Sunday 17 December 2017

A sort of homecoming

Dennis Lehane looks exactly as you might expect a Bostonian crime writer to look. He's well-built, slumped in a chair and mainlining coffee. His eyes are bloodshot -- he's just flown across the US and then across the Atlantic but he's not complaining. "It beats the hell out of selling shoes," he says in a noirish drawl that makes me think of Philip Marlowe.

Lehane is not your average crime writer. He is famous for books like Shutter Island, Mystic River and Gone, Baby Gone (all made into films), which deal with harsh realities and the tragedy of the human experience. Stephen King has described his novels as "a kind of lifeline for me".

In his latest book Moonlight Mile, his detective duo Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro are back for the first time in 10 years. "I can only write about them if they knock on the door, in which case, I will open it wide because they bought my first house and, really, I love them. But they stopped talking for 10 years," he says, his voice dropping to a whisper to imply the seriousness of the situation.

So what changed? "I'd just become a father and I wanted to investigate my feelings about that." Lehane has said before that Kenzie and Gennaro represent the rational and emotional sides of his own self. "That led me to decide, 'okay, he's married, he has a kid'."

Lehane's daughter, Gianna Malia, is now two-years-old and this book is dedicated to her. "What I do in my novels is I obliquely channel a large part of my current experience. In this, it's questions about how do I protect her in this crazy world?"

With a name like Lehane, it's no surprise that he has Irish heritage. He was born and raised in Dorchester, the largest working-class area of Boston, to an Irish father and mother (both from Co Cork). "We grew up in this Irish village in the city of Boston. Everyone we saw was Irish."

However, he says his father was scornful of the "wearing of the green" that went on amongst fourth and fifth-generation Irish-Americans. "He just thought it was bullshit. When you grow up with the reality of it, you don't have corned beef to make you feel Irish -- you have corned beef because it's friggin' cooked... and it sucks, by the way."

He visited Ireland for the first time in 1976 and was shocked by the poverty. "Man, it was poor. I remember being in the house my mother grew up in, the second half of her life, in Meath, and there was still no toilet. You went out to the barn. We were from a working-class neighbourhood but we had two bathrooms. We were practically lace curtain," he laughs.

Despite this, he loved it. "I remember pulling into Shannon Airport and I was like, 'Yeah, I'm home'. It's in your blood; some weird genetic memory."

He credits the Irish storytelling culture he grew up in as having influenced his own ability. "My dad used to take me to the farmer's market every Saturday and then we'd go to a bar. We'd sit in this Irish bar and just listen to people tell stories. It gave me an incredible love of that process. It was a huge influence. Growing up where every Saturday night they all got together and told the same stories but variations, so it was like listening to jazz. I think those are the single most formative things in my life."

For a working-class boy from Boston, writing wasn't what he calls "a viable career option", but somehow he ended up doing it. "It was my big hobby and I wrote lots of things before I was out of high school and when I was 16 I got enough encouragement from teachers to think maybe I could do this.

"So when I was 20 I said, 'I'm all in, my chips are on the table.' I went to school for it, I studied it like a religion for seven years. It's your twenties," he shrugs, "what else are you going to do?"

I suggest a few options other young men might pursue. "That's the great thing about being a writer. A lot of men become writers for the same reason a lot of men become actors. You do it for the women. I could be poor, dress like a slob but I talk about Shakespeare and they'll go 'oh, he's got taste'. It was a nice perk," he laughs, but you can tell it was never really a motivation.

Lehane's real talent as a writer lies in his ability to offer an insight into the dark side of human experience. Why so bleak, I wonder? Again comes the shrug. "I do tragedy better than anything. Cormac McCarthy says he writes about 'the fiction of mortal event' and that's what I'm attracted to. Not just what I'm attracted to, but it's what I'm good at."

You can say that again.

Moonlight Mile, published by Little, Brown, is out now

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