Though author Alison McLennan has moved away from her hometown of Quincy, her roots dig deep into the city.
That background came to play a key part in McLennan’s first book, “Falling for Johnny,” with characters based on James “Whitey” Bulger.
McLennan has fashioned a fictional narrative based on a history partially real and partially imagined. Served by a degree in behavioral science from the University of Utah, McLennan hopes the characters have a ring of truth.
A year after the date of Bulger’s capture, and in the midst of an ongoing racketeering trial, McLennan sat down to talk about the man that spurred her creativity, and about the hometown history that set the stage for it all.
Boston Globe: Talk to me about this book, what is it about?
Alison McLennan: I was writing this coming-of-age story, and someone mentioned Whitey Bulger … and I started researching him, a couple years before they found him. I thought, he lived across the street from my mom’s apartment building, and Steve Flemmi lived there. I started imagining a world where a teenage girl would meet this vicious gangster. But the time he spent there, he just walked his dog. He was friendly and whatnot.
… [In the book], this girl’s mother is killed [by Bulger to retaliate for an unpaid debt]… yet she meets this Bulger-like character, who lost a daughter, and she reminds him of his daughter. They connect and he becomes protective of her. Soon, she realizes she’s the one whose mother they actually killed …
BG: When did you become interested in Whitey as a character? You mentioned that someone had mentioned him?
AL: It was weird. I was skiing on the top of this mountain, in the middle of a storm, and this guy, a lift attendant…he goes, 'Where you all from?' We said metro Boston. He said, 'What about that Whitey Bulger…'
That’s when I started getting the idea about Bulger. The more I read about him, the more I became interested in him as a character…and everything started coming together. He really kind of took over the story.
His life is intriguing, with the LSD experiments and being in Alcatraz and joining the circus. He was a really colorful, interesting character.
For me, for him to come back, I thought he was dead or wouldn’t be found. I didn’t think it would be this big thing as him as a person.
BG: You’re a Quincy native - how much did your local roots influence the story?
AL: … I think it's more the culture and the texture of the city of that time in the '80s. I grew up there and there were a lot of people doing coke. I live in Utah now. There were fights and violence. That kind of world was interesting.
For the part where there is a teenage girl trying to struggle without much parental help, that definitely, [along with] growing up in Quincy in that time, was influential to that part of the book.
BG: You’re also working on a second novel. Does it take place in Quincy?
AL: …I'm halfway through a book that takes place where I live now…and it takes place in the 1870s.
This was a conservative small Mormon polygamist community … The transcontinental railroad joins here, and anyone taking it had to stop here. This street became this notorious street for gambling, and opium. It was a rough place…
BG: What draws you back to places you’ve lived a literary sense, to places you call home?
AL:…I like having it connected to a place I’ve lived or am currently living. It brings it into a deeper experience.
I did a ton of research of organized crime around Boston and Quincy. I do have some relatives, or people I know that were involved in that period who could give me some stories and I could ask questions [to tie it together].
For more information about McLennan or to find copies of her book, visit her website.