Published May 13. 2013 4:00AM Updated May 13. 2013 11:55AM
Not quite two weeks ago in Manhattan, Dennis Lehane's "Live by Night" won the prestigious Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel - beating out other finalists such as Gillian Flynn, Walter Mosley and Ace Atkins.
It was just the latest of many accolades for Lehane, whose books include the bestselling Patrick Kinsey/Angie Gennaro series, "Mystic River" and "Shutter Island," which have been made into various and hugely successful A-list films.
Lehane, then, is by now is adept at the Art of Triumph.
After the Edgar ceremony, Lehane took the train back to Boston, showed the award to his young daughter, then tucked it away on a shelf.
"Believe me," Lehane says, "I'm good at celebrating and I celebrate plenty - I just don't celebrate me. That would seem sort of ridiculous. Winning awards is nice, but it's just never been a big thing to me."
"Live by Night" was published in hardcover last fall, and the paperback edition comes out Tuesday. In support, Lehane is doing a small series of appearances - including one Thursday at the Groton Library.
The book is the second in an incredibly intricate trilogy about the Coughlins, an Irish family of policemen and outlaws living in Boston and then Tampa in the first half of the 20th century. The stories are interwoven with a variety of fictional and real characters whose activities and relationships span the whole of society - from political boardrooms and the Boston Brahmin culture to gangsters running rum from Tampa during Prohibition.
At the heart of the stories are examinations of character and whether it's possible for an outlaw, falling deeper into violence and corruption, to maintain a code of decency.
Last week, by phone, Lehane spoke about "Live by Night" and his career. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.
• Fans of Lehane's body of work delight not just in his characters and settings but also in meticulous plotting and an ability to fuse threads and tangents that seem totally unconnected. It might astonish readers to learn the author almost never has a plot when he starts a new manuscript.
"Plot threads are the last things that ever come to me. I tend to gather all of my other pieces first: 'Okay, I have this setting and this tone - so what's my story?' I usually know only two or three crucial things going in. That's why my books take so long."
• Even with a minimal approach to plotting, Lehane knew fairly early in the writing of "The Given Day" that he had a potential long-term series.
"The main characters had such rich bloodlines that I thought I could maybe follow them in future books at future times. My friend, the writer George Pelecanos, has this device where a minor character in one of his novels might be a major character in another, and that's an attractive idea to me. So I have folks popping in and out. As I got further along in 'The Given Day,' I thought, 'Maybe I can run this table all the way through the 20th century.' Now I'm writing book number three - and I've still got 60-some years to go."
• Speaking of minor characters becoming major characters, in "Live by Night," an incredible and heartbreaking plot resolution occurs when someone - whom the reader quite possibly has dismissed or even forgotten - shows up at a very unfortunate time. Was that a late-breaking idea that occurred out of the depths of Lehane's brain? (The character shall remain nameless to prohibit any spoilers.)
"Actually, that's one time when I knew (the character) was going to show up again. From the moment I started writing him, I thought, 'There's my guy.' I liked him. I liked having him become corrupt, and I had fun figuring out what would push him completely over the edge. So I knew he was going to be the (metaphorical) bomb - and then I had to figure out, well, who's he going to (metaphorically) bomb?"
• Lehane is one of the few crime writers as stylistically comfortable setting novels in the past - as per the trilogy and "Shutter Island" - as well as contemporary times ("Mystic River," the Kinsey/Gennaro series). How does he research the historical books?
"I've done it two different ways. First, I'm a lunatic history buff about the 20th century. So I've front-loaded and done tons of research and then sat down to write. The other way is much more fluid - you start writing and do the research as needed.
"The first method was a massive waste of time because I never know for sure how the story and plotlines will proceed, so I don't know what I'll need. I ended up using maybe 10 percent of everything I researched. It's better to be writing a scene and figure out all you need to know is the cost to go to the movies in 1929. Find it and move on."
• Lehane's writing style is typically anchored in lean, succinct prose - which doesn't mean he can't write vivid prose. Consider, from "Live by Night," a description of Havana as " ... a dream gone drowsy in the sun, fading into its own bottomless appetite for languor, in love with the sexual thrum of its death throes."
Is that the sort of sentence that simply emerges, fully formed, from Lehane's creative core - or does he have to tinker with 43 versions to get it right?
"You know, sometimes you just have to go all-in in a sentence. Most of the time, I adhere to the Hemingway or Raymond Carver style, but every once in a while you think, 'Let's just put that in there and have a little fun.'
"I actually remember writing that sentence. I thought, 'Well, it's either gonna work, or I'll wake up tomorrow and realize it sucks.'
"There are lots of times I'll reread something and think, 'Boy, I overreached there,' and I'll wish I'd taken my foot off the pedal.
"As a reader, I like writers who risk falling on their face occasionally rather than just operating with cool efficiency - which I can admire on one level, even though I also think there's a gutless element to that. When Gabriel García Márquez or Toni Morrison miss with something ridiculously purple, well, that's egg on their face. But for artists like that, it works a lot more often than not, and it's just totally magic. And that's enough for me, every once in a while, to bring in the horn section and take a shot."