Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Great American Invasion, Part I

(Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part report from British correspondent Ali Karim. It was actually supposed to have appeared in The Rap Sheet before now, but Karim’s business schedule delayed him from finishing the posts. The second installment should appear in the next couple of days.)

Tess Gerritsen and Dennis Lehane, during their visit to the UK

“May you live in interesting times.” That ancient Chinese saying (or curse) has sounded many times in my head over the last few months, as economic storm clouds have gathered over the world. My own life has certainly been interesting since this new year dawned. The financial crisis, coupled with the appalling weather across Britain, challenged my business career immensely. But as is often true, in every downside there is a ray of sunshine. For me, the high promise of crime fiction and the feeling of paper between my fingers is a comfort when the world looks so cold and gray.

Then, on an otherwise miserable day in January, just as I seemed to be reaching new depths of depression, I stumbled across this little nugget on American author Tess Gerritsen’s blog, relating to her then upcoming UK book tour:
Thursday 12th February
Evening event, Borders London, Charing Cross Road
(This will be a joint event with Dennis Lehane!)
I spat my coffee across the table when I read that last line. Dennis Lehane was coming to London! I had missed seeing him in 1999, when he ventured across the Atlantic with George Pelecanos to participate in Crime Scene at the London Film Festival. And I’d only had a few tongue-tied minutes with him back in October, when I bumped into Lehane at Bouchercon and posed for a picture beside him, fellow author Roger Jon “R.J.” Ellory, and Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce. I hoped the approaching event with Gerritsen would allow me more time with this man I consider to be one of our finest modern fictionists--an author whose stories have fixed themselves firmly in my mind, and whose characters seem more real than some of the people I meet on a daily basis. (As stand-up comedian Bill Hicks often says, “Life is a ride,” and we shape our own reality.)

Without delay, I got on the phone to Patsy Irwin, the publicity director for Transworld, which publishes both Lehane and Gerritsen in Britain. I’ve known Irwin for many years, and she has set me up to interview such stars of this genre as Tom Cain, Lee Child, Mo Hayder, Simon Kernick. My wish was that she would arrange interviews for me with both of these visiting American authors. She said she would--no easy assignment, given how packed the writers’ schedules would be, as they toured on Transworld’s behalf in support of their latest novels: Lehane’s The Given Day and Gerritsen’s Keeping the Dead (or The Keepsake, as it’s known in the States).

During the weeks that followed, as I anticipated my interviews, I realized I had a problem. Not only did I wish to speak with Lehane and Gerritsen, but I wanted to have them sign my copies of their books. All of their books. Over the years, you see, I have collected various editions of their work. Pride of place in that collection is held by a rare Xerox copy of Lehane’s 2003 suspenser, Shutter Island, with their other novels scattered throughout piles of boxes in four different locations. (This is what happens to an inveterate book collector.) Luckily, I’ve bumped into Gerritsen several times over the years, because she publishes new books annually and frequently tours the British Isles; she was a guest, for instance, at last summer’s Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. So I’d already had her sign most of her books from my shelves. However, aside from a copy of a U.S. edition of The Given Day (which he was kind enough to ink in Baltimore at Bouchercon), my Lehane collection remained uninscribed.

So I spent more than a little time, when I could find any extra in my busy schedule, going through my book collection--box by box--and gathering the unsigned copies of novels by Gerritsen and Lehane. I added the Shutter Island manuscript and even an issue of Romantic Times magazine that featured interviews with both authors. By the time I was done, I had filled two giant hold-alls. I’d also distracted myself from all of the dire financial reports filling the newspapers. When times are bad, you need to fall back on activities and events that produce comfort and keep your outlook positive. For me, the main comforts come from my family and my books.

But I digress …

On the Friday before the appearance of Lehane and Gerritsen at the Charing Cross Borders store, and with huge snow falls blocking roads and causing mayhem across the country, I received a call from Selina Walker, the publishing director at Transworld. As with her colleague Patsy Irwin, I have enjoyed a long acquaintance with Walker, who’s recognized as one of the top crime-fiction editors in the UK. She informed me that she, too, was planning to interview the visiting American authors at Borders. Due to time constraints, I would probably have no more than 45 minutes before the February 12 event began to speak with Lehane and Gerritsen--not much time, but enough if I played my cards right. I went ahead and contacted Yoav Hessayon, the events manager for that Borders outlet, arranging for a room in which to conduct my interviews--and accepting the guidance of another Chinese proverb: “May you come to the attention of those in authority.”

* * *

When the appointed night arrived, the snow had cleared and the roads were back to normal (aside from the damned potholes that are caused by significant frost damage). I left work early, and with my book-filled hold-alls in the trunk and the help of my car’s handy satellite navigation system, I found parking close to the bookstore. No sooner had I entered Borders, with the intention of grabbing a cup of coffee first, than I heard someone shout, “Hey, Ali.” I turned, and at the crest of the escalator were Dennis Lehane and Patsy Irwin.

Lehane proffered his hand as he approached, and I shook it enthusiastically. I then apologized for acting like such a babbling fan-boy at Bouchercon; it’s just not everyday, I explained, that I encounter one of my literary heroes. He laughed it off and said he understood completely. As Irwin went to find Yoav Hessayon and the room I’d organized to use, Lehane and I chatted about our respective recent reads. (It turns out that he too has been enraptured by the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” series.) He noticed my hold-alls, and I explained that I’d taken the liberty to bring my entire collection of his work--not only finished hardcovers, but advance reader versions, movie tie-ins, and paperback editions from both sides of the Atlantic. (I am nothing if not a completist.) Would he mind signing everything? I asked. Lehane just smiled and said, sure, he’d be flattered to do so.

As he began that task, both of us now comfortably settled in a room set off from the rest of the store, I turned on my tape machine to ask Lehane about his book titles, his much-anticipated return to penning private-eye fiction, the translation of his prose to film, and whether he knows where his writing career is bound.

Ali Karim: You started out, in A Drink Before the War [1994], writing a series of novels that featured Boston private eyes Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. Since then, you’ve written three standalones. Were you nervous when you first jumped out of the comfort zone of a very successful P.I. series?

Dennis Lehane: I got a little nervous after a point, sort of like that Chinese proverb that warns, “Be careful what you wish for.” At first I was a little excited to get back to the third-person narrative with Mystic River, and I felt that, wow, I can do anything. Then months later, I thought “Oh, shit” as I realized I had to make choices, which you don’t get to do with a first-person perspective. So it was strange at first with the standalones, but then I soon found a comfort zone in third-person.

AK: I’ve heard that one your earlier novels, Darkness, Take My Hand [1996], was originally titled Cold Cold Heart. But you changed it, because there was another novel with that same title, written by James Elliott [a pen name of J.C. Pollock]. Are there other occasions when you’ve altered a book title?

DL: Yes, well spotted. I’ve had a few title changes. For instance, Shutter Island was originally going to be titled The Barrens, but then found out that Joyce Carol Oates had a book out with the same title; hence, I went for Shutter Island. The Given Day was originally going to be A Country at Dawn, but I decided that title sounded a little pretentious. However, I discovered that The Given Day has been published in several countries under that title, such as France; my French publishers liked that title.

AK: You once made it sound as if you’d never go back to the Patrick and Angie P.I. series. But it has now been widely reported that you are indeed returning to their fictional world. Why the switch?

DL: I don’t want to say too much at this stage. Just, “Hey, they’re back,” and that’s it. In fact, I won’t say any more until the book comes out.

AK: I’m still going to pump you. … Boston seems to be a familiar location as a backdrop for your work. So will Patrick and Angie operate in Boston in the new book?

DL: [Laughs] To answer your question, “Yes.” Yes, they will. I took them once to Florida in Sacred (1997). That was fun, but as a reader I always hated reading a P.I. novel [in which] the P.I. and sidekick head to L.A. to hunt down a missing actress, and this was because all the writers were out in L.A. working on movie deals. So I decided that I’ll never do that; hence, Patrick and Angie will operate on their home turf of Boston. OK, if there was a reason to take them to Dublin, I’d do that. No West Coast travel, though.

AK: Will the next Patrick and Angie novel carry on immediately after the events contained in Prayers for Rain [1999]? Or will some time have elapsed? After all, it’s been a decade since that last novel appeared.

DL: I know there will be gap, but it won’t be a full 10 years. I don’t see them in a pre-9/11 America. A lot has happened in the last decade. It would be ridiculous to take them back in time, if you follow me.

AK: Back when the film version of your 1998 novel, Gone, Baby, Gone, was being released in the States, were you aware of the concurrent issues surrounding the disappearance of the British infant Madeline McCann in Portugal? The film release was delayed in the UK, partly because the actress who played the missing girl was also named Madeline [O’Brien].

DL: And hey, the actress Madeline O’Brien bore a very striking resemblance to the missing Madeline McCann. I remember having a conversation with [director] Ben [Affleck] about it at the time. We were on the same page. We totally understood that the film’s release at that time could be potentially hurtful, so why do it? We understood. It didn’t feel like censorship.

AK: There was a five-year gap between the release of Shutter Island and The Given Day. I’ve read that you had a bad experience finishing Prayers for Rain, and you vowed never to have to work to a tight deadline again. Could you tell us what happened in the composition of Prayers for Rain that caused this deadline problem? I did notice that Prayers seemed to end rather abruptly.

DL: The issue with Prayers for Rain was that I released the book from my hands faster than I normally release a manuscript. The book was written blindingly fast, but that’s not the issue here, as I have written books fast before. But I was never quite satisfied with the end result. I wished I had more time. I don’t mean taking three years, five years, 10 years, or whatever; it’s taking whatever time the book needs, and I know instinctively when a book needs more time to finish it. For example, The Given Day was completed a whole year before I sent it in, because I … actually needed the time. No one saw it until I felt it was ready.

AK: I’ve heard that The Given Day is the start of a trilogy. True?

DL: Possibly a trilogy. [Laughs] Possibly a deca-olgy. At this stage I really don’t know.

AK: Now on to one of my favorite novels of all time, Shutter Island, and the film Ashcliffe.

DL: Actually, Ashcliffe was just the working title when they were filming, but the finished film will be titled Shutter Island.

AK: Tell us why you never got involved in screen-writing, now that three of your novels have been adapted for the big screen.

DL: I’m not a good adapter, and certainly not a qualified adapter of my own work. I guess I feel it would be like a surgeon operating on his own child. Could I write an original screenplay? Maybe. Could I adapt someone else’s work for the screen? Maybe. But the last person who should be entrusted with adapting one of my novels is me.

AK: How did you feel when you heard Martin Scorcese was going to be associated with Shutter Island?

DL: I was totally bummed out. [Laughs] What can I say? It was embarrassing.

AK: [Laughs] Yeah, a real bummer. First Clint Eastwood [Mystic River, 2003)], and now Scorcese.

DL: I go from having home runs with my first two filmed novels, and then I get a call saying “the world’s greatest film director wants to direct one of your books.” I felt ... humbled, embarrassed, confused. I was so shocked that I didn’t tell anyone.

AK: You first opened up your Web site many years ago--

DL: Sorry to correct you, Ali, but I did not; that was my publisher’s Web site. I’d like to say that the way I chose to engage--or not engage--with that world of blogs, Web sites, etc., is, believe it or not, a way to maintain my creative edge. I don’t want to get into the persona of who I am. [Staying out of that world] allows me to be the man who writes books, gets home, and his wife says, “There’s dog shit in the backyard; go clean it up” without me saying, “Hey, I’m Dennis Lehane!” My only way to keep that part of myself stable is to not engage that world at all. Now, that’s not saying that’s the way it should be done. It’s purely my way ... But someone’s set up a Facebook page in my name. I don’t know who the guy is, but I hope people don’t think that’s me. I just can’t deal with it.

AK: Do you still split your time between Boston and Florida?

DL: Yes, my [optician] wife has a practice in Florida, so I can’t look her in the eye and say I can only write in Boston. So I have the tough job of having to spend time in Florida. [Laughs]

AK: One thing that intrigues me is the difference in the design of your book covers--those produced by William Morrow in the States, versus those from your UK publisher, Transworld. Would you care to comment on that?

DL: Unless one [of the covers] is particularly heinous, which has rarely happened to me, I assume each international publisher knows its people and country, and so I can’t presume to tell them what they should have on the covers. I’ve had issues perhaps only with four books, globally, in my time. And when that happened I’d say, “Hey, I’m not keen on that cover; but hey, you know your market, so go with it.” But that’s rare. Most of the time it’s me saying “fine by me.” Some of my British covers are gorgeous, as are some of my French, German, [and] Japanese covers. Some are not, but what am I going to tell my Japanese publishers? Can I say, “Hey, don’t do that cover, I don’t like it”? [Laughs] I just don’t know the market. All I do is hope for the best.

AK: Considering the path of your career from writing a P.I. series to penning a standalone crime thriller [Mystic River], Gothic noir [Shutter Island], and now a historical opus [The Given Day], let me ask you: Did you, or can you, see a “game plan” to your writing?

DL: I think the one commonality ... is that they are all urban novels. They are concerned with the machinery or soul of the city, if you will. So in the end that’s the canvas that I work--the urban novel--with the exception of that trip to the Gothic world in Shutter Island.

AK: And what a tremendous book Shutter Island was, in my opinion. I’m confident it will be one of the novels for which you are best remembered. It was magnificent in terms of ambition, with a Gothic dread that infuses the narrative.

DL: Wow, thank you, thank you. I go by the dictum that you write the book you want to read. If you have that sort of love and passion for a book, then I think it will translate and people will be entertained.

AK: How do you look at your popularity with readers? Even though your fans have clamored for more Kenzie and Gennaro books, they’ve been willing to follow you in all of these other directions.

DL: It’s simple, it’s such an honor to have loyal readers. I always remember, every day, that I have my success due to my readers. I have my house due to my readers, I have everything due to my readers. So I have no issues with my fans and readers--they make my career possible.

AK: Finally, what do you make of his dreadful economic crisis that’s affecting so much, including the publishing industry?

DL: I think we deregulated a bunch of regulations that were put in place for a very good reason during the Great Depression. We fucked it all up, and the poor are suffering as the poor always do, and I couldn’t be more serious about this--people should be going to jail over this. It’s disgusting. I don’t know what else to say. Another thread I write about in my work is this eternal war between the haves and the have-nots, and you see that war in clear focus right now. I just find the economic situation revolting.

(Part II can be found here.)


Jen Jordan said...

Such a nice man! And a very well done interview, Ali! Hilarious that he was able to correct you one point.

Anonymous said...

Great job, Ali. Good stuff here.