As part of a bigger story about the links between crack, crime, and fiction, I got to do an interview with Dennis Lehane, the author behind Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone, and four other Kenzie-Gennaro novels, and also screenwriter for TV show The Wire. Here’s the interview in full.
ØH: Do you agree that there has been a shift in popular culture’s focus on crime during the last 20 years? I feel that the «foot soldiers of crime», for instance the young black drug dealer, entered the arena around 1990, with the rise of gangsta rap, movies like Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society, and crime fiction from Richard Price, George Pelecanos and yourself. I’ve seen that you’ve mentioned Price’s Clockers as an important novel.
DL: I don’t know if it’s a true “shift,” if only because noir has always been concerned with the foot soldiers and those who live on the margins of society. Where the shift might have happened is that noir bubbled into the mainstream of both film and literature and began to be taken more seriously than it had in the past. I think that’s probably because so many talented artists drifted toward telling those stories as the disparities between the upper and lower classes have become so much more noticeable in the last twenty years.
ØH: You’ve said that the crime novel has taken on the role of the social novel. Can you elaborate a bit on this statement, and do you feel that crime fiction plays an important role when it comes to portraying the life of both blue-collar America, and what you call ”the second America that lives in the shadows”, as opposed to other literature?
DL: There’s a certain blood temperature that’s often lacking in a lot of esoteric or self-consciously “literary” fiction. It can feel both shamefully academic and shamelessly masturbatory; I don’t think the practitioners of such fiction are those we’d trust to give us the word from the streets of blue-collar America or blue-collar anywhere. I mean, if you want to know what’s going on in the world, about the last person you’d ask would be an academic or a theoretician. So those of us who came from a working class world, maybe we understood it a bit more organically, and as crime spiked in the late 1980s and early ’90s, we began to question what that spike said not about the “criminals” per se, but about the fabric of a country that may have decided it had no place for its poor anymore.
DL: With fiction, you give events dramatic context they don’t necessarily have in those other genres or mediums. Fiction, I once heard, is about universal emotional truth. That’s a far greater truth than the transitory truth of what we’re told happened in Basra yesterday. Put another way, Hamlet outlived any “factual” truths of Shakespeare’s day. A lot of crime fiction—certainly Clockers springs to mind—will probably stand as a far truer testament to life in 1990s America, say, than any newspaper you might find from the same time period.
ØH: What do you feel has been the social and political implications of the popularization of crack cocaine and the government’s war on drugs, and how much does this paint a background for your work?
DL: The war on drugs is a failure. Simple as that. I’ve yet to hear anyone argue convincingly that it has done anything but double our prison population and demonize the black underclass. While it probably started out with good intentions, it has evolved into a war on the poor and a way to publicly fund lots of ineffective policing measures that draw manpower away from far more important issues— homicide, corporate crime, terrorism, et cetera. I grew up with a very strong sense of class warfare; I took it as axiomatic at a very young age that it was always in the best interest of the ruling class to keep the underclass either sedated, imprisoned, or fighting amongst themselves. I still believe that.
ØH: Reality tv shows like Cops has a pretty black and white portrayal of criminals and law-keepers, but your books and tv shows like The Wire present reality as a much more ”grey” area. Are the tendencies of making the ”everyday criminal” (here I mean the local drug dealer, instead of Don Corleone) into the protagonist in fiction a reaction to the demonising of criminals from Cops, politicians and other mass media?
DL: Cops is exactly what you say it is—a demonizing of the poor for the amusement of—here’s the paradox—the poor. It helps perpetuate a very insidious myth among the poor that they’re ultimately not worthy of respect. I find Cops one of the most dispiriting pieces of “entertainment” I’ve ever had the misfortune to witness. If there had been TV in Ancient Rome, Cops seems like something they would have broadcast at the coliseum between lion-feedings.
All we say with The Wire and in our novels is that these “criminals” are actually people. They may not be worthy of our admiration, nor should their acts be glorified, but can we not accept that they, too, are human and thus deserving of our empathy?
ØH: I guess tv and movies have a broader mass appeal than literature, and you’ve experienced both having your books been made into movies and writing especially for the screen. Do you think crime movies and tv shows can have an educational effect, and even political repercussions? Have you experienced any consequences or debates from your work?
DL: I’m always wary of “educating.” I teach, and I leave that part of me in the classroom where it belongs. My first job as a narrative artist is to tell a good story. Nothing more and nothing less. It’s a fine calling, that, honorable and steeped in tradition. If, after I have satisfied my first duty as a writer then, yes, I would hope my work is morally challenging enough to occasionally cause debate or to cause people to confront some of my narrative’s more unsettling ideas. That would be nice.
ØH: Did you enjoy writing for The Wire, and do you think the show will have any lasting effects? And did you have a part in getting them to follow your five-year rule on dramatic tv series?
DL: I had nothing to do with the five-year cap on the show; that was all David Simon and Ed Burns. It was a great learning experience for me; I learned how to write for the screen during these last five years,
something I did not know how to do before. I learned that when it comes to TV or film, brevity truly is the soul of wit and of drama. As for the lasting effects of the show itself, we all feel we did solid, uncompromising work in a medium that all but defines itself in terms of compromise. Again, it would be nice to think so anyway.
Parts of this interview were used in this story.