As the American distributor for John Woo's The Killer in 1990, George Pelecanos wrote the immortal movie poster tagline "One Vicious Hitman. One Fierce Cop. Ten Thousand Bullets." Since then, he has built a somewhat more complex body of crime fiction as a novelist and writer-producer for HBO's The Wire.
Every one of his 14 fiction books is about the Washington, D.C., that thriller-scribblers such as John Grisham and Lee Child render as blurry background. Pelecanos characters make their home in the D.C. neighborhoods where people actually live, at a remove from the shiny bubble of federal power and the wealthy white minority on higher ground. Describing characters in words they might use themselves, Pelecanos has a relaxed way with dialogue, as when two D.C. animal control officers in 2005's Drama City, one black and one white, banter about an angry dog:
"Lucky was really feelin' your love vibe back there," said Lorenzo.
"You lived like that, you'd be angry too."
"I bet no one steals none of those hoopties out of that lot, though."
"Why would they?" said Mark. "I wouldn't take one of those cars if Martinez was gonna give it to me for free."
"Lucky's just lonely."
"Maybe you ought to come down one night, crawl into that cage, and lie down beside him. Sing him a lullaby, somethin' like that."
Along with Richard Price of New Jersey, and Dennis Lehane of Boston, Pelecanos was recruited for HBO's highly novelistic Baltimore cops-and-dealers series The Wire, with a fourth season airing this fall. The son of a Marine who fought in WWII, Pelecanos has also scripted two hours of a forthcoming Pacific version of Band of Brothers, The Pacific War. He has a historian's appetite for period pieces, having set novels in the '40s, the '70s, and the '80s. The 1968 portion of Hard Revolution (2004) could almost pass for a definitive narrative history of the April riots.
Pelecanos is also the rare American writer of man's-man fiction who is fascinated not just by the mechanics of violence but by its blowback. Shame the Devil (his last book to feature recurring characters from his first eight novels) has the structure of a revenge story, but hinges on a court-funded grief-support group. Drama City's gangster-turned-animal-control cop believes that some men, like some dogs, can't be saved—and hopes he's not one of them. Reviewing that book, a writer for the Washington Post noted a scene in which a black killer is aroused by the sight of a dogfight gone bloody—"Pelecanos gives the reader no explanation for this response"—all but accusing the author of racism. Yet the critic should have noted the end of the book, where a wrenching description of the character's abuse as a child closes the penultimate chapter.
When Pelecanos published his first novel, A Firing Offense, in 1992, he had never taken a writing class. He has since put out roughly a book a year. Four of them star Derek Strange, his black-private-dick-as-mentor-figure, who Samuel L. Jackson is slated to play in a film adaptation of 2001's Right as Rain. Pelecanos has also edited a recent collection of Washington short stories, D.C. Noir (Akashic Books). And his newest book, The Night Gardener (a return to the mid-'80s) will be issued on August 8 by Little, Brown, the same day as the release of the third season of The Wire on DVD.
Speaking in a meaty D.C. twang on Martin Luther King Day this year, Pelecanos talked about his writing over red peppers and anchovies at his favorite restaurant in Silver Spring, Maryland, Vicino Ristorante Italiano.
City Pages: You once said that your original ambition was to write one novel. It reminds me of Ian MacKaye [of D.C. bands Minor Threat and Fugazi] saying his only ambition was to play one show. Did you ever meet him?
George Pelecanos: Oh, yeah. I think I was at Republic Gardens on U Street and there was a young punk band playing upstairs, and I was sitting at the bar drinking whiskey. Ian sat down next to me. We just started talking, you know, the straightedge guy next to the Greek guy drinking bourbon neat. But he was a good guy. And the whole D.C. punk thing was very inspirational to me in the beginning. Because anybody could see that these weren't trained musicians. I took from that that maybe I don't have to be a guy who went to writing school. Let me just see if I can write a book.
CP: Did punk and go-go [funk] make you care more about local culture in your work?
Pelecanos: I wanted to get the word out on all this stuff. There's a marriage here that a lot of outsiders don't realize, with punk and go-go. I'd go see Minor Threat play with Troublefunk in clubs and also outdoor events. Go-go is another form of punk in that these kids don't really expect to go national. The music doesn't really translate outside of the live performances. It's so immediate that in six months, it's old anyway. That's why it's being sold on the street on PA tapes.
CP: Do you know any go-go musicians?
Pelecanos: You know the guy in The Wire who plays Slim Charles? A very tall young guy that's got braids, and shells in his braids, one of Avon's guys in the third season? He's the frontman for Backyard Band, which is our most popular band now, and I've become kind of tight with him. He's a guy who's had a very rough upbringing. He's been under suspicion of a lot of things. Police say he was involved in a couple homicides and this and that. But he's moved out of the city. He lives in Arlington. He's got a kid. He's a doting father. We employ a lot of people on that show that have checkered pasts, and we're trying to help them find a way out.
CP: And go-go wasn't a way?
Pelecanos: He's been shot twice onstage. It is sort of a concern after a while, to get away from that life.
CP: You told me you accidentally shot someone when you were young. Was he a friend of yours?
Pelecanos: Yeah, it was just kids playing around with a gun, teenagers cutting school. My dad had a gun in the house. Beyond that, there's nothing really interesting to talk about it. I don't want anybody ever saying, "You know, Pelecanos is real, he shot somebody in the face." I was just a dumb kid who should have been in school that day.
CP: Are you still friends with him?
Pelecanos: Yeah, he lives three miles from here. I baptized one of his kids. I think he's less affected by it than I am. It happened to him, and I'm not trying to take away from that. But it's haunted me, and it hasn't haunted him. He looks completely fine, completely normal.
CP: You started delivering food for your dad when you were 11, right?
Pelecanos: Yeah, right after the riots in '68, that summer. My grandfather had another place at 14th and R [streets], which was much rougher, a lunch counter, and I was there from the time that I was super little. The bus ride down was monumental for me. Because we went down Seventh Street, which was burned down in the riots, and just watched people on the bus that had changed since the riots.
Pre-'68, Washington was still a Southern town in a lot of ways. But everything changed, man. Like, it changed immediately, because white people got scared, basically. The irony of the whole King assassination was that he was all about nonviolence, but his assassination speeded up the Civil Rights movement in one weekend by 10 years. I saw it. Black people were no longer just going to sit around and wait for it to happen, and white people were no longer going to put up such resistance after they saw the city burn down in one weekend.
The fact that my parents made me do this was the greatest thing that ever happened. I remember them saying, "Look, you're 11 years old now, you're going to work. You get on the bus every day, you go downtown, you transfer to the F Street line, you'll find it. You could do that in '68, just put your 11-year-old son on the bus and tell him, "Go to work."
And thank God they did. That's why I'm sitting here. There's no doubt in my mind that that summer is why there are all these questions in my mind, the whole race and class thing I've been trying to answer. That counter, that carryout shop. My dad was Greek, there's black people. Then on the other side of the counter, because it was '68, there were white professionals. There was no intellectualizing for me at that age, but I knew what time it was.
CP: What do you mean?
Pelecanos: I'm saying I knew what side of the counter I was on.
CP: Your public comments about [the now-cancelled CBS program] The District are the only criticisms I've seen about that show. Why didn't it draw more controversy?
Pelecanos: I don't think they had any kind of viewership here because everybody knew it was bullshit, you know? The fact that you're going to bring in a white guy to run the city, to take it away from these incompetent blacks. It tells people subliminally what they want to know, that if only we could get somebody like that back in power...
CP: Get the coach in.
Pelecanos: Get the coach in. [laughs] I saw the pilot of that show, by the way, which they didn't air. They had a different guy playing the mayor, and clearly he was modeled on [former mayor Marion S.] Barry. And they'd have him in a room in his mayor's chambers and a secretary would walk by and his eyes would go like this. The only thing they didn't do was put a piece of fried chicken in his hands. That's why I decided to speak up against it. With The Wire, we piss a lot of people off, too, but for other reasons.
CP: I'm actually surprised your books aren't attacked more often.
Pelecanos: I don't have an aversion to success or anything, but if I wanted to just hit the bestseller lists and make more money, I wouldn't be writing these kinds of books. I'm not giving people what they want. I'm trying to challenge them. I'm trying to be as honest as I can about what I see out there, and in a way I'm paying a little bit of a price for it, where this guy [in the Washington Post], he basically attacked me because I'm white.
CP: Well, plenty of black writers are on record saying, "Of course white writers should write black characters." But there's still this history of minstrelsy, and of whites talking for other people, that gets in the way.
Pelecanos: Right. And it's going to get in the way, but it shouldn't stop me from doing what I'm doing. I mean, I don't like being attacked. But if I only stuck to what I knew, then my books would only be about middle-aged Greek guys.
CP: So when you're researching a drug dealer character, do you ever just say to a kid on a corner, "Can I hang out with you for a day?"
Pelecanos: I've had people call me. Up until a year ago I was in the phone book. I wanted to stay in there but I was getting weird calls. Anyways, I had guys call me and say, "I really want to let you in my world." The Wire really opened up a lot of doors for me like that. I've had guys write me from prison, and I've followed them out, and they've taken me under their wing when they've come out. And I've been real fortunate in that way. I don't have any problem going to these places. It's not that I'm tougher than anybody. It's just I feel like I'm very comfortable here. It's my city, and I know how to talk to people, and it's all about respect.
For an extended version of this Q&A—with more on Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Hitchens, and The Wire—visit complicatedfun.com.