By Mark McNease
I learned about author David Lennon a few years ago when I read his first mystery, The Quarter Boys, set in New Orleans. Subsequently, his Michael Doucette and Sassy Jones Mysteries series was nominated for three Lambda Literary Awards and won the 2010 Lammy for Best Gay Mystery. I just finished his newest novel, DeadFall, and had the pleasure of asking him ‘6 Questions,’ which he graciously answered in depth and detail. – Mark McNease/Editor
MM: You have a new book out, DeadFall, that begins in 1975. It made me think a lot of having been a gay teenager, first love, regrets and what-ifs. What inspired you to write that story, and why now?
DL: The why now part is easy. I’m at an age where there’s most likely more time behind than ahead, so I’ve begun to reflect on the past. As I mention in the introduction, the summer of 1975 when I was thirteen was one of my favorite times because I was experiencing so much for the first time and it all felt so intense, heightened by hormones and possibly other substances. It was also the time when I first felt like I was leaving childhood. All of that is something I’ve thought about trying to recapture for about five years now.
I was looking through my notes from when I first started jotting down ideas in 2011, and a lot of the basic plot elements were already there, though the story was way more straightforward mystery: Danny had been visiting his grandparents in Weston for the summer when the attack occurred, he didn’t remember any of it because he was knocked unconscious, and he didn’t return until years later when he inherited his grandparents’ house. Oh, and he was going to be a cop.
The idea of the coma didn’t come along until mid-2013 when I came across an article about a man who’d awakened from one after 19 or 20 years. That opened things up completely because I started to wonder what it would be like for someone who’d been removed from his life as a teenager, then dropped back into it as an adult. How differently would he perceive the world and his own past? Would he still function as a child or would he somehow have matured even without practical experience? How would he relate to his parents and the people he’d known in the past?
That was also the point where I began looking at real events from that time period—playing “chicken” with bows and arrows, almost setting the woods on fire with Sterno—and wondering how they might fit into the story. Including those real events helped make the story more personal for me without getting into autobiography (which would have been really boring because my own home life was so stable).
Even if the idea had come to me earlier, I’m not sure it’s something I could have written until now. For one thing, I needed the experience I gained working on my other books, but I also needed enough perspective to see which real life events added to the fictional narrative and which only felt important because they were part of my own life.
MM: I first learned about you when I read The Quarter Boys a few years ago. How and why did you get into mystery writing, as opposed to another genre or style?
DL: It really just kind of happened. I’ve always read mysteries, but never thought about writing one until the idea for The Quarter Boys popped into my head. In fact, I figured I’d write literary fiction, if anything. Once I’d finished Quarter Boys, though, I was intrigued enough by the characters to write a sequel, and it just progressed from there. I’m loyal to the genre because I like it, but if an idea for something completely different came along, I wouldn’t hesitate to pursue it.
That said, I’ve come to realize that mystery is a really flexible genre that encompasses a wide array of approaches and can be used to explore an endless variety of themes and issues.
MM: I read that your writing time starts at 5:00 a.m. What are the benefits of that particular routine (I’m always interested in writers’ routines and approaches)?
DL: I’d start even earlier if I could, but my body just can’t handle the lack of sleep for extended periods anymore. My start time is primarily driven by practical considerations: I still have a day job as a designer and most of my clients start work at 9:00 a.m., so I have to get the bulk of my writing done by then. But I also think there’s also something to be said for writing while your brain isn’t too far removed from a dream state, while the wall between unconscious and conscious thought is still permeable. Sometimes some really interesting stuff filters over (along with some complete rubbish). Early morning is also a more peaceful time, and I feel like everyone else isn’t draining the energy yet.
MM: Speaking of routines: do you outline? Draft and re-draft? How does a book get from an idea in your head to a finished manuscript?
DL: I’ve tried extensive outlining and I’ve flown by the seat of my pants, both with mixed results. Now I do a hybrid outline. During the planning stage I create a “sketchbook” where I jot down ideas for plot, characters, and themes, and occasionally write scenes that I might use later. Once I start writing, I continually add to and refine the sketchbook, and I create a separate document with a timeline and character bible. By the time I’m done, I have something resembling an outline.
With the first three books, I did a few drafts of each. Back then I was more comfortable with just letting the writing happen then going back and revising the whole. Over time, though, I’ve grown more anal-compulsive. I can’t move forward until I feel like I’ve worked a bit to the point where I really want it. Of course, I still have to go back as I write new stuff that impacts what happens earlier in a book, but I do it right away rather than waiting for the next revision.
By the time I finish a first draft now, it’s pretty close to the final. DeadFall was a bit of an exception because one of my beta readers (who shall remain nameless because he gets embarrassed by public kudos, though I mention him in the introduction) made a suggestion about removing a key bit from the beginning. That radically reshaped the book. I didn’t have to do much new writing, but the ripple effect was significant.
MM: A writer I admire said we write because we have to. Josh Lanyon described writing as “a state of being.” What does writing do for you, and do you think you’ll always be compelled to put words to paper, to tell stories and sit at a keyboard at the crack of dawn?
DL: I may be a bit abnormal in this area. Though I’ve written for as long as I can remember, I’ve often gone for long periods without writing at all. In fact, prior to starting The Quarter Boys, it had been 15 or 20 years since I’d written anything longer than a few pages. I’m not someone who writes just because I love language and ideas. I’m goal oriented. Even now, if I’m not working on something specific, I’m probably not writing.
I’m sure I’ll continue to write for the rest of my life, but I don’t know that I’ll continue to write books. That’s been a relatively recent development. I wrote the first when I was 42 and I’m about to turn 53. It’s possible that whatever allowed me to finally focus and finish a manuscript will vanish just as quickly as it came. It will also come down to whether I have ideas that I’m interested in exploring. One of the benefits of self-publishing is that we never have to write something we don’t really care about just to satisfy a contract. If I stop having ideas that intrigue me, I’ll stop writing books.
As for what writing does for me, I have to say Josh’s experience sounds more peaceful than mine. For me it feels more like a state of demonic possession. Okay, that may be a tad melodramatic since I’m not at all a tortured artist, but there is a big element of compulsion. I usually circle an idea for quite a while before I decide whether to pursue it, but once I do, I can’t stop until I get the thing out. I can still function like a normal person and do my regular job, but the book never leaves my mind until it’s been exorcised. Then it’s pretty much gone completely. I usually can’t even remember much of the experience.
MM: You write and record music as well. Does one bring you more satisfaction than the other (writing vs songwriting)? And if you had to choose …
DL: I should clarify that I used to write and record music. It’s been a while. I still play drums or pick up a guitar occasionally, but I haven’t written or recorded anything new in 5 or 6 years because I was so focused on books. To answer your question, though, they bring different kinds of satisfaction.
The real fun in creating music for me is trying to capture the sounds I hear in my head. Music was something I picked up in my mid-twenties and my skills are limited. I’m a decent drummer, a passable bass player and singer, and a pretty crappy guitarist, so it’s a real challenge. When I manage to pull it off, though, it’s a huge rush.
Writing fiction is a wholly different experience. I feel a lot more confident about the mechanics, and it’s more of a personal expression. It’s also more fulfilling because the process is so demanding and to get it right so many different elements have to work together. I imagine the same is true of writing some forms of music, but not for the stuff I’ve done.
If I had to choose one or the other, I’d go with writing fiction. I never harbored dreams of being a rock star. Music is just about having fun and challenging myself to do something new. Writing fiction is cathartic.
David Lennon born and raised in the Boston area. He is the author of seven books, including his New Orleans mystery series featuring detectives Michel Doucette and Alexandra “Sassy” Jones which was nominated for three Lambda Literary Awards and won the 2010 Lammy for Best Gay Mystery. He works as a graphic designer and brand strategist, and lives just outside Boston with his husband, Brian, and dog, Blue. He loves chocolate, Jack Daniels, and the New England Patriots (despite their possibly dubious ethics).