I am still struggling to find the best way to describe the novels George Pelecanos writes about life in Washington D.C.
Here is how I put it when I last interviewed him: "It would be a disservice, and incomplete, to describe George Pelecanos as someone who writes novels about crime. He is, at times, a sociologist, an analyst and an oral historian. Along with Dennis Lehane, an excellent crime writer, and David Simon, author of great non-fiction books Homicide and The Corner, Pelcanos writes for The Wire, one of the best television series ever."
Don't take my word for it - this is how New York Times book reviewer Motoko Rich put it
Mr. Pelecanos, 49, is part of a fraternity of writers, including Dennis Lehane and Richard Price, who push the boundaries of crime writing into literary territory, exploring character more deeply than many crime novelists dare, introducing challenging social themes and bucking expectations that everything will come out all right in the end.
Pelecanos is at times chronicling D.C., its residents, its race relations problems, its history as much as he is telling great stories.
George was kind enough to agree to an email interview with me about his new book which came out this month. Derek Strange is a character in some of his earlier books.
George: I miss him, too. Strange is my favorite character, and he will probably return in some form. But I'm not much for planning, so I can't say for sure.
I was in South America in '93, and what I saw was poverty in the extreme.To see malnourished and starving children is especially shocking. It was not safe to walk the streets at night, because people who are hungry and have no assistance or hope will kill you to get a piece of bread. People who complain about welfare in our country should go to a place where there is none and see the result.
Personally, I think our government should offer people work instead of a handout. I'm speaking
on programs like the WPA that were implemented during the Depression. These kinds of programs taught people how to work and got them into a culture of work. Something similar should have been done after the
Katrina disaster. But then folks would have screamed that dirty word, socialism. Obviously, I got fired up on that trip. And these are the kinds of issues I have been writing about since.
In most police shows the criminals are caught and punished in the end. In fact, where I come from, the closure rate on murders is only about 50%, and at times has been as low as 33%. I wouldn't use the term "fascistic genre"--that is something my character dreamed up--but these shows do tell the viewer by implication that if they commit a crime they will lose. And that's just untrue. But people generally want to hear that message. Those kinds of shows are very popular for a reason.
As a novelist you're used to working alone and being in complete control of your work. As a television scribe, suddenly you have to get used to working with a bunch of people with many different personalities, and you have to let go of that control. It doesn't mean that you can't or shouldn't fight for the things you feel strongly about. I actually
liked the collaborative aspect of it, even when it got heated. Our arguments were always confined to the room and were in the spirit of making a better show. I've been in toxic atmospheres in this business, so I know the difference.
Hopefully I will find something like The Wire up the road. I do feel like we captured lightning in a bottle.
The Turnaround was essentially about healing, and the chapters set at Walter Reed dovetailed with that theme. Plus, I was just curious about what went on there. I live about two miles from the hospital, and I see
the soldiers in my neighborhood all the time. I wanted to talk to them and check out what was going on inside those walls.
Characters, no question. They lead me to the plot.
I thought the series did exactly what journalism is supposed to do. It exposed a wrong and affected change. It was not designed to put a happy face on the situation. Having said that, they could have devoted a few columns to all the good that is done at Walter Reed everyday. What I saw and heard was inspiring and heroic.
Yes, I was lucky enough to gain access. No one was prepped in advance, so the conversations I had were not scripted or prompted in any way. Basically, I walked around the hospital and talked to the young men and
women who had been injured in the war. Some of the scenes in the book are verbatim exchanges. I couldn't have improved upon them dramatically, and I didn't want to disrespect the soldiers by embellishing or sentimentalizing their stories.
I have not read much science fiction. I'm not putting the genre down in any way. It's just that I could never seem to get my head around it. I was a big John D. MacDonald fan in my youth. McGee is a fantasy, but he's a damn good one. At the time I was reading those books, I named my dog Travis, and she was a bitch. I don't mean to say that she was ill-tempered. Travis was a sweet dog. She's been gone sixteen years, and I think about her every day.
I just finished a novel last week and sent it up to New York, the publishing capitol of the world. I can tell you that Derek Strange does not make an appearance in this one, either. Sorry. Look for that one to be published sometime in 2009. We are close to a shoot date on Shoedog, an early novel of mine, for which I have written the screenplay
and will co-produce. I have to keep working, man. The clock's ticking and its hands are moving faster.