Behind the Books with Dick Lehr, Author of “Whitey”


Editor's Note: A generation or so from now, students will look upon Whitey Bulger as the late 20th century's Al Capone. With nineteen known murders to his name and an encyclopedic rap sheet spanning extortion to arms trafficking, Bulger's network of organized crime  in the '70s and '80s is a sad blemish on the proud history of Boston. Helping commit Bulger's crimes to the annals of history is Dick Lehr, whose recent biography, "Whitey: The Life of America's Most Notorious Mob Boss" (co-penned with Gerard O'Neill), draws on a wealth of new material that unravels the mystery of a mob boss who -- until 2011 -- spent twelve years on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.

Despite hailing from the suburbs of Connecticut, Lehr's professional output has been defined by the urban offerings of Boston. His other books include a former biography of Whitey entitled "Black Mass," the framework of which has informed the upcoming adaptation starring Johnny Depp, and "The Fence: A Police Cover-up Along Boston's Racial Divide." Lehr currently teaches journalism at Boston University, and was once a reporter at the Boston Globe, where he became a Pulitzer Prize finalist for investigative reporting. In this installment of Behind the Books, we steal a look at Lehr's literary habits: sipping coffee in an attic-turned-workspace, the raw voice of Richard Price, following the sage advice of Arthur Miller, and having the "imagination to see a story."  

What’s your writing routine? Where, when, and how does it happen?

I do my best writing in the mornings. It's always been that way -- I wake up, have breakfast with my wife and kids, help get everyone on their way, then head upstairs with a mug of coffee to get cracking. I work in a room carved out of third-floor attic space. The earlier the start the better, because the morning is when I'm best able to focus and shut everything else out. During this time I rarely answer the phone, and the next thing I know four hours have passed. Then, by 1:00 PM, I'm toast, and, besides, the rest of life takes over. Errands. Returning calls. Going jogging. The kids home from school, and so on.

The city of Boston and the seedy life of mob bosses play central roles in your books. How much does your writing reflect your own life story?

My books reflect very little of my own life story. I grew up in a middle class family in the Connecticut suburbs. But my writing reflects my interests as a journalist in the areas of crime and justice, the abuse of government power and, most importantly, the human dramas through which these big themes resonate. The non-fiction crime story is gripping and dramatic, by definition, but for me it also becomes a way to write almost in a sociological way about people in a particular place and time.

What genre do you read the most? Does it change often?

Mostly I read fiction by American writers, and that goes back to my college years when I studied American history and literature. I've just always liked American writers, past and present.

It’s said that people either read to escape or read to remember. Do you fall into one of these groups?

I guess it's both. Writing non-fiction, and always looking at and practically studying the work of other non-fiction writers, I do like to escape from all that by reading novels (and often the better literary crime novelists like Dennis Lehane). But even in fiction, a part of my mind is sifting through the material for insights and ideas that I might adapt to non-fiction.

What’s the first book in which you recognized the author’s voice more than the story or plot?

Richard Price's first novel, "The Wanderers.'' I was just really getting into reading and writing and this novel, more a collection of stories than a coherent, full-blown novel, blew me away -- the language, the voice, the on-the-ground detail of the street gangs.

What five writers - dead or alive - would you invite to an imaginary dinner party?

Dennis Lehane, Tom Perrotta, Andre Dubus III -- because I know them a bit and always find what they have to say -- about writing and about life -- to be compelling, interesting, and funny. I'd want Howard O'Brien there, a playwright, novelist and friend from college who died a couple of years ago prematurely and virtually unknown. He was a bartender in New York City and spent his time writing and learning languages and not trying to get published. He might be the smartest person I've ever known. The fifth writer? Arthur Miller. His plays influenced me when I was eighteen or so, and we traded letters once when I was in college and his letter was sincere and kind. This imaginary dinner party would be a chance to follow up on that initial exchange.

To the aspiring writer, what advice would you give? What advice helped you become the writer you are today?

Write, and write some more. That's the advice Arthur Miller gave me when I wrote to him saying I didn't want to go to college and instead wanted to serve as his apprentice at his home/studio in New Milford, Connecticut. He replied that such an arrangement would never be feasible given the solitary way he worked, and he then said going to college and working in that environment was not a bad way to gain experience, test oneself against others, and to grow. He was right.

According to Faulkner, writers need experience, observation, and imagination. Do you use all three equally for your work, or rely on one over another?

Certainly all three come into play, although I can't break it down into percentages. Non-fiction writers have to be intense and acute observers -- of the facts, of course, but also of the sensory atmospherics that help make a story come alive. Imagination? Of course making stuff up is a sin and completely unacceptable in non-fiction, but there is another variant of imagination that is crucial. I heard Gay Talese speak once and he talked about non-fiction writers needing to have the "imagination to see a story,'' and I think he hit it spot on. Even when working in the real world, reporting facts, you still need to be imaginative to see stories in the world around you, and also in how to tell the story -- seeing its scope, depth, and narrative structure.

What’s next on your reading list?

"Outlaws,'' by George V. Higgins.