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Interview: March 1, 2002

March 1, 2002

George P. Pelecanos has already established himself as the new master of noir crime fiction with ten outstanding novels to his credit. His latest, HELL TO PAY marks the return of the Derek Strange/Terry Quinn team that grabbed readers' attention in his preceeding bestseller, RIGHT AS RAIN. In this interview with's Ann Bruns, Pelecanos expresses his honest opinions on leading urban issues, violence being portrayed in literature and film, the music that punctuates his prose --- and more.

TBR: In HELL TO PAY, Garfield "Death" Potter is the street tough who epitomizes the rotten layer of society, but there are moments when we're given a somewhat sympathetic glimpse into his personal history. How would you respond to people who point out that not every kid from an environment like his ends up choosing the same direction in life?

GP: There are all kinds of kids in HELL TO PAY. Some are going to make it and some are not. Their chances of getting through to the other side increases, obviously, when they are helped by mentors, church groups, coaches, teachers, and parents. Whether or not they make it is also determined by their own strength of character and desire to overcome the conditions around them. I address your question directly in the scene between Granville Oliver and Strange, when Granville is blaming his criminal life entirely on institutional racism and his ghetto environment. Strange agrees with some of what he says but not all; Strange's internal monologue suggests that Granville's fate does not take into account the other kids just like him who have risen above their backgrounds and led good, honorable, productive lives. But the fact remains, ghetto kids are put behind the eight ball from day one and have less of a chance to succeed than their privileged counterparts across town, all because of an accident of birth.

TBR: HELL TO PAY brings back the two chief protagonists from RIGHT AS RAIN, Derek Strange and Terry Quinn, who have formed a loose alliance in their personal and professional lives. What do you see as the essential factor that makes their relationship work?

GP: Despite their differences, these are two decent men, and they recognize this common decency. Their friendship is real.

TBR: Strange and Quinn are both working with the neighborhood PeeWee football team, and their efforts to instill values in the kids they work with are admirable. But isn't Strange's reluctance to commit to marriage and family a reflection of one of the key problems in these kids' lives?

GP: Yes. The irony isn't lost on me, nor is it lost on Strange. It is the central conflict of the book, and it drives him towards his personal resolution. To me, Strange is a hero, but he is far from perfect. He's just a man.

TBR: Strange has earned some respect in the community for the fact that he built an honest, successful business in the area but to many of the young boys, money and power is the standard measure of a man. How can urban neighborhoods hope to win the battle against the more lucrative lure of criminal enterprises?

GP: Your question is complex, but I'll offer a few basic suggestions. Good public education and facilities should be a right, not a privilege, regardless of where you live. I'm talking about schools that are equipped with supplies, computers, and working bathrooms, just like those on the high ground. Up the pay and incentives for qualified teachers, who do the most important work in this society for the least amount of money. Implement job training and government sponsored job programs, similar to the WPA programs of the Depression, so that the adults who have already slipped through the cracks can get meaningful, honest work. As for parenting, children need a mother and a father at home to make them whole and to show them, by example, what it means to be a responsible adult. Finally, we need to decriminalize the buying, selling, and use of drugs. And that's not some crackpot, left-wing notion coming from a dilettante with his head in the sand. Most cops on the street will tell you the same.

TBR: "There are eight million stories in the Naked City... this has been one of them." With a change of venue that memorable line would be so applicable to your character-rich storylines. Do you have to resist the urge to make all the supporting characters a feature story, in and of themselves? Do you know when you start writing which minor characters will be a focal point?

GP: My novels do contain many characters. That's what happens, I guess, when you're trying to create a complete fictional world. I don't outline, so it often happens that a minor character will end up getting more "screen time" than initially intended. That's where the fun kicks in: finding out who and what will rise up out of the mix.

TBR: Of the two young prostitutes in HELL TO PAY, Stella was the most tragic figure --- and the most fascinating. Forced to be a recruiter, she seemed to have the strongest survival instincts, yet her need to be loved was so poignant. Where did the idea for Stella originate?

GP: I've gotten to know both prostitutes and their pimps in this city, going back to when I sold omen's shoes downtown. When I see a hooker I always think that this was a person who was and is somebody's daughter. It makes me sick and sad. That's where Stella came from. I don't know how to explain it any better than that.

TBR: There's such a genuine feel to the neighborhoods and the people in HELL TO PAY; does the setting bear a resemblance to the area where you grew up?

GP: Only in the sense that my neighborhood was working class, but the similarity ends there. In no way was my life anything like the lives of the kids I'm writing about. I do, however, live ten minutes away from the setting of HELL TO PAY, so I'm down there often doing research. These days I try to be smart about it. I'm on my own during the day, but when I go into the projects at night I ride with cops.

TBR: What research went into the portrayal of the two investigators, Karen and Stacey, who were hired by the parents to bring back their runaway daughter? Have you had the opportunity to meet with people who operate as snatch and retrieval teams?

GP: I work closely with a private detective who has done those types of jobs. The characters of Karen Bagley and Sue Tracy are loosely based on a group of women here, some licensed and some not, who aid prostitutes in peril and have made it their specialty.

TBR: Tracy tries to defuse Quinn's anger over the plight of the teenage prostitutes by reminding him: "You can't save them all in one night." But the case takes a heavy toll on him that eventually unleashes his violent nature. How realistic is it for us to expect a police force to maintain personal control when they're exposed to ever-increasing doses of perversion and violence?

GP: It is totally unrealistic. Cops aren't pacifists by nature and we shouldn't expect them to be. As many police officers are fond of saying, "We fight what you fear." Think of your high school classmates who went on to become police officers. Chances are they were badasses who dug the adrenaline rush of a good fight. But the best cops I went out on patrol with had a special knack for defusing a situation without even the suggestion of violence. They seemed to have zero insecurity about who they were. That's a perfect marriage of temperament to job.

TBR: Your portrayal of Washington, D.C. in your novels is, to say the least, a grim example of a city in decay and mirrors the headlines that have become so prevalent in recent years. How do you feel about the criticism that's been leveled at literature, movies and television that they are contributing to the problem by pandering to their audiences' fascination for violence?

GP: That criticism is not entirely misplaced. But for every moronic Rambo movie or the latest serial-killer-as-folk-hero film you have a TAXI DRIVER: hyper-violent, thought-provoking entertainment that is also, yes, art. Who's gonna decide what I can and cannot see? Sure, some popular art exploits violence, and in that way it's like porno --- you know it when you see it. And by the way, you can always turn it off. The answer is, I'm against any kind of censorship. And what really gets me hot is when some cowardly politician, in the pocket of special interest groups, blames a Columbine tragedy on video games, Marilyn Manson, or that all-purpose villain, Hollywood. Those killers in Colorado were weak, ineffectual kids who'd still be cowering in their rooms if not for one fact: they had easy access to guns.

TBR: Your biographical information states you've been an independent film producer. Is this something you'd like to continue doing? One of your earliest novels, KING SUCKERMAN, was optioned for a movie. Are you involved in the screenwriting or production?

GP: I'm no longer involved in producing. For nine years I was a full-time independent film producer and wrote novels at night. Then I started to get offers to write for film and television, and I had to give something up. So here I am. Life hasn't slowed down for me. If I'm not writing a novel or a film I'm doing magazine or newspaper work, or writing a short story. I work seven days a week, and that's fine. Retirement scares me more than death.

TBR: RIGHT AS RAIN and HELL TO PAY would seem to be the books that finally brought your name into a well-deserved spotlight. Will we be seeing more of Derek Strange and Terry Quinn?

GP: I recently completed the third Strange and Quinn book, called SOUL CIRCUS. Some of my old-school readers might want to know that the novel also features the return of a guy named Nick Stefanos. It will be published by Little, Brown in 2003.

TBR: Your writing is gritty and may be tough for women to read until they wrap their arms around the characters where some of the edge then disappears. Is this something you have given thought to as you write? Who is the reader you write for?

GP: What I'm shooting for is honesty, whether I'm exploring issues of masculinity, race, class, or basic human politics. The idea is to present the world the way it is, rather than the way people want it to be. Basically, I write the kinds of books I want to read.

TBR: Music strikes such a chord (pardon the pun) in your writing. Do you listen to music as you write? And does what you are listening to find its way onto the pages? Is there a place where readers can get a listing of all the music you talk about in each book?

GP: I listen to jazz and film soundtracks (Lalo Schifrin, Morricone, Elmer Bernstein, and others) while I'm writing. Anything with vocals tends to collide with the dialogue running through my head. I often give shout-outs in the books to music I like. Just as often the music is mentioned because it's organic to the situation or the character who is listening to it. No one has yet memorialized the musical selections from the various novels. Several people have suggested packaging my books with a soundtrack cd. It sounds like a bright idea on paper, but another publisher tried it recently with a line of urban pulp novels. The rumor was that the cds were being stolen and the books were tossed onto the salesfloor and left unread. So much for that.

TBR: With this book you will be launching your website What can readers expect to find there?

GP: An early Playgirl pictorial from my youth, a list of crime novelists I really hate, and before-and-after photos of my recent plastic surgery. Okay, here's what I would like it to be: a cool site where I can talk about books, movies, music, cars, sports, and whatever else I'm interested in, with original short stories and reprints of articles I've done on blaxploitation, film noir, westerns, Mickey Rourke, Chandler, you name it. My publisher is spending real money to build it, and the idea of course is to promote my books, so you'll get your share of that. But I hope it'll be fun and different, and demystify the usual celebrity nonsense in the bargain.

TBR: Can you tell us what project you're working on right now?

GP: I just completed a screenplay for HBO Films about a team in the American Basketball Association called THE SPIRITS OF ST LOUIS. When I return from my book tour I will write an episode for the upcoming dramatic television series THE WIRE, produced by David Simon of "Homicide" fame, also for HBO. I'm stoked to do this because the early scripts I've read have been novelistic and excellently done. As a bonus, the shows will be shot in Baltimore, which is forty-five minutes from D.C. Also, I'll be working for Simon, who is to television drama as Kobe is to basketball. After that I will start working on another novel. My father, a Marine (there are no ex-Marines), used to describe how he'd run with his M-1 from foxhole to foxhole, zigzag style, when he was under enemy fire in the Philippines. His point? It's very tough to hit a moving target. One thing I do not plan to do is slow down.