A Conversation with George Pelecanos
by Don Crouch
After 14 books, you'd think George Pelecanos would be a household name. Well, he should be. Few writers' books arrive with more anticipation amongst our genre's critical universe.
But it wasn't always thus. His first book, A Firing Offense, featuring troubled PI Nick Stefanos, was published in 1990 and made little impact. Unless of course, you read it. At that point, you knew that he had the goods.
His Crime Fiction bona fides don't stop at high-test novels, however. During his time at Circle Films, an influential importer of the early 90's, he was largely responsible for bringing the films of John Woo (Hard Boiled) to US audiences.
The 90's found Pelecanos continually publishing novels of explosive quality. After a series of Nick Stefanos adventures, he went back in time and explored the world of old-school Baltimore crime in such classics as King Suckerman.
In the 2000's, he hooked up with David Simon, legendary TV producer (Homicide: Life On The Street) and joined the team of The Wire, HBO's ground-breaking examination of cops and criminals in Baltimore, as a writer/producer. But that wasn't enough, he also started a new series of novels featuring Derek Strange--PI/Football Coach/struggling husband. The reviews were unanimous in their praise, as you might expect at this point, and sales started to tic upwards.
Now, Pelecanos takes another turn, with The Night Gardener, a review of which you'll find elsewhere on this site. To talk about his fairly amazing career, Pelecanos was kind enough to join us for a brief conversation, and what follows are its highlights. SPOILER WARNING--this article contains discussion of the just-published The Night Gardener, so be advised.
NMR: George, thanks for joining us today! Why don't we start with a brief run-down on what's going on with your current work-load, between books and The Wire.
GP: This month will be spent promoting The Night Gardener. The fourth season of The Wire will premier on HBO in early September. I wrote one episode, worked on the stories and arcs, but did not produce this year. They managed to make a great season without me. For the past year I have been a co-writer on the Pacific-theater version of Band of Brothers, for Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and HBO. That will take quite a while to shoot and post-produce, but I can tell you with certainty that it will be worth the wait; we are all very excited about it. This fall I hope to get started on my fifteenth novel.
NMR: Band Of Brothers was monumental, what more can you tell us about this new version, in terms of concept, cast/crew, and show dates?
GP: Can’t say much more…don’t even know if I’m supposed to. It hasn’t been formally announced yet. But it is in the works.
NMR: The Wire, more than any other series on TV, re-invents itself between seasons. Talk about the challenges and rewards of that, as opposed to a more traditional series setting.
GP: It is like starting a new novel each season, with all the excitement and pressure that goes with it. We never know if we’re going to be able to pull it off again. What you have to go on is history, ego, and balls. You have done it before, and therefore you can do it again.
NMR: The future of The Wire seems to be in doubt past Season Four. Did that affect your arcs for the season (about to start on HBO)?
GP: No. HBO announced that they were giving us a fourth and fifth season. We have no reason to doubt them. I can tell you that we are not finished. One way or another, we will end up completing the story.
NMR: That's great news about the renewal!! It's been reported that your work on The Wire gained you some key access to the workings of the Baltimore PD. That had to be full of revelation to you, can you talk some about it?
GP: The police were very open with us. They loved the show, especially how we depict the conflicts between the everyday cops, the brass, and the politicians. I’d walk into the station and someone would toss me a Kevlar vest and say, “Let’s go.” Fifteen minutes later I’d be watching jump-out drug busts. I saw good policing. I also saw the arrest and shakedown of kids, arrests that bordered on entrapment, and neighborhoods completely decimated by a politically motivated drug war. We’d put those experiences into the show, and still the police didn’t seem to mind, as long as we were fair and honest. The only person who didn’t respond positively was the mayor, who thought that our (completely accurate) depiction of Baltimore would spoil his run for Governor of Maryland. All you have to do is drive two minutes away from the tourist center to witness the absolute failure of governance in that city.
NMR: How did working on The Wire inform the process of creating The Night Gardener?
GP: I would say that my experience with The Wire is more directly connected in a thematic way to the writing of my 2005 novel, Drama City. The Night Gardener came about when I was allowed access to the Violent Crimes Branch of the police department in D.C.
NMR: While we're on "the process thing", what was the evolution of The Night Gardener...there are so many layers to it...can you pin down something that triggered its creation?
GP: It is based on a series of killings, called the Freeway Phantom murders, which occurred here in the 70s. Those murders were never solved. I started reading about the detectives who worked the case, and how it affected them and haunted them for years to come. Once I began to see how that would be the focus—the characters, and not the killings themselves—I knew I had the seeds of a book.
NMR: We were very affected by the relationship between Gus Ramone and his son, Diego, in The Night Gardener. A mixed-race family with current and former cops, raising a son in a city where both of those factors could be disastrous. Talk a little about your intentions there, and how you think folks will react.
GP: The people in the novel who are obsessed with making a rep, solving a case, or getting retribution for a slight are all doomed to fail. Ramone is not an extraordinary cop. He makes mistakes. But he is a guy who will succeed in life because he puts family above all else, including his job. I wanted to write about the intense love that can exist in a family, even amidst the extreme challenges, both internal and external. The family thread is my favorite aspect of this particular book. There are many different ways to make a family. If you prejudge a kid who you see walking down the street based on his color or style of dress, please remember, that is someone’s son. I hope that is what comes across to the readers.
NMR: You once said that you had Nicolas Cage in your mind when you wrote the Nick Stefanos books. The Night Gardener seems perfect for a film, did you do the same thing character-wise when writing it?
GP: Honestly, I did not. When Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin, and James Coburn died I lost interest in dream casting.
NMR: Did some smart Hollywood type grab it up already?
GP: Not that I’m aware of. My agent doesn’t call me unless something is real, and that is how I like it.
NMR: Such a huge part of your books has been the music choices of its characters. It seems that is less so in this book, did you make a choice for that or did it just happen?
GP: It just happened. The only place it was appropriate was in the bar scenes, where the afternoon alkies argue over the juke box selections. When “In the Ghetto” Comes on, one of those geniuses says, “Elvis. Who blew smoke up his ass and told him he was Dylan?”
NMR: In our review, we've "accused" you of leading the current charge of writers that are turning Crime Fiction into Crime Literature. You ok with that?
GP: I’d rather you say I was young and ruggedly handsome. But if you’re not going in that direction, I’ll take the other thing.
NMR: Well, our EDITOR, Ms. Stephanie, thinks you are both young and ruggedly handsome..... Let's talk a bit about your backlist. We love and miss Nick Stefanos like a wayward cousin. Any chance of a meaningful return to the character, or will he remain a cameo-type part of your literary world?
GP: I can’t say for sure. In my mind, he is not done.
NMR: Well, that's good to hear! Derek Strange's agency makes a cameo in The Night Gardener, do you have more stories for our favorite detective/football coach?
GP: I hope so. Strange is a favorite of mine.
NMR: Didn't Puffy Combs once own the rights to King Suckerman? Have they reverted back, and is there any action movie-wise on any other books of yours? We still think Shoedog aches to be a film....
GP: I have the rights to King Suckerman. Shoedog is being developed by George and Mike Baluzy, with whom I made a film years ago. They are good directors, and I think they get it. What they do with the driving sequence has to rival the 'Stang/Charger duel in Bullitt. Now if we could get Lalo Schifrin to do the score, we’d be all set.
NMR: OK, it's time for you to plug your favorites....what are you reading these days?
GP: Daniel Woodrell’s new novel, Winter’s Bone, is some kind of classic. I liked Laura Lippman’s, latest, No Good Deeds, quite a bit. Lemons Never Lie, by Richard Stark. I’m currently reading Accidental Genius, the John Cassavetes biography by Marshall Fine, who wrote the great Peckinpah book, Bloody Sam. Cassavetes: another Greek who should have grown up to run a diner but took a left turn along the way.
NMR: You have a past in the film biz, are there any crime flicks out there lately that have impressed you?
GP: Stray Dog, by Kurosawa. I know, it’s over fifty years old, but hey. Layer Cake was pretty good. Looking forward to Scorcese’s version of Infernal Affairs and The Black Dahlia film.
NMR: Yeah, the trailers for both of those are pretty exciting. How about TV? Any other shows besides The Wire that you wished you could write for?
GP: Rescue Me, the Dennis Leary show, is damn good. There is extraordinary writing on that one, with a seamless shift of tone, which is very difficult to do. They’re doing fine without me.
NMR: Well, we are out of time, thanks so much for spending some time with NewMysteryReader.com, George, we appreciate it!! And congrats on The Night Gardener, it's an amazing accomplishment!
GP: Thanks a million, Don.