I've interviewed George Pelecanos any number of times before, but this one was something special. On stage at BAFTA, before the gathered work force of the estimable Orion Books, I got to do for George what he used to do for ladies shoes: sell to an audience that seemed already eager to buy. As it turned out, my selling was so emphatic I'm not sure I left George much room to reply, or many gaps to fill in, but it was rewarding to be able to push an author to his own publisher. Not that George needs much pushing. As I said to the Orions, Pelecanos has the enviable status of someone who's gone from cult writer to best-seller without losing his cult status. And his profile has been raised immeasurably by his writing/producing for The Wire, which started the cult status thing all over again. It seems non-stop; on my way to meet him at his hotel, I was startled to see his face staring out at me from an underground poster for his latest novel, The Way Home, which wasn't surprising because the Channel Four TV Book Club has picked The Way Home in its launch books. And that wasn't surprising because The Way Home to me is the kind of book that would appear both to fans of crime fiction but also transcend to 'the mainstream' as well; its themes of work and family are strong, but the book also plays with the tropes of pulp fiction and, indeed, westerns as well. You can link to my original review of the novel here.
With so much going on, it was nice to be able to relax for a couple of hours at the Cork & Bottle wine bar, where I tried an Ernest Hemingway burger (somehow I can't see Papa getting down with mango relish, but you never know) and held myself to just one glass of wine before going onstage. George wears the trappings of fame easily; his books originally attracted some cult status because of their prominent use of music, not just as scene-setting background but also for insight into character. Pelecanos play-lists were soon appearing in rock magazines. Indeed, while he was visiting Britain, he appeared on Open Book, and asked to pick his book of the decade, chose Lean On Pete by Willy Vlautin, of the band Richmond Fontaine. Coincidentally (or not) he's going to see the band that very night at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, along with the crime writer Mark Billingham. Since it was Mark and Martyn Waites who converted me to Richmond Fontaine in the first place, that brings something full circle! George also chose Charles Portis' True Grit as his favourite book, and we spend a long time discussing both the book's subtleties, especially as it's narrated by an aged spinster Mattie Ross, whose recollections may well be suspect, and the upcoming remake of the John Wayne version by the Coen Brothers, with Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin. 'People forget how strong the supporting cast was in the original,' George says. 'This is known as the Glen Campbell effect,' I say. 'But Robert Duvall, Jeff Corey and Dennis Hopper are all great.' 'And Hank Worden as the undertaker,' I say, and that, as they say, was that.
Over the rest of a conversation that raged from the joys of fatherhood to the tribulations of George's beloved Washington Redskins, I discovered that although he's done 16 novels in the past 18 years, he doesn't have a new one in the works. But I suggested that, as a writer who's done most of his books in contained series, his last three novels formed a trilogy, linked by the theme of fathers and sons (their predecessor, Drama City, shared important themes of work and family, but not directly fathers and sons.)
After just brief consideration George agrees, though he says it wasn't a conscious intention. He attributes the increasing focus on the microcosm of the family at least in part to The Wire. 'We did such a good job (with social issues of crime) I didn't have much left to say on those themes.' To me, it seems a natural progression, especially when you consider that Pelecanos is one of the few writers, in any genre, who's always concentrated not only on race but on issues of family and work – both keys to The Wire (series two, as you may recall, was themed around the disappearance of meaningful employment for the working classes of the city). Family and working values are the core of No Way Home, which John Harvey likened to a 'moral fable', (you can read about that discussion here) and which has elements of both westerns and 1970s exploitation films about it, points which appear to have got lost, in America at least, behind the fable. To me, it recalls Shoedog, still one of my favourite Pelecanos novels, and another book with pulpy fictions framing a story about men working.
'The Night Gardener was my biggest selling book in America,' George says, 'in fact, Clint Eastwood was interested in making a movie of it for a while, and he wrote me a very nice letter about it, which I will treasure, but it just didn't happen'. He's got other big-time fans too: Barak Obama gave George the same kind of moment Bill Clinton provided both Walter Mosely and Stephen Hunter, when he carried a copy of The Way Home with him as he left Air Force One.
But The Way Home didn't do so well.' George explains that he thinks his audience wanted him to stick with cops, or private eyes, and their investigations. In Britain, however, The Way Home has been his most successful so far, which has encouraged Orion to push him even more. 'They've got it right from the start,' George says, and I'm not sure if he means his British publishers or the audience. 'Well, both,' he says, diplomatically. It gratifies him too, because the book grew out of his experiences working in a prison reading project. 'I started to wonder not only what its like for these kids, but what it's like for their parents,' he says. He also talks about his own lucky history. 'When I was 17, I accidentally shot a friend of mine in the face. With a different background, in different circumstances, my life could have taken a far different course,' he explains. And the theme reverberates throughout Pelecanos' work, the idea that one small moment can have consequences that change your life, that you can be powerless to stop. This is also one of the classic themes of noir.
Whether these family novels will end as a trilogy or whether there's something more to come Pelecanos can't say. He hasn't launched another novel, but not because because he hasn't been busy. He's been working on two TV series for HBO. One is Treme, named after a district of New Orleans, comes from David Simon and many of the team that did The Wire, dealing with the lives of musicians and others in the post-Katrina Big Easy. Not long after we met, Pelecanos' writing colleague on Treme (and The Wire), David Mills, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm (see the link to my obituary, and George's comment on Mills, here). The other is Pacific, a sequel of sorts to Band Of Brothers, set in the Pacific war, produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Pelecanos is again a writer/producer, and it had deep resonance for him. 'My Dad was a Marine and served in the Pacific, so it's a subject very close to my own history, and it's something I admire.' There's a sense of regret, of a sort, in much of Pelecanos' work, that his father's generation grew up in the experience of a war they could believe in, as opposed to a generation faced with a war no one could believe in, and a generation tried to avoid if they could.
That's because George Pelecanos is very much about the things a man's gotta do, or that he used to think he had to do. Thus his fondness for muscle cars, for football, especially at the youth level, for the social world of bars, for the importance of work and its camaraderie. It's an old-fashioned attitude that returns social contact, personal relationships, 'man to man' as it were, to the fore. And that's what his books boil down to: the sense that by letting these simple values be sacrificed on the altar of economics, or leisure, or whatever, we've lost something important, and that crime and tragedy is often the result.
GEORGE PELECANOS BIBLIOGRAPHY
Nick Stefanos Novels:
A Firing Offense (1992), Nick's Trip (93), Down By The River Where The Dead Men Go (95)
The DC Quartet:
The Big Blowdown (1996), King Suckerman (97), The Sweet Forever (98), Shame The Devil (2000)
Derek Strange Novels:
Right As Rain (2001), Hell To Pay (02), Soul Circus (03), Hard Revolution (04)
Drama City (2005)
Fathers & Sons
Night Gardener (2006), The Turnaround (08), The Way Home (09)