Shutter Island author Dennis Lehane talks books and libraries

The critically acclaimed author of Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane, believes in supporting libraries. Last evening, he spoke to a crowd of roughly eleven hundred at the Mile Hi Church in Lakewood as a part of the free Jefferson County Distinguished Author Series in which he explained why libraries are so important.

He also announced he would donate 50 percent of his speaker's fee back to the library upon hearing of its budget challenges. At the event, Lehane described how he became the writer he his today, his love of libraries, his experience with Hollywood, and the key to writing a successful novel.

When I asked the author of the bestselling books Mystic River and Shutter Island at the reception before his talk how his book tour was going--because I assumed an author of his stature must be on a promotional tour for his latest book in order to make an appearance at a Jefferson County library event--Dennis Lehane said, "It hasn't started yet. I'm here because I am a supporter of libraries." His latest novel, Moonlight Mile, a return to the Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro private investigator series after an eleven-year hiatus, is due out November 2, but that's not why Lehane was out last night.

Executive director of the Jefferson County Library Foundation Natalie Martinez brought Lehane to their annual Insight and In-person Distinguished Author Series, which began in 2004 with Joyce Carol Oates and was created to bring acclaimed authors to Jefferson County in order to give "local book lovers the opportunity to hear prominent writers" in person. The program is also a way for the library system in Jefferson County to raise money in a flailing economy. Borders Books donated 20 percent of the sale of Lehane's books that evening to the library.

At a reception filled with philanthropic book lovers before his talk, the handsome and conversational Lehane told me he finds short-story writing "excruciating" and only writes them as favors to friends. He said he struggled to be a short-story writer for six years before he found his stride with the novel form, and then everything just clicked.

After the wine and cheese, Lehane addressed the crowd with a friendly demeanor saying that, "The title 'famous author' feels like an oxymoron," and he feels "like he's supposed to look at you askance when you say 'can' instead of 'may'" (which incidentally, my sister-in-law said, and then corrected herself, when she met him earlier in the evening). He then began his talk by describing his upbringing in a working-class neighborhood of Boston where everyone's "dream was to get a job you can't get fired from," and he explained that the old Boston cliche: "Everybody either becomes a cop or a criminal, isn't true because hardly anyone becomes a cop."

He was one of the lucky ones who didn't have to choose from such a narrow job pool, and he cited libraries as a very important part of his success as an author: "When I was a kid, we couldn't afford books, so we went to the library. Libraries are important, because what it says to poor people is: this is for you, you are just as entitled to this as anyone else. Libraries are the only reason I'm here today."

Lehane went on to describe how he came to be where is today after dropping out of two colleges and realizing "he sucked at everything but writing." It took a lot of hard work and an "evangelical sense of artistic pursuit."

Lehane recounted his experience with Clint Eastwood, who directed the film version of Mystic River, as wonderful, but that he has nothing to do with the making of any of the films that are based on his books. "Once I sell the rights, and I am a hard sell, but once I sell, it is out of my hands, and I have to respect what the other artist does," he said. As for how he likes the film versions of his books he said, "It freaks me out to watch them. I've only watched each one once. You know when you hear your voice on a recording? Multiply that by a thousand, and that's what it's like."

During the question and answer session, Lehane got down to the nitty-gritty about the writing life: "It's hard work. It's drudge-like and boring at times." He said that while writing Shutter Island, he woke up at 5:30 every morning and wrote for four hours straight. "It was terrible," he said, "I hated every minute of writing Shutter Island. I was writing it at an exceptionally unhappy time in my life."

As for where he gets his ideas: "Writers lie about this all the time, but really, I don't know. I go into a room and I project myself."

And his advice for anyone who wants to write a successful novel: "Write a book with a central character who women want to have sex with. That is your protagonist."

Lehane finished his talk by reiterating to the audience the importance of supporting the free cultural exchange that is the library system. "Please do whatever you can to support these libraries," he said.

The library also puts on numerous used-book sales during the year in order to raise money and engage readers. The next one takes place October 21-24 at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds. For more information visit their website.

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Ben Dayton
Contact: Ben Dayton