Sunday , May 19 2024
"I am proudly a crime novelist. But it would be nice if my tombstone simply read, 'He wrote good books'."

Interview with George Pelecanos, author of The Night Gardener

It would be a disservice, and incomplete, to describe George Pelecanos as someone who writes novels about crime. He is, at times, a sociologist, an analyst and an oral historian. Along with Dennis Lehane, an excellent crime writer, and David Simon, author of great non-fiction books Homicide and The Corner, Pelcanos writes for The Wire, one of the best television series ever.

While The Wire is about life in Baltimore, Pelecanos’ books are all focused on Washington D.C. and the suburbs. He does not just focus on the characters and the plot but instead does an incredibly thorough job of describing how people of different genders and relations get along. 

A common theme in his books is race relations, which he treats in a much more insightful way than most authors. My favorite example in The Night Gardener is when a white guy has his photo taken with some black charter students: "O'Brien would never see these children again or be involved in their lives, but a photograph of him and a bunch of smiling black kids would make him feel as if he were right with the world. It would also look good on his office wall."

SB:  You do dialogue better than most writers. To what do you
attribute that? Do you have a technique for grabbing dialogue that sounds
just right?

GP: I have an ear for it.  By that I mean I am interested in listening to people
and can retain what I hear.  It's been that way with me since I was a kid.
Also, I worked jobs — bartender, shoe salesman, etc. — for many years that had me in daily contact and conversation with people in great numbers.  I didn't know I was going to be a writer back then, but is sure did help.

SB: I feel like I know certain neighborhoods of DC because of your
descriptions of them in your books. Is that what you are hoping for from
readers? Do you have plans for books based in other cities or are you going to continue to focus on DC?

GP: I am trying to leave a record of this town.  It's become my life's work, and
I doubt I will leave it for other books.

SB: What mystery writers influenced you? If you could get people to read three books what would they be?

There are so many to list. On the more recent side, Elmore Leonard, James
Crumley, Richard Price… a few of the many writers who revolutionized the
modern crime novel.  Three books: All the King's Men, The Grapes of Wrath,
and True Grit.

SB: What do you think it is about crime that so fascinates writers and readers?

GP: Crime novelists take readers places where they would otherwise not go in
their daily lives.  The "solving" of those fictional crimes, the righting of
a tilted world, reassures the readers that their world, too, is safe.  Which,
of course, could not be further from the truth.  But that's why it's called
crime fiction.

SB: I was struck by how well you do interrogation scenes. The reader feels like he's in "the box" with the cops. Am I correct in assuming you had the chance to watch some interrogations? What was that like to observe?

GP: I had full police access with this book.  I followed a murder investigation from the day of the event to the confession in the box.  After a few days the police pretty much forgot I was around.  I ended up watching the interrogation, and the confession, on a video screen set up next to the box.  I came away with respect for the detectives.  They were very good at getting the perpetrator to open up.  The whole thing was pretty sad, actually, for everyone involved.  You'd think they'd be elated with catching a killer.  But the feeling was, everybody lost.

SB: You seem very insightful when it comes to matters of race and gender. I love, for example, this exchange:

"Is it that time of the month?" said Ramone.

"You mean that time of the month when you start talking ignorant?"

Do you take extra care to try to capture the right nuances with that? 

GP: Yes.  The actual work of homicide cops is fairly routine.  If you were to just transcribe it the result would be stillborn.  The dialogue moves it along.  And it's not artificial.  Some of the conversations I heard between the police were very, very funny.  And extremely politically incorrect.

SB: You often have cops and others of different races not only interacting but talking about how they get along. Is this because race relations is of particular interest to you or because it's such an important part of D.C. or some of both? Put another way, is it important that the "record" you leave of this region contain these examinations of the often unspoken issues of race and class?

GP: I have never lived anywhere else, though, because of my job I have traveled extensively.  So I've seen a good bit of this country and the world.  I have never been in another city or region where race is discussed so frequently or matter-of-factly.  It's one of the reasons I find the DC area so interesting.  The weight of the issue is so heavy here that it has become a kind of character in my books.

SB: When I recently interviewed Michael Connelly he talked about how it would be difficult for someone who is not a former crime reporter or cop to capture perfectly life as a police officer or life as a criminal. Do you agree with that? I ask not to be provocative but because you write with the familiarity that a journalist often has?

GP: What, no one but Connelly is allowed to write a police novel?  Okay, he's right.  I don't think there's a better crime writer than Michael Connelly, and his background obviously has contributed to the authenticity of his work.  Plus, being a reporter gave him connections.  Plus, he's a flat-out good writer.

Basically, I waited until I was let in to the Violent Crimes Branch, our homicide police, before I tried to write a book of this kind.  I was well aware that I needed to get it right.  But honestly, I feel that way about any book I write.  I wouldn't have written Drama City, for example, unless I had been allowed to ride with the Human Society Enforcement Officers on their daily runs.  Everything's fictionalized in the finished manuscript.  But when it comes to the details, I don't make shit up.  To answer your question, I do feel like a journalist, absent the credentials.

SB: Let me end by thanking you for taking the time to answer my questions. I agree with crime writer Laura Lippman's quote on the back that it's not quite accurate to call this a crime novel. This book, and your past ones, are great at describing society as it is as opposed to how some want it to be. How do you describe what your book is?

GP: I am proudly a crime novelist.  But it would be nice if my tombstone simply read, "He wrote good books."  That's my aim.  

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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