TWBookmark: Welcome to Time Warner Bookmark! Little, Brown and Company and The Talk City Network are proud to present our special guest for tonight, George Pelecanos, author of Shame the Devil the fourth installment in the continuing adventures of Nick Stefanos, Washington, D.C. bartender and private detective. Welcome, George!
George_Pelecanos: Thanks, How are you doing? Actually, Shame the Devil is the last in a quartet of novels with several generations of characters. And in this particular book I've brought back Nick Stefanos, who was the protagonist of the three earlier novels.
Thurston: Have you always had an interest in writing?
George_Pelecanos: Yes. I would say that before I was into books, I was mainly a movie freak, and music—all popular culture. But I came to writing relatively late in life after being influenced and turned on to books by a professor of mine at the University of Maryland. But all my earlier pop culture influences make their way into my books.
Quizno: Do you remember your first story that you wrote, and where you buried it so it won't see the light of day? *grin*
George_Pelecanos: That's a good one. Actually, I do. The first thing I wrote was novel when I was ten years old. It was a war novel. It was called The Two Wars of Lieutenant Jeremy. And you know, it was a long book. I illustrated it and all that. I didn't bury it; it was lost. The only think I have left is one sheet of reviews that I wrote myself. And that's what remains of that. I didn't try to write another book for another twenty years.
Atlantean: I love the title Shame the Devil. How did you come up with that?
George_Pelecanos: Well, there are two things. A lot of the book takes place in a kitchen of a bar. And it's based on a kitchen that I actually worked in, in Washington, D.C. There was a woman that worked there with me who, when you said something that she really agreed with, would say, "Tell the truth and shame the Devil." And the other thing is, it's the title of a song by Robin Trower that I really liked.
Otter: Many would call Shame the Devil a 'hard-boiled crime novel.' What would you call it?
George_Pelecanos: Well, if you have to put a tag on it, I would say that it is a hard-boiled crime novel. It differs from some of my earlier books that tend to end in an apocalypse in that this book begins with an apocalypse and examines the after-effects of violence on the families of the victims. And it tries to find some answers with regard to finding some degree of spirituality in a violent world.
Zephyr: You have written eight novels set in and around Washington, D.C. Apart from the fact that you live in the D.C. area, what do you find so intriguing about D.C. that you are inclined to set all of your novels there?
George_Pelecanos: When I started out, I didn't feel as if Washington D.C. had been fully represented in literature. And by that I mean the real, living, working class side of the city. The cliché is that Washington is a transient town of people who blow in and out every four years with the new administrations. But the reality is that people have lived in Washington for generations and their lives are worth examining, I think. I didn't have a specific plan in the beginning, but the way it's worked out, I've pretty much covered the century in Washington, going back to the 1930's and the societal changes that have occurred there.
Colin: Your novels have been said to be very 'streetwise.' What kind of research do you do in order to write stories that capture the real pulse of the city?
George_Pelecanos: Well, the main thing is I've lived there for my whole life, which is 42 years. And I continue to live in a very mixed working class neighborhood. So this is not an archaeological thing for me; rather it's more a case of me being out on the street and listening and talking with my neighbors. Now there are things that I do. I have sources. I ride with the police at night frequently, and I know private detectives in Washington who can get me an audience with, for example, prostitutes and people like that who are out at night and see more than the cops do. And it's also a case of my personal history—where I've worked in kitchens, bars, warehouses, and sales floors. I have gotten a wealth of material like that.
Jude-guest: Did you have any writers that inspired you when you were younger? Did they lead you to the crime genre?
George_Pelecanos: Yes. The earliest were the masters, like Chandler and Hammett. And then the major influences on me were the pulp writers of the 1950's and early 60's, like David Goodis, Charles Willeford, and Chester Himes. Later I was influenced by writers who began to turn the hard-boiled crime novels on their heads. People like James Crumley, Kem Nunn, and Newton Thornburg. Another influence for me was outside the realm of books; it was in the punk rock arena, which was very strong in Washington in the 1980's. And I started to think that if these guys that had no formal musical training could pick up these guitars and make this outstanding meaningful music, then I, who had no formal training as a writer, could maybe try to do the same thing with a pen.
bigreader: What do you think of the Robert Parker "Spenser" series?
George_Pelecanos: I've read most of them. I think they're fantastic. He, along with Elmore Leonard, brought something entirely fresh to the crime novel back in the 1970's. So I would say that both of those guys got me 'amped.'
Noelle-guest: What do you find to be the hardest and easiest thing about writing when you are in the middle of a project?
George_Pelecanos: Well the hardest thing is starting the book, because I don't outline my books beforehand. I have to find the story and the way I find the story is through the development of my characters. And every time I begin a book, I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to succeed. The easiest part is when you hit that point about a quarter of the way through, where your characters actually begin to write the book for you. And then it's just a matter of sitting down every day and doing the work.
Casper: Can a mystery writer read other mysteries and enjoy them, rather than being a critic or reviewer?
George_Pelecanos: Sure. I read less mysteries or crime novels than I used to, but the ones that I really like just make me more stoked to do a better job myself. People like Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, James Sallis, Craig Holden, and Jack O'Connell make me think that this is the golden age of crime writing.
Gar^^Trek: Have you ever ventured outside the mystery/crime field in your writing?
George_Pelecanos: Well, I don't really feel like I've written mysteries since the Nick Stefanos books, which were six years ago. Increasingly, my books are novels about working class people in the modern city that have crime elements to them. And I don't think I'll ever leave those crime elements behind because I like conflict in a book. I like storytelling. And in addition to my belief that books should be about something, I think also that within these books things should happen.
Atlantean: What would it take to make you make a big change in the direction your writing has taken so far?
George_Pelecanos: Well, it would just be my desire to do something different. What it would take would be for me to feel like I've already covered all the territory, and that I've exhausted these characters and these stories. And that would probably push me to try something else. But at this point, I'm pretty sure that my life's work is going to be writing about the people of the neighborhoods in Washington D.C. in the form of the crime novel.
Fawn: Which book you have written did you enjoy the most?
George_Pelecanos: I think I have the fondest place in my heart for a book I wrote called The Big Blowdown. It was the story of immigrants in Washington D.C. from the years 1933 to 1959. By extension it was the story of my family. Or to put it another way, it was a hard Valentine to my people. But the books that I've written since I think technically improved as I've matured personally and my worldview has broadened. And so I'm very happy with this set of novels that people call the 'D.C. Quartet.' I know that this new book, Shame the Devil, has seemed to move people in an entirely different way than my books have done before. And I'm happy about that.
Thalia: Many protagonists are often developed after the author themselves. Are you Nick Stefanos?
George_Pelecanos: I was in the first book. It's no secret that the character of Stefanos is autobiographical. However, as his life darkened, mine grew better. And so the Stefanos of later books is a much different character than I am now. I would say that two things put me on that positive track, and in effect saved me, and those things are my family and my writing.
Mora: What do you have in store for the future? Will we see Nick Stefanos again, or are you moving on to a new character?
George_Pelecanos: If you were to ask me right now, I'd say no, we won't see him again. However, I doubt that's the case. My next book, Right as Rain, has all new characters and is a contemporary crime novel set in the Fourth District, what's called '4D' in Washington, D.C.
flagrant-guest: Whom would you envision playing Nick in the movies?
George_Pelecanos: Well, I always liked Nick Cage. I think he could do it. It's got to be somebody you can empathize with even as he's going all the way down. Too bad Steve McQueen isn't around, because that would be my guy.
Hunter: Your novels always have such a colorful cast of characters. Do you draw them from people you really know or once knew?
George_Pelecanos: I take elements of a lot of different people I've known over the years to draw these characters. Having worked sales force, selling shoes, electronics, and appliances for many years, you can imagine all the colorful characters I came across. What I'm trying to do in a lot of ways is to put a face on people of a certain working class that many folks simply ignore in their day-to-day lives.
DeeDee: Why did you decide to bring all of the characters together in this novel?
George_Pelecanos: I wanted some sort of resolution for these people. And though it might not be a popular choice with some of my hard core readers, I wanted to pick Nick Stefanos up out of that gutter he was lying in at the end of his books. Even for a character like Marcus Clay, I wanted the reader to see that good things can happen to strong people who keep on the path.
Atlantean: What are the key elements that make a mystery/crime novel 'click'? What do they have to have, and must not be missing?
George_Pelecanos: For me it always goes to characters. I'm not interested in the puzzle aspect of mysteries, so much as I am the characters themselves and what makes them do the things they do. I don't think you necessarily have to like the characters or the protagonist of a book, but I do think you have to care about them. And so to me, that's the most important element.
Effie: I hear you are a big movie fan. What are a few of your favorites?
George_Pelecanos: Well, I think as a child in the 60's (I was just a little kid) there were three films that influenced what I do as a writer now. Those movies were The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, and The Wild Bunch. And in retrospect, it's because they were about a sort of honor and inglorious redemption. Then in the 70's I got into 'blacksploitation,' Kung Fu, anything you could see at a drive-in. Alhough these films were cheaply made and not particularly well- written, there was a purity and honesty in their desire to tell a straight story and to make working class audiences of all races happy by presenting a protagonist who won, and did so with an attitude. Right now, I've been enjoying movies from out of the studio system once again. Pictures like Three Kings, The Insider, The Straight Story, and The Limeywere all studio films that I thought were the best pictures last year. I'm a little bit down on independent films right now. They don't seem to be about anything. But that leaves a hole for another revolution in filmmaking to begin once again.
Thunderbird2: How does writing screenplays differ from writing a novel?
George_Pelecanos: Well, the obvious answer to that is that in a screenplay it's dialogue and action. You have to throw out the internal monologues. So, naturally, writing a screen play is less creative than writing a novel. The other difference is that it's a totally different business than the book publishing business. By that I mean, you have a whole lot more bosses, and there's lots more money involved. So, as a writer working in the movie business, you have to be prepared for that. You have to listen to more people and understand going into it that it's not going to be an easy experience. I write screenplays for two reasons. I love movies and it was a dream of mine to write movies when I was a kid. And the other reason is—and this is very important—I want to send my kids to college. So screenplays are for my family; the novels are for me.
Montgomery: Can we reasonably expect to see you produce one of your own novels, with you writing the screenplay, in the foreseeable future?
George_Pelecanos: I think eventually, yes. My novel King Suckerman was optioned by Dimension Films, a division of Miramax. I wrote the screenplay. It's still in development. In the meantime, I've done a rewrite of another screenplay for the same company about some kids in Harlem, who get into the drug game in the early 1980s. That film has been green-lighted and will start shooting soon. But I'm holding my other books out and waiting for the right combination of talent, both in front of and behind the camera before I let them go.
Peapod: You've been executive producer on two films. What exactly does an executive producer do?
George_Pelecanos: Well, in the independent world, which is the world that I worked in, you do a little bit of everything. You raise the money. You get involved in the casting. You hire the talent. You put out any fires that occur on the set. You sell the film to distributors, and then you chase the money all over the world. So when you executive produce an independent film, you're talking about a two-year process, at least.
Julia: It's been said your settings are superb—language, music, locales. How do you 'build' your world that your characters inhabit?
George_Pelecanos: This is going to sound like smoke, but it's really all there in my head. I've created this parallel, fictional world of Washington, D.C. that is alive to me all the time. I've always been a daydreamer. Even when I was a kid, delivering food for my dad in downtown D.C. I was making up movies in my head all day long while I walked the streets. And I'm still doing it today.
Herman: Nick has evolved through several jobs to now be the proud owner of a P.I. license. Is this it, or can we expect more twists and turns in his future?
George_Pelecanos: I think I'm going to let Nick rest for a while. He's in a pretty good place. It's good for him that I don't put my hands on him for a little while anyway.
WannaWrite: Do you have any tips for an aspiring author? How hard is it? What do I need to know or do?
George_Pelecanos: Well, I think you've got to get out and live. I think many writers try and start their careers too early, before they've done anything or seen anything. I was fortunate to write my first book when I was 31 years old. And at that point I already had a lifetime of material just from the living I had done. It's a long life and you shouldn't rush it as a writer.
Charlie: When can we expect your next novel?
George_Pelecanos: Right as Rain will be published in January of 2001.
TWBookmark: Our time is up on this caper. Thanks for being with us, George! Any final thoughts for our readers?
George_Pelecanos: Well, I just want to thank everybody who wrote in today and the people who have hung with me these past ten years. I'm just going to keep working and keep doing my best.
Thanks a lot.
TWBookmark: Many thanks to our audience, and of course to our special guest, George Pelecanos.
Posted with permission by Talk City, Inc. © 2000 All rights reserved.