Arne: Have you always thought of yourself as either a writer or, before you began publishing your work, at least as a writer-in-training? Or did the idea of your being a writer really take root only once you were published? Also, do you find it in any way difficult to take the blunt, unvarnished subject matter-especially the rough dialogue-of your work and convert it into fiction? Similarly, do you find it easy or difficult to take your interest in movies and music and put it into your fiction?
George Pelecanos: I always wanted to tell stories in some form. I thought I would be a filmmaker but I got sidetracked by a professor in college who turned me on to books. It wasn't until my first novel was published that I actually thought of myself as a writer. But your point about being a writer-in-training is well taken. I learned my craft while on the job, and I continue to do so.
My subject matter and the attendant language is indeed unvarnished. With the world I'm trying to explore, it has to be or the novel fails; in effect, to back away from it would be akin to a lie. The aim is to make it reportorial without trying to be dark or "street."
Pop culture—music and movies—plays a large role in our everyday lives. You're going to see it creep into the fiction of younger writers with more frequency because it's a natural element of our generation's psyche. Again, it has to be done organically or it doesn't work.
Heidi: I'm curious about your writing habits. What is your writing process? Do you revise as you go along, write a rough draft and then edit, or some other way? How long does it take you to write a novel? Do you outline or wing it?
George Pelecanos: My work habits are fairly rigid. When I'm writing a novel, I write seven days a week. I don't feel that you can leave that world for days at a time and still remain engaged. I begin early in the morning and write into the afternoon, until I have to break for lunch (I put lunch off for as long as possible; once you've got food in your stomach, you're done). In the evening I return to my desk and rewrite what I did in the morning, so that I'm ready to move forward the following morning. You can see where I'm headed with this: I write one draft, rewriting as I go along, and usually that is the draft that is sent up to my editor in New York. With that schedule, it usually takes me four to six months to write a clean novel.
Having said that, I don't mean to give the impression that it's a cakewalk. I struggle with every book, especially in the first couple of months. Much of my working day, in fact, is spent pacing around the house, bouncing a rubber ball, listening to music, etc. Work means working it out. Since I don't outline, it's a matter of finding your characters and then your plot. Once I have gotten to that point, the work accelerates. I can go on writing jags for ten, twelve hours at a time. And that's when this job gets really fun.
Ben: I was wondering what your thoughts are on the recent trend of crime/police dramas on television and whether or not you think this will have an impact on crime fiction?
George Pelecanos: Television crime dramas. I don't think that crime novelists will be influenced by what they see on t.v. Rather, it's the other way around. In my opinion, the best crime novels of the last ten years have influenced what we see on television today (as well as movies—there would be no Tarentino had there not been an Elmore Leonard). What do I like? On network, I've been a longtime fan of Law and Order, straight procedural without the window dressing. I only wish they'd bring back Carey Lowell. NYPD Blue was good at one time but its shelf-life expired long ago. At the bottom of the trash heap is The District, an insult to the cops and citizens of D.C. and anyone else unfortunate enough to watch it. On cable there's The Shield, whose creators are shooting for something different and often achieve it. Coming this fall to HBO: The Wire, produced by David Simon of Homicide fame, which will blow the genre wide open (full disclosure: I've been hired to write an episode of the show). While we're on the subject, Kent Anderson's Night Dogs is hands-down the best cop novel ever written. Training Day was a great film about cops, too.
Carrie: I'm curious about what inspired you to bring back Nick Stefanos (the Younger) as a major character in the last of the DC Quartet books (Shame the Devil). King Suckerman and The Sweet Forever were mostly about Dimitri and Marcus, but Marcus became a minor character in "Devil". Was this planned or did it come about more accidentally?
George Pelecanos: Nick Stefanos sort of showed up as a toddler at the end of The Big Blowdown, and that's when it became clear to me that he would haunt the subsequent books. He is, after all, my alter ego, and he's an observer, just like me. I thought it would also add some resonance for the reader to get a look at his innocence, having knowledge of his fate even as he himself does not. Stefanos comes back, by the way, in my next book, Soul Circus.
Michele: In your response to Ben, you referenced the "best crime novels in the last ten years..." What might they be, in your opinion? And which crime novel authors do YOU most admire and enjoy....and why?
George Pelecanos: Okay, here goes. This is off the top of my head, and includes people I think of as crime novelists who might not stricly fall under the definition. A list like this is almost impossible to compile without leaving some people out. I'm going to do it off the cuff and lower case for speed. Also, please excuse any mispellings.
hammett, chandler, ross macdonald, john d. macdonald, richard price, dan j. marlowe, james crumley, w.l. heath, james lee burke, eddie bunker, ellroy, james sallis, s.j. rozan, elmore leonard, kent harrington, walter mosley, kent anderson, michael connelly, jon jackson, dennis lehane, joe landsdale, lawrence block, richard stark, daniel woodrell, laura lippman, david goodis, charles willeford, vicki hendricks, walter tevis, cain, k.c. constantine, craig holden, nick tosches, james grady, gary phillips, newton thornburg, james carlos blake, kem nunn, chris offutt, chester himes, stephen hunter, ed dee, ian rankin, val mcdermid, a.i. bezzerides, loren d. estelman.
That ought to get you started.
Stacey: Hi! I'm hoping you might discuss the influence of movies in your own writing. Maybe, like what are your favorite films and how they filter into your own work? Or just, in general—has the connection between cinema and novels changed much, in your belief, say between 1950 and 2002? (and echoing Ben: When are we gonna see George Clooney and Ving Rhames in the film version of King Suckerman:)
George Pelecanos: I was a movie freak originally and not much of a book person. That changed for me in college, but before that, I was deeply influenced by films. Going back to the 60s, the movies that left the most lasting impression on me were The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape (both from John Sturges), The Dirty Dozen (Aldrich), the Sergio Leone westerns, and Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. All describe a masculine world with codes of friendship, honor, and (bloody) redemption. Add to that my formative filmgoing years (the early to mid 70s), where I got into the anarchic films of Don Siegel, Scorcese, and others (and the entire exploitation, blaxploitation, and kung fu canon), and you pretty much have the setup for what I would explore in my novels.
With regards to all of this, I was pretty fortunate to have grown up when I did. If I was a teenager watching films today, there would be little to inspire me.
As I said before, there's nothing wrong with younger writers absorbing their pop culture influences and organically incorporating them into their books. But a novel should not read like a screenplay or be a blueprint for a film.
The best example I know of the historic relationship of books to movies is the one between noir literature and film noir. I'll generalize here for the sake of time. Pulp noir novels came first and were adapted to film. Film noir began to take shape as a cinematic expression of the novels, but also developed concurrently with elements of other arts (Expressionism, Ed Hopper paintings, the lighting design in German films, etc.) But a funny thing began to happen in the 50s. Fim noir began to influence noir literature. You can see "shots" and cinematic shadows begin to show up, quite consciously, in the books of Woolrich, David Goodis, and others. Finally, late-period noir films like Kiss Me Deadly and Touch of Evil are pulp adaptions that comment on film and literature, and the film noir genre itself. Those films were, in effect, brilliant parody, and they marked the end of noir (Aldrich literally explodes the genre by way of apocalypse at the end of Kiss Me Deadly, just as Peckinaph would do to the western, fourteen years later, in The Wild Bunch). After this, noir became a dead end. Today's film noirs are a parody of a parody, which is to say that they equal nothing.
I've gone on too long. But I don't see a dynamic modern relationship between films and novels. I'd like to see one. I guess I'm waiting for the revolution.
Stacey: How do you go about your street research? Are you upfront about what you are doing or more 'incognito'? Is your research observational or participatorial? Having lived in the DC area and having been on those 'bad' sides of town, were any of your research expeditions dangerous or scary?
George Pelecanos: I've lived here all my life. That gives me an edge. I know where to go and what streets to avoid, and when. But generally, I'm pretty comfortable out there. You need to know about body language, eye-contact, and things of that nature. But the one thing you have to learn is how to give respect. In many case, self-respect is one of the last things some of these people have to hold on to. You violate that and you're going to have a problem.
I'm not much of a talker, either on the job or my everyday life. I find that I learn a whole lot more just by listening. So my "research" often consists of walking into a bar, having a quiet beer, and keeping my ears open. If people ask me what I do for a living I tell them. But I don't volunteer the information. Some of the things I do might seem dangerous to the outsider, but they don't feel that way to me. I spent some time in a crackhouse while researching Right as Rain, but never felt threatened. People using drugs (with the exception of out-of-fashion drugs like Angel Dust—Boat, to Washingtonians) are generally benign. It's the sellers you need to look out for. There are turf-issues as well.
After midnight I do ride-alongs with D.C. cops. This has been very valuable (I go places I will not go alone), and also gives me some insight into the psyche of the police. In Hell to Pay there are several passages that are nearly reportorial and describe some situations I've gotten into while on these rides. I also work closely with a private investigator who handles the Fed-prosecuted RICO cases in The District on behalf of the Public Defender's office. Derek Strange's clothing, the things he carries in the trunk of his car, all of this comes out of my time spent with this guy. Finally, I sit in on a lot of violent-crime trials. It is a citizen's right to do so. You can learn everything you need to know about a drug/gang operation, and the current slang, from doing this. Still, the most valuable research I do comes from just hanging out in the neighborhoods and listening.