George Pelecanos, D.C.'s hard-boiled heir to Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain, has neo-noir soon-to-be-classics like Nick's Trip and Hard Revolution to his credit. Pelecanos also served as screenwriter and producer on HBO's acclaimed The Wire. Out Aug. 1 is The Turnaround (Little, Brown, $24.99), a smoldering novel about despair, desperation and hope. His hard-hitting style and vivid characterizations never fail to leave an impression.
City Paper: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Are you doing much press for this book?
George Pelecanos: I haven't yet, you're actually one of the first. This is the first time I've actually talked about the book.
CP: It seems to be a bit of a departure from your previous novels in that you've created an entirely new cast.
GP: I guess this is the third stand-alone in a row. I'm not a big fan of series. In the past I've written three books in a series and then I've gotten out. I just don't think they can get any better. Historically nobody says that the 12th novel in the series was better than the third one.
CP: I was really struck by how the novel deals with Afghanistan and the Iraq war. Did you intend for this to be a political book?
GP: Really, my intention was to make it apolitical in terms of the war. If you notice, there's no point in this book where anybody, even the soldiers, say anything negative about the war. First of all, if you're a rational human being you realize that war is bad, and most people in the country think negatively on this war anyway. So, you're not going to bring anything new to the table there. I went to Walter Reed and I hung out with the soldiers, the men and women, and that's what I found. They weren't negative at all. Once you make the decision to become a soldier, it's your job. The only thing, which is in the book, that I heard time and time again was that they would actually say, "Look, we weren't there to bring democracy to the Middle East or topple a dictator or anything like that, I was there to protect my brother and my sister." That's what these soldiers were saying, so I didn't want to force anything into the characters' mouths for that reason. I went into it with an open mind. ... I did try to keep my voice out of it. Nobody shits on the president or anything in this book.
CP: Must have been hard.
GP: (chuckles) It was. I've already taken my lumps there. A few weeks before the invasion I signed a full-page petition in The New York Times against the invasion and I paid the price for it. I had a lot of nasty things said about me on the Internet. I think that when it counted, I came out and now it's just another voice.
CP: Are politics another element of setting for you, like cars, fashion and music?
GP: Ordinarily I'm not all that interested. I'm pretty cynical about politics and politicians, but I have to say that I'm publicly behind Obama. I gave my first political speech a couple of months ago at a rally. It's completely an accident because I finished writing this book a year ago and I didn't know he was going to come up the way he did. The book, The Turnaround, it's about how we're going to come to a better place and find a way out of this. It just happened that somebody appeared who I believe in. It just happened to lock into thematically with the book.
CP: This book does seem more hopeful than some of your previous work.
GP: Yeah, and the city, my city, is changing. Things are getting better, man. I would love to be out of the crime-fiction-writing business in Washington, D.C. It's not going to happen entirely, but certainly what I don't want to do is write about it unrealistically in terms of making it worse than it is or not speaking on the positive changes that are happening. Drama City was the end of something. It was the end of that gangster era, you know? And The Night Gardener has some of that in there, too. It wasn't about a cop who was obsessed with getting criminals or anything, it was about a guy who just wanted to come home and be with his family.
CP: It seemed that book was more about relationships in a way that perhaps some of your others hadn't been.
GP: Yeah, and I'm probably headed that way more. Because it interests me more as a middle-aged man now, and there's less of the hard-core crime aspect in these books, although I try to deliver it at some point.
CP: And, so, I wonder, what comes first for you? Is it a matter of getting into someone's head, or mastering the dialogue and language? Or, to put it far too glibly, do you figure out what he drives and go from there?
GP: It's helpful but it's more about, like you say, getting into their head and finding their voice. Who are they? That's what I'm always trying to find out. A big mistake a person who's writing about people who are not his culture or color will make, and you see it in books all the time, is that somebody will say, "This is a black guy and he's going to talk this way." I try to go around that and say first, who is this person? And then the voice comes. ... So yeah, it's more than that, but cars and music help.
CP: What makes a character resonate for you? Is there a moment when you know you've hit upon something?
GP: I don't outline or anything, I just write my books. It can be kind of scary but sometimes you don't find the character until late in the book. Historically, I've always hit it somewhere in the book but while you're writing it you're saying to yourself, "I don't know who this is yet, this person is not complete." I'm just going to write my way through it and find the character. Eventually you do, and you go back and rewrite and change little things. That's how it works. It can be something as little as a piece of dialogue that just comes to you and you say, "Wait a minute, now I know who this is."
CP: One of the things I've always been so impressed by is your ability to use space and render D.C. almost like a character. In reading the work of some of your peers, I'm struck by how important place is to the success of a book. How much of your D.C. is real and founded in the streets and how much is created in your mind?
GP: Of course the characters are fictional and they're sort of walking through this fictional world, but as far as the grid goes, it's all pretty much real. I go out and check stupid things like, Is there a T in that alley behind Otis Place NW? I have to go to the alley and make sure that there is. In the historical books like Hard Revolution, if a character is walking down the street in April '68 in a particular week of that month, and the movie theater marquee says Guess Who's Coming to Dinner or something, it was playing in that movie theater on that day. I can guarantee you that. I don't make shit like that up. Even where it's crippling. In other words, [in The Turnaround] when Alex walks into the diner for the first time when he's a kid and the James Brown song is playing, and it's June in the book — if that song was released not until September of that year, I don't put it in there. It wouldn't have been coming through the radio. It's a long-winded way of saying I'm trying to leave a record.
CP: And that's definitely how it reads.
GP: Is somebody doing that in Philly like that? Does somebody own that town?
CP: Sadly no, absolutely not. I wish we did. I mean, we have Lisa Scottoline.
GP: Well, at least you had David Goodis. One of my favorite writers.
CP: What kinds of books really grab you? What inspires you?
GP: I tend to read a lot of older books, and I'm talking about the books of the '30s, '40s, '50s mainly, because those writers seem like they were discovering something and it appeared that they were unencumbered by the marketplace. And I'm a big fan of what I call proletariat noir. I would put Steinbeck in that group and also Edward Anderson and John Fante. I don't know if you ever read Ask the Dust, but it's a fantastic book about the immigrant experience. There's a great new book by Willy Vlautin called Northline.
CP: I read that, it's wonderful.
GP: That falls into that category because publishers today don't really want those books. They want high-concept, something with a lot of twists. And Northline to me was one of the best books I'd read in years — and I read a lot of books. What impressed me was that he wrote this very small story about this woman's journey about how these small kindnesses collectively lifted her up. And that's the kind of books I admire.
CP: It almost seemed like a novelization of a Tom Waits song to me.
GP: Everybody I've given that book to, especially women, have been basically haunted by it. Last week, not to make this about him, I met him. He came through town and I went down to the bookstore. He couldn't be a sweeter guy and you could just see the reason that this spirit's in the book — it came right out of him. He's a really very nice man.
CP: What books are on your must-read list — current or all-time?
GP: David Benioff [City of Thieves]. Lately I read a book called Stoner [by John Williams]. It's not about weed, it's about a guy named Stoner who's an English professor. That is an outstanding novel. Oh yeah, Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter. It's a book in the '60s about juvenile delinquents. Hopefully that'll be republished sometime soon. I'm writing my own juvenile-delinquent novel right now.
CP: Is that about the system or ...
GP: Yeah, it's both. I work in schools, and I do all sorts of stuff mainly with kids. So I went out to Oak Hill, which is the juvenile prison for D.C., and of course I walked in there and started talking to these guys — I got kind of amped up about it and I decided I was going to write about it. I mean, I have my own ideas about it. Kids who sell drugs and do break-ins shouldn't be in prison with kids who've murdered people. So I came at it with some ideas, but then as it always is, my ideas changed as I actually got into the reality of the situation and started talking to people. But the way I was going to attack it is, first of all, what's it like for a kid to go to prison and also what's it like for his parents to send him to prison? That's all I can say right now because I'm writing the book. It's coming along.
CP: Not that you probably want to pick favorites, but what book do you have an extra soft spot for in your collection?
GP: There's a few but Hard Revolution is the one that, if there's going to be one that'll stand the test of time, that'll be it. It wasn't a big success, but it's kind of getting a life of its own now. It's being taught in some public schools here and a couple of colleges. I feel really good about it because I worked very hard on it. It's a book I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write, to write about the '68 riots. When I say from the beginning, I mean from the time I started writing. But I waited many, many years and many books because I wasn't ready to do it.
CP: Is there anything else you want Philly to know?
GP: No, just look out for the Washington Redskins this year. We're back.