Dennis Lehane interviewed by Mark Billingham – Harrogate Crime Writing Festival – The final event.

Okay – here we are at the last event of this year’s amazing Harrogate Crime Writing Festival and (with the exception of my interview with CJ Box – which will follow soon) my last report to post.

Crime supremo Dennis Lehane took to the stage with Mark Billingham to discuss his work and the huge success he has enjoyed with the cinema adaptations of his novels.

He kicked off by saying how much stories had a been a part of his young life when his father would take him to the farmers’ market for a rush round to do the shopping so that he could then take him to a pub to drink ginger ale and listen in on the stories that his father and his friends would share over beers. Their home was not a readers’ home – the only books they had were a set of encyclopaedias that his mother bought from a door to door salesman in a moment of weakness. He was taken to a library when he was 7 or 8 years old, and that visit changed his life. He went on to say that he will now do anything to support libraries – a rare thing as he admitted that, if he doesn’t want to do events then he is harder to find than Jimmy Hoffa.

He said that others say he must be heavily influenced by Chandler and Hammett, but he is also very much influenced by Wilbur Smith and Alistair MacLean – two authors which were introduced to him by an English aunt. Since that trip to the library, he has written stories – so he’s been a writer since around 8 years old.

He wrote his first novel when he was 15 and a friend of his has the copy for possible blackmail in the future. When he was 16 he wrote a short story and his teacher told him he might want to seriously think about writing more. He wrote a failed novel whilst in college and then, after college, he wrote ‘A Drink before the War’ and then spent a year doing rewrites – an agent took it on after seven months – he feels ridiculously blessed with his route to publication as, in his words, he gets ‘paid to sit in a room and think shit up! – You never hear me bitch. My father ‘worked’ for a living – I know the difference’.

By the time of publication he knew that the characters had the potential for a series. Patrick and Angie are the two sides of his own character. He likes the dilemma of endings – where the result might be the right or wrong, good or bad, thing.

He cited Elmore Leonard as his greatest style influence but also his favourite books as Robert Crais’ ‘The Monkey’s Raincoat’ and Robert Parker’s ‘Looking for Rachel Wallace’.

When he wrote ‘Prayers for Rain’ the emotions of it feeling weary, tired and exhausted kept coming up – he showed it to George Pelecanos who said it felt like the end – and he agreed.

He wrote ‘Mystic River’ when he moved to Charlestown (The Town) in 1993 and he wanted to write about the changes there. He knew it was the best title from the start. Bad things do happen to children, but he feels he won the parental lottery. Some people he described as having the ‘curse of fury’ and they keep coming at you until you kill them. But his own home was filled with love and safety. His friend once asked him ‘How come we made it?’ because they managed to break out of the neighbourhood they were living in.

Harlan Coben’s ‘Tell No One’ came out at the same time as ‘Mystic River’ and helped standalones become more successful. Although, after ‘Mystic River’ he did admit to feeling hemmed in by the weight of expectation he felt others had for his next book.

When he wrote ‘Shutter Island’ he felt that everyone would hate it but the French! It was the fastest book he’s ever written – knocking it out in four and a half months with sixteen hour non-stop writing days. Overnight he wrote 26 points – he knew the whole book there and then. He wanted to give the character of Teddy a hug all the way through the book, knowing that ‘this isn’t going to end well’.

Discussion then turned to the fantastic luck he has had with the Directors who have chosen to adapt his books, with Clint Eastwood choosing ‘Mystic River’ and Martin Scorcese with ‘Shutter Island’.

Of Eastwood, he described with great humour the fact that whenever a problem occurred or there was a disagreement, such as a dispute involving Brian Helgeland and Sean Penn with Warner Bros. He said that Eastwood would simply call those involved and be very persuasive by saying ‘I know there’s a problem, I understand – but… if you did…’ and then would leave the phrase hanging there. There then followed news that Clint Eastwood is a huge smoothies fan and seemed obsessed with them on set, so whilst many thought he was thinking through the mechanics of filming and what was going on on set, it was more likely he was considering what flavour smoothie he’d have next break.

Of ‘Shutter Island’ he said, there’s nothing you can do, you can’t interfere with someone else’s creativity, you can’t say to Scorcese ‘I don’t know, Marty. I think the camera should go over there!’ To ensure that no one could look up the book and blow the ending during the making of the movie, ‘Shutter Island’ was given the working title ‘Ashcliff’. He also mentioned the man he thinks must, worryingly, be his number one fan when he told the tale of a man who, annoyed at someone talking through a screening, left the movie theatre, bought a potato peeler, came back in and stabbed the guy – apparently the episode ended with the victim and the assailant both fleeing the cinema.

Then there is his third great movie adaptation, ‘Gone Baby Gone’ directed by Ben Affleck. Due for release in the UK at the time of Madeleine McCann’s disappearance and pulled from release here by the Director as many had commented that the young actress in the movie looked a lot like the missing toddler and it looked like it may have caused a problem over here. (I count myself as extremely lucky to have attended a London press screening of the movie as it looked amazing on the big screen). The movie gained a lot of acclaim once it hit DVD and word of mouth spread. In Lehane’s words ‘Thirty Days of Night’ crushed it in box office that opening weekend – but compare the reputations of both movies now!’ ‘It’s the most’Boston’ of my films – and made by a Bostonian – In many ways it’s my favourite.’

When fatherhood hit (with the arrival of Lehane’s daughter) he felt he needed to be a good father/hunter-gatherer and ensure he wrote something that would provide security, so he started thinking of writing a big crap book with 75 chapters and 9 serial killers to pay for her college fees! Fortunately, at around the same time, Patrick came back to him, and ‘Moonlight Mile’ was the result.

Just as well, as the other thing that Lehane said he really wanted to get a comment in was on Coldplay’s Chris Martin’s hairline – ‘I’ve said it now, in London!’ – well, it was Harrogate, but I’m sure we all forgave his geography on that one.

For research, he spent some time with transit cops, to see a scene of a ‘jumper’ – ‘They always lose a shoe’ was the anecdote he said he’ll always remember and that it’s often the little comments from research that make it into the books rather than lots of factual information. They also showed him the Acela high speed train book that they keep – saying ‘Look at this one – You can’t even see where the nose is’ – just trying to make him throw up.

When asked if he might return to Patrick and Angie again he only said ‘Never say never’.

His next book is set to be about the Prohibition and features a character from ‘The Given Day’, his only rule being that he won’t write anything set in an era with clothing he wouldn’t wear.

The conversation then went to questions from the audience, the first of which was to ask that, if he loved Boston, then why did he choose to write for The Wire? ‘I love Boston, but I love cities. The issues in The Wire were the same as in novels. It was the same for George Pelecanos and for Richard Price.’

He mentioned that in ‘Shutter Island’ he did have to speak out to say ‘You are being too faithful to me’ – some novel lines needed changing to movie lines.

He’s now looking forward to a new film by David Cronenberg of his short story ‘Animal Rescue’ – he then added that he’s fortunate to be collecting top directors for his work and if he gets Michael Mann then he’s pretty much got a full set.

Conversation turned to the actual act of writing. His first point was that, to write, you HAVE to read. He also said that you have to be clear on your motive – why are you writing? The only reason for writing is that you can’t NOT write. Write it, don’t show it and try to avoid characters just sitting and thinking. He doesn’t like knowing everything from the start as he did with ‘Shutter Island’. With ‘Gone Baby Gone’ he knew some of the details – enough to write it, leaving scope and spaces for keeping his interest going, and it was similar for Mystic River.

He was to appear in The Wire with the memorable line ‘Straighten up and die right, you c***s’ and then had to throw up on the street between McNulty and Bunk, but sadly he had to miss out due to other commitments – but he did get to appear later as a character in another episode. He went on to say that there were a lot of egos all working together in the writers’ room on The Wire – which pretty much led to a sign on the door ‘Check your ego at the door – or we’ll take it!’

A great interview by Mark Billingham and it was fantastic to finally get to hear Dennis Lehane and to meet him afterwards for the last signing session of the festival.

And that was it, the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival was over for another year – but, wow, what a year, what a festival – and at this point I’d raise yet another large glass of the black stuff to Dreda Say Mitchell and everyone else who worked so hard to make this the biggest and the best to date.

Just before the audience cleared from the room, Dreda took to the stage and invited Erica Morris to join her to thank her in front of all of us for her huge undertaking this year to make the festival such a great success.

A very moving speech in which Dreda revealed that she sadly had a family loss earlier in the year and that Erica and the team had worked harder than ever to support her. She then went on to thank all of the team at the festival, the front of house team and Riot Communications , the publishers, the authors, sponsors and the readers who had come along to make it such a success this year.

She closed by saying ‘If I had a moment, I’d give everyone a very big hug – That’s the teacher in me!’

And, for me to close, I’d just like to say the following: Dreda – Thank you – it was (as you said at the launch it would be) ‘The Bomb! – Not a bad bomb, but a good bomb.’

And to those who have read any one of (or all of) my posts – get yourself along to the website www.harrogate-festival.org.uk/crime and get ordering your tickets for next year – Mark Billingham’s back as Chair, John Connolly and Charlaine Harris are already in the line-up and, it’ll be the tenth anniversary of the greatest UK Crime Writing Festival.

See you there…

Keith

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Filed under Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival Harrogate 2011

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