George Pelecanos, son of a Greek immigrant, is a no-bullshit, big-hearted guy. He is also, since 1992, the author of 12 crime novels: A Firing Offense, Nick’s Trip, Shoedog, Down the By The River Where the Dead Men Go, The Big Blowdown, King Suckerman, The Sweet Forever, Shame and the Devil, the Derek Strange trilogy: Right As Rain, Hell to Pay, Soul Circus, and his latest Hard Revolution.
Pelecanos was born in Washington D.C. in 1957. He earned his writing mastery as a former line cook, dishwasher, unskilled laborer, bartender, and shoe salesman. Esquire has called him ‘the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world,’ hyperbole which at least makes clear his attachment to plumbing the depths of his beloved home turf (he has just built a house nine doors down from his previous abode). Pelecanos is a best-selling and prize-winning author, and is frequently mentioned in the company of revered masters like Elmore Leonard, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, and James Ellroy. He has also worked as a scriptwriter and independent film producer and currently collaborates with a group of heavyweight writers (see below) on HBO’s The Wire. And to round out his hat trick of talents, his journalism has appeared in the Washingtonian, the Washington Post, GQ, and the New York Times. Pelecanos lives in the D.C. area with his wife and three children and a new dog. This is Robert Birnbaum’s second chat with Pelecanos.
Hard Revolution is a prequel to the Derek Strange trilogy, beginning in 1959 and ending with the post-Martin Luther King assassination riots in D.C. As Pelecanos says, it’s the book he ‘always wanted to write,’ and, as you will find in the conversation below, the novel he considers his best work.
All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum
Robert Birnbaum: You are now a record producer?
George Pelecanos: [chuckles] Yeah, I’m a record producer.
RB: So, apparently, is Sophie Cottrell [a senior editor at Little Brown].
GP: You know Sophie?
GP: She’s great. She was very helpful in this whole process. She actually handled the money side.
RB: Was it complicated? It seems most of the music [was] owned by Time Warner AOL or whatever it is called.
GP: Actually, I didn’t get some of the stuff that I wanted and it’s the stuff that you’d think would be cheaper. It’s the smaller companies like Goldwax [James Carr, O.V. Wright] that’s more expensive because it isn’t bought that often. You can get Motown for 50 cents. I didn’t want Motown.
RB: It’s a really interesting collection of songs. For me, it’s music I took for granted. I looked at the titles and somewhat dismissively categorized them as Stax/Volt except for the Curtis Mayfield cut. But they really sounded better than I remembered them sounding.
GP: If I can take some credit for that—I was very careful in picking tracks that were not what you would normally hear. It wasn’t ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ by Percy Sledge. It’s ‘It Tears Me Up.’ So it wasn’t the hits. And I also went for the ones that showed off the band. [Steve] Cropper’s guitar on that Otis Redding cut is just beautiful, man. Even the Stax/Volt band on the slower cuts, they actually shine a little bit more.
RB: Dan Penn wrote a couple of those tunes. Have you ever heard his album(s)?
GP: The one from the early ‘70s?
RB: I’m not sure.
GP: He did one in the early ‘70s that’s a knockout, man.
RB: I don’t know his discography but I read one story about an album he recorded in the early ‘90s—when the sound engineer broke down in tears. Because he was so moved.
GP: Yeah, he’s a great singer.
RB: Where is he now?
GP: He’s around. He’s not dead, but he’s pretty old.
RB: Tell me why you put together this soundtrack to the book?
GP: I wanted to do it going back to King Suckerman, which I thought was a natural for that. And honestly, the publisher—it was untried. Last year, Mike Connelly, who is also published by Little Brown, did a jazz CD of standards that Harry Bosch would be listening to. And they saw a spike in sales. And they saw sales actually jumped. So it did make sense financially to do it. The well’s only so deep, so—
The relevance to me of what the book is doing out there in the marketplace is ‘Will I be able to write another one?’ Yes, I want to feed my family and all that. But I want to be doing this 20 years from now. I can’t think of anything worse than somebody telling me that it’s over. I don’t want to get into that whole thing of ‘If I couldn’t write I’d die.’ That’s all bullshit.
GP: My tour schedule was cut back a little bit because we put the money into the CD—which is fine.
RB: Do you even need to tour?
GP: Yeah, I think you do. I think it’s helpful.
RB: I know it’s helpful.
GP: Connelly told me—he keeps track of this stuff more than I do—he said on one of his books he didn’t go out. He went to Europe instead, and he could see the decline in sales and he directly attributes it to that.
RB: Was the book as well received—good reviews?
GP: Yeah it was. Everything was on an even playing field except for that one element. I’m not sure how it works, but certain stores report and you can jack that up by going to those stores and they bring in a lot of books. I don’t really understand.
RB: That’s like the old record business. Is there a more scientific book-sale tracking, which makes that anecdotal, reporting stuff less influential?
GP: Yes. I think the cities and stores I am going to this year are predicated on the BookScan numbers [the retail-monitoring system run by Nielsen—ed.]. This is the first time I have done that. We were shooting in the dark before. I was going to Montgomery, Ala., and all these places—
RB: That must have been fun.
GP: I liked that. I get to see places I’d never go to. I got to some cities that I think are sleepers. Like Kansas City—St. Louis is a cool city. I wouldn’t have gone there.
RB: Is the accompanying CD a trend? Connelly, you—is it something you want to continue to do?
GP: I would love to. It’s just fun.
RB: The notion of embellishing the book with music—will readers make the connection between the music and the text?
GP: I did a show [in] Washington [for radio station] WAMU, and I read a passage from the book. The engineer brought the music up while I was reading and it wasn’t in my headphones but the people who heard it said it was fantastic. I don’t know how you do that at home, it’s like someone is there telling you, ‘Now, drop the needle, now.’ If you could set it up, it would really be nice.
RB: I guess you are establishing the mood. The setting is D.C. in 1968 and the events leading up to the Martin Luther King assassination. You went from your big-city morality tales to something a little broader.
GP: Yeah. I always wanted to write this book. I wasn’t ready artistically, and also I didn’t know what the story was going to be. I got to the story by writing those three contemporary [Derek] Strange novels. The more I wrote about him, the more clues I dropped into those books about his past. I was trying to find out for myself where it was going to go. When I finished Soul Circus, I had a pretty good idea because I had worked that drug lord Randall Oliver for two books into the narrative and I knew that everything was going to hinge on the people that came before him—who were going to connect to Strange. It’s all an accident. I didn’t plan anything.
RB: Maybe I’m reaching here but I talked to this physicist Brian Greene. And we were talking ‘bout the notion of time in contemporary physics and talking about Einstein and there is a way in which string theory suggests the imminence of time, that it’s all there; past, present, and future are not discrete. I bring it up because when you say that you had to write X number of books to get to here, meaning that temporal element of the story was sort of there and at some point you sensed or discovered them. Tell me how the other books were a preparation?
GP: In a broad a sense it was—
RB: Did you understand the connection I was trying to make or was it really out there?
GP: It’s out there for me, man.
GP: Because you are talking to the wrong guy. It’s not you, it’s me. I failed math. And everything else.
RB: [laughs] Me, too.
GP: I had to find out who Strange was through the course of three books before I could write about him as a 12-year-old boy and then a 22-year-old man. And also his family. His family is deceased in those books [the trilogy] but he talks about them often. That’s what this book is, it’s a book about a family—to me. It’s not a crime novel. It’s a book about how this family is dealing with the death of—
RB: Does that haunt you, being called a crime novelist?
GP: Oh no, I am probably a crime novelist. I just think that this book is the least crime fiction of all my books. And I don’t have a problem with that at all.
RB: Last year when we talked on the red herring of genre fiction you said something like ‘Good writing is good writing.’ How does anyone argue with that? Why the denigration of genre vs. literary?
GP: I don’t know. I really don’t know. I read that interview with Tom Boyle that you did, he went on and on about how he would never read a crime novel—
GP: I’m thinking, ‘You’re missing out on a lot of good books, man.’ He’s a good guy and a good writer. It’s disappointing to hear him say that. I’ve met him and he’s very nice guy.
RB: My take is that it could be as basic as jealousy. Lots of genre writers make far more money than literary writers. It could even be a professional matter, the assumption that it’s easier for genre writers to write a book because there are lots of givens at the start of genre work—
GP: Um huh. [pause] I don’t really want to jump into it because I really believe that in 50 years when we are gone, that won’t matter. How the books are going to be judged. And then the discussion won’t even be there.
RB: Then the discussion will be about other books of that time?
GP: Yeah, yeah.
RB: That’s the attitude Martin Amis seems to be taking—he is not much interested in talking about what the notices are and all that. Much of the stuff of literary news seems to be manufactured controversy. This week’s big story is that Martin Amis’s contract with his Talk/Miramax has elapsed and so he has no American publisher. What’s he going to do?
GP: Right, Yellow Dog didn’t do well.
RB: I’m thinking—
RB: Right. Why does anyone want to know this?
GP: It’s like the box office thing on Monday morning. It should be on the business page, not on the arts page. The two things, to me, are totally unrelated. Who cares? When did it become a news story?
RB: That would be the story. I care about that. When did this information slip from one category to a broader general interest? I guess it is of interest to know that Gibson’s film is steamrollering—
GP: That’s a story.
RB: Right, all the raging passions around the film. Talking to Amis or any writer, I don’t ask about book sales except in so far as I sense there is an issue of a writer being able to continue to be published.
GP: Right. The relevance to me of what the book is doing out there in the marketplace is ‘Will I be able to write another one?’ Yes, I want to feed my family and all that. But I want to be doing this 20 years from now. I can’t think of anything worse than somebody telling me that it’s over. I don’t want to get into that whole thing of ‘If I couldn’t write I’d die.’ That’s all bullshit.
GP: I’d do something else. I’d sell shoes, or whatever I used to do, but I’d rather be doing this. You know.
The people say things in this book and do things that they would do. I am not trying to push them to do something so that people will like them or like the book or anything like that. All the moral ambiguity, it all comes through. I am just really happy with it.
RB: Are the reviews just starting to come on Hard Revolution?
GP: Yeah, this week. The pub date was Tuesday so they hold everything.
RB: I saw Tim Huggins [of Newtonville Books] earlier this week and he seemed to think that this book wasn’t getting any respect.
GP: It just came out. And I get a lot of publicity. I have never lacked for that.
RB: Even in the Greek newspapers.
GP: Yeah, the Greek Embassy just sent me a big story that was done on me. Greeks will do that. They always want to take care of their own.
RB: I read one of those. I didn’t know your family hometown was Sparta.
GP: My dad was born in there and my Mom is Spartan, too. The family is 100 percent Spartan.
RB: It’s odd that I don’t think of your ethnic heritage. It’s not like you wear it on your sleeve.
GP: No, it would be an affectation at this point.
RB: You are third generation?
GP: Yeah. My dad was born in Greece.
RB: Why does that make you third generation?
GP: He came over when he was a toddler. He couldn’t be more [American]. He was in the Marine Corps in World War II. He boxed, he played baseball. He was a running away from that. And even though he had a very Greek upbringing with very Greek parents and livestock in the basement and all that stuff—
GP: In the middle of the city, right? They’re killing lambs in his basement. What I get out of it, what I get out of the whole thing, relative to my work, is the work ethic that I got from my parents. And this kind of drive—I have to do good work like my dad did. My dad had a really nice little business, a nice little diner. He went to work every day. Every day and he did good work.
RB: I believe you have said that Hard Revolution is your best book.
GP: Yes, I really believe it is.
GP: I just feel like it’s everything I’ve been wanting to do in terms of—it’s a good crime novel. It’s a good novel about the time. And the characters are about as rich as I’ve ever drawn. And it’s honest. The people say things in this book and do things that they would do. I am not trying to push them to do something so that people will like them or like the book or anything like that. All the moral ambiguity, it all comes through. I am just really happy with it.
RB: You are not suggesting that in the past your characters were less than honest? What do you mean?
GP: In the beginning, in my first few books I was somewhat timid. Those are hard-core books—the protagonist is a drunk and there are a lot of drugs. But there are times when I pulled back in the books, where I made the characters say things and do things that I don’t think they would because I wanted people to like them. And—
RB: I thought one of the outstanding moments in the story is where young Derek is caught shoplifting. And how you turned that to a useful lesson. Others might have written that as traumatic in a negative way. But you had him realize that it was good he was caught.
GP: Yeah, somebody did him a kindness. And I think that can change your life. Just for the older guy to have that kind of perception. He knew the other kid, too. And basically he said, ‘There was nothing he could do for him. He was already past the point. But I know you and I have seen you around. And that’s not you.’
RB: Richard Price did something similar to that in Samaritan. There is a scene where the woman who ends up being the detective on Ray Mitchell’s [the protagonist’s] case, when she is a kid she’s nabbed for writing graffiti on the project wall. It’s what Price calls ‘the enormity of small things.’
GP: Oh, yeah.
RB: And then some veteran white cop-sort reaches out to her, understanding her embarrassment, especially when her mother shows up in flip-flops and a house dress. That was really moving.
GP: Right, she says that then she knew what she was going to do [become a cop]. Nobody had ever done that for her before. Yeah.
RB: Not to belabor the point but no one would call that a crime novel.
GP: Again I’m not going to jump into that. There is a point in this novel where I have the robbery at the bank. Where I said in that chapter there, ‘All right, this is a pulp novel right now. Right now it is. And I am going to give it to ‘em with the backhand. Because anyone who thinks that I am literary, this is the chapter where I am going to prove that I’m not.’ And you can see the shift in the tone of that whole chapter. It turns into something else. I’m delivering the goods for the people who are looking for that. Because when you do write stuff like that—I’ve read writers who are in denial of what they are doing and who don’t know what’s going on. It’s like some flowery description of a bank robbery. Come on, man! Tell me what happened.
RB: You have been working steadily on HBO’s The Wire?
RB: Tell me what that does to your writing schedule or regimen?
GP: I compartmentalize everything. I knew that starting in April when we start shooting, I am going to be working 12-hour days for the rest of the year. You can’t do anything else. So I set myself in my house in September and I had to write a novel by the end of the year and I did it. I knew that was my mission. I don’t know how it’s going to work out in the future. This might be it for me in terms of—my books are my primary interest and I don’t want them ever to suffer.
RB: Did I read that Richard Price is now involved in The Wire?
GP: We enlisted Price and Dennis Lehane.
RB: And David Benioff?
GP: He’s adapting my book Right As Rain for Curtis Hanson. We have David Simon, myself, Price, Lehane, and Ed Burns, who is a fantastic writer.
RB: You are all in the same room together?
RB: Do you play cards?
GP: We went up to a hotel or something in upstate New York in the summer and we brainstormed. We worked all day and we also played handball. We drank at night.
GP: Whatever it is. We had racquets, is that racquetball?
RB: Price has a bum arm.
GP: He does but you wouldn’t know it. He was kicking ass out there.
RB: Maybe I am idealizing—it must be fun. Sitting around with guys who are pretty good at what they do—
GP: If you like each other. It would be horrible if you didn’t respect the guys. Then you would just want to get out of there. The good thing so far with HBO is that the notes we have gotten are not about ratings or anything. Or, ‘Can you tone it down?’ It’s all about, ‘Can we make this better?’ It’s still like that. Simon is at the wheel. So apparently he has a good relationship with them.
RB: And there is still not a lot of money for the writers?
GP: No. Price is a big-time screenwriter. So what’s he doing it for? You’d have to ask him. But I think it’s because the show’s good. And we are all competitive. Now with those guys in it, I want to write the best show.
RB: Has this gone the way the hit HBO series have gone, to video?
GP: The first season’s coming out in DVD this year.
RB: So you have already written the next book?
RB: This is a commendable work ethic. You spend three months writing a novel. Then you spend time on the book tour and then you’re right to working on the TV project.
GP: Yes, but it’s all good stuff. [pause] I don’t need to do this TV stuff anymore. You get an opportunity to write with these guys and try to compete with these guys and the rising tide is going to push all the boats up—whatever that expression is. It’s unprecedented. Think about it. Has there been a show that has this many good novelists?
You know the old thing, you look on the book jacket, it says, ‘So and so divides his time between a home in Martha’s Vineyard and a brownstone on the Upper West Side. This is his first book of short stories.’ He’s like 50 years old. What the fuck did the guy do all his life?
RB: I can think of comedy shows (Your Show of Shows) that had star comedy writers.
GP: I would say Twilight Zone was the last thing I can think of.
RB: Those weren’t collaborative.
GP: We have to work together because every show impacts the next show and so on.
RB: What’s the status of the Curtis Hanson project?
GP: They are turning the script to the studio right now, the first draft. So we’ll see.
RB: Right, who knows?
GP: Yeah, who knows. But I have faith. Benioff’s a good writer.
RB: Why didn’t you write it? Did I already ask you that?
GP: I didn’t really want to. It’s rewriting something I have already written. So that’s six months out of my life I could be doing something new. It’s counter to what I want to do. I want to keep doing new stuff.
RB: Is there a place to go from Hard Revolution? Can you go back further in a reverse of what Mosley did with Easy Rawlins?
GP: I wrote a book that takes place in ‘59, The Big Blowdown. That’s another book I really like. It was kind of my artistic breakthrough. I had been writing these first-person novels and it was a big book and it has a lot of characters with multiple points of view and it’s about Greek immigrants. It’s really my dad’s story. There is a section in the Philippines on Leyte, in WWII, where my dad fought.
RB: It sounds so familiar.
GP: I doubt you read it—it was a St. Martin’s book. I like that book a lot.
RB: And your next book? It’s about dog police?
GP: They go after people that are dogfighting. They serve warrants on people. They can’t arrest you, but they can serve papers and call the cops while they are on the scene and say, ‘Arrest this guy.’ There is a lot of conflict in that job. You are going into the worst sections of town, and you are taking their animals away from them. But they have been warned. We would go up to houses two weeks after the first visit we made and the dog is still lying in its own shit. And we’d say, ‘Why didn’t you do anything about this?’ ‘Well, I’m going to get around to it.’ We’d take that animal.
RB: What’s the title?
GP: Drama City.
RB: Set in Washington?
GP: D.C. Drama City.
RB: I’m quick on the uptake. Washington seems to stand as a character in your books. Which got me to thinking about other locales, [Raymond] Chandler in L.A.—
GP: [Robert] Parker and Lehane in Boston. [Elmore] Leonard in Detroit. Miami, [Carl] Hiaasen. Everyone has a city that they own.
RB: So who represents Chicago? Eugene Izzi?
GP: He’s a great writer.
RB: I never hear of him or Chicago mentioned.
GP: Writers talk about him still. But he never really broke through to get into the public consciousness. And there it is. He went too soon.
RB: He also wrote under the name Nick Gaitano. He didn’t break through?
GP: There’s a reason he wrote those books under another name—he couldn’t get published under his own name. Those Nick Gaitano books came at the end of his career.
RB: Mr. X.
RB: Was his death ever resolved?
GP: There were all sorts of theories, and nobody will ever know.
RB: Are the people who write crime stories an odd group of people?
GP: I think they are more normal. Because the guys that I know that I actually am friends with, we come from a fairly either middle-class or working-class background and we tend to—most of us write a book every year. We consider it a job, not something where we can slum in between for a few years. You know the old thing, you look on the book jacket, it says, ‘So and so divides his time between a home in Martha’s Vineyard and a brownstone on the Upper West Side. This is his first book of short stories.’ He’s like 50 years old. What the fuck did the guy do all his life? You know?
RB: [laughs] And how does he afford the pricey real estate?
GP: Exactly. Nobody I know in this racket, the crime-fiction racket, came from money. And a lot of us are family men, and so it’s not too many guys you find that are shooting up and stuff like that. Some of us drink too much and I’m not saying we are all good family men. Some of us might screw around on our wives, but we are not any different than any other guys. So, I think we are normal. As normal as a writer can be. The main thing is that the way that I am really abnormal is that I am living inside my imagination all my waking hours. When I am not at the keyboard I am working, I’m thinking about the story and what I am going to do next. And it’s all—somebody who doesn’t live that way or think that way could never understand what it’s like. It must seem weird to an outsider.
I am not interested in any thing that has that kind of unexplained psychosis or serial killers. Anything like that is not in my bailiwick. I want to know why the kid, if he had been born somewhere else by an accident of birth, would have been a doctor and instead he’s down on the corner selling drugs with a gat in his back, behind his belt line. How the fuck does that happen?
RB: You anticipated my question here. What is it that is happening when you are living inside your imagination as you say, what does that feel like?
GP: When it’s really cooking you are in a tunnel. And there is nothing going on around you but that screen, pictures are going through your head. I don’t know about other people, I hear music because I am very much influenced by film. I am 47 years old and I can still, in my head, do the whole Magnificent Seven soundtrack from front to back. And it still brings tears to my eyes when I listen to it. And I hear that kind of music when I am writing. It’s very real to me.
RB: What about when it’s not going well?
GP: Well, it never goes well in the beginning. So I am not easy to live with, the first month or so of a book. Because I think I am going to fail. And [it’s] very frustrating. I can’t deal with people. It’s rough on my family. But then I break through, always—I have, historically.
RB: At this point in your working life, why isn’t that something you remember when you are having a tough time and have that get you past the initial period of doubt?
GP: It’s not as scary because you have the history, but it’s no less frustrating. It’s the unknown.
RB: In the last week of real life, was there a story that caught your attention?
GP: In the world? This whole gay marriage thing has my back up. I have never seen anything like this in my lifetime. Coming from a place where when I was a kid it was the civil-rights movement, and then we are not over racism by any means, but we seem to get over a lot of it especially in the sense of the Constitution and laws. And just to write discrimination into the constitution is unthinkable man. It’s so un-American. No matter what you think, and I am as homophobic as the next guy—by that I mean, I am not a hater but I’d rather be in a bar full of straight guys than a bar full of gay guys. But that doesn’t mean that I want to—in every news thing that I have watched and every article I have read, nobody has been able to give one good reason why they are doing this except that they don’t like homosexuality. Why does it threaten marriage? It certainly doesn’t threaten my marriage.
RB: I’d be more concerned about divorce and those laws.
GP: I was going to say why not ban divorce in the Constitution? That will take care of the institution of marriage right there.
RB: It strikes me that some things are ultimate. What’s the reason for anti-Semitism? It’s not allegations of Christ-killing. It’s a hatred of Jews. Why be against gay marriage? Not because of the institution’s alleged sanctity but because people hate gays. Why do the Greeks hate the Turks?
GP: Why do we hate them today? Because [we] get told at home to hate them.
RB: So your life just sort of moves along, you write a novel every year—three kids, a dog. Did you build that house down on the on the bay ?
GP: That was my ambition. We’re building a house on our block. We built a house nine houses down from where we lived before. The kids didn’t want to leave the neighborhood. It’s good—they are happy. What you are trying to do, we got it. We don’t want to make them unhappy.
RB: Apropos of nothing other than that he is Washingtonian, do you know Ed Jones?
GP: Yeah, I don’t know him well. I’ve met him, but I gotta say, that book is a masterpiece. It’s the best book I have read in years. When I finished that book I was—first of all you are jealous because you know you will never write anything like that in your life—
RB: He may never either.
GP: He may not. I don’t even think he new what he was doing in a lot of ways. He also doesn’t really outline. He just writes. But he hit it, man. That is a masterpiece. What a book!
RB: A nice man.
GP: Yeah, lives this quiet life in an apartment in Arlington, Va.
RB: Is there a D.C. literary scene?
GP: No, there might be but it’s not for people who are really writing books. I went to Ed’s book signing just because I wanted to meet him. He knew who I was. We had a real nice conversation in five minutes and then I might never see him again. But I was happy just to meet him. So I admire him.
RB: Were the sniper shootings of any interest to you as a story?
GP: No. I wrote a piece about it for the New York Times. I reviewed the books I was asked many times by CNN and people like that to get on the air. I turned everybody down. What do I know about, first of all? And of out of respect—the only reason someone would do that would be to get publicity for themselves.
RB: I am trying to get at if there is a true crime story that you would like to do?
GP: All my books are based on true crimes. But nothing ever like that. I am not interested in any thing that has that kind of unexplained psychosis or serial killers. Anything like that is not in my bailiwick. I want to know why the kid, if he had been born somewhere else by an accident of birth, would have been a doctor and instead he’s down on the corner selling drugs with a gat in his back, behind his belt line. How the fuck does that happen? That’s what really interests me. And that’s why I keep writing about it. I’m obsessed with it. How does society fail people to the degree that that’s what happens to their lives? And not just society meaning the government. I’m talking about the culture, too. How are we at the point where fathers father children and think nothing about having no contact with them? Sniper, serial killer, I couldn’t care less. It just doesn’t interest me.
RB: Well, OK.
GP: I gotta go.