George Pelecanos has been
described as the Zola of Washington, DC. His novels portray the evolution of the
city from the aftermath of WWII up to the present and consistently show readers
a DC of hard-working, street-smart folks a world away from the bright lights of
federal government. Pelecanosís fifteenth novel, The Turnaround depicts a
DC coming to terms both with its turbulent past and the wars in Iraq and
Damien: In a recent
profile you describe The Turnaround as Ďnot even really a crime novelí.
What kind of novel is it?
George: If I was more
articulate, I might have said that itís not a traditional crime novel. There
are no police, private detectives or amateur sleuths in its pages. There is not
a murder in the first chapter that is solved in the last chapter. There is
crime and a murder, eventually, but itís really about the characters struggling
to find their place in the world in the wake of a horrific incident. Just in
case anyone thinks Iím getting too literary, I did write an explicit scene of
violence towards the end of the book.
Damien: Does this mean
you are giving up crime fiction and, if so, what kind of novelist do you aspire
George: Not at all.
Conflict drives good fiction. There will always be conflict in my books, and
most likely that will involve crime.
Turnaround is based on real events in DC in 1972 and your previous book
The Night Gardener was also based on a real case. What impact do you think
fictionalising these events has that you couldnít have had by writing
George: The incident in
The Turnaround and the Freeway Phantom murders that inspired The Night
Gardener haunted me since my teens, in the same way that the riots of í68
did, so I was always bound to write about them eventually. I resisted doing too
much research on the actual killing in The Turnaround and its aftermath.
I wanted to create my own fiction. The characters are completely imagined. So
its factual basis only exists in a skeletal way.
Turnaround features more than a dozen narrative perspectives. Do you ever
worry that in your quest to stretch yourself as a writer you might lose sight of
George: Iíll be the first
to admit that I am better at writing character and dialogue than I am in
creating roller coaster rides of plot. Oddly enough, this one has a pretty good
twist at the end. But Iím pretty sure that people like Harlan Coben, Ian
Rankin, and Mike Connelly, who can plot the hell out of a book, are not looking
at me nervously in their rear view mirrors.
Damien: The novel
features typical Pelecanos themes of race, class, family and redemption. But
what do you think you have to say in this novel that you havenít said before,
for example in your Derek Strange novels?
George: There is a huge
difference. The Strange novels are very dark urban novels that were written at
a low point in our history in terms of crime and violence. Beginning with
Drama City, I have been writing about a changing Washington, D.C. The
progress here in the last ten years has been extraordinary. The Turnaround
is a very optimistic book. The title describes the dead end the boys drive
into, but also itís talking about a new beginning.
Damien: Your novels
have frequently described the changes going on in DC at the time of writing. Do
you ever see a time when you'll want to write about a place other than DC and
the surrounding area?
George: Probably not,
although I don't want to slam the door shut on any possibilities. The
screenwriting thing allows me to venture outside the DC city limits for the most
part. Of course, if I could figure out a way to do it, I'd love to write a
Damien: If you had to
pick just one of your 15 novels as your favourite, which would it be and why?
George: Itís hard to say.
I have books I consider favourites, but itís as much about the time of my life
while I was writing them, or a small breakthrough I made artistically or
stylistically, than it is about the quality of the books. If I had to choose
one, it would be Hard Revolution. Iím guessing that one will be etched
on my tombstone. Or my urn, if my wife has her way.
Damien: You famously
wrote for HBO TV series The Wire and you are currently writing for a
Band of Brothers-style series about the Second World War in the Pacific.
Given your profound film influences, arenít you more at home writing for TV than
George: I wanted to be a
filmmaker before I had the desire to be a novelist, so to have that dream
fulfilled was very rewarding. Iím into doing both, sometimes in the same year.
Writing novels can be a socially retarding experience. Working on a film set
gets me out of the house. I like being around creative people. I even like the
arguments in the writerís room. But, honestly? My first love will always be
writing books. I like the process and the sense of accomplishment. There is
nothing to compare it to. Well, maybe selling womenís shoes, but I wonít go
into that today.
Damien: Your books
often explore father-son relationships, and youíve said you wanted to work on
The Pacific as a tribute to your father. Can you explain this obligation you
feel to your fatherís generation?
George: Specifically, my
father was a Marine who fought in the Pacific, and our mini-series will follow
several Marines through the various campaigns there. There was a tremendous
amount of research involved with the writing of that show. I worked on it, off
and on, for a year. In a sense, I saw it as a way to learn about things my dad
was reluctant to speak on himself, and by extension, to learn more about him.
The guys who actually saw that kind of action tended not to talk about it. Not
surprising, as the war in the Pacific was brutality in the extreme.
Damien: Your first
novel came out in 1992 but it wasnít until you got good press in France and the
UK that US critics and readers began to take notice of you. Why do you think
George: Generally, the
American press tends to write about books with large press runs and name brand
authors. In France and the UK it seems as if the newspaper reviewers would
actively seek out fiction they thought was interesting, so I caught a break. I
also have to thank Pete Ayrton at Serpentís Tail. He was the first publisher to
bring me out in paper, which was very helpful to my career.
Damien: Your US
publisher Little, Brown paid you a $1.5m three-book advance in 2004 and pushed
hard to make your last novel The Night Gardener your first New York
Times bestseller. Has any of this had any impact on the way your write or
how you see your career?
George: There is a bit
more pressure. You want the publishers to be happy and make money as well,
because that is how you stay in the game. So far weíre both doing fine, and I
am writing the books I want to write. Everythingís good.
Damien: Which up and
coming writers are most exciting right now?
George: Willy Vlautinís
Northline was the novel of the year for me. It's a small, very human novel,
reminiscent of Steinbeck, and I mean that as a high complement. It hit me,
unexpectedly, on an emotional level like no novel I have read in the recent
Damien: You write to
music and your novels are full of music references. What music has been
inspiring you recently?
George: American Water, by
the Silver Jews. The Richmond Fontaine catalogue. Hour of the Gun, by Jerry
Fielding. The title theme from Django. Surf guitar compilation Route 78 West.
The Japanese pressing of Morriconeís Giu La Testa (Duck, You Sucker), an
expanded edition given to me by John Connolly. Drive-by Truckersí latest,
Brighter Than Creationís Dark. Maintain Radio Silence, by Paul K. Earlier this
year I was on a Thin Lizzy jag. Metallicaís cover of ďWhiskey in a JarĒ is
Damien: Can you give us
any hints as to what your next novel is about?
George: I'm writing a
novel about a kid who gets sent to juvenile prison and how it affects him, his
parents, and the fellow inmates who become his friends. No title yet.
Turnaround is published by Orion
UK hardback Aug 2008