27 Jul 2008: Novelist and co-writer of The Wire George Pelecanos talks to Amy Raphael about growing up Greek and the day he shot his friend in the face
In the dense heat of the afternoon, with the day-and-night mosquitoes kept at bay by a wraparound screen, George Pelecanos sits drinking chilled apple juice on his back porch. He would really rather be writing than talking, but even so, he is unfailingly polite. And he’s not short of things to discuss; in recent years he seems to have done little else but work. From 2002 until 2007, he was a writer and co-producer on The Wire, perhaps the best television show ever. Contracted to write a novel every 18 months, he was instead producing a critically acclaimed mini-masterpiece once a year. And he has three kids, to whom he is devoted. So I ask a simple question: given that Baltimore, where The Wire is set and shot, is a 100-mile round trip from his hometown of Washington DC, where was his quality of life?
Pelecanos, talking in his deep, slow, southern-tinged drawl – he will later point out that Washington may be in the north of the south, but it is still the south – barely waits till the question is done. ‘There wasn’t any quality of life; there were a couple of years where I totally immersed myself in my work. Actually, they thought I was crazy in Baltimore. I’d get off the set of The Wire at 3am or even 4am and drive home to Washington to see my kids sleep and give them a kiss. I’d get up at 7am, while the kids were still in bed, and drive back to Baltimore. Everyone on the set would say, “What are you doing man, we’ve got an apartment here for you, all you’ve got to do is take a shower and sleep.” But I never once slept there in five years.’
The story ends with a slight shrug. But, I persist, that’s a three- or four-hour round trip to Baltimore. Pelecanos smiles. ‘Not for me. I’m a fast driver. In the middle of the night, I could make it home in half an hour. I’ve done it many times. That’s with no cars on the road and hopefully no police.’
Doesn’t Washington DC have strict speeding laws? ‘Yeah, sure. They don’t like it.’ But, with the success of The Wire, they all know you now and let you off, I suggest, half joking.
‘I’ve been let off a couple of times. I used to have a little sign on the dashboard that said “The Wire”. Just for that reason. Because the police loved the show.’
In fact, nearly everyone who watches The Wire loves it. It is so beautifully written, so resolutely authentic that a New York Times critic wrote: ‘If Charles Dickens were alive today, he would watch The Wire, unless, that is, he was already writing for it.’ The paper also called it ‘the television show that thinks it’s a novel’, which is about right. Creator David Simon, a former reporter on the Baltimore Sun, chose novelists and journalists rather than television writers to bring to life the world of drug dealers, junkies, cops and politicians. The show may be set in Baltimore but it serves as a symbol of the decay of urban America. Moreover, it’s up there with The Sopranos when it comes to dazzling storytelling.
There are many great things about The Wire – the fact that the five series run to 60 hours, making it DVD box-set heaven; the lack of moral judgment that makes it virtually impossible for the viewer to be on anyone’s side; the boldness of a story line running over three seasons; the expansive nature of the show, with its intricate plot developments, allowing comparisons to epic novels. But it’s really the authenticity that hits home. This is due to Simon’s brilliance in choosing his writing team: with co-producer Ed Burns (an ex-detective), Simon called in Richard Price (author of Clockers), Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) and Pelecanos (‘Perhaps the greatest living American crime writer’, according to Stephen King).
Yet, as The Wire is much more than a cop show, so 51-year-old Pelecanos is more than a great crime writer. He is a meticulous chronicler of urban America: since A Firing Offense was published in 1992, he has produced virtually a book a year, all of which are set in Washington DC. Like The Wire, his novels reflect the troubles of a country that doesn’t know what to do about drug wars and inner-city collapse. When I ask Ian Rankin to place his friend George in modern American literature, he sends an email saying: ‘I love the social context of his books, the sense of American history and the (small) place of the individual within it. They are not just (or even essentially) crime stories; they are about the roots of crime and its aftermath.’
His are anti-detective novels in which there are cops and law breakers, yet, as Rankin says, the structure is rarely based around solving the crime. Pelecanos introduced a black private eye, Derek Strange, in 2001’s Right as Rain, despite knowing that he’d face criticism as a white man writing about a black cop. He says it continues to be an issue with some people but he just ignores it; he’s not one to play by the book and he writes about what he sees around him. His work is celebrated for its realistic portrayal of the city in which he was born and has always lived; the dialogue is so sharp, natural and fast that you can hear the characters’ voices as you read; his perfectly timed popular culture references bring different eras to life.
I ask Pelecanos if he’s conscious of his novels creating an oral history of modern America. ‘Sure. I want to leave a record. Hopefully if you read a book set in 2004 after I’m dead and gone, it will provide you with an accurate picture of the way DC was in 2004. Down to the way people speak and the slang. I’m obsessed to the point where if I have a character walking down the street in April 1968 and there’s something playing in the movie theatre, you can believe the movie was playing that week. It’s a small detail that would pass most readers by, but if it’s wrong then someone’s going to know and they’ll call bullshit.’
If Pelecanos makes a mistake, ‘it kills me; it’s a black mark.’ He is tough on himself and he pushes himself hard; the work ethic is deeply ingrained in his psyche. He jokes that he feels old at 51, but then he has been working since he was 10. ‘My parents just said that I was going to work the lunch counter [in his father’s café] that summer. It was a tremendous opportunity for a kid; I learned all these things about folks, good and bad, before other kids.’
The Pelecanos family are of Greek origin (with the ‘c’ replacing the original ‘k’ to make the name sound more American). George’s father, Pete, was 13 months old when he arrived in the US, while his mother Ruby also had Greek parents, but was born in the States. George is nearly always described as ‘the son of Greek immigrants’, which irritates him not only because he’s a stickler for accuracy but also because ‘it makes my parents sound as if they wore big moustaches and slaughtered lambs in the basement’.
Still, George was sent to Greek school after normal school (he was often kicked out of the former for not concentrating) and, with his mother a Sunday school teacher, his family were regular churchgoers. He now takes his three kids to the same church: out of habit or because of a religious commitment?
‘I don’t want to talk about religion because it’s personal. I go to church for the cultural element. It’s where you go to see Greek people once a week. It’s real important to me and I hope my children see they’re part of something bigger than just this family.’
Pelecanos and his wife Emily have three adopted children: Nicholas, 17, and Peter, 15, are from Brazil; Rosa, 11, is from Guatemala. Even the eldest, who was sprawled out on the sofa watching an impossibly big television as we made our way to the back porch, is happy to go to church. ‘Nick’s especially keen. He’s black, all his friends are black, but he also believes he’s Greek. Of course, he’s not at all… He and Pete play in our church basketball team, which I did as I was growing up. It’s a big thing: you go all around the Eastern Seaboard playing other church teams. So they’re doing the same thing I did.’
Which, as it turns out, might not always be a good thing. Although Pelecanos grew up wanting to please his parents, he led something of a double life. ‘When I was out on the street, it was a case of pretty much anything goes. My parents didn’t really have much idea of what I was up to. I didn’t want to disappoint them.’ It took the young George a long time to realise that settling an argument with a punch wasn’t the way forward. He is still haunted by the time that he should have been at school, but was instead playing around with his father’s gun and accidentally shot his friend in the face. Luckily, his friend was OK; they are still close. ‘Imagine what I felt like that day. I was 17 years old and it was over for me. Nothing was ever going to happen for me again. But look.’
By which he means he did OK despite an inauspicious start. Obsessed by films, particularly westerns, he went to Maryland University to major in film; he hoped to be a director. In his senior year he took a class in hard-boiled detective fiction and the teacher, Dr Mish, turned his head by reclassifying crime fiction as populist literature. He remembers every book he read in the class, from Chandler’s Lady in the Lake to I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane. By the end of the semester he wanted to be a writer.
‘I was going to write a punk rock detective novel. You didn’t need to be a musician to be in a punk band so why should you need a creative writing course behind you to be a writer?’
It took a decade for Pelecanos to get round to writing. By the end of the Eighties, he was general manager of a company selling major appliances and he hated it. He’d got married, bought a house. Finally he quit his job, started to write, ran out of money, got himself a job in a bar. It took a year, writing longhand in a notebook, to complete A Firing Offense. He’s embarrassed by the writing now, but there’s an energy and style in his debut that shows promise. It sold for $2,500 and the follow-up, Nick’s Trip, didn’t go for much more: the first edition hardback is now worth around $1,200 in mint condition. For nine years Pelecanos worked by day at Circle Films, an independent production company that backed early Coen brothers films, and wrote at night. For his sixth book, King Suckerman, he was paid $7,500; he then got a two-book deal for $90,000. ‘It was a tremendous amount of money. At last I was being paid to be a writer.’
I first interviewed Pelecanos in 1997, as his publisher at the time, Serpent’s Tail, was giving him a push in the UK; American journalists discovered him after reading about him in the British and French press. He was still working at Circle Films, still writing raw, razor-sharp books about race, crime and morality for a pittance. He remembers being put up in the ‘shittiest hotel in Camden, man’ on his first trip to the UK, but things were soon to change: Miramax bought King Suckerman and hired Pelecanos to write the screenplay (it didn’t work out) and he moved from the cool but small Serpent’s Tail to major league publisher Orion.
Although Pelecanos has received endless accolades – ‘the Zola of Washington DC’; ‘the poet laureate of the DC crime world’; ‘the coolest writer in America’ – he was also, for a long time, literature’s best-kept secret. Until, in 2002, The Wire changed everything. David Simon’s wife Laura Lippman, a fellow crime novelist, urged him to read Pelecanos’s seventh novel, The Sweet Forever. ‘I realised straightaway that he was digging ore from the same mine,’ Simon tells me. ‘We are interested in the same things, mulling over the same questions.
I really admired the storytelling and the commitment to verisimilitude. When I got the pick-up for The Wire, I immediately thought of George. I wanted the show to be a visual equivalent of literature, not an episodic television programme. George had the milieu of The Wire down cold.’
The Wire was never going to match the ratings success of fellow HBO show The Sopranos: ‘People want to see the world the way they want to see it, not the way it is’, offers Pelecanos, and it’s perhaps even more telling (and disturbing) that the episodes with the fewest black characters apparently rated highest. But it has enjoyed similar critical acclaim. Its success has not only allowed Pelecanos to drive fast, it’s opened doors. ‘I was always trying to get access to the homicide department in DC as a novelist, but no one would even talk to me. So I phoned again, told them I was a producer and writer on The Wire. They said, “Come on down,” and gave me full access.’
He happened to go in on the day of a high-profile murder in the city, so he was able to follow the case from the day of the killing through to the confession. He went to the morgue, saw the body, hung out in the office. Saw family photos pinned up next to pictures of dead bodies. I ask if he’s tough and he just shrugs: ‘Hmm. It’s just work. It’s fun.’ He’s only been really scared a few times; not while visiting juvenile prisons or talking to drug dealers, but once, while riding with the police, a riot started and he was surrounded. ‘Nothing bad happened but it was dicey. You get yelled at because people really hate the police and they thought I was a cop…’
Pelecanos’s new novel, The Turnaround, is his 15th. It’s an ambitious, complex story of a group of white and black adults who decide to make amends for the mistakes of their youth. As with all his books, Pelecanos brings in an autobiographical element; in this case, one of the central characters, Alex Pappas, works at his father’s lunch counter from a young age. The fact that one of the boys’ friends was murdered simply motivates the story; the focus is rather how people have to find a way to get along, even if it means absolving people of murder.
There’s a stipulation in Pelecanos’s contract that requires him to produce crime novels. Much as I don’t see him specifically as a crime writer, I’m surprised when he casually announces: ‘I can honestly say you’ll never read a straight mystery from me again. A murder being solved by the end of the book… it’s just never going to happen. I’m just not interested in writing that kind of book.’ He smiles. ‘I’ll probably move away from straight crime and just write books. But there will definitely be conflict. Because that’s what drives fiction.’
I really want to be shown Park View, District Heights and all those areas in and around Washington DC that bring the real city to life in the novels of George Pelecanos. Instead we go to a Washington Nationals baseball game, as Pelecanos is a season ticket holder. He says he’ll watch pretty much any sport, from school basketball up; he also keeps himself fit, working out five mornings a week. We head out of Silver Spring, the largely middle-class suburb in which Pelecanos has lived for 20 years and where he built his own family house a few years back, in his limited edition Ford Mustang Bullitt. ‘Don’t make fun of me because of this car,’ says Pelecanos, accelerating fast over bumpy bits of road.
We talk politics on the way to the stadium. In The Turnaround, Pelecanos wanted to show that the healing that has to happen to the characters in the book is what also has to happen to America. Does he feel optimistic about the future? ‘Yes, but it’s been a horrible eight years. I’m not just bashing Bush; it’s been a bad decade and we’re ready to move out of it. I think the election is going to be a lot closer than people think. But I don’t think McCain will win.’
Pelecanos points out H Street, which burnt down in 1968 in the riots sparked off by Martin Luther King’s assassination. His mother lived a block away as a child and, as an 11-year-old, George’s daily bus trip to his father’s café took him down 7th Street, ‘another artery that was destroyed by riots, fire and looting’. He was too young to really know what was going on, but he’s spent much of his adult life trying to figure it out in his novels. ‘I’d just started to work for my father and then I witnessed the riots as I was taking the bus downtown. I suppose it was an epiphany of sorts.’
Everything changed after King’s death. ‘He was all about non-violence, but in one weekend, his assassination sped up the Civil Rights movement by 10 years. The whole dynamic of Washington changed. Don’t forget this is the south. Until the riots, a lot of black people, especially the older ones, acted subservient to white people. After the riots, my dad started to let the [hired] help play whatever music they liked. They were playing soul music, a lot of Stax and Curtis Mayfield. It certainly wasn’t Motown, which was black music for white people.’
The baseball stadium is a shiny new addition to a riverside area that is about to be regenerated. The game isn’t great; the Nationals are a young team with rare flashes of promise. It’s become ridiculously hot and we stand in the shade of an outdoor bar drinking $7.50 plastic glasses of Peroni. Pelecanos is going to have a chilli dog but never gets round to it. We watch the game and talk. He doesn’t hide the fact that he’s a little distracted by the new book – particularly because he will lose yet more valuable writing time later on in the week by doing a reading in Boston to raise money for a hostel for alcoholics. He can’t imagine a life without writing even though he finds it ‘socially retarding’. When working on a novel, he confesses, he barely leaves the house for six months.
He won’t say what the new book is about. He talks instead of The Pacific War, a TV mini-series from the creators of Band of Brothers which will go out next year. ‘I got involved because my dad fought in the Pacific in the marine corps. I wrote two hours of it and I like what I did, but I have no control over it.’ He’s trying to produce a movie based on an early book, Shoedog; he’s optimistic because most of the money is already raised. So, I say, your dream project would be turning one of your books into a film, which you not only write but also produce. He jumps in excitedly. ‘I’d like to direct, too. Then I’d be in total control! I know I can do it; I was on the set of The Wire for five years. It scares me to look back at my life and think I’m not going to leave anything behind; a hyper-awareness of mortality drives you to work hard in this field.’ He pauses, finishes the beer. ‘Put more simply, I just want something with my name on it to be good.’
· The Turnaround is published by Orion Books on 7 August (£12.99). To order a copy for £11.99 with free UK p&p go to observer.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0885. Series five of The Wire is on FX on Mondays at 10pm