Since We Fell is the 13th novel by Dennis Lehane, who not only writes international bestsellers but has an impressive career in television as well, including credits as a staff writer for The Wire and a writer-producer on the fourth season of Boardwalk Empire. Like Live By Night, Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone, and Mystic River before it, Lehane’s latest novel is slated to become a movie as well, with film rights acquired by DreamWorks before Lehane had even finished writing the book.
In Since We Fell, Rachel Childs is a journalist whose career has fallen apart after an on-air breakdown reporting on the recent devastating earthquake in Haiti. Rachel, who suffers from panic attacks and has not felt safe since her childhood with a controlling mother and a father she was forbidden to know, meets a charming man named Brian Delacroix. As Rachel begins to doubt that Brian is who he says he is, an already quick-moving 418 pages builds to breakneck, paranoia-fueled speed. No easy feat for a novel that begins with the line: “On a Tuesday in May, in her thirty-fifth year, Rachel shot her husband dead.”
I spoke with Dennis Lehane by phone just prior to the publication of Since We Fell. Lehane, who was born and raised in the Boston so prevalent in his novels, has lived in Los Angeles for the past four years, but assures me he’s still not a fan of driving. “Basically L.A. is divided into the east side and the west side, and I’m a west-sider—if you’re from the east side, you might as well be from Czechoslovakia for all I’m going to see you.”
We chatted for almost an hour about writing for television, the effects of parenthood on writing, and the inability to understand the writing process, among other topics.
Catherine LaSota: In the past several years, I’ve seen a lot of people moving from the east coast to the west coast, and not the other way so much.
Dennis Lehane: Hmm, when you think about it, I guess you’re right. I think in terms of the creative class, if you will, there’s just so much going on here because of television. I think the landscape of television has changed so dramatically in the last 16 or 17 years, so it’s a wonderful place to be. You can hold your head up high. You don’t say, “Oh, I work in TV,” like you used to do in the 1980s, you know? [laughs] It’s a little different than working on Hart to Hart.
CL: Hey, I was a big Family Ties fan.
DL: I loved Family Ties! That was smart.
CL: It holds up.
DL: It does.
CL: Speaking of television, and movies: in my second read of Since We Fell, I noticed the way you developed the character of Rachel Childs by gradually layering scenes that give us hints of what drives her decisions as the novel progresses. To me, this is done so cinematically, that I wonder how much you’re thinking of movies when you write. Are you looking at movies for inspiration?
DL: No. Look, we are all creatures of the modern world, so we’ve all seen lots of movies, and we’ve all seen lots of TV, and clearly the structure is much more prominently on display when you look at a film or you look at a television show, compared to when you read a book. So, insofar as I’ve always been influenced by film, yes. But that hasn’t changed. That’s never changed in terms of my writing.
Because I work in TV now, to say I apply those techniques in terms of my books? I don’t. The only thing I will say about this is that Since We Fell is one of only two books that came to me with the structure intact. The structure came first. That never happens to me. Or, it’s only happened to me one other time—it happened with Shutter Island—but otherwise I never have a strong sense of what my structure is when I write a book.
CL: So how do you start a novel, when you don’t have a sense of the structure?
DL: Usually I just have a character in my head. I kind of have them follow me around for a while, and then after a bit, I say, “Would you kindly go out and find me a story?” And sometimes they come back, and they have a plot with them.
I’m not very good at understanding my own process, because I don’t really want to. I’m superstitious about it. I feel like if I understand it too much, I’ll get into that place where I think there’s a formula. And all formula leads to is something that’s formulaic. I try and lean back from that as much as I possibly can. But I do know that usually when I write a book, I kind of know one thing at the beginning and I know one thing at the end. If I’m lucky, I might know something in the middle. But otherwise I don’t know shit. It’s always work for me. It makes it a laborious process for me. My output is probably half of what my peers’ is, but…
CL: Your output is pretty impressive!
DL: I think so, too! But look who my peers are. My friends are, like, Lee Child and Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos and Laura Lippman and people who are religiously putting a book out a year. That’s just not me. Most people who can produce, say, double my rate are people who are much more organized. It’s just never been my strong suit.
CL: This is actually your first book that is told entirely from the perspective of a woman. Rachel Childs is a character who has to overcome a lot of fears over the course of the novel. Did you have specific fears you had to work through while writing your first book entirely from a female perspective?
DL: Not fear. I mean, there was some worry. You certainly don’t want to be mansplaining a woman’s point of view, and so I was very sensitive to that. And when I finished a draft of the book, I remember going through it and looking for red flags: where are you seeing the world through guy goggles? And I went through and I definitely caught a lot of things, actually, in the first draft.
CL: How do you catch those things in your revisions? How do you recognize your guy goggles?
DL: You just try to be as honest as you can with yourself, and then the next step is to run it by a couple of women. But the first thing is—again, this is process, I don’t know how I do it—I just say, ok, now I’m going to read this book, and I’m going to listen for my inner bullshit meter. I’m going to have it tuned, and anything that flags, I’m going to notice. So the easiest one is zeroing right in on anything to do with sex. Just go right to it. That’s where you’re going to see guy goggles, because, I think, men and women just think very differently. Am I describing Brian in those moments? If I’m writing in any way about attractiveness or intimacy or sex, am I describing the man?
“If I’m lucky, I might know something in the middle. But otherwise I don’t know shit. It’s always work for me.”
CL: Do you have a favorite character or characters in Since We Fell? This question always sounds to me like choosing favorites among children, part of that whole metaphor of books as the babies of their authors. I wonder also what you think about that metaphor.
DL: I think that in terms of characters, we all love our main character—we wouldn’t write a whole book about her if we didn’t love her. I wouldn’t, anyway. I always like my characters, but I don’t love them, and I loved Rachel. The thing that was interesting in this book, was that some of the flat characters were some of the most fun, the most vivid. Kessler, the cop, really popped, and I didn’t do anything to make him pop. Wonderful accidents happen sometimes.
As for babies, um…
CL: In terms of authors referring to their books as their babies…
DL: Yeah, you have a different relationship with each of your books, I would argue. I don’t know so much that it’s love or not, but you have a different feeling, and a different relationship with each of your books, and some you feel hit the mark more than others. Some of them, the writing experience was so pleasant that you always feel good about it, and for some the writing experience was so miserable that you never feel the same way about it. Like, I hated writing Shutter Island. I hated every minute of it.
DL: Because I knew the story. I just knew it backwards and forwards before I wrote it, so there was no pleasure in it for me. That’s a book that I’m constantly having to remind myself isn’t the experience of writing it. Like I have to say, I think that one turned out ok. You know what I mean? I have to tell myself that. Because all I can remember is how much I hated writing it.
CL: Does your relationship to your book change after seeing someone else’s film adaptation of it? Or are they two different beasts, your book and the movie?
DL: They are two totally different beasts. Even if it’s great! Look, I have to go on trust, on faith, if Mystic River is a good movie—I can’t judge it. I have no clue. Zero. So I’ll take on faith that it’s good. And if something is bad, I’m in the same place, unless something is egregious, clearly not good. Like the Roland Joffé Scarlet Letter. Unless it was that level of bad, I don’t think I’d know.
CL: Did you enjoy watching Mystic River at all? Do you enjoy watching films of your books in general? It must be so strange.
DL: It’s ok. It was kinda cool. It’s just an out-of-body experience. It’s the feeling you have when you hear your voice on a recording, magnified by a million.
CL: That sounds horrible. (laughs)
DL: That’s what it is! You’re sitting there going, I know this is my voice, but it doesn’t sounds exactly like I thought my voice was. Same thing when you’re watching a movie—this is a movie of my book, but it’s not my book. This is my world, but it’s not my world. It’s just a very surreal experience. And it’s wonderful. I think it’s great! But it’s surreal. And it’s like my alterna universe. It’s like that Seinfeld where they meet their four doppelgangers? That’s the feeling of watching a movie of your book.
CL: I read somewhere that you would very much like to be a show runner for television, because you like working in a room with writers?
DL: I love working with writers, I love creating TV. I’m on a show right now, I’m having the time of my life. I think at this point it’s sort of a natural progression for me. It’s not just that I’ve been writing on a lot of shows; I’ve been a producer and consultant on several shows, I’ve been behind the scenes in a lot of things. I feel like, ok, I got this, you know?
Anyone who’s considered me for a show runner position knows I’d be much more of the Vince Gilligan school, which is you don’t really go to set much. You’re really about driving the text of the show, and the tone of the show, and you’re way, way back in the rear with the gear. That’s what I love, that’s where I’m really happy. I’m set allergic. I hate being on set. And my gifts are not serviced there.
Where I’m at my absolute best? The show I’m on right now is the perfect example. We just had to do a bunch of re-shoots. And the show runner just reached out to me and said, “I need a scene to plug into an episode that we’ve already shot. And we need to go back and we need to do it, and I need it tomorrow.” And he gave me a basic note on it and just said, “I want to have a scene where the main character sounds off on a bartender.” Ok, I got it. Did it, turned it around, shot it off this morning. He wrote back, “That’s exactly what I needed, thanks.” So, they’ll shoot it tomorrow.
CL: That’s much more immediate than writing a novel by yourself.
DL: I know, it’s so cool! It’s so cool. [laughs] It’s so fun.
CL: Do you think that it creates a nice balance for you, writing for television and writing novels? What is it that you get from writing novels that you don’t get from television writing?
DL: In novel writing, what I love is also the most difficult thing for me. To me the difference is all about language. In TV it’s really about story, you don’t have to be pretty—what you have to be is true, and you have to be compelling—but you don’t have to be pretty. With books, to me language is very important—how you write it, the voice that you write it in. And the opportunity to suddenly drop into a more lyrical tone, that’s cool, that’s fun, I like that.
The example I use a lot is in Live By Night, which is probably the fastest book I ever wrote. The thing that slowed me down was a scene in which I had to set the stage in which he goes to a party in a hotel, the grand opening of a hotel in 1926, I think it was. And just writing him walking into that hotel took me almost a week, it just took forever, because there’re so many things you’ve got to balance, you’ve got to keep the action moving, yet you really want to give the audience, the reader, a strong and rich sense of time and place and atmosphere. You went through all of that. In a script, you write, “Interior, Hotel, Night.” You’re done. You know?
CL: But you give up so much control!
DL: Exactly. Donald Westlake had a great line: the difference between a novelist and a screenwriter is that the novelist is god, and the screenwriter is god’s tailor. And I think you do give up a ton of control: you’re one of 150 people, that’s all you are, when you write a script. You’re just the guy who gave them a template to work off, and then that gets interpreted through the set designer, through the costume designer, through the director, through the DP, all of these various filters that change it, ultimately.
Another way to look at it is, when you get it through editing, the book is a finite thing. The book is now a thing, it can’t be changed—it can be misinterpreted, it can be mistranslated, but it cannot change from what it is. When you write a script and you hand it over, you have just begun the process by which that script will change, in which it will transform. That’s the difference.
CL: If I could ask just a couple more questions about Since We Fell?
CL: The descriptions of Rachel’s panic attacks are done very well—is that something you researched, or are familiar with?
DL: No, no. I did a tiny bit of research. I didn’t do too much. But I had a health scare like twelve years ago, and I remember right afterward, for about two weeks, I had these panic attacks. They weren’t nearly what Rachel’s were, but what I remember really strongly was that effect of the bird wings in the chest.
CL: Oh, yeah.
DL: That was the one thing I took from personal experience. And then mine went away because it was like, you’re not going to die, it’s ok. But for a couple weeks there, it was just like, aaah! So that’s what I took. And everything else I based on talking with people who have had major panic attacks. I’ve had a sense of what that would look like, and then I just sort of dove into the body and let it see what would happen.
CL: In the Haiti scenes, Rachel and other reporters really turned to drugs and alcohol—did you find that to be the case in your research about reporters in stressful situations?
DL: If I didn’t become a novelist, my dream, when I was a kid, was always to become a foreign correspondent. I wanted to go into war zones, I wanted to do all that shit. And, if you do that, you’re an adrenaline junkie, there’s a part of it that’s an adrenaline junkie job, and so, do I know from personal experience that reporters act that way? No, I have no clue. But I think if I were surrounded by that level of calamity and horror, if you will, I’d find it perfectly logical to believe I’d start popping Ativans.
DL: I’m not saying I necessarily would, but I am saying I’d find it perfectly believable.
CL: Totally believable.
DL: So that’s where I went with that. But also, poor Rachel. It’s funny, I feel this book is very much the twin to Shutter Island, and you know, I used to always call Teddy “poor Teddy.” I really need to push the envelope with (Rachel). So it’s not just that she’s got identity issues, but now she’s got agoraphobia, now she’s got panic attacks, why not just give her a drug addiction?
CL: She’s really fighting some battles. You know, I wonder if you’ve discussed this before but, the name “Rachel” comes up a lot in your books: Rachel Solando in Shutter Island, there’s a Rachel Smith in Gone Baby Gone…
DL: Oh, my goodness! I hadn’t noticed that. Yeah, I guess I just like the name. I think I like the name Rachel.
CL: Do you ever change characters’ names?
DL: Yeah, I do. It’s funny because it’s something that we do in the adaptation of Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes—that’s the TV show I’m working on—and there’s a moment in the room where we put all the names on the board, and we went, oh my god, there’s a ton of F names! I had to stick up for Steve, as the novelist in the room, and say it happens all the time. All the time.
I remember one book, I think it was The Given Day, where it was all just D names, and I was like, you gotta get rid of these, got to change their name, change their name, change their name . . . so yeah, your instincts sometimes can just lock in. I have no idea why, but it’s something I’ve done more times than I can count, where I’ve had to go back and change names.
CL: That’s interesting. One last question, on a theme I brought up before: children. You’ve written a lot on the idea of childhood struggles affecting the development of a character, including the story of Rachel Childs.
DL: Oh, yeah.
CL: Can you speak to your interest in that topic, and whether it has changed since becoming a parent yourself?
DL: Well, certainly one thing has changed since I’ve had children: you don’t see children in danger much in my books anymore. I don’t go there. It used to be an obsession, the horrors we inflict on children. Whereas now, I think you see very much my awareness of the effects of parenting, and my fears. You know, a lot of my fears are in there.
CL: Your parenting fears?
DL: Yeah, you fear all the ways you’re gonna fuck your kids up. And it doesn’t abate, it gets worse.
With Rachel’s mother, what I was trying to do there—and this is something that shows up in my books time and time and time again—is this idea that amputating somebody emotionally is one of the worst things you can do. I mean, that’s the whole theme of Mystic River. And I think that’s what (Rachel’s mother) does. She amputates this huge part of her daughter’s life, and then she says, I don’t want to talk about it, which is terrible. Clearly you can see in my books I consider that a terrible crime. To not allow people to talk, that’s a big thing. And we do that all the time as parents, and we do that all the time as people, and it can be very traumatic, depending on the level of damage that was done to the person. Now again, it’s not like, “I’ve heard you say 47 times you don’t like Cheerios, enough, fuck it.” But when you need to talk about something like Dave Boyle needed to talk in Mystic River, or Rachel needs to talk in Since We Fell, then to truncate that, to cork it, is a terrible thing.
“You fear all the ways you’re gonna fuck your kids up. And it doesn’t abate, it gets worse.”
CL: Yeah. That’s a big thing I’ve heard time and again, and I wonder if you agree, that writers become writers because they were somehow silenced in their past.
DL: Oh, yeah, yeah. Probably the truest line I ever wrote about my general background is in The Given Day, and it’s when Joe is a little boy, and he thinks, and this is his rumination, he says, “In Irish families, there’s a list of things you cannot talk about. Unfortunately the list is on the list.”
CL: That’s great…
DL: And without a doubt, I grew up in a household in which you couldn’t breathe from the elephants in the middle of the room, there were just so many of them.
CL: It’s interesting that you mention a line from The Given Day as closest to your own general background, because Rachel is writing a book in Since We Fell, and there’s a paragraph you wrote that describes her writing process. How much in that paragraph is similar to your own approach to writing.
DL: That was a very meta moment. The thing that she says about writing a book was literally the experience that we all had. That was all winking to my editors and my agent. That was exactly the process I went through to write the book.
CL: Cool, so we don’t need you to talk about your process. It’s all on page 153 of Since We Fell. Rachel described it for us!