Interview with George Pelecanos on DC Noir and writing | More2Read
 

Interview with George Pelecanos on DC Noir and writing


George Pelecanos was born in Washington, D.C. He worked as a line cook, dishwasher, bartender, and woman’s shoe salesman before publishing his first novel in 1992.

Pelecanos is the author of twenty-one books set in and around Washington, D.C.: A Firing Offense, Nick’s Trip, Shoedog, Down By the River Where the Dead Men Go, The Big Blowdown, King Suckerman, The Sweet Forever, Shame the Devil, Right as Rain, Hell to Pay, Soul Circus, Hard Revolution, Drama City, The Night Gardener, The Turnaround, The Way Home, The Cut, What It Was, The Double, The Martini Shot and The Man Who Came Uptown. He has been the recipient of the Raymond Chandler award in Italy, the Falcon award in Japan, and the Grand Prix Du Roman Noir in France. Hell to Pay and Soul Circus were awarded the 2003 and 2004 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. The Turnaround won the Hammett Prize for literary excellence in the field of crime writing. His fiction has appeared in Playboy, Esquire, and the collections Unusual Suspects, Best American Mystery Stories of 1997, Measures of Poison, Best American Mystery Stories of 2002, Men From Boys, and Murder at the Foul Line. He served as editor on the collections D.C. Noir and D.C. Noir 2: The Classics, as well as The Best Mystery Stories of 2008. He is an award-winning essayist who has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, GQ, Sight and Sound, Uncut, Mojo, and numerous other publications. Esquire magazine called him “the poet laureate of the D.C. crime world.” In Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King wrote that Pelecanos is “perhaps the greatest living American crime writer.” Pelecanos would like to point out that Mr. King used the word “perhaps.”

Pelecanos was a producer, writer, and story editor for the acclaimed HBO dramatic series, The Wire, winner of the Peabody Award, the AFI Award, and the Edgar. He was nominated for an Emmy for his writing on that show. He was a writer and co-producer on the World War II miniseries The Pacific, and was a writer and Executive Producer on the HBO series Treme. The Deuce, his new dramatic series for HBO, premiered in 2017. He recently completed DC Noir, an anthology feature film based on his short stories.

Pelecanos lives in Silver Spring, Maryland and wherever he is shooting film. He is at work on his next novel.



Lou Pendergrast

Welcome and thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule.

Congratulations on this great new tale of yours, The Man who Came Uptown. I picked it for my best books 2018 selection.

What was the inspiration and idea behind this tale?

 

George Pelecanos

I’ve been doing reading programs in prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities for about twenty years. I’ve always been interested in people who have the desire to change the trajectory of their lives, and also in awe of the special individuals, like prison librarians, who work every day, with little monetary reward, to help folks realize that change. This book was also an opportunity to recognize the power of books and literacy inside the frame of a solid crime novel. I’ve seen that power first-hand with the inmates and I’ve experienced it in my own life. Many years ago I was turned on to novels by a teacher, and after that everything turned around for me. I knew what I wanted to do.



Lou Pendergrast

You have worked on the Wire, Treme, the Deuce, and your film DC Noir.
What’s your day like at the moment? What does an average workday entail?

 

George Pelecanos

Right now I’m in prep for the third season of The Deuce, which means I am writing and performing various pre-production duties. I’m trying to relax a little bit over the holidays because once we start shooting I’ll be working 12-14 hours a day for the next seven months. When I’m writing a novel obviously my schedule is less intense, though I do work seven days a week during that period. Typically I’ll write all morning in my office, do something physical in the afternoon to empty my head and then come back to writing for a couple of hours in the evening. I rarely worry about my books when my writing is not going well or plot and story elements are unclear. History tells me that it will work out in the end. My motto is, “Don’t get shook.”



LP

What was the inspiration behind the movie DC Noir?

 

George Pelecanos

DC Noir is an anthology feature film based on my short stories. The segments were directed by Gbenga Akinnagbe, Nick Pelecanos (my oldest son), Stephen Kinigopoulos, and myself. I wanted to write and produce a feature film shot entirely in the District of Columbia employing local crews and talent. I’m hoping to help jumpstart film production n D.C., and this was our shot across the bow.




In The Man who Came Uptown a man is inspired by reading and books.
What authors and books inspired you to become a novelist?

 

George Pelecanos

My crime fiction class at the University of Maryland was my entry into the world. We read Hammett, Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and John D. MacDonald, among others. What an introduction. For me, James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss was a touchstone, and the Westerns and crime novels of Elmore Leonard were monumental. Steinbeck, John Fante, Charles Willeford, Charles Portis… I could go on, there are hundreds of books on my shelves that have inspired me. Truthfully, I’ve been as strongly influenced by movies and music as I have been by literature. All kinds of art can turn me on. I’ll look at an Edward Hopper painting or listen to a record like Coney Island Baby and it will make me want to write or shoot a film.






Lou Pendergrast

Libraries, your history with it and what do they mean to you?

 

George Pelecanos

Libraries are a miracle, like the daily newspaper that appears on your front stoop. My mom got her first library card, probably in the early 1930s, at the beautiful Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square in Washington, D.C. This was during the Great Depression. No one had money but you could walk into a library and borrow a book for free. I got my card when I was a kid and I have been using libraries my whole life. Here in D.C. we have one of the best library systems in the country, and almost all of the buildings have been renovated. It’s another reason I will never leave my hometown.


Photo Credit Bobak Ha’Eri –  Carnegie Library of Washington D.C.


LP

Writing, when, where, what tools do you do it?

 

George Pelecanos

I’m not a coffee shop writer. It’s not that I can’t handle confusion. I wrote many novels with a houseful of kids and dogs, and that was not a problem. But I do prefer to work at home. For my novels, I like to write in my office which has many windows, natural light, and faces the street. It’s a first line of defense thing. I started out writing in longhand, graduated to desktop, and now use a laptop. My television and film writing is often on the fly, so I do it in the production office, a trailer if I’m on set, or in my apartment, in whatever city I am shooting.


LP

How do you write? Do you start with a scene, an image, or character, or do you plot and outline?

 

George Pelecanos

I do all of my research up front. That can last a couple of months, sometimes longer, but I like to know that I have (almost) everything I need before I begin to write. I have an idea for the book, the general plot and situation, and then I begin to write. I don’t outline. I like to discover the book as I write it and that happens for me through the development of the characters. The characters drive the plot. When I say that I don’t outline I don’t mean to suggest that this is the only correct way to write a book. But this is the way I have always done it and I don’t see myself changing the process now. The key to all of this is, you go to work every day and you write every single day. It is your job. My dad turned the key on the front door of his diner every morning, happily, and I do the same thing when I walk into my office at nine o’clock. Like him, I have my own business. It’s work.


LP

Do you write in a journal?

George Pelecanos

Never.


LP

In your thirty years experience as an author, what key writing advice would you give to the aspiring novelist?

 

George Pelecanos

Read voraciously and live a full life.


Read, read, read. Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window. - William Faulkner


LP

Redemption, human endeavors against the odds, heart at conflict with itself.
With this in mind who are you most memorable characters from Fiction?

 

George Pelecanos

Mattie Ross from True Grit is my favorite character in fiction. What an authentic, human voice. The ending of that novel always tears me up.



LP

Yes she is, loved that novel, and the adaptations to film.

Noir Films, which ones you watch many times and recommend?

 

George Pelecanos

In A Lonely Place, directed by Nicholas Ray, is my favorite film noir. Gloria Graham is heartbreaking and the film describes the wrenching pain of lost love like no other. Kiss Me Deadly shocked me one night, long ago, when it came on late night TV. Aldrich is one of my favorite directors.



LP

You love classics cars.
Your most wanted one.
If you could pick now any car rare and collectible, which one would it be?

 

George Pelecanos

I have a 2008 Bullitt Mustang in my garage. No spoilers, no decals, no flames. Ford did it right. I do like fast cars. If I had the room for another car it would be a Mopar in the 66-67 range. A Coronet R/T or a Plymouth Belvedere, the GTX if I’m really dreaming. I owned a white-over-red, ‘67 Polara with cat-eye taillights that was pretty nice. That was a motel on wheels.


 


LP

Read anything you loved this year, 2018?

 

George Pelecanos

Whiskey When We’re Dry, by John Larison, was a tremendous Western and a complete surprise. Sara Gran’s The Infinite Blacktop. Two books by Rachel Kushner: The Flamethrowers and The Mars Hotel. Man, she’s good. Where The Line Bleeds, by Jesmyn Ward. The Last One Left, by John D. MacDonald.




LP

When will there be another tale out there? Any ideas what the theme would be about?

George Pelecanos

It will come to me. You get out into the world, you find a book.


LP

Thank you for your precious time and having a inspiring chat today.

George Pelecanos

Thanks, Lou.





 

Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 21 December 2018