Mystic River author Dennis Lehane

Miami Book Fair Preview: Q&A with Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane, author of best-sellers turned box office hits Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, is as Boston as the Dropkick Murphys and "Sweet Caroline" at Red Sox games.

But he's actually a South Florida guy, too. Lehane studied at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg and at our own Florida International University and now spends part of the year living in St. Pete.

He'll speak about his newest critically acclaimed novel, The Given Day, which explores a riotous 1919 Boston police strike, at 10 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 15, in the Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus Auditorium.

After the jump, Lehane talks baseball, midgets, Martin Scorsese, and why his life is like "Apocalypse Now."

Riptide: So first of all, baseball fans demand to know: Were you wearing your Red Sox hat or your Tampa Bay Rays gear during the League Championship Series?

DL: I was absolutely torn to shreds. It was like watching your twin children fight each other to the death. I had no idea how to handle it, because the Rays, you know, have kind of been my secret minor-league team since they started down here. I've always followed them, but it was like they weren't playing in the same league as the Red Sox, so it didn't feel wrong. Watching them play in a series like that, I couldn't root either way. We even went to a game and it was really strange -- I'm clapping for Big Papi, then I'm clapping for Longoria, then I'm clapping for Pedroia.

Riptide: How far back do you go with the Miami Book Fair?

DL: Well, I went to grad school down in Miami [at FIU], so I've known Mitchell [Kaplan] from Books & Books forever. He's been such a good guy to me. He got me on a panel at the book fair when my first book came out. I think, like, four people showed up, but it meant a lot to me, so I've always been very loyal to the concept.

Riptide: Talk a little about your new book, The Given Day, which is something of a departure from the contemporary crime thriller for you. Had you always planned to write about a historical era like that? What's the origin of this book?

DL: There's never a plan. My entire career is like that scene in Apocalypse Now where Kurtz is like, "What's the matter, Willie, you don't approve of my methods?" and he's like, "I don't see any method at all." I basically put one foot in front of another until the moment seizes me. With this book, this was an incident that had always piqued my curiosity. Whenever I saw articles referencing the 1919 police strike, I'd pick it up and read about it. And every single time, it would hit me, Wait a second, that's nuts. It's like that moment, and this is going to be a really weird comparison, but it's like when you stop and say, "Wait a second, where did they find all those midgets for the Wizard of Oz?" The entire police force walked off the job? Yeah, pretty much. So what happened? There were riots for three days and they had to call the Army in to get the city under control. I said, that's insane. I read more and more on it, especially "A City in Terror" by Francis Russell.

Riptide: Terrorism was a huge topic of concern in America at that point and there was a ton of political and economic turmoil. Did you see a lot of parallels between that era and today as you were researching and writing?

DL: Of course, of course. Very early I made it my point to always be reporting and never be editorializing. You'd have to be blind not to see the parallels and not to draw some strong conclusions from it, not to think we should be doing the opposite this time around. I even wrestled with the thought of taking the word terrorist completely out of this book, but that was a term that was so prominently used at that time. Lenin had coined the phrase, or at least popularized it, and that's what they called these people, so I couldn't pull it.

Riptide: How difficult was it to inhabit and write about these real-life historical figures such as Babe Ruth without feeling like you were making caricatures?

DL: There was one guy who always eluded me, Curtis, the captain of the police force at the time. I couldn't find a single positive thing written about the guy, anywhere. I think he comes off as a one-dimensional character, but he seemed to be a really one-dimensional guy in real life. Everyone else was a blast. I stayed as close to the certain historical facts as a could. You know, writing about Babe Ruth, I really thought of him the whole time as Manny [Ramirez], as Manny being Manny. Those two guys are so similar and they were traded for the same reasons -- they were both financially, emotionally draining everything from those teams. Ruth was bitching about the team every month, about the owners, about his pay. It's the same with Manny. The only difference is Manny dogging it on the field, which Ruth never would have done.

Riptide: You've had two books turned into films now, with Clint Eastwood's Mystic River and Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone, and they've both been great adaptations. Does that change you at all, as an author?

DL: It doesn't. Not at all. I keep saying this, but there's no connection whatsoever. I never give it a thought, not even a fleeting thought. When I'm writing, it's between me and one reader. My job is to connect with this imaginary reader, seduce them almost into listening to what I'm trying to tell them. They're two completely different beasts -- one is active, one is passive. I love movies, and so far I've been treated great on film. But if someone makes a crappy adaptation of one of my books, I can live with that too.

Riptide: If someone had told you 10 years ago that two of the first three books you'd have adapted to film would be directed by Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese [who is adapting Lehane's Shutter Island], would you have believed that?

DL: No. It's insane. You know, I didn't tell anyone about Scorsese picking up Shutter Island. I told no one. When the announcement came out, one of the first e-mails I got was from a good buddy of mine, another writer who's going through the whole Hollywood thing. I opened it and all it said was: "Fuck you." I mean, what do you say when reality is this amazing? All my friends back home are teachers and cops and mechanics, and I'm getting my books adapted by Scorsese? It's tough to even talk about it, honestly.

-- Tim Elfrink

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