Washington Post Magazine: George Pelecanos Profile

Writing hardboiled stories about Washington has made George Pelecanos a celebrated novelist.
Writing hardboiled stories about Washington has made George Pelecanos a celebrated novelist. (Stephen Voss)
  Enlarge Photo    
Carlo Rotella
Washington Post Magazine Contributor
Monday, July 21, 2008; 12:00 PM

After 15 novels that explore a Washington torn by mob shootouts, gang wars, serial killers and plenty of street vengeance, Silver Spring's George Pelecanos may be ready for a little peace.

Writer Carlo Rotella was online Monday, July 21 to discuss "Crime Story," his Washington Post Magazine profile of Pelecanos as he considers a future beyond crime novels.

Carlo Rotella, director of American studies at Boston College, last wrote for the Magazine about WaterFire, an environmental art piece in Providence, Rhode Island.

A transcript follows.


Carlo Rotella: This is Carlo Rotella, writing from my office at Boston College. I'm pleased to have the chance to discuss George Pelecanos and his work with you. One of the pleasures of writing for the Washington Post Magazine is getting the chance to go deep on a worthy subject, and, speaking selfishly, one of the happy side effects of reporting and writing this piece is that I learned some lessons about the city of Washington and about the craft of writing. I look forward to our conversation.


Washington, D.C.: How did you prepare to write this article? Had you read Pelecanos' books before or did you have to cram and catch up quickly?

Carlo Rotella: The short answer is that I read a lot of his novels very fast, and I'd been a devoted Netflix viewer of The Wire (if you watch it via Netflix, you can devour several episodes at one sitting, which is satisfying) for years. The long answer is that, in a sense, I've been preparing to read him all my life. He's a few years older than me, but we go back to a lot of the same touchstones: the same hardboiled and pulp fiction, the same Westerns, the same noirs. There's a sort of canon of popular storytelling that a lot of city kids seem to latch onto, especially the sort of kids who are drawn to both the street and the library. I recognized him as a familiar figure even though I didn't know his work and had to read a lot of it, which was a pleasure in its own right.


Reader: I am an early and eager reader of Pelecanos. He and Edward Jones in very different styles are the two best writers that deal with the non-government, non-transient Washington of ordinary people. Recently, on Grand Jury duty, our prosecutor turned us on to The Wire. Some way has to be found to make the movies -- in D.C. or Baltimore, so George can realize his childhood dream, see the books into film, and not compromise his family loyalty.

Carlo Rotella: I think that's well put. Pelecanos and Jones are working in very different genres, but they share a sense of deep investment in the Washington that the rest of America doesn't know about, doesn't read about, doesn't really see. Pelecanos is a great admirer of Edward P. Jones's work, and was thrilled to get a story from him into the second collection of Washington stories he's editing, DC Noir II. These two authors seem so different--one working in genre fiction, the other in literary fiction--but they do set out to put their city on the literary map in complementary ways, which makes it profitable to read them together. They also both visit Frazier O'Leary's AP English class at Cardozo.


Chicago: THANK YOU.

What a well-written, thought-provoking profile. As I devoured the article -- I could have kept reading about George for hours -- I wondered at the back of my mind if you'd bring up that Wallace episode. For me, that is one of the most devastating and amazing things I have ever seen on television. It made me rush out of the house to buy some of his novels.

I am wondering, were you a fan of "The Wire"? Did you happen to ask George his thoughts on why the show was completely ignored by the Emmys and in some ways, not promoted well by HBO?

I ask this because I think you may have given us the answer when talking about that writing talk for "The Pacific."

It was too much, even for HBO -- he said.

Carlo Rotella: One of the things that impressed me about Simon and Burns was how astutely they picked apart their own creative process. It's actually pretty rare to interview writers and hear them talk insightfully about craft, but I thought Burns's description of the death of Wallace did it very well. He took an affecting moment on the screen and was able to explain how it came to be that way. I thought Simon's thoughts about the collective creative process were also eye-opening. One of the many reasons to respect The Wire is that there's a real intelligence, a sense of moving past the easy and obvious to the complicated and meaningful, constantly at work in it.

As for The Wire and the Emmys and all that, I don't really have an answer. I have to admit that I put little stock in awards and such, and the larger point is that the people who worked on The Wire must know how loyal and passionate an audience they command.


Silver Spring, Md.: I found your article very interesting, particularly your emphasis on Mr. Pelecanos' belief in the transforming power of violence both on an individual and societal level and how that has played out in his novels and in his personal life. I'm curious to know whether you and Mr. Pelecanos feel that people in today's world are any more numb to violence and crime than people 30-40 years ago given the prevalence of violence and crime as entertainment, and whether violence still has the power to transform people for the better. Thanks.

Carlo Rotella: The transformative power of violence is one of his great themes, and also one of the great themes of the Western. I don't know that there's much sign, in his work, that violence ever transforms people for the better. One of the things I admire about his writing is that the rising awareness from novel to novel that even when the violence is necessary--in the Western sense, to defend honor or stop evildoers or safeguard someone from predators--it's always destructive. The collateral damage always spreads through the characters' lives, even when they're entirely in the right.

He told me a story about seeing a movie in which characters were laughing as they were shooting, and he said, "It reminded me that I can't ever let myself get so lazy." What I took away from that was that he's always working on the tension between what the genre expects (hey, it's a crime story, so somebody's going to die, there's going to be action, and so on) and the sorry fact that violence changes you, no matter what, and is never to be taken lightly.


Silver Spring, Md.: If one hasn't read Pelecanos yet what's the best book to start with?

Carlo Rotella: It sounds as if there are people in this conversation whose answer to that question would be worth hearing, but for my part I will say that I think the new novel, The Turnaround, is the strongest novel of the dozen or so of his that I've read. Even when it travels over familiar territory (there's a diner, for instance), it does so in ways that seem fresh, as if he'd found new inspiration. I think this novel, of the ones I've read, strikes the best balance between the demands of the genre and the consideration of a complex moral problem that he increasingly puts at the center of his work. And the topical material, including the discussion of wounded veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, strikes me as well integrated with his favorite themes. And there's an interesting little beef about the nature of violence that he picks with Quentin Tarantino at one point, too.


Munich, Germany: Shortly after a roommate was transferred to Washington in the late 80s, she witnessed a drive-by shooting while standing at a bus stop. For a young woman raised in the suburbs of Munich, this was a shocking experience. How has violent crime evolved in Washington since the late 80s and how do you think that George Pelecanos's stories have evolved to reflect these changes over the years?

Also, I was interested by your comment that hardboiled crime stories are descended from westerns. I think Book World columnist Michael Dirda once wrote that Westerns are a Hollywood invention. Hardboiled detective stories, however, are generally attributed to authors Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Although both were based in Los Angeles, it's an interesting thought to consider Chandler's Philip Marlowe as an urban version of John Wayne.

Carlo Rotella: In response to your first question, about how his writing has changed, one of the things he said to me was that, while Washington still has serious problems, without question, he feels that the ultraviolent, out-of-control city he used to write about is increasingly becoming a historical artifact. The larger than life gangsters of the 80s are beginning to feel a bit like the hardboiled gangsters of the 30s and 40s.

As for the point about Westerns and crime stories, they certainly have a shared history that extends well into the 19th century--into dime novels, for instance--and therefore precedes Hollywood. The two strands, Western and urban, have developed separately over the past century, but they also come together at various points in their development. A good example would be the moment in the late 60s and 70s when a number of urban Westerns suddenly appeared: Coogan's Bluff, Dirty Harry, Death Wish, the great early Detroit novels of Elmore Leonard. These were crossovers of stars, stories, storytellers, and imagery from the Western to the city, and what they suggest, to me, is that the two genres have so much in common that there are times when they can fuse to form hybrids.

There's a running joke in The Wire in which Pelecanos and Simon slip Western references into the scripts that sends up this process. Several of the references are to The Wild Bunch--as when, in the final season, a suspect says "Liar, black liar" to the cops interrogating him, and Bunk looks at him like he's out of his mind, which he is. And then there's the showdown between Omar and Brother Mouzone, which Pelecanos wrote as pure back-alley Western.


Arlington, Va.: In reference to WWII and African American soldiers, Kareem Abdul Jabbar has actually written a book about a guy he knew growing up, who was in the 761st Tank Battalion, the "Black Panthers." They were the first African American tank battalion in combat and were attached to Patton's army. Jimmy Carter later awarded them the Presidential Unit Citation.

I know this because they helped my Dad's division, the 17th Airborne, during the Battle of the Bulge. The commanding general of the 17th has written that he got to send home a lot more of his own troops thanks to the Black Panthers.

If George is looking for another topic these days, look no further than the 761st.

Carlo Rotella: One of the things I find interesting about Pelecanos is that people bring him stories--like the one below--because, judging from what they've seen of his work, they have a pretty good idea about what he would find compelling. Since the story came out yesterday I've gotten emails about old DC killings, the pool hall scene in the 70s, etc. There's something about the way he comes at history, processing it through genre fiction, that seems to strike a chord in some readers.


D.C. native: Mr. Pelecanos, I love your work. You are a fantastic writer. While I would love to see Derek or Nick come back one more time, I understand your reasons for moving on. I just hope you continue to write novels about the D.C. area. I was born four years after you were and sometimes when I read your books my mind wanders to that time period and I reminisce about where I was or could have been at that place in time.

Plus I always love how you incorporate music in your novels. Thanks!

Carlo Rotella: I just wanted to say something about the music you mention in your PS. There's something of the mixtape-maker's finicky perfectionism, an obsessiveness, in the way he soundtracks his novels. He's always telling us what's on the characters' sound systems, on their car stereos, and why. The books should come with CDs inserted. It took me a while to get used to this aspect of his writing. At first I found it jarring, as if the author's hand was visibly appearing in the novel to take the record off the turntable and put on another (and with a lot of the vintage music he concerns himself with, the turntable is the right technology to imagine). But after a while I got used to it, and came to expect and enjoy it as another quirk of his. Fans often respond to his work by saying how real it is, how authentic, but it's also very unreal, formulaic, and its charms (as well as, perhaps, its flaws) often lie in the tension between those two qualities.


D.C.: I have been a fan for years. As a native Washingtonian around his age, many of the things he writes about are vividly remembered. His knowledge of some of the darker elements and activities add to the stories. Sometimes you say to yourself - How did he know about THAT! I love and respect his writing, and appreciated his contributions to the Wire. King Suckerman was great! I waited for the movie that never came. Hell to Pay, Sweet Forever, Hard Revolution, Right as Rain and Drama City followed for me, and all proved to be just as good as the last. No one tells the stories of the city as real.

Carlo Rotella: A word on the movie that "never came." As he explained to me, there have been a lot of near misses in turning his novels into movies. Spike Lee came very close once, and there have been others. I'm not sure why they haven't been made into movies, nor am I sure that the movies would necessarily do justice to the books--not that doing justice to the book is the point of making a movie.

Actually, rather than movie adaptations of the novels, I'd be interested to see a Western scripted by Pelecanos. Not that Hollywood is falling all over itself to make Westerns these days.


New Orleans, La.: I have a question about American Studies. I am thinking of applying for graduate school in American Studies. I have a degree in Urban Studies. Are there particular degrees that give one an advantage into acceptance into American Studies programs? I have been told that a general social sciences background is good, but I fear I am at a disadvantage because I did not major in American Studies as an undergraduate.

Carlo Rotella: Look up my email address at BC and write to me directly, and I'll answer this question. This isn't the right forum for it.


Bethesda, Md.: Thanks for a great article on my favorite author. When reading my first Pelecanos book, there was mention of a long time friend, which prompted me to contact George, who informed me that he was best friend of Steve Rados -- son of my friend. Later had the pleasure of meeting him at one of his readings/signings.

As a native Washingtonian, I feel George has captured the essence of D.C. better than any writer around.

Carlo Rotella: I hear that a lot--native Washingtonians saying that Pelecanos has captured the essence of the city. And I understand why they say it. But (and I say this as an outsider: I'm from Chicago and live in Boston) I don't want to throw out the federal city, the political city, as somehow less real. One of the things I find most compelling about Washington as a city is that it is these two very different places, and the two places both do and don't overlap. No other American city is fragmented in quite the same way. I wonder if there are Washington stories that bridge the local and federal cities and do justice to both. Now that I say that, I wonder if Pelecanos has in him a novel or screenplay that makes such a move.


Carlo Rotella: Carlo here again. I'm going to wrap it up on this end. I've enjoyed this conversation. Thanks for all of your questions and comments.


Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company