May-June 2022

George Pelecanos’ latest work is a cry for reform. But don’t tell him ‘Defund the police.’

The Silver Spring novelist and TV producer talks about writing, law enforcement and the Baltimore-set HBO series 'We Own This City'

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George Pelecanos at home in Silver Spring. Photo by Joseph Tran

At age 11, George Pelecanos went to work, taking the bus from his home in Silver Spring to his father’s diner in downtown Washington, on 19th Street near M. “I worked with my dad my whole teen years,” he tells me. “There’s just an incredible experience to work with your father and see what he does and what a man is supposed to do when he grows up, by example.”

Pelecanos’ grandfather had also run a diner on 14th Street and “all of us Greeks kind of grew up around the business,” he notes. But the young man departed from the family tradition. His job as a kid was to deliver orders to the surrounding office buildings, and he recalls: “I was on foot a lot of the day, and I had a real huge imagination. I would make up stories as I was delivering food, just to pass the time. My dad [a combat veteran of World War II who died in 2009] called me the dreamer, but he always said it with a twinkle in his eye, like affectionately.”

The dreamer became a writer, a teller of tales not a maker of meals. But it took awhile. First came Northwood High, the University of Maryland and a variety of odd jobs, including one at a shoe store in Montgomery Mall, where he met his wife, Emily, a Bethesda native. Pelecanos was 35 when he published his first novel, A Firing Offense, in 1992. It happens to feature a Greek American, Nick Stefanos, who happens to run an electronics store—another of Pelecanos’ many temporary gigs. Nineteen more novels followed, nearly one a year, all set in the Washington, D.C., area, all focused on the characters, cops and criminals who inhabit local neighborhoods. “The cliché is that Washington is a transient town of people who blow in and out every four years with the new administration,” Pelecanos once explained. “But the reality is that people have lived in Washington for generations, and their lives are worth examining.” 

The dreamer’s real passion had always been movies, however, and his break came when he was asked to write an episode for The Wire, the critically acclaimed series about Baltimore’s underworld that ran on HBO for five seasons starting in 2002. That led to other assignments on other series—Treme, about post-Katrina New Orleans, The Deuce, set in New York’s porn industry—and he evolved from writer to producer to showrunner. His latest effort, We Own This City, a six-part miniseries that was to debut on HBO in late April, centers on a unit of corrupt cops in Baltimore. Yet Pelecanos never went Hollywood. At 65, he still lives on a modest street just east of downtown Silver Spring, 2 miles from where he grew up. We talked over Zoom one sunny morning in February. Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Photo by Joseph Tran

When you were 11, the 1968 riots that ravaged Washington had a big impact on you.

That summer was when I started working for my father, and I took the bus down Georgia Avenue and people looked different than they had before. I’m talking about Black Washingtonians, working-class Washingtonians. They were standing tall is the best way I can describe it. Something had changed, and on some level it was hitting me. I always wanted to write a book about the riots, but I waited 12 books before I wrote it, because I didn’t think I was good enough. But at some point I said, OK, I’m ready now to take this on [Hard Revolution was published in 2004].

Your interest in writing was sharpened at Maryland by a course in crime novels taught by Charles Mish, a legendary English professor.

I took this class as an elective. It just looked easy. It said: Read paperback novels and discuss ’em, so I did it. I wasn’t much of a reader. I was like a movie freak; that’s what I thought I really wanted to do, and he turned me on to books. I wanted to tell stories, and I thought, well, maybe this is something I could do. And it meant a lot to have a guy like that tell me that it’s OK to like these kinds of books.

Why did it take you so long to write your first novel?

My mission, when I graduated from college, was to read voraciously for a number of years and just figure out how this is done. So that’s what I did. I just read a couple of novels a week for years and years while I was bartending, doing things like that. And it was almost 10 years before I thought: OK, I’m ready to try this. I wrote a novel in longhand in notebooks, and I rewrote it the same way. And I sent it up to New York and forgot about it. I only sent it to one publisher, and they got back to me a year later and said, ‘We want to publish it.’ That’s what happened.

You had married your wife, Emily, in 1985, and you decided to adopt children. Your sons are both Black, both from Brazil, and your daughter is from Guatemala. Tell me about that decision.

The process is kind of weird, you know. You go into a room and they say, ‘Well, what kind of kid do you want?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean? Like what color?’ And they go, ‘Well, yeah.’ I was a little dumbfounded, but my wife said, ‘We want whoever needs to be adopted.’ And so pretty soon after that they called us and said, ‘There’s a baby; he’s on a plane right now. Are you interested?’ The next day we were in the lawyer’s office, and they put my son Nick in my arms, my oldest son. It was like magic. When they put him in my arms, I was his father. And then we just kept going with Peter, my other son. We thought it would be nice if they were both from the same place, so they could lean on each other. Then Brazil shut down [intercountry adoptions], so we went to Guatemala and we got Rosa. They were all babies when we adopted them.

You’ve said that having a mixed-race family helped shape your decision to settle in Silver Spring, one of the most diverse places in America.

I didn’t want to be somewhere where they were growing up around kids who didn’t look like them. This is real. This is truly a mixed neighborhood, not just racially and ethnically, but also economically. So, yeah, that’s been good. I don’t think we’re going to leave here. But it was challenging at times. The policing in this part of the county is different than it is in Bethesda. Over there, you don’t see a lot of kids sitting on the curb at 2 in the morning, pulled out of their cars, but it’s routinely done here. It’s happened many times where one of my sons would be out in the driveway and police would pull up and say, ‘What are you doing here?’ Think of what that does to your psyche or how you think about the police. I’m no different than any parent, worrying about your kid when they’re out. But when your kids are Black, there’s that extra added worry: Is something going to happen to them with law enforcement?

Talk about why you set so many of your books in this area.

Most Washington novels are about politics or the Pentagon and all that. I saw a way to shine a light on people who are not usually represented in books, people who go to work every day and don’t get much glory or anything like that; they’re not famous. That’s the reason I got hired on The Wire, because David Simon [a former crime reporter who created the show] read one of my books and he said to himself, this guy’s doing what I’m doing. That’s how I started in television.

George Pelecanos (right) and son Nick Pelecanos on the set of We Own This City. The hand gesture is personal to them, meaning they’re united for life. Photo by Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Why did you take this turn into production and film writing?

I had always wanted to do it, but I got so into my novel writing career that I put aside that sort of ambition. But being a novelist can go away. You can have a contract that’s too big and you don’t earn back the advance, and all of a sudden you can’t get published anymore. And I was in my 40s, I had little kids, and I wanted to know how to do something else. So I did. I went to work for Simon the first season. I wrote an episode that got a lot of attention, and he asked me back to come on staff. I wanted to learn how to produce, so I was on set every day. I became a producer, and then I started showrunning, and I’ve been doing that for over 20 years. I haven’t written a book in about three years, but the idea is that I’ll get back to writing novels when I age out of this, which is coming. It’s coming.

Laura Lippman, the noted Baltimore crime writer, is married to David Simon, and she was the one who connected the two of you.

We were at a funeral for a mutual friend, and David says, ‘Ride back with me to the shiva [a traditional Jewish mourning ritual].’ On the way over there, he said: I got this show; I just sold it to HBO; it’s about police and drug dealers and all that. Do you want to write an episode? Yeah, I’ll do it. He didn’t say: It’s going to be the greatest show on television, or anything like that. That happened once I got into the writers’ room and I saw what we were doing and it got very exciting at that point. Because we all saw the potential of it. It was a great experience.

But also a humbling one. Novelists are used to having complete control over their work. Script writers have to accept that films are a group enterprise, and you didn’t like what they did to your first effort.

I called David and I said, ‘What happened, man?’ And he said: Well, you got about 30% of what you wrote in there; that’s pretty good for a script. But it put a chip on my shoulder in a way because I wanted to write the whole script myself and get that shot. And by season three I had a script that got nominated for an Emmy, and I would say 95% of it was completely me. I’d sort of figured it out.

How did you make the transition from the solitary work of a novelist to working on a team for television?

There’s a lot of argument in the writers’ room. All the writers have egos, as they should. When I’m in a room with David Simon and these other great writers, I wanted to kick their ass, you know. I wanted to write the best script of the season, and they felt the same way about me, and that’s a healthy thing. But if you’re going to do this, you have to let go as a writer. Meaning no matter what you write, even if the script is all yours, it’s going to mutate by the time it gets to the screen. There are all these people that have a role—the actors, the director, the costumes might not be what you had in mind, the cars, everything. Which is why I wanted to be a showrunner eventually, so I could control everything and have the same kind of control that I had over a novel, although that’s never going to be possible.

Do you see a theme running through your novels and your TV work?

Yes, they’re all about American cities and people trying to make it under oppressive systems. Even if it’s not conscious, you tend to be drawn to the same kinds of stories all the time. Anytime we get into something, when I’m working with David, we ask each other: What’s this about? What are we trying to say here? And that’s how we choose things. The Deuce wasn’t about pornography; it was about women trying to make it in a man’s world basically. We Own This City is not really about dirty cops; it’s about police in America.

Talk about your new series, We Own This City, and what drew you to the story.

The opportunity to examine police, to use Baltimore as a microcosm for policing in America, which is obviously at a crossroads. We raise a lot of questions and maybe have some answers. The thing about the cops in this story is that the system actually worked: They were caught, they were charged, they were convicted and they’re doing time in federal prison. But there are still a great many problems there, as there are in any city.

What do you want viewers to take away from the series?

First of all, that things have to change. The idea of constitutional policing and public safety are not mutually exclusive. You can have both if you work at it. By the way, the writers on this show, we all have different opinions, but none of us are for defunding the police. In fact, it’s the opposite. I think police should have more money to do a better job. And there should certainly be more police hired. But there should be higher standards to be a police officer, and the salaries should go up. We don’t hire teachers that aren’t educated, or medical professionals. It’s an important job. People in the neighborhoods want more of a police presence. They want to be safe. What they don’t want is to be stopped while they’re driving home because they have braids or they’re wearing a hoodie or when they’re sitting on the stoop of their own house. They don’t want those things.

From left: Actor Jon Bernthal, director Reinaldo Marcus Green and showrunner George Pelecanos on the set of We Own This City. Photo by Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Do your Black sons give you a special sensitivity to how people of color view the cops?

Yes. I mean, it’s personal to me, and that’s why I got involved in the show. We give voice to the police. We let them have their say, too. There are several really good scenes of police talking about why they’re not appreciated for doing a very dangerous job. On the other hand, we show the lives of people who are impacted by their actions, who were robbed by these police, who had home invasions perpetrated against them. So, we tried to give a voice to everybody and let the viewer decide how they come away from it.

Did you talk to your own sons about the script?

They work with me. Peter is in the art department and Nick is an assistant director. And so, he was on set every day, he read the scripts and we talked about it all the time. There was one scene that I wrote that was directly out of our lives. And I went to Nick, and I asked him permission to write it. There’s a Justice Department official in this show, and the backstory I gave her is that her father was a federal judge and she went to law school and she grew up in Bethesda, a Black family. And she talks about her brother—he’s a craftsman, but he wore jeans and a hoodie to work every day. And he had braids and all that stuff. So he got followed home by the police, and they made him get out of his car in the driveway of his parents’ house. Police said he made a threatening move towards them and they arrested him. Well, that happened to my son right out front of my house. And Montgomery County police arrested him. They said he made a threatening move. But we had witnesses. He didn’t do anything. He was driving home and they followed him. And I guess they didn’t like the way he looked or something like that. The cop was belligerent, he pointed his finger at me, and he said: I’ll see you in court, because we had an argument out there.

You went out and confronted the cop?

I went outside, yeah. We had a conflict. And my son kept saying: Why are you all doing me like this? The cop didn’t show up in court; I knew he wasn’t going to. It was a bad arrest. [Presented with Pelecanos’ account, the Montgomery County Police Department did not respond to requests for comment from Bethesda Magazine.] But here’s the upshot of it: My son had relationships with police before that, in the neighborhood, and they were pretty good. But he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the police anymore. And I wrote a scene that exactly replicates that event. I bring it up because, well, there was a woman on set who didn’t like it ’cause she’s from Bethesda. And I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t about Bethesda. It’s about a family, it’s about the police being unable to see a young guy who’s Black living in a nice house somewhere. That’s what it’s about. It’s not a negative portrayal of Bethesda; it’s a replication of an actual event that happened in Montgomery County. A lot of these people are powerless. That’s the whole idea behind it.

In some of your books, you mention local hangouts. Do you still go to Vicino and Sergio’s in Silver Spring for Italian food?

Vicino is open and we use them quite a bit. But Sergio’s closed, which was so awful. That was a real sleeper restaurant and had great food.

Where do you ride your bike?

It’s mainly walking now, since the pandemic. Sometimes I’ll go to the valley trail in Rock Creek; that’s the most beautiful trail. It goes way up, and you’re looking down at the creek. It’s total immersion in the woods. And there’s no city like this. Don’t talk to me about Central Park. It’s not the woods. Rock Creek is such a beautiful thing to have in a city.

Do you have another book in you?

Yeah, definitely. I don’t know what it is yet, but it’ll come to me.

George Pelecanos

Born: Feb. 18, 1957, in Washington, D.C.

Lives in: Silver Spring

Education: Northwood High School and University of Maryland

Career: Dishwasher, shoe salesman, bartender, line cook, novelist, TV writer, producer and showrunner

Bibliography: 20 novels, most recently The Man Who Came Uptown in 2018

Filmography: Writer/producer on The Wire; executive producer on Treme, The Deuce; showrunner on We Own This City

Family: Married to Emily Pelecanos; three children: Nick, Peter and Rosa

Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. His latest book is Cokie: A Life Well Lived.