George Pelecanos has established himself as one of the premiere voices in modern American crime fiction since he released his first novel A Firing Offense in 1992. Since then, he has written well over a dozen more books and has received the Hammett Prize, Barry Award and Gumshoe Award for his work as a mystery novelist.
Pelecanos was given the opportunity to direct his fierce voice into the world of television when he became a lead writer on the groundbreaking HBO series The Wire. The show may have been an indictment of the war on drugs in America, but it was also so much more. It is a massive ensemble piece that served as a brilliant cultural mosaic that dissects the justice system, urban street life, gang warfare, the nature of addiction and so forth. You could say that the show is more relevant now than it was on release due in large to the Trump era, Black Lives Matter, and ongoing incidents of police brutality. Not only did The Wire change his life as a writer, but the show changed the way the world looked at TV dramas ever since.
The Wire may have been a fringe series while it was on the air, but in the years that followed, it set the golden standard for the format of modern TV dramas and went on to win the Edgar Award and garner a worldwide audience. Since then, Pelecanos has gone on to write scripts for other uniquely powerful shows including The Pacific, Treme and The Deuce, all for HBO. We were lucky enough to catch up with him about what it takes to be a real working writer, pivoting into TV from novels, how The Wire changed TV, and the way The Deuce served up one of the most satisfying finales in recent memory.
Right off the top, the first question I had was, which is an all-encompassing one to overarch your career so far, what are some aspects of crime fiction that you think give stories in that realm beyond traditional aesthetics and conventions of the genre?
George Pelecanos: “Well, for me, I use crime fiction as an engine to tell the story of, well, to really explore some of the social issues that I want to get into. There’s really no better way to do it because the problems that I’m talking about are out on the street, on street level, and mainly amongst the working class. So, it’s populist fiction to me. Always has been.”
Yeah, absolutely, and I noticed that it’s a very, I would say, versatile umbrella to encompass a lot of things that would normally be considered overstuffed in other genre pieces sometimes like comedy, unless it’s satire. The way you’re able to dissect history, politics, pop culture, the justice system, urban street life, all through the eyes of an individual character with it being able to funnel into the same trajectory without it feeling bloated or too much, you know what I mean?
“Yeah, well you just said it better than I ever could.” (laughs)
(laughs) Well, that’s a big tip of that hat coming from you, so thank you.
What are some of the most attractive factors that draw you to selecting a new project whether it’s TV, novels or essays? And what are some of the big things that help you select your next story?
“We have a saying with the people I’ve worked with a long time in television when we’re deciding what to do next. The question is, ‘what’s it about?’ It’s got to be about something. It can’t just be entertainment because you’ve got an opportunity to reach a whole lot of people and maybe change their mind or allow them to look at the world a little differently. Of course, the biggest example of that was The Wire. We put a lie to a lot of myths that I’ve been hearing all my life. For example, ‘why can’t those kids in the ghetto just work harder and get out of there?’ You know if you saw The Wire why it’s very difficult to just work hard and get out.
There’s too many things working against them through no fault of their own, it’s an accident of birth and geography. So when we sold things, like when we sold The Deuce, we sold it as a show about the history of pornography, but that show wasn’t about pornography. It was a show about labour and women, and how women have always been at the bottom of the labour pool. Often times, just to sell something, we’ll misdirect a little bit so that we can end up doing what we want to do anyway. (laughs)”
“Yeah, and then with the books, I’ve always been fortunate. I’ve had just a couple of editors my whole career and they’ve always told, ‘Write whatever you want to write.’ I’ve never had to pitch anything. I’ve never done a book proposal. I write a book and then I send it up to New York and I’ve been able to do exactly what I’ve wanted to do without making any mistakes yet, I don’t think, and one of the big mistakes you can make is to do something just for money. That paints you into a bad corner. Regardless of that, I’ve managed to make a good living doing exactly what I want to do, so it’s been a good ride.”
I can imagine it’s a very fortunate position to be in.
“Yeah. I know it. (laughs) It’s been a lot of hard work but I want to keep working.”
Yeah, it sounds like it’s definitely been worth it so far, and how do you use different tools in your writing skillset to be able to pivot into new positions in your career? Because not many people have been able to successfully make the jump and transition from like, a novelist to a screenwriter, let alone a screenwriter to a producer, and be able to afford themselves the freedom that you’ve earned through hard work.
“Well, that was deliberate. When I first got into television and I first wrote a script for the very first season of The Wire, it was in 2002, I saw what would happen if I didn’t get a little more control over things. I was determined to learn how to produce and eventually be a showrunner so I can control things the way I control things in my novels.
I own up to the fact that I’m a control freak and the only way to do that in television or in movies is to be in charge. So I deliberately tried to learn how to produce and that meant being on set from call to wrap every day, even though I didn’t have to be, and figure it out, you know? There’s a lot of novelists that just can’t do that. It’s not in their temperament or in their skill set and it happened to have been in mine. I earned it and here I am.”
Yeah. I was just going to say it’s a writer of a rare breed who can manage to pull off not just the jump from one to the other, but be able to maintain as long as you have too. That level of sustainability is really impressive. Especially when you look at your batting average over the course of your resume.
“Yeah, thank you. I had a good work ethic from growing up. My dad had a diner and I grew up working in the diner. It’s not that I’m not afraid of hard work, it’s more like that’s the only way I know how to do things, is it to get in there and be on my feet for long hours and that kind of thing. So I owe that to my parents, the work ethic, definitely.”
Well, it sounds like it definitely came in handy. It’s certainly a life skill that most people have to discover along the way and don’t exactly have it in their blood, you know what I mean?
“Yeah. That’s been good.”
Yeah, and what’s one thing nobody tells you about being a writer before you get into it. Whether you’re making that pivot into TV or into producing from a screenwriting background or writing your first novel or even penning your first essay that winds up getting published in a big publication.
“The mistake people make when they’re getting into the business or their perception of it is that there’s something different about being a writer than there is about other jobs. In other words, this is a job. I’ve always treated it that way. When I work at home when I’m working on a novel, I get dressed for work every day. I remember a long time ago reading John Cheever (Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist) used to put a suit on and walk out to a little cottage in the backyard, his writing space, and he’d go in there and work.
I do the same thing. I’m behind my desk at 9 o’clock in the morning. I’m wearing clothes, not sweat clothes, I’m wearing regular clothes that I would wear out in the world and I work a certain amount of hours every day. It’s not that different than what my dad did in the sense that he went downtown and turned the key on his front door every day and went to work. I do the same thing in my office space and it’s my business. It’s not someone in a Starbucks wearing a beret and typing on a laptop for you know, a half-hour every day. It’s work, and it’s not just work, it’s the pride of the work. So it’s those two things. It’s a business but it’s also you want to do a good job. For me, that means writing, writing well and doing stuff that has some meaning.”
But putting in the hours to back it up too, not just winging it when you claim inspiration strikes, right?
“Exactly. If you’re a writer, if you’re writing novels for example, you need to go in there and put something down on paper so to speak, on the screen, every day because you can’t rewrite a blank page. You can have a bad day at work, but at least you have something on the page to work with when you come back to it. That idea about, ‘Well, I started something, I’m gonna put it in a drawer for a few months and come back to it.’ Anybody who has said that to me before I knew was not a writer.”
Yeah, well it’s also impossible to rewrite something if it doesn’t exist, right? Like that’s the job.
Yeah, and now that some of your novels are beginning to spark interest about people developing them into movies, what are some of the attractions and challenges that are within that field that are unlike TV and books? Because I heard some rumblings online that ‘Shoedog’ (a novel from Pelecanos published in 1994, available online now) is possibly being turned into a movie or something like that. But I’m sure it’s not the first time that you have a book that was optioned in that way before.
“Yeah, oddly enough I’ve never had a book become a film although I’ve been courted many times. I’ve had a lot of options. The reason I went to television initially is because we were just at the forefront of that with The Wire, and The Sopranos was there too.”
“OZ was really the first [1997 HBO prison drama created by Tom Fontana, HBO’s first TV drama series], but there seemed to be more interesting things going on in television than there were in movies, in general, and more freedom. So I gravitated towards that, but I was a movie freak growing up. I mean if you asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ I would always say, ‘Well, I want to write movies and direct movies.’ So I haven’t ruled it out. I directed a segment of a film called D.C. Noir that we made last year. It’s based on my short stories, it’s four short films wrapped up in one package.
My son, Nick Pelecanos, directed one, and there’s two guys, Gbenga Akinnagbe and Stephen Kinigopoulos. People know Gbenga as an actor from a couple of my shows. He was in The Deuce, he played Larry Brown, and he was Chris Partlow in The Wire. I did a little directing, I hope to do some more, but right now we’re going to see what’s going to happen with films, because I don’t think films are going to be made for theatres anymore. Except for some blockbusters, the comic book films they (studios) spend hundreds of millions of dollars on, but the middle of the road films and low budget films, are going to be made for television. I don’t have any objection to that. I think there’s opportunities now for a lot of writers and directors.”
Yeah, absolutely, because in a post-pandemic world I don’t know how you would be able to get that many people on set to direct a major blockbuster either. Especially with everything the way it is at the moment. So I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of things made the pivot towards streaming and premium networks like HBO and Showtime etc.
“We’ve got a show that we’re writing for HBO right now, a mini-series or limited series, set in Baltimore. It’s not a sequel to The Wire but it does involve police. We were hoping to shoot it in the fall, it’s going to be pushed, but we’re putting our heads together now to figure out how we’re going to do it. People are really thinking hard about this because there’s an incredible demand now for product for these streaming services, cable and so on, but we can’t go back to work. So we’re trying to figure out how we can do that in a changed world.”
In the circumstances we’re in at the moment, yeah.
“So we hope to be shooting that this winter and we’re going to figure out how to do it while keeping everybody safe. Nobody wants to get sick, I don’t want to get sick, and there’s no movie or television show worth somebody’s health, you know what I mean? So we’re going to figure it out.”
Yeah, a hundred percent.
How did The Wire change your life as a writer while you were dipping into a new field like screenwriting while defying the traditional conventions of TV as you were kind of mentioning before? Because, obviously Tom (Fontana), the showrunner for OZ, kind of broke the mould, and then The Sopranos and David Chase (creator and showrunner for The Sopranos) and his team were able to reshape it in a way to make it accessible to a major mainstream audience. So networks took a huge interest in it, and then The Wire ran off in a very different direction. What was it like to kind of be on the forefront of that while the TV industry was evolving and you’re right in the eye of the storm so to speak?
“When we were in the middle of it, for the most part, we didn’t know we were making The Wire in capital letters, you know what I mean?”
“We were just trying to do good work. The people primarily involved in the show, it was David Simon, Ed Burns and I, but we had other writers like Richard Price and Dennis Lehane (author of Mystic River, Shutter Island, and The Drop). Many of us were writing books that were non-conventional crime writing to begin with, you know?”
Yeah, for sure. Especially Dennis Lehane.
“Yeah, and Price had written Clockers, which is a classic.”
Which is a great Spike Lee movie too.
“Yeah, and none of us had worked in traditional television. There wasn’t one of us who had done network episodic TV. David’s book Homicide had become the show Homicide and he was on the periphery. He didn’t produce that show. So when we all got together to do this, a lot of it was the fact that we hadn’t done traditional television before. So we hadn’t been taught the ‘wrong way.’ We sort of made it up as we went along and we didn’t know it was going to be so influential. We were battling to stay on the air basically because the numbers (ratings) were pretty low. You have to remember The Wire didn’t really catch on until it went off the air.”
“If we tried to do something like that today, we couldn’t do it, but we caught lightning in a bottle.”
Yeah. Do you think that essentially being under the gun like that kind of stoked the fire within all of you guys? Because you were the underdog and weren’t putting up necessarily Sopranos numbers, so every week you had to be pitching your ‘90s era Chicago Bulls-like A-Game just so no one pulled the plug on you guys?
“I’ll tell you what I think it was more about, was that we all were very competitive about our writing.”
“All of us were in this room and each guy thought he was the best writer in the room.”
“You know, I mean it’s the truth. So we all had a chip on our shoulder about proving ourselves. There are times where we would say stuff like, and I said it in the writer’s room of The Deuce when we opened it up the first season, I said to the new writers that we had, ‘There’s no such thing as a throwaway scene.’
You don’t want anybody to get up and take a piss or go to get a beer in the middle of the show because they’re bored. Every scene should be written as if it’s the best scene you ever wrote and we really felt like that. We’re really competitive. Wanting to do a good job is what fired us up. We didn’t care about the ratings, that was David (Simon). David had to go out to HBO every year and ask them to keep us on the air, and to their credit, they did. That was the old regime with Chris Albrecht.”
It’s funny to hear you say that because I feel like the spirit of it is very much reflected in the writing because one thing I’ve always noticed about that show, unlike any other series that really put it in a league of one. A lot of these characteristics are threaded into the DNA of The Deuce is that The Wire is the only show I’ve seen without any filler. There are no throwaway episodes, you know what I mean?
“Yeah, the stuff we do is really dense. It seems like when I watch some other shows there’s a lot of scenes of people driving around and things like that and we packed these shows with forty (story) beats or scenes per episode. That’s a lot.”
“We managed to do it. I mean, some of the stuff had to get cut out in the editing room because it was so dense. We knew that. These shows tend to have a lot of characters. We try to do a panoramic vision of the city, whether it’s New York or New Orleans with Treme, or Baltimore with The Wire, and in order to do that you have to have a lot of different perspectives, a lot of characters and it gets really dense. It’s a challenge.”
It’s a HUGE canvas. How do you feel that The Wire prepared you for the rest of your TV career with The Pacific, Treme and The Deuce?
“Well, it made me a better writer and it made me a much better screenwriter. When you’re with a lot of talented people like that, it can’t help but rub off on you a little bit. It was a steep learning curve so when I turned my first script in on The Wire, I ended up getting about, I would say, 35 percent of it ended up onscreen. I actually called David and said, ‘What happened to my script?’”
“He said, ‘You got 30 percent, 35 percent. That’s pretty good for a first script.’ I didn’t say anything to him, but I thought to myself, ‘Well, the next one I’m going to get 50 percent, then the one after that I’m gonna get 60.’ That’s when I said, ‘I’m going to figure this out.’ And I did. By Season Three, the episode called, ‘Middle Ground,’ which is episode three-eleven (eleventh episode of the third season). It’s the one where Omar and Brother Mouzone hunt down Stringer Bell.”
Oh yeah, one of the best episodes of the whole series, arguably.
“That was 90, 95 percent me.”
“Eventually, I figured it out.”
Yeah, it definitely sounds like you cracked the code because that episode in particular is a huge breaking point for the series that winds up shaping a lot of how things came to be in the end, right?
That’s very impressive.
“I do want to say this, you don’t hear many writers say it, it’s just a script, you know, until the actors bring it alive, and I had a good director on that episode, Joe Chappelle. One of my favourite scenes that I’ve ever written is on the rooftop when Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell basically say goodbye to each other.”
And go for that last drink, yeah.
“I’m really proud of that scene, but I had two tremendous actors in that scene, Wood Harris and Idris Elba and Joe Chappelle directed the hell out of it. The lenses he (Chappelle) used, everything really brought it alive. When you’re working on a television show or a movie you just can’t take credit for all that because there’s too many people doing good work that boosts you up. I’ve been really fortunate with great crews on these shows.”
Absolutely, and what was it like bringing The Deuce to a close? Because even though it was just a tight three seasons and out, you guys managed to spread it out over a significant period of time and got to cover a lot of cultural touchstones or cornerstones of American pop culture. But also deeply intimate moments of these peoples’ lives and once it all kind of faded to black, I was really amazed with the way that finale kind of rolled out. What was it like saying goodbye to that whole misfit of characters and kind of saying goodbye to an era gone by and a New York City that doesn’t really exist anymore?
“It was really great. I mean, first of all, we knew that was how the series was going to end. We had that scene in our minds before we ever started shooting season one.”
“We didn’t know if we were going to be able to pull it off, but we did. We also knew it was a three-season show no matter what, even if it had become wildly popular. We weren’t going to do more than three seasons, so we had the eras all picked out and there was some historical touchstones there that we wanted to make sure we hit upon. Again, it was just a lot of hard work and research but the ending that you’re talking about when James Franco’s walking through Times Square.”
“We brought back a lot of our actors that had been killed off in earlier seasons (laughs), and it was just a nice opportunity to… It was a valentine to them, and we had a real good time. We shot that in two nights from sundown to sun up in the Square. Again, it was a challenge but I thought it came out nicely.”
Oh yeah, it was a beautiful swan song to that story and, personally, as a member of the audience and as a writer, it was amazing to see that although these people went on this huge rollercoaster of personal and professional ups and downs, you guys really kind of put a bow on it and blew it a nice little kiss goodbye. I thought it was very fitting to the overall journey that the series put everybody on.
As a final question and the last little cherry on top, what’s on deck next? What is around the corner? I know you briefly touched on doing something for HBO and I was just wondering if there’s anything you could possibly tell us about that despite it being very early days? Or are you going to be working on a novel next until the whole post-pandemic world we’re going to be entering settles into a groove or what’s shakin’?
“I’m working on selling a couple of other things right now, television projects, and because we can all be writing now. That’s one thing is that the studios are going to want things that are ready to go by the time things get lifted.”
“I’m going to work hard and if I get inspired, I’m writing a novel too. I have a lot of time, just like everybody so I’m motivated. I’m highly motivated to work, you know?”