By ANDREW YOURELL, Staff Writer
Author Dennis Lehane spoke in front of a packed house at the Portsmouth Writer’s Loft on Friday, March 13 while promoting his newest novel, World Gone By. The night included Lehane reading a chapter from the gritty novel, which follows 2012’s “Live By Night” in the Joe Coughlin series.
Lehane’s newest novel picks up 10 years after the death of Coughlin’s wife and the destruction of his criminal empire. Taking place in Ybor City, Florida, new novel to further explores Coughlin.
“Maybe by the time you realize you’re losing power, it’s already gone,” the author said, describing the lessons that Coughlin and other characters are forced to learn throughout the novel. He described Coughlin’s character as a “golden boy who has it all figured out.”
Despite the criminal theme of the novel, and the gritty, industrialized nature of most of Lehane’s work, he had the audience laughing, even as they cringed listening to an excerpt about a mobster coldly executing another family’s enforcer.
“I do,” he responded, when told he had morally ambiguous characters. “I heard all the laughing in this room. I’d say there’s plenty of morally ambiguous people in here.”
He kept the mood light and the audience laughing with the blunt way in which he discussed issues of morality, and the “tough-guy” image that is associated with his work.
Following the reading, Lehane spent close to an hour answering questions from the audience, which focused more on the author’s other notable works, such as “Mystic River” and “Gone, Baby, Gone,” his Boston roots, and future novels. The talk quickly shifted to a bit of a writer’s workshop, with Lehane discussing his work habits and writing tips.
A native of Dorchester, Lehane now lives and works in Santa Monica, California, and works out of what he says is the only dirty part of Santa Monica left.
“I like gritty, I like industrial, I’m into that sorta stuff,” he explained. “I like dirt. I like grit. So in southern California, I’m screwed. I had to find something, so I found the only gritty part of Santa Monica that’s left, and that’s where I found this kinda cool, lofty office that I use.”
When asked about his stories making a return to Boston, he assured his hometown fans that his next three novels would take place in Beantown in 2008.
“My next book’s going to Boston…I spent all of this book just trying to get the hell out of Florida…but it didn’t make sense,” he said. “Santa Monica is a wonderful place. It’s only problem is it’s not Boston.”
As far as his tough-guy persona goes, Lehane said that he’s battled being labeled throughout his career.
“There’s a difference between being urban and being a tough-guy…Tough-guys don’t become writers,” he joked to more laughter from the assembled audience. “It doesn’t work that way. We’re the little geeks in the background, observing the tough guys.”
Many of the younger fans in attendance were quick to ask Lehane what advice he might give to his fellow geeks.
“You don’t usually have to say this this emphatically as you have to say it now,” he began. “Read. That’d be number one…I started to notice a whole new crop of writers coming up who didn’t read, and it was staggering. It was like, what the hell are you doing here?”
The author talked about how writers need to “over-saturate” themselves with reading to succeed. When asked what he likes to read, Lehane mentioned that, with a family at home and a short attention span, he’s moved on to short stories. But he was emphatic that reading of all kinds, and immersion into any narrative piece is necessary for writers.
“Any narrative to me. I obsessed over songs, music, concept albums, movies, old movies, new movies, plays…anything that was narrative driven, I was totally into,” he said.
He also stressed the need for writing to be authentic.
“Write as honestly as you can. Build up your bull—- meter…this is the perfect example. I wrote “World Gone By,” I wrote it, I had three drafts finished. And I hated them all. I hated every single one, and I wouldn’t realize the book,” he said.
The solution came in the form of writer Tim O’Brien, author of “The Things They Carried,” whom Lehane met at a writer’s conference.
“I had this wonderful night hanging out with him. And he said to me, at one point, he said, ‘What I love about your work, what I really love about your work Dennis … it’s always authentic’ … and I went home that night, and I got into my house … and all of a sudden I went ‘THAT’S IT!’”
Lehane realized the ending of the novel wasn’t real enough to fit the story, and didn’t follow the story’s natural flow. The ending was, in his own words, a “lie.” He wrote the ending that the story deserved, sent off the book, and it was promptly printed.
His other tips for writers were to keep dialogue as current as possible, using slang from other eras like salt on a dish, once every few pages.
“Anything that pulls you out of a book is wrong,” he stated simply.
The other important piece that he discussed was how Hollywood has embraced his work, with four of his novels already turned into movies, and a fifth currently in the works.
“This is the only thing I control: I control who I sell my books to,” he said after being asked if he cringed at the thought of his works being poorly represented on the silver screen.“And I am extremely picky … and I won’t sell directly to studios, because then I cede control. My paycheck may be bigger, but I cede control. So I only sell directly to the talent. I sell either to the producer, or the producer-director, which in Mystic River was Clint Eastwood.”
Once the script is sold, Lehane admits that he is at best a consultant for the moviemakers to use for advice. His novel “Live By Night,” the first in the Joe Coughlin series, is being produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, star of “Shutter Island;” Ben Affleck, director and producer of “Gone, Baby, Gone;” and Jennifer Davisson Killoran. The movie is slated for release in October 2016.
“World Gone By” by Dennis Lehane is available from major book retailers.