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Interview with GEORGE PELECANOS

Written by Ali Karim

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"I've got to believe that men and women alike will want to read a

 compelling novel."

I first had the pleasure to meet George Pelecanos back in October 2001 when he was guest of honour at Dead on Deansgate in Manchester. George was one of the few Americans to venture to the UK so soon after the awful events of 11 September. While many of his fellow US crime writers cancelled due to the security scares and paranoia prevalent at the time, George decided that he would not disappoint his UK readers. He gave a short speech after the gala dinner, explaining that his publishers had organised for him to come over to the UK and promote his work. His second-generation immigrant work ethic would not allow him to let them down, nor all the people who had made the effort to meet him. This was greeted by rapturous applause by the Deansgate crowd.

 

In his latest book, Soul Circus, the third instalment of the Strange/Quinn series, the salt-and-pepper duo get involved with Granville Oliver, a crime overlord, who is fighting for his life in court while rival drug dealers are encircling his territory. Strange finds himself protecting a man whom he despises, but with Oliver in custody a gang-war looms. In the middle of all this, the girl whom the duo were paid to find winds up brutally murdered, which makes them face up to some grim facts. This is a novel of darkness, morality and the paradoxes at the centre of US society, set against the everyday violence that peppers Washington's ghettos. If you haven't discovered Pelecanos, then you are missing what lies at the very soul of contemporary crime fiction.
George Pelecanos was due to come to the UK in February for a week's tour to promote this exceptional novel but despite his tenacious nature he was defeated by the harsh weather. With Washington Airport closed as the snow hit the US and George stuck on a plane for over 9 hours, I had to settle to speak to him electronically about how his work had evolved since those early groundbreaking Nick Stefanos novels. I hope you enjoy his insight as much as I did, and when GQ Magazine describe George as 'The coolest writer in America', I tend to agree with their statement, but I would add 'and a damned fine chap too!'.

Your work can be split into three areas. Firstly the Nick Stefanos series, The Washington Quartet, and now the world of Strange and Quinn, while Shoedog (recently republished) stands outside those three series. Can you tell us about how Shoedog came about?

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I was reading a lot of classic pulp/noir at the time, mainly David Goodis. I wanted to try to write one myself, knowing full well that there was no commercial potential whatsoever for a book of that kind in the modern market. Also, it was my first attempt at a third person novel. It would also give me an opportunity to write about two things very dear to me: women's shoes (and feet) and 60s American musclecars. With a book of this kind there are no rules, and that was very appealing to me as well. No one read Shoedog in the States, but it got me some attention in France.

 

Prior to your writing career you did a series of blue-collar jobs. Did you always feel that you would become a published writer?

No. I only dreamed about it. And the fact that I was smoking weed at the time furthered those dreams…dreams, I should say, without productivity. When I was smoking pot I had grandiose thoughts of becoming a writer, and grandiose thoughts of plenty of other things, too. Books, movies, and beautiful women were waiting for me, just around the corner. It wasn't until I stopped getting high that I actually sat down and got to work. Not that there's anything wrong with getting your head up now and again, you know?

 

Yep I agree…..So what attracts you to the blue-collar world of crime, corruption and the dark side of human nature?

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People who live on the edge financially are much more susceptible to a life of crime. I think it's more realistic to approach the topic from that side of society. And I know something about it.

Nick Stefanos travels on a journey and despite being pretty beaten up along the way, there is still a strand of hope and a social conscience which in your later work is even more apparent. Why is social awareness so important to you?

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A book should be about something other than the author's bank account, or it's not worth writing. If you can raise some questions, and challenge the reader to look at his or her world in a different way than they did before, then you have done something worthwhile.
Stefanos, in the first book, is an autobiographical character. He still is, I suppose, which is why he keeps turning up in the novels, no matter their period. But the elements of his character differ from those of mine now. He didn't change, and I did.
Writing the first book was scary, because I had no idea as to what I was doing, but also exciting. There were no expectations, so there was a good amount of freedom to do anything I wished. In fact, my first five novels were like that. I was writing for little money so the publisher was at little risk. I felt like I could experiment and, and long as I delivered a "good" book, could try anything in terms of bending the genre conventions. In this period I was working a full time job in the daytime and writing at night, as well as building a family, so my life was not without strain. But in general it was liberating. I have always felt lucky that I was given this time, in a low-key way, to work on my craft.

 

At which point in our career did you consider taking up fullt-ime writing?
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When I sold King Suckerman to the movies (since returned to me) I scored to the degree that I thought I could give it a shot. It has worked out fine, but I have to say that, between novels and screenwriting, I am working as hard as I ever have. I got into the film business to promote John Woo's The Killer. Distribution and production were a logical progression for me. I always wanted to write movies and television, so I made my move when the opportunity presented itself. I am doing damn near everything I've wanted to do since I was a kid.
I do a month or two of research, have a general idea of what I am trying to accomplish, then sit down to write the book. I don't outline plot but at this point the book is somewhere in my head. Once I find the characters it lifts off. As for the actual work, it is intense. I work seven days a week, writing in the day and rewriting at night, until I have a clean first draft. My family loses me four to six months a year.

 

There is positive cynicism in your work, where you examine the system from the lower rungs of the ladder but yet you show the system with benevolence as well as malevolence. Why does the system interest you so much?

 

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Well, there has to be a balance between the system and total anarchy. The question I am asking is, where is that found? All systems have the ability to corrupt and, more importantly, destroy those who try to play outside the rules. This goes for cops as well as kids who get into the drug game. I'm fascinated by those dynamics.

 

Your books can be viewed as modern westerns and I know you are a keen western movie buff. Can you tell us which westerns influenced you?

 

John Ford. Peckinpah. Sergio Leone. John Sturges. Clint Eastwood. Robert Aldrich made some good ones, too.

 

You cite Ross MacDonald, Raymond Chandler and Hammett as early influences. Could you tell us which books from those three authors have had the most profound effect on you and your work?
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Hammett's The Glass Key and Chandler's The Long Goodbye are literary masterpieces by any standard. They say that MacDonald wrote the same book over and over again, but it was a damn good book. The Galton Case is my favourite.
In the UK you were first published by Serpent's Tail, but have since moved over to Orion. Can you tell us why?
The money offer from Orion was significantly higher, and I have a family. Plus, the folks at Orion are really good people and have done a fantastic job for me. Having said that, I owe ST publisher Pete Ayrton (and his staff) a tremendous amount of debt. Pete was the first in the world to publish me in paperback, and what happened in the UK because of the Serpent's Tail effort got me going everywhere else. I've been blessed to be with both houses. And both have shown this Greek boy a good time on my frequent visits to the UK.
Because of the hardboiled nature of your work, which with the Quinn/Strange series is becoming even more socially conscious. Are you as a result getting more female readers?
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I don't know. And honestly, I don't think about it when I'm writing. It's a fact that the audience for American crime fiction is primarily female; consequently, you'll see some male writers go with female protagonists so they can capture that market. The result of this pandering is often a commercially successful but compromised book. I do like to explore issues of masculinity in an honest way. If women are interested in that world, then by all means, I invite them in. In the end, I've got to believe that men and women alike will want to read a compelling novel.
You toy with the idea of vigilante justice in many of your books with your characters often caught up in doing what's right, which I guess returns us back to the western' ethos. Would you care to talk about why your characters sometimes move away from using the law for justice?
There has always been a strong element of vigilantism in American culture, and a distrust of authority and the law, which is why our citizens are so violently opposed to any laws that might restrict their rights to own guns. I don't condone the act of personal retribution. But I would be a liar if I said that I didn't understand it.
Looking back over The Big Blowdown, King Suckerman, The Sweet Forever and Shame the Devil, did you consciously realise that you were going to write a loosely knitted series?
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When Nick Stefanos showed up as a baby in the end of The Big Blowdown -something I did not plan - the idea began to take shape. The inspiration was ambition. I wanted to write a book that was bigger and had more scope than anything I had previously written. My Once Upon a Time in D.C.
The 30s and 50s was the era in which my grandparents and parents lived as children and young men and women. I wanted to explore the immigrant experience in America and send a hard valentine from my family. It was also my chance to write a real noir (not a modern imitation of noir) and a big, Warner Brothers-style crime novel in the bargain. There was a tremendous amount of research to be done before I started writing it, and once I did start…let's just say that I put everything I had into that book in more ways than one. I told myself early on that if it didn't work I was going to stop writing novels. As it turns out, they are going to hang that one onmy fucking tombstone.
Your first major black character was Marcus Clay in the second book King Suckerman. Would you care to explain why black characters interest you, as they feature in most of your books unlike many other crime/mystery books?

  The population of D.C. is roughly 65-70% black, and has been as high as 80%. If you are going to write crime novels set in the inner city here, you cannot ignore that fact or those people. Growing up in this area, and having lived nowhere else, I have naturally absorbed some of the culture. If I get it wrong then shame on me. And believe me, the people here will tell me if I get it wrong.

The genesis of the Quinn/Strange partnership seems to have roots back to your early work. Would you agree?
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Yes, in fact I would say it has its genesis in the Marcus Clay/Dimitri Karras relationship that started in King Suckerman.
In the beginning, it was my intention to have Quinn as a minor character in Right as Rain, until he took his place organically beside Strange. Originally, Rain was to have been Strange's book.
The latest, Soul Circus, is an almost reportorial look at the current situation in the American inner city. Reading it again recently, I found it to be almost shockingly dark. If noir is about claustrophobia and paranoia, then this one fits the bill.
And finally can you tell us what you are working on, both on the film front as well as what the next book is about?
I am currently working as a writer and story editor for the second season of the HBO television series, The Wire. The first season aired in the US last summer (I wrote episode 12) and will be broadcast in the UK sometime in the future. My novel Hard Revolution, due out in 2004, will focus on the week leading up to the Dr. King assassination and the riots that occurred in its aftermath in Washington, D.C. It looks at the little-discussed violent side of the civil rights movement and how one black, working class family gets caught up in the struggle. It's my Big Blowdown for the 1960s.
It has been a pleasure to talk about your work, and thank you for trying to come over and see us in the UK, and we hope to see you when the elements don't conspire against us!
You too, Ali. Nice meeting you in Manchester last time, and sorry I couldn't make it this year.

Bibliography :- · A FIRING OFFENSE · NICK'S TRIP · SHOEDOG · DOWN THE RIVER WHERE THE DEADMEN GO · THE BIG BLOWDOWN · KING SUCKERMAN · THE SWEET FOREVER · SHAME THE DEVIL · RIGHT AS RAIN · HELL TO PAY · SOUL CIRCUS · HARD REVOLUTION (Due in 2004)
Shots eZine wish to thank Gaby Young of Orion Publishing for organising this interview
www.georgepelecanos.com
 

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George Pelecanos



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