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DENNIS LEHANE interviewed on SMALL MERCIES and more...

Written by Ali Karim


Shots Magazine were delighted that Dennis Lehane agreed to answer a few questions following our recent review of his novel SMALL MERCIES, which has been released to great acclaim from within the industry.

Shots Magazine have been long-term readers of the work of Dennis Lehane, discussing his work on his visits to the UK, promoting his work – and as we stated in our review of SMALL MERCIES – “I postulate that this is his most vibrant work, a truly exciting, engaging and enraging narrative. There is an echo of Mystic River, the beautiful [though dark] novel that was shortlisted in 2010, as the greatest crime-novel of the decade via Deadly Pleasures Magazine’s Barry Award [narrowly missing out to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at Bouchercon 2010 hosted in San Francisco]”

Early Review copies of SMALL MERCIES were accompanied by a letter from the author, giving some context to this extraordinary novel -

Dear Reader,

At the end of summer 1974, when I was nine years old, we were heading home through South Boston to Dorchester when my father took an errant turn and we found ourselves on Broadway, Southie’s main drag, as an anti-busing protest consumed the neighbourhood. It was night, and flaming effigies of the most well-known supporters of school desegregation— Garrity, Kennedy, Taylor—hung from street poles, the yellow, blue, and red reflections of the flames sluicing up the windshield and along the windows of my father’s Chevy. The mob chanted slogans—some violent and racist, some not—and my father’s car was rocked and buffeted as it crept through the ocean of furious bodies. No one seemed to notice us, and yet I’d never been so terrified in my life.

This is a novel about those times. And maybe about the times we live in now. It’s about a mother’s search for her daughter in those crazed last days of summer in South Boston in 1974, when a first day of school unlike any first day of school in the city’s history loomed ahead and felt—depending on which side of the issue one stood—like either the culmination of a long-delayed promise or the punch line to joke no one found funny. It’s a story that finally puts into words, I hope, what a terrified nine-year-old tried to make sense of when his father took a wrong turn straight into the heart of a community’s rage.

Sounds strange to say, but I hope you enjoy it.

Dennis Lehane, Los Angeles, CA, July 27, 2022


After reading SMALL MERCIES, we had a few questions for the author [which despite his busy schedule] Dennis Lehane replied -

Ali Karim: Dennis, welcome to Great Britain’s Shots Magazine

Dennis Lehane: Good to be here.

Ali: You have been very loyal to your Literary Agent Ann Rittenberg and your Film Agent Amy Schiffman from the ‘get go’. Can you tell us a little about how these professional relationships came about, and how they matured over the years [with perhaps an anecdote or two], and why they remain so strong?

Dennis: Ann was the first agent who believed in me, when I was 26, and she fought the good fight for two years to get my first novel accepted by a reputable publisher. We’ve been together 31 years now. I never saw any reason not to be loyal. Amy was my second book-to-film agent. The first was not a good fit. After I parted ways with him, I spent two years searching out an agent who had the kind of integrity and loyalty I value. I like to work with people whose word is their bond. People who can be trusted. And people who will put up with—and even support--my resistance to “branding” or pumping out a book a year. Ann and Amy have done that. 

Ali: I pictured James ‘Whitey’ Bulger and the Winter Hill Gang of 1970s Boston, when I imagined your gangland boss Marty Butler and his henchmen in Small Mercies. Would my imagination be aligned correctly on his influence upon many crime thrillers

Dennis: I avoided writing about him for many years, despite dozens of offers, because I saw nothing “Shakespearean” in the story of him and his politician brother, Billy. Whitey was an informant for the FBI who got innocent working men killed and flooded the housing projects where his mother lived with heroin. He enslaved an entire generation of “his people” to drug addiction. Oh, and he was a virulent racist. To the degree that Marty Butler and his crew may (or may not) resemble Whitey Bulger and his crew, it’s in the pure heartless amorality, the complete lack of a conscience, the standing for nothing but your own unquenchable greed.

Ali: For me, your novels are all about Character. You delineate them in the grey light of reality; warts and all. Two of my favourite characters in terms of how you have written them, are Luther Laurence [from THE GIVEN DAYand Rachel Childs [from SINCE WE FELL]. Could you tell us a little about their genesis and how they changed over the course of those novels [because they both embarked upon journeys]?

Dennis: Luther was never supposed to stick around The Given Day. He was meant to show up in the first chapter and walk back out again. But he refused to leave the stage. (Bobby Coyne did the exact same thing in Small Mercies.) Outside of Luther being African American and born about 75 years before me, we had a lot in common, he and I. He reminds me a lot of me in my 20s—restless and constantly searching for indefinable things. He values nothing so much as movement and it leads him into a lot of trouble. But he’s a very good man (or boy-trying-to-be-a-man depending on your perspective), and I loved his journey to become a father, essentially, and a husband worthy of his woman’s love. Rachel is a lost soul, desperately flailing about to understand an abandonment that happened before she can really remember it. That’s something she shares with Luther, actually; both of them were abandoned by their fathers as babies. In the end, they each have to make peace with the idea that they, themselves, have to be enough. Because no one’s coming to the rescue.  

Ali: You really test the reader’s moral compass with your character Mary Pat in Small Mercies, because at times the reader feels great pity, but at other times – not so much. Firstly, if memory serves, there was the character Mary Pat, the wife of the loathsome Eddie McKenna in THE GIVEN DAY – so could you tell us a little about the moral dilemma of Mary Pat as the writer of Small Mercies?

Dennis: Mary Pat is a racist, who doesn’t think she’s a racist. She’s an alcoholic, chain smoking, battering ram of a human being. Before the novel begins, her husband leaves her because “her hate embarrasses him.” And she doesn’t get it. And if she didn’t go on the journey she does in the novel—to find her daughter against overwhelming resistance—it’s possible she would never understand what her husband meant. She’d remain a racist in denial. But all interesting human beings are paradoxes. And Mary Pat is also brave and capable of great love. She’s wholly incapable of backing down as well, even if not backing down will put her life in absolute jeopardy. So she has two journeys in this book—

The first is active and external and it’s her heroic journey to find out what happened to her daughter and, as it becomes increasingly clear that whatever happened wasn’t good, to find those responsible and achieve a kind of justice. No matter the cost. Her second journey is internal and involves her coming to terms with the horrible consequences of her own racism, the legacy it left behind, a legacy that destroyed the lives of both innocent people she didn’t even know and the people she loved the most. 

Ali: Continuing on the theme of characters and their journeys; I see in your adaptation of Jimmy Keene’s IN WITH THE DEVIL into AppleTV+ BLACK BIRD almost as a homage of sorts to Joseph Conrad, when he detailed Charles Marlow’s mission in Heart of Darkness. What would you say to that assertion? 

Dennis: I wasn’t thinking of Marlow but I’m a huge Conrad fan so maybe it was in my subconscious. I was very much thinking of the classic Hero Myth—the often callow young man who is sent out, somewhat reluctantly, from his village to fight the monster. He goes through a series of mini-journeys, both physically and mentally, that inexorably alter him. He vanquishes the monster and returns to the village, forever changed. Wiser but sadder. It’s the story of Gilgamesh, Sir Gawain, of Ethan in The Searchers (even though he’s middle-aged) and, yes, of Marlow. Jimmy at the beginning of Black Bird turns down the assignment because he feels zero responsibility to dead girls he’s never met; by the end of the story, he risks everything for a wholly irrational reason—to give the dead girls’ families some measure of “peace.” In the end, he’s a far better man, but a much sadder one. 

Ali: Lovers of Gangster Movies were devastated when James Gandolfini passed away [his last film role was 'Cousin Marv' in your movie THE DROP] and last year we lost Ray Liotta [whose last role was playing James Keene’s father in Black Bird]. Both actors were magnificent in their final roles, and crucial to the success of THE DROP and BLACK BIRD. 

Would you care to share your memories both when you viewed their films and TV - and most crucially when you worked with them professionally? 

Dennis: I never met Jim. We kept missing each other during the shoot. Passed a few notes and made plans to have dinner one night, but it never happened. However, I’d fought hard for him to play that role. And because it was the only fight I chose to really dig my heels in on, and because he was such a tremendous talent - I won that battle. And every time I watched his work in editing, heard him deliver lines exactly as I’d heard his character, Cousin Marv, say them in my head, I got choked up. He was a giant and he went way too soon.

I wrote the part of ‘Big Jim’ for Ray Liotta and Ray Liotta only. It had been my dream to work with him ever since I saw him in Something Wild when I was in college. With the exception of a few directors (Scorsese, Mangold, Joe Carnahan and Ted Demme), Ray was always under-utilized. He had so much more breadth as an actor than anyone gave him credit for. While we were shooting Black Bird, he came to my house for a party, and at the end of the night, I brought him and his fiancée back to a private room and asked him to sign this rare Japanese poster of Something Wild. I was so nervous to ask, and he was so touched I’d travelled across the country with this poster. He looked at his fiancé and he said, “You believe this fucking guy? He wants me to sign his poster.” He wrote me a lovely (and profane) message and then started to walk away. Turned around, came running back and wrote, “I will work with you forever. On anything.” That moment trumps any award I will ever receive. Gonna miss Ray forever. 

Ali; It’s been reported that SMALL MERCIES may be your final novel as I guess your gaze has been focused toward TV, so tell us a little about working with Taron Egerton on the AppleTV+ miniseries ‘Black Bird’ 

Dennis: If another novel occurs to me, I’ll write it. But if it doesn’t, I don’t have to produce one to make a deadline or earn back an advance. I’m free and clear of obligations in that regard. It’s pretty liberating and means if I do write a book, it comes from the purest of places—because I need to tell that particular story, whatever it may be.

For an actor of his talent, popularity, and good looks, Taron is laser-focused on challenging himself, project by project, to try something he’s never tried before. I’ve always felt a need to do the same thing with my writing; I can’t sit still, can’t stay in the same place, don’t really like doing anything unless it scares me. I suspect Taron and I work so well together because, as artists, we loathe comfort. If we don’t feel a bit out of our depth, we’re doing something wrong. If we’re not afraid, then we must be complacent. And complacency is the enemy of good work. 

Ali: And finally Dennis, thank you for your time talking to your readers at SHOTS Magazine - it’s very appreciated

Dennis Lehane: My pleasure

SHOTS Magazine would like to pass our thanks to Grace Vincent and Lucy Martin of Little Brown UK and George Easter and Brittany Bookbinder in the US for their help in organising this short interview.

A hard copy version of this exchange will appear in the next issue of Deadly Pleasures Magazine, CLICK HERE to subscribe to Deadly Pleasures Magazine and download the Colour Digital Edition[s].

Read SHOTS Magazine’s review of SMALL MERCIES


Kenzie & Gennaro Books

A Drink Before the War (1994)       

Darkness, Take My Hand (1996)   

Sacred (1997)           

Gone, Baby, Gone (1998)   

Prayers for Rain (1999)       

Moonlight Mile (2010)          

Coughlin Books

The Given Day (2008)         

Live by Night (2012)

World Gone By (2015)        

Standalone Novels

Mystic River  (2001)

Shutter Island (2003)           

The Drop (2014) Expansion of ‘Animal Rescue’

Since We Fell (2017)           

Small Mercies (2023)          

Short Stories / Novellas

Animal Rescue (2009)         

The Consumers (2012) [from MWA Vengeance edited by Lee Child] 

Red Eye with Michael Connelly (2014) [from FACE.OFF edited by David Baldacci] 

Coronado (2006) [short story collection]

Film and Television Credits

Black Bird (2022) Creator, Showrunner, Writer, Executive Producer

Mr. Mercedes (2017) Consulting Producer

Live By Night (2016) Author, Executive Producer 

Bloodline (2016) Consulting Producer

The Drop (2014) Author, Writer

Boardwalk Empire (2013) writer, creative consultant

Castle (2011) Actor

Shutter Island (2010) Author, Executive Producer

The Wire (2004 – 2008) Writer and Actor [Season 3]

Gone Baby Gone (2007) Author

Mystic River (2003) Author

More Information: http://dennislehane.com

Text © 2023 Ali Karim and Dennis Lehane

Pictures / Images © Dennis Lehane’s Publishers 

US Harper William Morrow 

UK Little Brown Abacus Books [and Transworld PenguinRandomHouse]

And from ‘Black Bird’ - AppleTV+



Dennis Lehane

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