Interview with Man of the Moment George Pelecanos with Deb Smouse

I’m so excited to introduce our August Man-of-the-Month, the sexy and talented George Pelecanos. You may know him as one of the writers and producers of the HBO series The Wire or you may know him as the gritty crime novelist of books like The Night Gardener or Right as Rain, but he is so much more.  If you don’t know him, get to know his name.    He’s one of those diversified working writers who keeps coming up with intriguing plots, twists and turns that make you wonder. One thing that became clear to me about George is that he is a passionate man. He is passionate about his writing, whether it’s for print or screen, and he loves the city of Washington DC. He was kind enough to spend some time chatting with me about the city, his work, and more…..

(We spent a few moments talking about Washington, DC. Though it was chatter he made to put me at ease and find some common ground, it’s too interesting to put off as a side-bar and not include in this interview)

No one has really written about the Federal City, at least beyond the general of the city and the place of power as a setting. It came to me that no one was writing about the working and living city that I knew, so I began writing about the city that I grew up in.

George PelecanosIt took twenty-years, but because of the Metro (Washington DC’s Subway System), the city was transformed. Instead of closing down at five o’clock, the city was reborn to become a place that is vibrant.. Even in the last ten years, there are places of DC that were run down and trouble spots, but today you find lots of folks walking around of all races and economic backgrounds, thanks to mass transit. Take the MCI Center (arena for basketball, hockey, and concerts) area, it really blew up that entire area. Ten years ago, there was nothing there except a business district and now it’s a vibrant area in the evening as well. That was the development that jump started everything. Southeast used to be public housing and abandoned warehouses, now with the new Nationals Stadium (DC’s baseball team) you will see more changes out there. It’s a nice stadium and the city created a lot of jobs in a place where they take their taxes.

Tell the readers a little about your background.

Dad was a Greek immigrant, though he immigrated as a Toddler. He owned a lunch counter south of DuPont Circle and I started delivering food at eleven. It was after the Riots in DC, and though the city was broken there was a strength to the people and pride in the change.  That is when I started to fall in love with the city – watching people, in terms of civil rights – breaking between the races, being a kid – walking around the city as your job. A lot of the things I experienced that summer are what I am writing about today – the concerns and interests are the same – writing about working people. I continued to work those jobs until I was 31 (he was born in 1957). I sold shoes, at a place on Connecticut Avenue. They sold the best shoes in town and they employed young guys for a reason. I got to talk to women all day, and fit their feet, all on straight commission. It was a great job for a young man and I paid for much of my college selling shoes. I also have sold electronics and stereos, and then decided it was time to just write. I had gotten married and we didn’t have kids yet, and my wife Emily said to just do it. When I sold my first novel to the first publisher, I got in.

I had a “day job”, producing and distributing films for Circle Films. We produced Raising Arizona. So, during the day, I was working for Circle, and at night I wrote books. When I worked with Miramax, I wanted to write screen plays. For the last five years, I have been a writer and a produce on The Wire. We had a great thing with the wire, I had the opportunity to make the case to keep filming in Baltimore and working with Dennis Lehane and Richard Price. We were away from LA and New York, and because we delivered a great product, HBO left us alone. Season Five was the last season, and it’s done and the sets have been ripped down. We did a good job with wrapping up the series with no real loose ends. Of course, folks have talked to us about a movie, but we think we are done. We are happy with what we did and how it came out. We got what we wanted five years, five themes and five stories.

“…when you do something like this, it’s the last thing you want to get wrong. You want to respect each and every detail in the writing of the stories.”

Right now, I just finished working on a “Band of Brothers” type mini-series about World War II (“The Pacific”). It’s a Spielberg and Hanks project that is shooting in Australia. It won’t air for awhile since it’s a complicated show with lots of post production, but I went after the job and pursued it because my dad was a Marine and fought in the Philippines in World War II. The next day (after I got the job), a Fed Ex backed up to the house and started unloading cartons of transcripts of interviews. I spent a couple of months reading before I wrote anything. It was a crash course in World War II, and when you do something like this, it’s the last thing you want to get wrong. You want to respect each and every detail in the writing of the stories. It’s a race against the clock to interview some of these folks because they won’t be around much longer, and you just hopefully get it right.

In what ways did your childhood influence you as a writer? As a person?

I was always more of an observer of life, and didn’t start reading books until college – University of Maryland –and I took a class in detective fiction. It looked something easy, I said “I can do that”, not expecting much out of it other than an easy class. I wanted to make films and was not expecting to get turned onto these books. This teacher inspired me and pointed in the direction of these novels. Crime fiction is the people’s literature. It is written for the average person to read and understand. One of the reasons I wasn’t reading a lot of books is because the contents didn’t speak to my world. I thought I could make some contribution because I came out of that world. The trick was how do you become a writer? And I hadn’t tried it. So, for the next 10 years after college, I read, lead a full life. That’s how you become a writer. Read an awful lot so you can see how it’s done, and you have to live life in order to write about it.

A lot of books inspired me, but there was a movement in crime fiction in the late 70’s that kind of turned my head a bit. It wasn’t the detective with a bottle of scotch, it was dialogue based on the criminals and the people that policed them. The Last Good Kiss (James Crumley), which is the post Vietnam book that everyone from my generation (Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly) all site as sort of the book that influenced them the most. That makes crime fiction practitioners. Clockers by Richard Price was another novel that inspired me.

It was at a point that many hardboiled detective novels were more about the WHY rather than the WHO. I had gone down there (with the police) and hung out and done the street work, and I saw a different possibility and changed direction. I look at it as a form of reporting and you have to feel the dirt between your fingers. I talk to people, and I listen. An afternoon of work can consist of walking into a bar and ordering a beer and listening to people talk, riding the bus down the avenue, or just getting outside and hanging out with people. What I try to do is to front load all my research – spend a couple of months being out there – with police, prison, parole officer, humane society officers. It’s part of the job. You have to get enough ammunition to write a book, then come home and lock yourself in for five or six months – day and night – and everything (due to my research) is there at my feet.

When you are researching, I keep it all in my head. It intimidates people when you pull out a pad or a tape recorder. Then, when you get home, you make your notes.

When did you change to be a writer full time?

In 1999, I left circle films and put professional writer on the tax form. It felt amazing. I didn’t’ expect it and it wasn’t a goal, as I had never planned to do that. I kept my head down and kept working and it is so sweet to be able to have your own business in your home. I go to my office and work each day and am thankful to be able to do that when I watch cars sitting there on the Beltway. To be my own boss, work when I want to work and not get into the rat race every day, is sweet. When you work for yourself, you have to have a cast iron stomach. You can’t be afraid. You get up and go to work every day.

There is always an influence of music in your work, like The Turnaround

The time frame of the first part of The Turnaround is when I was a teenager – and I was so fortunate to be a young guy in that decade. First of all, it was a lot of fun. It was pre-AIDS, pre-cocaine…it was lots of muscle cars, drinking beer, pickup basketball, and chasing girls. No one was getting hurt and the funk and soul music of the 70’s is great. You could turn on the radio and on one station would be all kinds of music ( they didn’t segregate the music then). It was a great time for a lot of reasons, but the music was happening too – at the beginning you had hard rock and soul – and a revolution in the music – something very interested in and a big music fan.

Tell me about The Turnaround

The book is based on a real incident that happened a couple of miles from my house. It is sort of hard to believe how much changed in a short amount of time – and that’s what it was. It was a not that unusual to happen (clash between white and black, a shooting) but it elevated into something tragic. I deliberately didn’t do much research into the actual incident because I wanted to blow it up and fictionalize it, but went back to the neighborhood and talked to them about what it was like living there. It was an all black neighborhood – that had begun as settlings of slaves from the south and it was a neighborhood that was segregated from the rest around it. There was dead-end, some white kids drove back there and didn’t realize it – and it became a book. What fascinated me was everything had changed so much. What fascinated me was everything has changed so much, kids don’t seem to have the baggage – and then it happened. The question was: what happened to those people? Where are they today?

Walter Reed (Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington DC) is part of The Turnaround and it’s really about healing and some sort of redemption. I wanted to get the soldiers’ story – and because of where I live – I see these people every day. It was a nice way to incorporated their story and hopefully get it out to the public.

“…we have a responsibility to take care of those people, and not forget it.”

The one thing that is a bit of a speech in the book, where they are , that it’s all well and good that they are taken care of today, but don’t forget what their lives are going to be in 20 years. And when you get twenty years down the road, like some from Korea and Vietnam, if you are injured and you are messed up for life, we have a responsibility to take care of those people, and not forget it. There are going to be other wars – we can’t forget them. We lost a family friend, who grew up in this neighborhood, and I don’t want him to be forgotten.

Tell us a little more about you…

The one thing I try to shake is the label of being dark and gritty, and there is emotion that anyone that can my world view is not dark – I wouldn’t be able to get up every morning if I thought that coming from an attitude of analyst, and this book is indicative is that kind of optimism. One thing that I like to dispel is this kind of guy that creeps out in a ninja outfit at night.

I’ve been married for twenty-two years, have three kids (ages 17, 15 and 11), and a couple of dogs. That’s the side is my work and, if anything, it’s not hopeless. There are a lot of tragic stories, but there are many successes, too. Considering the state of some of these neighborhoods, absence of fathers and people are doing well. A lot has to do with the quiet heroes – the big brothers, teachers, coaches – they have devoted their lives to kids. You can’t save everyone –but pull one kid through the keyhole…. The relationship between the brothers as well as the young man who has his girlfriend as he is becoming a father slowly in the book –that is real important. There are many ways to make a family, and that shows, especially in those kinds of environments. You try whatever works, and it isn’t always traditional, but it does work.

How do you find balance?

First of, I’m different in that I spend half of my year on a movie or TV project and the other half of the year writing. I run into a lot of people, so you aren’t socially retarded. And then, writing at home. I am with my family all the time. I have tried going other places to work, but it seems I can only write her with all the confusion and that is great. My wife is a say at home mom, so I see my wife all day, get the kids off to school and the kids back home from school, and it’s a very lucky thing to have.

I am working on a new novel now, but that’s all I can say.

Anything you want to add?

Yes. That’s for asking me to be the ONE guy of the month for All Things Girl.

For more information on George Pelecanos, visit his website.  The HBO Series The Wire is available at Amazon as well as for download on iTunes.  Interested in his books?  Check out the ATG review of a classic Pelecanos novel,  The Night Gardener as well as the  ATG review of Turnaround (his new book) and your chance to win a signed copy!

Deb SmouseDeb Smouse is the Editor in Chief at All Things Girl. She just turned 40, and spends most of her days as a consultant.  She loves to read…and appreciates the opportunity to hear from writers…. Find out more about Deb on our About Page.

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