George Pelecanos on fathers and sons and 'The Wire'
George Pelecanos is the author of 16 books, including "The Turnaround," and was a writer and producer of the critically acclaimed television show "The Wire." His latest novel, "The Way Home," follows the difficult relationship between Tommy, who's hard-working and hard-driving, and Chris, his impulsive, troubled son. Pelecanos will be in Southern California for two book signings next week, at the Mystery Bookstore on May 19 and Borders in Long Beach on May 20. He spoke to Jacket Copy by phone from his home in Washington, D.C.
Jacket Copy: "The Way Home" is about fathers and sons — but I see you're doing a reading at the Mystery Bookstore. Did I miss something? Is there a mystery in this book?
George Pelecanos: Not really. It's a hangover — they're always going to call me a mystery writer no matter what I do. I could write a romance novel and they'd say "a thriller by George Pelecanos."
There is a crime element to this, as there is in all my books, and that's because that's conflict. And I believe that drama needs conflict, and crime involves life and death, so that's the highest form of conflict. I'm proudly a crime writer, but it would be really inaccurate to call me a mystery writer. This is really about a relationship between father and son, and how they find each other over a long, kind of tortuous road. On the thriller side of things, also I try to deliver the goods there, but I'm most concerned with my characters.
JC: Does your experience being a parent, or your anxieties around being a parent, feed into the relationship between Tommy and Chris in this book?
GP: I have three kids -- I've been a parent for 18 years, and have two teenage sons that have been through all the things that teenage boys go through. When I was writing this, I was drawing equally from inside myself from both the father and the son. I'm a middle-aged guy, but I'm not that far away from those years that I can't remember what it was like, all the confusion and exciting energy that is all kind of colliding at once. It's not like I was the father in the book; I was also the kid.
The central story between the father and the son is something that everybody can relate to, no matter what economic background you're from, so that hopefully will draw people in. And once they're in the book, they're going to see things that they probably haven't thought about on their own, and I'm going to take them to a place that hopefully makes them look at the world in a different way after they finish the book. And maybe some people who have some kind of influence will look at this and say: You know what? We shouldn't be locking up as many kids as we do, because that doesn't do anything but make them criminals. When you put kids in jail on drug charges, and you put 'em in the same place with sociopathic kids, kids who've murdered other people and so on, they're going to get tainted by this in some way. It's not going to do them any good, and it's not going to do the community any good. And rather than feed this prison industrial complex, let's do something right for a change and try to nurture these kids, educate, give 'em job training and make 'em productive citizens.
JC: That's a strong message.
GP: I don't know if anybody's going to read the book, that's the thing. A lot of people have said, well, you know, there's not many books about male relationships like this, fathers and sons. There's probably a reason for that -- I'm about to find out if anybody's interested, you know what I mean?
About realism, Washington and "The Wire" ... after the jump
JC: The grinding day-to-day life of the juvenile detention center feels very real. How did you research that?
GP: I've been working in adult prisons and juvenile prisons for some time. The prison in the book is based on a place called Oak Hill here in D.C., which is where all the juveniles are sent if they do time. I was out there one day -- I was kind of walking around, I had full access, the boys were in class, and I went into one of the kids' cells -- it just kind of hit me. It was a 6-by-9 cell, it's basically a cot and an open commode sitting in the middle of the room, and there's a dirty piece of plexiglass on the wall that functions as a window, but it's so dirty that you can't see out of it, and very little light gets in. I just started thinking: What's it like? What's it like for a kid to go to jail, and also what's it like for his family? How does this tear them all apart?
I'd been very interested for a long time in incarceration reform. Here in Washington we have a new guy that's been at it for several years now. He's done a tremendous job of trying to change things so that these incarcerations don't just rip up families but neighborhoods and our city, because that's what happens. That's why the book is split into two parts, so you see the way the system was run before, and then these guys go back later in the book when the jail is getting ready to be torn down, and they see how much it's changed for the better.
JC: Do you think that place is important to writing in the mystery genre?
GP: It's a tradition that a writer will try to plant his flag in a certain city and protect that. The way to get your rep is to find the essence of the city and get it down on paper.
JC: Does writing about Washington, D.C., as a novelist give you impetus to explore the city in different ways?
GP: I see it as an opportunity. There's a lot of places that I don't know, or I didn't know, and when I begin to write a book I'll say, all right, I'm going to set some of this book in Northeast, or down in Ward 7 in Anacostia. But I have to go out there and find out what's going on. A lot of these places are -- people on my side of town are a little timid to go there. But I'm not at all. This is a way for me to get to know my city further. I go out there, I talk to people, I walk into bars. That's part of my job too, I'll just go sit in a bar and I'll have a beer, and I'll listen to people. I've never had a problem -- it's not because I'm an imposing guy or a bad-ass or anything like that, it's more like you show people respect, and they're not going to give you a hard time about anything. It's as much about being a good listener as it is about being a talker. That's really what I think I do best, is listen to folks.
JC: Does a version of Oak Hill make an appearance in "The Wire"?
GP: Actually, it did, in one of the early seasons.
JC: Could you talk a little bit about issues of class? "The Wire" was one of the few places on American TV where those tensions were raised, and they're surfacing in this book, too.
GP: What we were all always saying with "The Wire" was that there's a whole group of people that America just sort of wants to throw away. They want to forget about them, and if they could, they'd get rid of them. They are Americans -- they're worth saving, they're worth helping. It cuts across color lines -- this is a class thing.
We were always on the side of labor, as I am. We were on the side of the police officers who walk the beat, kids on the corner who are selling drugs -- anybody who was the working person. If you were in management, you were a bad guy.
JC: Haven't you been a producer on films and on "The Wire"? Doesn't that make you management?
GP: Yeah (laughs). As a producer I tried to also be on the side of labor. I was the guy that would go to bat at 4 in the morning when the crew was tired, I would be the one that was trying to convince my peers that it was time to break set.
JC: My impression is that producer can earn a lot more than a writer. What compels you to keep going back to writing?
GP: The reason I got into producing was to protect my writing. It's not that much more lucrative; in fact, I am probably one of the few novelists that makes more as a novelist than I do as a screenwriter and a producer. I didn't have to do any of that stuff, but I figured out early on that just to write a script as a hired gun and turn it in -- there are so many things that can happen to it afterwards that can embarrass you, and you have no control over that. The way to get some control is to become a producer, a writer-slash-producer. And then you're in on the decision making, all the way from the writing to the post-production and the final edit. That way you can protect your writing.
JC: I was watching an episode of "The Wire" when it was first on TV and I couldn't shake this deja vu feeling that I'd seen this scene with Bubbles before. Then I realized it seemed a lot like a scene from your book "Drama City."
GP: Yes it was. (laughs) It was too good.
Here's the thing about writing for a show versus a novel. I have a novel out that I think is pretty successful, but we're talking about tens of thousands of people read the book in hardback. If you're lucky, by the time it comes out in paperback, maybe a couple hundred thousand people have read your book in America. An episode of "The Wire" -- and "The Wire" wasn't a very highly rated show -- 3 million people every week. That's a lot of eyes to see what you've done. And so the scene that you're talking about, I felt like not enough people had read it -- so I rewrote it for the show.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: April Saul / Getty Images