Dennis Lehane Exclusive Interview on Shutter Island

Dennis Lehane Exclusive Interview on Shutter Island
The novelist tells about the movie, and spills on what else is in store
Updated: 02-09-2010


Interview by Staci Layne Wilson

Staci Layne Wilson / Hi, Dennis. Thanks for talking with us! I must confess that I hadn't read any of your work before I picked up Shutter Island. I read it because I'm a big Martin Scorsese fan and I wanted to be as informed as possible for the movie, but I've got to say that I really got hooked and I have ordered a couple more of your books.

Dennis Lehane: Oh, good.
Staci: Now, I'm curious to know in working with Scorsese… How much he had to do with the adaptation of the novel?
Dennis Lehane: [I didn't write the script, Laeta Kalogridis did.] By the time it got to Marty it was in pretty good shape. It was after reading the script, knowing exactly how much she and Marty went back and forth. But as I recall it was not extensive. She had written a really tight script, by the time Marty had Leonardo DiCaprio signed.
Staci: For fans of the book, who know what the twist is going to be, what would you say is the impetus for going to see the film?
Dennis Lehane: I don't think that affected, say, Presumed Innocent. That was a terrific book that a lot of people read. And when the film came out, it was a very successful film seen by many people who had read the book, including myself. And Presumed Innocent [the novel] had a huge twist in it. And so I think if you liked the book, you go to see a film that's a different modality. It's a different way of looking at the same subject matter; it's an interpretation. So I don't see how that affects too many people, in terms of going to see the film, whether they have read the book or not.
Staci: When you saw the movie, what were some of your initial thoughts? Any surprises or moments of excitement that you can pinpoint?
Dennis Lehane: Oh god, there's a ton. When you see something filmed, it's unique in vision, as Martin Scorsese sees it, a "certainly, that I didn't see that one coming" kind of vibe. Yes, it's my source material, but with my source material that's my brain on the page, and then it goes through Marty's brain and it becomes a different animal. And it's really… it was just great. It was so much fun to watch.
Staci: People probably don't really think of you as, say, a Stephen King sort of novelist in style but I have to say that as I was reading Shutter Island, I found it every bit as gripping and as horrifying and scary as one of his books. So for fans of horror specifically, what would you say that they will like about the film and the book?
Dennis Lehane: It's very much a classic Gothic, in the tradition of the Brontë's, Edgar Allan Poe or Mary Shelley. Or there's a great writer now, Patrick McGrath, who writes what I consider neo-Gothic's. So while it is not sort of boogiemen horror, if you will… It's not quite fright-centric horror, it's very much following in sort of the 18th century or 19th century Gothic tradition and is on that level. It's saying that the scariest beast in the room is not the beast. It's the human mind.
Staci: Absolutely. The imagination of your character, Teddy, and how he remembers things and assumes things will be, is very visual even on the page. I haven't seen the film yet but judging from the clips I've seen, it would appear that Scorsese brought a lot of those ghostly images to life in a really effective and literal way.
Dennis Lehane: Yes. Yes, absolutely. That's what I meant by sort of seeing it filtered through him, because I describe it from my point of view. But obviously I'm not playing with the same color palette he's playing with. And the other practical elements. So it's really neat seeing it through his perspective.
Staci: I can't wait to see it. Now, I want to ask you a couple of questions that are a little bit off the Shutter Island topic. About writing. What is the most unusual way that you were able to snag a writing job, when you were first starting out?
Dennis Lehane: I was just always a writer. I went to school for it and it's been something I've been doing since I was a little kid. It was something that I pursued very actively from the time I was 20. When I was 26, my first book was accepted by an agent. And when I was 28 it was published. So the odd jobs that I was doing I was doing so that I could support myself as a writer. And so that I could keep my focus on writing. Not on whether I please my boss or not, so I didn't take jobs that I really gave the shit about. Certainly not jobs that I took home of myself emotionally, after I left social work. Because that was the only time in my life [working with those less fortunate] that I simply couldn't write. So yeah, it was a very conscious decision to take those jobs, and to lose jobs, that were 'just paying' me. So I could just bust out the rent with them. Go home and work. That's what I did.
Staci: Did you not also write for magazines or newspapers, or was it just focus, like, "I'm going to be a novelist, and that's my goal, and I'm not going to deviate from that"?
Dennis Lehane: No, I was a film critic for an alternative weekly in Tampa. And then I was a drama critic for an alternative weekly in Miami. I also wrote one article for an industrial magazine that a friend of mine worked for, but it was a disaster.
Staci: Why is that?
Dennis Lehane: I realized that that is just not something that I do well. I can't write for hire. I have to be in love with my subject matter. I have to be completely engaged in my subject matter. So in freelance writing and in film reviews, film reviews was no big issue, but while I was in Miami I started to get more and more popular. They wanted me to do different types of articles and that began to pull me away from my love, which was to write fiction. So I stopped doing it.
Staci: I understand you give classes on writing nowadays. When you teach writing, what do you find that your students most want to learn? Is it to learn how to make money at writing, is it to be a better writer, or something else?
Dennis Lehane: It's very good if they want to learn to be a better writer. If their interest is how to write a bestseller, they can't cover that up. Most students will pick up on [my] attitude and go, "Of course not, I'm doing it for the love of it." But if they're not into it for the right reasons, it shows itself pretty soon. I think that the best writers I have ever worked with tend to be people who read extensively, and who are determined to learn how to do it well. Not just what's the trick to getting published. That question is the worst question in the world. If a student asks that, you pretty much know that they are done.
Staci: Well, you know the adage goes, "Those who can't do, teach." But obviously that doesn't apply to you at all. So what is your passion for teaching? Why do you want to do it?
Dennis Lehane: You just want to give back. An old friend of mine used to say that you don't want to hold the elevator on the floor that you got off on; you want to send it back down for more people. So that's how I look at it. I don't teach nearly as much as I used to. In fact, I only teach once a year now, but that's the reason — it's because somebody taught me. Somebody took the time to teach me. It's Karma.
Staci: As I said, I haven't read any of your other books yet, but I have Sacred and The Given Day on order, and I'm really excited about starting those, but I have to ask what's next in the works? Have you got something that you're working on right now?
Dennis Lehane: Actually, I'd finished up my first five books in a series [Patrick Kenzie/Angela Gennaro Novels] and then I left the series for 11 years… and now I've written a sixth book in that series. Sacred is the third book in that series.
Staci: I know, I'm starting at three. I hope that's okay, but when I read that it was Chandler-esque, I just had to go with that one to start… he's one of my favorite mystery writers.
Dennis Lehane: I think you are making a vast mistake.
Staci: Really? That sounds dire!
Dennis Lehane: You should start with the first one. Because so much of the mythology of the series is built into the first two, so it kind of becomes central to the story in three. There is kind of one through line that goes through the five books. It's really set in stone in those first two books. And they are [all] very Chandler-esque, actually. The thing with the third one is that it was Chandler-esque in a [funnier] tongue-in-cheek kind of way. It's a very playful book. The third one was me riffing on the whole idea of private eye novels.
Staci: I'll take your advice, then. Thank goodness I didn't start on three yet. Crisis averted.
Dennis Lehane: Yeah, I strongly recommend that you start from the beginning. Again, it's not that they are connected. I do spoilers nonstop throughout the books. I just refuse to make a concession to that. So if you are reading Sacred, you're going to be like, "Oh, wait a minute, who died? Oh, they were in the first two books?"
Staci: All right, will do. Now for this one that is upcoming, what was it that made you want to go back to these characters after so long away?
Dennis Lehane: I don't know, they just knocked on the door. They have been very quiet for a very long time. And when they came back knocking on the door, I said, "You want another book?" So I did one more with them.
Staci: Just one more?
Dennis Lehane: We'll see!
Shutter Island opens nationwide February 8, 2010. The official website is
Dennis Lehane's website is
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