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Mystic success

Author Dennis Lehane, an alumnus of Eckerd College, isn't sure how he got to the top, but when he's not writing, he tries to help others do the same.

By COLETTE BANCROFT
Published January 25, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - Dennis Lehane writes dark books.

His blockbuster Mystic River, the source of the Oscar-winning film, and his six other novels reverberate with violence, particularly child abuse and its terrible consequences.

"You have to recognize your obsessions," Lehane says. But the obsession with violence and retribution that drives his fiction didn't come out of his own childhood in Dorchester, Mass.

"I have the greatest parents you could have," he says. "I had a great childhood.

"Growing up, lots of my friends came from broken homes, violent homes. I would go home and think, "It may be boring here, but it beats the alternative.' "

The source of his obsession with those who hurt children, he says, lies in St. Petersburg.

* * *

Sipping coffee on a sunny patio at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, Lehane doesn't look like a guy who writes nightmare-inducing books. He's articulate and funny, his blue eyes direct.

Mystic River, his sixth book, is his best-known, but he was already a critic's darling and bestselling author when it was published in 2001.

His first five books (A Drink Before the War; Darkness, Take My Hand; Sacred; Gone, Baby, Gone and Prayers for Rain) were a series about Boston private detectives and sometime lovers Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro, all written in the hard-boiled tradition of crime novels. His most recent book, Shutter Island, a Gothic thriller set in a prison for the criminally insane, was published in 2003.

Lehane, 39, is here for Writers in Paradise, a conference at Eckerd College. A 1988 graduate of Eckerd's creative writing program, he helped found the conference and will spend this week running a workshop for 12 writers. Saturday night, he'll read from his novel in progress.

"It's negative 19 with the wind chill in Boston," says Lehane, who lives near Fenway Park. He's savoring the kind of weather that helped attract him to Eckerd after he had dropped out of two colleges in Boston.

He had wanted to be a writer when he was a kid. "But it wasn't a viable career option where I grew up."

At Emerson College and the University of Massachusetts, he had "safety majors," English and journalism. But by the time he was 20, he realized he really did want to write, and write well.

"I didn't want to be working in the Dock Tavern and have somebody saying, "Hey, Hemingway, get me a Bud.' "

Arriving at Eckerd in 1985, he studied mainly with novelist Sterling Watson and poet Peter Meinke, who are also participating in this week's conference.

"It was a nice balance," Lehane says. "Peter is very old world, very gentle. Sterling is much more firm, kind of tough love. I responded to that. I respond very strongly to the noncoddling school of teaching writing."

In those days, he says, he wasn't thinking about writing crime fiction.

"I was a very esoteric, avant-garde short story writer. But I knew something was missing in my arsenal. When I wrote my first novel, I realized I didn't know how to plot.

"That's what's great about crime fiction. It has a built-in structure. I found those constraints were freeing." That structure helped him develop stories that reflected his interest in violence and in urban Northeastern settings.

Experiences outside the classroom drew him to his subject matter. While living in St. Petersburg's Old Northeast neighborhood, he worked as a therapeutic counselor for abused children at Carlton Manor, a mental health center for emotionally disturbed children.

"It gave me a rage I had never felt before," he says.

"My supervisor told me I was great with the kids, but he didn't want me in the same room with the parents. Nine times out of 10, when kids get into really serious trouble, it's the parents. We're not supposed to say that. But it's true."

The work took a toll on him. "Once, I went down to the police station on First Avenue to pick up this kid who was a runaway, had all kinds of problems. And the cop who had been with the kid for an hour came out and said to me, "I don't know how you can do this f--- job.' And I thought, "That's a cop saying that about my job.' "

After a year during which he was unable to write at all, he had to make a decision. "I could be a social worker or I could be a writer."

He quit, and in 1991 he went to Miami, where he earned a master's of fine arts at Florida International University. But the children he met as a counselor still haunt him, he says.

"I have the highest respect for people who can do that job. I'm in awe of them. I have a friend who's done it for 20 years, and if the world worked right, he would be making a lot more money than I am."

* * *

Lehane's visibility - and income - got a big boost when Mystic River was filmed. Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon, it was one of the biggest hits of 2003.

"I was so lucky," he says. "I got a director who would keep it as faithful to the book as possible and one of the best adapters in the business (Brian Helgeland, who also adapted James Ellroy's L.A. Confidential)."

Now Shutter Island is in development by director Wolfgang Petersen (Troy, The Perfect Storm), who was on Lehane's "short list" of choices.

His next novel is well under way, although he says it may not turn out to be crime fiction. "I'm 400 pages into it, and there's no mystery in sight."

This book is a historical novel, partially set during the Boston police strike of 1919 but ranging all over the country, Lehane says.

He has no idea when he will finish it. "It's so long and has such an enormous cast. Like Mystic River, this one has been gestating for a long time.

"It will be a doorstop when it's done. I hope it's good enough to make up for the wait."

Many of his readers, he says, want to know if he'll ever bring back Kenzie and Gennaro. "I would really like to. I love those guys. But the only rule I had was that if they stop knocking on my door, I'll leave them alone.

"You know, I didn't want to write a book where they go on a cruise and the chef gets killed."

* * *

When he's not working on his novel, or writing magazine articles or scripts for HBO's The Wire, Lehane spends a lot of time teaching writing.

He has taught at Harvard and Tufts and in several low residence programs, which bring writers together each semester for peer workshops. Then they work on their own with a mentor by phone and mail.

"It's great for people who are out in the working world. They can't take two years off," Lehane says.

He says part of the pleasure of teaching workshops at Writers in Paradise is being back at Eckerd and visiting his parents, who live in Pinellas County in the winter. He's so fond of the area he used it as a setting for much of his third novel, Sacred.

"People got really proprietary about that," he says. "The most I ever got ripped was by the Florida press" for some minor errors of geography in the book.

"But it was a good lesson. I'm much more careful about fact-checking."

Workshops like Writers in Paradise "allow people to step out of the vacuum and meet some like-minded lunatics," he says.

"I see them getting together and forming groups that go on after the conference is over. They find out they're not alone, and that's so huge for a writer."

In writing workshops, he says, "You can give them a toolbox. You can't teach the fire.

"If you write for money or because you need something to do or because you want to see your name up in lights, you're probably not going to be any good. If you're writing because you can't not write, because you can't stop, you might make it."

But there are no guarantees. "I'm a bestselling author, and I have no clue how I did it."

-- Colette Bancroft can be reached at 727 893-8435 or bancroft@sptimes.com

IF YOU GO

As part of the Writers in Paradise Workshop, Dennis Lehane will give a free public reading at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Eckerd College's Fox Hall, 4200 54th Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Other free readings this week, all at 7:30 p.m., include fiction writers Jack Driscoll and B. Lee Hope tonight in Miller Auditorium; poet Dzvinia Orlowsky and fiction writer Roland Merullo on Thursday in Fox Hall; and poets Terrance Hayes and Laure-Anne Bosselaar on Friday in Fox Hall. Details can be found online at writersinparadise.eckerd.edu, or call (727) 864-7994.

[Last modified January 24, 2005, 17:11:04]


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