20 Jun 2009: Though The Wire has gone to TV heaven, writer George Pelecanos is still on the case, dividing his time between crime fiction and the ‘camaraderie’ of telly. Amy Raphael investigates
Years before David Simon created The Wire, he kept hearing about this crime writer in Washington DC called George Pelecanos. He even met him a few times at parties. Eventually he got around to reading The Sweet Forever, Pelecanos’s seventh novel. “So why did it take me so long? Having moved to Baltimore from Washington, I had adopted a Baltimorean’s haughty, chip-on-the-shoulder contempt for its more influential neighbour to the south. What is some DC writer gonna tell me that I don’t know about crime? I’m from Baltimore, motherfucker. I don’t read no DC chump. Anyway, that sentiment fell away after a chapter or two. I really admired the storytelling and the commitment to verisimilitude.”
Simon set The Wire in his native Baltimore and aimed high: he wanted it to be a visual equivalent for literature and he wanted to work with novelists and journalists instead of television writers. Pelecanos didn’t disappoint. “He’s extremely smart about story and theme,” continues Simon. “He gets to the heart of what we are trying to say and he is hell on cliche. He’s also incredibly funny and in the driest way possible. He makes the time pass and on a film set there is always too much time spent.”
This is high praise from one of the most influential figures in US television. And the two have been working together again on Treme (pronounced “Trem-ay”), an upcoming HBO series set in New Orleans. So why has mainstream success eluded Pelecanos? After all, he held his own on The Wire, working alongside Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) and Richard Price (Clockers). His 16th novel, The Way Home, has had excellent reviews. Stephen King says he’s “perhaps the greatest living American crime writer”.
But perhaps that’s the problem: Pelecanos is thought of as a crime writer and crime is still a specialist niche. This is unfair. His novels are essentially about modern America. He understands the poor and the excluded. He doesn’t pass judgment on those whose desperation leads to violence. He is a chronicler of the sort of urban lives that came to life on The Wire. He’s also prolific; since A Firing Offense was published in 1992, he had produced virtually a book a year. All are set in Washington DC, the city in which he was born and the city he swears he will never leave. His novels have always been driven more by character and narrative than plot, but The Way Home is motivated by conflict as much as crime. It continues his fascination with the father-son relationships he explored so well in the preceding two books, The Turnaround and The Night Gardener.
Now that his eldest son Nick is 18 – Pete is 16 and Rosa 12 – Pelecanos feels confident addressing the issue of modern, urban parenthood. “I couldn’t have written those novels 15 years ago,” he says. “I’m a very sentimental, emotional person. I’m more apt to shed a tear than my wife about family matters. I wanted to tell the truth about father-son relationships as an antidote to all those books and movies that fade out on a kiss or a hug.”
Pelecanos, 52, has often drawn from his own childhood in his novels. His Greek parents instilled a work ethic in him and he was doing shifts in his late father’s cafe by the time he was 10. He was sent to Greek school after regular school and the family were regular church-goers. Pelecanos wanted to please his parents but he was wayward, too. He settled arguments with his fists. When he was 17, he bunked off school, was playing around with his father’s gun, and accidentally shot his friend in the face. He thought any potential he had in life was lost but the friend was OK; they’re still close today.
Pelecanos didn’t get around to writing until the end of the 80s, when he quit his job as general manager of a company selling major appliances. He spent a year writing A Firing Offense longhand in a notebook and although it didn’t sell for much, at least he got a deal. For almost a decade Pelecanos worked by day at Circle Films, the independent production company that backed early Coen brothers films, and wrote by night. He says there were two significant turning points in his life: getting a two-book deal for $90,000 after he’d finished his sixth novel, King Suckerman, and joining The Wire.
Given that everyone’s been raving about The Wire for so long, the Guide expects Pelecanos to groan when we mention it. But he doesn’t. He understands that he’ll be talking about The Wire for years to come. And it was, quite simply, a life-changing experience for him. “I never went to a writing school, so The Wire was my writing school. To go to writing school with those guys was pretty beneficial. Sitting with them in a room talking about not doing something because we’ve seen it before and doing something different that people don’t expect … It inspired me to be a better writer.”
He’ll even go as far as saying that his writing on The Wire has, on occasion, surpassed his fiction. [Series three spoiler alert! – Ed] “In episode 11, series three, there’s a scene in which Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale are on top of this building looking down on the city, saying goodbye to each other. I think it’s the best scene I’ve ever written.”
Pelecanos is now in a position he can barely believe. For six or seven months each year he’ll sit in his study in Silver Spring, the largely middle-class Washington suburb in which he’s lived for the past 20 years and where he recently built his own family house, and write novels. Then he’ll work on a high-profile television drama such as Treme and enjoy the camaraderie: “I do get a little retarded sitting in that study for all those months. So going down to New Orleans and working with a group of new writers was great. It was good to get back into the groove and get social again.”
David Simon says that Treme, named after the Creole neighbourhood in New Orleans known for its musical history, is “about an American city trying to pick itself up [after Hurricane Katrina] and doing it without a great deal of help.” On the surface it’s about how the musicians rebuilt their lives, with entire performances being shown rather than just snippets of music, but it’s also a cypher for America’s economic decline.
“The tone is similar to The Wire because it’s a David Simon show,” explains Pelecanos. “You’re going to get the same sort of realism, dialogue and characters. If we’re doing any kind of public service with this show it’s, ‘Hey man, this city is really special.’ When you go to the lower-income areas that were hit by the storm, they’re eerily quiet because 200,000 people have been displaced. And there’s a real sense that they won’t ever be welcomed back to the city.”
Pelecanos has also written two episodes “from the ground up” on The Pacific, an HBO miniseries from the creators of Band Of Brothers. “My dad fought in the Philippines as a marine and, just like every one of those guys, he didn’t care to talk about it. So it was a good experience for me. I learned a lot.” There has long been talk of one of his books making it to the big screen and it seems there’s a real chance Shoedog, an early novel, might make it. “I’ve been working on the screenplay and I’ve got the cast pretty much lined up: Dominic West from The Wire, P Diddy, Kris Kristofferson, Sam Shepard. We’re just trying to get the last piece of the puzzle, which is securing the finance.”
Perhaps the last word should go to David Simon. “George works extremely hard at everything he does. If he takes on a project, he commits fully. If George tells you he’s got you covered, you’re covered. I will be telling George Pelecanos stories for a long time, although they notably don’t have a lot of dialogue in them, just sideways glances and shrugs and one-word punchlines. He doesn’t waste syllables.”
• The Way Home (Orion) is out on 25 Jun; series three of The Wire starts on Monday, 11.20pm, BBC2