Best-selling novelist-screenwriter Dennis Lehane seems to move on and off the literary radar screen, but when he’s on, he’s a presence – especially when one of his novels has been made into a movie.
Lehane hit the scene in the 1990s via his six Patrick Kenzie-Angela Gennaro novels, starring two tough-as-they-come Boston PIs. The first in the series, “A Drink Before the War,” won a Shamus award for best debut novel. The fourth, “Gone Baby Gone,” was made into a movie starring Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan.
Then came three stand-alone novels and their subsequent movie adaptations: “Mystic River” (Sean Penn, Tim Robbins), “Shutter Island” (Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo) and, most recently, “The Drop” (Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini). “I was fortunate enough to able to participate in those movies to the extent I wanted to,” Lehane said.
His 11th and latest novel is “World Gone By” (William Morrow, $28, 320 pages), the sequel to “Live By Night” (William Morrow, $17, 401 pages; 2012). The companion pieces follow the turbulent life of Joe Coughlin, a bootlegger who begins a violent crime career in Boston in 1926, enters an ideal marriage that ends in tragedy and then moves to World War II-era Ybor City, the Cuban district of Tampa, Fla. There, his ties to the underworld flourish, until …
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The compelling epic is marked by depth of character, tension and historical accuracy. “Live By Night” has one of the most intriguing opening lines in crime fiction: “Some years later, on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, Joe Coughlin’s feet were placed in a tub of cement.”
Lehane – who describes himself as “a contrarian by nature” – has written for the HBO hit series “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire,” and Ken Burns’ “Prohibition” PBS mini-series. He and his wife, Angela Bernardo, divide their time between Boston and Santa Monica.
Q: Just as novelist Robert Crais owns Los Angeles, you own Boston, your hometown.
A: Boston is my well, and it’s given me an endless stream of water. With rare exception, I don’t see the point of crossing the field to someone else’s well. Though I did in “World Gone By,” set in Tampa. That was a decision based on the world I tackled in “Live By Night,” which was rum-running, which didn’t happen much in Boston.
Q: “Live By Night” and “Boardwalk Empire” seem almost conjoined.
A: They weren’t at the time I wrote it. I’d heard “Boardwalk” was coming when I set out to write “Live By Night” and I wanted to steer out of its way. I got the basic story of what was happening in Atlantic City, which was whiskey, but after that I thought the Eastern Seaboard was played out. Then I thought, “I lived in St. Petersburg-Tampa, so I know about rum-running in Ybor City. I think I’ve got my story,” which is “World Gone By.” Later, I was brought on to “Boardwalk” (whose storyline also segues to Florida).
Q: Where did you “meet” Joe Coughlin?
A: He started as a young boy in “The Given Day” (about two generations of Boston cops). Writing a gangster novel was a longtime dream of mine, but I needed (a protagonist). About two years into “Day” there was a fight at a dinner table. In the midst of writing that scene, I said, “I’ve got my guy! This kid is going to grow up to be a gangster. He’s got the correct hatred of hypocrisy and a lack of respect for any sort of authority.”
Q: Most novelists are researchers. What about you?
A: When I did “The Given Day,” I spent a year doing research and not a single line got written. I ended up using only 10 percent of it. Should I ever be on “Jeopardy” and the category is “1919-1920,” (the research) could come in really handy. So I researched only as needed for “Live By Night” and “World Gone By.”
Q: You’ve said you write about the have-nots, who seem to inhabit the criminal world.
A: The argument is that’s the only way they’ll ultimately be able to get ahead. Behind every great fortune is a crime, you know. When very rich people get very upset, you get very rich therapists. When poor people get very upset, you get Ferguson (Mo.)-type situations. That’s visceral and appeals to me. Probably because I grew up in a working-class neighborhood and understand it.
A: No. We played a bunch of phone tag, and we were set for dinner, which fell through at the last minute. In the movie business, you presume there will be a press junket and that’s where you’ll see each other. He passed away before that. It was heartbreaking.
Q: You have TV series in development.
A: I have a show with HBO that takes the hospital in “Shutter Island” (as a vehicle) to look at the history of American psychiatry in the first half of the 20th century. There’s another one about the five-year period in which (Prohibition agent) Eliot Ness was the safety director for the city of Cleveland. That sounds really boring, but it was very much a wonderful portal to look at the Great Depression. I like the way the tendrils fall from the cloud of history onto the present day.
Q: Ben Affleck directed and wrote the screenplay for “Gone Baby Gone,” and now he’s signed on as director, screenwriter and star for “Live By Night.”
A: I’ve seen the script, it’s terrific. If they ever get to the point where they actually make the movie, I’ll be excited about it.
Q: What’s your next act?
A: I never really had much of a plan. My only law is whatever story is bubbling up, I go with it. If that story ends up as a novel or screenplay or short story or television show, so be it. That attitude has led me to an extremely unconventional career, unlike anybody else’s. Every now and then that’s a little disconcerting. I say, “Wow, I’m not really a brand.” But then I say, “That’s OK, I’m not supposed to be a brand, I’m supposed to be a writer.”
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.