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Making a Drama out of a Crisis: GEORGE PELECANOS

Written by Ali Karim

The release of a novel by George Pelecanos is always like Christmas Day for me, as his work is of such power that I find his words resonate in my mind long after I’ve finished reading it. His work is all about character, and the lives of those who live between the cracks of our society. It’s not about bulky guys wielding MI6s and rocket launchers, or feisty blonde female detectives with attitude. Pelecanos’s work is about wiping the slime from a burger wrapper, or avoiding eye-contact with the guy with the scar or watching out for the shards of a glass bottle. It’s about survival when walking down the middle of the street can get you killed. In his world the good guys are often worse than the bad guys. He looks at the social adhesion / cohesion that is absent in the lower layers of our world. The Washington backdrop could easily be transferred to Manchester or Birmingham or any big city, because the problems he writes about are universal to the inner city and always filled with drama.

George Pelecanos is back in the UK promoting his latest thriller Drama City, in my opinion is his most ambitious book to date. We have the tale of Lorenzo Brown, former convict, former drug enforcer, now Humane Society Officer protecting dogs from human cruelty - which is a really neat metaphor for this tale. Now estranged from his wife and daughter, he keeps himself on the straight and narrow with his canine friends. Like Pelecanos’s previous work, we have an array of multi-faceted characters each dealing with their own issues, such as the hideous Rico ‘Creep’ Miller and the drug overlord Nigel Johnson. Add to the mix Lorenzo’s parole officer and friend Rachel Lopez, who at night trawls the bars looking to lose herself in drink and sex. Then things really change in Lorenzo’s world when Rachel ends up dead on a gurney and he has to face up to doing what is right.

I headed up to Manchester to meet George yet again, and over a superb Cantonese supper (thanks Gaby!) we talked about George’s novels, his film work, his music and his introduction to the 1970s British rock band Hawkwind.

George, good to see you again man!

And great to see you Ali; man I love Shots Ezine!

This time last year you told me that you’d just finished your 13th novel Drama City. Tell us what inspired you to write this particular story?

Basically the genesis of the story came from the radio. I was listening one day and I heard about these guys who had just come out of prison. They were talking about their lives and it really held my attention. Shortly after I was reading in the newspaper about a program in prison where inmates work with animals, training dogs for the blind and so on, and these guys had a lower rate of re-conviction once they left prison. So perhaps these were people who were basically good, but had made a bunch of mistakes. That gave me the idea for a book, because most who leave prison do jobs like labouring, landscape gardening, painting and decorating and so forth, but I thought what if a guy who left prison really liked working with animals, and wanted to continue working with animals once back in society? Perhaps working for the Humane Society pulling abused animals off the street, breaking up dog fights, etc. So I went to the Humane Society and asked a woman who worked there whether she would hire someone like that. And she said she would, so I had a book and it was as simple as that; all I had to do now was the research. I got to ride with these guys for a couple of weeks, going to parts of the city where they were pulling the dogs off people, so there was a lot of conflict. I also rode with the probation officers.

Did you see any dog fights while you were out researching?

I saw the remnants of dog fights. We would go to places that had hosted dog fights; it wasn’t pretty, there would be blood on the walls, on the floors, syringes, malt liquor bottles and that stuff. I saw dogs that had been involved in dog fights, lacerated pups…it was pretty grim, but also very interesting to see what really goes on in our dark alleyways at night.

Many writers often don’t realise the subtext in their work. Did you consciously realize the metaphor about Lorenzo Brown being a Humane Society Officer?

Well I found it during the course of the book. There’s actually a scene when they talk about the dogs that have to be put down versus the ones that can be saved. I don’t actually feel this way, but Lorenzo comes to feel that one of the bad guys, Rico Miller, is like one of those dogs that cannot be saved, and something has to be done about him. The idea is that it’s not Rico’s fault that he is the way that he is; he’s like a pitbull, a dog that has been trained to attack, so perhaps Rico’s environment has made him who he is, and perhaps, in Lorenzo’s eyes, he’s beyond saving.

Hell to Pay - Pelecanos

Tell us a little about Rachel Lopez, Lorenzo’s parole officer? Especially as strong female leads didn’t feature significantly in your early books…

Come to think of it Ali, strong female leads don’t feature in any of my work…until now…Yes it was a challenge, I have felt that my books have been getting stronger as I get away from myself. I felt that way about the Derek Strange books. I really went to a new level there as Strange is nothing like me, and I wanted to try the same thing with a female character. I did get some help. I talked to some people I know. I called Laura Lippman up and she helped me, especially in scenes where Rachel is cruising the bars, I told her I’m lost here, I have no idea what it’s like to be a woman having sex, can you help? I wasn’t trying to embarrass her or anything, I just asked her to point me in the right direction. She told me about some erotica that I should check out, which I did and then I called an old female friend of mine, who’s still single and I asked her about what she’d wear in a bar, lipstick and perfume, and she was very helpful. One thing I didn’t want to do was to get it wrong. I often read books written by men which feature women who really are men with women’s names - you know, they have the same traits as men, same appetites as men, I didn’t want to do that, and hopefully I’ve been successful. It was also helpful that the parole officer that I went around with was a woman. I observed her and it was interesting as she was an attractive woman who deliberately made herself unattractive while on the job.

I read in an interview you did with John Connolly that you had a terrible accident with a handgun when you were a kid. Is this why handguns feature heavily in your work, and many of your characters get shot in the face? And would you care to talk about it?

I don’t want to exploit it that’s for sure, though I have no problem talking about it. I will say this - it’s not that unusual a thing if you live in America, just pick up a paper once a week and you’ll see what happened to me is tragically not that uncommon. There was a gun in the house, I was a teenager, I was skipping school with a friend of mine, my parents were at work… Earlier I had loaded the gun with one bullet in the chamber. Later in the day we were sitting together on the end of my parent’s bed, as close as you and I are here, and I pointed the gun and started clicking off rounds. I was not thinking…

George, how old were you man?

I was seventeen and he was sixteen. The bullet hit him right in the face and blew out from the back of his neck.

Jeez.

The good news is that he lived, and I baptized his daughter. He lives near me and he’s still my best friend. So basically that incident still haunts me and shows up in my work I guess. It was pointed out to me by someone just like you who asked me why so many characters in my books get shot in the face. It was something I didn’t realise until he said it. What I saw that day is something that I will never forget because it was much more horrible than you can ever imagine. That’s why I never make light of violence in my books. I don’t like the James Bond violence when someone makes a jokey comment after killing someone.

You spent some time in South America - can you tell us about that and how it affected your writing and view of the world? Because once you started Right as Rain and the rest of the Derek Strange books, there seemed to be a greater emphasis on social commentary.

That’s absolutely true; in fact we adopted our first son from Brazil, but we didn’t go down there. But for my second son we actually went down to Brazil and in fact we got stuck there for a few months. It was the first time I saw hungry children on the streets; children eating out of bins and dumpsters out on the street, some kids lying down on the street because they were too tired to move. I also saw murderous kids, you could see it in their eyes, they would kill you because they were hungry. They did not care, it really influenced me.


Yes, there is a bleakness in your work, a vacuum in some of the people that populate your books, despite you trying to give an upbeat message.

Well yes, but it’s not just in Brazil. When I came back to the USA, I realised that the same thing is happening in our country but it is behind closed doors because of welfare. But welfare hasn’t solved the problem, kids are still going to bed hungry, and there is no opportunity, the lack of family leads them to crime and drugs, it’s happening all over America.

You have a family now, so how does that affect how you write, both from a practical sense and also from an emotional standpoint?

Practically it hasn’t changed me, because I have always been able to write with my kids around me. I sort of thrive on that; they like to mess with me as I’m working, it doesn’t bother me, in fact if it’s too quiet I can’t work! On the emotional side, yes it has affected me. I know you said that there is bleakness in my work, but there is always hope too.

I read in the Guardian a somewhat controversial review of Drama City: ‘Rumour is that Drama City will be his last novel for some time, as his US publishers want him to soft pedal on the social comment. Savour while you can.’ Is this true?

Not exactly, but there is a kernel of truth in it. Obviously I’m not a mega-selling writer, and my American publishers are asking why.

But your reviews show that your work is highly rated and your reputation in the genre is legendary. The New York Times gave Drama City a tremendous review! And prior to that, Hard Revolution made the best of 2004 lists all over the world!

Hey, I’m not bragging, but yes I’m widely reviewed. But Drama City didn’t make the bestseller lists despite the reviews, so I guess they’re scratching their heads wondering why. Is it the social content? Or what? In a way I agree with them because Americans on the most part don’t want to go there. And most people don’t want to talk about my black characters as they’re too pc. So I have to make a choice. Do I want make a 180 degree turn? Or do I want to keep on doing what I’m doing? I got a new contract with Little Brown, so I’m going to keep writing books, that’s what I do. There is concern out there, but I’m not going to stop what I do.

We do not want you to stop! And that brings me to my next question, this time last year you told me that Drama City was written, as you always have a book stashed a year in advance, so have you a book ready?

Nope, I haven’t a book ready. The last year I’ve been jacked up on The Wire, the TV show, and now we’re into season four, but I have decided that I don’t want to produce it this year as it is now really interfering with my writing. After season three was wrapped, I should have been writing, but I took a job for Spielberg and Hanks.

Is this the film project based on your father’s World War II experience in the South Pacific?

Yes, my dad fought in WW2 as a marine in October 1944. The TV project is a South Pacific version of Band of Brothers, produced by the same team - thirteen hour-long episodes in all. I wrote two hours of it, and it took a lot of time, as it was heavily research-intensive. So this is the first time that I have no book stashed ready for my editor!

Any news on the Curtis Hanson/Denzil Washington movie of Right as Rain and is David Benioff still involved?

Yes, but there was a misquote in the papers over here, it’s actually Samuel L Jackson not Denzil Washington. It is supposed to be the next project for Curtis Hanson, as David Benioff has finished the screenplay, so, as they say in Hollywood, it’s the next plane off the runway.

And Derek Strange, what are your plans for him?

I think I’ll bring him back, I like Strange a lot.

I share your enthusiasm vis-à-vis Little Scarlet by Walter Mosley. Can you tell us what you enjoyed about this book and Easy Rawlins as a character?

I like the way he chronicles this man’s life against the changing social background in the United States, and soon he’ll have close to a century’s worth of history in these entertaining crime novels. Most people would not be able to do that - they would keep the guy the same age, but Rawlins changes with the times, and Mosely is just an excellent writer.

I see from your website that you got out your old Sony Walkman again for touring. When are you going to upgrade to an IPod?

Well you look pretty successful and I was wondering if you were going to buy me one…

Finally, George, what books have interested you over the last year?

I just started John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 which is great - this guy’s an original.

Wait till you read the follow-up, Bangkok Tattoo - excellent

I also liked Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, and have you been getting the Hardcase Crime books?

Yes, I picked up the Larry Block Grifters Game and I believe that Stephen King has one out soon?

That’s right - one of them, Two-way Split by a Scottish writer Allan Guthrie, is excellent, as well as the Dominic Stansbury book which is also brilliant - I like these books, in fact I like pulps.

George, thanks again and great to see you again, and we loved Drama City.

Always a pleasure Ali, say hello to Mike Stotter for me.

Shots would like to thank Gaby Young of Orion Publishing for organizing this interview. 

Previous interviews and articles
George Pelecanos talks to Ali Karim about Hard Revolution
George Pelecanos talks to Ali Karim

George Pelecanos is published in the UK by Orion Publishing.

www.georgepelecanos.com

Bibliography : -

 

The Nick Stefanos books

·        A FIRING OFFENSE

·        NICK'S TRIP

·        DOWN THE RIVER WHERE THE DEADMEN GO

The Washington Quartet

·        THE BIG BLOWDOWN

·        KING SUCKERMAN

·        THE SWEET FOREVER

·        SHAME THE DEVIL

The Derek Strange Books

·        RIGHT AS RAIN

·        HELL TO PAY

·        SOUL CIRCUS

·        HARD REVOLUTION

Standalone Novels

·        SHOEDOG

·        DRAMA CITY

      Short Story Work

·        MEN FROM BOYS [ed. John Harvey]


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