Q & A #43 – Michael Harvey, “Brighton”

Brighton - Michael HarveyMichael Harvey’s Brighton releases today.

It’s really good.  In this case, as good as the killer blurbs (from the likes of Stephen King) and advance buzz.

It’s already been optioned for film by the same producer who did “The Town” (with Ben Affleck) .

Harvey has been around awhile–mostly writing with a Chicago setting. If you don’t know his private eye, Michael Kelly, you should: The Third Rail, The Fifth Floor, The Chicago Way. 

My full review of Brighton is posted here at the New York Journal of Books.

Michael was also kind enough to answer a few questions via email.

How many crime writers do you know who can discuss Aeschylus? He’s a guy who knows his classical literature (see Harvey’s suggested reading) and can also offer a thoughtful take on the future of journalism today.


Question: Okay, so, it’s clear your fan of classical literature and you have pointed out that writers like Sophocles and Aeschylus were dealing with the same crimes and tragedies as modern crime writers today. In Antigone, Sophocles wrote this: “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.” That almost seems like the issue that haunts Kevin Pearce in Brighton. Thoughts? Agree? Do you go back to Greek tragedies (and others) for inspiration?

Michael Harvey: A quote from Antigone. Love it.

What Sophocles is saying here is that men (and women) can be held captive by their pride which sometimes will not allow them to see their wrong, never mind correct it. If we examine the Seven Deadly Sins, we can see the same sentiment. Pride is considered to be the greatest of the sins because it blinds man to his essential nature and thus provides a gateway to all the other transgressions.

I think Kevin is, in many ways, blinded by his pride. Like many people, he believes he can go back into his own past (which, in this case, means going back into his old neighborhood of Brighton) and “fix things.” Kevin’s childhood pal, Bobby, has a much more fatalistic view of life. In Bobby’s world, once the die has been cast and events start to unfold, there is very little any one man can do to change or alter his fate. When Kevin shows up on Bobby’s doorstep, Bobby likens it to a letter that was posted in the mail twenty-five years ago and has been circling ever since. Bobby knew one day that letter would land in his mailbox and he’d have to open it. There was no avoiding it, no “fixing” it. What Bobby did once he opened the letter would ultimately reveal his character and shape his fate. Very different life view from Kevin.

Question: Care to suggest a few page turners from the classics? A few must-reads from classical literature?

Michael Harvey: By no means an exhaustive list…

The Iliad and Odyssey by Homer.

The Oresteia (The Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and the Eumenides) by Aeschylus

The Oedipus cycle (Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone) by Sophocles

Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Virgil’s Aeneid

Cicero’s Orations against Cataline

The Republic by Plato

Phaedo by Plato

On the Nature of Things by Lucretius

Question: You are from the Boston area originally, correct? I’ve lived in Lincoln, Newton, Cambridge and Boston itself and Brighton was, to me, just such an overlooked area. I couldn’t even say where the town begins and ends. Why set this in Brighton?

Michael Harvey

Michael Harvey

Michael Harvey: The simplest answer is Brighton is where I grew up.  It’s an edge neighborhood which means it’s part of the city of Boston but right up against Newton, Brookline, Chestnut Hill and across the river from Cambridge. Even though it’s geographically close to these towns, it was worlds away in every other respect. Things have changed now, but back then Brighton was a blue-collar working neighborhood — mostly Irish, Italian and African-American, living in three-deckers, two-families or public housing. No one had any money. Everyone had lots of kids. If I had a picture of myself and twenty of my pals on the street corner when we were kids, I’d guess half of them have gone on to have great lives – jobs, families, etc. Another third to half, also great kids, were dead or in jail by the time they hit thirty. Why does one go one way and one go the other? Good question. Good fodder for a story!!

 Question: Of course I’m not going to give anything away. But given the holy smokes ending—are you a plotter or do you write and discover as you go? Did you know before you wrote where this was all headed?

Michael Harvey: No idea where it was headed. I just start somewhere and see where things go. The characters walk out onto the page and they are pretty much in charge. As long as it feels real and feels authentic, then I’m going with it.

Question: What was the flash point of inspiration for this one? You’ve written some heavy urban noir fiction, what steered you away from the Chicago setting? Or did you set out to watch a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter sweat and squirm?

Michael Harvey: I don’t know. I guess I wanted to write a neighborhood book and a childhood book. I wanted to capture the sweep of time and show how things that happen when we’re young really shape our lives…sometimes in devastating ways. In some sense I guess it was an exploration of free will vs. fate. How much are we in charge? Can we shape and reshape our lives? Or, once certain levers are pulled, is there really no stopping things? Is our only recourse to deal with whatever’s coming down the track? I’m not saying I was thinking of these big issues as I wrote Brighton. Not at all. But some of that seems to be bubbling just below the surface.

Question: Brighton’s darkest characters aren’t pure dark. How do you go about giving your bad guys a likeable side? Do you think about the moral spine of your books before you set out?

Michael Harvey: I wish I thought of this stuff before I start out. Be so much easier! The truth is I just try to make my characters as authentic as possible. I’ve done a lot of work in the real world of criminal justice as a journalist and documentary producer. Interviewed a lot of cops, interviewed a lot of killers. It’s been my experience that people are almost always a mixture or good and evil. Sometimes good wins.  Sometimes, evil. Makes life interesting, no?

Question: Pros and cons of writing from multiple perspectives?

Michael Harvey: If you just write from one perspective, especially if it’s in the first person, then your reader better really like that character because he or she has to carry the book. If you move it around, there’s a lot more flexibility, especially in terms of plot. Of course, sometimes flexibility breeds chaos and confusion, but that’s something that’s probably coming for the writer anyway!

Question: What is about The Red Sox and Boston crime novels? As a Red Sox fan, I love seeing the references and in Brighton you take us back to the “soothing voices” of Ken Coleman and Ned Martin and slip in a great reference to the long-forgotten Billy Rohr. But somehow The Red Sox as backdrop seem to fit with crime novels in a way that say, The White Sox, do not. Thoughts?

Michael Harvey: If you grow up in Boston, the Red Sox are part of your DNA. Maybe it’s the park. Maybe it’s because they were bad for so long … and the Yankees were so good. Maybe it’s just that Bostonians love their history and love rooting for the underdog … and there was no bigger underdog when I was growing up than the Sox. I’m not really sure, but there was no way I was going to write a book set in Boston and NOT have the Sox in it. Not gonna happen!!

Question: What’s the latest on the movie production for Brighton? Are you writing the screenplay?

Michael Harvey: The book was optioned by Graham King (GK Films) who has produced “The Departed” and “The Town,” as well as a ton of other great films. When we heard Graham was interested, it just seemed like the perfect fit. Edgy Boston crime novel acquired by a producer who’s the best in the business at adapting exactly this kind of material to the big screen. I’m not writing the screenplay. They’re in talks right now to hire someone. Fingers crossed.

Question: There’s a great reference here to the same Catholic Church scandal that the movie “Spotlight” grappled with—and that The Boston Globe exposed. Given the shrinking size of newspaper staffs, are you worried about the future of reporting? Of journalism?

Michael Harvey: Worried? No. I think journalism will be fine. It may not look like it’s looked for the past fifty or sixty years, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are so many evolving media platforms out there and the news cycle is non-stop. Quite stunning. I think we will continue to see a rise in citizen journalism through social media, etc. and more and more personal POV creeping into straight news reports. Some of that troubles me. But I love the level of engagement I see in journalists and the incredible immediacy we can bring to our news coverage. Overall, I think we will continue to see more of everything. More good coverage, more bad coverage and more stuff that falls somewhere in between. The bigger question lies not with the journalist but her audience. Are they listening? Are they engaged? Are they doing what they should be doing in a healthy, thriving republic? Or are they zoned out at home binge watching Netflix or buried in FB? Stay informed and stay involved, people!!

Question: What’s next? Back to Chicago? Or a companion novel? Say, Allston?

Michael Harvey: Working on another novel set in Boston. All I got right now.


One response to “Q & A #43 – Michael Harvey, “Brighton”

  1. Pingback: 2016: Top Books | Don't Need A Diagram

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.