JUNE 26, 2017
WHEN READERS first meet Rachel Childs, the orphaned protagonist of Dennis Lehane’s fast-paced and of-the-moment new novel, Since We Fell, she’s living a charmed life: a rising-star TV journalist about to make the jump from Boston to the national stage, she has a handsome husband and primo apartment to boot. But all that begins to unravel as Rachel is sent on assignment to Haiti, soon after the island nation is ravaged by a deadly earthquake. Shattered by her experiences covering the tragedy, Rachel finds herself unable to reclaim the carefree life she’d taken for granted. Fueling her anxieties with drugs and alcohol, Rachel goes from dynamic to infamous in the wake of an on-air gaffe that goes viral, cutting her second Haiti stint short. Now a pariah in her industry and paralyzed by panic attacks and a growing agoraphobia, Rachel retreats to her apartment, soon finding herself friendless, divorced, and, perhaps most frighteningly, unable to leave the house.
A stark departure from the epic, historical tales that have made up the bulk of his recent output, Since We Fell takes Lehane’s knack for vibrant locations, character, and crackling dialogue and confidently pours it through a Gone Girl filter. The end result is a story that’s cinematic, memorable, and engaging as it builds to a game-changing Hitchcockian twist. What starts off as a thoughtful, deliberate study of how we process tragedy in the modern age, and how its literal and figurative aftershocks can be crippling, morphs slyly into an unexpected high-octane thriller. In conversation, Lehane is straightforward, self-aware, and affable. We discussed Since We Fell, his writing process, the grind of publishing, and the major differences between writing novels and for television.
ALEX SEGURA: One thing that stuck out for me with Since We Fell is the tempo. You know, it starts off — I hate to say slowly, so I guess it starts off a little bit more thoughtfully. And then there’s a turn — it really picks up, and I wonder how much of that was just you writing it as it went, or was it a decision, “This is how I wanna pace it”?
DENNIS LEHANE: No, it wasn’t that. It was that I’d written a version of it that was really break-neck but I just felt like it was thin. And then I said, “I really wanna drill down on who this person is before I tossed her into the water with the sharks.” And there was this one little dangling clue in the book that I’ve never answered or ever dealt with, which was that her mother had withheld her paternity from her. And I went, “Wait a second. What would that be like? What kind of person would do that?” So in versions one and two, Elizabeth Childs still cast a bit of a shadow over the proceedings, but she was portrayed more as just a difficult human being. And then in version number three, when I finally got down into it, it was, “No, this is one of the most damaged human beings I’ve ever created.” And she cast an enormous shadow over the book from that point on.
She’s really fascinating.
She is, she’s great. I mean, she’s an enigma in so many ways. She’s a very fascinating, enigmatic monster of narcissism and sort of toxic mistrust.
There’s a moment when Rachel meets Jeremy and he explains what lengths Elizabeth went to to kick him out of her life, and I just remember thinking, “Who the fuck does that?” I mean, you realize it’s her, she does — ’cause she’s so fully formed, it’s intense.
Yeah, yeah. She was something, man, she was a lot of fun to write. Even though she’s almost never on the actual page, it’s the ways in which she haunts the people she leaves behind.
She’s very much the linchpin.
I want to talk about Rachel and her panic attacks, because that was something that stuck out for me while reading about Rachel and her career. You have this chaotic moment that goes completely viral, whereas a mistake like that maybe 15 or 20 years ago would have just been a blip on the radar. The way she reacts and the fallout she experiences — her panic attacks and the agoraphobia — it all seems to ring so true. I know you’ve had some personal experience, but did you have to do a lot of research to get that right?
No, no, what I did was I just extrapolated. I had these weird little panic attacks right after I had a health scare. And they were a wake-up call for me too, they were a way to say, “This Irish method of dealing with stress is not healthy.” ’Cause I was always that guy who was just like, “I got this. Don’t worry, I got it. I got it figured out, what are you gonna do?” I’ll say you should put that on the Irish headstones, “What are you gonna do?” It’s like we say that about everything. My brother was saying that when he was dying of cancer, like, “Hey, what are you gonna do?” “I don’t know, cry? You know, that’d be cool.” [Laughs.]
So that was something that I have very vivid memories of ’cause it only happened to me for a couple of days and it never happened before or since. And so I said, “Alright, what was that feeling like?” And I remember very much the feeling was this sense of something flapping within my chest and something really panicky just coming out of nowhere and flapping within the center of my chest. And I thought, “Alright, now let’s just take that…” And I read a little bit about other people’s panic attacks and other people’s reactions to agoraphobia. Agoraphobia and panic attacks are often interlinked and then I just said, “Alright, I’m just gonna keep taking this sort of attack of the central nervous system to a natural conclusion, an organic conclusion.” Which would be this just total meltdown she has on air. Which is also a complete reflection of a panic attack she has on the streets of New York that she’s almost forgotten about and moved on from, but nine years later here it comes back.
You’re no stranger to this, obviously, but something that really stood out to me is just how powerful setting is in your books. Going all the way back to the Pat and Angie novels with Dorchester and Boston but also in Since We Fell, with multiple locations. The Haiti scenes seem to have a huge and lasting impact on Rachel as we get to know her. Was that something where you wanted to take her out of her comfort zone to show the reader who she really was?
Yeah, I wanted to take her out of her comfort zone but I also have an intense fascination with the ways in which global grief can impact personal grief and in this way I feel like Since We Fell is almost a twin to Shutter Island, in which the central characters are both people whose mental landscape is seriously damaged and threatened by outside calamities. In Teddy’s case, it was World War II; in Rachel’s case, it’s the Haitian earthquake. And it’s about this sense of, “Hey, they’re hanging on by a thread and then they meet the cosmos in a very negative way.” And that’s what happens. And Rachel goes to Haiti and this is a woman who has massive abandonment issues and she has an almost dangerous level of empathy in her for the displaced and the discarded and then she goes to an entire country that has been displaced and discarded, and that breaks her.
It’s like her system overloads and then the panic attack is the culmination of that.
And she also starts doing drugs, and that’s probably not the best idea. She starts popping black-market Ativan.
Yeah, that doesn’t help.
I mentioned the tempo in Since We Fell earlier, but I think a lot about the process of just writing, especially when working on my own novels. I wouldn’t recommend my method to anyone. Can you talk a bit about yours? I’ve read that the process is a bit sacred for you, in that dissecting it too much might jinx the whole thing. But how was this novel different for you in terms of planning or outlining? Did it just kind of appear to you or did you really have to hammer at it?
No, the idea for the story line came to me really fast, which never happens. It’s only happened to me twice, and the other one was Shutter Island. So it wasn’t a case where I had to go digging for the actual story line. I think part of this is because I’m such a fanatic about Hitchcock and early Brian De Palma, it’s kind of grafted into my head. Once I’ve made this decision, “Oh, an agoraphobic woman who sees her husband in a place where he’s not supposed to be.” There’s your one-line setup and then it was off to the races in terms of the story. But then once I got the story down, I really felt like it was thin. For some reason, that is my most fearful sense with any of my books. You love it or hate it, but I would hate for somebody to say, “It just felt kinda…”
Yeah, or just tossed off like you didn’t do your job. All my books don’t have to be the deepest thing ever written. Clearly, sometimes I want them to just be entertaining, but even entertainment should have attached to it a personal journey of self, I would say.
There’s definitely a strong high concept, so much so that when explaining the book to someone else you might think of it as light, at least in terms of an elevator pitch. But when you read the book, there is substance to Rachel, even her walking through the streets of her city is heavy. Every step she takes is weighed down by fear or anxiety, not to mention the weight of what she feels and how she’s gone from this very public figure to this shut-in, basically. So I think there’s definitely a lot of oomph to it, for lack of a better term.
You write for TV as well and you’ve written for other mediums, too. I find that when you shift gears like that, it’s almost soothing — a novel is so private and personal, and you’re alone and there’s not a lot of collaboration. Would you agree with that?
I want my novels to be novels. I want them to feel like novels. I want there to be an interior. There’s a great David Mamet line, something like, “For art to be successful the journey of the character and the journey of the reader must start in exactly the same place.” And I feel like that’s it. “Here we go on a journey together.” It’s definitely different than when I write a film or when you go to see a film. When you watch a movie, you’re passive; when you read a book, you’re active, you’re engaged, there’s a relationship.
Just thinking about it logistically, with film and TV, you’re collaborating, there are more filters you have to go through, I guess. With a novel, it’s purely your vision.
It’s all me. Still, there’s a great relationship with your editor. But at the end of the day, even your editor says, “Well, if you’re gonna go with that, then I gotta step away. I gotta respect your opinion.” So what ultimately comes out is yours.
Novel writing is such a unique thing because even in movies or TV or comics you’re gonna jump through some hoops and your story will be changed from what you envisioned, because that’s the name of the game.
In terms of Rachel Childs — she struck me as a fully formed and relatable protagonist. But I also feel like we’re in an age where it’s much more challenging to write characters that, for lack of a better term, aren’t like you. Did you feel any intimidation writing a female protagonist? Or did you feel like you had to vet it with friends in some way?
No, there was a little bit of trepidation at first. “Can I do this?” It had been a while. Last time I did a point-of-view character from a woman was 2001, it wasn’t a whole novel by any means. So, I just said, “Let me see if I can do this.” And then when I went in it felt reasonably natural. And I did double- and triple-check it in the end. I would never be so presumptuous to say I got it right, but as close as I could get it. She feels like a woman to me. But, by far, the issue I’ve been discovering since I’ve been thinking about this question is that, I don’t think I have much of a problem writing a woman or writing an African American or any of that. One of my favorite characters is an African American from The Given Day. I think the issue is, I have trouble writing people who are on the inside. A lot of my characters are outsiders and I can lock onto them. That’s where our journey begins. Their journey is different from mine and I can work with that, but the baseline is always the outsider because I don’t think you usually become a writer if you feel like you fit in the world.
You mentioned Hitchcock and De Palma, and I’m really curious about influences and how they evolved. What have you been reading lately that’s grabbed you or even had an effect on your own work?
Well, I don’t know about had an effect on my own work. That really doesn’t happen much anymore. [Chuckles.]
It’s kinda like, you don’t wanna say you’re calcified but I’m certainly … My voice is pretty …
You’re locked in.
Locked in, yeah. But I loved Exit West and I’m reading James Lee Burke’s next book way before publication.
I think it’ll be published in a year, yeah. He slipped me a manuscript so I could have something on tour. Another book I read back a little while was Killers of the Flower Moon. I thought that book was terrific.
Something else you’ve talked about that I appreciate because there’s a lot of honesty in it, is admitting that you’re not a book-a-year person. And that to me as a fan, as a reader, makes each book when it does appear almost an event in and of itself. But did you ever, earlier in your career, feel the pressure to crank things out? When did you say, “Well, this is what I am, and I’m accepting of that”?
It was Mystic River. Or just before it, so I could write Mystic River. I just felt the grind of it. Here’s what’s strange. I’d written a book, A Drink Before the War, and then it was out going around to various publishers, et cetera, right?
And then I wrote about two-thirds of the sequel, Darkness, Take My Hand, and then the book got accepted for publication. So by the time that A Drink Before the War was published, Darkness, Take My Hand was already written. Then I just had this fluke and got way ahead and wrote a book really fast in Sacred. None of this was on schedule. So the books were actually coming out a book a year, but had not been written in that time frame. Then I took what turned out to be my normal time, almost two years to write Gone, Baby, Gone. But it came out in a year because I delivered a book way ahead of schedule. The book a year was working out, but I was running out of time. It was like Game of Thrones, I was catching up to the books.
You had a head start, which was great.
I had a huge head start and then I wrote Prayers for Rain and I was not happy and I wrote it fast. I didn’t write it fast because it came out fast, but because I felt the pressure of producing a book a year. And when it was published, I was really unhappy with it. I’m not saying it’s a bad book by any means, I’m just saying that it was not the book it could have been. And I resolved from that point on to never do a book a year. And then I took two years to write Mystic River, and when I turned it in and my publisher — he’s still my publisher — Michael Morrison, called me and said, “This is fantastic, tell us what you’d like.” And I literally used that moment. I said, “I don’t want be on a book a year ever again. Ever. I just want it torn out of my contracts. I don’t want it there.” And he said, “Fine.” So since then, I’ve been almost a book every two years. The Given Day skewered the curve because that took five years.
It’s great that you were able to see that on your own. I imagine there are a lot of writers, and I can relate to it, that just feel like you have to do it, no matter what you feel. You have to crank that book out.
Well, I think there’re people who can do it. I think there’re people who are very good at it. James Lee Burke puts out a book a year. Jesus Christ, the guy’s so good I can’t even quantify his level of talent, and he’s putting out a book a year. So it’s not a matter of what can be done, it’s a matter of what I can do. And if I try to keep that schedule, the work that comes out of me is just shit. No other way to put it.
I think that you’re pretty fair in how you look back on your work. I know that you said there are some books that resonate with you more than others. Do you find you’re your own harshest critic?
Oh yeah, I always have been. There was even a list recently published. I think it was a sidebar in Entertainment Weekly or something of my five best books and they put Prayers for Rain on there, and I was like, “What are you, high?” [Laughs.]
You know what I mean? It’s not even close!
I was gonna say I liked it. I remember reading those first Pat and Angie books in a frenzy when I first got into your work and I don’t remember it stopping with Prayers for Rain and saying, “This is not up to snuff.”
No. Look, it’s a good book, it’s a solid book, there’s a lot in it. But it was weird to suddenly realize, “Oh, that’s what I was writing about.” It’s one of my books where I don’t think you can look back and really find a central theme. I’m not saying that the theme should be obvious like a college paper, but if you went in looking and you said, “Oh, what was he really writing about here, overall?” I think you would find it. But I don’t think it’s there in Prayers for Rain. It’s just a slam, bang, really good psychological thriller. It’s got some badass gunplay, it’s got some great lines. It’s got some fun scenes but it’s not gonna stick.
Yeah, no. It’s not always going to be a home run.
No, it’s not. My hope is that I hit triples. I just don’t ever wanna hit some dog-shit single. [Laughs.]
It’s definitely a triple and it felt at the time like the right transitional book.
You said something elsewhere — and I can relate to this too, being a new parent — is that it’s much harder to write stuff involving children. And for me, it’s not something I can do anymore, it’s not in my system.
It’s impossible for me. Usually I don’t have a big issue in scripts ’cause I don’t personalize them the same way. I’m not as personally invested when I write a script. It’s more of an intellectual exercise. But we’re doing an adaptation of Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes. I’m one of the writers for that. And there’s a really horrific death scene of a child in that book. Well, first it’s a choking, and the kid chokes on an apple, and I remember when we were building the episodes and we built that episode and then the question was, “Dennis, do you wanna write it?” Because I built a bunch of stuff into it and I said, “I’m not touching that one.” I’m not writing, “Child chokes on an apple.” I’m just not doing it.
That’s my worst fear.
Yeah, yeah. Oh my God, it’s horrifying.
Well, thanks for the nightmares. Now, to close out, I know TV is a big part of your day to day and I’m wondering if you could talk about how it’s fulfilling in a different way than prose.
Well, it’s fulfilling socially without a doubt, it’s very nice to be part of something that has a social factor to it. Not just like when you’re in the writers’ room ’cause we haven’t been in the writers’ room in a while. Even now I’m grafted into Mr. Mercedes. So I get something like 15 emails a day with just dailies and casting choices, and you’re part of something and that feels nice. I really love to work on breaking a novel down for a TV show because the tragedy when you write a script of just slaughtering 90 percent of the book, it’s not present. You can get as much as you want in, you can get all of it in if you have 10 episodes. Ten episodes with the average teleplay being 52 pages, that’s 520 pages to play with. It’s wonderful. I think the novel is absolutely built for premium television.