D.C. writer and D.C. students meet their subjects

October 28, 2012

Best-selling crime novelist George Pelecanos paid a visit one recent morning to Cardozo Senior High School in Northwest Washington, where Advanced Placement English students had read his 2011 novel, “The Cut.”

Pelecanos was there to answer their questions, talk about the writing life, maybe leave behind a bit of wisdom or inspiration.

But first, he read a passage from the book in which the main character visits an English class at Cardozo Senior High School — and tries to impart a bit of wisdom or inspiration.

“This,” Pelecanos said, “is what fancy people call ‘meta.’ ”

A native Washingtonian whose 18 novels are salted with the city’s neighborhoods and characters, Pelecanos has been visiting Cardozo for years at the invitation of veteran teacher Frazier O’Leary, who also has hosted such luminaries as Toni Morrison, David Foster Wallace and ZZ Packer.

The PEN/Faulkner Foundation, which is perhaps best known for the annual award it presents to fiction writers, sponsors such visits to introduce students to people who earn a living with words, ideas and stories.

The foundation brings authors to Washington, connects them with teachers and buys enough books to provide every student in a class with a copy. This year, approximately 40 authors will take part in 125 events at D.C. schools, and for the first time, some will visit schools in Baltimore as part of the program. The foundation is in the midst of raising money to continue expanding to other regional cities — Richmond, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

“It’s something that students never forget,” said O’Leary, president of the foundation’s board and a champion of expanding the Writers in Schools program. “They get a chance to meet a real live author, which to me is awesome. All the authors I was supposed to study in high school had been dead for 300 years.”

Pelecanos is not only alive, he’s still producing books. And he also helped write and create two acclaimed HBO series, “The Wire” and “Treme,” a fact that gives him extra star power in a room full of teenagers.

But at Cardozo, most of the talk and most of the questions were not about television. They were about “The Cut,” which follows an Iraq War veteran who comes home to Washington to work as a private investigator, and about the choices that Pelecanos made as he wrote.

Students had lots to ask: Why is the main character’s family made up of multiracial adopted children? (Pelecanos, whose own children are adopted and multiracial, was interested in showing that families built that way are normal and loving). Why didn’t Pelecanos specify some main characters’ races? (Because this is a young person’s book, and young people don’t care as much about skin color as older generations).

They wanted to know what inspired the book (a short story Pelecanos wrote that gave rise to the main character and conversations with veterans at what is now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center) and whether Pelecanos ever faces writer’s block when he sits down in front of a blank page (he makes himself write every day and tries to produce at least five pages, even if they aren’t any good).

One student, 16-year-old senior Kevaughna Abraham, didn’t have a question. She just wanted to thank Pelecanos for representing the city she knows. The corner stores are exactly as he describes in the book, Kevaughna said. The streets and the neighborhoods — not to mention the high school — are places she recognizes.

“I was like, man, I know exactly what he’s talking about,” said Kevaughna, who aspires to be a screenwriter. “I really don’t read books that show the real D.C. — but when I read this, I was excited. It makes me proud.”

Pelecanos said he was grateful to know that the city he created on the page had passed muster.

“It’s important for me to get it right, and it’s a real fear that I won’t get it right,” he said. “I feel like I’m leaving a record of the city. I mean, I want to see books all over the world, but I’m writing for you all. I want these books to be meaningful to Washingtonians.”

Another student asked about his favorite author. Pelecanos didn’t hesitate: John Steinbeck. But his favorite Washington writer? Edward P. Jones, who grew up in poverty not far from the Capitol and won the Pulitzer Prize for his antebellum novel “The Known World.”

“Jones is a genius,” he said.

Some of the students nodded. They’ve heard of Jones. They’re going to read his short stories. And he’s coming to visit next month.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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