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Dennis Lehane returns to St. Petersburg for Writers in Paradise keynote Jan. 19

The author of 'Live by Night' and 'Mystic River,' who co-founded the Eckerd College writing conference, has been busy lately writing screenplays and producing movies and TV series.
Photo by Gaby Gerster | Diogenes Zuric
Published Jan. 8

When Dennis Lehane co-founded the Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College in 2004, he made a rule about the conference faculty. "It's the no-a—h—- rule," he says.

It seems to have worked. The weeklong Writers in Paradise is about to commence its 15th season, with a returning faculty of notable authors and a growing list of published alumni.

The faculty members will offer free public readings during the conference, and for the first time in several years Lehane will be on hand, as the keynote speaker on Jan. 19.

Lehane admits he doesn't get back to Florida much these days, even though he split his time between St. Petersburg and his native Boston for many years before moving to the Los Angeles area. "It's so much harder to get there than when I was in Boston, now that I'm in California," he said during a recent phone interview.

The author of such bestselling novels as Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River, Live by Night and Since We Fell, Lehane has switched career tracks to screenwriting and producing. He has worked in the writers rooms of such TV series as The Wire, Boardwalk Empire and Bloodline; most recently he has been a writer and executive producer for two seasons of Mr. Mercedes, based on Stephen King's novel. He has also been involved as writer and/or producer on films based on his own novels, including Live by Night, The Drop and Shutter Island.

A graduate of writing programs at Eckerd and Florida International University, Lehane, 53, will deliver the keynote address to kick off a week of evening readings by conference faculty and guests that include Andre Dubus III, Ann Hood, Pam Houston, Laura Lippman, Stewart O'Nan, conference co-director Les Standiford and co-founder Sterling Watson. (See schedule.)

"I can't wait to get back to Writers in Paradise and back to town," Lehane says. "It's where my two children were born, so it's a special place."

How do you like living in California?

It's an excellent place to be exiled.

When you and Sterling Watson, former director of the creative writing program at Eckerd, co-founded Writers in Paradise 15 years ago, did you expect it to be successful for this long?

I hoped it would. I'm not sure; I never know how to value success from the inside. Success, that's your word. It seems like it's done well.

Who are some of the program's standout students?

Well, one would be Lori Roy. I'm pretty sure she's won an (Edgar Allan Poe Award).

She's won two Edgars.

Well, damn! Good for her.

It's a very strange thing. Most of the outstanding writers I've taught have shown up in a classroom if not fully formed, then I'd say 85 percent and up. As a teacher you're just trying to understand what you can do to help them along. People who taught me have said the same thing. When it comes to the best students, I always felt like as a teacher I didn't do all that much.

Why include the free public readings as part of Writers in Paradise?

They're always the draw at these things. They pull in the outside world. That was the plan always, from the very beginning. It's the best way to engage the community at large. You don't just want to be this weird little group of people meeting in a cellar, talking to each other.

It's mutually advantageous, for the students, for the teachers, for the community at large. It's a win-win-win situation.

Writers in Paradise has an impressive core of faculty members who return each year. How does that happen?

We established a rule very early amongst the faculty. It's the no-a—h—- rule. If we had to choose between hypertalented and a—h——, and not, we'd take not.

The faculty has to be together for a week, all the time. It just takes one to upset that apple cart and the alchemy is gone. So I instituted that rule, with Sterling's full support.

Also, it's not just straight up being disagreeable in social situations. It affects their attitude toward their students, their work ethic. It's all connected. Life's too short.

What kind of writers have you aimed to have on the faculty?

Our returning faculty, like Laura (Lippman) and Stewart (O'Nan) and the others, they love what they do. It's not just the summer camp vibe (of the conference). They love to teach. They love their students.

How much involvement do you have with Writers in Paradise now?

It's very macro at this point. I work with Les (Standiford) at a pretty big remove. I gave him carte blanche when he came in. He says, what about this person or that person, and I say yea or nay.

I'm mainly involved in faculty or speaker hiring. That was always my primary job. What I brought to the party was my Rolodex.

Do you miss teaching?

No, I don't, to be honest. I ran a TV show last year. I ran the writers room. I thought, this is kind of like teaching, at a different pitch. But I'm taught out.

Will you continue writing for the next season of Mr. Mercedes?

No, I stepped off. I'm very happy with what I did in the first two seasons. But now I'm the best guy for another job.

So what's next?

Right now I'm working on two other projects that I can't really talk about yet with David Kelley (the showrunner for Mr. Mercedes, who is known for such series as Ally McBeal and Big Little Lies). We're delicately shepherding them along.

I'm working on Storming Las Vegas, a film with Sony that's based on a nonfiction book by John Huddy. That one is more fun than a barrel of monkeys. I'm working directly with the producer.

When we spoke a few years ago, you were working on a screenplay based on Florida writer John D. MacDonald's The Deep Blue Good-by. What happened to that one?

It's dead as a doornail. It's since been rewritten; (screenwriter-director) Scott Frank had it, last I heard. We were all set to go and the star got injured. Christian Bale — he's way past that now.

Between all these TV series and movies, when might we see another book from you?

I've begun working on a book, but I don't want to speak about it. I'm very scared.

The dirty secret about writing books is that they get harder, for me, not easier. I'm petrified, I have a petrified editor, I have a petrified publisher. I never work from a place of confidence. I always expect it to fail.

So novel writing is different from screenwriting?

Yes, totally different. With a movie you know you're one of 150 people involved. You're like a guy with a paintbrush, painting a room. With a book, you're the project manager, the contractor, the painter and everybody else. So I'm crawling around it.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

The schedule

All readings are free and will take place in the Miller Auditorium on the campus of Eckerd College, 4200 54th Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Books will be available for purchase on site, and author signings will take place following readings.

8 p.m. Jan. 19: Keynote by novelist and screenwriter Dennis Lehane (Since We Fell), on-stage Q&A with Les Standiford

7 p.m. Jan. 20: Novelists Andre Dubus III (Gone So Long) and Ana Menendez (Adios, Happy Homeland!)

7 p.m. Jan. 21: Memoirist Dawn Davies (Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces), poet Major Jackson (Roll Deep) and biographer Debra Dean (Hidden Tapestry)

7 p.m. Jan. 22: Novelist Sterling Watson (Suitcase City), Florida poet laureate Peter Meinke (Tasting Like Gravity) and novelist Ann Hood (The Book That Matters Most)

7 p.m. Jan. 24: Novelist Stewart O'Nan (City of Secrets), poet and editor Gerald Costanzo (Regular Haunts: New and Previous Poems) and nonfiction writer Madeleine Blais (To the New Owners)

7 p.m. Jan. 25: Nonfiction writer Les Standiford (Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct and the Rise of Los Angeles), poet Helen Pruitt Wallace (Shimming the Glass House) and novelist Laura Lippman (Sunburn)

8 p.m. Jan. 26: Closing speaker, novelist and memoirist Pam Houston (Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country), on-stage Q&A with Andre Dubus III

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