Q & A with George Pelecanos

You have indicated that Hard Revolution may be the best book you have ever written. Why do you think this is true?

I'm certainly pleased with it. Hard Revolution is big in terms of scope and ambition but doesn't lose sight of its characters. It's the book I've always wanted to write.

Journalists have commented that crime fiction is one of the only genres that provides a setting in which writers can deal with social issues. Hard Revolution is set during one of the most difficult times in the history of Washington D.C. Why was it so important for you to write this particular novel and what are the issues you hope will come across to readers?

I was eleven years old in 1968. Two months after the riots, I took a bus every day down to my father's lunch counter, where I worked as a delivery boy. The D.C. Transit passed through parts of town that had been completely destroyed. Some of the people on the bus had lost entire neighborhoods, but clearly they had won something too. I could see it in their posture, style of dress, and attitude. But it registered with me on a gut rather than an intellectual level. Since then, I have always wanted to find out "what happened." Writing a novel set during the riots afforded me the opportunity. Know the past and maybe the present starts to make some sense, right? I hope readers will find some interesting parallels between our country in '68 and America today.

For the past three years you have worked your way up from writer to story editor and now producer on the hit HBO series "The Wire." "The Wire" seems to be more like a novel made for TV than most episodic television—what are your thoughts about how "The Wire" stands out from most shows on television?

We are, in fact, taking a novelistic approach to a television series. The episodes are chapters. We can stretch out in terms of detail and character. We are very interested in presenting a true, full-bodied world, rather than a television world. And each season is "about" something. It's really exciting to be a part of it.

In a Newsweek interview you talked about how you have reached a point in your career as a novelist and as a screenwriter/producer where you have "access" to people and places you never had before. How has this affected your work?

Many doors have opened for me as my career has progressed. To put it another way, my phone calls are returned more often these days. That means access. In the research phases of my books, I routinely ride with police, private investigators, humane society officers, and parole officers. For Hard Revolution, people who had participated in the riots, both police and rioters alike, were eager to speak with me. On "The Wire," we have shot on the docks, in prison, and in the projects in the middle of the night. I recently went out with the undercover narcotics squad to do jump-out busts. These experiences are essential to my writing, given the subject matter and milieu I am attempting to describe. It's part of the job. Also, undeniably, I'm having fun.

Many reviewers and interviewers have remarked on your uncanny ability to create atmosphere with musical references in your books. How do you do it? And, if you could choose which decade or genre you would live in musically, which would it be and why?

Each period novel I write affords me the opportunity to explore that era's music. It is one of the perks of my job. With Hard Revolution, for example, I immersed myself in Deep Soul of the Stax/Volt variety. I discovered a bounty of beautiful, passionate music.

I would of course live in the music of the 1970s if I had to make a choice. The rock, soul and funk movement of the '70s will never be duplicated and never be equaled. And don't even talk to me about disco or ELP. There was so much more to that decade. We had big fun. Why the '70s? I was a teenager, and music has meaning when the hormones start to rage. I remember watching the older sister of a friend dancing in her lingerie at the top of the stairs to "Whole Lotta Love." She was dancing with abandon, and the music was turned up loud. At that moment, my life changed.

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George Pelecanos