Buzz Knight [00:00:00] Well, this is Buzz Knight, The host of taking a walk,. And you could follow us wherever you find your podcast, Apple, Spotify, the Podcast Playground, and kindly share it with a friend and leave a review. Today we have a very special virtual guest, the bestselling novelist of so many great stories. Mystic River. Gone, Baby. Gone. Shutter Island. His great novels turned into amazing movies. Dennis Lehane. His new book is called Small Mercies, and it’s described as a jaw dropping thriller set in the days of the 1974 Boston school segregation crisis. Well, welcome, Dennis Lehane. Next, taking a walk. Well, Dennis, thanks for being on, taking a walk and congratulations on the release of the new book Small Mercies.
Dennis Lehane [00:00:57] Oh, thanks a lot. Thank you.
Buzz Knight [00:00:58] So take us back, if you can, to what it was like literally taking a walk through those Dorchester neighborhoods back in 1974, those big row houses and everything. What was that like?
Dennis Lehane [00:01:12] I mean, it was it was for me as a kid, it was wonderful right up until you started to see the graffiti. And then you’d start to see I mean, imagine seeing KKK in Boston. That, to me is is just burned into my memory. You’d see kill all the N-words, you’d see and we’d stay out. It was it was a crazy, crazy time. This was, you know, Vietnam was winding down. Nixon just resigned. I mean, it was it was a pretty historic summer. And and that’s the same summer they desegregated the, you know, the public schools.
Buzz Knight [00:01:50] And Bill Russell, as a great leader for the Boston Celtics, often talked about the difficulty of being an African-American during that period, too. Correct.
Dennis Lehane [00:02:01] Yeah. Yeah. It was I think if you were. Look, there were two there were two very clear issues that were happening in Boston that summer. One was desegregation, which absolutely had to happen. It had been delayed for nine years. The Boston School committee had blocked it for nine years. And it had to happen. And it had to happen right then. And it had to happen without without question. And then there was the other issue, which was the method by which it was, which was bussing. And and it being with, I believe that if the suburbs had stuck with it and they pulled out at the 11th hour and left the neighborhoods holding the bag, I believe that if it had been a countywide desegregation of all schools, then it would have been a raging success. But because it was dropped into the poor neighborhoods like Southie, like Dorchester, like Charlestown, it gave them a one more reason to feel as if the powers that be were telling them what they were going to do, whether they wanted it or not. And B, it stoked a racism that had that had been lying not dormant, but I think quiet and until that moment. And then it just exploded. It just was like ripping the you know, ripping the Band-Aid off a scar.
Buzz Knight [00:03:22] What was the soundtrack musically during that period that you recall either listening on the radio or what was popular then?
Dennis Lehane [00:03:31] On the radio? Yeah. It’s even in the book, in the you know, don’t let the sun go down on me. I remember it was a big song that summer. I think there were things like, you know, the night they Drove All Dixie Down, I think was a big hit. It was like Tony Orlando and Dawn and stuff like that was it was big. Maybe Seasons in the Sun might have been around that time. I’m just I mean, I’m just reaching back here. You know, my mom would listen to WHDH, Jess Cain and WHDH because they had this They had this every hour. They would give you a number. I’ll never forget this. And they would give you this number. It’d be like, say, 103, 8.33. And it was the magic number. And you would call in and if you could get through the busy signal, which you never could. You would been you were the 10th caller. You would win that money. And they would give this away every hour, every hour on the hour. So my mother constantly had WHDH up. So whatever was the the crappy pop songs of that time, I knew them all.
Buzz Knight [00:04:38] And there were some bad ones right there.
Dennis Lehane [00:04:40] Some really bad ones. There were some really bad ones there still stuck in my head.
Buzz Knight [00:04:44] But it’s an interesting backdrop to such a crazy period that the book focuses on with that, you know, that pop music and, you know, just that really tense period.
Dennis Lehane [00:04:56] Yeah. Yeah, It was a it was a very it’s a very strange thing to see people who wave at you and smile at you. And and I would, you know, you know, I live right over the border with with Savin in Dorchester was the first neighborhood south of South Boston. And to see these people who, you know, would help shovel your walk if you asked them to. You know, I mean, just just, you know, good, solid people. And then simultaneously, those people are throwing rocks at busses with schoolchildren in them. And you can’t get your head around that at night. It’s hard enough to get your head around that at 20. And I don’t know. It’s a very it’s a very strange thing to try. And I watched my kids go through this. Now, how do you reconcile not only the bad the two good people, but the good that’s in bad people? Like, how do you how do you how do you connect those two? You know, I don’t I don’t think I think it’s a lifelong process.
Buzz Knight [00:05:58] And you’re inspirations as a writer really have always gone to themes of crime and corruption and intensity. So I have to think at nine years old, that’s one of the things that happened that really shaped you around. Small mercies.
Dennis Lehane [00:06:16] Oh, without a doubt. Without it. Yeah. You just you’re I think when I was writing this book, one of the things that was really surprising to me was it’s a dark book. It’s I mean, it’s a dark book. It drops the hammer and it just keeps going and it never stops. It’s like it’s a one way, you know, elevator drop to hell in a lot of ways. But writing it was a really pleasant experience. It was uplifting. It was I think it was a because I was purging a lot. I was purging a lot of things that nine year old me had needed to purge. And so I started to feel this overwhelming sadness as I was writing the book. And I realized that I was I was really just trying to process my own sadness at that age because I just couldn’t make sense of any of this. You know, and and the vitriol, the level of vitriol, I mean, we’re Bostonians right from here.
Buzz Knight [00:07:11] I’ve lived here much of my life. I’m originally from Connecticut, but I’ve been here since the early nineties.
Dennis Lehane [00:07:17] Got it. So I grew up in Boston. One of the things that is really common because it’s a it’s such an immigrant based culture is, you know, they they have a common way of saying, Oh, the Poles. The Irish. All the Jews. Oh, the Italians. Right. You know, because it’s very European in that way. And there’s something kind of with a soft eyeroll and it’s and it’s it’s, there’s almost a sweetness to it in a strange way. You know, that sweetness disappears when they say, oh, the blacks completely disappears. And and then they’re you’re not using the word black. And, and there was I think I was shocked by that because at first when I was nine, I thought it was all part of the same stew. But what bussing did was say, know that you wouldn’t be reacting in this way if they were busing in Italian kids from the from you know, if it if it was a neighborhood’s rights issue and they had decided to switch the population of South Boston High and Revere High, so that you switching Italian-American kids with Irish American kids, would there have been the same level of vitriol? Absolutely not. Would there have been a legitimate anger over, hey, you’re forcing us to do something that we don’t want to do? Yeah, sure. Absolutely. But it wouldn’t have reached this level of rage. That was particular to African-Americans coming into our neighborhoods. It’s how they looked at it.
Buzz Knight [00:08:40] Do you feel Boston is ever going to shake this?
Dennis Lehane [00:08:43] No. That’s the that’s the real legacy of this is because I was nine. I’m sitting there and I’m going, what are we doing? What are we doing on the TV? What is Walter Cronkite doing talking about my city? That’s why it was national. You have to understand how big it was. It was leading the national news every night for weeks. Was that was the bussing crisis. They started having to bring in state troopers, you know, and they started to have to bring in the city cops to escort these busses up the hill. That was national news. And so everybody looked and we became a symbol of East Coast racism. And that’s I don’t think the city will ever shake it maybe 100 years from now. But we’re talking you know, I’m writing about it 50, almost 54 years after it happened. And it’s now it’s right there, like very fresh in the rearview mirror.
Buzz Knight [00:09:39] Could you go back in time and give your younger self writing advice maybe that you would sort of consider?
Dennis Lehane [00:09:48] No, no, because I got great writing advice, you know, very young 16. You know, the first thing I ever taught was right. What you know, what that means is that doesn’t mean if you come from a family as dry cleaning business that you write about a family from a dry cleaner, you know, you write about struggling business. It means you write about what you know. It means that most universal things will have happened to you by your by the time you’re a certain age, you’ll have had your heart broken. You’ll have lost your illusions. You’ll have understood both the taste of victory and the sting of defeat. You will know all of these things that are super important to every human being. That’s what which you know means. Doesn’t mean, you know, , You know, it means write about your broken heart. Write about your disillusionment. Write about your triumphs. Write about your happy moments. Whatever you know to the filter of characters through the filter of other things. And I got that lesson very young. I also grew up clearly in a in a very interesting time and actually grew up in a very interesting time. You’re given a gift as a writer, in an interesting time, in an interesting place. I think, you know, people say how, you know, I get credit for both characters and dialog. And I’m like, if you grew up in my neighborhood. And listen to the way people spoke and looked at how just wonderfully nuts everybody was. You’d write good characters, too. It’s not it was not all that hard, you know.
Buzz Knight [00:11:26] So do you go back there ever?
Dennis Lehane [00:11:29] I go back a time, but I haven’t been back because of COVID. I used to go back every single year. Every single year. I take my daughters to Red Sox game. I’d see all my buddies and then COVID hit, and I haven’t done it. But the last time I was there, something truly magical happened, which was I took my daughters and my wife and we went by the house where I grew up and it was being there, it was literally they were moving trucks on the street and everybody was the people who been living there since my dad sold it were moving out because the house had sold. And I walked up with my daughters a little, little time and said, Hey, how you doing? I grew up here. Can I take a look? And they were like, Sure. They didn’t care. They were leaving. And I walked in and I took my daughters to every room in the house where I and I can still remember they were running around from room to room and just saying, Daddy used to play with the Uncle Gerry here that he used to, you know. Fantastic. And it was just the greatest gift. Those people were so kind. And the guy said to me, Oh, I got to ask you something. I wanted to know this for years. And he opened up this door and on the other side of the door was a wall. And he said, What’s there? And I said, The staircase. He was like, There’s a staircase on the other side of that wall. And I’m like, Yeah, I don’t know how I got through it, but I don’t know why the owner had to have a wall. But yeah, there’s a staircase right there.
Buzz Knight [00:12:54] Amazing.
Dennis Lehane [00:12:55] It was magic was magic. That was the last time I was in Boston.
Buzz Knight [00:12:58] So in closing, Dennis, as we think of our divided country today, what lessons are in Small mercies that apply now?
Dennis Lehane [00:13:09] We’re all idiots. We’re all the same idiots. Stop acting like that. Your anger is special. That your unhappiness is special. Stop trying to wrap it into something, some sort of movement, and just accept that we’re all the same idiotic species. And I don’t care what color you are. I don’t care what your ideology is. I don’t care what your religion is. We’re all the same idiots. And I really feel like if you could get there, you know, it’s one of my favorite lines from a movie I love called Bull Durham, you know? And he says, Why are you so nervous? And he says, Because my dad’s in the stands. And Costner says, He’s your dad. He’s just full of shit as anyone. I love that. You know what I mean? And that’s just like, where’s all just we need to. I mean, when your ideology allows you to pick up an Air 15 submachine gun and go shoot a bunch of children in a mall, your ideology is bullshit. Like, it just. It needs to stop. It needs to stop to just we need to stop with the rage and the hate. And I think that starts by just saying, you know, we’re all the same. While staying in. And we’re not we’re a couple of steps above the rest of the animals, like, not by much. You know, it just ease up and live your life. Let people live their life, let people enjoy their lives and protect their kids. That’s it. And that’s that’s the only advice I got. And Bobby, in the book, Small Mercies says something very similar along those lines. You know.
Buzz Knight [00:14:44] You’re amazing. Your work is amazing. I’m grateful that. I had you on. And congratulations on Small mercies.
Dennis Lehane [00:14:51] Thank you so much, Buzz.