Wednesday, October 29, 2014

An Evening With Dennis Lehane

This year my friend George (from The Thirty Year Itch) and I got tickets to the Cuyahoga County Library's Writers Center Stage series. We have great seats--the middle of the third row. We're right in front of the speaker and we don't have to crane our necks to see him/her.

The October event featured Dennis Lehane and was this past Thursday. He gave an astounding presentation. If you follow the Criminal Element twitter feed, I live tweeted a lot of it, but want to share the event and some photos with you here.

For long-time blog readers, you may remember that Dennis participated in the Six-Word Memoir series and his memoir was "I owe it all to libraries." That memoir came screaming back as he began his presentation Thursday night. He said he was going to talk about the 20 reasons he is where he is today. "One through ten are...libraries," he proclaimed.

As a first grader, Dennis' teacher called his parents to tell them he liked to read. And with that motivation, his Irish-immigrant mother took him to the local branch of the Boston Public Library and got him a library card. The librarian told a young Dennis that he could borrow any of the books in the library, he just had to bring them back in two weeks. To a six-year-old boy from the wrong side of the tracks, being told that he was just as entitled to the books in his library as was the boy who was dropped off in the Bentley indicated to Dennis that he mattered.

One of the best lines of the night (and there were quite a few) was Dennis' jab at the Tea Party. He said, "By the way, Tea Partiers would consider this socialism, but we called it a library."

So after the huge importance of libraries, Lehane explained that he was not from a literary family. His parents were both Irish immigrants without a high school education. But he was from a storytelling family. His father was one of eighteen children, most of whom immigrated to the United States and all settled in the same geographic location. They were very insular, so before Dennis started school he was surrounded more by 1930s Irish culture than 1970s Boston culture. (Those Boston vowels do still pepper his dialogue, though.)

One of the characteristics of that Irish culture was that the families would all regularly get together and tell stories about Ireland. Dennis says he and his brother quickly learned that their family had a shaky relationship with "facts." The same story would be told at various times with tweaks to the events.

Unbeknownst to his mother, Dennis' father would take him to Vaughn's Tavern on Dot Avenue where everyone would sit around and tell stories as well. Here he learned three rules: #1 - TELL THE STORY! Don't go into long drawn out descriptions and set-up, just tell the story. #2 - Make it funny. Because Rule #3 is the point of the working class story is 'the man got screwed.'

So while Dennis Lehane didn't get a literary education through his youth, he did learn to tell stories. And he also learned to listen, which ultimately strengthened his gift with dialogue. His skills with the oral story tradition were evident as he entertained and awed the crowd.

Lehane also informed the audience that he had to be dedicated at a very young age. "Liking to read in working class Dorchester got you one thing--your ass beat. So if you're going to do it, you need to be dedicated." And dedicated he was. He says that in Dorchester, you didn't become a writer. You became a cop, a plumber, a fireman, but you didn't become a writer. So he knew if he returned to his hometown and wasn't a writer, he'd be tending bar at Vaughn's Tavern on Dot Avenue with customers yelling, "hey Hemingway, give me another Schlitz."

Dennis Lehane says he has No. Other. Talents. None. He tried his hand at a few other things in college and failed miserably. Telling stories is what he knows how to do. And we benefit from that in many realms. He's a novelist, a screenwriter, a play write. When asked what he prefers he said that screenwriting is easier because you're part of a team. The whole project doesn't sit on your shoulders. But, "When you write a book, you're's a pain in the ass being God, but at the end of the day it's the most rewarding."

The whole event was wonderful. Lehane's stories, his enthusiasm, his gift for story-telling, it was a fantastic time. I can't encourage you enough that if you have the chance to see him, take it. You'll feel like you're sitting in the bar listening to the story-telling and mentally watching the worlds form around  you. This event was so great that now the rest of the series has a very high bar to live up to. I'll let you know how everyone does.

Happy Reading!


Beth F October 29, 2014 at 6:25 AM  

Wow! What an evening. So fascinating -- I loved the three rules. What a great opportunity.

The Thirty Year Itch October 31, 2014 at 2:14 PM  

Excellent post Jen! It was a great time.

Betty November 3, 2014 at 9:04 AM  

I love Mr. Lehane's writing and I love this blog and one comment won't keep me from enjoying either but I must speak up about the Tea Party jab. I am a conservative in my political views. I am also a librarian. I can't speak for the Tea Party but I'm pretty sure that conservatives do not see libraries as a form of socialism. All the librarians I know seem to have one belief in common, regardless of political views: libraries are for everyone. I'm disappointed that Mr. Lehane would say such a thing and that you would take such pleasure in the remark.

jen_forbus November 3, 2014 at 10:04 AM  

Betty, I'm sorry that you've taken exception to Lehane's comment and my reaction to it. While I've known Lehane to be a vocal liberal, I think in this case he is merely venting his frustration (and which I share) at the Tea Party's regular accusation that everything the liberals--and especially our President--advocate is "Socialism." And the absurdity of those claims (they are no where even close to Socialism) are mirrored in the absurdity of his comment, which I believe he meant that way to make a point. Having said that...a country completely based on capitalism would mean ALL roads, law enforcement, schools, and yes libraries would be privately owned and there would be no requirement for free access to any of them.

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