An evening with George Pelecanos: 'Crime is just an engine to get things written'

What I learned from George Pelecanos at Busboys and Poets in Washington DC. Pelecanos, the author of 20 books, writes mostly crime fiction in and around Washington DC, an area where he's lived all his life.

Pelecanos is known for describing the plight of the working class, blue collar District of Columbia, where his books mostly take  place far away from the corridors of power. The crimes he sets his stories around aren’t often graphic, although there are exceptions. Instead, he dwells on the human implications of violence, history and maybe even fate.

His books offer a lesson of the city’s complicated racial history. And it provides a newcomer — like me — a geography lesson of the city’s cultural, historical and symbolic landmarks.

The best writers listen to how people talk. Pelecanos often watches criminal trials — not for the technical material — but to listen to the language of people. He also volunteers for prison literacy and literature programs.

He recently spoke to inmate  for 90 minutes. From that, he said he got a book full of information. Not facts about crimes and guns, but the intimate details on how the person speaks, his character.

"If you’re a white writer writing a black character, they often stop there,” he said. "You have to figure out the character first and then figure out how that person talks."

On accurately translating Washington DC (and surrounding area) to the page. Pelecanos is  one of the handful of writers who gets correct the details of Washington DC, an audience member said.

Pelecanos pointed out that for writers researching on the internet can be a curse. Sure, you can get any information you want,  “but you can’t get the feeling” of a place.

Pelecanos spends a lot of time riding his bike around the metropolitan area. Unlike before when he traveled with a camera and notebook, today he always has his iPhone. “That is my tool,” he said.

On the gentrification of Silver Spring, Maryland (where he lives) and Washington DC.

While the culture and vibe has changed in Silver Spring, you can’t be nostalgic about that stuff. "No one can say that things aren't better in Washington,” he said, pointing out entire neighborhoods — like areas around the H Street Corridor — used to be business wastelands. “Now all those buildings have their lights on. That means people have jobs,” he said.

“It’s nostalgia,” he said of worrying about gentrification. “You can’t get caught up in that.”

On being a crime writer: “I want to write about neighborhoods and people who never get their stories told. Crime is just an engine to get things written,” he said.

"Conflict drives drama and crime fiction is the ultimate drama because it deals with life and death."

On the influence of Westerns on his work. (Check out this scene he wrote for HBO's the Wire.)

Both his grandfather and father — who taught him a love for movies — were born in Greece. “Greeks love Westerns," he said. "They thought that was reality.”

On the influence of music in his books. Pelecanos' books are full of music -- especially from the local DC scene -- said it comes from his love of movies. He often uses a piece of music to help pace a scene.  

The music pulsing in the background of his books come from the type of scenes he writes, bars, kitchens, cars, especially when he writes of characters driving around aimlessly smoking pot. “These are places where people sit around and argue about music,” he said. “That's what we did all day.”

He wanted his book King Suckerman to be the American Graffiti of Funk.

On writing for HBO's the Wire. He coined the term “Hamsterdam” in season three. (He wrote the teleplay for that episode.)

Television writing is much different than writing for print, he said. First of all, people actually read your lines. In season three, show eleven where Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale said good bye to each other on the roof of Stringer Bell’s apartment. “They elevated that to something much greater,” he said. "You won’t hear many writers say that.”

On professional competition in the writer's room. Working with such acclaimed writers on the Wire brought out competitive juices of everyone, which made the show better. "I don't care if it's Richard Price and Dennis Lehane, I am going to kick their ass," he said. "They were thinking the same thing." 

On the future. He sold his Derek Strange character to HBO. Hard Revolution will the first season. “All I have to do know is write it,” he said,  deadpan. HBO will then decide if it wants to fund the production.  

He also announced he’s about to start working on a short film with a young director from Baltimore.

On building a film industry in DC. He's spoken to politicians in Washington DC about exploring the ideas of providing tax credits for film work. Looking to New York City's film industry, Pelecanos points out that Law & Order kept people employed for two  decades. Those who worked on the set raise their families from that show.

Photo of George Pelecanos by David Shankbone.