An interview with George Pelecanos, whose latest novel, The Turnaround, was published by Little, Brown.
PW: All your novels are set in Washington, D.C. Is that because it’s your home town, or is there some other reason?
GP: There was a hole in Washington fiction, I felt, when I started out. Most D.C. novels were about politics, or the federal city or people who lived in Georgetown or Chevy Chase—it was definitely a very narrow focus. And there were some clichés that had risen out of that, the foremost being that Washington was a transient city and that there was no culture here beyond the culture that came in and out with the federal government. The fact of the matter is that Washington is the home of generations of people, a primarily black city—when I was a kid it was 80% black; it’s about 60% now, but it’s still a black city. And our culture came up from the South, back in the Civil War, and so it’s the very top of the Mason-Dixon line but it is a Southern culture in a lot of ways—the way we speak, the slang, the food. And I just wanted to give to that part of the city and those people—the people who go to work every day and will raise children here and will probably die here. But honestly, I thought I was only going to write one book; I didn’t have any master plan, but that’s one of the things I wanted to do with that book. What happened was that I enjoyed writing the book very much, and I began writing another one before I even knew if the first one was even going to get published, because I had just sent it away and forgotten about it. After several books I began to see more clearly what I was doing. I started to jump around in time and go back into the ’20s and ’30s and try to tackle each part of our history here. With the intention of, when it’s all over, perhaps leaving something behind that stands as a record of the time.
PW: So how did that first book manage to get published?
GP: I’m probably going to make everybody jealous about this, but first I went out and got a Writer’s Market. Between that book and looking at the titles in the library, I saw that St. Martin’s Press was publishing a lot of crime novels. Also, according to the book, they were one of the few companies that would consider unsolicited manuscripts. So I sent it just to them. And I waited; I didn’t bother them, I didn’t write a letter, I didn’t call. And a year went by and I got a call on my answering machine from a young editor named Gordon Van Gelder. He said he had just picked it up off the slush pile and he wanted to make me an offer. I got to say that I’m not naïve: had the book landed on somebody else’s desk, I might never have had a career. Because Gordon was a young guy, he got the music in that book, the pop culture, things from my generation. And he got it.
PW: How has your work on the HBO series The Wire influenced your novel-writing—or perhaps the other way around?
GP: It opened a lot of doors for me in terms of my research. When I wrote The Night Gardener, for example, I had to get into the homicide division here in D.C. I had never been able to do that before; it’s a very closed society within the police department. And I had tried many times: I’m George Pelecanos, I write novels, and the door shuts in my face. So this time I called and I said I’m one of the producers on The Wire; they were like, Come on in, we love the show. And police do love the show, because we make the brass look like idiots. So that got me in there, and working in Baltimore for five years, I commuted for five years and, since I’ve never lived anywhere else [but D.C.], this broadened my world a little bit, and every year we did something different: we were down at the ports, or we were in the schools, or in the inner city, and all these things became more information for me, because I had full access. It was the kind of situation where I’d walk into a police station and they would toss me Kevlar vest and say, Let’s go; we’re going on a drug bust. And I’d do it, because anything, whether you use it in the show or in the book, you’re going to use it sometime. Also it was good to work with all the very accomplished writers on that show because it elevated everybody’s game, and we’re all competitive.
PW: You run with a band of crime writers—Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman. Do you influence one another’s work in any way?
GP: Only in that sense that I am very competitive, and these people are, too, but not in the way of trying to get the higher number on the New York Times list, or more copies sold. It’s more about I do want to try and kick their ass—I want them to read my book and say, He got me this time. I just finished Dennis’s book, which is coming out, and reading that makes me want to be more ambitious—or it makes me more ambitious, but not in terms of money or sales or anything like that: it makes me want to write a better book. We all started together and none of us had anything. And when we sat around, when we’d meet at a convention, we’d talk about books—even then we weren’t talking about marketing, things like that. And I think that’s why we became friends; we all had the same interest, and it’s nice that we’re all doing so well.
PW: You’ve written 15 novels in just about 20 years. Does the writing get easier or harder?
There’s two parts to that. The first thing is, the element of not knowing if you can write a book is gone; now after 15 novels I know I can do it—there’s a history there. But the other part is that I want to be better; I don’t want to rest on what I’ve done; I don’t want to duplicate myself if I can help it. There’s a little more pressure in that sense, because people are watching now. In the early part of my career, for my first six or seven books nobody was really paying attention—that was a really nice time because I was learning my craft by doing it, trying to add a lot of different things, and all under the radar screen. There wasn’t a lot of money involved, so I wasn’t being micromanaged or anything—not that I am now—but now I’ve gotten to where a lot of writers want to get to, but still I want to write better books. So in that sense it’s as difficult as it ever was.