Rules for being a successful writer, from US author of Mystic River, Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River and writer for The Wire, told the Hay Festival how he went from working class Boston to a life of literary acclaim.

Photo of Dennis Lehane, US writer of Mystic River Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River and writer for hit TV show The Wire, has told the ever popular Hay Festival in the Wales in May 2015 how he went from a working-class life in Boston (USA) to literary acclaim. His comments were reproduced in The Telegraph (10 rules for making it as a writer). His prescriptions include the instruction to ‘read whatever you can lay your hands on’ and develop ‘an ear for dialogue’; and advice that the approval of your parents is not ‘that important’!

Read whatever you can lay your hands on We were working class. There were no books. There were some encyclopaedias – I always say it was the day my father didn’t see the salesman coming. And there was a Bible. I read the Bible from cover to cover when I was a kid. The Bible is an amazing piece of narrative storytelling. Then my mother heard from the nuns – probably the only nice thing a nun ever said about me – that I liked to read. So my mother took me to the library. To this day, I’m a big benefactor of libraries. Without libraries I couldn’t be sitting here.

Have an ear for dialogue Where I grew up, everybody knew how to italicise. People knew how to hit just the right word in a sentence. I was living in Miami and felt I was losing the voice of Boston. I went back home and ran into a friend of mine. I said, ‘How are you doing?’ and he said, ‘I’m good but actually I got stabbed. And I don’t know what you’ve heard, but getting stabbed can kinda take the fight out of a guy.’ ‘I don’t know what you’ve heard’ – as if you might be under the impression that getting stabbed is like a hot rock massage – and then the gross understatement of ‘it kinda takes the fight out of you’. Not, ‘I was praying to my God’ or ‘My intestines were on fire’.”

Parental approval isn’t that important My old man slept through all of my three movie adaptations. He slept through Mystic River, got up at the end and said, ‘Oh, your mother said that one was dark.’ He slept through Gone Baby Gone and said, ‘Oh, your mother said you used the f-word too much in that one.’ And then with Shutter Island he said, ‘Your mother didn’t know what the hell to make of that one.’ He never read any of my books and everybody said that was so sad. What my father would have said to that is, ‘Your brother works in a prison but you don’t see me going there.’

Author: Anthony Lawton

Chair, Sussex Dolphin, family company which looks after the work of eminent children’s & historical fiction author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). Formerly CEO, chair & trustee of various charity, cultural & educational enterprises in UK.

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