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The WD Interview: George Pelecanos

Categories: How to Write a Mystery, Writing Thrillers.

Bestselling crime novelist George Pelecanos took the axiom “write what you know” to heart in the early days of his career. A Firing Offense, the first of his 15 published novels, stars detective Nick Stefanos, a Greek kid from Washington, D.C., with a fetish for punk rock—a character much like Pelecanos. He calls his early autobiographical leanings a “crutch” that he attributes to being a young writer at the time. Yet as Pelecanos, who has no formal writing training, became more assured with each successive book, he stretched himself into unseen corners of Washington, D.C.; he probed the worlds that rarely get much attention, such as the lives of kids stuck in the drug trade and the shady side of law enforcement. Every one of his novels is about some facet of life in D.C., and he considers himself to be a writer of “social crime” novels, rather than outright thrillers.    

Along with fellow crime genre writers Richard Price and Dennis Lehane, Pelecanos was hired to write (and later produce and edit) HBO’s Baltimore-based cops and drug dealers’ series “The Wire,” which wrapped up earlier this year after five seasons. His writing for the show was nominated for an Emmy award, and Pelecanos has also scripted two hours of a forthcoming Pacific version of “Band of Brothers,” entitled “The Pacific.”

Like most of his novels, which are inspired by events he digs up in the library and the morgue that incite his passion—especially obituaries—his newest novel, The Turnaround (August 2008), takes a fictional exploration into the lives of people involved in a racial incident. In the story, black kids have assaulted out-of-town white kids in a small community of former slaves in the 1970s. “There’s a crime fiction engine in the thing to keep you interested,” Pelecanos says.

Read on to find out how he got his start, how he got involved with “The Wire” and just how, exactly, you can improve your writing by simply drinking a beer and listening.


Considering you had no formal training, how did you discover you had an aptitude for writing?


I had been told by teachers growing up, “You’re a pretty good writer.” Mentors in the D.C. public schools sent me books. In general, growing up in the public school system in a blue collar atmosphere, [writing] was certainly not something I thought that kids like me were allowed to do. I had this idea of writers as waspy guys smoking pipes with tweed patches on their elbows.

Getting into my teens I got away from reading completely. I led a pretty active life out on the streets, and I was a movie freak. So when I got around to going to college at University of Maryland—because it was affordable—I became a film major there. By my senior year I needed to take an elective class to graduate. I took “Hardboiled Detective Fiction.” What turned me on was not the mystery or the crime aspect of it per se; it was that [the] books were about people I recognized—working-class people. It was populist literature that wasn’t written to be over the heads of people or to impress academics. It was written for the people it was about and it changed my goals. I decided then that it was what I wanted to do. It took me 10 years of living some more, though. In that 10 years I just read everything I could—a couple books a week.


Once your novels had some success, how did you decide to delve into the other side of the tracks—the drug dealers and gang bangers?


D.C., when I was growing up, was almost 80 percent black. In the kind of books I write, you can’t ignore the other side of the city. I got interested in the social aspect of all this as my life went along. When we were in Brazil adopting our second son, we got stuck down there for two months. It was the first time I saw kids everywhere who were hungry [and] desperate enough to do anything, including murder you, to get something to eat. It radicalized me. I saw the parallels with what was going on [at home], though it was behind closed doors and there was the Band-Aid of welfare on it, but it’s no less insidious. When I came back I decided to shift from the punk rock detective novels to something more ambitious. I had been reading a lot of novels by social realists like [John] Steinbeck and Edward Anderson and Richard Price. It got me amped up to take it to the next level.


Your work has often been called either crime or detective fiction, which you see as “ghettoized” genres. You’ve said you prefer to think of it as “social” crime fiction. What’s the difference to you?


I don’t think that what I’m doing is any loftier or better than anyone else, it’s just where my passions lie. If I’m going to sit down and write a book, it’s got to be about something I’m interested in. There’s nothing wrong with straight ahead thrillers, but I’m probably not going to do that because I’m pretty aware of my responsibilities vis-à-vis the path I’ve chosen, to get these issues out in the world and to do so in an entertaining way. That’s where the crime fiction part comes in; otherwise you’re just standing up on that soap box. If you can draw people in through entertainment, so much the better.


Your novels are known for the rich voices of your characters that leap off the page. How do you capture that kind of authenticity in dilogue?


That’s something that either you have in your toolbox or you don’t. In some ways it’s like being a writer itself; it’s sort of unidentifiable where it comes from. But I remember as a kid going to work with my dad on the bus, I was listening to people the whole time, very interested in not just the words they were saying and the slang and so on, but the poetry of it. To this day, what you have to do is go out there and breathe the air and feel the dirt between your fingers. You have to listen to people. It’s not so much asking questions. It can be as simple as stepping up to the bar and having a quiet beer and just listening.


How do you keep from getting stale in this genre?


I think my books are changing. The last couple books have been as much about family as they have been about the streets, and I think that’s the direction I’m going, [toward] more character-based stuff.


Do you feel your other books are not character based?


Well, there’s a lot more about the way that things work [in them]—how the guns are getting into town, what the procedure is for the cops. The Night Gardener was half and half. [There’s] heavy police procedural elements in some sections, and then there’s a lot of the book where people are just at home with their families—and that doesn’t require a lot of research or know-how. It’s been fortunate for me that I didn’t start writing until I was 31 years old because … from age 11–30 I was working all these jobs and doing all these things, and I’ve got a lot of material to pull from.


As a reader of your books, and touching on the HBO show “The Wire” as a viewer, I feel you have a great deal of compassion for your characters. Nobody is presented as pure evil or pure good. How do you manage this?


I come at it from the assumption that nobody is really bad to begin with. There are people who are sociopathic, but they got there for a reason. The more I work with kids in my spare time—I go out to the juvenile prisons—almost to a person you see there’s been a disconnect with their background, usually on the family level. The kids that go down on the corners to sell drugs, they’re going down there to find a family. So by painting people as just pure bad or good, it doesn’t throw any light on the actual problem. There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle that you have to consider in how lives get shaped.


Is it true that you write so cleanly that you only write first drafts?


Pretty much. I’m rewriting as I go. I generally write during the day and I come back to it at night and rewrite so that the next day I’m ready. I work seven days a week when I’m working on a book. It’s usually 3–4 months to write a novel, but it’s an intense time where I’m always working and I usually have a pretty clean first draft at the end of that time. I don’t know any other way. I was never around writers and [was] never taught anything.


You’ve had some books optioned. Any in production?


Right as Rain has been close for quite a while. It’s just a director away. The script was written by David Benioff—who did [the movies] Troy, Kite Runner—and Curtis Hanson is producing. It’s close. I wrote the screenplay for another of my books, and cast people in place. Now we’re just trying to sell it.


I’d think a lot of your books adapt nicely to the screen because they’re dialogue heavy and have great visual details.


You would think so, but I didn’t really enjoy [the process] that much. I’m very aware that the hands on the clock are moving quicker these days. I don’t want to waste a year of my life transposing my novel into another form, not knowing whether it will see the light of day.


Now that we’re on the topic of TV, sum up the premise of “The Wire.” Then tell us how you came to get that gig.


By the time the show is over you see this panoramic portrait of an American city [Baltimore] and how things work, and why things are the way we are. We’ve got politics, police, drug dealers, schools, the ports—these pieces that fit together. The next time you’re driving through a city and see those kids on the corner, hopefully you’ll know why they’re there. I don’t think it’s ever been done before. It’s a tremendous achievement. I can say that because I didn’t create it—David Simon did.

David’s wife, [author] Laura Lippman, gave him one of my books. I saw a relationship to what I was doing here to what he was doing in television. At a funeral for a mutual friend, he asked me to write an episode for “The Wire.” He described it as “a novel for television,” and each episode would be a chapter in the book about a police wiretap case on drug dealers. I’d seen what he’d done before [“The Corner,” “Homicide”] and I felt like his heart was in the right place.


What was it like to write for TV, so different from writing novels?


It’s collaborative; you really have to work with a team of writers because each episode feeds into the next and borrows from the past. Before each season we get together—sometimes we’d go away for a week—and we’d decide what the season was going to be about, and the characters and their arcs. Then we’d come back and start beating out each episode. We wanted four episodes written before production started. That entails a scene by scene blueprint of each episode—very intense work in a room, putting cards up on a board in order, [with] different colors for each character. By the time you’re done you have 35–40 cards that represent scenes, in order for that particular show. That takes several days for each episode. Then you farm them out to the writers.     

When I became a producer and story editor, I was there every day, full time. When you work on a TV show it is literally 12–16 hours a day for 7 months. It’s a huge commitment. Producers are in charge of everything. Again, it was pretty nice for me to learn a new craft—it’s another job in my arsenal. If I ever fall down the stairs and hit my head and can’t write, I can always do that.


You say you studied film back in college; did you ever have aspirations to write for TV?


No, for movies. There weren’t TV shows like “The Wire” when I was growing up. I was a big fan of westerns and crime films. That was the kind of stuff I wanted to do. I think if I can say so humbly, “The Wire” is better than most films I say out there, and [I’m] perfectly happy to work in TV if that’s the kind of television.

I went back to work for a year on this series called “The Pacific,” [produced by] Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, who did “Band of Brothers.” I wrote a couple of the 10 hours of that, which is filming now. Again I was happy with my experience at HBO, artistically. That’s something I wanted to do for my dad who was a marine in the Pacific in WWII. As long as they continue to do this kind of quality stuff, I hope to be involved.


What’s it like to go from stories unfolding on a page to having them acted out by talented people with great sets?


It was fun. Writing is a solitary experience, obviously. With novels I’m pretty much in the house for months straight, which can be socially retarding. It’s nice to switch gears and suddenly you’re working with 200 people. Watching what you’ve done is a little different. Writers always complain, “Look what you did to my words,” but what you never hear is “They made it better.” I’ve written scenes I thought were just average and then the actors and director got hold of it and developed it into something better than I wrote.


In the process for the show, did you get access to people you could not have otherwise contacted?


Yes. To compare, it took me 14 novels before the D.C. homicide would let me into their offices and shadow them. The first day I went to Baltimore and walked into the police station, the guy tossed me a Kevlar vest and said “Come on, we’re going to a drug bust.” I could go anywhere—morgue, courts … they were very open up there. I think that [the show’s portrayal of people] has been fair, and I believe they knew that. I got to know people in the [drug] life, both actively and who had done time and were out now.


Considering you didn’t go through a writing program, what advice do you have for aspiring writers who might not be able to go to school but have a passion for writing?


It’s very simple. Read a lot and live as full a life as you can before you try to write anything.

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