In Conversation With George Pelecanos
The author of THE NIGHT GARDENER talks about his influences, his journey to crime fiction and his contributions to the critically-acclaimed TV series THE WIRE.
by Rob Lord
Rob: As a student at the University of Maryland you took a class covering hard-boiled detective fiction. Can you tell us about your experience in this class and how it set you on the path to write crime fiction?
George: The class, taught by Mr. Charles Mish, had a very simple format: we read paperback novels and discussed them. Mr. Mish was bearish, very smart, and a regular guy. I could relate to someone like that, a combination of the physical and the intellectual, over the standard professorial type. Because of his manner and enthusiasm, I got jacked up on reading for the first time in my life. He considered crime fiction to be as valid a form of literature as any other type of novel, and from what I heard, he was ostracized for this within the English department. I wrote him a letter before he died, telling him about the impending publication of my first novel, thanking him, in effect. This was a case of one teacher changing someone’s life.
Rob: What drew you to the crime genre?
George: The crime novel spoke to my world. By that I mean, it described the lives and struggles of everyday, working class people. It was written for readers, not academics. It was populist literature. And when it was written with ambition and care, it had the possibility of permanence.
Rob: What writers during your college years made a big impression?
George: In that class we read Hammett, Chandler, John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, Mickey Spillane, John le Carre, and James Crumley. Every one of those writers brought something different to the table in terms of outlook and style. Crumley represented the new breed of crime writer at the time, and was probably the most influential in terms of where I wanted to go with my own work. By the end of that semester I knew that I wanted to be a crime novelist. I also knew that I had a lot of reading and living to do first. I would spend the next ten years doing plenty of both before I tried to write my first book.
Rob: Growing up you held a variety of different jobs, including selling shoes. How have these experiences shaped you as a writer?
George: Absolutely. I didn’t start writing until I was thirty-one years old. I worked a wide variety of jobs in kitchens, bars, and sales floors. I took those jobs seriously and was very competitive. I wanted to be one of the best shoe salesmen in D.C., and I was. I loved the challenge of running a kitchen when a rack of orders were coming in, or speed-serving a full bar. I always had fun, on and off the job. My experiences were rich fodder for me, but I never had the attitude of an anthropologist. I was working those kinds of jobs because I enjoyed them and because I had to put food on the table. My advice to young writers is always the same: read as much as you can and lead a full life.
Rob: You have explored and written about parts of Washington many rarely see in the 24/7 media cycle here in the United States. Can you explain why you write about these parts of Washington, DC, and how these neighborhoods, Park View, Petworth and others, have been an influence on you as a writer?
George: I wanted to give a voice to people you don’t often read about in books or see in film or on television. And the environment just interests me in the way that, say, the Federal City does not. By going into those neighborhoods, I can explore some of the social problems I’m interested in as well. I grew up listening to my parents talk about D.C. and their experiences as immigrants and the son and daughters of immigrants. My grandfather had a diner on 14th Street and my dad had his own lunch counter south of Dupont Circle. It would have been a big stretch for me to write a political thriller or a book set in the dining rooms of Georgetown or Chevy Chase. I don’t have that kind of imagination.
Rob: Shedding light on these areas of Washington, DC, what type of responses have you received from readers, cops or even local politicians who live and work in Washington, DC?
George: The responses have been mostly positive. Of course, you don’t hear from everyone. It’s odd that sometimes people mistake my views for the views of my characters. Mayor Fenty thinks I don’t like him, I’m told, because of something a street guy said in one of my books. The funny thing is, I’m a Fenty supporter. I like what he’s doing and the city has never been in such good shape. I have gone after politicians in my books but they deserved it. The police are cool once they meet me. I am in contact with people on the other side of the law, too. I’m alternately friendly with prosecutors, defense attorneys, dog police, parole officers, private detectives, and individuals who are incarcerated. I’m not looking to be loved. In the end I hope people just know that I’ve been fair.
Rob: Great music blends into your novels. It’s as if your books have a “soundtrack” attached to them. Readers learn more about the characters through the type of music they listen to, adding to the dialogue. How did the idea come about?
George: Organically, I hope. Music was a big part of my life and remains so to this day. It made its way into the life of my characters.
Rob: What period of music has been the most influential?
George: That would have to be the 70s. What a decade for music, a revolution of hard rock, funk, electric jazz, and finally, punk and new wave. But it’s all tied up with being young. Youth and Young Manhood, to steal a phrase.
Rob: With fourteen books written, your number of readers has certainly grown. What has been the response to your books in Europe (and Canada) been like compared to the United States?
George: Basically, Europe made me in the United States. I began to get a reputation overseas first, which caused American journalists to read me and start writing about me here. Serpent’s Tail in the UK was my first paperback publisher. An early novel, Shoedog, was published by the Serie Noire in France. When I travel overseas, I get inspired and energized. People rarely talk about the book business there; they talk about books.
Rob: Congratulations on your Edgar Award for Best Television Feature/Mini-Series Teleplay for The Wire, Series 4. With your work on the successful HBO show you had the transition from writing novels to writing for television. Has this been a challenge and which one do you prefer?
George: It was a challenge, both from an artistic and a social perspective. I’m real happy with what we accomplished. A show like The Wire, if you are very lucky, only comes along once for a writer. Having said that, there is nothing more rewarding for me than writing novels.
Rob: What’s been your experience working with fellow writers Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and David Simon on The Wire?
George: I’m not familiar with their work. Okay, the experience wasn’t so bad. I already said that I was competitive. These guys are, too. We all wanted to write the best script. Don’t forget Ed Burns, Bill Zorzi, and the rest of the writers who contributed. There’s a young guy named Chris Collins who is writing for us now, and he is one to watch. The writing room could get heated at times, and also very funny. It was always interesting.
Rob: Since the publication of your first novel, A FIRING OFFENSE, what advice would you give to writers looking to be published?
George: If I knew about the business side of this in the beginning, I might have given up. I’m glad I didn’t know. If you pay too much attention to it, it will cripple you. Concentrate on your work. Your ambition should always about becoming a better writer, and that only comes through hard work. The rest will follow.
Rob: Any new crime writers out there worth suggesting who at the moment don’t receive the attention they deserve?
George: Richard Lange. His short story collection, Dead Boys, is phenomenal.
Rob: Thanks for your time.
About the Interviewer:
Rob Lord has worked as a dishwasher, paint factory laborer and aide to politicians in his hometown of Washington, DC. He has also worked as a researcher for fiction writers. His writing has been published in Powder Burn Flash and Muzzle Flash.