George Pelecanos interview (2000)

by ob

[George Pelecanos is the author of the novels “A Firing Offence”, “The Big Blowdown”, “King Suckerman”, “The Sweet Forever”, “Shame the Devil”, “Right as Rain” and “Hard Revolution”, among others. He was also a writer and producer on the HBO television series “The Wire”. You’ve probably heard of it…]

OB: You recently worked on a television show, but it didn’t work out too well…

GP: Well, I went up to New York to work on a hospital show called “Wonderland”, but when I got up there I realized it wasn’t going to work for me. I missed my family – I’ve got three kids – and I knew that I’d have to live away from them for six months, pretty much. Of course, I had to get up there to find that out! Then it got dicey, because I had to get out of the show and I had a contract, but in the end they let me out after two days. And it was an intense two days man! They gave me free range of the prison hospital for the criminally insane, and I’d go in and talk to these guys, and it was rough… Anyway, the good thing was that I came home and immediately got a rewriting gig on a Miramax film. So it worked out fine in the end. Ultimately I’d like to be able to do films and books – it’s all about getting the control to do what you want.

OB: The hero of “The Big Blowdown”, Pete Karras, is a Greek immigrant who fights in the Second World War before turning to crime on his return for service. Your father, another Greek immigrant, also fought in the war. How much of your own family history went into the book?

GP: It’s my father’s story. All the things that happen in the book to Pete Karras, up until after the war, happened to him. He was born in Greece, came over as a toddler, lived in Chinatown – which was the slum for immigrants in Washington – and he went to war in the Philippines as a marine. All those things came from his life. But when Pete Karras comes back from the war – then their lives diverge. My father stayed on the straight and narrow thing, he had a family, worked hard, ran a coffee shop, and Karras goes in the other direction. He’s a fuck up – he can’t be a father, he can’t be a husband, it’s not in him. And he’s attracted to violence. “The Big Blowdown” is still my favourite book – doing the research and finding out more about my city, my past.

OB: Did you know it would be the first book in a series of four when you started out?

GP: I don’t really outline, but at the end of that book when Nick Stefanos [the Private Eye hero of Pelecanos’s first three novels] shows up as a baby, I started thinking about working full circle and bringing it back to the present – to examine the decades and find out what Washington became in the Stefanos books. And the other thing was that I wanted to find out what happened to Karras’s son. The idea of doing a seventies book right after that – “King Suckerman” – was about the difference between Peter Karras, who never left the house without a tie, and his son Dimitri thirty years later, who is a dope dealer with long hair and torn jeans. So what happened to the culture in thirty years? How did that happen? “King Suckerman” is about the end of the party. At the end of the book, the day after the bicentennial celebration in 1976, it’s a wasteland, trash is blowing all over the place, and someone says to Dimitri Karras at one point “we’ve been partying all these years and it’s like walking up a mountain. Didn’t you think you’d have to go down the other side?” And “The Sweet Forever” is the other side of the mountain – it’s a real dark book because the ’80s was the low point of the twentieth century in the US.

OB: Do you think things have got better since then?

GP: I do, but the thing that bothers me now is that the classes have gotten wider apart. The front page of the paper every day is about the stock market and how everyone’s getting rich. But you know what? Most people can’t even afford to put money into the stock market! Our real problem – more than race – is a class problem.

OB: Will you do a sixties set novel? It seems like the missing link between “The Big Blowdown” and “King Suckerman”.

GP: I’d love to. I wanted to do it now – I’ve written a book called “Right as Rain” and I wanted to take it back to the sixties, with this guy as a cop in ’68, during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King. White people didn’t really wake up until they saw the cities start to burn and it got serious. I was a ten-year-old boy and that summer that it happened I’d take the bus down town to work at my father’s carry-out shop and after the riots everything had changed. It wasn’t like before black people had only sat at the back of the bus, but after the riots the posture of people, their attitudes to black people, their whole body language had changed. It was like “alright, I’m going to let you in now because you showed me what could happen if I don’t!” You could look down town and see smoke rising. It was a very graphic picture. But you know what it is? The publishers don’t want me to do it! They say that period books don’t sell! But I’d like to get to the bridge. I’ll do it. Part of the thing is trying to get enough power as a writer so that you can just write what you want.

OB: As a white writer, have you received any flack for writing about African American culture as much as you do?

GP: I haven’t from African Americans. I do get the question from white journalists a lot! The letters I get at home in DC from readers are always “thank you”. And it’s not “thank you for putting a black person in a book”, it’s “thank you for putting all kinds of people – all kinds of voices in there”. It seems obvious but there’s more than one kind of black person out there – so let’s get everyone’s stories told. Including the guy who’s dealing drugs, but also the guy who goes to work every day, who’s a dishwasher, the guy who is a good father to his kids. And this seems very elementary, it’s about trying to educate people. I’m not trying to be “down” and all that stuff, this is just my life. It’s where I live. I’m not trying to write black fiction, I’m writing about my neighbours. I’m not writing about people who win, but they’re trying to win.

OB: How much do you feel constrained by the demands of the crime genre? For instance, in many of your books the plot seems to build towards a violent climax…

GP: …an apocalypse, yeah. Well, “Shame the Devil” is a reaction to that – I was trying to go in a different direction. So I started that book with the apocalypse, and kind of examined the aftermath. Trying to look at things like: how do you find some kind of spirituality in the modern world? And so, by extension, I was examining what I’d done in my other books. One thing I’m very proud of is the way that Stefanos comes back in and he won’t even touch a gun in that book – even to the end. So I’m saying that there’s a way to deal with things without resorting to violence. Peter Karras in “The Big Blowdown” is trapped by it, man, and its like this magnet is driving him towards that final long walk to the house at the end. He’s never able to get out of that cycle, and it’s fatal for him.

OB: And is it a cycle that you need to escape as a writer too?

GP: Sure – but only if you can still deliver the goods within the genre framework! I’d be a liar to say that I don’t get a visceral kick out of writing those violent scenes – I do! But at the same time I want to show the impact of them, and somehow let the reader know that it’s uncool.

OB: Do you feel, then, that books – or films – should be held responsible for their violent content?

GP: No. It’s a reflection. First of all, if I really believed that I had that kind of influence, I wouldn’t write about violence at all. I’d stop. All the talk about films and books is a deflection from the real issue. None of us – rappers, writers, whoever – we wouldn’t be writing about these kind of things if they weren’t out there on the street. I talk a lot about gun culture, I’m trying to make people aware of things, and through fiction you put a human face on the victims – it’s a lot different from reading about it in a newspaper. Once you get into people’s heads and present it to a reader, maybe they can have some empathy for what’s happened in real life. I really believe that. I always think it’s cowardly for people to blame movies when they know what they have to do – they know what’s right. There’s literally millions of guns floating around in the United States. In my city people are walking around strapped – armed and ready, man – and the cops are scared to death. I’m not defending the police but I ride with cops at night and I’ve seen that they’re scared – and they have a reason to be!

OB: Will there be any more Nick Stefanos books?

GP: Nah, he’s done.

OB: So we’ll never get to see him finally deal with his demons?

GP: Well, I kind of gave him some hope in “Shame the Devil” – and my hard core fans didn’t like that! They wanted him to end up in the gutter! But my world view has changed and I didn’t want to leave him in the gutter. I can’t really write anymore where there’s no hope at all – it just doesn’t make sense to me. I wouldn’t be able to live in a world where there wasn’t any hope! So I picked him up a little bit – he’s not straight yet, but he’s working on it…because the Stefanos books were really the story of one guy’s slow descent into hell – “Down by the River where the Dead Men Go” is really the darkest thing I’ve ever written. I thought that book was the end for him! But after that I wrote “The Big Blowdown” and it was almost tragic to see this little kid with all that ahead of him… so I wanted to bring him back in a little bit.

OB: How much of you was in Nick? He is, as you say, a pretty messed up character, and an alcoholic…

GP: Well, I’ve lived a long life, y’know! I’m forty three now, and up to my early thirties there was a lot of… well, writing pulled me out, my family further pulled me out, and I know now that the way I want to go is to just write about that kind of life, I don’t want to do it anymore man, because I’ve been there! If I was doing that now, I’d be a loser, basically. But I don’t want to put it down, or say that other people shouldn’t go that way, because I also had a lot of fun! In the books there is a sense that they’re having a ball… but there is the morning after, you gotta pay for it. But, shit man, it’s a lotta fun too!