Interview: Crime Writer George Pelecanos

George Pelecanos is nothing if not prolific. He’s written twenty crime novels based in DC, written and produced for The Wire, Treme, and The Pacific, and won a handful of prizes while doing so. His latest book, The Double ($29), in bookstores now, marks the return of The Cut’s compelling private investigator, Spero Lucas, an Iraq War vet turned private investigator who is understated enough to be interesting and morally flexible enough to be tested. I caught up with Pelecanos during the last leg of his book tour to talk about thrillers, The Wire, and what’s next for the man Stephen King dubbed “perhaps America’s greatest living crime writer”.

Your career has a lot of different branches—but why’d you start with crime fiction?

A professor turned me on to it. I hadn’t really read novels—I was a film freak, I wanted to direct films, so I’ve always loved stories, but I’d never really read books that spoke to my world. Crime fiction did, not because of the crime part of it, but because they’re generally about working class people, every day people. A lot of American fiction is about Gatsby, and people who win.

So the next ten years, I read nothing but crime fiction while I worked.

You read nothing else?

Nope. I wanted to learn how to do it, so I decided to read a lot and live a full life. I worked a lot. At the time I was just trying to pay the bills, but it was fortuitous because I came into contact with all kinds of people. I worked retail. I was a bartender. It happened to be down by the district courts in DC, so a lot of cops, lawyers, and judges, would sit there and talk. And of course I was a fly on the wall.

I always learned more on my jobs than I did in university. I sold women’s shoes, straight commission, through college. They paid me to talk to good-looking women all day.

And who were you reading?

So many authors. David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy.

You said you were a film freak—was returning to film always in the back of your mind?

Yeah, in the back of my mind I wanted to be a filmmaker. I felt that if I began a career as a novelist, it would give me a little bit of cachet and open some doors for me. But then, the more I wrote books, the more I found I really liked writing novels. In a way I forgot about film, and my goal wasn’t to get back into film, it was to become a better novelist.

But love of film still influenced you?

Oh yeah. You’re not going to hear a lot of writers admit this, but when I’m writing a book, I see a movie in my head. That’s why there’s a lot of music in my books, because if you get into a car, or working in a bar, there’s always music playing, and it helps me set the scene.

So how’d you find a way into the film industry?

In ‘89 I got a job at circle films in Washington, my first job in the film business, because I wrote to the owners. I had seen in the trades that they bought John Woo’s The Killer for distribution in the United States, I saw it at a film festival in DC, and I wrote them a letter saying, “I want to distribute that film for you.” I didn’t know anything about film distribution, and they let me in. I introduced John Woo to the States via them, moved the prints around the country, did the ads, all that stuff.

Are you still into that hard-broiled Hong Kong-style cinema?

Yeah—well, I like John Woo’s work he did in the States, but I don’t think it’s as good as what he was doing when he was working out of Hong Kong.

Now, I’ve been watching a lot of South Korean crime films. The Man from Nowhere. That’s a great picture, man.

After Dave Simon recruited you for The Wire, how big of a chance was it from writing novels?

Once I started producing the wire, and I was on set everyday, I fell in love with that too. I produced Treme in New Orleans for four years, I produced The Pacific, I like working with a cast and crew. As opposed to sitting in a room by myself.

Which is more challenging, writing a novel or writing a TV show?

There are more fires that you have to put out in a film or television production than in writing a novel. A novel is a psychological game where you’re constantly trying to tell yourself that it’s going to be all right. Every book is hard. I’d like to be able to say that it gets easier, but it doesn’t.

There’s a different set of problems on a film set. A lot of it arises from working with one hundred people and the number of filters it has to go through before it gets to the screen. As a novelist, it’s just an editor and me. As a screenwriter and producer, there’s a cinematographer, an editor, costumes, hair and makeup, all these people. But they can elevate what you’ve done as a writer. The actors can elevate it.

How much of what you write ends up on screen?

In the beginning of The Wire, about thirty per cent of what I wrote made it to the screen. By the third season, it was closer to ninety per cent.

What’s your favourite season of The Wire?

I think that season four, with the kids, was our best. Season three, I think I did my best writing. Episode three-eleven, “Middle Ground”. There’s a scene on the rooftop, between Stringer and Avon, they’re betraying each other and talking about their childhood. I think that’s the best thing I’ve ever written. That went from the page to the screen without a change. It’s a two-and-a-half page scene, and I can’t think of a scene in my books that’s better than that.

How much of The Wire is true to life?

It’s all based on reality—all heavily researched. In Baltimore, as soon as I got there, I did a bunch of ride-alongs.

The one criticism we heard about the series was when Omar jumps from that building and survives. The other actor in the scene, Donnie, he did that in the seventies. But it was from the sixth floor. We were like, “Nobody will believe that,” so we went with the four floor. Donnie Andrews was a real badass.

What are you going to shoot next?

David and I just turned in a pilot script to HBO. It’s about Times Square in the seventies. We did sell it, but it doesn’t mean that they want to shoot it. We’re just waiting to hear. It’s called The Deuce.

Ever think of taking a break?

No. You know that line in The Wild Bunch, where the guy says maybe we should back off? And the other guy, he says, back off to what? Well, exactly. Back off to what?

Dave Robson is the editor of DailyXY. He spends his time reading books, drinking Scotch, and smoking cigars.

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