How I Write: Dennis Lehane
Published: June 20, 2002
|Being called (by Publishers Weekly) "the hippest heir" of crime fiction masters Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler is a tough billing to live up to. But Dennis Lehane's six stylish novels have put him in such esteemed company, in the eyes of some critics. His latest, the bestselling Mystic River, his first stand-alone after five Patrick Kenzie/Angela Gennaro detective novels, is a haunting, impressively controlled tale of a traumatic childhood incident that plays itself out in adulthood. Lehane, 36, grew up the son of Irish immigrant parents in Boston, graduated from the writing program at Florida International University and hit the ground running: A Drink Before the War, his first mystery, which he wrote for fun, won him the Shamus Award for best first novel.|
Credits: Mystic River (2001); Prayers for Rain (1999, a New York Times Notable Book); Gone, Baby, Gone (1998); Sacred (1997); Darkness, Take My Hand (1996); and A Drink Before the War (1994).
|Why: Because I suck at everything else. I can't imagine working in corporate America--all those cubicles and Palm Pilots; I'd die. I have no head for math or science; I can't draw a passable stick figure; I'm too private to be an actor; can't sing worth a lick; and every comedian I've ever known is certifiably insane, so ... I guess writing just works for me.|
How: I write longhand and then try to input it into a computer within 24 hours. I need the flow of a pen across a page; something about a computer screen leaves me feeling self-conscious and boxed in. I plot loosely in advance--I usually know six or seven major structural movements--but I rarely outline unless I've jammed myself up in the middle of a manuscript and don't know how to move forward. I'm a revision fanatic; the early drafts are just pasta on the wall, trying to see what sticks. I find the book through a honing process, going back through the pages and making myself look a lot smarter than I am.
When and where: I write mostly in the mornings. I need the sense that the phone's not going to ring much. I have this dream office, but I still spend half my time at the dining room table. When I'm into a book, though, I could write from dead center on the 50-yard line at the Super Bowl.
Ideas: I get my ideas from sitting in a room, staring at the ceiling and thinking stuff up. It's that simple. The genesis of the idea might have locked into my brain matter 20 years ago, as with Mystic River, but I can't get to it unless I sit in that chair, tilt back my head and say to myself, "OK, tell me a story."
Writer's block: If I get it, it means I did something structurally wrong, something that will hurt me 150 pages down the line. And my subconscious picks up on it before I do and freezes me, and I can't move forward until I figure out what that thing is.
Influences: Richard Price had the biggest influence. I read The Wanderers when I was 14 and realized that it was OK to write about the kind of people I knew and wanted to write about because, hell, he did it. That was the single most important moment in my life as a writer. Up until then, I thought characters had to be rich or live in France under Louis XIV to be worthy of a book.
Advice: It's the hoariest cliche out there--but read, damn it. Unpublished writers who proudly declare how little they read just baffle me. There's an established canon of great literature and we all know some of the names--Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Joyce, Flannery O'Connor, Hemingway, Chekhov, Austen, Faulkner, etc. Read them. I don't care if you "get" them, or like them. But earn your right to dismiss them by understanding them first. And gradually you'll stumble on sneaky little threads that will lead you to other great writers who, for whatever reason, aren't considered part of the canon yet. If you like Conrad, try Greene, then DeLillo, and that might lead you to le Carre or Alan Furst. Hemingway leads to Elmore Leonard. Faulkner leads to García Márquez, Cormac McCarthy, James Crumley. But if you don't steep yourself in what's out there, then you're just flying a kite without a string, dumbfounded that it somehow got away from you. #
Photograph by Sigrid Estrada