The Write Stuff
Gone, Baby, Gone left millions of readers grappling with hard questions…and the desire to know what happened next. Now, bestselling author Dennis Lehane brings us Moonlight Mile, the novel’s long-awaited sequel. Kate Ancell gets the lowdown on his thoughts about fame, the life of a writer, and more.
Plus, check out our exclusive audio interview with the author below.
Photogrphy by Diana Lucas Leavengood
Dennis Lehane is one of those writers—the one we all want to be; the one who can tell the hell out of a story, while simultaneously, somehow keeping it real on a literary level. He’s also that writer who’s lived the success story that anyone coming out of an MFA program dreams of: write and maintain a successful series, create memorable characters, build up street- and book-world cred, and then bam. Clint Eastwood comes calling after your sixth (and first non-series) novel, Mystic River, and says, “‘I want to make a movie out of this.’ And that was immediately in motion. I mean, the movie was out within two years of the publication of the book. From publishing the book in 2001, exactly two years later I sat on a Warner Bros. lot and saw the film…it was dizzying times.”
And from there, life changed for Lehane. Mystic River brought him the kind of fame that rarely comes to writers: the kind that gets you noticed on the restaurant reservation list. He says, “Suddenly your name’s in Block. You get into these weird things where a perception grows up, very quickly. There were definitely growing pains when it came to figuring out how to adapt to it.” But, he admits, if you’re going to be well-known, literary fame is “the best kind of celebrity. In the drugstore no one recognizes you. I get recognized in Boston occasionally, maybe a little bit more so where I live now because it’s a very small neighborhood, it’s very tight—people are like, ‘Oh, I know that guy.’ People don’t bother you, either. If you pay to be part of the dance, then the dance can ultimately own you. If you don’t pay, you don’t have to play.”
This idea, to make his own rules and play life on his terms, has been Lehane’s M.O. since back in the day growing up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a working class area of Boston sandwiched between South Boston and Roxbury—when he found his calling, as so often the case, through the efforts of an outstanding teacher.
“I had this great priest in my high school who was just utterly inspiring to me. He taught my American Lit class, junior year. He was the one who really inspired me to write, to understand what writing was. And then four years later, I’d dropped out of two colleges and I said, ‘Well, I should now probably really take this seriously because I’m not good at anything else.’” Ten years later, A Drink Before the War appeared, and Lehane’s life changed. Now, with Moonlight Mile, the eagerly anticipated sequel to the bestselling book (and blockbuster movie) Gone, Baby, Gone, upon us, we decided to get Lehane’s thoughts on life and the literary world, after the war.
On Patrick and Angie and why they’re back
“My line about Patrick and Angie was that they had stopped talking to me [after Prayers for Rain], but if they ever knocked on my door again I would welcome them in with open arms, because they bought my first house for me. Patrick started talking to me [again] right as I was touring for The Given Day. I played around with various ideas and I didn’t like any of them and then I thought ‘Oh, well, of course, this should be about the case they never got closure on.’ And then I started thinking about that; like, who would this little girl be now?”
On being an “outsider” (and liking it)
“I think growing up working class, growing up the child of immigrants, seeing how immigrants are treated…it’s given me the chip on my shoulder that I have about issues about class and society. Eugene Debs had a line: ‘Where there is an underclass, I am of it.’ The moment you feel comfortable, you know there’s a problem. The moment you’re all the way in and there’s not some part of you that doesn’t feel a little bit ridiculous having a $56 steak…then you’re over. William Friedkin, the director of The French Connection, had this great line. I’ve never forgotten it. He was talking to a friend of his about [the fact that] they were both building tennis courts in their homes, in Hollywood. And in this moment, he suddenly stopped and he paused and he said, ‘I have nothing left to give as an artist. If I’m sitting here talking about tennis courts, I have nothing left to give as an artist.’ And in some ways it’s true: He’s a very capable director now, but he’s not the guy who did the friggin’ French Connection. Something’s just gone.”
On sin, redemption, and taking the law into your own hands
“I think morality is a choice. I think we have some innate-based morality that separates us from the animals, but then after that it’s all choice. So I mistrust conventional wisdom on issues of morality. When I write, I tend to want to pick things that I’m not sure how I feel about them, or issues that aren’t easily swept under the rug or easily decided. Women tend to say, [about the ending of Gone, Baby, Gone]—so, Patrick very obviously made the wrong decision. And they’re always shocked—my wife included—when I say: No, he made the right decision. Absolutely the right decision. He makes an argument very clearly in the book where he says, if we allow people to just kidnap kids because they don’t like how they’re being raised, then what happens when, say, those people don’t like it if the parent is gay?
We have laws for a reason. We have society for a reason. The idea is you can’t make a decision like this from an emotional place. And that’s why there are courts of law. Is there a bad side to that? Of course; that’s why I write about it. But Mystic River was the same idea: What if all evidence pointed to somebody having killed your daughter? And then you took the law into your own hands, which is a very American concept, and you went off and you did the thing that you were supposed to do, where you right the wrongs that society won’t right, and then the punchline is: You were wrong.”
On Bubba Rogowski
“I grew up with a lot of guys who were two tin cans short of a six-pack, and…I’m just not terribly good at judging people, I’m not comfortable judging people. So I ended up kind of attracting these people because they never felt judged by me. These are the guys who end up in jail, but there’s something inherently sweet about them. It’s something that’s very childlike about them. Bubba’s a dog—I’ve always thought of him as a dog—a big, giant dog. The line I use to describe Bubba (I think I’ve used it three times, it’s in Moonlight Mile, too) is that he’s the size of a young rhino on his back legs. He’s big. But he loves Patrick and Angie—that’s his redeeming quality.”
On screenwriting and The Wire
“What we were asked to bring to the table was our understanding of an urban machine. [The experience] was great. It was awesome. When you’re the novelist, you’re the general contractor. You take care of everything. When you write an episode of TV, you’re just the guy who comes in and paints the room. They’re the contractors. It’s awesome.”
On writing the first novel
“I’m a big believer in 10,000 hours. 10 years, 10,000 hours. It was eight years to publication [for A Drink Before the War], but I completed my next book almost 10 years to the day I had decided to become a writer, and that’s when I felt that I knew what I was doing. The first book? You put a monkey in a room with enough typewriters long enough, and give them an idea, and someone’s walking out of there with a first novel. The second novel is when you find out if you’re a novelist. Everybody can write the story of their life once.”
On being the Boston novelist
“I grew up in this very, very unique place that I understand, and which very few people can understand. You have to grow up there since you’re really small to really understand that city, and I get it. The only time I bristle at anything—if you want to call me a crime novelist I don’t give a shit, if you want to call me a mystery writer, I don’t care—the only time I bristle at anything is when I hear somebody else referred to as ‘the Boston novelist.’ No, I’m the Boston novelist.”
On what’s next
“The next book is going to be my gangster book. I know that. I really want to tell a gangster book. My absolute greatest love in the arts is gangster movies. I just really love them. So I’m doing mine. That’s next. It’s not a sequel to The Given Day, it’s part, it’s connected.”
And is Patrick still talking to him, after Moonlight Mile?
“Little bit, yeah. I don’t know. Everybody says [at the end of the book]: ‘It’s the end of him, we’ll just never see him again,’ and I’m like, yeah, it does feel like that, but…I don’t know. We’ll see. I don’t know…”