Book World Live

George Pelecanos
Author, "The Night Gardener"
Tuesday, August 1, 2006; 3:00 PM

"Although The Night Gardener has its share of page-turning virtues, Pelecanos once again shows himself to have ambitions far beyond simply creating a first-rate thriller. Like Dennis Lehane at his best, Pelecanos is able to obscure the line between genre writing and 'serious' fiction. His evocations of the 'other' Washington -- geographically proximate but also a world away from K Street, Georgetown and Capitol Hill -- are superb. His capital city is a place of illegal dog fights, garbage-strewn lots and crack houses, a place where citizens wear 'Stop Snitchin' t-shirts and the cops refer to the murder of a drug dealer as a 'society cleanse.' But it is also a place where boys dream of being sports heroes, parents correct their children's grammar, and friends gather on porches for a twilight cocktail. Few other writers working today are able to depict both the lurid realm of street crime and the quiet aspirations of domestic life with such a deft touch." ( Review: "D.C. Noir" , Post, July 30).

Author George Pelecanos fields comments and questions about his latest novel, "The Night Gardener," a thriller set in the Greenway section of Washington.

George Pelecanos has written 12 other crime novels, all set in and around Washington. He is a writer and story editor for the HBO series "The Wire."

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.

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Washington, DC: Your novels really have a sense of Washington, that for some reason, usually doesn't come through in other writing about the city. Did you grow up in the District? Your African-American charcaters are more three-dimensional than most White writer's; what kinds of experiences do you draw on to develop your Black characters and their dialogue?

George Pelecanos: I was born in D.C. and lived in Mt. Pleasant until I was school age. I have lived in the downtown Silver Spring area ever since. My grandfather had a lunch counter on 14th and R in Shaw, and my father had one at 19th and Jefferson, N.W. I worked at both from an early age, worked many jobs of that nature for the first thirty years of my life, and played sports throughout the city. I guess it was just being out there, hearing the voices, and stashing them away in some corner of my brain. To this day I just go out and talk to people. Mainly, I listen.

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Fairfax, Va: George... can't wait to read your new book.

I know you're a really good writer, but is it true that your cousin Tina is really the smart one in the family?

George Pelecanos: Sadly, I cannot talk about my cousin Tina. I am wiping a tear away as I write this. One thing I can say: she's not very smart.

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McLean, Va: George, I'm the gal who used to work at 1225 - 19th Street NW. Read NY Times and Post reviews about your new book and can't wait for August 8 so I can purchase it. Why did you develop new characters for this book? Will you continue with them in upcoming books? Thanks -- Sandy

George Pelecanos: Hi, Sandy. 1225 is the building where my father's diner, The Jefferson Coffee Shop, was located. I remember the kindness of many of the people who worked there while I was growing up.

I created the new characters because I had a story to tell, and they were the appropriate vehicle. I don't know if they will reappear in future books. But they are now established in this world that is very real in my head, so I have a feeling they will be back.

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Turkey Thicket: ok, 1. What's your cop connection -- father? 2. How did you come to be so comfortable and adept at creating black inner-city characters? 3. Where did you play basketball and how good are you? 4. Is funk music your main squeeze? Thanks, for the great reads.

George Pelecanos: 1. No cop connection beyond research.

2. Listen to people and show them respect.

3. When I was a teenager we played all over the city and suburbs, wherever there were games. I had heart but I'm an average sized guy and just a decent athlete. I did love to play.

4. I guess funk is my main muscial love, that and the rock music of the period. I saw some great bands live, including Funkadelic at Carter Baron and the Isley Brothers at the Cap Center.

BTW, Turkey Thicket: the DC rec. dept. baseball team I played on won the city championship playing under the lights at Turkey Thicket in the summer of '73. I played second and went two for three that night. Among my teammates was Sushant Sagar, who played for Wilson and is now a sports editor at The Washington Post.

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Bodymore, Murderland: Hi George from a huge fan --

Can you talk briefly on the main differences between DC & Baltimore cultures for crooks & cops? Curious what your work for "The Wire" has taught about "the life" in these two cities.

Can't wait to read the new stuff. thanks --

C. Rose, Charm City

George Pelecanos: The drug business is straight out in the open in Baltimore. It's a little bit more undercover in D.C. Massive lockups are the order of business in Baltimore, per the order of Mayor O'Malley. I think they locked up 100,000 people in that city last year. Do you believe there are that many people doing dirt in Baltimore relative to the population? The drug war destroys neighborhoods and is ruining policing in that town, and I say that with respect to the police, who are only following orders. The police have been very open with me there. I walk into a station and they'll toss me a Kevlar vest and say, "Let's go." It has been an interesting experience working there.

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Baltimore, Md.: How long were you with The Wire? What were some of your story ideas?

George Pelecanos: I have been with The Wire, in various capacities, for all four seasons. I was a producer but I gave this up for the 4th season to concetrate on my novels. I did write a script, however, for the upcoming season. The core writers--David Simon, Ed Burns, and myself--gravitated to different storylines and themes. David created the show and Ed, with his experience as a Baltimore police officer, was an essential component. Obviously, I had soemthing to do with the Greeks and their dialogue in season 2. And I was pretty closely attached to the creation of Cutty, the character who comes out of prison and starts a boxing gym for kids. I can't give enough credit to Simon and Burns for how that show turns out.

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Arlington Va: What are you driving these days? You mention the new Mustang GT in The Night Gardener...

George Pelecanos: I am in the process of ordering a Mustang GT, black over red, for delivery this fall. Every man should own a Mustang once in his life, and I think Ford really got it right this time. I owned a '70 Camaro for many years, which I loved. I'm driving an Infiniti G35 right now, which is quick but doesn't make my pulse race. There is nothing like the rumble of a dual-piped American car with something under the hood.

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Silver Spring, Md: Hi, George,

How did your working relationship with Steve Wynn come about?

Can't wait to dig into the NG.

-Eric T

George Pelecanos: I did a reading a few years ago at bar called Filthy McNasty's in London. A friend of Steve's came up to me and said Steve was fan. Steve's music is both rocking and noirish, and I had been listening to him for a long time. We began to talk via e-mail. I met him at a Black Cat show shortly thereafter. We then wrote a song together, which appears on his new record, tick...tick...tick.

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Washington, DC: mr. pelecanos. i really enjoy your work.

i think you mentioned in past interviews that your nick stefanos novels were somewhat autobiographical, which likely lends to the use of a 1st person narrative in those stories. as you moved away from nick onto other characters, is that why you made the switch to 3rd person?

also, what writers do you enjoy reading?

George Pelecanos: Yes, the move to 3rd person was my way of stretching out and challenging myself as a writer. Nick Stefanos was, in a way, a comfortable voice to stay in while I learned how to write. I think the books are better since I went in that direction.

Daniel Woodrell's new novel, Winter's Bone, is some kind of classic. He is criminally underread. I liked Laura Lippman's latest book, No Good Deeds. On vacation I read Lemons Never Lie, by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake), one of the great Hard Case Crime reprints. I am currently reading the new John Cassavetes biography by Marshall Fine.

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Annapolis, Md: You said you did research to learn about cops. What kind of research? Did you do ride-alongs, hang out in the station, cultivate friendships with cops? Other?

George Pelecanos: With the new book I was granted access to the Violent Crime Branch of the MPD. I had tried for a long time to get into the homicide squad, and it was my work on The Wire--the homicide police are fans--that got me in. They were very generous with their time and the experience was invaluable in the writing of this book. For many years I did ride-alongs with patrol cops, which is any citizen's right. Walk right into the district police house of your choice, sign a waiver, and go. The other thing that is very helpful is sitting in on criminal trials. Which, again, are open to the public.

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Washington, DC: Lifelong DC native posting. I like the way you incorporate music into your books plus the way you describe the story makes the reader feel right there with the character.

Do you plan on writing anymore Derek Strange and/or Nick Stefanos books in the future?

Looking forward to the new book and continued success to you.

George Pelecanos: It's safe to say that Strange and Stefanos will be back. They are "in the world." Strange in particular is a favorite of mine. He will reappear in some form.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi George,

I am looking forward to reading your book and would like to know how you start the process of writing a novel. Story idea? Characters? Real life story? I am also interested in how you go about shaping your characters.

George Pelecanos: The idea for The Night Gardener came from the series of killings called the Freeway Phantom murders that were perpetrated here in the 70s. I was researching something else, came upon the story in the morgue materials at the library, and my game plan changed. I knew then that I had the engine for the police novel I had never written but had always wanted to write. It is really all about characters for me. Once I find them, that is once I find out who they are, the story begins to write itself. That might explain the leisurely pace of the first portions of my books.

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Greenbelt, Md: Can't tell you how much I love your stories and your characters, especially the deft and humane treatment of people who've made some seriously bad decisions in their lives (haven't we all?)

And while I am thrilled at the chance to learn so much about non-federal DC, I do at times wonder how half (or more) of the city--in your books--can operate in virtual isolation from the imported national moral and political battles that dominate much of this town. Have you thought about plots that more actively weave the two "halves" of DC? Or is it just a question of writing about that which you know best? Or like best?

I'm no fan of relentless beltway partisanship, but there are many sincere and people-focused folks who come to this town--yes--to do good. A few even succeed. And I'd love to see more interplay between them and the wonderful local characters that popluate your books. What do you think?

George Pelecanos: Your question is a good one. I rarely directly write scenes or characters set in the political/federal side of town, yet I do think that the people and places I write about live under the shadow of those very people, and are forced to live with their decisions and indecisions. There is something else: I know very little about those lives. And from day one I had given myself a responsibility to write about the people in the city, and the parts of the city itself, that are underepresented in fiction. There are writers who can do what you are describing much better than I can. For now, I'll leave it to them.

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Rockville, Md: Good afternoon, George:

This is a question for you as both a writer and a Washingtonian.

The common thread that seems to run in the local news these days about D.C. (other than crime) is so-called gentrification and the changing cityscape as higher-end residential real estate and commercial ventures replace the old order.

What are your thoughts and also seems like a great plot backdrop for a future novel.

Thanks for the superb writing!

George Pelecanos: I see that there are quite a few questions about gentrification. Man, that's a tough one. You cannot stop progress, if that's what it is. Last night I was driving down 13th Street, the hill along Cardozo High School. This was quitting time for work, around 5:30. And there were about a dozen white people, coming home from the Metro, I suppose, walking up that hill. All white people, I'm not playing. Now five, maybe even two years ago, you would not have seen that. But there it is. And I don't blame them one bit for wanting to live in Shaw or Columbia Heights, because those houses, when improved upon, are beautiful. Neither do I blame some of the longtime residents for being bitter about the newcomers and the changes. Look, I have been living in downtown Silver Spring for a long time. I liked it the way it was. I do not like all the new buildings or the traffic or the yuppies on "my" streets. But I can't do anything about it, any more than I can erase the lines on my face. It will be interesting to see how all this plays out. The cycle, by the way, goes back to the riots of '68.

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Washington, D.C.: The whole "Hamsterdam" storyline in the 3rd season of The Wire was fascinating, with the scene from the "Back Burners" episode where Bubbles visits Hamsterdam at night being especially terrifying. I found it truly believable that the police are under so much pressure from above that they would concoct a scheme like this. How did you guys come up with that idea?

George Pelecanos: It started with a big What If question. What if we legalized drugs in a small portion of the inner city? What would happen? Because many people feel that this is the answer. It was surprising, even to us, what we came up with. The result was not comforting or pretty.

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Funny thing, DC: Funny thing---and please don't take this the wrong way---but one of the charming quirks of your many books is that you not infrequently get the details about firearms wrong. Almost always trivial details, but details that give you away as more of a humanist than a stone-cold police wanna-be. Bravo.

George Pelecanos: Yeah, I make mistakes. Hopefully I get the big stuff right, as in, you can't shove a magazine into a .38 Special. I shoot occasionally, but I'm no gun expert. It's research, and no matter how hard you try, sometimes you get it wrong. The other scenario annoys me, as it does you. You can tell when someone who is not police goes overboard in their loving descriptions of firearms. I "like" guns on an elemental level because I'm a guy. I don't like them because of what they have done to so many victims in this city.

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Alexandria, Va: love the way your novels are always peppered with musical references. what are you listening to as of late?

George Pelecanos: Today: Tommy Keane's new record. A new record by The Jet Age, formerly Hurricane Lamps. Marvin Gaye. Drive By Truckers. Silver Jews. That was today.

George Pelecanos: That's Keene, of course.

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California, Md: Are you doing a book tour and if so, are you coming down to Southern MD?

George Pelecanos: I do go to Southern Maryland frequently, but not on tour. My "uncle" Logan has a farm near Cobb Island. I have been visitng that beautiful area since I was a teenager.

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Arlington Va: George,

You will love the GT. Sadly, I just parted with my Silver '05 5 Speed in favor of a Torch Red '07 Shelby GT 500 (you can see it when you are next at a Bailey's Crossroads book signing). I'm the guy with the 65 Olds on your website by the way. . .(which I still have)....

George Pelecanos: Pete, right? Nice to hear from you.

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Gaithersburg Md: What would you tell a young college graduate that has a degree in English, with an emphasis in creative writing who wants to get into the television or movie industry from the writing perspective?

George Pelecanos: Take a job, any job you can get, on a movie or TV set. These production assistant jobs are readily available, but it is dirty, hard, long-hour work. Then try to move into the writer's office as some sort of assistant. Keep your ears and eyes open and always work hard, even if it is not the job you want. If you have talent, you will work your way up. It might take many years, but this is how it happens.

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New York, NY: When a character appears in multiple books, have you envisioned the story arc in advance of all the books? For instance, did you have a sense of the entire Karras (or Strange) life story before writing any of the 4 books that dealt with it, or do you just write them one at a time and develop it as you go along?

By the way, sumpatrioti, some of us are still waiting for another Karras or Stefanos appearance. Any chance of that happening?

George Pelecanos: Not usually. It was only after completing The Big Blowdown that I began to see another book featuring the son of Peter Karras. Right as Rain was supposed to be one book, a stand-alone, but I liked the characters so much that I kept going.

I think Karras is complete. Stefanos will be back...you can't keep a good Greek down.

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Anonymous: I have read that your publisher has decided to up the publicity on your latest book in the hopes that it will garner sales commensurate with the quality of your writing. Do you have any opinions as to why your books have not generated "box office" sales given the above average response by critics to your previous books?

George Pelecanos: Kind of tough to answer that. Not everyone can top the list. Yes, there's a lot of formula stuff up there, but that doesn't apply when you're talking about quality, bestselling crime novelists like Mike Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Elmore Leonard, or James Lee Burke. All very good writers. I want my publisher to be pleased so that I can keep writing books, but honestly, I feel very fortunate with the way things are going. I'm making a good living for my family and I'm writing exactly the kind of books I want to write. To me, that is success.

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Washington, DC: Have film rights been optioned for any of your novels? Also,

are you a fan of Robert Parker's "Spencer" novels?

George Pelecanos: Curtis Hanson and Warner Brothers have bought Right as Rain, and that is moving along. Nick's Trip and Shoedog are under option. You never know until the cameras roll.

I do like Parker's Spencer novels. He started something, a new kind of crime novel. It's easy to forget that because he has been imitated so often since he began. Parker was very influential on a whole generation of crime novelists.

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Arlington Va: How can you top Stringer Bell as a character on The Wire (anything in the works there?)

George Pelecanos: The young, aggresive drug dealer featured in season 3, Marlo, will be making his move in season 4. The Wire premieres on HBO in early September.

Thanks to everyone who wrote in. I tried to answer as many questions as I could...I do appreciate your interest and enthusiasm.

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