Author George Pelecanos has written eleven crime novels beginning in 1992 with A Firing Offense followed by Nick’s Trip, Shoedog, Down By The River Where The Dead Men Go, The Big Blowdown, King Suckerman, The Sweet Forever, Shame the Devil, Right As Rain, Hell to Pay and Soul Circus. He is also a screenwriter and independent film producer and is currently working on the HBO series The Wire. Pelecanos’ short fiction has appeared in Esquire magazine and in numerous anthologies. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland with his family.
Soul Circus is the third in a trilogy of novels (Right as Rain, Hell to Pay) in which ex-DC-cop-turned-private-investigator Derek Strange and his partner, Terry Quinn, prowl the Washington, DC underworld of drug lords, gun dealers, street gangs and innocents who get caught in the deadly crossfire of criminal ambitions. As is the case for a Pelecanos novel, he observes, "Not to give anything away, but they don’t solve anything in this book. It’s an anti-detective novel. They are constantly one step behind the police throughout the book, as they would be. You know, private detectives don’t solve murders. Police do. It’s trying to show the futility of what they are doing."
Robert Birnbaum: What’s a Greek American doing writing a series with a middle-aged, black detective?
George Pelecanos: Well, that’s what writers do—they go outside their heads. What’s George Lucas doing writing about space, he’s never been to space? Know what I mean?
GP: If you are going to do it, first of all you should it right. Show people respect and make sure you get the voices right. If you are even attempting it. Because it’s apparent when you are reading something if the writer hasn’t bothered to listen to people or go into the neighborhoods and talk to people and that sort of thing. Washington is, depending on what part of my lifetime we are talking about, is between sixty and eighty per cent black. If you are going to write crime novels set in DC, which is what I do, you must have primarily black characters. There is white crime and white-collar crime and that sort of thing, but I am not interested in that. I am interested in the societal aspect of crime. And so I have to go into the lower-income neighborhoods.
RB: I think the euphemism is ‘urban’. And you are correct—the writer’s task is to get outside of themselves and be free to create any kind of a character. I asked you because I believe that people will still object, "What’s a white man doing writing about black people, or about women?"
GP: Let me tell you my experience, is that it’s the opposite. I have never had a black person call me on this. It’s always been white people.
GP: Asking this question, you know.
RB: Things have changed.
GP: Well, yeah. Again, I think if you do it well, there is no reason for anybody to confront you with it. If you get it wrong you’ve got to pay the bill. Because it’s disrespectful.
RB: Would you have written this book earlier in your career, with a black character? Before Walter Mosley’s Easy Rollins?
GP: No, but that has nothing to do with it. I wouldn’t have done it because I wasn’t ready.
RB: I was also thinking of the willingness of the publisher to publish a book with a black protagonist.
GP: Oh I never think about that. What I think about is, "Am I ready to do it or not?" in terms of my ability. I certainly wasn’t ready in the beginning of my career. I was writing —the early books of mine were Nick Stefanos, first person, very autobiographical and they describe a very narrow world. This young Greek American coming out of the punk rock movement. Those books are entertaining books, but they are not anything compared to what I am doing now, because I got more ambitious. The reason I got more ambitious was that I thought I could do it. I started writing in third person and I saw that I could do all these shifts in voice, and I wanted to write about something more than the story itself. Particularly with these last three books, this trilogy. I am taking on bigger issues. Right as Rain is about racism. That was the purpose of writing that book—the racial and social divide we have in this country. I never would have done that ten years ago. Also, I didn’t know enough.
RB: Is it a crusade at this point? This book is very clearly, among other things, anti gun.
Well, that’s what writers do—they go outside their heads. What’s George Lucas doing writing about space? He’s never been to space.
GP: It’s more than that because you have two issues here: capitol punishment and guns that citizens of DC have outlawed. By referendum there is no capitol punishment and guns are illegal. However, DC has no meaningful representation. We’re controlled by the Feds and they can come in and do whatever they want. So they came in and prosecuted this death penalty case. The people didn’t want it. Same thing with guns. Sixty percent of the murder guns come from Maryland and Virginia federally licensed gun stores.
RB: Where you need basically nothing to get a gun.
GP: Right. So that’s what interested me, is how everything is forced upon the city, things that they don’t want.
RB: The case in Soul Circus, where the Feds prosecute a DC case and turn it into a capitol case, is that a frequent happenstance?
GP: Actually this case that I am writing about is based on the first death penalty case since ’57. Once they did that, there have been others as well. There is one going on right now. Once they got the ball rolling—now they do it all the time. The sniper case for example—they are trying Malville and his partner in Virginia because not only do they have the death penalty, but they can have swift implementation. Even though the murders were committed in Maryland in Montgomery County.
RB: I don’t believe I ever see people with stickers that say, "I Love DC." You are a life-long DC resident. No interest in moving?
GP: No. No. Especially not now because I worked for ten years or whatever it was I worked, under a handicap living there. My agents and everybody would always say to me, "You know, you ought to move to New York or LA, we’ll get you work." I’m staying here. Now I do movie work and that sort of thing and they fly me out if they want me. I’ve gotten to where I want to be now.
RB: You live in DC?
GP: Right over the District line in Silver Spring, just steps over the line.
RB: Your loyalty and commitment is based on it being your home—is there something special about it?
GP: My parents grew up there too. My dad was born in Greece, but he came over very young. And I like the people. And contrary to the myth, Washington is not a transient city. When they say it’s transient, they are talking about white people that come in with every administration and move in and out and people in the suburbs. But the core of the city has lived there for generations, came up from the South. It is a Southern city. You asked me when we met. [I had commented on GP's mildly southern accent] It’s very much a Southern city, in many ways. The old Redskins fight song before they changed it. Instead of " Hail the Redskins fight, for old DC." It used to be "Fight for old Dixie." And it wasn’t that long ago when people were singing that. I just like the people and I think it is a great place to live. When I go around the country I am a little surprised that people will actually ask me why I live there. I don’t look at it like that. In the neighborhoods that I describe, there are people doing their dirt on the corners and little pockets in these neighborhoods, but basically you have people doing what everybody else does everyday. And they want the same thing that you and I want—they want safe streets and schools for their kids and opportunities and all that. It’s just people living their lives.
RB: I grew up in Chicago, so I am hyper aware of the regional chauvinism of the Northeast.
GP: I was just in Cincinnati the other day. I thought it was a great town.
RB: It’s right on a river and has seven hills. You have been at this for a while, how many books do you have?
GP: I’ve written eleven books, one every year since I started.
RB: Is there still a debate about the quality of genre fiction? Do you get caught up in it?
GP: I don’t get caught up in it. I imagine there still is a debate, but I just ignore it. A good book is a good book.
RB: Every once in a while—you are frequently mentioned as part of a new wave of crime novelists, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly as representing a couple notches above whomever the norm is supposed to be. This seems to imply that excuses need to be made for you.
GP: What are you going to do? In Europe it’s not like that. I go over there, I am reviewed with Robert Stone. I’m put on the shelf next to anybody else. They don’t ghettoize crime writers. They are very much—I don’t want to say just crime writers, the people that you are talking about Lehane and Connelly and myself are writing social crime novels. I would put Richard Price in that category too. They are interested in the other side of society. Whereas Americans really aren’t that interested in that. Most American fiction is about people who win. And if it’s about race it’s about how black people change white people. The old Mississippi Burning thing. It’s never about… Look, I just finished writing a book set in 1968 and it’s about Strange’s family when he was a young man and rookie cop during the riots. It’s all about his family and there are no hippies in the book. It’s just this working-class black family—you know white people want to be loved so much. When they don’t feel the love, they feel kind of baffled by it. People want equality, but they don’t necessarily want to hang with each other.
RB: Price doesn’t make a big thing or at least he downplays his own research efforts. You are writing a book that goes back into the black community some thirty-five years. How do you place yourself there?
GP: First, I do a lot of library time—on the period books–and I seek out people that were there. And in the case of this book, I talked to rioters and I talked to police, and I separated that with black and white police because they had a totally different perspective on it. And I talked to people who had business and people who lived in those neighborhoods at the time. I wanted to see how everybody was affected.
RB: Did you look at TV footage?
GP: Yeah I looked at that. And of course I live there. I was eleven years old. But I didn’t really know what the weight of it was. But I had a lot of instinct because I was working for my dad at the time. I started working for my father when I was ten. And the summer after the riots I was on the bus every day going through these parts of town that had been totally decimated and burnt. But what you saw on the bus was, after the riots people were standing taller, wearing flashier clothes, I remember the women a had earrings that said "black is beautiful" on them. All of a sudden everyone was standing straight. Even at eleven years old I knew something had happened, something more than just a fire.
RB: Is there something cyclical or patterned in the quality of genre fiction writing?
GP: Either you want to tell a story or you don’t. Do you want to draw attention to yourself and your own writing and your beautiful style or do you want to be invisible and let the story and the characters take over for the reader. That’s what it comes down to for me. What comes into it with crime is just conflicts. I like conflict in any kind of popular art. There is no greater conflict than life versus death, so there it is. I’m not that interested in the crime aspect of my books. I am interested in the characters.
RB: There is nothing to be solved in Soul Circus. Strange is looking for evidence to help the case of this drug lord. But his sidekick Quinn is looking for a girl who has disappeared.
GP: Not to give anything away, but they don’t solve anything in this book. It’ s an anti-detective novel. They are constantly one step behind the police throughout the book, as they would be. You know, private detectives don’t solve murders. Police do. It’s trying to show the futility of what they are doing. On my last tour people would say to me, "Well, are you aware that the murder in this book doesn’t occur until page one hundred and fifty-six?" "Yeah, I’m aware of it. It’s a novel." That’s what should have occurred and I wanted you to get invested in this character. The traditional thing to do is you have a murder in the first chapter and it is solved in the final chapter. But I’m just writing books. A lot of mystery writers will say they are doing some kind of public service by writing these books. Because they put the world back in order again at the end of the book and everybody can feel good about their lives. There is no solving murders, you know. Not unless the dead are going to rise up out of the earth. Once somebody is killed, it’s forever for their loved ones and their family and the community.
RB: No comfort from closure?
GP: I don’t even understand that term ‘closure’. With this book it’s the same thing. I don’t think anybody gets killed until well into the book.
RB: Do you hang out with gang-bangers?
GP: I wouldn’t say I hang out with them. I have gotten calls at my house, I’m in the phone book and all, saying, "Listen, I used to be in the life, I’ve read your books. You want to hang out, have a cup of coffee or a beer or whatever." That I have done. Obviously, I’ve gone out there and scoped out the operations and that stuff. I hate it when writers act like they put on a ninja suit and they go out on these forays into the night. I have never been in harm’s way. There are plenty of people like me down there copping drugs. And I also ride with the police and do what they call "riding mid-nights" which is what they call the midnight to dawn shift. I do that to get access to places I wouldn’t go, the projects in the middle of the night. So I do all sorts of stuff. I sat in on the actual trial that this book is based on.
RB: I talked to Will Self recently, and he told me that the crack epidemic had finally made it to England.
GP: I didn’t know that.
RB: What’s up with crack in the US?
GP: It’s problem, but fortunately it’s less of a problem than it was. A lot of that has to with the fact that crack addicts don’t last long. You can be on heroin for twenty or thirty years and be a functioning member of society.
RB: As reputedly, many doctors have proven. (both laugh)
Most American fiction is about people who win. And if it’s about race, it’s about how black people change white people…
GP: The other thing that happened is the culture has changed. It’s a very negative thing. You listen to kids talk. The biggest insult is to call somebody a crackhead. So young people aren’t getting into crack…
RB: What’s the cool drug?
GP: Everybody smokes marijuana still. And then heroin is back, but marijuana is the biggest drug and there it is—nothing has changed.
RB: Nick Stefanos makes an appearance in this book—do you have a mission of continually weaving the characters from past stories in to all your books?
GP: Yeah, it’s all one book. It’s all one world. It’s this fictional parallel world that I created. By the time of the Big Blowdown, I started seeing it like that. If you create this imaginary world, why wouldn’t characters that live in that world pass through other people’s lives?
RB: Nick is now a DA’s investigator?
GP: He is doing RICO cases. He is working for Elaine Clay who is the wife of Marcus Clay from King Suckeman and those books. And he is my alter ego. He is whatever age I am or was, depending on the period of the book.
RB: I start to think of writers like William Kennedy, not as far back as Faulkner…
GP: Zola? Somebody made that allusion. The Zola of Washington, DC. I had to look that up. Paul Muni, Zola. That’s what I know about it.
RB: So that’s a natural development of your writing, not a device like Alfred Hitchcock making appearances in his movies?
GP: No, because it doesn’t really work for you. If somebody picks up one of my books and it would seem a little confusing to him. Even my editors have said to me, "Knock this shit off." Like your world is too big. You can’t follow one guy in this book because you have so many characters and you are giving equal weight to these people. It’s not like I meant to, I’m interested in everybody so I do, I get off the track quite a bit. And all of a sudden there’s a lot of characters.
RB: What does your first draft of a book look like? 900 pages?
GP: My first draft is the draft that goes out the door.
RB: No kidding? Because you did it a line at a time?
GP: I write all day or into the late afternoon, I take the rest of the day off. I come back at night and rewrite everything I did. And I just go forward the next day. It’s always been like that for me. One of the reasons is because I wasn’t taught in anyway how to write a book. I never took a writing class, went to any seminars. So I didn’t know that was right or wrong. This is how I worked it out.
RB: So that makes it a little simpler.
GP: I wrote my first book in a notebook.
RB: And bought a computer from its proceeds?
GP: Yeah, the big proceeds.
RB: I’m not a book collector, but I noticed that your books became valuable very quickly. Any idea why?
GP: Yeah, they didn’t print many copies.
RB: (laughs) They don’t print many copies of a lot of books and they don’t become valuable.
GP: Even from the very beginning I was getting good reviews. But they weren’t selling those books. I was paid $2500 for my first book.
RB: Oh my god!
GP: That trend continued through five books. Four thousand was the most I ever got. One thing I learned as I went along was you don’t want to get too much money up front. You can end your career like that. The other side of it is also bad because they aren’t on the hook for anything. They can sell those books to libraries only and they come out whole. So they printed up two thousand copies of those books and they sold maybe a thousand. So I started breaking out, and those books got very valuable. Now my second book will get you eight hundred bucks on the Internet. I was paid twenty five hundred to write the book.
RB: (laughs) Do you have any copies?
GP: I wasn’t smart enough. Like I said I didn’t know anything. They were offering them to me and I was like, "What am I going to do with them?"
RB: The more you are paid the more the publisher has a reason to promote the book.
GP: Yes. Ideally you want to be in the middle. A million dollar advance or a three million dollar advance would just scare the shit out of me. It would probably petrify me, freeze me. I couldn’t walk up into my office and write a book that I knew had to earn out three million dollars. I just couldn’t do it. It’s given me a lot of freedom to write any kind of book I want.
RB: You present a draft to your editor and he or she says "Can you lose this or do this?" And then what happens? You say…
RB: And then he goes…
RB: Who is in Dennis Lehane’s weight division these days? A few bestsellers, a movie on the way and another just signed…
GP: He didn’t really break through until Mystic River. Before that he was where I am now. Selling —I don’t know what I am selling. I heard a rumor this book has already sold about sixty thousand copies in the first couple weeks. By comparison to the Pattersons and the Clancys of the world that are selling millions—the differences are astonishing. But on the other hand most writers are selling ten thousand in hard cover.
RB: What about people like Carl Hiaasen?
GP: I don’t have any idea. I don’t even know what I sell. I never even look at the statements.
RB: I wasn’t looking for a hard figure.
GP: Where is he? He’s a best-selling writer. But I am too. I never dreamed I’d be making this much money that I making. I don’t have a day job. I don’t have to teach. I am supporting a family of five, and writing the books I want to write.
RB: Any pets?
GP: We have a cat that’s hanging on by her crusty fingernails. We just adopted it. I wouldn’t have a cat.
RB: Funny how that happens.
GP: And they don’t give you any joy, they just eat your food and walk away from you.
RB: My dog Rosie is sort of like that…
GP: I love dogs.
RB: She does warm up, but she is definitely food driven. Do you go to writer’s gatherings and conventions?
GP: I do occasionally. I was guest of honor at the World Mystery convention last year. I like meeting people and like going out on these book tour but I don’t particularly like hanging out with a bunch of writers.
RB: What about Washington, is there a literary community?
There is no solving murders, you know. Not unless the dead are going to rise up out of the earth. Once somebody is killed, it’s forever for their loved ones and their family and the community.
GP: Not really. Everybody I hang out with are guys I went to elementary school with.
RB: In Spy Game, Robert Redford says to Brad Pitt, "The thing to do is to save enough money to die somewhere warm." Any aspirations to move somewhere else?
GP: The next I’d liked like to do is, I’m building a house right now. On my street…Going far away from me is, what I want to do is have little piece of land on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, on the river. Maybe have a Boston Whaler, like an eighteen footer. Just something I can putter around with. I’m never going to leave the area.
RB: What do you read?
GP: I recently read the new Richard Price, Samaritan. It was great. I read A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone.
RB: How did you come to that?
GP: I was corresponding with Chris Offset—he’s a great writer too—we were talking about writers and asked if I had ever read it. That was the one I hadn’t read. I thought it was an amazing book. He really does go all the way out there. I read the new Lehane, Shutter Island. It’s great and really different. I’m reading Grapes of Wrath—I’m rereading it because I haven’t read it in a long time.
RB: I had a talk with Mark Costello and I remember he maintained that Grapes of Wrath was a better movie than novel.
GP: Mark Costello is full of shit. He trashed Price [in the New York Times Book Review] and he is not even fit to stand in his shadow.
RB: He didn’t really trash him.
GP: Yes, he did. He said he used "hackneyed genre conventions." Like I say, he’s not fit to carry his water. That just pissed me off, the whole first part of the review was about him…"When I was fourteen years old and I was reading genre…" Nobody cares, bud.
RB: Anyway, I should read Grapes of Wrath. I did read a wonderful war novella by Steinbeck, The Moon is Down, that I think Alan Furst is anthologizing in a book on espionage fiction. Any movies coming of your books?
GP: Curtis Hansen has bought Right as Rain and all the Strange books.
RB: Because if they one, they buy the character.
GP: Right. They are doing it for Warner Brothers and the guy who did Twenty Fifth Hour, the novel and the movie is a definite right now, David Benioff.
RB: Is he any good?
GP: Yeah, he wrote Troy also which is a remake of the Iliad. His next adaptation is For Whom the Bell Tolls. So he’s a good young writer and Hansen is a world-class director.
RB: So it’s all in the family then, Little Brown and Warner Brothers…
GP: Little Brown isn’t going to be part of anybody’s family pretty soon.
RB: Does that affect you?
GP: I don’t think it will, but it’s going to affect a lot of people I like, people who have worked there. It’s not fair because it’s a successful profitable company and AOL, which will never be successful or profitable, is jettisoning it for its shareholders.
RB: When I talked to Nick Tosches last fall he had some choice paragraphs about AOL in In the Hand of Dante. I think he was dismayed that they were expending so much effort on John McEnroe’s book.
GP: Well, that was a weird book he wrote. I like his writing, but that’s a hard book to sell. You could have marketed the hell out of it and you wouldn’t have…Who’s going to read that book?
RB: I read it. His fans will read it.
GP: Well, I did too. His fans, yeah, but do you give that to your parents or your next-door neighbor? It’s a schizophrenic book. You have this very hard-boiled crime novel…
RB: And then you are trying to figure out why this hit man is a cross dresser…
GP: That’s great scene but the point is if you are literary or on the other side…you are not going to please anybody when they read that book. That person is going to skip over half the book…
RB: I don’t know. There is this continued interest in Dante that flares up from time to time. Anyway, are you connected to the movie production?
GP: No, but I’m working on a show called The Wire for HBO. I worked on it last season and now I am a story editor with Ed Burns. And I am writing a couple of shows myself.
RB: Is it fun?
GP: Yeah, I commute to Baltimore everyday. It’s different to have a job again, but I wanted to do it because it’s a good show.
RB: It won’t be a shock to you when someone asks you to change something?
GP: It’s been a better experience than I have had with movies. It’s always been a heartbreaking experience. In the moves it never seems to be about, "Can you make this better?" It’s always about. "Can you make it more palatable to the masses?" With HBO, or this show anyway, the notes are always about making it better, never about advertisers or ratings or anything like that. How can we make this the best show we can—that’s pretty good.
RB: How did HBO get to be in the position of doing these quality shows?
GP: Oz was the first—it was ground breaking— and they saw they could do serious television. And then The Sopranos kicked the door in after that. Not everything works…
RB: Before Oz, wasn’t the same group doing Homicide?
GP: Yeah, Tom Fontana. David Simon was part of Homicide too, he wrote the book and he is the creator of Wire and he also did the Corner.
RB: But why does HBO seem to be cornering the market?
GP: They go out and hire good writers and we are all working cheap.
RB: At the front end?
GP: There is no back end at HBO.
RB: Even with tape and DVD sales?
GP: That is a sticking point with a lot of creators and writers and they make huge revenue on videos.
GP: But that’s not why you are doing it. I didn’t even need to take this job. I took it because I wanted to write for Simon.
RB: So your plate is pretty full for the time being?
GP: Yeah, it’s real full.
RB: Have you slowed down on the writing of the next novel?
GP: I finished it before I took this gig. I knew I had to start working January first so I shuttered myself for four and a half months and wrote seven days a week and finished the book.
RB: With three kids?
GP: Yeah, but I have always done that.
RB: And do you have an idea for your next novel?
GP: No. Don’t pressure me.
RB: Too soon to too tell?
GP: I have a year before this one comes out. It’s called Hard Revolution. Do you like the title?
RB: I tend to like to hear the word ‘revolution’. I’m of that era.
GP: We could use one now.
RB: Good. Well, thank you very much.
GP: You’re welcome.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing