In the early part of 2001 I took the bus from New York City to Washington to talk with George Pelecanos. This piece subsequently appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald. Even though Pelecanos has written maybe a dozen books since then and played a major role working on TV shows like The Wire and Treme I’ve Ieft this as I originally wrote it. A snapshot in time and place.
“Washington is the major character in all the books and I’m pretty obsessive about making it real and making sure all the locations are correct because I consider it to be a record — I hope the books are still in the libraries in 100 years from now and somebody can pick them up and see what it was exactly like here in 1999 or whatever year I’m writing about,” says George Pelecanos.
He is sitting in the bar of Washington’s Henley Park Hotel. It’s a classy joint but he’s quick to remind me that if I “walk three blocks down the road you’ll find yourself in a pretty heavy part of town. This is one city you don’t want to be walking around by yourself if you don’t know exactly where you’re going”.
Pelecanos is the author of nine crime novels, although the most recent, Right as Rain, was reviewed in the New York Times as a “stand-alone” novel, with the reviewer concluding that his novels were thrillers, but also “compassionate urban reportage”.
Pelecanos was born in Washington DC in 1957 and graduated from the University of Maryland. For many years, he managed Circle Films, an independent production company responsible for such films as the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink. These days he writes full-time — half a year spent on a novel, the remainder on screenplays.
His novels such as The Sweet Forever, The Big Blowdown, Shame the Devil, Down by the River Where The Dead Men Go, King Suckerrnan and A Firing Offence have amassed a significant following that has gone beyond a cult audience. Pelecanos writes beautifully, crafts memorable characters and tells you more about the real Washington DC than any travel guide could hope to. Another strong attraction for some readers is Pelecanos love of popular music and its continued presence as a backdrop for his narratives. Over the course of the novels there are hundreds of references to the music of the likes of John Coltrane, Barry White, Blondie, Johnny Cash, Charlie Parker, the Sex Pistols, Tracy Chapman, Wayne Newton, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, and even Australia’s Hoodoo Gurus and the Church.
Both in his hooks and in person Pelecanos is a mixture of unashamed nostalgia for the music of the past and remarkably up-to-date The latter he puts down largely to observing what his children (10 and seven-year-old sons and a four-year-old daughter) listen to. “My oldest son is listening to a lot of hip hop right now which is good. I like that. Because music’s always playing in my house they have an ear for it. The other day I was listening to the Black Crowes album, the one that Jimmy Page played on, and even though it isn’t (Robert) Plant singing my son heard it and said ‘Is this Led Zeppelin?’ He didn’t know the songs but he knew the sound.”
Pelecanos vividly remembers growing up in Washington in the ’60s and the extremely divergent music to be heard on the radio. “Top 40 was where you got your education. You’d turn on the Top 40 and you could hear funk, pop music, rock’n’roll, soul — it was all mixed in together. There isn’t any of that anymore, except for the oldies stations. Now when you turn the radio on it’s the same in this city as everywhere else — it’s pre-programmed, it’s corporate and it’s segregated by colour.”
Racism is the dominant theme in Right As Rain and Pelecanos believes there’s no better American city in which to set a novel about that subject. “Washington is majority black,” Pelecanos explains. “It’s about 70 to 80 per cent black. There’s a very small pocket of whites who live upon Ward 3, which is up on the high ground, but the rest of the city is black and working class. The other unique thing is that we pay taxes but we can’t vote. We don’t have a senator or congressman because we’re not a state. We’re in the Federal City, it’s the Capitol but it’s not the capital of the state, it’s unto itself. They don’t give the people living here voting rights so you couple those things together and you’ve got a minority city—minority meaning black or Hispanic — who traditionally have very little power in this country and now they can’t even vote,” he says.
“The race issue is in your face here everyday. There’s no other place in the country where its more obvious — but it’s one of the reasons! like living here. It’s very honest . . it’s the honesty and the fact that it’s always boiling over here is I think a good thing because the closer you are to that the closer you are to resolution and I like it, man.”
Right As Rain takes that in-your-face racism as its main theme and focuses on a major issue in Washington, which is cops shooting other cops.
“In a three-year period there were three cop-on-cop shootings here and in all three cases the victims were out of uniform and the shooters were in uniform, and in all three cases the victims were black and the shooters were white. In other words these cops would roll up on the scene of something and mistake a black guy for a criminal and they’d kill him. In each case, it turned out that this criminal was a cop. In the paper this week there was an instance of this black cop out of Washington in DC who got beat up by 15 officers. They mistook him for a car jacker and he was trying to tell him he was a cop and they beat the shit out of him anyway so it’s a real thing.
“Is this city violent? Very. The murder rate has gone down but violent crime is up. For example rape is up something like 400 per cent. Put it this way, it’s not safe. You shouldn’t go anywhere without someone who knows the city like I do.”
And make no mistake, Pelecanos’ novels are violent. They’re deliberately graphic and confrontational, chiefly because the author wants his readers to realise that violence is never pleasant. On the other hand, he despises the almost salacious, semi-pornographic violence component in many books and movies, particularly those dealing with serial killers.
“I don’t get that,” he says. “I’m not even going to see Hannibal because I think it’s ridiculous. He’s the hero of that book and, you think about it, man, if someone like that did something to your children or your wife. . . people are making this guy part of folklore and I just don’t understand it — and I’m not going to support it either.”
Having said that, Pelecanos does confess that he finds writing the violent scenes in his books both extremely hard to do but also “exhilarating”. “I’d be a hypocrite to say I didn’t get a visceral kick out of it the same way I do when I watch the climax of The Wild Bunch or a John Woo movie. If I can get people into it on an emotional level and then also make ’em sick a little bit then I think I’ve achieved what I’m trying to do.”Pelecanos is good friends with Dennis Lehane, the American crime writer currently breaking through to a mainstream audience and also one of the most exciting contemporary talents in crime fiction. Pelecanos has, for a long time, championed Lehane.”I’m always looking for younger writers to come up and do something different with this genre,” Pelecanos says. “I believe they will. You can see it in a writer like Dennis Lehane. He’s around 10 years younger than I am and that’s where I think genre fiction will be going because his stuff is a marriage of rock’n’roll and movies and literature.”After five superb novels it’s Lehane’s new book, Mystic Rain, that’s attracting all the attention in the US.
Pelecanos understands that this has a lot to do with decisions made by publishing companies as to which handful of comparatively unknown writers they’re going to get behind each year and attempt to break into a mass audience.”The publishers throw a bunch of money behind them,” he-says matter-of-factly. “What people don’t realise is that even more than straight advertising what’s more important is buying position in the major chain stores and making sure the books are in the windows and they’re up front and capping the aisles. That’s all paid for by the publisher. They made a conscious decision to get behind this (Lehane’s) book. Now, having said that, I don’t want to sell him short because you’ve got to write a good book for it to work. They can artificially make a bestseller out of a piece of shit too if it works as a straight thriller. His book is just a good book.”Pelecanos is likely to be better known following the making this year of a film based on his novel King Suckerman. He wrote the script with Michael Imperioli, better known as Christopher from the Sopranos. Pelecanos says that he’s not worried about what happens to his book when it’s translated for the big screen.”First of all, I’ll never complain about it. You’re getting a shitload of money and where else in your job could you complain about being paid so much?
It’s not fair, and I think when the public reads something like that they must think, ‘What an arsehole, what’s he complaining about’. The other thing I don’t like is when writers say, ‘Look what they did to my book’. They didn’t do anything to your book, man. Your book’s still on the shelves, your name’s still on it. Having said that, you hope for the best and fight for as much as you can and try and control as much as you can. The other advantage is that no matter how the movie comes out it’s only going to introduce more people to your books so I’m hoping for the best.”Pelecanos drives me to the subway station. As he drops me off he cautions me for the third time in two hours. “Make sure you get on the Orange Line that’s going to Clarendon. If you get the train going the other way I don’t really want to think about what sort of trouble you’ll get yourself in.”