From his first novel, A Firing Offense, to this year's Right As Rain, George P. Pelecanos' books have steadily increased in profile, with more and more readers discovering his crime-ridden tales of "the other Washington D.C.," the parts removed from the marble corridors of power. Pelecanos knows that territory well. A D.C. native of Greek descent, Pelecanos spent years working at odd jobs. His stints at an electronics store and as a shoe salesman later provided fodder for his fiction, while a University of Maryland class on hardboiled fiction gave his writing a direction. Written as a personal challenge with no aim at a writing career, 1992's A Firing Offense introduced his hard-drinking protagonist Nick Stefanos, a hard-living electronics-store employee turned detective who reappeared in many of Pelecanos' subsequent novels, beginning with the Offense sequel Nick's Trip. As the author's cult following expanded, so did his canvas. His next books introduced Stefanos' acquaintances and relatives and examined the underside of D.C. in other time periods, such as the '40s (1996's The Big Blowdown), the '70s (1997's King Suckerman), and the '80s (1998's The Sweet Forever). Currently in development at Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' Bad Boy Films, Suckerman is the first slated movie adaptation of Pelecanos' fiction, but far from his first foray into film. A former employee of Circle Films, the independent producers behind the early features of the Coen brothers, Pelecanos served as the executive producer of Caught and Whatever and is at work on several screenplays. His latest novel, Right As Rain, introduces a new cast of characters led by the unlikely team of Derek Strange, a black private eye, and Terry Quinn, a white former policeman still sorting through his unconscious motives in the shooting of a black officer. An unblinking examination of race wrapped in a taut thriller, Rain is typical of Pelecanos' ability to place substantive examinations of contemporary issues within his thrillers. Via e-mail, his preferred interview medium, Pelecanos recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about life as a D.C. crime writer.
The Onion: Aside from the fact that you grew up there and seem to know every one of its alleys, what makes Washington D.C. a good setting for crime fiction?
George P. Pelecanos: Any time you have poverty, joblessness, sub-par public schools, and a lack of opportunity, you're going to have a high rate of crime. And we have our share. This is a living, working-class town made up mostly of blacks and Hispanics—with a small population of wealthier whites on the high ground—that is basically under the occupation of the federal government. People pay taxes in D.C., but have no voting representation in the House or Senate. And they are constantly reminded that they have no voice. D.C. residents, for example, overwhelmingly voted in a referendum for the abolition of capital punishment, but the feds are currently seeking death for a local drug dealer anyway, essentially saying, "We don't care what you voted for or voted against. You're powerless, and we will do what we want to do." Things seem to be at a boiling point all the time. In fact, it has been that way my whole life. I find it interesting, and I like the fact that the emotions are in your face all the time. You always know where you stand. None of that "we don't have any racial problems here" attitude that you get, say, up north. All of this is rich fodder for a crime novelist.
O: Of the many people who have used D.C. as a setting, you seem to be one of the first high-profile authors to write about the sections that people actually live in. Why?
GP: I grew up here, and so did my folks. I'm the son of a lunch-counter owner, and most of my friends had parents who worked in the service industry, as well. I was never interested in the Federal City, and it never touched my life. One of the reasons I went for it initially was that I couldn't find any fiction about the city I knew and loved. Check that—I couldn't find any fiction written about its people. It was like they didn't exist. The often-repeated notion of Washington being a transient town is just wrong. The majority of the city's residents have lived here for generations. The government types come and go, but Ellison's Invisible Man remains.
O: When you first started writing, did you hope to segue it into a full-time career?
GP: No. I wanted to write one book.
O: You were offered an advance on A Firing Offense after it was rescued from a slush pile. Have you ever heard of that happening to anyone else?
GP: I have not. Understand that I knew nothing about the business at the time. I blindly sent my manuscript away to only one publisher, and waited a year to hear back. When I did, they told me that they wanted to buy my book.
O: Right As Rain let you take a break from your established cast of characters. Is the break permanent? Did you find it satisfying?
GP: I had written three Nick Stefanos novels, a stand-alone pulp novel called Shoedog, and four interrelated books, spanning the years 1933–99, that people have called "The D.C. Quartet." It was time to get out of the small, insular world I had created and do something new. I was proud of Right As Rain, and I'm really pleased with my upcoming book, Hell To Pay, which also features Strange and Quinn. But no series is permanent for me. And Nick Stefanos will be back. He's always out there, knocking at the door.
O: Were you satisfied with the degree to which Right As Rain allowed you to deal with racial issues?
GP: Yeah, the thing I'm most happy about with Rain is the honesty in which the issue was dealt with. I was trying to point the finger at all of us. We all have this problem, so why don't we admit it? The worst kind of novel is one that blames other people for the racial problem in order to make the reader feel good about himself. As if it's only rich white people or Republicans or conservatives who have this disease. Bonfire Of The Vanities, the literary equivalent of a Disney after-school special on racial issues, is the perfect example. It told white Middle America that this super-rich guy Sherman was clueless, that he had the racial problem, but, rest assured, they—the readers—did not. It was a very smart commercial calculation on the part of the author, and also a lie. There are very few novelists who deal with this in a real way, because, let's face it, people don't
want to hear it. A book that tells you that you've got a problem is not exactly escapism, and it's not going to fly off the shelves.
O: How many of your readers read your books to get tips on good music?
GP: I do have shout-outs to bands and musicians I like in my books, but the musical references can be misunderstood. Often, I have people listening to music that I would never listen to personally, because it fits and defines their character. I've been working on making sure that the music is organic to the novel.
O: Could someone who drinks like Nick Stefanos really solve mysteries?
GP: Well, I don't think Nick solves anything. Truly, when you look at it, he really fucks things up. The Stefanos books were a gradual, first-person journey into the abyss, the story of a guy who likes to party and, by the third book, Down By The River Where The Dead Men Go, becomes a full-blown, fall-down drunk. Seen through his eyes, the world becomes more confusing, and it mutates before him. Down By The River is the closest thing to a horror novel I will ever write. Often, the books end in apocalyptic gundowns because Stefanos doesn't know what else to do. Friends and loved ones are killed, the dead don't rise, and Nick ends up sitting at the bar, his eyes closed as he downs another shot. I don't believe that murders can be "solved." I think that this is the big lie of the mystery novel, that you should close the book and feel that the world is back in order and everything's all right. I want the reader to know that the world is not all right, and maybe we ought to do something about it.
O: Each book you publish seems to attract more attention. Have you noticed any change with the increased name recognition? Are you a neighborhood celebrity?
GP: Not really. I live in a blue-collar neighborhood, and if anyone knows what I do for a living, they don't seem to care. In Europe, I'm recognized on the street sometimes. And that's cool, because I don't have to live there and deal with it every day. Unless you're Stephen King—a great writer, by the way, and anyone who says different knows nothing about the craft—you're more likely to be recognized in America if you play in a soap opera than if you're a novelist. What my name recognition has done for me is it has opened doors on the research side. I used to go into crack houses and drug markets and really bad neighborhoods by myself, routinely, and hang out. Sometimes I still do, because I don't want to attract attention. But lately, I've been riding with cops and gaining access to other types of law, like the ATF guys, just because of my name. I guess it's a smarter way to work.
O: It would be fair to call A Firing Offense a mystery, while your more recent work is better described as crime fiction. It's a blurry line, but do you find that kind of distinction useful in discussing your work?
GP: I was self-consciously trying to do a hardboiled detective mystery novel when I wrote A Firing Offense, and because it was my first attempt at writing anything, I was learning on the job. It's an entertaining novel, but my least favorite book, and I don't feel as if I've written a mystery novel since. I have never read straight mystery novels. I'm a better writer now because I've worked very hard at getting better. My long-range goal will always be to write better books. So far it's going well; the difference between A Firing Offense and my last five novels is significant. But I like the label of "crime writer." Some of the best and most meaningful fiction, period, is being done by crime writers today. Charles Taylor, in The New York Times, called what I do "urban reportage." I thought that probably hit it on the head.
O: Do you think crime fiction's working-class origins, settings, and consumers explain why it isn't always taken seriously as literature?
GP: The most popular American fiction seems to be about successful people who win, and good crime fiction typically does not explore that world. But honestly, if all crime fiction was quality fiction, it would be taken more seriously. The reason some crime writers have a chip on their shoulder about the label is because their good books are shelved beside books about nuns and birdwatchers and cats who solve crimes. Overseas, my books are reviewed alongside those of authors like Robert Stone and Don DeLillo, and I have to live and die by that comparison. They don't ghettoize crime writers in other countries, and of course they shouldn't. But this is the way it is here, and I don't even think about it anymore. As for the difference between entertainment and serious fiction, I'll let Raymond Chandler have the final word: "All reading for pleasure is entertainment.