George Pelecanos has been described as the Zola of Washington, DC. His novels portray the evolution of the city from the aftermath of WWII up to the present and consistently show readers a DC of hard-working, street-smart folks a world away from the bright lights of federal government. Pelecanos’s fifteenth novel, The Turnaround depicts a DC coming to terms both with its turbulent past and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Damien: In a recent profile you describe The Turnaround as ‘not even really a crime novel’. What kind of novel is it?
George: If I was more articulate, I might have said that it’s not a traditional crime novel. There are no police, private detectives or amateur sleuths in its pages. There is not a murder in the first chapter that is solved in the last chapter. There is crime and a murder, eventually, but it’s really about the characters struggling to find their place in the world in the wake of a horrific incident. Just in case anyone thinks I’m getting too literary, I did write an explicit scene of violence towards the end of the book.
Damien: Does this mean you are giving up crime fiction and, if so, what kind of novelist do you aspire to be?
George: Not at all. Conflict drives good fiction. There will always be conflict in my books, and most likely that will involve crime.
Damien: The Turnaround is based on real events in DC in 1972 and your previous book The Night Gardener was also based on a real case. What impact do you think fictionalising these events has that you couldn’t have had by writing non-fiction pieces?
George: The incident in The Turnaround and the Freeway Phantom murders that inspired The Night Gardenerhaunted me since my teens, in the same way that the riots of ’68 did, so I was always bound to write about them eventually. I resisted doing too much research on the actual killing in The Turnaround and its aftermath. I wanted to create my own fiction. The characters are completely imagined. So its factual basis only exists in a skeletal way.
Damien: The Turnaround features more than a dozen narrative perspectives. Do you ever worry that in your quest to stretch yourself as a writer you might lose sight of the story?
George: I’ll be the first to admit that I am better at writing character and dialogue than I am in creating roller coaster rides of plot. Oddly enough, this one has a pretty good twist at the end. But I’m pretty sure that people like Harlan Coben, Ian Rankin, and Mike Connelly, who can plot the hell out of a book, are not looking at me nervously in their rear view mirrors.
Damien: The novel features typical Pelecanos themes of race, class, family and redemption. But what do you think you have to say in this novel that you haven’t said before, for example in your Derek Strange novels?
George: There is a huge difference. The Strange novels are very dark urban novels that were written at a low point in our history in terms of crime and violence. Beginning with Drama City, I have been writing about a changing Washington, D.C. The progress here in the last ten years has been extraordinary. The Turnaroundis a very optimistic book. The title describes the dead end the boys drive into, but also it’s talking about a new beginning.
Damien: Your novels have frequently described the changes going on in DC at the time of writing. Do you ever see a time when you'll want to write about a place other than DC and the surrounding area?
George: Probably not, although I don't want to slam the door shut on any possibilities. The screenwriting thing allows me to venture outside the DC city limits for the most part. Of course, if I could figure out a way to do it, I'd love to write a western.
Damien: If you had to pick just one of your 15 novels as your favourite, which would it be and why?
George: It’s hard to say. I have books I consider favourites, but it’s as much about the time of my life while I was writing them, or a small breakthrough I made artistically or stylistically, than it is about the quality of the books. If I had to choose one, it would be Hard Revolution. I’m guessing that one will be etched on my tombstone. Or my urn, if my wife has her way.
Damien: You famously wrote for HBO TV series The Wire and you are currently writing for a Band of Brothers-style series about the Second World War in the Pacific. Given your profound film influences, aren’t you more at home writing for TV than writing novels?
George: I wanted to be a filmmaker before I had the desire to be a novelist, so to have that dream fulfilled was very rewarding. I’m into doing both, sometimes in the same year. Writing novels can be a socially retarding experience. Working on a film set gets me out of the house. I like being around creative people. I even like the arguments in the writer’s room. But, honestly? My first love will always be writing books. I like the process and the sense of accomplishment. There is nothing to compare it to. Well, maybe selling women’s shoes, but I won’t go into that today.
Damien: Your books often explore father-son relationships, and you’ve said you wanted to work onThe Pacific as a tribute to your father. Can you explain this obligation you feel to your father’s generation?
George: Specifically, my father was a Marine who fought in the Pacific, and our mini-series will follow several Marines through the various campaigns there. There was a tremendous amount of research involved with the writing of that show. I worked on it, off and on, for a year. In a sense, I saw it as a way to learn about things my dad was reluctant to speak on himself, and by extension, to learn more about him. The guys who actually saw that kind of action tended not to talk about it. Not surprising, as the war in the Pacific was brutality in the extreme.
Damien: Your first novel came out in 1992 but it wasn’t until you got good press in France and the UK that US critics and readers began to take notice of you. Why do you think that was?
George: Generally, the American press tends to write about books with large press runs and name brand authors. In France and the UK it seems as if the newspaper reviewers would actively seek out fiction they thought was interesting, so I caught a break. I also have to thank Pete Ayrton at Serpent’s Tail. He was the first publisher to bring me out in paper, which was very helpful to my career.
Damien: Your US publisher Little, Brown paid you a $1.5m three-book advance in 2004 and pushed hard to make your last novel The Night Gardener your first New York Times bestseller. Has any of this had any impact on the way your write or how you see your career?
George: There is a bit more pressure. You want the publishers to be happy and make money as well, because that is how you stay in the game. So far we’re both doing fine, and I am writing the books I want to write. Everything’s good.
Damien: Which up and coming writers are most exciting right now?
George: Willy Vlautin’s Northline was the novel of the year for me. It's a small, very human novel, reminiscent of Steinbeck, and I mean that as a high complement. It hit me, unexpectedly, on an emotional level like no novel I have read in the recent past.
Damien: You write to music and your novels are full of music references. What music has been inspiring you recently?
George: American Water, by the Silver Jews. The Richmond Fontaine catalogue. Hour of the Gun, by Jerry Fielding. The title theme from Django. Surf guitar compilation Route 78 West. The Japanese pressing of Morricone’s Giu La Testa (Duck, You Sucker), an expanded edition given to me by John Connolly. Drive-by Truckers’ latest, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. Maintain Radio Silence, by Paul K. Earlier this year I was on a Thin Lizzy jag. Metallica’s cover of “Whiskey in a Jar” is ferocious.
Damien: Can you give us any hints as to what your next novel is about?
George: I'm writing a novel about a kid who gets sent to juvenile prison and how it affects him, his parents, and the fellow inmates who become his friends. No title yet.
The Turnaround is published by Orion
UK hardback Aug 2008