DC Confidential: GEORGE PELECANOS
Highlights from The DC Issue
Photograph by IAN ALLEN
Friday, November 21, 2008
The complete Stop Smiling Interview with George Pelecanos appears in
The DC Issue. Here we present an excerpt of that interview
The Stop Smiling Interview with George Pelecanos
By Walker Lamond
It turns out the paper coasters on George Pelecanos’ coffee table were lifted from the short-lived City Museum of DC. Printed up to promote the museum’s opening and tout the city’s hometown heroes, they read, “Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard, all rolled into one Silver Spring boy.” Pelecanos, the best-selling author of 15 novels set in and around Washington, DC, chuckles, embarrassed by the audacity of the boast. Or maybe it’s the irony that the museum chose him as its poster boy, the guy who has made it his life’s work to document the desperation and violence indigenous to the nation’s capital.
But hey, DC is short on celebrities, literary or otherwise. And Pelecanos is a superstar. Among crime fiction junkies, he ranks with the top writers working today: Richard Price, Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane. He was a writer (and eventually became a producer) on The Wire, hailed by critics — this one included — as one of the best dramatic television series ever. And director Curtis Hanson (LA Confidential, Wonder Boys, 8 Mile) plans to bring at least one of his novels to the big screen, which may or may not make George Pelecanos a household name. Either way, more people will begin to see Washington as Pelecanos sees it: dangerous, proud, volatile, soulful. Real. By all means, put his name on some coasters.
In the novels of George Pelecanos, there’s no aerial stock footage of the White House or long lens tableaux of the Lincoln Memorial under a full moon — the clichés of Hollywood and tourist brochures. In Pelecanos’ DC those locations are no more consequential than a beat-up bungalow over in Park View or a one-man garage on Georgia Avenue. Because for real Washingtonians, that big white dome is just a distant roadblock on the end of North Capitol Street, the suits on the Hill no more a part of this city than the tourists wandering the Mall. The characters that populate Pelecanos’ novels are day-shift bartenders, nickel bag peddlers, 9-to-5 Joes hustling shoes and stereos, just waiting to close up shop to catch a flick, feed their kids, get a taste or meet up with that good-looking sister from around the way. Oh yeah, and mostly, they’re black, just like most of DC.
Pelecanos grew up one bus stop north of the District line off Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring, Maryland, a racially mixed, working-class neighborhood that even today is more DC than most of lily-white Northwest. His father, a first-generation Greek immigrant and WW II vet, ran a diner just south of Dupont Circle where an 11-year-old George was put to work early making deliveries. By 19 he was running the place, punching in every morning at 4 a.m. just like his old man, and putting himself through the University of Maryland.
At one time or another Pelecanos also sold women’s shoes, tended bar and ran the sales floor for an electronics chain. And during those years, he memorized the cadences of his jive-talking co-workers and filed away all the skirt-chasing stories, the pickup basketball games, and beer-fueled summer nights because one day he was going to write a book. At age 31, with no formal training beyond a class in hardboiled fiction at Maryland, he did just that. Wrote out his first book longhand in a spiral notebook.
A Firing Offense features Nick Stefanos, a Greek-American ad man for Nutty Nathan’s Electronics and the boozy alter ego of the author. Despite its unabashed embrace of hardboiled conventions, including the stripped-down prose and sometimes hokey detective-speak, the book got good reviews, especially among younger audiences who dug on the contemporary music references and the ne’er-do-well punk rock protagonist. The authenticity of the autobiographical elements, especially the hard-partying characters on the stereo sales floor, elevated the book above other crime fiction that too often revels in the black and white nostalgia of the genre. But the real triumph was the setting — a DC far from the Capitol steps, which proved to be as rich and vibrant a backdrop for genuine noir as James Ellroy’s LA or Elmore Leonard’s Detroit.
Pelecanos followed up his debut, for which he cleared a cool $2,500, with Nick’s Trip, which found Stefanos sinking further into his addictions, and the non-series heist novel Shoedog. Down By the River Where the Dead Men Go would complete the Stefanos trilogy. The advances were small, but Pelecanos was rolling out the prose. He wrote at night while learning the film distribution business through a DC outfit called Circle Films.
Pelecanos’ next novel, The Big Blowdown, was a turning point. His most ambitious effort to date, it required a new facet of his game — research. Documenting the Greek immigrant experience in Washington from the Thirties through the Fifties, it is as much historical novel as crime story.
And it demonstrated Pelecanos’ desire to document the life of his hometown and its crazy sociological tides — from its golden era when it was a beacon to middle-class blacks to its lowest days as the so-called murder capital of the world. By the time The Big Blowdown won several international crime fiction awards, there was no doubt that Pelecanos owned DC. His next three novels — King Suckerman, The Sweet Forever and Shame the Devil — chronicled the slow decline of DC from the hopeful Seventies to the bleak Nineties and completed what would be called the DC Quartet. During that time, the list of white-hot blurbs from critics and colleagues continued to grow. Stephen King called him “perhaps the greatest living American crime writer.” Puff Daddy bought the film rights to Suckerman. Nine years into his writing career, Pelecanos finally quit his day job.
Pelecanos hit his stride with the Derek Strange novels, culminating in Hard Revolution, an opus of sorts, set in the tense days around the DC riots of 1968. It was released with its own soundtrack of the rawest and most soulful Stax and Atlantic cuts from the era (as good a soul mix as you’ll ever hear), and it sold well. His next few books delved even deeper into his characters, who grew increasingly complex. Drama City and The Night Gardener shared the same unsentimental view of crime, violence and sex of his earlier work, but also displayed a dash of optimism and a stronger emphasis on the redemptive quality of family and love. The books felt less like hardboiled crime novels and more like social commentary. Less Hammett, more Steinbeck. Which actually puts Pelecanos at a crossroads: He’s become the crime writer who might be done with crime.
To categorize his most recent book as a crime book would be a stretch. Spanning from the Seventies to the present, The Turnaround (Little, Brown) examines the lives of six men — three white and three black — whose lives are forever changed by a shared trauma, specifically a racially motivated murder inspired by true events Pelecanos recalled from his childhood. It is the author’s most blatant confrontation with the issue of race. It is also the most autobiographical to date, complete with a protagonist who takes over his father’s diner and daydreams about writing crime novels. This kind of psychological portrait might be the closest thing Pelecanos has written to capital-L literature. It certainly has the least amount of graphic violence of all his novels, but — fans rest assured — the requisite amount of pitch-perfect suspense that will ensure a prominent spot on the hardboiled racks, whether he likes it or not.
One does get the distinct sense that The Turnaround is about closure, both for its characters and its creator. As Pelecanos puts it, “The well is only so deep.” But the working-class hero knows what puts food on his family’s table. And so he writes, clocking in every day and already well underway on his next novel. We meet at his house in the midst of a classic DC heat wave to talk about his new book, basketball, Marion Barry, DC’s slow recovery and how a white guy from Silver Spring became Chocolate City’s favorite son.
Stop Smiling: As a lifelong Washingtonian, you must remember where you were when you heard University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died?
George Pelecanos: I was working at an appliance store, and it was on TV. I had seen the draft, and everybody was so happy for him. It was bad, man.
SS: Was that appliance store the same one in your Nick Stefanos books?
GP: The stuff in the books is based on the old Sun Radio down on Connecticut and Albemarle — my first job in the business. I was a stock boy in the Seventies. Then I got promoted to sales. All the stuff in the books about those kinds of sales is based on the old school — old Jewish guys wearing suits teaching you how to cuss in Yiddish and how to hustle customers and stuff like that. Of course, now you walk into a Circuit City or something and everybody’s walking backwards trying to get away from you. In the old days somebody would come in the door and you would give guys elbows in the gut to get to the customer, you’d jump over console TVs — anything to get to the customer. We were very serious about it, even though we were smoking dope on the sales floor. It was like, “I want to be the best salesman on this floor.” Selling shoes was the same thing for me. I did that during my whole college years. I put myself through college selling shoes.
And of course part of the fun was that you’d bring in your records in the morning. You’d bring in shit that you knew the other guys wouldn’t like, and it would throw them off balance. All the other guys on the sales floor were young black guys. So they were bringing in whatever they were bringing in, you know, McFadden and Whitehead, whatever. Parliament or Cameo, shit like that. And just to mess them up, I would bring in punk records and some of the new wave records coming out of England. It was fun.
SS: Is this what you saw yourself doing, or were you taking notes all along, knowing one day you were going to write a book about these experiences?
GP: The book became A Firing Offense, which I didn’t write until I was 31. It was gestating for all that time — my entire 20s. I always wanted to tell the story about what it was like working on a fast-track sales floor with a lot of guys who were partying while they were working, sleeping with different women every night. I say the other guys, because I’ve been with my wife a long time. And I was dating her back then.
SS: You never felt out of place in jobs that had a predominantly black workforce?
GP: I don’t want to make some stupid claim like “I don’t see color” or, you know, “I didn’t notice they were black” — that kind of shit. I grew up in a diner my dad had at 19th and M Street. All the employees were black except for my dad and I. And I was very used to coming in and WOOK or WOL was turned on the radio, and that’s what we rolled with all day long. We played basketball, went around the city trying to find games. It was just an extension of that. I was walking by a shoe store one time and looking in, and the music was coming out. I was looking at the guys working and said, “That looks like fun. I can do that.”
SS: Basketball comes up a lot in your books, usually as a kind of respite from the violence. What is it about the sport that appeals to you so much?
GP: It’s a meritocracy, for one thing. It doesn’t matter who your father is. If you can’t play, you can’t play — you gotta sit on the sidelines and watch. Everybody was on an equal footing. It didn’t matter where you came from, what neighborhood or who your daddy was.
SS: Did you grow up looking for those pickup games like the characters in your books?
GP: Yeah. We’d go into the city and try, whether it was Candy Cane City or Hamilton Rec — just driving around with your boys and seeing what’s going on. There wasn’t anything else to do. I mean, you came over today and my kid is downstairs with his friend playing video games. That wasn’t there. There were three channels on TV — four if you count Channel 20, UHF. You weren’t going to sit around. So you played basketball. I’m not trying to be like Jack Armstrong, the all-American boy or something. We were smoking herb, too, when we were playing, or you’d take a break and somebody had beer or whatever.
SS: Where were the baddest games in town?
GP: On this side, Candy Cane City was pretty good. That’s where it got kind of serious and you played for push-ups. A lot of times that was black against white. Your group would go in there and call winners. Nobody wanted to do push-ups in front of the other guys. That’s pretty demoralizing.
SS: Your books about Washington span from the Thirties to the present. What do you think was DC’s golden era?
GP: It depends on who you’re talking to. You talk to people who can remember: If you talk to my mom, she’ll tell you about the glory of Washington when people used to be down on F Street dressed up in overcoats and fedoras, looking at the Christmas displays in the windows at Woodies. At the same time you had Washington’s Harlem on 7th Street, and those people were decked out to the nines. There was this idea from certain people that blacks were in their own world and doing better, which is not true. We had some really bad slums and alley dwellings here at the same time.
If you ask me, I’ll say the Seventies, because it was my time, it was my teenage years, and I just thought everything was so cool down in the city. And it was. Nobody will be able to convince me otherwise. You take all the emotion out of it, and I have to say that when I go down to Shaw now — what I still call Shaw — that’s the dream realized. You see people of all colors and economic backgrounds interacting, living together. I have friends who call me when they’re down there and they’ll say, “Hey, man, this is the way it’s supposed to be. We finally got here.” So I think now is a golden era.
The complete interview with George Pelecanos is available for purchase in The DC Issue