A Conversation with George Pelecanos: Part I

The paperback edition of George Pelecanos’s THE CUT hits bookstores today. THE CUT introduces Spero Lucas, an ex-Marine and Iraq vet who specializes in recovering stolen property – no questions asked – in return for forty percent of its value. Spero’s first case involves an imprisoned drug lord, and drops him dead center into the midst of the Washington, D.C., underworld which Pelecanos has chronicled so vividly in all his novels. Spero is Pelecanos’ first series character since Derek Strange, the DC PI who appeared in four novels, most recently 2004’s HARD REVOLUTION.

In a series of e-mail exchanges with Wallace Stroby, Pelecanos talked about THE CUT, his influences, and what’s next:

WALLACE STROBY: After four stand-alone novels that in some ways mirrored your TV work – multilevel stories with a broad array of characters and social concerns – THE CUT feels like a return to your early, leaner and meaner crime novels. What led to that?

GEORGE PELECANOS: On a whim I wrote a short story (“Chosen”) about a married couple who adopt a bunch of kids, and wind up with an interracial family. The story ended with a few sentences about the current status of two of the brothers: Leo Lucas, a teacher at a public high school in Washington, and Spero Lucas, a Marine fighting in Fallujah. That led to me meeting several Marine vets of Iraq and Afghanistan who had come home and were working as private investigators for criminal defense attorneys here. It hit me that some of these guys weren’t interested in desk jobs, and maybe never would be.

Then one day, when I was doing some work at a local correctional facility, I met a man who had lost a leg in Fallujah, and was picking up a relative who was being released from jail. We had a very interesting, enlightening conversation. There are a lot of stories to tell about these veterans, and I felt like I had one cooking in my head. THE CUT came forward.

I guess I was ready to write a straight-ahead crime novel. On the internet some people were making comments that I had gone soft or literary, whatever that means. It puts a chip on my shoulder when people think they have me figured out. I write the book that knocks on the door of my imagination.

WS: Spero’s chosen profession has echoes of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, in that he recovers lost goods in exchange for a cut of what he salvages. Do you see yourself going down the road with him?

GP: THE DEEP BLUE GOODBYE was on the syllabus of the University of Maryland crime fiction class that pretty much changed my life.  Eventually I read all the titles in that series.  I even named one of my dogs Travis, and she was a bitch.

Spero Lucas, in some respects, is me tipping my hat to Mr. MacDonald and McGee and to the physical-and-flesh spirit of those books. I’m not much for long-range plans, but I will definitely write another Lucas novel. The character stuck with me. I want to know more about him myself.

 WS: The McGee books also ruminated a lot about what it meant to be a man in today’s world. That’s a major theme in your books as well – manhood and what it entails, fathers and sons, mentoring.  You don’t see a lot of that in crime fiction. Is it something you felt was lacking in the genre?

GP: The subject of manhood and masculinity is underserved in all types of fiction, and when it is touched on it’s not always done with complete honesty. Meaning, it becomes wish fulfillment, giving the readers what they want to believe, rather than what’s true. You can add the subject of race and class to that, too.

Male father figures are a critical element in the shaping of young lives. When I go into a juvenile facility I can almost guarantee that nearly all of the boys I talk to had no significant male guidance when they were raised.  What you see around here now are coaches, teachers and mentors stepping up and taking on that role. My last three books were about fathers and sons. We’ve raised two sons and a daughter, so I felt like I was qualified to go deep into the subject.

WS: At the same time, much of your work has to do with irrevocable choices being made at threshold moments. It’s like the finale of a Sam Peckinpah movie, where the characters have a last chance to walk away – and don’t. In some of your earlier books, especially SHOEDOG and THE BIG BLOWDOWN, the protagonists make a conscious choice to plunge headlong into the abyss. Your recent works are the antithesis of that – they’re about second chances, and characters deciding not to surrender to chaos and violence. Where does Spero fit into this?

GP: The action in the narrative has to flow organically from the character.  Otherwise, the books don’t work. With the Derek Strange novels I set myself up with a conviction from the very beginning that he would never pick up a gun. It was consistent with something that had happened in his past.

If Lorenzo Brown goes in shooting at the end of DRAMA CITY, that book is a lie. Same with Chris Flynn in THE WAY HOME.  Spero Lucas has a different history. Marines aren’t police or peacekeepers. They’re trained to kill the enemy and protect their brothers. The antagonists in THE CUT underestimate this guy.  When he reacts, it’s fast and physical.

WS: There also seems to be a trend in your recent work toward, if not redemption, at least something close to it. The idea that tragedies – even ones that we’ve set in motion ourselves – can be, if not transcended, at least surmounted, and that our stories are ongoing ones. That seems to be a shift from some of your earlier, more fatalistic books. Would you say that’s accurate?

GP: Yeah, you hit it on the head. My worldview has changed. I know from personal experience that significant missteps can be transcended. It’s a long life, and the bus ride through town makes many stops.

WALLACE STROBY: Some of THE CUT obviously comes from the time you spent with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, which also figured into the fifth season of THE WIRE. How did that come about, and what did you take from it?

GEORGE PELECANOS: That started with THE TURNAROUND, which was written in 2008 and published in 2009.  Through the Wounded Warriors program I was granted access to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which is a mile or so from my house. The theme of that book was redemption and starting anew, and it felt natural to have a character who was a physical therapist at the hospital. So I got to know some of the injured vets and the people who treat them. (WIRE co-creators) David Simon and Ed Burns were working on (the HBO miniseries) GENERATION KILL at the time, and between the three of us the issue made its way into Season 5 of THE WIRE.

I did see a lot of good work being done by doctors and therapists at that hospital. But I think we all can agree that we haven’t done enough as a country for our Marines and soldiers who are currently at war, or for the veterans who’ve returned.


WS: Did your experiences writing for TV change the way you approached the novels at all?

GP: I still write novels the way I always have: research, dream, then get behind the desk and go to work. Seven days a week, day and night shifts, until the manuscript is done.

The mechanics have not changed, but working in television definitely had a positive effect on me as a novelist. I never attended a writing school or an MFA program. Being in the (writers’) room for THE WIRE and TREME was like going to writing school belatedly. I worked with a group of very smart writers who could articulate a process which I always thought of as instinctual. My ultimate goal is to be a better writer. I’m grateful for anything that helps me get there.

WS: Like your previous books, Spero’s adventures in THE CUT practically offer a walking tour of D.C. and environs. A reader can follow him almost street by street. My first two novels were set exclusively where I grew up – the seaside towns of New Jersey – but by my third, I found that limiting story-wise. In your novels, have you been tempted to write about someplace far removed from DC?

GP: My TV and movie work allows me to get out of DC and stretch.  Often, with screenwriting, the setting is generic, for reasons of economy and form. I have a different take on my novels. I’m focused, some might say obsessed, with the details of the city I write about, because I feel like I’m leaving a record. THE CUT was “written” from the saddle of my bike, in the cockpit of my kayak, and through the windshield of my Jeep and Mustang. In terms of my books, it’s safe to say that I’ll be sticking to my home turf.


WS: Derek Strange – or at least his office – has a cameo in THE CUT. Will we be seeing him again at some point?

GP: I just completed a novel set in the summer of ‘72 (WHAT IT WAS) that features the young Derek Strange as a central protagonist. Coming to a bookstore near you.

WS: You wrote an introduction for the reissue of Don Carpenter’s brilliant novel HARD RAIN FALLING, which had been out-of-print for years. And you’ve championed Horace McCoy’s KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE as well.  Name five lesser-known novels – crime or not – from any era that readers should go out and find right now. And why.

GP: NORTHLINE, by Willy Vlautin. I’ve been singing Vlautin’s praises for awhile now.  His is a singular, populist voice in current fiction. NORTHLINE is simply written and emotionally charged.

TRUE CONFESSIONS, by John Gregory Dunne.  Dunne elevated the crime novel with this daring, elegant, and elegiac look back.

CUTTER AND BONE, by Newton Thornburg.  The novel that best captures America in the last years of the Vietnam War. Thornburg wrote many novels, but this is the one for which he will be remembered.

STONER, by John Williams.  The life of a career academic does not sound like the stuff of great fiction, but this is one of the most beautifully written and gripping novels I have ever read.

DESPERADOES and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, by Ron Hansen.  Two superior literary Westerns from the gifted Mr. Hansen.

WS: Who are the writers you go back to when you need to catch the scent again, and reconnect with why you wanted to write in the first place?

 GP: Steinbeck, Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, Charles Portis, Fred Exley, James Crumley, Elmore Leonard, Jim Harrison, Robert Penn Warren, Charles Willeford, David Goodis, Edward P. Jones, and Norman Mailer are among the many authors who immediately come to mind.  They’re different kinds of writers, but all of them penned books that continue to send me back to my desk.

 Pelecanos was also a staff writer and producer on all five seasons of the acclaimed HBO series THE WIRE, a writer/producer on HBO’s miniseries THE PACIFIC, and is now a staff writer/producer on the network’s New Orleans-based series TREME, helmed by WIRE co-creator David Simon. A father of three, Pelecanos continues to work with troubled youths at juvenile correction facilities in the D.C. area.

          Wallace Stroby is a New Jersey writer whose latest novel is COLD SHOT TO THE HEART. His fifth novel, KINGS OF MIDNIGHT, will was published by St. Martin’s Press in April 2012.

The conversation continues…