Bethesda Magazine Interview
George Pelecanos: Criminal Intent
Want to know what makes award-winning crime writer George Pelecanos tick? Look no further than his novels.
You can find him in Detective Gus Ramone of The Night Gardener (Little, Brown and Co., 2006). Ramone is a white man dealing with the issues of raising mixed-race kids; Pelecanos and his wife, Emily, adopted a Guatemalan daughter and two African-American sons when the three were infants.
Read about the fictional Alex Pappas taking over the family diner when his father falls ill in The Turnaround (Little, Brown and Co., 2008), and you might just as easily be reading about Pelecanos’ experience running his father’s coffee shop in D.C. at age 18.
Pelecanos, 57, grounds his novels in the language, music and culture of the world in which he grew up: the working-class neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., and Silver Spring.
His gritty, hard-edged realism has earned him numerous awards and accolades. Esquire labeled him the “poet laureate of the D.C. crime world” in 2001. Pelecanos has parlayed that success into a separate career in television. He received an Emmy nomination for his writing on the acclaimed HBO series The Wire, and was a co-writer and producer on the World War II miniseries The Pacific. He recently served as executive producer and writer on Treme, the HBO series based in New Orleans that ended in December.
Pelecanos lives with his wife, Emily, adult son Pete and daughter, Rosa, a junior at Montgomery Blair High School, on an unassuming street near downtown Silver Spring. As we talked in his dining room one rainy April morning, Pelecanos sat beneath “Double Portrait,” the oil painting by artist Minerva Chapman that inspired his most recent book, The Double (Little, Brown and Co., 2013).
Seeing the actual painting—two portraits of the same man from different views—really makes your book The Double come alive.
Yeah, I was always wanting to write about that because I was fascinated by the painting. Obviously, it’s the duality of one guy. It was my uncle’s, and he died in 1990 and it’s the only thing I took from his house because I loved it. It’s actually by a noted American impressionist [Chapman].
That’s one of the pleasures of reading your books—the references to culture as well as to familiar locations in the D.C. area.
When I started out in the early ’90s writing books, it hadn’t been done before in Washington. There wasn’t anybody writing about the living city. My mom and dad grew up in the city. My mom—she’s 90 years old—I can call her up and say, “Mom, what was on H Street, between 8th and 10th, and she’ll go right down the line and tell me every single store. So if I say there is a house that’s white with green shutters at 9 and Quackenbos or something like that, there [actually] is a house there that is white with green shutters.
You do your own research. You’re out there on your bike, just like your character Spero Lucas in The Double, checking things out.
I do a couple months of that before I start writing a book…in addition to doing things like going to the D.C. jail and meeting inmates or working with lawyers and detectives.
In The Double, there’s a scene where Spero, an Iraqi war vet-turned-private investigator, delivers books to wounded soldiers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda. You write that the recovering vets “enjoy a good story with clean, efficient writing, a plot with a problem to be solved and everyday characters readers can relate to.” Is that how you would describe your writing?
That’s what I’m trying to do. That’s what I admire. The writers that I mention in that little passage [Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, Lawrence Block, among others] are the writers that I really look up to because they do that successfully. If it’s done well, it can be art.
How did you end up a writer?
In my senior year [at the University of Maryland], I took an elective in crime fiction with this guy, Charles Mish, and he turned me on to books—and, specifically, crime novels. I wanted to be a filmmaker, [do] film production, and that’s what I got my degree in. But when I took that class, I sort of changed my goals. I decided that I was going to write a novel.
And so for the next 10 years, I worked in a lot of restaurants and bars and I sold women’s shoes, televisions and a bunch of things. And in that period, I was reading a lot because I had never really read books before I took that class. I read books voraciously to try to figure out how to do it, because I’d never taken a writing class or anything like that. I did have a natural talent—teachers would say, “You’re a pretty good writer.” But how was I going to get from A to B? I had no idea. Being a Greek-American kid, I thought it was always [John] Updike and all these others guys who lived in Connecticut. I just had to figure it out for myself, which is what I did.
And then I was 31 and I started to sit down and do it. Emily and I were married in ’85. We had a little $85,000 house, didn’t have a lot of debt, and I quit my job, which was the stupidest thing you can do, because two or three months later I had to get a job again. So I took a job working in a kitchen down on C Street and 2nd in a bar and I started writing this book [A Firing Offense, St. Martin’s Press, 1992] and not knowing what I was doing. I wrote the book in longhand. I wrote it again in notebooks, couldn’t afford a computer. Then I bought one and I wrote the third time on the word processor. And I sent it up to New York blind because I couldn’t get any agents to even answer my letters or calls.
So you blanketed publishers?
No, I did something also stupid. I got that book the Writer’s Market, which is still published. The instructions always say no simultaneous submissions. The reason they don’t want that is because if you got something, they don’t want other people to bid it up. But I didn’t know that, so I sent it to St. Martin’s Press exclusively. And I didn’t bother them. I just started writing another book because I liked the process. A year later, I got a call from an editor there and he’d just picked it up off the slush pile and they wanted to buy it.
How did you react?
It was huge. Because all I ever really wanted to do was write one book. I wanted to have a book in the library with my name on the spine. But at that point, I was getting into it as a writer. By the time they called me, I had my second novel done. And I’ve written one every year since.
And you were working at the time?
I finally got a job with Jim and Ted Pedas, who [had] owned the Circle Theatre [in D.C.]. They had a distribution company. They were starting to produce the Coen brothers films, and I read in the trades that they had picked up a John Woo film called The Killer, which I had seen. And I wrote them a letter and said, “I want to come work with you guys and promote and distribute the film for you.” I didn’t know what I was doing, but they let me in and I worked there for nine years. And we produced films together, independent films.
What does that involve?
It’s different than what I ended up doing. A film producer can be a guy in an office who puts the deal together. But when I started working in television on The Wire, a film producer [was] somebody who’s there all the time on the set [for] prep, shoot, post-production. You’re actually a filmmaker, if you’re a writer-producer, which is what I became. I was right on the crest of that wave that was The Sopranos and Oz, and I was with The Wire, where we were changing what was happening in television.
I left the Pedases because I started to get jobs writing for movies. And then my book King Suckerman (Little, Brown and Co., 1997) was bought by Miramax, and as part of the deal, I was the screenwriter on that. At that point, I was working two jobs already because I was writing every night and early morning and going to work during the day. I wrote eight novels like that, while I had a day job every year. I couldn’t take having three jobs because I was getting work as a screenwriter. So I left them in ’99. So 15 years I’ve been out on my own.
How did you manage for so long?
I would get up very early and I would write, and then I would go to work and I’d come home after the 9-to-5 and I’d write at night. I did that for eight years.
Do you maintain a similar routine now?
Yeah, I treat it like my business. I’m in there at 9 o’clock. I dress for work. I don’t wear sweatpants or shorts or something like that. I wear a button-down shirt and jeans when I’m working.
When I start writing, I write seven days a week. I’ve always done that. I don’t know any other way to do it. I never leave it. I just keep working every day, a certain amount of pages. I work at night, rewriting what I did that morning. Two shifts. By working that intensely, I can have a book in five months, a clean manuscript to send up to New York.
I have to work. I’m very uncomfortable when I’m not working. In television, it’s 14, 16 hours a day for six or seven months straight. I did Treme in New Orleans for the last four years. I was down there for six months of the year. Every season I wrote a couple scripts, but that’s 10 days of writing for each script, so what I was doing was producing. I was working very hard, but it wasn’t writing for the most part. It was all the things you do every day: prep for the shoot, post-production. I love that. And what I really like about it as opposed to being a novelist, which I also like, is when I’m here writing a book, I’m alone every day. And then I get this other job for the second half of the year and all of a sudden I’m working with 100 people that I feel are artists. They don’t get their due, but the hair and makeup people, the costumes people, all these people, they’re artists, and you’re building something together. That’s really intriguing to me.