Dennis Lehane ‘s latest novel, Live By Night, continues the saga of the Coughlin family begun in his bestseller The Given Day. The youngest Coughlin son Joe, becomes a gangster during the Prohibition era. We had the opportunity to ask Lehane a few question concerning that time period, his writing, and fatherhood.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: What drew you to the Prohibition era?
DENNIS LEHANE: The Roaring 20’s–cool clothes, cool cars, smoky jazz clubs, Tommy guns, women in sequined dresses, and almost the entire population openly disregarding the law of the land.
MP: What I liked about the book is that it delivered everything we read a gangster novel for, under the table dealings, betrayals, Tommy guns, but it never comes off as derivative. What keeps you from being cliche while using the tropes?
DL: Concentrating on rum trafficking, as opposed to whiskey, possibly gave the book a fresh slant on things. I could take the novel to unexpected places like Tampa and Havana as opposed to the places more commonly associated with gangster stories–Chicago, KC, New York, Detroit, etc. As for avoiding the cliches while honoring the tropes, you just have to be conscious of it as you write, I guess. When I write a scene, I keep asking myself, “Have you seen this before?” If the answer is, “Yes,” then I rethink it. If the answer is ,”Yes, but not quite,” then I dig deeper. And if the answer is, “No,” then I write it.
MP: While the book starts out in Boston, most of it takes place in Florida and Cuba. How did it feel writing outside of your home town?
DL: The Tampa-St. Pete area is a bit more hometown these days because I live there half the year, but I don’t write about present day Florida because it doesn’t really play to my strengths. It lends itself to satire more than anything, something very ably handled by writers like Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey to name just two. But Ybor City–that’s old Florida, very evocative of a world long since gone by. And it’s quite urban and extremely unique, just like Boston. So my comfort level writing about IT was solid. As for Havana, by the time I was winding down the Ybor stuff, I felt dialed-in overall. I could have set that final section anywhere and felt comfortable.
MP: The book ends where began, talking about fathers and their children. It’s a theme that appears in a lot of your books. Has your view of fatherhood changed since you’ve become a parent?
DL: I don’t think my views have changed, but I do think about fatherhood as a construct a lot more. This is probably less because I’m a father and more because I lost mine recently and I think a lot about what he handed down to all his children. I had a great relationship with my old man but even a good father-son relationship is a very complicated thing. You’re a male who sires a male who looks like you and sounds like you and has your temperament and mannerisms and yet he’s not you; he’s got his own mind, his own damage, very different dreams, perhaps. And what you probably don’t see is how heavy your shadow lies on him and how little he knows how to deal with that weight. And you each make other very anxious, I suspect, whether you realize it or not. The novels with the Coughlins are Father-Son novels; that’s their thematic continuity.
DL: Breadth, scope, lyricism, passion, you name it. That son-of-a-bitch could write his ass off. Every time I read The Last Good Kiss–and I do so about every 2 years–I want to be a better writer And I want to press it into the hands of everyone I meet and say, “THIS is the great American private eye novel.”
MP: Do you have any further plans for the Coughlin family?
DL: I’m writing the next installment in the saga now. It’s set in 1943 and revolves around Joe and his son, Tomás.
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