn anything from the book that she doesn’t learn, as she learns it. You commit to this idea that you will never see anything that she can’t see. Even to the idea of what happens to the people she ends up caring for in Haiti — we never know, because she never knows. She suspects, and it’s pretty clear what happened. But she can only see what’s right in front of her nose. Whereas I as the novelist could have chosen to show more than that, but I didn’t. I wanted the reader to be locked into the claustrophobia of the book as Rachel is.

It occurred to me late, maybe when the book was in production — “Since We Fell” is kind of a twin to “Shutter Island.” They’re both books in which the central characters go through a global upheaval — in Teddy’s case it was World War II, in Rachel’s case it was Haiti — that reflects their internal helplessness and their internal disintegration. And it’s this idea of the global and the personal intersecting and causing a breakdown. My dream when I was a kid was to be a foreign correspondent. I thought if I lived that dream, and you put me in a situation like Haiti after the earthquake, I don’t have any trouble believing I might start dropping black market Atavans, or chipping heroin, like her photographer friend does. I don’t know how those people do it; I don’t know how they stare in the face of this terrible, terrible, terrible tragedy and function.

Was this story of Haiti something that existed in your imagination, or had you encountered it in person?

Haiti was something in my imagination. It very much came from one of those global questions. The global question being: If there is a God, why does he hate Haiti? It’s a child’s question, this sense of you look at these places in the world that seem truly snakebitten. You just go, Jesus, did you have to drop a 7.8 earthquake on them and follow it with a cholera outbreak and a hurricane? When are these people going to get a break? And these are global questions, these are metaphysical questions — they’re the unanswerable questions.

It occurred to me late, maybe when the book was in production — 'Since We Fell' is kind of a twin to 'Shutter Island.'

You wrote the book and also the screenplay. Simultaneously?

No, I would never do that. I wrote a draft of the book, then I wrote a draft of the screenplay, then I went back … The major overhaul of the book was written in the third draft. That was when I wanted Rachel’s past to step up front and center; I wanted that to be my first 100 pages. I was thinking a little bit of a John Irving book called “A Widow for One Year.” Irving starts that book with about 100 pages about the title character when she was a little girl. Then he leaps forward like 30 years, if memory serves. I started off just saying I want to kind of do this thing that on one hand seems almost self-enclosed, seems almost like its own mini-novel. But at the same time it’s laying the groundwork psychologically and emotionally for everything that’s happening in the book.

The script’s with DreamWorks, and I heard it was out to directors. It’s weird, with scripts, it’s very out of sight, out of mind with me. Once I hit send, I’m moving on. And I’m back to doing my TV work, which is the major portion of my L.A. life. I’m working on an adaptation of Stephen King’s “Mr. Mercedes” with David Kelly and two other projects I can’t talk about right now.

You mentioned John Irving. Is there anything you’ve been reading that you’re excited about?

Like half of America I loved that book “Exit West.” I thought that was pretty amazing. I’m reading James Lee Burke’s next book in manuscript, and I’m loving that.

What advice would you give to a young writer who wants to be the millennial Dennis Lehane?

I don’t know. Read? Read. And write every day. And we’ll get along fine as long as you stay out of Boston.

“Since We Fell” by Dennis Lehane (Ecco)