PW: Your depiction of Anacostia [a neighborhood of Washington, D.C., in Soul Circus, and other novels] as an urban battlefield is sadly familiar. What, if anything, distinguishes it from other decayed neighborhoods in other American cities?
George Pelecanos: It's a section of the city that a lot of Washingtonians don't really know about anymore, don't travel through. Certainly white Washingtonians don't go there. It's a real neighborhood. The majority of people there do what other people do. They go to work every day, they take care of their lawns, they have gardens.These pockets of crime in it have tarnished its reputation, I would say. But it's not what people think it is.
PW: What is it about D.C.'s geography that makes it so conducive to the illegal arms trade?
GP: Handguns are illegal in D.C., but you can get them readily from Maryland and Virginia through straw purchases. How can you have a city where guns are illegal, and you can be on the street at night, which has happened to me, at a stoplight, and a guy pulls back his shirt just to show you that he's strapped? There's more guns in this city than there are in places where it's legal to own a gun. That's why I wanted to get into the actual mechanics of the gun trade. I worked with a lot of ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] guys when I was doing the research for this book, and they showed me how it all worked.
PW: There seems to be a strong Southern flavor to the neighborhoods you describe—accents, food, even music. This is very reminiscent of The Wire, a show you've written for. What role does this cultural influence play in the communities described?
GP: This is a Southern town. The major myth of Washington is that it's a transient city. You're talking about a very small group of people that work for the government, who move out of here every four or eight years, but there's a rock-solid base of people, the majority of this city, who came up from the South and have lived here for generations.
PW: Is there any distinction in the feedback you get from audiences when you tour? Say, between rural/urban audiences, young/old or black/white?
GP: Sure. I don't change my presentation when I go from place to place. When I go out on a book tour, for example when I go into places like Arizona or the West (and I exclude California from the West), and I start talking about gun issues, I have walkouts. In a way I can understand it, because these people don't live in an urban, East Coast city, where they've seen the effects of gun violence, not just the murders themselves but the ripple effect in the community and so on. And they're understandably upset and baffled when someone's talking about curbing handguns, because they don't see it as a problem where they live. They see it as something that's a constitutional right. The same thing goes for when I talk about racial issues. When I get into places like bedroom communities in northern California and so on, there's not a black face in the whole city, so: no black people, no problem.
PW: Can you describe the differences between visualizing scenes in your novels and those in your film or TV scripts?
GP: The obvious difference is that there's no internal monologue in writing a screenplay. You're describing action, and then there's dialogue. And you have to try to do it in an artful way so that you're getting it across not just to the people who are paying you, but to the director, the actors and so on. It's a little tricky. It's also one of the reasons I prefer writing novels, because you can sort of stretch out. Now, when I was approached by David Simon to write for The Wire, he described it as a novel for television. That's what intrigued me. You can tell one story over 13 hours. So because of the time, and because of the freedom of writing for HBO, you could do what you do in a novel, which is slowly develop characters and really make them intricate, and it's very much like a novel, which is why I write for that show.