Interview with George Pelecanos

Stephen King once called George Pelecanos “perhaps the greatest living American crime writer.” He is the author of twenty novels set in and around Washington, D.C. These novels include A Firing Offense, Shoedog, The Big Blowdown, King Suckerman, The Sweet Forever, Shame the Devil, Right as Rain, Hell to Pay, Soul Circus, Hard Revolution, Drama City, The Night Gardener, The Way Home, The Cut, and What It Was. He has been the recipient of the Raymond Chandler Award in Italy, the Falcon Award in Japan, and the Grand Prix Du Roman Noir in France. Hell to Pay and Soul Circus were awarded the 2003 and 2004 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. Esquire magazine has described Pelecanos as “the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world.”

In addition to his novels, Pelecanos was a producer, writer, and story editor for the acclaimed HBO series The Wire. He was a writer and co-producer on the World War II miniseries The Pacific, and worked as an executive producer and writer on David Simon’s HBO dramatic series Treme, shot in New Orleans. In 2005, he was nominated for a Primetime Emmy in Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series for The Wire, and in 2014 was nominated in the category of Outstanding Miniseries for Treme. Pelecanos currently serves as co- showrunner—with co-creator David Simon—of HBO’s The Deuce, which began its second season in September.

Pelecanos has also worked as a producer on the feature films Caught, Whatever, and BlackMale, and was the U.S. distributor of John Woo’s cult classic, The Killer, and Richard Bugajski’s Interrogation. His short fiction has appeared in Esquire, Playboy, and the collections Unusual Suspects, Best American Mystery Stories 1997, Measures of Poison, Best American Mystery Stories 2002, Men From Boys, and Murder at the Foul Line. He served as editor on the collections D.C. Noir and D.C. Noir 2: The Classics, as well as The Best Mystery Stories 2008. He has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, GQ, and numerous other newspapers and magazines.

Prior to the publication of his first novel in 1992, Pelecanos worked as a line cook, dishwasher, electronics salesman, construction worker, bartender, and shoe salesman. A native of Washington, D.C, he lives with his family in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Published in September of this year, his most recent book is The Man Who Came Uptown. This interview was conducted by editor Mitch Wieland via email in July of 2018.

WIELAND: In the August 2018 issue of Vanity Fair, an article on the influx of novelists working on television shows credits David Simon for drafting fiction writers into the writers’ room of The Wire. Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, and you were all published novelists who wrote for the groundbreaking show. What do you think fiction writers bring to TV writing?

PELECANOS: You can teach novelists screenwriting but it’s tougher to turn an average screenwriter into a good writer. I can read a novel and identify an author who would make a good screenwriter, not necessarily through clever dialogue, but from how the prose and dialogue convey information and emotion in a smart, economic way. Often, if you hire a television writer who has years of experience, they’ve been trained a certain way, especially if they have worked on network shows. It’s sometimes difficult to deprogram them, as they’ve learned to anticipate network notes and pre-address them in their writing. I should say that hiring novelists doesn’t always work out. We’ve had novelists who thought screenwriting was going to be easy compared to writing fiction, and have said so when they walked into our rooms. Some of those people didn’t make it, because they didn’t take the work seriously. I sweat as much blood over my scripts as I do my novels.

WIELAND: You had published seven novels before writing for The Wire. After working alone for years as a novelist, what was it like being part of a collaborative group of writers? Did you find that spending time in the rigors of the writers’ room changed your storytelling skills in any way? Did your approach to novel writing shift?

PELECANOS: I was never in a writing program. My undergraduate studies were primarily in film. So I wasn’t accustomed to peers critiquing my work. That was definitely an adjustment for me. In addition, The Wire’s room was pretty hard-boiled. It got contentious at times, and there was always argument, which in retrospect was good for the finished product. In addition to that, I was used to taking notes on my manuscripts from one editor who I respected, but I wasn’t used to being rewritten. That was kind of a shock at first. Some novelists can’t take it, because, creatively speaking, they’re God, and suddenly, working as screenwriters, they are a handmaiden to the gods. For me, it put a chip on my shoulder. I wanted to figure the screenplay thing out so that I could control my own work. I did, eventually. And I still don’t like to be rewritten. What I like about producing and writing television is the collaboration with all of the artists—costumers, hair and makeup people, art directors, cinematographers—who come together to make something as a group. That’s what turns me on.

WIELAND: Do you think the concepts of plot and structure employed in screenwriting can serve as a basic framework for a novel? Can some of Aristotle’s concepts for act structure be adapted to shape long-form fiction?

PELECANOS: I’ve never worked with the act structure in anything I’ve done. In the twenty-some years I’ve been working in television and film, very rarely have my fellow writers spoken about acts.

Producers and note givers do so because they think it’s a concept they can get behind to prove they’ve got writing and writers “figured out.” I write on instinct. I don’t outline my novels. I gather string and do a bunch of street research, library research, and interviews, and then I start writing my book. With television you have a beat sheet, and it’s a bit more structured. It has to be because the episodes are connected. Nothing against Aristotle, mind you. The Greeks invented storytelling, democracy, and one great sexual position. We’re also very good at running restaurants and bars.

WIELAND: In the Vanity Fair piece, novelist Noah Hawley, the architect of the FX series Fargo and Legion, says television has taught him economy, or how to find “that perfect moment.” Has writing for television changed the way you write scenes in your fiction?

PELECANOS: That’s fair to say. I think I got better as a novelist after being in the room for five years on The Wire. The thing about screenwriting that some folks put down is that it’s “only” dialogue and action. In fact, those very restrictions force you to be more disciplined as a writer. Ideally, you learn to achieve as much with far less fat. So my prose has gotten leaner, and the books are better for it. On the flip side, a writer has more tools at his disposal in television. There are many talented people around you who make you look good. Writers will often say,“They messed up my script,” or “The filmmakers ruined my book,” but they rarely give credit to all of the talented people on a crew who sometimes elevate their written material. Finally, if you look at my scripts, they’re very dense and detailed. My action paragraphs look like paragraphs in a novel. Like any novelist worth his salt, I’m still trying to control every aspect of the material.

WIELAND: As co-showrunners on The Deuce, you and David Simon have continued the practice of having novelists in the room. Do you break the episodes as a group, working scene by scene, then send one of you off to write the script? Do you work organically, moving forward episode by episode, or do you develop the overall arc of the season first? How is your current writer’s room set up?

PELECANOS: We have an early meeting, well in advance of production, where we talk about what the upcoming season will be about, and where we discuss the characters and their arcs. Then we come back closer to production and start beating out episodes, scene by scene. We are pretty fast. I’ve been in rooms where they sit around and talk and after a week there are still no cards up on the board. I don’t have the patience for that, and we don’t have a traditional room where writers come in every day and work all season. We’ll meet as a group maybe four or five times a season. We beat out an episode in two days and send the writers off to work on their first draft. David and I traditionally write the first episode together, and if there’s room for us, I write the penultimate episode and David writes the finale. On Season One of The Deuce we had the novelists Richard Price, Megan Abbott, and Lisa Lutz on staff. Megan and Lisa wrote great scripts but got busy with other projects and left the show. Richard’s still with us. He is a raconteur and a brilliant novelist and screenwriter. We’ve got a good mix of writers this season, some of whom we’ve promoted over the years. Your legacy isn’t just your own work, it’s the people you’ve brought up around you as well.

WIELAND: What most excites you about the new season of The Deuce?

PELECANOS: David Simon and I conceived the series as a three- season, closed-end arc, the rise and fall of Times Square in the years 1972 to roughly 1985. Each season would depict a different era. We knew the ending from day one and we still intend to shoot it the way we envisioned it. There’s been a lot of talk about new generation TV shows being “novelistic,” and I usually don’t agree with that tag (no one ever wonders if the “novels” are any good) but in this case it fits. We thought of this as a big, sweeping story in which we watch the characters change and age. Some don’t make it, because in this world there was and is a high rate of attrition. But all of them are swept up in the history, the highs and eventual collapse of the old Times Square. Season One set the table but I feel like we really hit our stride with Season Two. And that is the test of a dramatic TV series. Can you get better, and not stagnate, over time? I think we are settling in deep, and that’s a testament to our writers, our creative department heads, our actors, our directors, and our New York crew. Everyone is very comfortable with what we are doing and they’re hitting their marks. As for what turns me on about it, it’s the feeling you get when you’re writing a novel, and the faucet is on, and you’re feeling it. You know exactly where you’re going with it as a writer, and now you just have to dig in and do the work.

WIELAND: Despite success and critical acclaim in TV, you continue to write bestselling novels. In Season Four, you even took time off from The Wire to write The Night Gardener. Now, with the second season of The Deuce in production, you have your twenty-first novel coming out this fall. What is it about the novel form that keeps you returning to it? Do you consider yourself a novelist first and foremost?

PELECANOS: Yes, I think of myself as a novelist first and foremost. Hopefully my books will be in a library somewhere a hundred years from now, with my name on them, spine out. That means a great deal to me. There’s a feeling of accomplishment when you hold a book in your hand that you have written. The book itself, the object, is a piece of art. Accomplishment and permanence. I have always felt that many writers, all artists, really, are hyperaware of their mortality. That by creating something of worth we hope to prove that we existed and beat death. It’s a foolish notion, of course. But still we try.

WIELAND: In your thirties, you quit a position in retail management in order to write your first novel, working on the manuscript while pulling double shifts at a bar. Could you talk about your experiences during this life-changing period of time?

PELECANOS: It was very exciting. I didn’t know enough to be scared. I don’t recommend to anyone that they quit their job to write, and in fact, two months after I left my management position, I was working again in a kitchen and behind a bar. I credit Emily, my wife, for giving me the green light, despite the fact that we were building a family, had recently bought a house, and were assbroke. She knew I had been unhappy and unfulfilled for a long time. I wrote my first novel and sent it unagented and unsolicited to one New York publisher, where it landed on the desk of a young editor named Gordon Van Gelder. That was a very fortuitous, random accident, because he got what I was doing. I had written a punk rock detective novel, inspired by the punk movement in D.C. I was into all these bands whose members were outsiders. They were unconnected, untrained musicians who just wanted to create and play music. As someone who had never taken a writing class, I thought that I could do something like that, too. I had never even written a short story before I attempted to write my first novel. And as soon as I finished it and sent it off, I started another one, because I was jacked up on the process. I wrote in the hot attic of our bungalow, with my young sons outside my door, and our dogs vying for my attention, and music playing in my office, and it was chaotic but perfect for my frame of mind. It was a tremendously creative time for me, with no one telling me what to write or trying to micromanage me, because my advances were ridiculously small. I wrote eight novels like that, working at night and in the early morning, while holding down a daytime job. I think I’m a better writer now, but I’ll probably never recapture the kind of energy and the full-on rush of creativity I had then.

WIELAND: As a film student at the University of Maryland, you discovered Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and Ross Macdonald during an elective course. What about these writers created such a profound influence on you?

PELECANOS: The fiction I had been required to read in high school didn’t speak to my world. The crime part of crime fiction didn’t interest me as much as the milieu. It was populist fiction, written for everyday people, without regard for the gatekeepers of academia or critics. I had a teacher, Charles Mish, who was obviously an educated, well-read man, and the fact that he felt this type of fiction had worth went a long way in convincing me that there was something to it of value. I knew the people in these books. I had grown up around them.

WIELAND: What attracts you to the crime novel? What about the art form has held your attention through two decades and twenty books?

PELECANOS: I think you have to look at what I write about rather than the genre. I’m interested in the societal aspect of crime, the social conditions and inequalities that push people to make choices that others, frankly, never have to consider or make. Crime is the narrative engine in my books, but really I’m interested in the people and their lives.

WIELAND: Can you tell us how you work on a novel these days?

PELECANOS: I work the same way I have always worked. I do a period of research up front that can last a month or two. Then I lock myself up in my house to write. When I’m working on a novel I work seven days a week, with a morning shift lasting three or four hours and a night shift where I rewrite what I have done in the morning. In between I do something physical to clear my head: work out, ride my bike, kayak, or take a walk in the woods of Rock Creek Park. The reason for my no-days-off policy is that if I leave that creative tunnel it is difficult to find my way back in. I’m not telling you that is the way to write a book, only that it’s my way. I’ve been doing it like this from the start.

WIELAND: What is the new book about?

PELECANOS: Michael Hudson, a prisoner in the D.C. Jail, is awaiting trial on an armed robbery beef. While incarcerated he is turned on to books by the jail librarian, Anna Byrne. Anna also runs a book club/ discussion group in the facility, which Michael attends. Reading fiction changes his life in that he begins to see a world outside of the one in which he was raised. His case is dismissed after a street detective, Phil Ornazian, does some witness tampering, and Michael is sprung out into the new, rapidly gentrifying Washington, D.C. Once out, Ornazian, who executes rip-and-run robberies on drug dealers and pimps, enlists Hudson as a wheelman, expecting him to repay his debt. Therein lies the conflict and the rub. The Man Who Came Uptown is my love letter to books and reading.

WIELAND: Our new department at Boise State combines theater, film/television, and creative writing. This fall we are offering a new BFA in Narrative Arts that combines all forms of storytelling. In the future, do you see storytellers working across different boundaries in the way you have done?

PELECANOS: Yes, I do. With seemingly limitless opportunities in streaming, graphic novels, and electronic storytelling, this is a very exciting time for writers. And the good news is, it looks like books are going to continue to thrive.

WIELAND: You strike us as one of the hardest working writers around. What has been the secret to your ambition and creative output? How do you nurture and sustain the imagination?

PELECANOS: I do work hard. My parents both gave me that work ethic by example. My dad got up in the middle of the night to open his diner, and he couldn’t wait to get there. I started working for him at eleven and I haven’t stopped working since. I never use the word lucky, but I will say that I’ve been fortunate to be able to do what

I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. How many people can say that? I just never forget that I’ve been given this opportunity. The only thing standing in my way is time. But I will never retire. There is so much happening in the world that can make a writer passionate and angry. Go to a neighborhood where people have less than you and look around. Do a reading program in a prison or jail. Attend an NA meeting and listen to the stories and the poetry in the language. Get off of Facebook and get your face out of your phone and start engaging with the world around you. There is always something to write about.

WIELAND: You’ve spent years writing novels and working in TV. What advice do you have for a writer just starting out?

PELECANOS: Read all the time and live a full life. Work hard. Yes, there are a few celebrity writers, but the writing profession is pretty much a meritocracy. So go out and get it.

Idaho Review