August 29, 2011KR BlogWriting

An Interview with George Pelecanos

Below is an interview conducted recently over email with the phenomenal George Pelecanos. I know mystery/crime books aren’t necessarily the bread+butter of the KR crowd, necessarily, but as a huge lit dork who got into books through the Wallace/Barthelme door, let me just say that the best mystery/crime writers are among the best *writers*, period. Folks’ll look back at this era in amazement that we even bothered to talk about some of the hotshot young NYorker writers we do instead of just glorying in the books and tv shows and movies of Pelecanos and some of his contemporaries. His latest, The Cut, drops today, and you’d be well served by purchasing the thing and getting quickly into it–it’s among the year’s best books, any genre, any category.


In the most general possible sense, what are some of the influences on your writing (either other books, or particular aesthetics from other artists [or whatever: this “influence”/inspiration-type question always sucks a little–I’d imagine plenty of writers or musicians or whatever are as inspired by Brian Wilson pitching for the Giants as by Jamie Hector’s acting as Marlo in The Wire–I’m interested in anything at all that comes into play in writing your books.])

A teacher at the University of Maryland turned me on to hardboiled crime novels, starting with Hammett’s Red Harvest, when I was an undergraduate. I had not been much of a reader up to that point but he introduced me to a working class fiction that I could connect with on an emotional and experiential level. After that I got into the proletariat stuff, Steinbeck, Edward Anderson, A.I. Bezzerides, Horace McCoy, then the first-gen noir of David Goodis and Jim Thompson, then modern practitioners like James Crumley, Charles Willeford, Walter Tevis, and Newton Thornburg. The punk rock movement in D.C. said to me that I could pick up a pen and try to write a book, even though I had no formal training. Westerns and 70’s crime films gave me my sense of story. People in MFA programs might list Dostoyevsky and Nabokov as their spiritual fathers. Mine were Leone, Peckinpah, Aldrich, Don Siegel, and Lou Reed.

As somebody who writes non plot-driven literary fiction, I’m curious how you end up structuring your books. What comes first for you? In The Cut, did you have Spero first? Or was there some other event you were writing toward? How does the plot machinery of your stuff get fleshed out?

I originally wrote a short story about Spero’s parents and his family history that gave me the impetus to go further into his character. Out of that came The Cut. I had a character, some research I had collected, and a situation. The plot develops as I find my characters. I sit down and start working, and when I’m on a novel I work seven days a week. Two shifts: one to write, one to rewrite. I have no outline and no planned structure that I can speak to. I do this by instinct and I always have. Of course you fix things in terms of narrative and continuity as you go along. It’s persistence and concentration, sometimes a great deal of struggle, and yeah, maybe a little magic. I could never teach writing. Obviously, I can’t articulate the process.

You do this incredible thing in your work of talking about specific things, actual real-world products–talking about the specifics of how one turns on an iPhone, the details about the Jeep, type of bike, etc. I don’t even know how to phrase this as a question, but maybe just this: why do you include such level of detail? Please understand: I think it’s 100% badass, but, again, in lots of literary stuff (or at least much of the stuff I read), there’s less an emphasis on the actual, sensual detail of real, day-to-day products. Is it even a conscious decision on your part to be specific and particular about these things, or is it just a matter of fidelity to reality?

That goes back to the first books I read in the hardboiled canon. Hammett and Chandler were incredibly descriptive and detailed. Some might call their style cinema-ready. Cornell Woolrich painted shadows into his scenes, just like the shadows in film noir. What the men and women wore in those knockout books tended to define them. In my world it’s sartorial, and also the car you drive, and what you listen to on the radio. Also, some writers go for that timeless thing, but I like to place my books firmly in their time. If a character walks into the Lincoln Theatre on April 4, 1968, and the movie on screen is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, you know that this was the actual film playing in that house on that date. It’s a pact I’ve made with the readers. I’m leaving a record.

Your stuff almost always seems to work at issues of redemption–the son finding his path back in The Way Home, Spero sort of working to transform some darker aspects of his war duty in The Cut. Do you see/feel a particular proclivity for redemption, or is that a misread? (I know it’s generally a part of all good plot-driven stories, sure, but the way your characters work toward redemption seems fundamentally different, deeper, than what I see in, say, Connelly’s stuff).

Yes, it’s part of my personal worldview. I shake my head when people call my work “dark.” My books, especially as they’ve gone along, have always ended with a great degree of hope. The characters have to crawl on some bad roads to get there, but hey. I’m saying, I believe that it’s a long life, and we have the capacity to change. I’ve worked in reading programs with juvenile offenders for years now in D.C. The editorial staff of The Washington Post believes we should just throw those kinds of kids away like last night’s trash. I’ve been in trouble myself. Among the many knucklehead moves I’ve made, I shot someone when I was a teenager, and if people had given up on me, I wouldn’t have come through to the other side. So the redemption thing in my books is more than a plot device. It’s me.

There’s probably a dozen good questions about The Wire and Treme to ask, but maybe easiest might be to just ask about the difference for you between writing for film vs. writing books–how do those two shake out for you?

Writing a novel is a solitary experience, and when the book is published your name is on the cover, and you live and die by the contents. I’m cool with that. In fact, I love writing novels above all else. But when I’m done I like to get out of the house, be around actual human beings, and exercise my social skills again. Suddenly you go from working alone to working with a hundred people. Big egos, too, because they’re artists. And you have to control your own ego, since the work you do in television is not all yours. You’re going to be rewritten, and not just by the showrunner. The actors, the director, the film editor, hair and makeup, costumes, they all change what you put on paper and what you imagined it would look like in your head. Often your collaborators elevate what you’ve done. For me, the kick is being a part of this group of very talented, creative people, working together to get a project made. I’ve been at it for awhile now, and I’m still fascinated by the process. And I still prefer writing books.

Why Washington, DC for everything? I know that’s where you’re from, but lots of people who write never necessarily or so overtly write about where they’re from. What is it about DC that you find so compelling and rich enough to come back to (I’m asking as a hard-core Minneapolis kid who’s set almost all his fiction there)?

No one was writing books about the living city of Washington, D.C. when I came along. Plenty of government-and-politics books, and mad generals at the Pentagon with their fingers on the red button, but nothing about the everyday people here. Washington is not a city of transients, as is commonly claimed. People came up here from the post-slavery South and have remained for generations, and in the case of families like mine, they came from other countries and settled here to work in the service industry. We have a distinct culture and language. We were the home of monumental artists like Marvin Gaye and Duke Ellington, we birthed a positive punk rock ethic with our excellent bands, and have our own indigenous music in go-go. The demographics have changed, but it will always be a black city to me. My parents grew up here and were raised here by my immigrant grandparents. I’ve been hearing rich stories about D.C. from childhood on. I can still call my mom and ask her what businesses were located on the corners of 8th and H Streets, Northeast, in the 1930s. She can tell me as if she is looking at a map. My intention in the beginning of my career was to write one book. I didn’t know it at the time, but writing about this city became my life’s work. But then I’ve never really had a plan. Keep your head down, work hard, and let it flow.