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11 Quick Questions for Dennis Lehane

Author’s new novel, ‘Small Mercies,’ is packed with plot twists

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Emma McIntyre/WireImage/Getty Images


If you’re looking for a Boston-based thriller with plenty of twists and turns, Dennis Lehane, 57, has the book for you. The acclaimed author of New York Times bestsellers Mystic River and Shutter Island, he’s also the creative force behind the Apple TV+ series Black Bird. His latest page-turner, Small Mercies, explores family ties, revenge, racism and the social tensions that plagued Boston in the early 1970s.

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Where’s the strangest place you’ve found writing inspiration?

The most surprising [place] was something that incubated for a long time and inspired Shutter Island. It was a trip out to an island right off the coast of Boston when I was a kid where there had been a mental hospital and just the rooms were left. Many, many years later, I never forgot. It just stuck in my head.

If you had to choose to only write novels or for the screen, which would you pick?

My publisher is gonna throw up, but I would say writing for the screen, because I’m at a point in my life where I enjoy the social aspects so much. I did my 25 years in a lonely room. I didn’t really like it so much. So to be hanging around a bunch of other writers, bouncing ideas off the wall and then going on to film sets and making it happen … that to me is a far more pleasurable way to spend my declining years.

What one book influenced you the most and why?

It’d be The Wanderers by Richard Price. It’s the book that changed my life. I read it when I was 14. Everybody has one book that lit the path for them, and that was mine. That’s the book that made me go, Oh, I recognize people in this book. If I recognize the people in this book, that means that what I want to write about is publishable.

You’ve taught fiction writing to college students. What is a skill that aspiring novelists should cultivate?

Read. That was not a shocking thing to say 30 years ago, but it’s become more and more revolutionary. I’ve taught classes where I’m like, “What’s the last book you read?” And the kids are, like, ”Oh, I don’t know.” With all due respect, what are you doing in writing? If your focus is on fiction, the answer is just read, read, read. Those words, the sentence structures, the music of the work, the depth of the work. … If you’re reading the right stuff, and you’re reading a lot of it, it gets into your bloodstream.

spinner image book cover that says small mercies dennis lehane; showing little kid in front of horses and police officers
Lehane's latest novel, “Small Mercies,” tells the tale of revenge, family ties and insidious power during one of the most tumultuous times in Boston’s history.
Harper Collins

You grew up in Boston, and most of your books are set in the Northeast. Since you live in California, do you ever see yourself writing a West Coast plotline?

Never. I’m 14 books in. I wrote one book that wasn’t set in Boston. It [was in] a city I know very well, which is Tampa [Florida]. After I finished it, I said, Never again, never leaving Boston. That’s my literary world. I like living in California, but there are plenty of people who’ve written about California. I just spent 25 years carving out my beachhead as the guy who writes about Boston. I’m gonna stay there.

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How is writing now different from in your 20s and 30s, and has your creativity gotten better over time?

I think I’ve gotten better. It’s so much more of a craft now to me. I can put one foot right in front of the other. It’s a job. I don’t have to sit around waiting for inspiration. The moment I had kids, I had to get structured. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that my output has pretty much doubled since I’ve had kids. I’m far more confident as a screenwriter, in my ability to turn out work really fast, than I’ve ever been. That is a big difference from when I was in my 20s and 30s, when I was sort of flailing about, trying to figure out what I was trying to say.

Author Harlan Coben sang the praises of Small Mercies. Which authors are you friends with in the industry? 

I call them my homeroom class. There’s a whole group of us who came up together. We were all hustling and selling books out of the trunks of our cars at the same time, and some of those are now the biggest names out there: Harlan and Michael Connelly, Lee Child, George Pelecanos, S.J. Rozan and Laura Lippman. I would say that’s my core cohort.

You’re currently developing the new Apple TV+ series Firebug. What can you tell us about it?

We’re scrambling to get our scripts in order because we won’t be able to write if we go on strike. So I’m scrambling to get my scripts locked, then we start shooting in Vancouver. It’s a story that was loosely inspired by a podcast called Firebug about the greatest serial arsonist in American history. We’re using that as a jumping-off point.

You’ve mentioned in interviews that you take your dog to work. Why is your dog your ideal coworker?

He’s not. When I had bulldogs, they were my ideal coworkers because they’re like stuffed animals with feet. They just come in and drop. But I’ve got a German shepherd mix now, and all he wants to do is play. So he’s a terrible coworker. You know, I’m trying to come up with a good idea, and all of a sudden, he’s dropping a ball in my lap or barking at a dog walking by the window. So, no, he’s awful. But I still like having him. You need a little conflict in your life.

Are you following the Murdaugh murders in South Carolina?

The Murdaugh murders have been my obsession since it started. I love them. It’s the most bats--t crazy story I’ve come across in forever. I mean, this dude [Alex Murdaugh] was more hard-core gangster than Lucky Luciano. And then you’ve got all the stuff that’s going on with Buster [Murdaugh] now. I can’t get enough of it. It tells me it’s every single thing I really know about crime. It’s the incredible sloppiness of crime that fascinates me. I was talking to my wife recently about the Son of Sam. How’d they get him, after all the hours and hours of work? They got him with a parking ticket. I love that.

Do you have any bucket list items before you turn 60?

Finding the time machine? That’d be awesome. But, no, I don’t have anything. I’m not that guy. If I wanted to do something, I’ve probably done it.

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