A version of this story first appeared in the March 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Dennis Lehane, 49, the quintessential Boston crime writer whose books have been adapted for the big screen by the likes of Clint Eastwood (Mystic River), Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island) and Ben Affleck (Gone Baby Gone), returned March 10 with his new novel, World Gone By. The final installment in a trilogy featuring Joe Coughlin, a cop’s son turned mobster, the book moves between Tampa, Fla., and Havana as World War II unfolds, offering an intimate story that deftly explores the personal toll the gangster lifestyle takes on its protagonist.
You moved to Los Angeles 18 months ago. What do you miss most about Boston?
The snow record. Bostonians, for better or worse, tend to like hard things. You don’t really feel like something is fully worthwhile unless it’s hard-earned. It’s that sense of working-class pride, which, yeah, can be kind of annoying but can be really cool. So when I saw my friends emailing about getting the snow record, I thought, “What a bunch of sick bastards,” but I really dig it. I’m jealous I’m not there, in a way.
World Gone By is the third book in the trilogy. The film version of the middle book, Live by Night, is being shot this year by Affleck. What are the movie prospects for this and the other two?
I feel like there’s potentially another narrative avenue for The Given Day — a TV series or miniseries. Live by Night is being turned into a movie by Ben Affleck, who has the rights to the names. Joe Coughlin, Thomas Coughlin, etc. but if I were to make The Given Day or World Gone By I could just change the names. Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro were characters in about six books of mine. They became the lead characters in a wonderful movie, Gone Baby Gone. It wasn’t a financial success but it was a wonderful film. But it’s not like it’s going to have any sequels. So now Patrick and Angie are co-owned by a movie studio for perpetuity. I think some weird core principle is that these are my characters, you can buy my story, but you cannot buy my characters. There’s something about that that gives you a really weird proprietary feeling.
World Gone By brings the Joe Coughlin trilogy to an end. Right to the end, it’s not clear to the reader what the final outcome will be. How far out did you know the end?
I struggled with the ending I would say since the original conception of the book. Throughout the writing of the book I was unhappy, not going to lie. I didn’t like the book. Eighty percent of it was always good. It was the 20 percent of it that was riding toward this false wish-fulfillment type of ending. Right around the time I was struggling, Tim O’Brien [The Things They Carried] — we were talking about books — said, “The thing I’ve always liked about your books is they’re authentic,” and I went home that night … and I remember sitting there and having my eureka moment.
What’s it like when someone like Tim O’Brien, considered one of the best American writers of his generation and a potential Nobel Prize winner, praises the authentic sound of your writing?
You have a Wayne and Garth moment where you think, “you’re not worthy, you’re not worthy.” It’s humbling and it’s overwhelming and you’re not sure you agree, but you’re grateful.
David Simon filled the writers room of The Wire with novelists like you, George Pelecanos and Richard Price, plus ex-cops. What was that experience like?
We had a lot of arguments. We were not particularly sensitive or politically correct, yet we were in the same boat. We were creating this TV show that was the most scabrous, corrosive depiction of American cities that had ever been presented and will ever be presented. It was like the lunatics were allowed to run the asylum. We were so happy. I remember [producer] Ed Burns ripping me apart in a wonderfully sarcastic, biting way when I came up with a bad cop idea. Burns looked at me with 30 years of experience as a Baltimore cop and just slowly shook his head. We were always challenging one another.
What’s the new book about?
It’s going to be a trilogy of short novels and I’m closing in on the end of the first installment. I’ll probably finish in two months. I’m using a cop in 2008 whose investigating a cold case from the 80s as a way of looking at how dirty old Boston became clean new Boston. I’m never leaving Boston again. I needed to get out of Tampa, out of Cuba and everybody would like me to be out of history for a while. I’m ready to come back to the present for a moment.
Which is better: old Boston or today’s?
I remember the dirty old Boston with the D bond rating and [the former “red light district”] the Combat Zone. It was a dumpy, dumpy city. So you see this new city that [former Mayor Thomas] Menino built and the banks and biotech and you think, “What was the price to get us here? What got wiped out? What got lost?” That’s probably the theme I deal with in my writing more than anything.
What are you reading now?
Kid’s books. The go-to guy is Mo Willems. Anyone outside of the children’s world has no idea who Mo Willems is. I didn’t. But anyone who has kids he literally takes you from the very first book to all these great books I’m reading with my 5-year-old. He’s the Dr. Seuss of our time.
ON THE DOCKET
LIVE BY NIGHT (Warner Bros.)
Ben Affleck adapted Lehane’s second Joe Coughlin novel — set during Prohibition — and plans to direct and star alongside Sienna Miller and Zoe Saldana.
ELIOT NESS SERIES (WGN)
Lehane pitched a series about The Untouchables legend’s follow-up stint in Cleveland, when as head of police and fire he tangled with a serial killer.
The author is adapting the Irish TV crime series for American audiences, setting it in a gritty Hawaii that tourists don’t see.
A PROPHET (Sony)
Lehane wrote the U.S. adaptation of Jacques Audiard‘s critically lauded French film about a Muslim who befriends a Corsican mobster in prison.
THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY (21st Century Fox)
Lehane took the first pass at the adaptation of John D. MacDonald‘s detective novel, which is slated to start filming this year with Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike as the leads.