(Interview conducted after the promotional tour for The Way Home)


## I think it’s fair to say that movies, books, music, and life in general influenced and helped sculpt the writer that you are now; can you name one movie, one book, one album and one specific event that are your main influences, the ones that will always be with you?

GP--Boy, that’s tough.  There were so many.  Superfly, by Curtis Mayfield. Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.  The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler.  As for life, that’s easy: the summer of ’68, post-riots, when, as a boy of eleven, I went work for my father at his diner in downtown D.C.  It was the most formative experience of my life.  

## Growing up in D.C. during turbulent times in the ‘60s and ‘70s, did you realize that you were witnessing events that were shaping the future or did you reflect on it all only later as an adult?

GP--I didn’t realize the importance on an intellectual level.  On a visceral level, I knew that something was going on both important and exciting.  I left the 60s as a boy and entered the 70s as a teenager.  Rock and roll, soul and funk became a big part of my life, and naturally, my hormones kicked in, as did the attendant adrenaline rush of the male teen years.  Muscle cars, pick-up basketball, field parties...the birth of punk rock.  Post-hippie, pre-AIDS. I got the best part of the counter culture movement.  It was a very fun time to be a young man and free.    

## What are the main differences between the DC of your childhood and the one your kids grow up in today?

GP--When I was a kid this was a southern city with all the positive and negative implications that went with the geography.  Today, race is not much of an issue for young people around here.  Go down to the 14th and U Street corridor, which was the epicenter of heroin and prostitution when I was a boy, and you see people of all races and classes hanging out in a relatively prosperous and low-crime environment.  There is a lot of optimism in this town right now.  

## How does your film studies and background help you as a novelist?

GP--I think cinematically, “cut” when I’m writing, and hear the soundtrack in my head.  But a novel should not be a screenplay.  One is, or can be, art. The other is mostly mechanics and can, on rare occasion, rise to the level of admirable craft.  Film has helped me understand narrative drive and given me my story sense.  

## Is the Nick Stefanos trilogy the closer you’ll get to writing western novels?

GP--The Strange novels were my westerns.  The Nick Stefanos books were punk rock detective novels that approached the gothic.

## That series is the only one you wrote as a first person narrative. Any particular reasons for that?

GP--I was writing in a tradition and at the same time trying to push against tradition. Out of respect, because of Marlowe, Travis McGee, Lew Archer, et al, I felt I “had to” write in the first person.  The reader discovers the story as the narrator does.  In a way, even then, I knew it was crutch.  I was learning how to write as I penned those books.   

## You’ve said that Stefanos was the most autobiographic character you’ve written; looking back on it, were you using him as a conduit for any frustration and anger, and was he –consciously or not—cathartic in any way for you at the time?

GP--I was an angry and dissatisfied young man.  Certainly Stefanos, in the first book, is very close to who I was in 1989, the year in which I wrote the draft, in longhand, of my first novel.  I was against conformity.  I was floundering.  I quit a job I hated in order to write a book with the vague hope of somehow changing my life.  Similarly, Stefanos burns down his career and becomes a private detective.  In the act of writing A Firing Offense, I found some kind of purpose.   The subsequent Stefanos novels are less about me and more about his descent.  

## Stefanos shows up in many of your books, so obviously he’s still a part of yourself and you’re still interested in seeing what he’s doing and how he matured. At the beginning, did you think he’d last that long?

GP--Not really.  When he showed up as a baby at the end of The Big Blowdown I began to see the scope of the picture.  All my characters are established in the world, whether or not it is their book.  They might reappear at any time.

## What about his kid with Jackie Kahn? Is this a story thread you think about and want to pursue?

GP--It’s possible.


## Although Derek Strange seems to have upstaged him later on, Marcus Clay was your first major black character, as complex and as interesting as Derek Strange. They both deal with the same issues of racism and violence; they do the best they can in their respective family life; and they’re both self-employed, running their own businesses. How different are they for you and how interested are you in writing about them again in the future?

GP--Clay was a blueprint, in a way, for Strange.  Obviously I am a Greek American and they are black, but we are all lifelong Washingtonians.  I understand those guys because I’ve known men like them my entire life.  I feel that Strange is my most completely realized character.  Clay will not be back as a leading player.  There is a chance that Strange will.

## Did Dimitri Karras become who he is because he grew up without a Dad? Or was it because of the environment, the neighborhood in which he grew up? Is the father figure over-rated in real life and is a poor neighborhood a bigger problem for the future of a kid?

GP--Poverty is a form of violence perpetrated on youth, so it can’t be discounted in these kinds of discussions.  But the importance of a father figure is not over-rated. Boys need a strong male role model to make them whole as men.  Period.  

## The Sweet Forever is one of my favorite novels of yours and I particularly liked the parallel between Len Bias and Dimitri Karras, who seem to be at opposite ends of the American Dream. The former is a phenomenal young basketball player with a great future, a god-like figure who has stayed away from drugs. The latter is this guy who survives while working in a music store, gets involved (albeit mostly involuntarily) in drug business and street violence, while he’s (voluntarily) as high as possible most of the time. As a reader who doesn’t know much about basketball, I thought the ending was very effective because I only learned about Len Bias while reading the book, so I didn’t expect that very emotional ending. It was a powerful ending and message to a story that dealt with drug traffic and addiction. Was Bias the reason you wrote the book, the inspiration behind it?

GP--The summer of ‘86 was when crack came to D.C. and changed the social and criminal landscape for the next decade.  Len Bias’s death was a wake-up call to many Washingtonians regarding the recreational use of coke and its ties to crime and violent death.  His story is a tragedy.  He was not a drug addict.  He was just having fun like everyone else.  If King Suckerman was a party, The Sweet Forever was its bloody hangover.  A very dark book. Hopefully I will never have to write another one like it.   

## Quinn is probably one of the most troubled of your major characters; was he one of the most difficult to write?

GP--I’ve known many police officers who share his traits (and many who are completely well-adjusted.)  I liked Quinn, but he was stubborn and had some deep masculinity issues.  He never learned and he paid the price.   

## Strange, while also somewhat troubled, is much more grounded; he doesn’t stray very far from the right path (his personal, ideal path). He’s not perfect, which makes him believable and very human; now that he’s settled down and found the answers to his own questions and torments, does he become less interesting for you to write about?

GP--I don’t think he’s settled.  I left him at the end of Soul Circus a bit of a wild man. He has committed an act of civil disobedience—hell, he has committed a major felony—with a drunken Nick Stefanos.  So I’d hardly say he’s grounded.  He’s the prototypical Western hero: a guy charged or self-charged with protecting the community who can never truly be a part of that community himself.  But by the end of Hard Revolution, which described him from the ages of 12 to 22, I felt like I had completed his life. He might, however, knock on my door again.

## Are you in a different frame of mind, mentally less comfortable maybe, when you write a stand-alone than when you’re involved in a series? Or is the setting (usually DC) enough to keep you comfortable at all times?

GP--You are always a bit outside the comfort zone when you are starting a standalone. That discomfort is what’s attractive to me.  

## Do you take more or less chances, either with style or simply with themes, ideas, etc, when you’re writing stand-alone books?

GP--Yes, you can do whatever you’d like to do and try different things. Mostly, I don’t ever want to fall into a rut and deliver something that is rote or ill-conceived.  I could have written a dozen Strange novels.  They wouldn’t have been as fresh as the first three.  There are writers like Mike Connelly and James Lee Burke who can pull off a long series and keep it exciting and original.  I don’t think I can.      

## Is it right to say that your stand-alones (except for “Shoedog”) are, not necessarily lighter in moods, but certainly more optimistic, especially with the endings, and that your series take a darker look at society in general and at inner-city life in particular?

GP--It might seem that way, but the tonal shift speaks to the fact that I wrote those standalones at a time when D.C. was in the process of experiencing a kind of reawakening.  I want the books to reflect reality; happily, this town is in much better shape than it was when I was writing the Clay and Stefanos books.  Plus, my worldview has evolved as I have gotten older.  I’m less of an observer and more of a participant these days in terms of trying to affect some positive change.  I can’t get out of bed in the morning without hope.     

## As for Shoedog, it would have been a great fit in Charles Ardai’s Hard Case Crime series if HCC had existed in 1994. Would you be interested in writing something for HCC, if asked?

GP--I’m a big fan of Hard Case Crime.  Charles has asked, and I would like to, time permitting.  I’m trying to do an awful lot.  

## Nick Stefanos, Marcus Clay, Dimitri Karras, Derek Strange and Terry Quinn are all modern-day cowboys; although their methods and morals can slightly differ, they are pretty much able to take the law into their own hands, if they choose, something they wouldn’t be able to do as cops or detectives –without being crooked, of course. Do you have any interest in trying the detective point-of-view (as lead character) or do you just prefer the PI angle and its liberties?

GP--The Night Gardener is my police novel.  Its protagonist is a homicide detective named Gus Ramone.  I was given the opportunity to have access to the Violent Crimes Division, and I took it.  My last couple of books have been absent of cops and private detectives. As you can see, I don’t really have a plan.

## As an author of very character-driven books, how do you manage so many different and distinct personalities book after book? Do you ever find it difficult to create new and interesting characters, are you afraid of repeating yourself? 

GP--I try to keep things fresh.  But truthfully, you can’t help but repeat yourself in terms of emotional and thematic concerns.  The books come out of my psyche.

## How much thought do you put into naming your characters? Are names important?

GP--The major characters, sure, I put some thought into it.  For the minor characters?  I pin up a random obituary page from The Washington Post and mix first and last names from that.  That way I am getting real Washington names, and I don’t have to waste time thinking on it.

## Pete Karras never really felt the father vibe in himself; Marcus Clay did, but he had to deal with problems in his role as a husband; Derek Strange had troubles getting fully involved in one exclusive relationship but he wants to be a father. Do the father-son relationships in your work help you understand your role at home or is it more your real life feeding your fiction? Bit of both maybe?


## How different is your approach today, at the start of a new novel, compared to your approach for your first books?

GP--I know how to write a novel now.  In the beginning I was writing in the dark, learning my craft as I went along.  Also, I have developed sources on both sides of the law, so the research phase of my work is not as daunting. It sounds as if writing novels has gotten easier for me, but it has not.  I put a lot pressure on myself.  

## Obviously you’ve dealt with many social problems in your books, but what is your ultimate intention towards the readers when you write a book? Is it mainly to entertain or do you absolutely want to send a message, shed a light on certain issues, etc?

GP--Hopefully people will look at their world differently after they have read one of my books.  Maybe I can inspire someone better than me to do something proactive, like become a teacher or a mentor.  And as far as the crime fiction aspect of it goes, I want readers to get their money’s worth.  I want them to be entertained and to feel as if they’ve gone somewhere they could not or would not go themselves.  That is what reading is all about.

## Any themes or specific subjects you’d like to write about that you haven’t touched on yet?

GP--Before I kick I want to write a Western.

## Can you sometimes see the world only as a man/husband/father or is the writer always there taking notes?

GP--Put it this way: I am always working.


## What is the most satisfying moment: writing the first sentence, the Eureka moment when you find a way to tie up all the loose ends, finishing the book, etc? And what’s the most difficult one?

GP--The Eureka moment is when you realize that you actually “have” a book and it is working.  The moment can come fifty pages in or two hundred pages in.  I try not to worry about it too much, because history has shown that it does come at some point. But you do sweat until that moment arrives.  The hardest part: the first few chapters.  That is where all the doubt creeps in.

## Are you a rewriter of full manuscripts or a fusser as you go on, sweating over each sentence and word?

GP--I work two sessions daily.  In the morning I work until 1 or 2, then do something physical in the afternoon to clear my head.  At night I rewrite the work I have done in the morning and am ready to move forward the next day.  It’s an intense, seven-days-a-week process.       

## Were there stories that you found more difficult to put down on the page, either because of the theme(s), the difficulty in getting the right details or maybe because of a case of writer’s block, etc?

GP--The books that would have seemed hardest to write—I’m thinking of the historical novels like Hard Revolution, King Suckerman and The Big Blowdown—were the ones that flowed.  I don’t know why that is.  I really struggled with The Night Gardener, but it was worth it.  I think it’s one of my better books.   I’ve never had writer’s block.  I don’t really believe in it as a concept.  This is a job. You go to work everyday like anyone else and you gut it out.

## Do you research only before you start writing, or is it a continuous process?

GP--I try to get all my research done before I start writing the book.  That phase can be weeks or it can be months.  Then I lock myself in the house and get it done.  

## What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from another writer (or someone in the book industry)?

GP--My agent told me early on to keep my head down and work.  Don’t worry too much about the business or advances, and don’t try to get too much too soon.  The road is littered with the corpses of writers who were over-published early in their careers.  I’m still here, and he is still my agent.

## We haven’t seen a lot of short stories from you; do you keep them hidden in a drawer or you just don’t like writing them?

GP--I don’t keep anything hidden in a drawer.  Everything I’ve written has been published.  It’s a time issue.  For me there is nearly as much work put into a short story as there is in a novel.  So I go for the novels.    

## You juggle different projects at the same time so I’m guessing you’re a disciplined writer with a tight schedule. Are you running all the time, never sleeping much, and what’s your usual day like?

GP--I’ve mentioned that when I’m writing I keep a very intense schedule. But I’m not always writing.  This summer I have been promoting my latest book in the States and in Europe, while trying to get a movie off the ground. But also, for the first time since I was a kid, I have been relaxing, or, as my dad would have said, screwing off.  I ride my bike every day, take my kayak out on the water, swim…okay, it has been nice.  But I’m ready to go back to work.   


## How many movie projects based on your books are out there with a good chance of making it to theaters?

GP--After several years of legwork, we are close with Shoedog.  I have legendary director Walter Hill on the team, several cast members, and most of the money.  Right as Rain has been in development for a long time.  We have a good script by David Benioff but the studios are timid about making an adult film with a black lead unless it is someone they consider to be an international movie star.  The executives will never admit to that but there it is.  I am also trying to resurrect King Suckerman with Sean Combs and director Chris Robinson.  I am being more aggressive these days and attempting get movies made independently.  I am not a fan of studio films right now.  In the past, the studios made pictures like The Godfather, The French Connection, Bullitt, Straw Dogs, Dirty Harry, and Taxi Driver.  The studios would never make those films today.  But those are the kinds of films I want to make.

## Which one of your books would you most like to see made into a movie?

GP--Hard Revolution.  I’m very protective of it, however, and won’t just cut it loose for anyone.  I wrote a script for The Big Blowdown.  I think it’s my best story and will make a ripping good picture.

## How about Strange Investigations as a series/mini-series?

GP--That would work.  I would love to cast Keith David as Strange.  He is an incredible actor, the right age and look, and perfect for the part.  Delroy Lindo is another guy I like for the role.

Keith David
Delroy Lindo
## Aside from having written an episode or two per season, can you explain your involvement in The Wire

GP--I worked on the show for the full five year run.  I was a story editor and producer and I wrote seven episodes and parts of many others.  It was hard work and also the best experience I’ve had on the movie or television side of the business. David Simon gave me a tremendous opportunity.  We caught lightning in a bottle, man.

## What is your best memory or cherished moment from your participation in the series?

GP--The casting couch.  That canvas chair with my name printed on the back of it. The night the crew placed a jeweled crown upon my head.  Gosh, there are so many memories…

## Was there ever talks about going for a sixth season or was it always five right from the start, no matter what?

GP--David wanted five from the start.  We told the stories we wanted to tell.

## What’s your favorite line from the series or favorite scene?

GP--I’m proud of the scene from Episode 311 (“Middle Ground”), atop the roof, when Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale say goodbye to each other. Everyone brought their A-game that night.  Idris Elba is a hell of an actor and Joe Chappelle a great director.
## Which character from The Wire would you be more interested in writing about in a novel?

GP--The character of Cutty grew out of the writing of my novel Drama City and the story of Lorenzo Brown.   In a backwards way, I did what you describe.  


## What’s your view on Obama’s first year as President? Do you think he (and the Democrats) will be able to live up to the high expectations?

GP--I’m very impressed with him.  He is facing liars and philistines, but he’ll prevail. He’s smarter and more poised than his enemies.  

## A very important aspect of community life is neighborhood businesses (usually family-owned). With the ever-growing presence of multi-million companies, mixed with the bad economy right now, many of the small businesses are closing; do you think the neighborhoods are doomed to see a raise in the crime rate? And will (can) the sense of community survive in larger cities?

GP--We haven’t seen a violent spike in crime here in D.C.  To the contrary.  I think the worst has passed.  This is an east-coast city; there is poverty, inequality, and the adrenaline and outright stupidity of youth.  So there is going to be criminal activity and violence.  But the community is thriving here and it will continue to thrive.

## What are the best youth programs out there?

GP--Peaceoholics, here in town, is very effective one, run by ex-offenders. They reach out to at-risk youth and try to mediate crew disputes.  Good people.

## Does a series like The Wire or books like yours help raise awareness and get help and funding for these programs?

GP--I don’t know for sure.  We definitely got people thinking.

## Have you been tempted to get involved in politics?

GP--Never.  The reason I can be so vocal about certain issues is that I am not running for anything.  Politics is all about compromise, party affiliation, and the pursuit of re-election.  It’s definitely not for me.  

## Let’s say your publisher sends you on a cross-country promo tour but you have to drive everywhere yourself. The interesting part is that you can pick any car you want, one pair of shoes and five CDs, all paid by the publisher. What are your picks?

GP--I’d drive my own car, a limited edition, five-speed Mustang GT.  It’s a smoker. I’d wear my To Boot New York brown suede boots and keep my Adidas Forums and Reef sandals in the trunk, along with a basketball.  The CDs: A Fistful of Film Music, by Ennio Morricone; 3+3, by the Isley Brothers; Decoration Day, by Drive-By Truckers; Coney  Island Baby, by Lou Reed; Superfly, by Curtis Mayfield; Get Happy
, by Elvis Costello and the Attractions (I know, that’s six).  I have Sirius satellite radio in my Mustang, so there would be no lack of music.

## When your first book was published, how did you envision your future as a writer, and has it been close to that?

GP--I just wanted to write one book.  My intention was to leave one thing behind to prove that I was here.  Everything that has happened to me since has been gravy.   

## How do you want to evolve as a writer, do you have specific goals, and do you see yourself still writing until you pass out forever?

GP--My goal is to be a better writer tomorrow than I am today.  Retirement is not in my plans.  

## You’ve never won an Edgar, or Shamus or Dagger Award, but you’re having a pretty decent career nonetheless. Even the nominations are scarce and many would say that this is a shame. Do you even care about recognition in the form of awards?

GP--Yes and no.  That is the most honest answer I can give you.

## Many writers are also teachers of creative writing or literature classes; have you ever done it or would it interest you at all?

GP--I do teach in the DC public high schools and have started a reading program at the local juvenile prison, both under the auspices of the Pen Faulkner Foundation.  I wouldn’t know how to teach writing, but I like turning young people on to books.

## If you hadn’t been published, what do you think you’d be doing today?

GP--I was a very good woman’s shoe salesman.  I can run a kitchen and tend bar. My father was real happy operating his diner, and I would have been, too.  Writers often say, “If I couldn’t write, I’d die.”  That’s bullshit, to me.  I wouldn’t die.  If I fell down the stairs and hit my head, and lost that part of my brain that makes me a writer, I’d still find something to do.  I like to work.  My family will never starve.

## Can you name two books you wish you’d written? And why?

GP--True Grit, by Charles Portis.  Ask the Dust
, by John Fante.  American classics.

## What’s the most inspiring music for you?

GP--Movie soundtracks get me jacked up to write.

## What is the best way for you to unwind after finishing a novel, or at the end of a productive day?

GP--I punch a wall.  Sometimes I’ll go out and steal an old lady’s purse. That kind of thing.

## Nothing much seems to have changed since the (Montreal) Expos moved to Washington; does the future look bleak for the Nats?

GP--No, sir, the future is not bleak.  We have a new, energetic manager, a couple of key mid-summer trades, and strong bats.  Two good starting pitchers and a closer and we are in the hunt.  Next year.  

## Has Ovechkin brought hope to the city for a championship?

GP--Ovechkin’s got fire, and Ted Leonsis is a great owner.  I was not a hockey fan in the past, but I am now.

## During the World Cup of Soccer do you cheer for Greece, the USA or Brazil in your house?

GP--USA and Greece first, then Brazil.

## If I could ask them, what would your main characters, especially Stefanos and Karras, have to say about the life you gave them?

GP--Thanks, G.

## As a last question, here’s what I ask every writer that I interview. There is a novel written and you are the main character: what would be the first sentence of the book, and how would your character die?

GP--“He was a dreamer.”  
He would die at work.

October 2011

--My review of The Cut is here. My French translation of George Pelecanos's essay on his visit in France can be found in the Ze Room Noire section of this site.

You can learn more about George Pelecanos on his official website. You can find him also on Facebook and Twitter.
I want to thank George Pelecanos for his time. One of my favourite moments in this line of work has got to be my half-hour spent in a conference room at Borders, in Boston, alone with George Pelecanos and Michael Connelly. Nerve-wracking, exhilarating and quite impressive. I've told friends that it was similar to sitting down with Pacino and De Niro, or Sergio Leone and Martin Scorsese. So nervous that the only picture I took with my camera was blurry! But clear images in my head.

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