Dennis Lehane chats about his female lead in 'Since We Fell'

In his 1994 debut, A Drink Before the War, Boston novelist Dennis Lehane took the unremittingly masculine hardboiled-detective story and added a touch of the feminine with Angela Gennaro.

One half of a male-female private-eye duo, she’s as capable as her partner, childhood pal and sometime lover Patrick Kenzie. Five additional Kenzie-Gennaro books were to follow, including Gone, Baby, Gonewhich was adapted into a brilliant hit film by Lehane’s fellow Bostonian Ben Affleck.

It should come as no surprise then that Lehane, 51, whose work has been adapted by A-listers Clint Eastwood (Mystic River) and Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island), would produce a novel dominated entirely by a female protagonist.

Released Tuesday, Since We Fell is at once a Hitchcockian suspense story and a rich character study about Rachel Childs, a TV journalist whose past is shrouded in mystery – she doesn’t know the identity of her father – and who finds herself questioning the identity of the man she loves.

Lehane, who moved to Southern California three years ago, will be in town Thursday to talk about Since We Fell at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Library.

Your previous book, World Gone By, is pretty much the only one not set in Boston. Was it nice to return home in Since We Fell? And are you back to stay?
I think, from this point on, it’s all going be set in Boston. I deviated. I wrote one entire book that’s not set in Boston. … and I spent the entire book feeling like, 'Oh, I’ve got to end this. I need to get out of here. I don’t want to be in Tampa in 1943. I want to be in Boston."

Since We Fell features some of the most profound characterization you’ve ever done.
Most of my work is pretty heavily character-driven. But … this is very front-loaded in that regard, in that you get 100 pages of biography to start the book. And then there’s a journey of the self before we get to … what I would say is the main plot. So in that respect, it’s definitely a little different than anything I’ve done before.

Was your subterranean journey through Rachel’s life and psyche planned?
No. It unfolded as I was writing it, actually. No, it was not remotely by design.

What happened? Did you find her so fascinating you felt compelled to dig further?
Actually, that’s exactly what happened. There’s a version of this book in which those 100 pages don’t even exist. And then I woke up one day, and I said, 'Now I need to drill down on this paternity issue that she seems to be running from.'

She’s spent her whole life not knowing the identity of her father. Her mother has always withheld it.
Right.

There are a lot of intense father-son relationships in your  stories. Here you explore a mother-daughter conflict.
Their dynamic took me by surprise. I didn’t know how bad [the mother] was going to be, and then as each page moved on, I was like, 'Wow, that’s one of the cruelest things I could think of: to not tell someone who her own father is.'

Describe Rachel Childs.
She’s a woman who has just basically gone through a lifetime of detachments and abandonments, and then that leads her to a series of breakdowns when she is young. And then she kind of recovers from that, and she recovers herself, and she becomes a star journalist.

You start off with a classic coming-of-age story about an exceptional person.
But then she goes to a country she feels has been completely abandoned in a disaster, which is Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. And it just brings everything back … and it leads to another breakdown.

A very public breakdown.
She has an on-air meltdown in front of 200,000 viewers. So this is where we find her when the main action of the book begins. She’s a shut-in, an agoraphobic. Her only saving grace is that she has this quote-unquote perfect husband and then comes the day when he might not be perfect. Far from it.

That’s the second husband, Brian, whom she gets to know over the years while her first marriage is falling apart.
He’s someone whose path crosses with hers multiple times throughout her life at these perfect moments … [including] on a crucial day, the day she divorces her [first] husband.

That’s when the machinery of the mystery novel really kicks in.
They have a romance and eventually marry. But then something crops up, this question of, Who is this guy really?

Were you concerned that some critics might find it suspect for a male writer to write a female lead?
Oh, God, [expletive]. I mean, [expletive]. That's such a [expletive] argument. ... I hate that argument. I hate the argument that men can’t write women, that black authors can’t write white characters or whites write black ones. … It’s just so offensive on an artistic level.

What challenges did you face writing a female protagonist? Or did you simply think of Rachel as just another character?
The vast majority, 90 percent of it, was, look, I’m just doing a character. There was 10 percent in the rewrite stage that I kind of had to go through carefully and say, 'OK, so is she wearing my guy goggles?' and flagging those moments. ...  So I did some of that, and I floated it by a couple of female friends to make sure there were no more red flags left.

You have said the social critique we find in Mystic River about working-class America wasn’t consciously added. So what are some of the social issues that keep you up? Do you address them more intentionally now?
I think that’s always worked its way into my books. This book is about identity and it has a twisty Hitchcockian plot, but there’s riffing in there too about global catastrophes. ... And there’s a bunch in the final third  about the America that used to exist and that doesn’t exist anymore, and then there’s the question of whether it ever existed, period.

America as an industrial powerhouse with vital industrialized regions and a commanding economic presence?
This idealized America that supposedly existed, well, you know it pretty much ended  … 20 years after World War Two. And it was an artificial. … It was based on the idea that there was no competition. … Japan and Germany were completely [gone]. Here we had 20 years to do whatever we wanted and then came the first tap-tap-tap, knock-knock-knock of globalization. … Now we find ourselves where we are today, wondering if we can get back to it. And we can’t. But the selling of that dream, as destructive as it is, is also a very profitable enterprise.


Dennis Lehane: Since We Fell. 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Free Library, 1901 Vine St. Tickets: Free. Information: 215-686-5322 or freelibrary.org.